Overshadowed by its more popular cousin Jaipur, the blue town of Bundi in Rajasthan is finally getting its share of the limelight. It has fables from past to tell through its ancient old murals and hand paintings on walls—it is a dreamland for history buffs. By Kalpana Sunder
The king resplendent in a saffron Mughal robe and a turban, sits on a horse, holding a flower in his right hand, and controlling the reins of his horse with the left. The scabbard and sword are all too realistic, transporting me to an ancient battlefield. Lord Krishna plays his flute, gambolling with gopikas. Gleaming panels of tikri—the Indian word for mosaic work, where using scalpels, hand-cut pieces of mirrors are fitted into frescoes—adorn the ceiling and the walls. Even the floors narrate the story of crusading elephants in tempered red, black, and white in an art form called izara.
Rudyard Kipling mentioned in his Letters of Marque published in 1899, “…but the Palace of Bundi, even in broad daylight, is such a palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams—the work of goblins rather than of men.”
A medieval fortification snakes across the hillsides, indigo, and white houses spill across the ground, and water reservoirs glisten in the setting sun. We drove through lush green poppy, striped groundnut, emerald paddy, and golden cornfields; guava and pomegranate orchards, with flocks of swallows soaring overhead in perfect symmetry. We crossed sandstone mines stacked endlessly with rock slabs and forests of Khejri trees. In the battlement shades, where soldiers once stood, hundreds of langurs nurse their young ones, eyeing us curiously, as we strode past in the afternoon sun.
In ancient times, the area around Bundi is said to have been inhabited by various local tribes. It was Rao Deva Hada of the Rao Chauhan dynasty, who established the princely state of Bundi in the land of the great Hada Rajputs, present-day Hadoti. Bundi’s architectural heritage is still intact, and the town is famous for its baoris—terraced stone reservoirs that collect monsoon water for the long dry season. Today, most of the houses are painted a pale shade of blue, created by mixing indigo with whitewash, the cheaper alternative to modern-day enamel or distemper paint, and also because the mix acts as a mosquito repellent.
Our first stop was the Taragarh Fort. I followed our elderly guide, Keshav Bhati, through a gargantuan gate, as local artists greeted us with folk tunes. The place is a breath of fresh air—there was no sign of organised tours, no overbearing guides, neither any shopkeepers trying to sell overpriced souvenirs. A short walk away, we reached the Garh Palace. Inside, the Chitrashaala—a structure of several rooms stacked on an elevated podium framing a garden-courtyard—is a treasure trove of colourful murals and frescoes. The paintings date back to the years between 1773 and 1821. I gazed in awe at intricate scenes of dancing girls, marching soldiers, royal processions, local festivals, and polo matches; portraits of princes and princesses, and gods and goddesses—all in a delightful turquoise palette.
Among the paintings are depictions of Ras Leela—the cosmic dance of Lord Krishna; the wedding of Hindu gods Ram and Sita; amorous scenes from Dhola-Maru, the region’s rendition of Romeo and Juliet. I noticed that some of the walls were peeling, and some had blackened over the course of time, but these imperfections only add to the allure of the place. The intricacy with which they have been decorated is astounding—petite birds perched on fine tree branches, paintings of palaces and buildings, costumes and jewellery—all detailed with minerals and precious stones. Interestingly, the paintings display assimilation of divergent styles—the oval shape of the eye borrowed from Mewar paintings, the male attires had Mughal influences, and the placement of the pavilion had Deccan provenance.
Within the premises of Taragarh Fort, the zenana Badal Mahal (home to the women of the royal family) is a sequestered area with little access to the outside world. It has a brilliant ceiling mural with a bright red background, a kaleidoscope of diamonds, and triangular arches painted with vivid images of Krishna’s Raas Leela, and scenes from the Ramayana. This was done by Chinese and Mongolian artists, which harks back to the source of Bundi’s riches—poppy, cultivated for the lucrative opium trade with China.
Next, I headed to the juSTa Lake Nahargarh Palace, a beautiful hotel property surrounded by a man-made lake, and flanked by the Aravalli hills on one side. Their annual art initiative, Chitrashaala, attempts to perpetuate the rich artistic traditions of the region. Artists from over 40 countries such as Iraq, Russia, Jordan, and Germany, collaborating with local artisans to create masterpieces. The result—Iraqi artist Malak Jamil paints in the Baghdadi style of vibrant colours with Islamic motifs; Olivier Barrot, a French photographer, does monochrome portraits, inspired by India’s history and culture. These artworks were undoubtedly breathtaking; however, my heart was still rapt with the blue murals of ancient Bundi.
Regular flights operate between New Delhi and Jaipur (200 km from Bundi). Hire a pre-paid cab for the onwards journey to Bundi.
Best time to visit
October to March
Heritage monuments Taragarh Fort and Bundi Palace are worth spending time at. Jait Sagar Lake and Nawal Sagar Lake offer best sunset views. Visit Main Bazaar to shop for Kota sari, carpets, handicrafts, lac bangles, and other accessories.