India days thirteen and fourteen
29.10.2015 - 30.10.2015
“The Palace of Bundi, even in broad daylight, is such a palace as men built for themselves in uneasy dreams, the work of goblins rather than of men.”
View of the town from the palace
So said Rudyard Kipling of Bundi, contrasting it with other parts of Rajasthan (“Jaipur Palace may be called the Versailles of India…Jodhpur’s House of strife, grey towers on red rock, is the work of giants …”). And yes, Bundi’s palace did for me have a special charm of its own, due in part (ironically) to its somewhat dilapidated condition in comparison to the other forts we visited.
We only spent one night in Bundi, en route between Udaipur and Rathambore, but I found myself wishing it had been longer as I loved this little town and the cosy haveli where we stayed. We had time to explore the palace and to take a couple of short walks in the centre of town, but not to visit the fort that sits even higher than the palace, nor to see as much of the town as I would have liked.
The appeal of Bundi for me was two-fold – the sprawling, ill-kept but highly photogenic palace, with its fabulous paintings; and the equally photogenic old town with its blue-painted houses, temples and lively activity. But I am getting ahead of myself …
We arrived in Bundi late afternoon, after a morning spent exploring Chittaurgarh. With so much to see there we had to press on a bit during the afternoon to get to Bundi at a reasonable hour. In fact, our optimistic tour company had booked a tour of the palace there for us that afternoon, but Mehar rang the local office and was able to rearrange that for the next morning. We were grateful to him and to the guide who made himself available straight after breakfast that next day so that we could see the palace properly.
But again I run ahead of myself! We were on the road to Bundi … and while we didn’t make any further stops after the visit to Chittaurgarh I did manage to grab some photos of life on the road as we passed – more of the colourful lorries I so enjoyed seeing in Rajasthan, a woman leading her bullocks, and the usual over-laden trucks and bikes.
On arriving in Bundi, Mehar drove us to the old town where a member of staff from our hotel, Bundi Vilas, was waiting to escort us. This is a small family-run heritage hotel in a 300 year old haveli in Bundi's old town, located immediately below the palace. It is a lovely, characterful place to stay, although not for anyone with walking difficulties – access is via a steep alleyway, which explained the escort as driving up to the door would be impossible. Hotel staff were also sent running to fetch our bags, for which we were very grateful, as even once through the door there are several flights of equally steep stairs to be climbed to reach the reception desk, and yet more to access the rooms.
It is worth the climb however! There are just seven rooms and I imagine they would all have the historic atmosphere that ours did - old stone pillars, carved screens and niches, attractive old wooden doors. You can really feel the history that seeps out of these old stones.
Terrace by our room
Our lovely room
But that history does not necessitate the sacrifice of modern comforts. We had an en-suite with large shower, wet-room style, and air conditioning. OK you have to wait five minutes when you shower before the hot water comes through (a quirk of the solar energy used) but you have a selection of toiletries, large thick towels, and a hair-dryer. Don't expect a TV or mini-bar though, although there is reasonable free wifi. Our room overlooked an internal courtyard so had no real view, although we could see the palace ramparts to our right. But the internal décor made up for the lack of view outside, and besides, with only one night here we were unlikely to spend much time in the room other than to sleep.
Nawal Sagar, evening light
We had arrived in Bundi with about an hour of daylight left so although the palace had by now closed we were at least able to go out for a stroll round the old streets. So we grabbed our cameras and headed out to retrace the short distance back to Nawal Sagar, which we had driven past on our journey to our hotel. This is a large square-ish artificial lake on the edge of the old town. There is a temple dedicated to Varuna, the Vedic god of water, half-submerged in the middle of the lake. You can get wonderful reflections in its waters of the palace and surrounding town. We found these reflections were at their best in the late afternoon when we first visited, as when we stopped here again the next morning there was more haze and more movement on the water.
Views of the palace from the lakeshore
This is a great place for photography. In the evening locals were washing their clothes at its edges, and despite the lake water looking rather dirty, with rubbish floating in it, it must be clean enough to sustain fishes as there were lots of birds around the edges – egrets of different kinds, herons, cormorants. The only downside was that at this time of day the lake also attracts little biting flies – this was one of only two places on our trip where I was bitten.
By the lakeshore
Egrets and heron
The stretch of road between our hotel and the lake is Suraj Pole (Fort Street), and it proved a good spot for some street photography. There are some lovely, if somewhat dilapidated, houses:
A beautifully painted doorway
Wall paintings on a guest-house
As in so many other places too, I found many locals happy to be included in my shots (and perhaps more so as this is a relatively small and less-visited place, compared with, for instance, Udaipur or Jaipur). The tailor in the left-hand photo below saw me and my camera and looked up to pose, and the young girl on the right called out to me to take her photo when she spotted me taking pictures of a colourful doorway below the roof where she stood. When I turned my camera towards her she pulled this cheeky face!
On Fort Street
We had pre-booked dinner at the haveli, which proved to be an excellent choice. This meal is served on the rooftop (weather permitting) at a time to suit guests. It is a set vegetarian meal, and judging by what we had, delicious. You will be asked in advance if you like spicy food or not, so there's no need to worry on that score – we said that we did, yet found it less spicy than some dishes we eat regularly at home.
Palace at night from the hotel roof
View from the breakfast terrace
We were welcomed onto the rooftop with an offer of drinks - beer, wine, gin and tonic. We enjoyed these while taking in the fabulous view of the illuminated palace and watching the bats flit overhead. To accompany the drinks we were given tasty vegetable pakoras. The dinner itself consisted of a fresh vegetable soup, followed by a selection of dishes - crispy vegetables, paneer cooked in a spicy tomato and garlic sauce, potatoes with peas, a yellow lentil dahl and Basmati rice. There was also sesame naan bread. Desert was a single ball of Gulab Jamon, rich and syrupy. Service was friendly and attentive and the cost very reasonable - just 700IR per person for all that food (extra for drinks of course)
The next day
We were woken early the next morning by the discovery that the courtyard overlooked from our room (and probably most of the buildings in Bundi) seemed to be a regular thoroughfare for the resident monkeys, who scampered through in search of food, sending a metal pot tumbling noisily to the ground and calling to each other!
Our breakfast was served one floor below the rooftop, on an open-sided terrace with views of the town. There was cereal and fresh fruit (we had banana and papaya), juice, tea or coffee, eggs cooked to order, toast and home-made jams. We had a busy day planned, with a visit to the palace to be followed by our drive to Ranthambore and a safari booked for the afternoon, so we couldn’t linger over this as much as we would have liked. Our host ensured we were served promptly and later saw us off with a friendly gesture of free postcards of Bundi, as well as making sure we had help to carry our bags back down those stairs and down the narrow lane to the car.
I can thoroughly recommend a stay at Bundi Vilas as providing a great combination of historic character and good value!
With just a few hours for sightseeing here our main focus was on seeing the palace and it didn’t disappoint. Also known as Garh Palace, Bundi Palace was home to the rulers of Bundi for centuries, although the present king Ranjeet Singh lives in Delhi. Construction was started under Raja Rao Ratan Singh who ruled here 1607-1631, and the palace was added to in piecemeal fashion by his successors - something that is very obvious as you wander around.
Our guide told us that current ownership of the palace is disputed between two family members (the Michelin guide says the maharaja and his sister) following disagreements about inheritances. It was shut up completely between 1948 and 2000, and although now open to the public for visits, it has never been properly restored after those years of neglect, because neither family member will take responsibility for this until certain that they are spending money on property they own. Many bemoan this air of neglect, and certainly it is sad to see that many of the beautiful wall paintings here have suffered damage (some deliberate, some the result of time and weathering). But on the whole I found it was this very dilapidation that gave Bundi Palace a special atmosphere and made it stand out from other such places we had visited in Rajasthan.
You approach the palace via a steep cobbled path (be careful, as the stones are worn and quite slippery) which leads from a small parking area.
Bundi Palace: Hathi Pol
Halfway up the path turns back on itself and you soon find yourself passing beneath the Elephant Gate or Hathi Pol. This is probably the most dramatic of several such gates we had seen on our travels, with two massive elephant statues high above it, reaching towards each other, their trunks entwined. As you pass through look up to see the marvellous ceiling painting and note the huge spikes on the wooden doors designed to deter charging elephants.
Looking back out through Hathi Pol
Bundi Palace: Diwan-i-Am and Ratan Daulat
Once through the great gate you arrive in a large courtyard, the Ratan Daulat. This was built by Raja Rao Ratan Singh, as part of his original palace, and had stabling for nine horses.
Looking up at the Diwan-i-Am from the Ratan Daulat
Above the stables, and looking down on the courtyard from the opposite side to the gate, is the Hall of Public Audience or Diwan-i-Am. To reach this you must climb the first of what will be several flights of steps. It is an open-sided pillared hall with a white marble throne overlooking the courtyard below. Here the maharaja would hear supplications from his people or address them on state occasions. The throne is ornately carved with elephants (something of a decorative motif here) but the rest of the hall is fairly plain apart from some wall paintings at each end.
In the Diwan-i-Am
Wall paintings and throne (from below)
Bundi Palace: Hall of Private Audience and private apartments
On a level above the Hall of Public Audience is that of Private Audience (every fort and palace we visited in Rajasthan had these two halls). Its most distinctive feature is the elephants that ornament the top of each of its many pillars – four elephants to each pillar, facing in each of four directions. I loved these, and they give the hall its alternative name, Hathiyasal or Elephant Hall.
Facing this hall across an open courtyard is the Chhatra Mahal, the private apartment of the king, which was added by Raja Rao Chhatra Shabji in 1644. This has some interesting wall paintings, albeit rather damaged – by weathering, and I suspect disrespectful tourists, also probably the many monkeys who are left to roam freely through the palace. They are still worth seeing however, and include some scenes from the life of Krishna and colourfully painted ceiling beams.
Looking out from the Chhatra Mahal
In the Chhatra Mahal: wall and ceiling paintings
From the courtyard that lies between these two halls you get marvellous views of the town below and Nawal Sagar beyond. Incidentally, the building immediately below the walls with the chequered floor tiles on its flat roof is our hotel, and it was on that roof that we’d enjoyed a delicious dinner the previous evening. The photo at the top of this entry was also taken from this spot.
View of the town
Above this level lie separate quarters for the king and the queens, the Phool Mahal and Badal Mahal, which unfortunately we weren’t able to visit. I understand that these are usually locked, but if you find them open (or find a guide willing to open them for you) they are well worth seeing for their painted ceilings.
Bundi Palace: hanging garden
Between the privately owned areas of the palace and the government-run Chitrashala is this small pretty garden courtyard, added by Raja Rao Ummed Singh in the 18th century. It was designed as a place for leisure and relaxation for the ladies of the court. Its sunken pool allowed them to bathe in its cool waters in reasonable privacy, before relaxing on the stone steps and thrones around its edges.
The hanging garden
There are wonderful views from here of the Taragarh Fort on the hillside above, as well as of the town below. It’s also a good place to orientate yourself within the palace, as you can see some of the lower buildings through which we have just passed below you on the right, and the remainder around and above.
View of Taragarh Fort, and of the town below
Bundi Palace: the Chitrashala
A highlight of our tour of Bundi Palace was this, the last part that we visited, the Chitrashala or Painting Gallery, also known as the Ummed Mahal (named for Raja Rao Ummed Singh who added it in the 18th century). Unlike the rest of the palace it is run by the Indian government (under the Archaeological Survey of India) and is consequently somewhat better maintained.
The whole of this pavilion is covered with paintings and is fabulous! Bundi is one of the few cities in India to have developed its own unique painting style. The “Bundi School” lasted from the 17th to the end of the 19th century. The most popular themes were hunting and court scenes, festivals and processions, court life, romantic tales, animals and birds, and scenes from the life of Lord Krishna. It was influenced by Mughal and Mewar styles but was, our guide pointed out, unusual in depicting figures in profile – most Indian paintings of that time show them face forwards. Other distinctive features include lively movement, dramatic skies and a unique way of depicting water with light swirls against a dark background.
I found more information about the Bundi School on this website: Bundi School of Art, from which I have copied the following extract:
“Colourful glimpses of history are provided by these paintings depicting hunting and court scenes, festivals, processions, animal and bird life, and scenes from the Raagmala and Raaslila -- Lord Krishna's life story. Also, courtly luxuriance and prosperity have been exhibited, major themes being young princesses looking into a mirror, plucking flowers and playing musical instruments. Graceful, well-proportioned bodies and sharp features bring out the elegance of the female figure. The gestures of the subjects of the paintings express more than their looks.
A study of the paintings revealed that the painters were masters of their brush strokes and the chiaroscuro of light and shade. The lines are mainly serpentine and circular in character. They were developed to capture complex and intense emotions. The deep brush marks add life to the clouds, trees, cascades, lotus flowers and flowing streams in the paintings. There is use of characteristic shades of blue, green and maroon reflecting the verdant greenery of the region, while bright colours are seen in the borders with red prominently appearing in the background. These paintings are made in gouache, an opaque watercolour that requires less preparation than oil. From a local Bundi artist we learnt that the colours used by the artists of miniatures were made from minerals, vegetables, precious stones, indigo, conch shells, pure gold and silver. The preparation and mixing of colour was an elaborate process and took weeks, sometimes months, to get the desired results. Very fine, specially created brushes were made for different kinds of paintings.”
The examples of Bundi School paintings here in the Chitrashala, which date from 1773 to 1821, are considered to be among the best. They are painted to a consistent colour scheme – green for backgrounds, white for human bodies and red, blue, black and yellow for traditional dresses. Every surface is covered, including the ceiling. Our guide pointed out some of the most interesting paintings, some of which I photographed:
Animals fighting: an elephant and bull are fighting but the artist has very cleverly painted a single head which serves as that of both animals
Lord Krishna: Lord Krishna is holding up Mount Govardhan and using it as an umbrella to protect the earth from the storms raging overhead caused by Indra, the god of thunder and rain. His defeat of Indra is celebrated in the Govardhan Puja festival, the day after Diwali.
Picture map: A sort of map of Lord Krishna’s birthplace, Mathura. We were to pass through here a couple of days later on the train from Sawai Madhopur to Delhi, when our companion in the compartment pointed out the significance of the town
Figures in profile
The streets of Bundi
Following our visit to the palace our local guide suggested that we might enjoy a walk with him in the town as he had spotted our keenness for photography – and of course we were quick to agree.
The original name for Bundi was Bundi-ka-Nal; “Nal” means narrow ways, and the name is still fitting today. And a stroll around these streets is a photographer’s delight! On the evening of our arrival we had explored a bit of Suraj Pole, between our hotel and the Nawal Sagar lake, but today’s stroll took us along Sadar Bazaar Road towards the eastern end of the old town. Both were equally fruitful in terms of photos, although the latter was more lively (and not just because of the time of day).
Locals in Bundi
Temple shrine to Ganesh
These cheerful-looking vehicles are used to broadcast music during wedding and festival processions – I had seen quite a few on the roads as we travelled and was glad of the chance to get a good photo of this one parked on Sadar Bazaar Road
There were several signs here that really made me smile, mainly outside the restaurants. We didn’t eat at the Tom and Jerry restaurant (near our haveli on Suraj Pole - why eat pizza when you’re in India?!) and I would be surprised if it really is the “best food in Bundi”, but that sign, with its challenge to other inferior pizza places, did win my prize for “most amusing notice”!
The Ringo Star’s restaurant sign keeps it simple, with just a list of meals served, but I had to wonder if the former Beatle knows that there is a restaurant named after him in this remote Rajasthani town (even if the last “r” has been omitted from the surname). Another restaurant near the palace also caught my eye as I puzzled over the dish called “Hello the Queen”.
An elephant and a horse
As we walked south from the palace on Sadar Bazaar Road I couldn’t help but notice the massive statues of a horse and an elephant that loom above you. A sign nearby explains their significance. The elephant is Siva Prasad and was a gift to the local ruler, Raja Shatrushal Singh, from the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, as a reward for bravery. Shatrushal Singh rode the elephant in battle many times, and when he died in 1707 erected this statue in his memory.
The horse belonged to a later ruler, Raja Rao Ummed Singh (who you may recall had added the hanging garden and Chitrasala to the palace) and likewise was ridden into battle by his owner. He was honoured with a similar statue placed on the opposite side of the road, facing the elephant. I haven’t been able to find a date for this statue – Ummed Singh ruled from 1749 to 1770 and again from 1773 to 1804, but I suspect the statue of his horse may be more recent.
Shades of blue
Jodhpur may be known as Rajasthan’s Blue City, but Bundi must run it close in blueness. The view of the old town from the palace makes this very obvious, and a short stroll through its streets will throw up lots of colourful photo opps.
Houses on Suraj Pole
This shade is known as Brahmin blue, because traditionally only houses owned by that caste could be painted this colour, although nowadays it is used more widely. As I explained on my Jodhpur page, there are two commonly cited reasons for the choice of this blue wash. One is practical – the colour is made by adding copper sulphate to the lime wash, because copper is thought to repel the termites that live in this desert region. In the past this copper was expensive, so only the upper castes, the Brahmins, could afford it. The other reason sometimes given is one of status, as blue is a royal colour and the Brahmins wanted to associate themselves with royalty. Today though, we were told, this blue shade is one of the cheapest colour washes to buy, and therefore people of all castes use it.
On Sadar Bazaar Road
I would love to have explored further but something very special awaited us – the chance to spot tigers in Ranthambore.
With a game drive booked for that afternoon, it was time to leave Bundi for what would be our final drive with Mehar ….