The City of Kotah is situated on the right bank of the Chambal River at the centre of south-eastern Rajasthan in a region known as Hadauti, or the Land of the Hadas. The Hadas are a major branch of the great Chauhan clan of Agnikula Rajputs to which Kotah’s ruling lineage belongs. Thanks to the ample waters of the Chambal — the region’s only perennial, monsoon-fed river — and several of her tributaries, Hadauti is a verdant and fertile region (often known as the ‘Emerald of Rajasthan’) whose rich soils have long sustained intensive agriculture. Hadauti has also benefited from an abundance of natural resources in minerals, stone, and forest products. Historically these diverse resources further enabled the region to develop a strong manufacturing base particularly in textile production, stone masonry, wood working, and metallurgy.
Hadauti’s natural endowments — combined with its geographical position as a major ‘gateway’ between Delhi, on the one hand, and Malwa and Gujarat, on the other — made the region a fiercely contested geo-political prize. The history of the region is thus one of numerous military campaigns, battles, and sieges that, more often than not, involved the great north Indian Imperial powers, be they the Mughal Empire, the Marathas, or the Honourable East India Company. Out of interest for both self-preservation and opportunity, the rulers of Kotah served these Imperial powers down the centuries.
This Imperial service, significantly, often took Kotah’s rulers far away from Hadauti for long periods of time. Rao Madho Singh (r. 1624/31–1648 C.E.) for instance, served the Mughal Emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan as far afield as Afghanistan, where he campaigned against Uzbeks in Balkh, and the Deccan, where he was the Mughal Governor of Burhanpur. Many of Kotah’s later rulers –– including Rao Jagat Singh (r. 1658–1682 C.E.), Rao Ram Singh (r. 1696–1707 C.E.), and Maharao Bhim Singh I (r. 1707–1720 C.E.) –– followed their dynastic progenitor in campaigning for the Mughals in the Deccan.
An important legacy of this Deccani service was that the rulers of Kotah brought both craftsmen and aesthetic sensibilities from that region back to their homeland. The Museum’s collection of miniature paintings, for instance, contains many fine works that show the lively calligraphic style and sophisticated courtly refinement so characteristic of Deccani painting. Deccani influences are also witnessed in the famous Kotah Doria handloom textiles, which are produced to this day in the village of Kethun just outside of Kotah City. The airy, gossamer weave of silk and cotton threads is still known locally as Kotah Masauria in nominal recognition of its origins in Mysore.
In addition to culturally enriching Kotah, Imperial service in India’s far-flung regions enabled Kotah's rulers to expand the Kingdom’s frontiers more locally. Throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries, Kotah's local history chronicles near continuous expansion at the expense of neighboring kingdoms often with the direct or tacit support of the Imperial power. The high-water mark in this expansion occurred during the reign of Maharao Bhim Singh I, when Kotah’s writ extended over almost all of Hadauti, including briefly Kotah’s parent kingdom of Bundi, and significant swathes of Malwa. After Bhim Singh’s untimely death, the Kingdom contracted for a period of time. However, by the end of the 18th century, when Kotah was under the regency of its skilled Prime Minister Jhala Zalim Singh, Kotah had once again expanded to control territories formerly under the authority of Jaipur (the Kotriat Thikanas), Mewar (parganas Itoda and Jahazpur), and the Marathas (the Chaumahala and the Satmahala).
There was often an exceptionally high price to be paid for this Imperial service. A sobering number of Kotah’s rulers and their close kinsmen died in battle while supporting (or, on occasion, opposing) Imperial causes. The most famous instance of this occurred in 1658 C.E. when Kotah’s second ruler — Rao Mukund Singh (r. 1648–1658 C.E.) — and three of his younger brothers were killed at the same Battle of Dharmat while defending the cause of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan against his rebellious son Aurangzeb. Not quite half a century later in 1707 C.E., Rao Ram Singh of Kotah was cut down by cannonball at the Battle of Jajav in another internecine Mughal battle of succession. Just 13 years after that catastrophe, Ram Singh’s successor — Maharao Bhim Singh I — likewise fell in the Battle of Pandhar on the banks of the Narmada River while supporting the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah against a rebellion by Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah I, the first Nizam of Hyderabad. Finally, as late as 1821 C.E., Prithvi Singh — younger brother of Maharao Kishor Singh (r. 1819-1827 C.E.) — died at the Battle of Mangrol against the combined forces of Rajrana Jhala Zalim Singh and the East India Company.
Despite this turbulent history (or perhaps because of it) Kotah remained a seat of artistic and architectural refinement, profound religious and philosophical speculation, and cutting-edge scientific learning. The Rao Madho Singh Fort Museum and its collections are in themselves testament to the artistic creativity that has flourished in Kotah over the centuries.
Similarly, from the early 18th century, Kotah became a major centre of pilgrimage, deep religious devotion, and lively philosophical debate for the Krishnaite sect of the Vallabha Sampradaya (also known as the Pushtimarg). The Sampradaya’s second most important temple housing the deity Shri Mathureshji was established near the Patan Pol gate in Kotah in 1738 C.E., two decades after Maharao Bhim Singh I adopted the Vallabhite deity Shri Brijnathji (housed in a temple immediately adjacent to the Museum) as his tutelary deity. Ever since the inception of this close association between Kotah’s ruling line and the Vallabha Sampradaya, Kotah has produced numerous hagiographical texts, philosophical treatises, and devotional manuals on Krishna worship and has been witness to many important debates on the form of pure non-dualism (shuddhadvaita) that informs this sect’s beliefs and practices.
In areas of more technical and scientific endeavor, Kotah became especially well known for its sophistication in metallurgy and the astral sciences. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Kotah was famed across India for its gun foundries which produced some of the best ordnance in the subcontinent, including the magnificently over-sized Jwala Top that currently stands sentinel outside the City’s walls on the shores of Kishor Sagar. Knowledge gained in the forging of powerful cannons also inspired more peaceful endeavors including the production of temple deities (murtis) made from highly prized alloys of mixed precious metals.
Kotah likewise became an important centre for the astral sciences. This expertise is witnessed in the Museum’s wonderfully puzzling armillary sphere, or gola yantra (on display in the Raj Mahal Chowk), whose nested, independently rotating, concentric rings served as a type of calculator for determining the exact divisions of the zodiac’s constellations, correcting for Kotah’s longitude and latitude. A similar testament to the Kingdom’s enduring commitment to expanding scientific knowledge is the Jantar Burj (located just outside the Museum in the Jaleb Chowk), whose long stairway to the top of the tower doubled as a gnomon for making exceptionally precise temporal measurements.
These past cultural and intellectual achievements have left a lasting legacy in contemporary Kota. Today, the thriving handloom industry producing Kotah Doria textiles (now protected with a Geographical Indication by the Government of India) is used by high-end fashion designers in Mumbai, Delhi, and beyond. Similarly, Kota remains a major centre of stone masonry and stone carving, and ‘Kota Stone’ is exported the world over. And of course, the city is now well-known for its excellent coaching institutes, which have an unmatched record in successfully preparing students from across India for the exacting IIT entrance exams, earning Kota the moniker of ‘Education City, India’.