Growing up down the road from Dehradun’s oldest neighbourhood, my childhood afternoons were spent learning to walk and later hopscotching between the sun-warmed steps and cool checkerboard floors at the gurudwara of Baba Ram Rai. This 17th-century religious complex of Guru Ram Rai Darbar Sahib – nicknamed Jhandeji after the flag hoisted in its courtyard every year – continues to be the beating heart of the city centuries after it was built.

One of the gurudwara’s most striking features is the profusion of wall paintings decorating the buildings and gates, some of them dating back to its very inception. When I was younger, they fascinated me, even in their neglected state. In his book Early Wall Painting of Garhwal, art historian BP Kamboj validates my wonder and emphasises the importance of this site: “...the wall paintings of Darbar Guru [Ram] Rai in Dehradun…are the richest treasure of murals in the whole region and the only specimen of the earlier mural tradition of Garhwal.” Through about 500 paintings of Sikh gurus, Puranic myths, community leaders and ordinary citizens, the walls of Guru Ram Rai Darbar Sahib serve as a public index – of political shifts, artistic currents, and, through them all, Dehradun’s local history – across 350 years.

Founded in the early Modern period, Dehradun’s beginnings lie in the spread of a dissident Sikh sect and the political manoeuvres of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. Ram Rai, the son of the seventh Sikh Guru Har Rai, was disbarred from succeeding his father after he changed the word Musalmān to beimān (dishonest) in a verse from the Guru Granth Sahib to avoid offending Aurangzeb. Subsequently, the Mughal badshah directed Fateh Shah, the ruler of Garhwal, to endow Ram Rai with land in 1675, the same year in which he ordered the beheading of Guru Tegh Bahadur. Eventually, Ram Rai and his followers called Ramraiyas (who were rejected by the Sikh orthodoxy) set up camp, or dera, in the valley, or doon. So goes the story of how Dehradun was established and named. In 1699, twelve years after Ram Rai’s death, the gurudwara was built in its current location, funded through a royal grant provided by Aurangzeb. Kamboj notes: “A stone tablet bearing a Persian inscription…mentions: ‘The learned Monarch honoured the place of the Guru’s death like heaven, and erected a monument to his beloved memory.’”

Jhanda Darwaza bears the bulk of the Darbar Sahib’s paintings.

The Darbar Sahib’s complex, comprising five buildings and gardens, is contained within four walls with gates, each “open[ing] into a rectangular portico provided with cusped arches and minarets”, art historian and archaeologist OC Handa summarises in his book Art and Architecture of Uttarakhand. The main Darbar is arranged in the form of a quincunx, with Ram Rai’s central shrine, based on the design of Jahangir’s tomb, surrounded by the cenotaphs of his four wives at each of the corners. Just outside the Darbar is the residence of the mahant (gurudwara head), built later, and finally the massive main gate facing the bazaar. Kamboj, who undertook possibly the most authoritative study of the Jhandeji murals, contends that their creation spanned the period from the early 1700s to about 1910.

Kamboj detects a shift in the wall paintings’ styles that marked the transitions taking place in the political and aesthetic regimes in the world outside. The early artwork, created during the final years of Aurangzeb’s reign, reveal a glimpse of the great Mughal atelier in its twilight. The murals made during the middle period suggest the influence of the Garhwal school idiom that may have developed as a result of the departure of Mughal court artists in search of other royal patrons. The last phase of paintings, most of which belonged to the last decades of the 19th century, borrows from European artistry and records colonial Dehradun.

Details from the murals on the Jhanda Darwaza.

Figurative artworks

The central shrine of the Darbar was completed in 1706, the year before Aurangzeb died, Handa informs us. He is of the view that “imperial architects and artisans (including painters) were involved in the…designing and execution of the memorial”. Borrowing from the Mughal decorative vocabulary, it is embellished with mainly abstract designs, including ornate patterns and motifs bespeaking marigold, hibiscus, oleander, lotus and water lily flowers. Kamboj attributes the lack of figuration (except for four birds and a fish that, in all likelihood, were added later) to respect for the patron badshah’s orthodox Muslim views, pointing to existing examples of representational Sikh art elsewhere. He writes, “...the designs follow the scheme of mosaic work…following the principle of symmetry and repetition with geometrical precision, in the Mughal palaces, tombs and mosques.”

The first figurative artworks at the Darbar are at its southern gate, named the Bhai Bahlo Darwaza after a masand and confidant of Ram Rai. They include “the oldest wall paintings of the Sikh gurus available in India”, according to Kamboj. In Handa’s opinion, these paintings were made between 1707 and 1710. Kamboj informs us that the eight paintings in the inner portico are of the first seven Sikh gurus and their relatives. He also decodes the two narrative panels flanking the door. The one on the right features Ram Rai sitting with Guru Nanak as he recites hymns accompanied by his disciples Bala and Mardana playing the sarangi and rabab respectively. The left panel shows Guru Angad and Guru Amar Das sitting and facing each other, as though in conversation. Both these murals are based on miniatures in the Darbar’s collection dating to 1685, says writer MS Randhawa in his article Paintings of the Sikh Gurus in the collection of Mahant of Gurudwara Ram Rai, Dehradun (1970). The Mughal influence, particularly in the attire, is obvious to Kamboj in the case of the eight portraits on the underside of the portico’s arches. An interview with a descendent of one of the later artists leads him to posit that the artist who made them was conversant with imperial visual art techniques and possibly accompanied Ram Rai in Delhi as well.

Episodes from the Janam Sakhi hagiographies of Guru Nanak on the verandah of the mahant’s residence.

The cenotaphs of Ram Rai’s four wives, termed the Matas’ Samadhis, were completed between 1780 and 1817, as the inscriptions at their entrances state. The exteriors of only two cenotaphs – of Lal Kaur and Punjab Kaur – are decorated. The murals consist of elaborate and lush iconography comprising dehin (flowers-in-a-vase) patterns, vegetal motifs, mango trees and weeping willows, birds and animals. Despite a gap of nearly three decades between them, the cenotaphs bear similar imagery, which to Kamboj indicates that the painters were probably local.

Mahant’s residence

The mahant’s residence, possibly erected in the early-to-mid 19th century, is made up of two storeys built many years apart and, as a result, decorated with stylistically different artworks. Among the murals on the ground floor Kamboj identifies two types of narratives: episodes from the Janam Sakhi hagiographies of Guru Nanak and characters and stories from Hindu mythology. On the undersurface of an arch are 19 paintings representing Guru Nanak’s journey from birth to sainthood. Kamboj found the images of Puranic deities and lore to be less accomplished and with a more prominent presence of a folk aesthetic compared to the older murals, similar to contemporaneous wall paintings in Dehradun’s havelis from this era.

In the case of the Janam Sakhi series, Kamboj observes the artist’s attempt to keep historical time in these religious tales, as evinced by the late Mughal attire of men of various faiths, and jewellery sported by the women. He sees an acknowledgement of the regional culture, with Garhwali naths and the Shaivite tika visible in some instances. The nath also adorns female figures in the Hindu mythological scenes on view. These paintings reveal the influence of Pahari miniatures, one of their quintessential traits being the three-leaved gold crown worn by deities. Does this mark a move away from the high Mughal tradition towards the Pahari one, specifically the Garhwal school?

The two-storeyed residence of the mahant was built in the early-to-mid 19th century.

Once again, Aurangzeb the austere has a crucial, albeit inadvertent, role to play in the story of Indian art. In the late 1650s, as he and his brother Dara Shikoh battled for the Mughal throne, Suleiman Shikoh escaped his uncle’s wrath to seek refuge in Srinagar, the capital of Garhwal. WH Archer tells us in his book Garhwal Painting (1954) that accompanying him were two painters – a father and son named Sham Das and Har Das – who stayed behind after the doomed prince was returned to Delhi. Thus bloomed the Garhwal school of painting, later developing hints of the styles of Guler and Kangra.

Despite their proximity, it is difficult to draw a definitive connection between the Darbar murals and the Srinagar court. Handa is of the view that king Fateh Shah, who granted Ram Rai land in the first place, was accompanied by his painters during a brief exile in Dehradun in the early 1700s. Commenting on the Bhai Bahlo Darwaza panels from this time, he urges us to “notice…the subtle indigenous Pahari characteristics in the choice of colours and treatment of the background in these frescoes”. Later, when the mahant’s residence was being embellished, Handa claims that a painter travelled to Srinagar and returned with a pupil of the renowned Srinagar court artist Mola Ram. Kamboj acknowledges the deep connections between Sikh religious art and the Himalayan schools, “[h]ence the Pahari link of the Darbar wall paintings seems a natural corollary”. The discontinuous and freelance nature of the wall paintings over many centuries means that it is almost impossible to know who their artists were. Despite this obstacle, Kamboj managed to compile some names: Kallu Mistri, Chandra Bhan, Tulsi Ram Mistri and Dal Chand.

A closer look at the paintings on the walls of the mahant’s residence.

On the walls of the upper storey of the mahant’s residence are 80 “paintings of the Sikh gurus, the mahants and mythological characters and episodes, but we see no set pattern for arranging the panelled space thematically…Officials of the Darbar, even of ordinary rank, are painted side by side with portraits of the mahants”, reports Kamboj, characterising them as more sophisticated than the murals on the ground floor. He draws our attention to the impact of Western art practice on the Darbar painters of this period, precipitated perhaps by exposure to the Company school, based on their look. Visible in these works are tentative attempts at European naturalism in the portraits as well as the incorporation of era-appropriate objects and furniture into the mise-en-scènes. The turn from mythic time, saints and gods and hierarchical composition to contemporary life and placing regular Darbar employees at par with the leaders bespeaks the gradual, if nascent, onset of a modern artistic imagination. In one archway panel framing a window, for example, events from Ram Rai’s mythology embellish the upper section while on the sides are likenesses of Darbar staff.

Mirroring the city

Portraits of individuals, rendered realistically through shading and linear perspective, continue on the main gate or Jhanda Darwaza, where the bulk of the Darbar’s paintings are (383 in total, inconsistent in style and quality). Among the subjects are “persons associated with the Darbar…musicians, British officials and ladies, saints of different sects, sentries, followers of [Ram Rai]...”, Kamboj enumerates, apart from the citizens of Dehradun. One of the most significant of these is a self-portrait of the artist Tulsi Ram, the main designer of the later paintings at the Darbar, above whose image are inscribed the words in Nagri and Urdu: ‘Tulsi Ram Mistri, tasveer banane wala’ (Tulsi Ram Painter, the one who makes pictures). Though self-portraits were by no means a novelty, with Mughal miniaturists often inserting themselves into their works, it was unusual for a muralist to sign his work in such a way. In the 1970s, fifty years after Tulsi Ram’s death, Kamboj tracked down his descendants, who claimed that their family had migrated to Dehradun with Ram Rai from his native Kiratpur. Tulsi Ram is said to have been responsible for the representation of regular residents of the city such as “peon, chaukidar, clerk, attendant, bhandari, kotwal etc.”, making the Jhanda Darwaza a public, ethnographic album of turn-of-the-century Dehradun.

A depiction of the sixth mahant leading a procession for the annual replacement of the Darbar’s jhanda.

Another late 19th century work from the Jhanda Darwaza which gestures to the Darbar’s inadvertent function as a civic chronicle is a four-tier depiction of the sixth mahant leading the procession for the annual replacement of the Darbar’s jhanda. He is shown astride an elephant amidst a crowd, with bazaar shopkeepers looking on from the topmost tier, members of the Darbar carrying the flagpole on the tier below and musicians singing hymns in the last section. A remarkable snapshot of the old town’s community, the painting vivifies the relationship between the Darbar, the bazaar and its people for each of the nearly 150 years that it has persisted through the annual flag-changing ceremony.

For the city’s painted memories to continue to persist, work must be done to restore and preserve them. The current Mahant Devendra Das initiated a preservation project in the 2000s, proceeding in phases, the latest of which is ongoing. Vinay Mohan, Education Officer with the Darbar Sahib, explained, “The main problem is dampness and seepage, which causes the wall paintings to deteriorate.” The project was begun with support from the Ministry of Culture and the expertise of the Archaeological Survey of India. But, at a later date, the Darbar Sahib decided to finance the project itself, contracting independent artists empanelled on the ASI. The reasons for the move could not be confirmed, though as this 2014 report states, not everyone was happy with the results. An ASI officer who was involved in the project in 2011, described the process: “We consulted past photo-documentation and line drawings and worked to reintegrate the parts that needed repair.” One of their recommendations was to take measures such as putting up barriers to prevent the general public from getting direct access to, and thus damaging, the works.

The cenotaph of one of Ram Rai’s four wives.

A lack of direct access, while an excellent safeguard for the fragile art on display, has also been interpreted by the management in ways that arguably diminish the experience of the Darbar Sahib. Private security already surveils visitors’ movements, including the ability to photograph from several feet away, and signs abound, prohibiting visitors from sitting on the steps. This stance, discouraging the public from interacting intimately with the space, is antithetical to the spirit of the gurudwara which has served as the centre of Dehradun’s spiritual, social and recreational life for hundreds of years. Its walls are replete with proof that the story of the Darbar Sahib and the city are inextricably intertwined, whether it’s through the abstract homage to the Mughal who provided the land for it to be settled, or the lifelike representation of the people who kept it settled.

On my way out, I search for the large relief sculpture of part-lion, part-human Narasimha emerging from the Jhanda Darwaza into the bazaar to disembowel the Asura king Hiranyakashyap. It used to terrify me as a child. Now, its incongruous goriness is comical. Narasimha is caged – not to prevent it from visiting its wrath upon impious passers-by but to protect it from them. The facade itself is now safely behind a gate, cordoned off from the street it once presided over.

A sign urges the general public to restrain from touching the works.

All images by Kamayani Sharma.

Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.