Kotah is world-famous for its school of miniature painting that flourished from the mid-17th through late-19th centuries. The Kotah atelier worked in many genres, but the subject matter for which it is most well known is the exuberantly energetic, densely detailed shikar (hunting) scenes that depict Kotah’s rulers and courtiers hunting lions, tigers, rhinoceros, wild boar, and antelope in the Kingdom’s thick jungle reserves. These paintings often evoke an uncanny spirit of magical realism that prefigures modern Western sensibilities in this regard by several hundred years. The Museum’s collections also contain devotional paintings showing Kotah’s rulers engaged in the worship of personal and tutelary deities as well as portraiture and depictions of religious festivals and historic events. Amongst the most unusual of Kotah’s historical narrative paintings is a unique group of very large format miniature paintings, one of which celebrates the visit in 1842 C.E. of Maharao Ram Singh to the Red Fort in Delhi. This painting, which measures two-and-a-half by four-and-a-half meters, has been dubbed somewhat paradoxically, ‘the largest miniature painting in the world’ and, importantly, records in meticulous detail how the Red Fort and surrounding city appeared before their near-complete destruction during the Insurrection of 1857/58 C.E.
The Museum is home to a dazzling collection of silver and silver-gilt thrones, palanquins and elephant howdahs as well as the royal regalia that previously accompanied the rulers of Kotah whenever they appeared in public on ceremonial occasions. This regalia includes golden standards bearing royal motifs, elaborately decorated ceremonial maces, yak-tail fly whisks, and massive kettle drums used to announce the presence of Kotah’s Raos and Maharaos. Surely the highlight of this collection is the famous copper-gilt mahi-o-maratib, or ‘fish and dignities’ standard, which was presented by Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah to Maharao Bhim Singh I shortly before his death in 1720 C.E. This Mughal standard was reserved for members of the Imperial household and a small number of the highest ranking courtiers in the Mughal Empire and is the single most important Mughal honour enjoyed by the Maharaos of Kotah.
The Museum’s particularly fine collection of arms and armour includes among its treasures a sword belonging to Prithvi Raj Chauhan –– the last Hindu Emperor of Delhi and ancestor of the Kotah ruling dynasty. There is also a rare 18th–century, full suit of armour for horse and rider, numerous swords and daggers that are decorated in low relief with elephants and hunting scenes, and collections of spears, maces, and other ingeniously lethal weapons. Perhaps the greatest strength of this collection, however, is found in the exceptionally rich display of superbly ornamented, 18th–century matchlock rifles of the same type depicted in Kotah’s shikar paintings. These matchlocks are beautifully worked in damascened steel and decorated with low-relief, gilt representations of the Devi, wild animals, mythical beasts, and floral designs.
Kotah was long home to thriving religious and scholarly communities where religious devotion and scientific inquiry often coexisted in close symbiosis. The productive synergy which was forged between religion and science can be witnessed in the Museum’s unusual collection of astral instruments which were used to make astrological calculations based on exceptionally accurate empirical observations, which themselves required sophisticated scientific understandings of the natural world. For example, many astrological calculations required being able to keep time to a very precise degree and a number of instruments were developed in Kotah to enable this accuracy. One such instrument is the Museum’s deceptively simple but very precise water clock (jal ghati yantra) that measures a 24-minute long interval known as a ghati. Unlike the European system of dividing the solar day into 24 hours of 60 minutes each, the traditional Indian day was divided into 60 ghatis of 24 minutes each. The Museum’s ghati-yantra measures the passage of time based on the inflow of water through a small hole in the bottom of bowl which floats (at least initially) in a larger container of water. As the bowl slowly fills with water it marks the passage of time with full submersion occurring after 24 minutes. Significantly, the person who manufactured this instrument had a sophisticated knowledge of how fluid dynamics are affected by water and atmospheric pressures, insofar as he (or she) understood that with an in-flowing water clock, water flows through the hole at a more consistent rate than with an out-flowing water clock. This knowledge made it possible to make more accurate intermediate temporal calculations during each ghati.
The Museum’s extensive collection of 19th– and early 20th– century photographs depict the life of Kotah’s later Maharaos including their marriages, visits by European royalty and dignitaries, polo matches and tiger hunts, as well as evocative views of the City Palace and surrounding areas as they existed in a bygone era.