The Sheesh Mahals of Rajasthan

By Shona Adhikari

Explore the majestic folk art of Rajasthan in the form of intricate mirror-work structures of the Sheesh Mahals

Mirror-work has traditionally played an important role in decor of all kinds and Rajasthan and Gujarat can be credited with introducing the world to innovative methods of using mirrors. 

The urge for decoration permeates all facets of life in Rajasthan and Gujarat and it was initially used to decorate homes. In fact, the mirror was first used as an embellishment on the exterior walls; embedded in mud walls these mirrors were usually small and circular in shape and the patterns in white chalk white around them made huts very attractive. 

This type of work can still be seen in remote villages in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Mirrors as wall décor was probably introduced by traders, arriving over land and sea from Europe and Persia.

The use of mirrors in garments is now universally known, and designers of high fashion garments the world over have been experimenting with mirror work for the past decade. 

However, the intricate mirror work used in decorating walls, such as the hall of mirrors or “Sheesh Mahal” at the Amber Fort in Jaipur, is less widely known. Awed by the ornate palaces in Rajasthan, I have often marveled at the mirror work that one sees covering the walls of palaces. These ‘Sheesh Mahals’ are seen at most of the famous palaces and havelis in Rajasthan. Some of the finest examples of this work can be seen on the ceilings, walls and columns of the palace at Samode, the Diwan-e-khas at Amber, the City Palace and Lake Palace at Udaipur, the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur and the Junagarh Fort at Bikaner.

Traditionally, mirror work and “panni” work – which is the use of colored foil to fill in or outline the designs – were used together. The foil helps in giving each pattern a clear and well-defined outline, and highlights the visual impact of the overall design. Stained glass windows in primary colors set in geometrical designs, in conjunction with mirror and panni work has been used extensively in the

interiors of 15th century forts, palaces and havelis of Rajasthan.

The use of myriad mirrors began with the decoration and embellishment of temples. Mirror-workers involved in this craft for 6 generations say that the purpose of multiple mirrors was to create endless images of the deities – showing that God was omnipresent. 

To the commoner, the Maharaja was also considered if not at the level of God, but certainly as an exalted being whose royal visage deserved to be enhanced!

It is also likely that this folk art, seen and appreciated by the feudal lords of Rajasthan, who decided to decorate their palaces with a more highly developed and sophisticated version. In this, the rajas and maharajas found that walls covered in mirror work multiplied the images of lamps – making the room brighter. 

Vanity also played a large part in this, as the personage of the Maharaja was also multiplied! Hence throne rooms, halls of private and public audience and other special areas were heavily decorated with mirror work, interspersed with moulded gilding and panni work.

Needless to say, the royal harems were also mirror bedecked, so that the monarch would be able to see multiple images of his favorite queen. It is said that the use of large mirrors on garments by the nomadic Rabari tribe of Rajasthan also had its origin in the fact that the male wished to be reflected in the garments of his beloved!

As expected in specialized creativity, mirror work is a highly intricate process that requires great skills learnt from a young age. The craftsmen who are involved in this work are usually descendants of families who have been in this trade for generations. In addition to skill, a great deal of patience and perseverance is required, since a craftsman can only complete a tiny portion of the work in a day.

The mirrors used in this type of work may be plain or colored, and traditionally these were made in Faizabad and Ahmedabad.

This decorative work was used extensively on furniture, beds, stools and baby cribs or “jhulas” – and in days gone by, was perhaps a comparatively inexpensive style of ornamentation.

This is an elaborate and time-consuming art requiring great skill and precision. Combined with the expense involved, and changing styles, it has naturally resulted in considerable loss of patronage. Today there are only about a handful of craftsmen in Rajasthan who can do this work. For the few existing mirror – workers, their livelihood depends on the urban use of their craft. They normally live in groups, and whole families may work together, so that progress is faster.

Shona Adhikari is a lifestyle and travel columnist.

Image courtesy of thesatimes | Welcome to The South Asian Times

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