The kingdom of Mewar has a long and complicated history with origins rooted in myth, combining legend and fact into an amalgam of information that obscures both. The founding of Mewar starts with Rama’s rule in Ayodhya – a descendent of his son, Lava, named Kanaksen departed and established the kingdom of Valabhi, where the next 19 generations ruled. Out of this lineage sprang the Guhila dynasty, founded by Guhadatta (also called Guhila) who settled in the Mewar region in the 6th century, obtaining fealty from the Bhil people who populated the area to create a sovereign kingdom. Mewari rulers had a particular affinity for commissioning the Ramayana because these Rajputs believed that they were direct descendants of Rama, as well as the son god Surya.
There are multiple variations of the founding narrative of Mewar, all made relatively unclear through widespread bardic legends, but they generally involve the Guhila dynasty in some way. The Guhilas ruled from the capital of Chittor for centuries, until it was besieged and taken by Ala’ ud-Din Khalji, a Tughlaq Sultan in 1303. The warriors were killed in battle by choosing to fight to the death rather than admit defeat, and the women performed jauhar (self immolation) to avoid becoming captives.
It was at this time that a separate branch of the Guhila dynasty rose to power – with the defeat of their capital, the Sisodia clan became the dominant lineage. Sisodian ruler Hamir Singh reclaimed Chittor in 1337, and the kingdom prospered over the next two centuries. Their military was strong enough to hold off the surrounding kingdoms and expand their territory outward, while developing an economy, erecting numerous buildings, and fostering an artistic style. Mewar began its decline in power and affluence with the immersion of the Mughal Empire, Babur’s successful campaign against Khanua in 1527 initiating the Rajput domain’s eventual deterioration. Chittor was lost to the Mughals 40 years later when Akbar lead a siege against the city, forcing then-Rana Udai Singh to move the capital to Udaipur. By this time, the true Mewar painting school began evolving into its own characteristic style, with Udaipur serving as a strong center for creation.
From then on, the Mughals relentlessly attacked Mewar, causing great loss for the citizens of the nation and making it nearly impossible for the Ranas to rule effectively. In 1615, Maharana Amar Singh surrendered to Emperor Jahangir in order to save his kingdom, officially admitting that the nation was just a shadow of its former glory. The terms of surrender, however, were preferable to those given to other Rajput leaders that had come under Mughal rule in the last century – Amar Singh’s son Karan Singh was allowed to appear in court on his behalf, and their princesses were not required to be offered to the Mughal harem. It was during this time that Mewari artists were exposed to the Mughal painting tradition, integrating the advanced style into their own over the next two rulers’ reigns.
Karan Singh (r. 1620 – 1628) went to the Mughal court and saw many of their paintings, likely receiving some as gifts that were assumed into the royal Mewar collection. Commissions under Karan and his son Jagat Singh (r. 1628–1652, also spent time at the Mughal court) were likely instructed to employ Mughal elements and follow their stylistic guidelines, visible in miniatures produced from this time period.
It was not until the reign of Bhim Singh, the 25th Maharana of Mewar, that the kingdom submitted to the British forces that had been subduing the Indian subcontinent in their colonial quest for supremacy. Bhim Singh took the throne when he was just 10 years old, and his rule was characterized by strife and uncertainty, continuously having to fend off raids from Maratha warriors. In 1810, the Rana signed a treaty with the British to circumvent ongoing attacks from neighboring kingdoms and impending bankruptcy. The treaty required that the state of Mewar recognize British sovereignty, forgoing their status as an independent region and leaving the Maharanas to focus on the pleasures of life and serve as figureheads.This alliance lasted until India gained its independence in 1947; the legendary glory of Mewar still upheld by descendants of the ruling class today.