The distance to Bundi from Jaipur is not trivial but transportation in Rajasthan is as good as it is in Gujarat. Roads are smooth. Buses are plenty and keep good time. After struggling with my pronunciation for a while I get my message across the counter. Yes, they know Bundi and the first afternoon bus is at 1 pm. Government buses are cheap and usually tickets are purchased in advance at bus stands. So after visiting Amber in the morning and gulping down a quick lunch, I am on my way to Bundi.
The ride to Bundi is quite long. Rural Rajasthan passes by swiftly but slow enough to take notice of its life. Much of it is a vast expanse of dry land with villages located far and wide. Villagers take to decorating their brown mud walls with line paintings in white. White rangoli decorate the verandahs. Earthern pots stand cooly on top of these mud walls. At places drystone walls stand quaintly. The stones are thinly and sharply cut unlike walls of similar nature built out of unworked stones. Somewhere a camel is being sheared and a hot iron is being prepared to brand it. Round huts appear and their roofs taper conically upwards to a point. Men wear earrings and colourful turbans. Flat plains give way to hills. Scenery is more exciting now. Suddenly Bundi town comes into view.
I can never forget my first view of Bundi: simply spectacular. Even if I see nothing else, this view alone is enough. From a high road I can see the town spread below me in a valley. The town sits nestled in this valley but also nestled in its own time. Golden setting sun lights the facade of the fort that climbs from lower part of town to the higher slopes. Water tanks at the foot of the old fort shimmer. From up here, the town is so still. It is like looking at a perfect postcard picture in real life. The medieval fort of Bundi takes centerstage in this picture.
I take a room in the Dhaanmandi Dharamshala, just the sort of thing I need to fit my budget. I am pretty sure I’m going to stay here for a couple of nights. The manager hands me an interesting bill with the list of items loaned out and the prices for the same:
It is past sunset. My tour of Bundi can happen only tomorrow. I have dinner at a decent place right next door to where I am staying. I sleep well and rise early. The first visit for the day is a cenotaph named Chaurasi Kambh, so called due to 84 pillars that grace this monument. It stands in a small enclosure meant to protect it. In the open grounds nearby are boys playing cricket. It is after all a Sunday.
For a monument of this name it becomes obligatory to count the number of pillars. I count only 80. I wonder where are the remaining four. The monument comes to us from the mid-eighteenth century. It is double-storeyed and quite elegant in design. It has a stately poise about it. Pillared projections, like porticos, project on all four sides from the central space. This gives it a stellate design. The pillars stand on a high plinth climbed by a series of steps. A doorway gives access to narrow stairs leading to second level where the main central dome stands. The dome is surrounded elegantly by four corner chhatris. At four triangular corners at the base of the dome are four serpentine arches. The chhajjas of these chhatris are square while the chhajja of the main dome is octagonal. Other ornamentations appear as smaller domes, low parapets and chhaparkhats. The pillars stand in trabeate architecture. There are no arches in this Hindu monument. Under the main dome is a linga and peeta installed on a plinth.
There is art here in the form of low pannelled reliefs – cows, bulls, calves, elephants, horses, dogs and birds. Anantasheyana is reclined in one sylistic relief. In another, a god tussles with a demon in churning the ocean for nectar. These reliefs make interesting study. The ceiling of the main dome has angels taking flight. These are not English Christian angels but rather bejewelled celestial beings who are heavily decorated and colourfully dressed. Fish and blooming lotuses complete the composition. Above the doorway to the stairs going to the dome is a fine but faded painting of Lord Ganesha. He holds a plate of laddus, an axe and a jal pot. Two women attend to him while a mouse nibbles seriously.
At half eight the town roads are still quiet except for an occasional milkman. He passes by with his brass pots tied with ropes and chains at the back of his two-wheeler. A woman walks by balancing a similar pot on her head and another at her waist. Others on business cycle in and out of the old gates of medieval Bundi. I enter through one such gate in my exploration of old town.
Bundi is renowned for wall paintings, so much so that it has defined its own style called the Bundi School. Modern representations of that old style can be seen on walls of old town. I pass many colourful paintings but I know that I will be seeing the original ones inside the palace in just a few hours.
What defines an old medieval town? Perhaps narrow streets and lanes crowded with old shops and houses set the ambience. Perhaps it is an old oven set on a bed of coal that brings to boil a blackened kettle of water. Perhaps it is a woman with a tampura on a painted wall, her face hidden in the shadows out of shyness while morning sun brightens the colours of her skirt and dupatta. Perhaps it is the monuments standing here and there amidst more modern buildings, almost forgotten but always a part of history now and forever.
I pass a couple of stepwells on my way to the old fort. These baodis are plain without any decoration. No one has bothered to maintain them. They are today ugly garbage dumps. They rob some of the romance of Bundi. The Taragarh Fort stands majestically on rugged slopes. A board claims that the original one was built in the 14th century. I walk the ramparts outside and view the facade. From this low viewpoint, the perspective is lofty. A combination of jharokhas, chhajjas, chhatris, pillared halls with pointed arched bays, in trabeate forms or cusped arches speak of diversity and perhaps a long evolution. I can discern ruins of stables. I can see high and narrow pointed arches at lower level. Fort walls and bastions snake on the higher slopes. The large rectangular tank lower from the fort is not dry thanks to the ingenuity of medieval engineering.
I climp up a stone cobbled ramp, walk through the gateway and come into view of the inner courtyard. A projected balcony on a higher level reveals a marble throne. Perhaps this is where the king gave public audiences. I take in the various perspectives and proceed inside to admire the famous paintings of Bundi. They are all fantastic though in faded colours. At the entrance of the Chitra Mahal I can see Bheeshma reclined on a bed of arrows. In another painted niche, Lord Rama forms a neat group with Lakshmana, Sita and Hanuman. Battle scenes and ceremonial processions are common for they afford themes of infinite variety, characters and narrative power. In one scene beautiful women wait under a banana tree painted with hanging floral buds. In another scene, kings and nobles stand in colourful turbans and waistbands. They sport different types of sideburns. They carry their daggers proudly and their spears in style. Attendants wave fly whisks while others bear ceremonial fans.
I immerse myself in these paintings and their wonderful stories. Studying them so closely is almost like going into their world. Bundi doesn’t see much tourist crowd and so early in the morning the palaces are all mine. No one bothers me as I spend minutes studying the details in leisure. There is ample use of gold in many paintings. Details are minute. Skill and imagination of the painters seem to have taunted each other as to which of the two will come out tops.
There is a lovely dovecote constructed in stone with small wooden doors. They might have once contain messenger birds. The hall opposite the Chitra Mahal shows black painted elephants above the capitals, their trunks raised as if supporting the beams above. View of entire Bundi town is spectacular from up here.
A narrow stairway leads to a level higher than the Chitra Mahal. It is locked but the guard hands me the key. It appears that there is huge beehive up there. As a precaution they are controlling visitors into higher palaces. I climb up and see the busy hive. I quietly tiptoe to take a look at this mahal, the Phool Mahal. This too has its own share of beautiful paintings in addition to mirror work like the one I had seen at Amber. There is an endearing and happy scene on one of these walls. Men and women are seated around a courtyard and are seen throwing colours at each other from their water pistons. It is the season of Holi. Many of the colours here are still vivid since they have never been exposed to direct sunlight. Higher up is another palace, the Badal Mahal. The name itself is romantic, as if reaching for the clouds. It has an unusual ceiling completely painted over. The walls too bear lots of paintings.
Some elements of these palaces suggest Mughal influence. There are Shahjahani pillars including muqarna capitals. Some stone lattice work contain semi-precious stones embedded into their spaces. Flooring is beautiful in many of the palaces. When sunlight streams into the open courtyards at an angle, the mix of light and shade add to the magic of the spaces. Beautiful quartered gardens, almost inspired by Islamic char baghs, decorate a couple of quadrangles.
I am almost on my way out when I see a board pointing the way to Chitrashala located in Ummed Mahal. It turns out that the Chitrashala is the gem of these palaces. All the paintings I had seen earlier are little compared to the brilliance of those found here. Moreover, they are in a much better state of preservation. They come to us from late 18th to early 19th century.
Masterpieces of the Chitrashala are many. Gajendra mokha is painted within the niche of a cusped arch. Turquoise blue fills the sky through which Lord Vishnu and Garuda make haste. In the dark water below, Gajendra struggles under the grip of a crocodile. Lotuses bloom in the waters as if unaware of the commotion. Familiarity with this popular legend is half the reason why it comes across as a masterpiece. Two white elephants on an earth red background tussle with their trunks on a dado panel. Lord Rama takes procession on the day of his wedding. A damsel, perhaps a ragini, strikes a pose as she waits for her lover. Another plays her tambura with a garland in the other hand. Birds and animals are drawn to her song and complete the mood. In a court scene, kings, guards and attendants pack the scene in their best clothes while the palace pavilion is in itself an epitome of royal splendour. Two women sit down to play the good old game of chaupar. In another superb panel, Lord Krishna dances with each gopi on a moonlit night. In another panel, the Lord lifts Mt Govardhan. Lord Indra on his seven-trunked Airavata rampages high up through dark clouds and lightning. Later he is seen at the feet of Lord Krishna seeking forgiveness. Generous use of turquoise suggests royal expense. It could have come only from lapis lazuli. Yet another one of the Lord’s leelas depicts Him playing the flute on a tree hung with dupattas of maiden bathing in the Yamuna. Every little detail in this scene of vastra haran leela is spectacular.
I walk back slowly to the town center. A crowd has gathered at a junction. People are looking up to the sky. Traffic is slow here. I look up and find a langur hanging dead on a power transmission line. The mesh of lines criss-crossing here is a mess. Other langurs hang around and seem to mourn the loss of their brother.
My next stop is the Raniji-ki-Baodi, a stepwell built in 1699 AD by Nathawatji, queen of Rao Raja Anirudh Singh who had helped Aurangazeb in his campaign in the Deccan. The queen is supposed to have built 21 similar stepwells. In fact, Bundi is home to many stepwells all over town but only a few are well preserved. Above ground level, the elevation shows four pillared kiosks. There are three entrances that meet at a landing one level below ground. This scheme is somewhat similar to the stepwell at Adalaj.
Where I stand, there is an iron grill locking me away from the inner spaces of the stepwell. I peep through to find a series of steps going down to a landing where stands the first kuta, or pillared pavilion. The pillars are two levels high and beautifully decorated on top with miniature elephants and serpentine arches. The next landing is connected into a rectangular walkway around the central space. The parapets are low. Stairs descend a long way down to the final landing where stands the second kuta right next to the rectangular well shaft. This kuta stands on two tall levels, each bearing superb arches, one pointed and the other cusped. This is one of the most wonderful stepwells I have ever seen, without excepting those of Gujarat.
Iron grills cover the baodi from the top but pigeons have found a way in and out. They take to dirtying the well in their usual ways. The grills need some maintenance. I chat with a French tourist and her American boyfriend. Then I accost the security guard sitting on the bench in the surrounding park.
‘Visitors can go in only Mondays to Saturdays,’ he explains. ‘The key to the gate inside is with the guy from the Archaeology Department. He takes leave on Sundays.’
‘Who do you work for?’ I ask.
‘I am with the Tourism Department. I am usually here on Sundays.’
‘You have done a good job with the park,’ I compliment.
‘Yes,’ he nods. ‘That’s done by the gardener. He is with the Town Council.’
There you have it. This monument is looked after by at least three organizations. I thank him for the information. I would have loved to walk inside the stepwell and it is unlikely I will hang around in Bundi till 10 am tomorrow morning.
Time check. It is only 3 pm. I walk through old Bundi once more, this time taking a different route. I pass a workshop where a couple of young men are busy making bangles. I watch them for a while, take pictures and videos to their amusement. A little later I pass another craftsman beating a design on to a metal pot. These cottage industries of handmade products are perhaps one more aspect that defines an old medieval town. I move on till I arrive at the Sukh Mahal by a lake. The palace doesn’t look much and it is closed. The caretaker comes by and opens the palace for me. Imagine that! On the inside, it stands as a long room with ample doors and windows. A pillared pavilion projects out and affords a beautiful view of the lake.
I take to the only road turning right and hugging the left of the lake. The day is hot but only at 35 degrees and no more. I go in search of a hunting tower, locally called the Shikari Burj. En route I pass some cenotaphs enclosed within a compound. The gates are locked and I find no one around to let me in. I move on. I find the hunting tower eventually, a building perhaps once glorious which today survives only in parts. Macaques are creating a havoc in this place. Coming here with anything edible in hand is a definite disaster.
A local man imposes himself upon me, promising me to show me around. Truth is there is really nothing to see here; at least the little that’s here hardly requires a guide. I let him guide me along and pay him something in return. There is something called Baan Ganga in this place. It appears to be some sort of a water collection and distribution system. Water collects in tanks which when filled up overflows into the next tank. It is impressive and I wonder if it continues to be used these days.