A September 2011 trip
to Bundi by phileasfogg
Quote: On one bank of the Chambal in Rajasthan lies the bustling, busy city of Kota. Across the river lies quieter, sleepier Bundi, a town of narrow lanes and old step-wells. Of a deserted fortress and a palace decorated with what might be the finest medieval murals anywhere in India.
Hotel | "Many Pretensions, But Not the Real Thing"
I suppose, compared to the other accommodation Bundi has to offer (almost exclusively home stays and backpacker budget hotels), Hadoti Palace is luxury itself. But it is not – in any way – a palace. Though the owner is a sometime-aristocrat (the thakur of Badnaur), the building itself is 21st century. It’s dressed up to look like a palace of sorts, with its (disproportionate) dome and its white marble floors, but inside, it’s still a hotel. And a hotel, too, that has an odd, just-finished look to it. The lobby, when we entered, echoed; the corridors echoed when we walked along them to our room. The place – the lobby, the restaurant, and our room – consisted of large, open, bare spaces, all cold uninviting marble. Some interesting old black and white photographs of the royalty of Bundi (I’m guessing; no photos were labelled) hung on the walls, and near our room was a large magazine rack, full of old issues – none seemed more recent than 2010, and there were some from 2003!
Our room overlooked the swimming pool and gardens below, with a fine view of the hills – capped by the Bundi Fort – beyond. While the room had the regulation double bed, bedside tables, a desk and chair, a wardrobe with an electronic safe, and a TV (a tiny one), one got the impression that things had been put together in a somewhat haphazard, unprofessional way by someone who’d ticked things off on a checklist of what there should be in a hotel room. The three hangers in the wardrobe were dusty and mismatched, and included one that was a branded one – did the Thakur of Badnaur leave it behind with one of his suits? The electronic safe was dusty too, and the desk had no desk lamp, so we were obliged to unplug one of the bedside lamps and use that. The bathroom was clean and had its share of free shampoo, soap, etc, but it was just about adequate as far as quality is concerned.
Hadoti Palace has a health club where you can get ayurvedic massages (and, one presumes, work out). There’s a ‘vintage car collection’ too, which is in the process of being set up: they currently have a couple of vintage MGs, a Chevy, a Ford jeep from 1942, and a Buick parked either in the basement or in the yard. If you’re interested in looking, ask at the reception – someone will show you around. In one corner of the lobby are two old motorbikes too.
The only place to eat in Hadoti Palace is Taragarh, the restaurant, which doubles as room service too. The menu is very average and predictable: there are the usual North Indian paneer, chicken, mutton and vegetable dishes, daal, Indian breads – and some so-called ‘Western’ or ‘Chinese’ dishes like chilli-cheese toast, ‘sandwitches’ (yes, that’s the way the menu spells it), and fried rice. We stuck to Indian food, though we did try the omelettes at breakfast (deep fried omelettes, anyone?!). The food was all right; not fantastic, not terrible. And so boringly predictable. The restaurant itself looks rather like a guesthouse dining hall: boring and dull, though the view – across the pool – isn’t bad.
Our overall impression of Hadoti Palace was of a property desperately trying to project itself as a fancy hotel, but not really succeeding. It’s really more like a glorified guesthouse, without the warmth and personalised touch a guesthouse can often have.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on September 19, 2011
Hadoti Palace Bundi
Near Ranjit Talkies, Kota Road
Attraction | "Lovely, but Gone to Seed"
All of this we were told by the man at the ticket counter, who sold us tickets to visit the early 17th-century Taragarh Palace. Tickets cost Rs 50 per person (if you’re Indian) and Rs 100 per person (if you’re not). A further fee of Rs 20 is charged if you’re carrying a camera.
"Does this ticket include entry to the Fort?" we asked the man. He shook his head, no. "There’s no entry fee to the Fort," he said. "It’s gone wild now – all jungle. Most tourists climb up to Taragarh, look around, and then decide that they’ve had enough. If you want to go up to the Fort, there’s a path beyond Taragarh. It takes about half an hour to climb up to the Fort, and the path is terrible."
Taragarh Palace is the name given to the main palace – the court and the apartments of the royal family – in the Fort. These lie just a little way above Bundi town, just along the inside of the Fort walls. If you’re walking through the bylanes of Bundi, a two-minute stroll past the Moti Mahal brings you to a square – on the left of which is Taragarh. It’s a very brief walk up to the ticket counter. Beyond that, a fairly steep cobbled road (not motorable) leads up to Taragarh. It’s not a long walk – only about five minutes at the most – and it terminates at an impressive gate, beyond which lies a courtyard.
Here, we showed our tickets to the caretaker, who handed us over to a young man named Mahender, who showed us around the place. Mahender told us that the last Maharaja of Bundi died in 2010, still unmarried; the ‘throne’ (such as it is, since these principalities aren’t recognised any more) passed on to the dead maharaja’s nephew. Taragarh Palace, and the fort itself, are private property owned by the royal family. Mahender, the caretaker and the man at the ticket counter are therefore all employed by the Bundi royals.
Mahender guided us up the stairs, which were dark and very smelly, because of the hordes of bats that roost in Taragarh. The first hall we were shown into was the airy Diwan-e-Aam, the Hall of Public Audience. This overlooks the main gate of Taragarh, and was constructed in AD 1607 by Raja Ratan. Its main feature is a white marble throne that directly faces the gate, though above it.
We were then taken past and through other sections: the ‘royal post office’ (the dove cote, where carrier pigeons were housed); the maharaja’s wine cellar (made of black marble, with convenient niches for bottles, and decorated – befittingly – with carvings of bottles); and the Diwan-e-Khaas (the Hall of Private Audience). We moved on to the maharaja’s own apartments, the Chhatra Mahal. This one had a pretty veranda outside, with gorgeously carved marble pillars, the lintel painted in patterns of blue and green, and the door leading into the maharaja’s chamber inlaid with ivory. Inside, every inch of the walls was covered with murals: maharajas in battle and in ceremonial processions, or watching elephant fights; religious paintings; mythology; and so on. All of it was impressive, but would have been more so if it had been better preserved – a lot of the paint is peeling or merely dirty.
Above are the apartments for the queens. The lower apartment, built by Raja Bhoj in 1607 for his queen Phool Rani, is appropriately called Phool Mahal. There are extensive and intricate paintings and inlay work (including beautiful dadoes in enamel and glass) in the Phool Mahal. It also has an attractive floor – patterns of flowers (for which the Hindustani word is phool, by the way) inlaid in cream, red and black stone.
Even further above Phool Mahal is the apartment of the second queen. This, known as Badal Mahal (‘cloud palace’, because it was high enough to be in the clouds), was also built by Raja Bhoj in the same year as he built Phool Mahal. Its best feature is the wonderfully painted vaulted ceiling – there’s a beautiful painting here, against a background of vivid red, of the Hindu deity Krishna, with his gopis.
Though some of the chambers – the royal apartments, especially – retain traces (sometimes extensive) of their past grandeur, the general air is of neglect. The murals are uncared for, faded, falling apart, and have probably never been restored. The bats are everywhere, stinking and hanging just above your head as you traverse the stairs. Monkeys live in some parts of the palace.
Taragarh is the place about which Rudyard Kipling (who famously stayed here for a while) wrote: "…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."Sad, then, that it’s been allowed to go so terribly to rack and ruin.
Taragarh Palace and Fort
Attraction | "Some of India's Finest Medieval Murals"
The Chitrashala is also known as Ummed Mahal; it was built by Maharaja Rao Ummed Singh during the late 18th century. The paintings for which the Chitrashala is named were created during Ummed Singh’s reign, and of his successor, Bisen Singh.
From the point where the road forks – one branch leading to Taragarh Palace, the branch leading to the Chitrashala – the Chitrashala is a couple of minutes’ walk. This is one section of the fort that has been ceded by the Bundi royals to the Archaeological Survey of India (the ASI), and thank heavens for that! We had been expecting something along the lines of Taragarh Palace – once beautiful, now gone to seed – but the Chitrashala proved to be a very pleasant surprise indeed.
Stepping in through the gate, we found ourselves in a square sunken garden. Beyond and above rises a series of palaces and pavilions; below is the garden, with a red-flowering bougainvillea, neatly pruned hedges, and a dead tree trunk placed at an artistic angle. The ASI official in charge of the Chitrashala came forward and offered to show us around. He was a wonderfully enthusiastic man, eager to show off the place, and obviously proud of it – something one doesn’t often come across, at least in India!
He first told us that the garden, with its central square pool, surrounded by carved stone seats, was used by the maharani. Then he led us in, and we were struck dumb. Even the best parts of Taragarh Palace don’t hold a candle to the Chitrashala. True, this is a much smaller palace, and it’s from a later period than the Taragarh Palace, but it is very well-preserved. The ASI has covered the open courtyards with a heavy metal mesh, to keep out birds and bats, so there’s none of the mess we’d seen in Taragarh. There are no monkeys, no stink, and none of the neglect that marks Taragarh.
The Chitrashala functioned as the apartments of the royal family, especially the maharani. The exquisiteness of the paintings here is unbelievable – inside one colonnade, for instance, we found a floor of polished white marble. Above that, everything was painted. The deep crimson dadoes were painted with floral motifs in white, or with black-and-white scenes of elephant fights. The arched niches, each inset with a mirror, held intricate paintings from Hindu scriptures. The arches themselves were covered in a pattern of flowers on a blue background. The pillars supporting the arches were painted with pictures of maharanis – drinking wine, being entertained by dancing girls or singers, playing chaupar, even smoking a hookah! Above the arches, in the curving space joining the wall to the ceiling, were paintings from Bundi’s history: maharajas in ceremonial processions; maharajas going off to battle; maharajas meeting their allies.
The docent pointed out a painting that displays all the characteristics of the Bundi school of art: the rounded chin, the curling tendril of hair curving over the cheek, the eye (which looked, to me, to be shaped rather like a headless fish)!
We came out of the Chitrashala, still dazed by the gorgeousness of the place. This is sheer magic; I’ve never seen such fine work on such a scale. The painting is exceptionally profuse and exceptionally beautiful. I would recommend going to Bundi even if it’s only to see the Chitrashala.
No entry fee is charged for the Chitrashala. If you’re going to be taking videos of the place, you’ll need to pay a fee of Rs 25; still photography is free. Flash photography is forbidden in the Chitrashala.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 19, 2011
Chitrashala (Ummed Mahal)
Attraction | "The Best of Bundi’s 50 Step-wells"
In Delhi, step-wells were known as baolis. In neighbouring Haryana, and further west, in Rajasthan (where water is even more hard to get than in Delhi), they were known as baoris. Baolis or baoris are almost completely unused now – they’ve been replaced by modern piped-water systems. But a lot of them are impressive examples of medieval architecture.
Bundi is known for its many baoris: there are at least fifty of these step-wells in this town, of which nearly half – twenty-one, to be precise – were dug and constructed under the aegis of a single person: the 17th century queen Nathawat, wife of Maharaja Aniruddh Singh of Bundi. Queen Nathawat built Bundi’s largest and most famous baori, the Raniji ki Baori (literally, ‘the queen’s baori’) in AD 1699.
From the outside, Raniji ki Baori doesn’t look too impressive. There are two large chhatris (domed pavilions) at one end, and when you enter at the small barred gate, there’s a patch of pleasant enough lawn. "What next?" we asked each other, and were beginning to read the signboards – one in Hindi, the other in English, both explaining the history of the baori, Nathawat and her husband – when the caretaker emerged. Raniji ki Baori is a protected monument under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Survey of India (the ASI). They don’t charge an entry fee (even cameras are allowed, free of charge – photography is permitted), but you do need to write down your name and address in a register that they maintain.
Having entered our names in the register, we were told to go on in. "But bolt the door shut behind you," said the caretaker. "Otherwise pigeons fly in."
As at the Chitrashala, here too the ASI have laid heavy metal mesh across the top of the open baori, in an attempt to keep birds, leaves, and other messy stuff at bay. To some extent, it’s worked: the Raniji ki Baori is certainly a whole lot cleaner than a lot of the other step-wells I’ve seen. It does have more than its fair share of bats, however, especially at the far end of the baori – the area furthest from the gate. Unless you walk that far, you won’t have them hanging above you or swooping around your face, but you can smell them, and the stink gets worse the closer you venture. We confined ourselves to the area around the entrance, which is actually the best part of the baori anyway.
I’ve seen a fair number of baoris, mainly in Delhi but also in other parts of Rajasthan. The Raniji ki Baori, I can say with absolute certainty, is the most ornate one I’ve ever seen. The paved platform just inside the gate is roofed (an unusual feature – most baoris don’t have roofs). The roof is supported by very tall carved stone pillars of the type known as ‘torans’: the top of each pillar has beautiful curving supports on either side that connect, snake-like, to the roof. The capitals of the pillars here also have lovely carving, with small elephants predominating.
Beyond the toran pillars begin the broad rows of steps that lead down to the water of the baori. At either end of the steps, on the left and on the right, are the outer walls of the baori, with a ledge and parapet projecting inward, forming a walkway all around the inside of the baori. In most step-wells, the walls are either left blank, or shallow cells – to function as shelters for passersby – are made. In Raniji ki Baori, the walls are decorated with large carved stone panels, depicting scenes from mythology. We didn’t go all the way to the back of the baori (those bats!), but what we saw in the front half consisted mainly of well-preserved friezes of deities from the Hindu pantheon: Vishnu in his avatar as the boar, Varah; as the half-man, half-lion Narsimha; in his avatar as the fish, Matsya.
This is a baori worth seeing, and certainly a sight you mustn’t miss if you’re in Bundi. Wrap a scarf around your face if you can’t bear the merest whiff of bat poo, and you should be fine.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on September 19, 2011
Raniji ki Baori
Attraction | "The 84-Pillared Cenotaph"
One of Bundi’s prettiest sights is a chhatri. This one is known as the Chaurasi Khambon ki Chhatri, literally the ‘chhatri of eighty-four pillars’. The chhatri was built by the maharaja of Bundi, Aniruddh Singh, in 1683, in memory of his foster brother. The pavilion stands atop a somewhat pyramidal platform, topped by a large dome that’s surrounded by smaller domes, all of them crowned by tapering finials. We spent a few minutes admiring the beautiful carving on the stone panels on either side of the staircase: there are some fabulous friezes here of caparisoned elephants, horses and cattle. Up the stairs, and we discovered that the main open ‘hall’ of the chhatri (it consists of over fifty pillars) is actually a temple to the Hindu deity Shiva, the ‘Destroyer’ in the Hindu trinity. A massive stone shivling and yoni, the traditional symbols of Shiva and his consort Shakti, stands in the middle, below a circular ceiling.
The pillars around have beautifully carved capitals, with dainty curving supports linking each pillar to the ceiling. The ceiling itself is decorated with paintings of celestial creatures, gods and goddesses, fish, lotuses, and whatnot – in crimson, sage green, white and black. If you’ve seen the Chitrashala (also in Bundi), this might come as a surprise, because it looks so very different from the type of painting you see at the Chitrashala. Different, but still superb. On the walls are more paintings, but these (because they’re more easily accessible) have been vandalised – we saw one of Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning (she traditionally sits on a swan and holds a stringed musical instrument – a veena), on which somebody appeared to have been practising their letters.
Since the Chaurasi Khambon ki Chhatri is technically still a temple and not a memorial, it’s considered sacred space, so you’re obliged to take off all footwear at the top of the stairs. While the first floor – with its pretty ceiling, and the shivling – is fairly clean, we found that the short staircase leading up to the much smaller second floor was grimy, smelt of bats, and had rubbish strewn over it. We’d probably have climbed up the stairs if we’d been wearing shoes. Barefoot, we just didn’t have the courage to put our toes in that muck. It probably does offer a decent view of this part of Bundi, though.
The Chaurasi Khambon ki Chhatri is officially a protected monument, but there’s no entry fee and charge for a camera. Photography is allowed.
Chaurasi Khambon ki Chhatri
Restaurant | "Disappointing Food, But a Great View"
We’d been dining in at Hadoti Palace (where we were staying) and after the mundane, too-greasy, too-spicy food we’d been subjected to there, we were looking forward to a change. So when I spotted a sign advertising the "Best wood-fired oven pizzas in Town", we fell for it. The place with the best wood-fired oven pizzas in Bundi is well signposted, if nothing else. It lies inside Haveli Kasera Paradise, one of the many little ‘guest houses’ and ‘heritage hotels’ that dot the area just before the entrance to the fort. All you have to do is keep your eyes open as you go along the main street: you’ll see the sign just a couple of minutes’ walk before you reach the fort gates. From there, follow the signboards of Kasera Paradise until you get there.
Out of the Blue is right at the top of the hotel – up four floors of stairs. The stairs smelt of bats, and were dark – the latter perhaps because Kasera Paradise was in the grip of a power failure. We made our way out onto the roofed terrace, where the rooftop Out of the Blue is located. There are pillars all round; house plants; and raffia blinds that roll down to keep off the sun or the rain. They were rolled up when we arrived, because the weather was clear, and at least one got some cross-ventilation that way. Out of the Blue obviously doesn’t have any backup for power failures; so we sweltered through our meal, telling ourselves that we couldn’t go down all those many stairs again and try and find another place to eat.
Out of the Blue looks rather shoddy. The chairs are old and worn and mismatched (some are cane, some are upholstered in grimy red weave, some have grey faux leather covers). The décor is not something anyone seems to have planned. The only thing vaguely attractive are the electric blue tablecloths – that, and the wonderful view of the old town, the Nawal Sagar artificial lake, and the hills beyond.
The menu is very extensive, and a hotchpotch of Indian, Italian, Lebanese and Mexican food, with some sandwiches and a lot of desserts. None of it is fancy. After much thought, we decided on a Pizza Out of the Blue – their own signature pizza, with a topping of tomato, garlic, cheese, broccoli, asparagus and garlic mushrooms. They have a fair number of non-vegetarian dishes (including pizzas) too, but considering the building didn’t have any electricity – and who knew since when? – we didn’t want to risk eating any meat.
Our pizza arrived after about 15 or 20 minutes, along with the Cokes we’d ordered. The crust was good and thin, and the topping tasted all right, but the vegetables were, texturally and as far as quantity went, a disaster. The asparagus seemed to have vanished into the blue – we couldn’t find a single piece of that (or had it all been cooked into a mush?). The broccoli looked about a week old, and the mushrooms seemed to consist of about 4 button mushrooms distributed across one 9" pizza.
We were feeling a bit hungry even after the pizza, so we opted for dessert. Tarun ordered ‘lemon and sugar pancakes’ (which were simple but nice – plain crêpes, served sprinkled with castor sugar and lime juice). I ordered banana pancakes, and these were disappointing. They were crêpes, cooked and folded over, allowed to cool on the plate, and with some sliced banana added on top (a few slices had been wedged between the folds of the pancake too). Unimaginative and boring!
The only thing I’d say for Out of the Blue is that it didn’t cost us much: Rs 370 (which included a Rs 20 tip). The staff was lax and unwelcoming, and looked bored stiff. The food was average (I was going to write ‘worse than average’ but I guess in a remote place like Bundi, this wasn’t the pits). The place looked rundown. Would I go back? No. Decidedly no.
Out of the Blue
Hotel Kasera Paradise
New Delhi, India