In a nutshell : A weekend visit to a hidden gem of Rajasthan – Bundi, that has unparalleled centuries old fresco paintings on ceilings, a compact & beautiful fort built tastefully over generations, unchanged old world charm, simple warm people, amazing artists who still live here & a lot more.
Unlike other trips, we traveled in a group, trip beautifully & passionately curated & organised by Shagufta Siddhi , founder of Ganga Jamuni, star attraction was to meet & hear from author, historian, Rana Safvi, whom we have been following on social media so far ……….
Positive side effect of travelling with ganga jamuni – During the trip we made some amazing new friends….. similar interests & passion – history, food, travel.
Please find below the contents – so that you can skip sections that do not interest you & go straight to the more interesting sections:
- Introduction – how we got to know of this trip, who are the people behind the trip
- A note on the trip experience as a guest
- History of Bundi
- Bundi in literature
- The fort & palaces
- Other interesting things we did in Bundi
- Food & beverages
- Introduction – how we got to know of this trip, who are the people behind the trip
We have been following historian & author Rana safvi’s posts on Instagram from quite some time now. We have always found the posts to be a source of great knowledge about things that we have not necessarily read in a book or on the internet. These posts are mostly based on experiences & information collected during her travels around the country.
So when Rana safvi posted about this trip on Instagram, we decided to jump in.
We got to know that Ms. Shagufta Siddhi will plan & organize the trip. Connected with her, coordinated, made the advance payments & then went for the trip.
Got to know later that Shagufta has been running Ganga Jamuni, an organization that explores the cultural layers, food, traditions etc & documents them for the future. They also do regular tours to such culture & history rich places. To get updates on their upcoming yrs you can follow them in Instagram, Facebook or contact them on WhatsApp.
Meaning of ganga Jamuni – in short it talks about harmonious co existence of Hindu & Muslim populations. Read more about it from the link – GAnga Jamuni & also from the screenshot below:
2. A note on the trip experience as a guest
Ganga jamuni is not just any other regular travel agent. If you are expecting 100% water tight professionalism in all interactions, i would suggest that you skip travelling with them.
If you want them to respond to you at 3 am because you are feeling like having Maggi, I suggest, look for the the usual travel agent folks. However, just an indication about, say, a medical challenge was taken care of, as if you are at home, with family.
Our car suddenly ran out of diesel additive DEF & we did not find it in few petrol pumps in Bundi. Our tour leader Shagufta found it out thru our guide kukki Ji, who sat in our car & went with us to the pump & left only when it was sorted.
If there were 10 things on the tour list mentioned above, maybe we did 8, skipped 2. Or something shifted from one day to the other. However, amazing things also got added which were totally unexpected – like the 20000 year old cave paintings 50 km away, in the middle of nowhere.
Promised schedules were not adhered to, with German precision. Our tour leader Shagufta simply went with the flow. She let people enjoy more, when people were enjoying – rather than pushing them off to the next item on the list. She would wrap up from a place if it did not appeal as much.
‘Tick box’ was not the agenda of the team leader. Genuine enjoyment by the guests was her focus here.
It’s a one person show (with support from few other passionate mates) & I would say the result was incredible. Fabulous & way beyond expectations.
We always travel on our own – just two of us. We had no idea we would enjoy the trip with a group so much. The conversations were so rich. The bunch of strangers had a common passion & hence bonding with others was fast & easy. I guess we made some very good friends who would remain connected for many more years.
To conclude – The team leader managed the show with immense warmth, fun, constantly thinking how to make the guests absorb & enjoy more & most importantly – the insights, nuances & information passed on to the guests, as a trained art historian.
Rana safvi, fondly called Rana apa by all, spoke with clarity on many topics of history that made some of our concepts on history & culture much clearer than ever before.
Senior Kukki ji & his son Ashwini Kukki ji guided us at the fort, evening street walk & also the visit to 20000 year old cave paintings – I am amazed at their enthusiasm & ability to beautifully tell stories that keeps the audience hooked. They also give disclaimers ‘I have read in a newspaper that XYZ, I have heard that ‘ABC happened’. That helped us differentiate between potential stories & facts.
Senior Kukki ji is also credited with finding out the cave painting site & also many artifacts from there. His name is mentioned in the local museum.
3. History of Bundi
I will bravely:) attempt to give you a very short history of Bundi spanning a millennium.
· Around 1000 CE, this area was ruled by the Meena tribes & the name Bundi comes from the name of their leader Bunda Meena.
· In 1342, a local ruler Rao deva took over Bundi from the Bundi ruler jaita Meena. The Raos were vassals of the king of Mewar. The place was renamed Hadoti.
· In 1554, Surjan singh became the ruler. In 1569, Mughal emperor Akbar, after annexing ranthambore, also defeated the Bundi ruler Surjan singh. A treaty was drawn & Bundi came under Mughal rule, with Rao Surjan singh continuing as the ruler.
· Then started a trend that continued for two centuries. The able kings of Bundi would be sent by Mughal emperor to different difficult places to rule & collect taxes on behalf of Mughal emperor. The family of that king & the younger generations would stay at Bundi under the protection of Mughal empire.
· Examples – rao Surjan singh was assigned chunar fort near Varanasi. His son, rao bhoj singh was sent to Lahore. Surjan singh’s grandson rao Ratan singh got back to Bundi.
· Due to these exposures to new areas, the Raos got exposure to new art forms. So when Bundi fort was made (part by part, by many generations), artists were brought from other places. The result was a fusion of local art form & the art form from other areas. That explains why the art of this area is so different than what was happening in the rest of Rajasthan at that time.
· Rao Ratan singh defeated the rebel son of Mughal emperor Jahangir, khurram. Jehangir asked rao Ratan singh’s son madho singh to kill Khurram. Madho singh kept Khurram in captivity. When Jehangir was dying, he got to know about this. He called for Khurram (who became the next emperor shah jehan) & gave madho singh the area of Kota as an independent state carved out of Bundi. This also helped reduce the power of the erstwhile Bundi state.
· Rao Ratan singh’s son Rao chhatrasal was loyal to shah jehan & Dara shikoh & fought against Aurangzeb. He was killed in battle.
· In 1804, Rao Bishen singh helped the British in a war against Holkars & that led to constant attacks by the holkars & other Marathas. To protect themselves, in 1818, the Bundi Royal family signed a treaty with British.
· In 1949, Bundi became a part of India. However they still have the tradition of a king. The latest coronation happened as late as 2nd April 2022 – Raja Rao vanshvardhan singh.
On our last day we actually went to meet the King!! that was quite a ‘first time’ experience for us.
4. Bundi in literature:
Rudyard Kipling wrote about Bundi :
‘Jeypore Palace may be called the Versailles of India…. 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 built for themselves in uneasy dreams….the work of goblins rather than of men’.
Bundi appeared in literature of other areas of india too – Fritz , a short story by Satyajit ray & nakal garh, a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, is set in Bundi.
An amazing work on Bundi paintings is ‘Bundi wall paintings by milo C beach & hilde lauwaert.’ We bought a copy immediately after returning.
5. The fort & palaces
Bridging journey, a Private company has taken over the fort & is in the process of restoring it – told our guide.
The Garh Palace, the main palace of Bundi, has a number of smaller palaces encircling the main palace. The fort in its current state, had been built by various rulers at different points in time. Most of these palaces, were built during in the 1600s & 1700s.
The garh palace has some of the most intricate frescoes in India. The pictures depict scenes from daily life in the court of Bundi, scenes from stories and religious books.
We entered the fort area thru a stone ramp with a significant elevation, from the dense city market area.
A well maintained ticket counter, beautifully painted was situated just outside the fort gate.
As we walked in, we saw the area where the royal stable was. The construction in this part of the fort was done in classic arch style, with stones. For binding the stones together, a mix of lime, gur (jaggery), natural gum & powdered bricks was used.
On another side there was an open area where elephant fights used to be conducted, as a source of entertainment. Two elephants would be tied on two sides, made to drink a lot of alcohol & then provoked to fight. The pillars on which the elephants were tied, are still there.
From this open ground, the steep cobbled stone ramp towards the fort started. After a turn midway, we reached a beautiful, intricately carved gate, named haathi pol – two stone carved elephants were placed at the top of the gate.
As we entered the fort thru haathi pol, we realized that the ceiling of the gate was very beautifully painted.
Once inside, we reached a grass courtyard. A lane on the right led us to the first floor. There was a beautiful balcony in the centre of the façade – meant for the King.
Further beyond this was a huge open courtyard with a stunning view of the city.
hatia saal next to the courtyard was the armoury section those days. Hatia name comes from hathi (elephant) that is carved on the pillars.
Phool Mahal was on the other end. The walls were plain till the window level but above that they were painted. So were the niches.
Next to Phool Mahal was the stunning Chhatrasal Mahal – It was locked for restoration purposes but we managed to take a peek from the gap between the doors.
A floor above was Chitrashala. A set of rooms with unparalleled beauty – paintings on the walls, ceilings, pillars, arches, niches. The subjects of the paintings were krishna leela, other gods & goddesses, King & other contemporary scenes & events.
The place that we found most stunning was badal mahal. It was at the top. Some say it is called Badal Mahal due to it being on the top (closest to badal – clouds). Others say that it is called badal mahal due to the paintings of celestial beings.
The entrance to Badal Mahal was interesting but normal. Once inside, it was pure WOW. The entire ceilings, walls & niches were painted intricately & the colors stand out even today. The finesse of work is outstanding.
On the niches were the 36 raga-malas. I suggest you watch this video by Rana Safvi to understand the concept better. Rana Safvi.
For reference, I have also attached a read at the bottom – last section.
The walls had paintings about the king, other kings & contemporary subjects. The ceilings had paintings of the ten avatars of Vishnu & also pictures of other gods.
The king & Bundi fort share space with celestial beings in some of the paintings.
In many of the pictures of Badal mahal, we saw Chinese & other Mongolian influence – due to the constant travels & trade with China for opium trade.
Jhoola chowk – Here there was a huge, beautifully carved stone frame for swings (jhoola).
Next to the jhoola was a cenotaph.
6. Other interesting things we did in Bundi:
Bundi is called the City of step wells – There are more than 60 stepwells in this small town town & 150 stepwells including the ones all around.
a. We went to see the Rani ki Bawri. This was commissioned by rani Nathawati. It was a Jaya type of Stepwell.
There are usually 4 kinds of stepwells:
Nanda – 1 entrance/exit
Badra – 2 entrance/exit
Jaya – 3 entrance/exit
Vijaya – 4 entrance/exit
In this bawri, washing & bathing was not allowed. The water could be used only for drinking.
On the walls the ten incarnations of Vishnu are etched in stone.
In the bawri complex there was a Yatri niwas.
For the foundation, strong granite like stone called Salyan had been used & Limestone had been used for carving.
The bawri had Toran dwar like in Jain temples.
The stepwell is huge but when compared to Rani ki vav Patan, Gujarat or Chand Bawri near Jaipur, Rajasthan, the level of detailing & intricacy of design was way lesser.
b. Some even call Bundi the City of cenotaphs. There are many cenotaphs on mountain tops that one can see from the fort. Examples are – Suraj chatri, 84 khambha, Taragarh cenotaph
We went to see the 84 pillars cenotaph. Its beautiful beyond words. The slim pillars, the painting on the walls, the carving on stone – each element added to the magic.
The story of this cenotaph as elaborated by our guide Ashwini Kukki –
Jessa dai from Gujjar community came with her child deva to look after baby prince Anirudh singh who had just lost his mother. Deva became Anirudh’s foster brother. They were brought up with no difference & Deva was given equal status. However he was not happy when he grew up that future generations will not remember him the way they will remember king anirudh singh.
King Anirudh Singh heard about this & commissioned a beautiful cenotaph for posterity. But Deva said ‘Why have you made cenotaph for a living man.’
At that time a North facing Shiv linga was established & its been like that since then.
c. Surang darwaza – passage from fort to Moti mahal passes straight above the main thoroughfare
d. We met a gentleman Yug, who started his career working as an artist in a local newspaper in Bundi. Later he opened his shop in Bundi & he does something I have never seen anywhere in India – He makes travel cartoons of guests. He also makes portraits of guests dressed in Rajasthani attire & in backdrop of Rajasthan.
The process he follows is – email side profile picture of guest , choose a picture format / discuss & agree on a new format , make online payment, line sketch approval on email, final picture approval on email , ship out anywhere in the world.
e. Chatting with Bala at 100 year old metal works shop Kanha & Bala was interesting. They still make heavy, real swords, famous bundi dagger & other metal wares. We bought a lovely pair of hand-made scissors from them.
f. Abdul Aziz ji is the only person in Bundi market who still weaves kota Doriya cloth. Most of what he sells from his weaving station cum shop is sarees / scarves / dupattas. He keeps the prices low & does not entertain bargaining.
g. 20000 year old cave paintings – Senior Kukki ji (Guide) was the first to find out & report the cave paintings. He himself took us to the spot & showed us around.
The drawings had been done by different people over the ages. The red color with which the painting was done is from a stone available locally. We also tried our hand at making some paintings on a blank unused stone.
He also showed us the fruit of a plant that shepherds use – Kharni. They break the bean shaped fruit & a white liquid oozes out. They mix that with fresh goat milk & keep under the shade of a tree. The milk turns to a curd like consistency within 10 minutes.
The middle part of the bean also has fibers from which the shepherds make cotton like threads.
7. Food & beverages
· Bundi is known for growing very good quality basmati rice that is sent from here & repackaged by large pan India brands. We went to the store of Tansen chawal & got ourselves aged basmati rice. They don’t sell this brand of rice outside of that shop & local bundi market. They were reluctant to send by post to delhi NCR, after online payment.
The soil in Bundi is Black soil. It also has many rivers. That explains why good rice grows here. Though politically Bundi s a part of Rajasthan (mostly dry, has largest desert of India), geologically it is closer to the Malwa region of Central India.
· We tried Nenwa ka Petha at Gadhmal Babulal Manoj Kumar Jain sweet shop. The sweet derives its name from name of the place Nenwa in Rajasthan.
· The sweet reminds of gulab jamun but is different from gulab jamun. It had full blown flavors of good ghee, a lot firmer, dryer & daanedaar than gulabjamun. A hint of salt beautifully balanced the sweetness. Loved it.
· We had Kachori & samosa at Chotulal Namkin Center – outstanding daal kachoris, pyaz kachoris & samosas. This was served with a cocktail of 3 chutneys. Loved them without chutney as well. Best part of each of them was the texture of the external cover, the aroma of good ghee & the taste of excellent filling. Wah.
· Sathi Lassi shop had a super interesting board outside. The lassi they served was less like lassi & more like shrikhand. It had a beautiful blend of spices including saffron. The texture was super smooth & so thick that we could not drink it but had to eat it with a spoon!!! A must have, when in Bundi.
· Krishna Chai is more about the show than the chai itself. The chai shop is 2+ decades old, it has sketches & notes all over its walls. The man behind the counter, Krishna ji, the owner, makes tea on order. He grinds the spices one by one & adds to the tea. Once the tea is made, he does an elaborate Pooja, before he serves the tea. The tea is such that YOU CAN EITHER LOVE IT OR HATE IT, BUT CANNOT IGNORE IT.
Krishna ji has an infectious smile & the look of someone who has attained nirvana ‘all is well’’!!!
The tea is strong, has strong flavours of spices (including black pepper). There is a hot aftertaste. I loved it.
He also sells ‘Krishna Power cold tea’ – tea with bhang.
· We climbed up 5 storeys of steep stairs to reach Morgan’s place for pizzas & miscellaneous Western food. Must say that the climb was worth it.
Loved their pizzas & mocktails. The grilled chicken we ate was also good.
The food at the hotel Nawal Sagar Palace, where we stayed with the group, was good commercially cooked food. Their parathas were really good. I’ve surely had better poha. Curries were very good.
· We also stayed one night at Ishwari Niwas Palace hotel – this is owned by the new King whose coronation I mentioned above. The hotel is adjacent to the King’s residence. In fact, it’s the same building with guests having access to the commercial part.
The beauty of the food here was that it was cooked by someone who cooks for the royal family. The family & the hotel guests eat from the same kitchen. No wonder, food was home like – not greasy, not too much deep fried, not too many shortcuts. We got to know that spices are bought from different places & ground in-house. The cook came here decades back when he was a kid. Now he has three grown up kids. He & his helpers have been at it for decades.
Loved the jungli mutton – lip-smacking good. Enjoyed the vegetarian thali thoroughly.
For breakfast next day, even the parathas & omelette were so much better than most hotels.
Signing off – Overall a wonderful trip. Look forward to more such culture & history rich fun trips with Ganga Jamuni.
The Following section has not been written by me. It’s for reference reading.
Klaus Ebeling, a scholar of these paintings, writes: ‘These garlands of ragas were devices of memorization and classification for the musician who associated the individual [musical] modes with deities to whom the Ragas were dedicated.’
A ragamala is a set of miniature paintings depicting various musical modes, ragas, of north Indian music. Each painting is accompanied by a brief inscription that suggests the mood of the raga, most frequently love – in its various aspects – and devotion.
Lalit– leaving/ coming to sleeping beloved
Bhairavi – morning- shiva long-Raga Bhairav is associated with Shiva. While the raga can be sung during any season, it has special significance during the monsoons. Interestingly, it is also usually the beginning piece at any Indian classical music concert. Some people even consider Raga Bhairav to be a refined version of the folk music of Bhirva tribals. This Raga is associated with a “purifying experience” – perhaps this is why, all paintings depicting the raga show Shiva with his female partner, who is applying sandalwood onto his body.
Hindola – Dawn- This Raga is sung when the sun rises and dawn breaks. You will be able to spot Surya, the sun god – there will be a swing which is moved y female attendants.
Deepak– Night- passion- will show lovers
Malkauns-Raga Malkauns is frequently portrayed as a heroic lord consuming paan.
Megha Raga is identified with the deity Vishnu; he wears a garland of flowers and a peacock rests at his feet.
Todi – Female playing Veena with a deer or antelope near her
Madhumanti – Going to meet a lover in the middle of the night & midst of a storm, through a jungle
Dhanashri – A charming dark lady painting a far-off lover with tears falling on her bosom.
Asavari – A passionate & beautiful dark lady- painted blue- sitting on a sandalwood mountain apron of peacock feathers- pearl on her neck- with a snake that she has dragged from the tree as a bracelet on her wrist