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Discovering Rajasthani Wildlife in Miniature Paintings

Studying the Rajasthani Wildlife in Miniature Paintings

You might be aware that traditional Indian art often favours stylisation over realism. However, each stylised element is an interpretation of real life. So where does reality end and fantasy begin? Do the Miniature paintings of Rajasthan display any realistic elements at all? Studying the stylisation of Rajasthani wildlife in Miniature paintings can give us an interesting insight into the historical, cultural, geographical, and social aspects of past civilisations and communities.

This World Animal Day, let’s look at the fauna in the Miniature paintings of Rajasthan, what it was like in the past, and what’s changed.

Rajasthani Wildlife in Miniature Paintings: The Strong-Willed Wild Boar

The Indian boar is distinguished by a mane of hair that extends from its head down to its back. It resembles a mohawk. Wild boars do not have a mane and are scraggly in appearance. Both species have a long history of attacking humans, and the earliest documentation of this phenomenon is found in the cave paintings in Bhimbetka.

Rajasthani Wildlife in Miniature Paintings: The Rare Marwari Horse

This is no ordinary horse- it belongs to the rare Marwari or Malani breed. True to its name, it originates from Marwar, or Jodhpur, in Rajasthan. It is one of several Indian horse breeds that feature a highly unusual and distinctive ear shape. The other ones are the Kathiawari, whose ears cross each other at the top, and the Sindhi, whose ears are curled inward but do not touch each other.

However, we know this is a Marwari, as it is native to the region and was also bred by the Rathore rulers to be used in the cavalry. It is a strong riding horse, and its ears stick straight up and curve inward. It can rotate its ears 180°, which has several perks: superior hearing and protection from sandstorms being some of them.

Rajasthani Wildlife in Miniature Paintings: The Meek Yet Mighty Elephant

Rao Surjan’s Elephants, Bhalarao and Anipa, ca. 1720
(image source: Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangralaya)
Fighting Elephants with Mahouts, Kota Miniature, c. 18th-19th century (image source:

The elephant was another animal that was used in cavalry. They are fiercely loyal and intelligent, which made them popular among the royals. Elephant fights were a popular sport and pastime. The gentle creature would turn into a fearsome beast during battle, which fascinated kings and artists alike.

Rajasthani Wildlife in Miniature Paintings: The Camel

Maharaja Takhat Singh on a Hunt with Royal Women, c. 1853 (image source: The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from the collection of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust)

Rajasthan is filled with vast expanses of desert terrain, and that’s where camels live! Rajasthan is home to the one-humped dromedary camel. They thrive in hot climes and are extremely sturdy and temperamental animals.

Unfortunately, they are now an endangered species, and the Rajasthan government has taken steps to safeguard them by passing laws like the Rajasthan Camel Bill, making camel slaughter illegal, and also declaring them as the state animal.

Rajasthani Wildlife in Miniature Paintings: The Docile Deer

The deer or fawn is most popularly associated with the Todi Ragini- a forlorn maiden with a veena and two deer following her. We see deer in both indoor and outdoor scenes. Their gentle and docile nature adds delicateness and romanticism to Miniature paintings.

Rajasthani Miniature artists usually paint the Black Buck and the Chinkara together in the Todi Ragini. The Nilgai is the only other deer species native to Rajasthan but is not depicted as often.

Rajasthani Wildlife in Miniature Paintings: The Mischievous Monkeys

Ragini Kakubha, Mewar Miniature, ca. 1635 (image source: Victoria and Albert Museum)
Ladies Shooting from a Pavilion, Kota Miniature, 19th century (image course: Cleveland Museum of Art)

The Rhesus Macaque and the Grey Langurs are the two main species of monkeys in Rajasthan. Grey langurs are also called Hanuman langurs. They have a black face and long tails and are found mostly in Amber. The Rhesus macaque is the most common monkey species in India. They are usually brown or grey in colour. They are extremely social animals and have evolved to inhabit the urban areas of Rajasthan as well.

Grey langurs are a bit more subdued and prefer to live in dense jungles and protected forest regions. Although urbanisation has led to a loss of their natural habitat, both species are not under threat as of now.

Rajasthani Wildlife in Miniature Paintings: Rhinocerous

The Indian rhinoceros was once found everywhere in India, but due to poaching and hunting, it is now an endangered species. While most of the rhino population is in Assam, the Rajasthan State Forest Department has plans to convert a part of Keoladeo National Park into a zoo and house wetland species like water buffalos, rhinos, crocodiles, and other exotic animals.

Rajasthani Wildlife in Miniature Paintings: The Tenacious Tiger

Maharao Shatru Sal II (1866–89) Hunting a Tiger, Kota Miniature, ca. 1866–89 (image source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Maharao Umed Singh of Kota hunting at night, Kota Miniature, ca. 1790 (image source: The British Museum)

The tiger is truly a magnificent beast. Once found in every jungle, excessive hunting has significantly reduced their numbers. India is home to almost 70% of the global tiger population. Tigers are an endangered species, and several conservation attempts are underway.  Their numbers have been increasing slowly but steadily. The number of tigers in India was 3,167 in 2022.

Rajasthani Wildlife in Miniature Paintings: The Lion

Unlike tigers, lions don’t live in dense jungles but prefer vast and empty fields. The Maharaos of Kota regularly conducted lion hunts, and several paintings document this as well. The Bundi motif of a lion climbing a tree was later adopted into Kota paintings.

Rajasthani Wildlife in Miniature Paintings: The Leopard

Jyeshta Barahmasa Jaipur 1800 (circa) (image source: The British Museum)

Did you spot the leopard in the bottom right? Leopards are able to camouflage themselves quite easily and are quite difficult to spot in real life.

They are unfortunately listed as endangered species under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. The Indian leopard is the only leopard sub-species that lives in Rajasthan. In 2017, Rajasthan became the first Indian state to launch a project for the conservation of leopards. 

Rajasthani Wildlife in Miniature Paintings: Cats

Two ladies, a cat and a parrot, Kota-Bundi style, 1750-1800 (image source: The British Museum)

Small and medium cats are a rare sight in Rajasthani Miniatures. Perhaps the animal preferred to roam the wild rather than live a domesticated life. Or artists felt no need to include them in compositions. While domesticated and stray cats are found all over Rajasthan, there has been a sharp decrease in the number of fishing cats, caracals, and jungle cats.

Rajasthani Wildlife in Miniature Paintings: Snakes

The snakes in this picture are none other than the Indian cobra. They have a flat head with a large hood that they expand when they feel threatened. Indian cobras are medium sized, venomous, and also called spectacled cobras due to the distinct markings on the back of their hood. Not all cobras have this mark, but most do.

Rare albino Indian Cobra (image source:

Rajasthan is home to several different types of snakes, but the cobra is the most well-known, and also one of the most deadly. They can have several different colours and patterns, and Miniature artists painted them realistically in brown, black, and light brown. However, the preferred way to depict the Indian cobra was to draw them pitch black with minimal white patterns and a white striped underside.

Rajasthani Wildlife in Miniature Paintings: The Domesticated Dog

Dogs were often a part of hunting parties and would lead the way. They were not just guides; they actively participated in hunting as well. While the fierce and loyal hunting dog makes several appearances in Rajasthani Miniatures, the domesticated pet dof seldom does. Even if the common people kept dogs as pets, it would not reflect in many paintings as artists primarily painted for patronage and so preferred painting about the habits of royalty and aristocrats.

Rajasthani Wildlife in Miniature Paintings: Cows

Krishna lifts Mount Govardhan, Ustad Sahibdin, Bikaner, c. 1690 (image source: The British Museum)

Cows aren’t just seen in Pichwai paintings. These docile animals are found almost everywhere, and Rajasthan is no exception. They are considered holy in Hinduism. They would roam freely across the countryside, which is why they are an integral part of the composition of Vrindavan.

Rajasthani Wildlife in Miniature Paintings: The Hardy Hare

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The difference between a hare and a rabbit (image source:

What appears to be a rabbit at first glance is actually a hare! It’s easy to tell the two apart, as rabbits have shorter fore and hind legs, are fluffier, and have much smaller ears. A hare would have an easier time braving harsh terrain, and rabbits aren’t native to Rajasthan anyway. The Indian hare (Lepus nigricollis) lives mostly in desert regions.

Conserving Wildlife and its Connection With Art

Urbanisation, poaching, and relentless hunting by previous generations have significantly damaged Rajasthan’s biodiversity. Not just animals; even bird life has been affected. The state government has been taking several measures to protect endangered animals and increase their numbers. What we can observe above everything else is that the artists of the past lived close to the natural environment and in harmony with it. They did not have to venture out to national parks and sanctuaries to see rhinos, cows, deer, etc. They could thus carefully observe these animals and represent them in a natural way.

The varied wildlife in Rajasthan and the rest of the country is rich and unique. Let’s do our best to conserve it, so these animals won’t exist solely in pictures or paintings but in real life.

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By Melissa D’Mello

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