BUNDI — A laid-back dream

Ajay Goel
9 min readMay 20, 2023

Three hours south of Jaipur lies Bundi, a fertile valley fed by Chambal tributaries. A few centuries back, this was the center of the Hadoti kingdom. Proud and prosperous. The stories of Hada Rajput valor still make for a fascinating evening.

Then, in the 17th century, Shahjahan carved out Kota from Bundi, and seeds of internecine rivalry were sown. Fast forward to today, Kota is a major city & national education hub, but Bundi remains a cute one-street town of the 18th century, where time ticks slowly….

…and there lies its charm.

Bundi, also known as Blue City, is painted with crushed limestone and indigo wash, like Jodhpur.

History 101

Bundi was once the epicenter of the Hadoti region. We start this tale from the mid-13th century when Deva Hada and his son blazed their way to set up their kingdom, encompassing Bundi, Baran, Kota, and Mau of today. They subjugated the erstwhile ruling tribes of Meenas in Bundi and Bheel in Kota. Bundi, the story goes, was then called “Bunda ki Naal’ (Bunda was the slain Meena chief’s name, and Naal is a valley).

This was a period of fierce churn in North India — Hadas, a sub-clan of Chauhans, was displaced from Delhi by the Sultanate in the 12th century. Mewar, Malwa, and Gujrat were the key forces in this region. Hadas initially found refuge in Mewar, as vassals of Sisodia rulers. Turko Afghan Sultanate was firmly established in Delhi and had started preying on Rajputana states, mainly to keep the trade routes open. By the beginning of the 14th century, Mewar (Chittor) was under siege by Alauddin Khilji. The resultant fight to the death by Rajput soldiers and self-immolation (Jauhar) by the ladies was later eulogized in Jayasi’s epic poem of Padmavat (and recently mauled by Sanjay Leela Bhansali in an eponymous film).

It was in these chaotic times that Rao Deva’s & his son, through sheer grit, adventures, and valor, carved out an independent Hadoti state, and for the first three hundred years, Hadas remained under the over-lordship of Mewar. But it was a ‘love & hate’ relationship. Immensely proud and self-respecting, valorous, and loyal, Hadas often bristled at the slights from Mewar, and not once, but twice (1531 & 1773) the rulers of Bundi and Mewar killed each other during ‘friendly’ hunting trips!

There are local bardic songs still sung on the theme of “Hada Sisodiyon ka ber”

OTOH, they were also fiercely loyal and valorous. They fought valiantly for Mewar in many wars, against Malwa and Gujrat. The favorite queen of Rana Sanga (of Mewar) — Rani Karnavati was a Hada princess. After Rana died in 1528, when Gujarat invaded Chittor in 1535, as queen regent, she mobilized troops, invited Humayun, and finally, unable to turn the tide, committed Jauhar with 13k ladies. Some 500 Hada warriors plugged a breach in the fortress with their bodies, only to be blown up by the enemy cannons. Rani Karnawati’s younger son Udai Singh was later saved by Panna Dhai, by sacrificing her own infant — but that’s another story for another time.

No talk about Hada valor is complete without mention of another Hadi Rani, who was married to a military commander in Salumber, Mewar. The commander was called to battle just a few days after their wedding. The lovelorn husband asks his newly wedded wife for a memento; sensing that she was turning into a distraction for her husband to perform his duty, the Hadi Rani sends her head on a platter. This instance of history lives on in folk songs today.

Hadas finally broke away from Mewar in 1569, when Bundi ruler Rao Surjan Singh signed a peace treaty with the Mughals. Chittor’s fall to Akbar in the previous year, and Amer’s alignment with Akbar were a clear signal of Mughal dominion, and Raja Man Singh of Amer played an important part in negotiations. They promised Bundi no obligation to marry its daughters into Mughals, and Akbar succeeded in weakening the support structure of Mewar forever. To seal the deal, Hadas ‘gifted’ Ranthambore Fort to the Mughals, and Akbar reciprocated by bestowing 26 parganas and the Governorship of Varanasi to Rao Surjan.

The next 150 years were the golden period of Bundi until the Mughal dynasty imploded after Aurangzeb’s demise in 1707. Hadas served the Mughals gallantly in multiple campaigns — and prospered. The Bundi School of Miniature Arts flourished as Farsi and Mughal influence fused with local deities and folktales. All the magnificent edifices that impress the tourists today came about during this period.

One notable event with lasting consequences during this golden period was the carving out of Kota…and it’s an interesting story. Prince Khurrram had rebelled against his father Jahangir and was quelled by Bundi king Ratan Singh. While Jehangir’s anger simmered and then abated, Khurram was kept in ‘custody’ in the region, but with state honors, and taken care of by Ratan Singh’s younger son — Madho Singh. Later, Khurram ascended the throne as Shahjahan in 1628, and Ratan Singh died in 1631. Ratan Singh’s elder son, Chatrasaal got the Bundi throne, as was the custom. Shahjahan, in lieu of the TLC received during his bad times, chose to reward Madho Singh by carving out Kota as an independent state. This act of goodwill, however, divided the family, and Kota and Bundi found themselves at loggerheads many a time in subsequent generations.

The golden era for Bundi ended with Aurangzeb’s death, and the ensuing power vacuum in Delhi. Bundi ricocheted in different directions, as too many intrigues and ambitions arrived in the region. Budh Singh (r 1695–1739) lost and regained his throne four times! First, Kota occupied Bundi in 1713, at the orders of Mughal king Faruksiyar (In fact, for a short while, they even renamed Bundi Farukkabad!) Later on, Jai Singh of Jaipur started eying Bundi as a possible estate for his second son Madho Singh, and succeeded in putting his puppet on Bundi’s throne. By the time these issues were resolved, the rapacious forays of Marathas and then Pindaris started sucking the lifeblood of the region.

After a century of such tumult and chaos, Bundi signed a peace treaty with the East India Company in 1818. From that time to 1947, Bundi was administered and developed on an even keel under the British aegis. Post-independence, kings were reduced to titular heads.

The last titular scion Mr. Ranjit Singh died in 2010 without an heir. In April 2022, after a decade of succession disputes, 34-year-old VanshVardhan Singh of Kapren was declared the legal successor. Locals believe that the control of Bundi Royal heritage is effectively with Alwar royals, nephew of Mr. Ranjit Singh.

Places of Interest

TARAGADH FORT:

Built on top of a hill, from the mid-14th century onwards. Contrary to the local lore, the Fort is not shaped like a star but is square-ish. Perhaps the name was derived in the olden days when mashals were lit up at the hilltop fort looking like twinkling stars.

Steep climb — thousands of resident monkeys — we didn’t make it to the top of the hillfort, for want of time.

GADH PALACE

The piece de resistance of Bundi! Carved out of the hills, it clings precariously on the slope, ever ready to slide into the Nawal Sagar lake below. The palace construction started after Bundi signed up for Mughal protection in 1569, and successive generations added to it. Yet, clusters of gigantic archways, turrets, and canopies don’t seem out of place.

Rudyard Kipling, who is said to have written Kim while in Bundi, has this to say about the fort: ‘Jeypore Palace may be called the Versailles of India; Udaipur’s House of State is dwarfed by the hills round it and the spread of the Pichola Lake; Jodhpur’s House of Strife, gray towers on red rock, is the work of giants, 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.’

It offers a tough climb, and no golf carts or jeeps come to the rescue of harried tourists. A major portion of the palace is out of bounds and bats infested. Ownership battles within Royals have only recently been resolved, but frankly, it’s a white elephant to maintain. Gate collections are not enough, and ASI is not involved.

The best view for photography is half a climb up to the Fort from the ruins of Doodha Mahal (an out-house where Surjan’s son shifted when his father signed up with the Mughals).

This is a list of main attractions open to tourists, constructed at different times — Hathi Pol- entrance | Ratan Daulat- Dewane Aam with a coronation throne | Phool Mahal for murals | Chhatra Mahal- by Chhatrasal in 1644 | Jhula Chauk

Left — Hathi Pole | Right — Badal Mahal — Chinese-inspired ceiling divided into petal shapes- Ganesh the charioteer of Krishna!

CHITRASHALA

“Dressed elaborately, she’s pouring herself a drink with a ‘to hell with it all’ expression. Eyebrows arched, she’s not dainty with the glass or the decanter.”

The Chitrashala was commissioned by Rao Umed Singh (r. 1739 -1770). This was the period when a lot of artists arrived in Bundi after the Mughal patronage vanished in Delhi. It contains the best examples of Bundi school miniature wall paintings.

Maintained by ASI, these 18th-century frescos are going to seed, housed in an open-air verandah, exposed to elements. Ironically, the best Indian art and miniatures are now available in the MET or a Guggenheim.

RANI KI BAORI

Built by the younger queen of Anirudh Singh- Rani Nathavathi Solanki, 1699… at the time of famine. This is a beautiful 45 M deep step-well with tall, intricate torana dwars (arches)..reminded me of Adalej’s step-wells near Ahmedabad.

!Locals claim Hadoti is famous for Bawdis (step-wells) and Dawdis (daughters). The word Dawdi gets a somewhat negative connotation in Marwar, as centuries-old rivalries seep into popular vocabulary.

DHABAI KA KUND

An inverted pyramid-shaped step well.

SUKH MAHAL (KIPLING PALACE), JAIT SAGAR

A small outhouse located on the banks of Jaitsagar. Beautiful location — the enormous pond is studded with lotus fronds. The place got its fame from the fact that Rudyard Kipling stayed here a couple of nights during the time when he was writing KIM. Presently, it houses a small armory museum.

84 PILLARED CENOTAPH

Built by Rao Raja Anirudh Singh in 1683 in memory of his stepbrother Deva — the son of his wet nurse.

WALK ALONG THE BAZAAR

A walk down the single-lane Sadar Bazaar is a five-star experience, no less than the magnificence of the palace. A painter with a tiny squirrel hair brush hunched over his miniature, genuine antique tools and locks, sepia vintage prints, 100-year-old postcards, constant click-clack of 18th century handloom for ‘Kota Doria’, clang & clatter of Thathera Gali displaying copper and brassware, discrete moneylenders of Sarafa Bazar on white gaddis, large trunks to store razais in summers, massive drums for grain storage and tin sheet Hamams for boiling water in winters are still essential dowry items. All this in less than a kilometer. And the best part — No pushers trying to sell you anything or do some ‘pooja’.

For a moment, squint your eyes and imagine those fluorescent electric bulbs to be diyas and Mashaals. In your mind, replace the vroom and splutter of Mobikes and Activas with a clip-clop of a couple of horsemen, and you are in the 18th century. The artisans, the bazaar bustle, the incessant chime of temple bells, and the slow-paced life haven’t changed much over the last 200 years. Bundi is not yet corrupted by mass tourism and the smiles are honest.

We got invited for tea at a Muslim household- served by a waif of a girl studying 3rd year BSc, a cute chatterbox talking about her dreams, seeking career guidance, and sharing plans. If you prefer such rich experiences to a staid fine diner, go visit Bundi. There are enough hole-in-the-walls that specialize in Chai, Lassi, Jalebi, Kachori, or Kulfi. We even found a rooftop serving authentic Lebanese fare, Nutella Crepes, and thin hand-rolled pizzas with the backdrop of the Bundi castle.

Bundi is a laid-back dream, a secret one doesn’t want to share. That’s how quaint and untouched this place is and I hope it stays like that…

…Slow-paced, a little rough at the edges, but with a soul.

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Ajay Goel

This is a place where I post essays and random musings.