The soaring sandstone walls of the Taragarh fort stand guard over the present city of Bundi. From its ramparts one has a clear view of the surrounding mountains, the blue houses and the black kites soaring above the city, riding the thermals and waiting to swoop down on unsuspecting prey.
Once you enter the fortress through the lofty Hati Pol (Elephant Gate), it is but a study in contrast. The construction started in 1354 and the present structure is but an agglomeration of the various palaces built thereafter by the rulers of Bundi. While most of these individual palaces are in dire need of repair (thanks to the litigation among the surviving members of the royal family), some have been taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India and given a fresh lease of life.
Whatever be the state of preservation, the palaces in Taragarh have one thing in common – frescos. These paintings follow the Bundi style of miniature art. While the other kingdom of Rajputana like Amber, Mewar and Marwar were heavily influenced by Mughal Miniature art, the painters of Bundi borrowed elements from the miniature art forms of Deccan, thus giving rise to a unique style. The bright colours of Bundi miniatures and frescos are derived from minerals, vegetables, precious stones, as well as pure silver and gold. The paintings deal with both secular and religious themes. They also showcase the physical beauty of the Hadoti region, the rivers, the dense forests, dramatic night skies and feature ‘a distinctive way of depicting water by light swirls against a dark background, and vivid movement’. Bundi miniatures emphasized on hunting, court scenes, festivals, processions, life of nobles, lovers, animals, birds and scenes from Lord Krishna’s life.
Apart from Chitrashala (discussed later), a rich collection of paintings can be found on the walls and ceilings of Badal Mahal (Palace of Clouds). Occupying some of the highest rooms in the Taragarh Fort, it is said that during the monsoons, the low hanging rain clouds would actually float through the courtyards of the Badal Mahal. Almost tucked away in a corner and accessed by narrow flight of stairs, Badal Mahal once served as the zenana or the women’s quarters, housing the harem of the then ruler Rao Bhoj. Women then had no access to the outside wall except what they could see through the latticed windows. The paintings on the walls and ceilings of Badal Mahal, depicting battle formations, rural life, fantastic beasts and heavenly creatures and even scenes from a royal darbar might have served as a portal to the outside world for the ladies. A strange, gilded prison.
The centerpiece of Badal Mahal is definitely the ceiling of its topmost chamber. Sometimes referred to as Rajasthan’s Sistine Chapel, the mural on the ceiling depicts, in painstaking detail, the raas leela of Krishna.
For the next collection of Bundi miniatures, head over to the Chitrashala. Previously known as Ummed Mahal after Maharaja Ummed Singh, this section of the fort was taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India, restored and preserved. If you find yourself here, please avoid flash photography.
The walls of Chitrashala come alive with the life and exploits of the kings and queens of Bundi. Along with the royals, Lord Krishna can also be seen playing his flute, gamboling on meadows with his gopis and getting up to all sorts of cosmic mischief. Most of the paintings you see here were done between 1773 and 1821. The artists of Chitrashala, and indeed of Bundi had their own standard of depicting feminine beauty. Women are portrayed with small round faces, receding foreheads, prominent noses and full cheeks. The royal ladies of chitrashala are shown wearing a transparent Jama over pyjamas. Featured prominently on most paintings is a background comprising of lush landscapes painted in vibrant colors. These compositions, massed with a variety of trees and floral creepers, ponds with lotus flowers in the foreground, fish and birds form a distinguishing feature of the Bundi style.
It is said that the existing tradition of creating miniatures was given a boost in 1605 by the sudden arrival of three master painters from Chunar, near Varanasi. These painters were a gift from emperor Akbar, in return for Bundi’s obedience. These painters who had previously worked only on palm leaf manuscripts changed their idiom by painting frescoes like those at Badal Mahal and Chitrashala. This zeal soon spread through the city, across classes and through time. Even today, a graffiti on the roads of Bundi usually borrows from city’s historic miniature style.
Rajasthan is, in all probability, one of the most visited states in India – both by domestic, as well as International tourists. It has been this way for decades. Given this context, to think that in this oft-visited state still lies a corner that is still relatively unexplored and untouched by the tourism industry, is well, incredible.
The kingdoms of Jaipur, Mewar (centered around Chittorgarh and Udaipur ) and Marwar (Jodhpur) were bigger, richer and almost incessantly at war – either with each other or some invading foe. Hadoti, with Bundi at its centre was tucked away in the corner, on the border with Malwa, away from the path of the invaders from the northwest.
What we now know as the region of Hadoti, started as a kingdom in the 12th century AD. It was, however, not destined to remain united. In 1631, the independent kingdom of Kota separated from Hadoti. The region was further split as Jhalawar became an independent state in 1838. So when Indian gained Independence, the three independent kingdoms of Bundi, Kota and Jhalawar joined the Indian Union.
The modern town of Bundi is yet to spill out of its medieval city walls. As a result, you are treated to a miraculously well preserved medieval town. Most of the hotels / guest houses are converted havelis, while the streets are lined with shops that have been functioning for close to half a millennia. All this, against the backdrop of the remarkable Taragarh Fortress – an impregnable statement in sandstone and granite growing like a beehive on the side of a mountain.
The charm of Bundi is very difficult to put in words. It is the result of a rather eclectic mix of rooftop cafes, blue houses, streets lined with medieval graffiti, farmers transporting milk in brass jars and a vibe that is distinctly wild and free.
It is perhaps this very charm that drew Kipling to Bundi. It is said that it was this town that inspired Kipling to write Kim. Rush to Bundi before the juggernaut that is commercial tourism steamrolls through the city’s incomparable vibes. Go there, take in everything, change nothing and, keep Bundi a secret wrapped in time. Above all, let’s not talk about Bundi, just like the first rule of Fight Club.
(Please click on any photograph to open the slideshow)
Bundi’s centerpiece – the sentient Taragarh fortress
Quintessentially Bundi – Fresco in a little lane
Guess who’s coming for dinner
Much like the town itself
Milk delivery, Bundi style
A temple ceiling
A medieval town crumbling in slow motion
Rani ji ki baoli. Spooky if you are the only one inside. In my case, spookiness was ruined by loud American tourists
Bhabai ki baori
Bhabai ki baori
Taragarh Fort is lit up at night.
One of the best way to spend an evening in Bundi is to stare at the illuminated fortress from one of the rooftop cafes
View of the town, palace and fortress from the highway
The TV tower sticks out as a massive eyesore
Bundi Palace and the Taragarh fort crowning it
Graffiti, Bundi style
Something Mehrangarh-ish about this
Hathi Pol. Obviously
The city stretches on into the fog
The medieval city, viewed through a medieval portal
The palace viewed from the path to Taragarh. Serious work getting there if you are fat. Like me.
From Bhim Burj, the highest point in Taragarh Fort. Views are spectacular
Something remarkable has happened over the last year and a half. Due to reasons I cannot explain properly, I have found myself drawn to one of nature’s best creations – birds. Over the last year or so, i joined online groups, went for birding walks, bought books and read them from cover to cover. I really surprised myself when i started waking up before sunrise on weekends to go for birding walks.
The timing could not be better. My eight year old Nikon D80 was in its dying days and it was time to upgrade. So i invested in the brand new Nikon D7100 and the Sigma 50-500 OS HSM telephoto lens. Now that I have read the books, shot some birds in my garden and in and around Delhi, it was time to take a trip to that Mecca birders call Bharatpur.
Last time I went to Bharatpur was over two and a half years back. Back then I could not tell the Sarus crane from the Painted Stork. But now i can do just that. Not much else. Bharatpur was in a bad shape in the February of 2011 when i was last there. The water levels were almost at an all-time low. Feral cattle had taken over most of the pastures. Politicians were , well politicing on the much needed water and the whole thing was a big, big mess. Fortunately, the water issues have been resolved. Now water will come in from Chambal as well as from a dam nearby in Rajasthan. The canals were full and so were the marshes. When I went in the beginning of November, the numbers of migratory birds were not large but i think if they can maintain the water levels for a few more years, the numbers will steadily increase.
[Click on images for bigger view]
[Click on images for bigger view]
In the numerous recent Delhibird walks, I met Mr Ajay Maira who was kind enough to point me in the direction of one Bachchoo Singh (+919351341917). I was with him from sunrise to sunset for three days and not for a moment did the smile fade from his face. He knew his birds, drove the rickshaw at a languid pace and was quick with a joke. I cannot recommend him enough.
THE BIRDS (and some amphibians, reptiles and mammals)
[Click on images for bigger view]
I think it is safe to say that I am more of a photographer than a birder. Apart from a handful of birds that I could identify (sarus cranes, painted storks and a few others :P), i was dependent on my field guide and of course, on Bachchoo Singh. I could have really used a tripod though. The camera and the lens together weigh close to 3kgs and getting the frame right was a challenge, especially at 500 mm. Anyway, here’s what came out of the trip:
I love munias especially so because due to their small size and the constant state of motion they are in, they are extremely difficult to photograph. On this trip, i also saw a few Red Avadavats or the Red Munias but could not photograph them. A couple of silverbills did pose for me.
House sparrows which we have seen all around us are undergoing an alarming decline in numbers, especially in human-inhabited ares due to human activities. Read this to know more about the decline and how you can help.
In the three days that i spent inside Keoladeo National Park, two sightings stand out. The first was a creature I had seen a lot as a child growing up in north Bengal (for images of north Bengal, or Dooars as it is better known see this, this, this and this). The sun had just come out and i was walking beside Bachchoo Singh, trying to shoot a pair of grey headed canary flycatchers. Suddenly this black shape slithers out of the grass on the left side of the road. It was a common cobra. The same creature that almost left me fatherless, but that is a story for another day. As i drew closer, it showed absolutely no sign of fear and started to cross the road.
I could tell that it had just molted and the scales were shining in the morning sun like thousands of little amethysts. I probably got a little too close when without warning, it spread its hood. I was fortunate to get the perfect light and just had time to get off a few shots. here are the results:
Now the second encounter: Sarus cranes. I have been an admirer of these beautiful birds for years now. Even before i got into birding. So far, I have always viewed them from a considerable distance, at Sultanpur and Basai. This time,however, i was determined to observe them from up close.
On the first and second days at Bharatpur I heard their calls numerous times, saw them fly past and watched them for hours again from a distance. So I decided to devote my third and last day entirely to these most elegant of birds. As we entered the park at 6:30 am on a chilly November morning, we headed straight to the grasslands by the painted stork colony where they usually spend the mornings. Sure enough, there was a couple there, but again, at a considerable distance.
There were three other pairs in the general area and they were taking turns answering each others calls. On Bachchoo Singh’s advice, i started following one of the distant calls along one of the trails branching off from the main road into the sanctuary. I walked for some 3 kms and with every step the call kept getting closer and closer. Then i turned left and BAM! there was a crane barely 30 feet from the trail. It took me the better part of five minutes to actually register what I was seeing. It was a female and she was so close that i did not have to employ the 500 mm end of my lens. The light was perfect too! The first shot below is from the original couple i viewed from a distance. The rest are from the close encounter.
Thus ended a most satisfying trip to the paradise for birders. Here’s hoping that the water levels remain true and the bird numbers remain large. Also it wouldn’t hurt if a couple of Siberian cranes re-visited their old haunt.
Here’s to high hopes.
1. Black francolin (Francolinus francolinus) Resident, Breeds
2. Grey francolin (Francolinus pondicerianus) Resident, Breeds, very common
3. Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) Resident Common
4. Lesser Whistling-duck (Dendrocygna javanica) Resident Common
5. Greylag Goose (Anser anser) Migratory, very common
6. Comb Duck (Sarkidiornis melanotos) Resident, common
7. Spot-billed Duck (Anas poecilorhyncha) Resident, common
8. Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) Migratory, very common
9. Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata) Migratory, very common
10. Eurasian Wryneck (Jynx torquilla) Migrant, common
For years, I have been wanting to go to Shekhawati. But whenever I did have the time, i scooted off to the Himalayas. But this time around, an impromptu plan took shape. My friend Rohit was about to visit his parents at their village outside Jhunjhunu and I decided to tag along. We took a 10:30 pm bus from Sarai Kale Khan which dropped us off to Jhunjhunu bus depot around 5 in the morning. As luck would have it, we immediately got the first bus out of Jhunjhunu and headed out towards his village in the early morning darkness.
But no, this was not the end of the journey. The bus dropped us by the side of the road, some 15 kms from Jhunjhunu. Rohit disappeared in the darkness, only to reappear with a guy and a jeep who agreed to drive us to his village of Bajawa, 3 kms further. The next three days were blissful. We walked around the village, climbed sand dunes, went for a joyride on a camel cart and made a day trip to the nearby Nawalgarh to look at the painted havelis.
Ok, I have to admit that I have shamelessly lifted the iodea of this shot from Sriparna’s Travelling Teadom site
To the initiated, Shekhawati is Rajasthan’s open art gallery. For those who have not heard about it, Shekhawati is a term used to denote a region in northern Rajasthan comprising of the districts of Jhunjhunu, Sikar, Churu and Nagaur. Apart from a long and eventful history, this region has also produced some of India’s best known business families – the Dalmias, thye Murarkas, the Goenkas to name a few.
Oh histories and havelis
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Marwari merchants moved to and prospered in India’s new commercial centres – Bombay and Calcutta. They sent the bulk of their vast fortunes back to their families in Shekhawati to construct grand havelis – to show their neighbours how well they were doing and to compensate their families for their long absences. As more and more merchants prospered, it soon became a competition to build ever more grand edifices – homes, temples, step-wells – which were richly decorated, both inside and out, with painted murals.
Haveli walls, particularly at the entrance, in the courtyards and sometimes within some of the rooms, were frequently painted by the from the ground to the eaves. Often the paintings mix depictions of the gods and their lives with everyday scenes featuring modern inventions, such as trains and aeroplanes, even though these artists themselves had never seen them. Hence, Krishna and Radha are seen in flying motorcars and Europeans can be observed inflating hot air balloons by blowing into them, or travelling in trains, the compartments of which look like English cottages. On these walls, fact meets fiction, the popular meets the chaste and in some unfortunate cases money meets bad taste.
These days most of the havelis are still owned by descendants of the original families, but not inhabited by their owners, for whom small-town Rajasthan has lost its charm. Many are occupied just by a single chowkidar (caretaker), while others may be home to a local family. Many of the better known ones have printed brochures and booklets which give an insight into the history of the family and the architecture of the haveli in question. Though they are pale reflections of the time when they accommodated the large households of the Marwari merchant families, they remain a fascinating testament to the changing times in which they were created. Only a few havelis have been restored; many more lie derelict, crumbling slowly away.
In February, i followed my friends Rohit and Sriparna to Rohit’s parents place in a tiny village, around 10 kms outside Jhunjhunu. The idea was to relax for a few days in the village, take long walks, and if possible visit one of the towns and check out the Havelis. After much deliberation, we decided to head to Nawalgarh.
Nawalgarh, founded in 1737 by Nawal Singh is almost at the centre of Shekhawati. Nawalgarh is quite compact, and most of its havelis are centrally located and easy to reach on foot. We started our tour from Morarka Haveli which is a good point to start your tour as most guides (you will need one) congregate here. Please remember that most havelis have individual tickets .
Understanding the Haveli
Haveli is a Persian word that means ‘an enclosed space’. But contrary to its literal meaning, the architecture of the haveli did much more than simply enclose space; it in fact provided a comprehensive system that governed the everyday lives of its inhabitants.
Most havelis are entered through a massive arched gateway, protected by a solid wooden door. While most of the times the larger door is locked, a smaller portal carved within the larger door allows people into the first of the many courtyards. This outer courtyard is known as the mardana (men’s courtyard). More often than not, on one side of the mardana is a baithak (salon) in which the merchant of the household could receive his guests. In order to impress visitors, this room was generally the most elaborately crafted and often featured marble or mock-marble walls. Here, you’ll frequently see images of Ganesh, god of wealth and good fortune. The baithak usually came equipped with a manually operated punkah (cloth fan). Opposite the baithak is often a stable and coach house, called nora for accommodating camels, horses or elephants. A turn of the century garage, if you will.
A wall separates the outer mardana from the inner zenana (women’s courtyard). Between the two courtyards there was often a small latticed window, through which they could peep out at male guests. Sometimes, there was also a screened-off balcony, known as the duchatta, above the mardana for them to spy on proceedings. Entry into the inner courtyard was restricted to women, family members and, occasionally, privileged male guests.
The zenana was the main domestic arena. Rooms off this courtyard served as bedrooms or storerooms, and staircases led to galleries on upper levels, which mostly comprised bedrooms – some of which were roofless, for hot nights. The courtyard arrangement, together with thick walls, provided plenty of shade to cool the inner rooms, a vital necessity in this sun-scorched land. The haveli thus provided everything for the women and there was no need for them to venture into the outside world – and in Shekhawati these were spectacularly gilded cages.
In the wealthiest of families, there were far more than two simple courtyards, some havelis enclosing as many as eight, with galleries up to six storeys high. This meant plenty of wall space to house the elaborate murals that wealthy Shekhawati merchants were so fond of commissioning.
Half a kilometre and a walk through an amazing Nawalgarh bazaar are the Ath Havelis. Although ath in Hindi means eight, there are in reality, six havelis. The havelis were finished around 1900 and are painted both on the inside and on the outside. Most of the havelis are rented out for marriages and parties. As a result these century-old paintings are facing not only neglect but also, what can be best described as senseless vandalism. As is widely known, most of the havelis belong to some of India’s richest industrial families. While the Morarkas clearly spend some time and money looking after their havelis, it is not the case with Ath Havelis. Case in point, the following photograph:
Our next stop was Bhagton ki Chhoti Haveli. Located at the end of a narrow lane, off the main bazaar, this haveli has one of the most striking doorways. The frieze on top is a gallery of portraits depicting both locals and Britons. This haveli felt more compact and personal than the others we had seen so far.
For our last haveli, we came back to Morarka where we had started the walk from, and walked past it to Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli Museum. As the name suggests, not only is this a haveli but it is also a museum on Shekhawati and Shekhawati’s culture. This is one of the best preserved havelis around. In fact at times, one tends to feel that maybe it is a little too looked after. Various rooms of the haveli have been converted into individual galleries displaying musical instruments, models of forts of Rajasthan, headgear, etc.
For each haveli we managed to visit, we skipped two. It is amazing how this corner of the country produced so many families with so much wealth. In the post, we will look at some photographs from the rural (not that Nawalgarh can be called ‘urban’) part of Shekhawati. Expect colours!