Palanquins in art : depictions from India

The word palanquin is derived from the Sanskrit word Palanka meaning couch; and a palanquin is also called palki. A palki is a covered sedan chair on four poles and carried by two four or more men. Referred to as litter, palkis have been in use since ancient times and have been mentioned in the Indian epics like the Ramayana (c 250 B.C). A beautifully decorated covered cart; it sheltered its occupant from the heat and dust, sometimes richly plated with gold and silver, the covering and cushions inside made of fine silk. In ancient times, a chaudol was a palki carried by four persons, its four sides covered with khus, roots of the Indian poppy plant.

The persons  who carry a palanquin are called kahaar. Travelling by palanquin has always been costly and so the emperors,nobles and some travellers have mostly used this mode of conveyance. The dhooly,dhoolie or doli of the Indian bride was a cot suspended by the four corners from a bamboo pole carried by two or four men. Smaller palkis could be open chairs carried by two or more carriers. Spacious ones were mostly used by royalty during ancient times for longer travel and could carry the necessities for the journey. Palkis are still used  but only at ceremonies and in arduous mountain zones.

The palki was well-used in India during Mughal and colonial times. The best palkis were made at Thatta, Sind. (now in Pakistan)


Scene from the Ramayana, Lakshmana and Sugreeva conversing in a palanquin carried by four monkeys, Ink and opaque watercolour on  paper, 1710-25.


Palanquin depiction : Gopuram at Amritaghateswarar-Abirami temple at Thirukkadaiyur, Tamil Nadu. The gopuram depicts legends associated with the temple and is made of mortar. The temple has been in existence since the Chola time of 10th -11th century in South India.

By Portvp (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah on a palanquin being carried by women, painting, 1735, from the collection of Kasturbhai Lalbhai, Ahmedabad.

By Anonymous (scan from book) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Emperor Muhammad Shah with falcon in his garden at sunset in a palanquin, painting,1730,from Metmuseum, New York.

By Chitarman II [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commonsimage002.png

Mughal emperor Aurangzeb on a palanquin, Garhwal painting, watercolour on paper,1775.

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



Palanquin image, engraving by J Shury.

By, CC BY 4.0,


Aquatint with a palanquin by J Wells.

By, CC BY 4.0,


Aquatint of a scene with buildings, people and a palanquin in Calcutta (now Kolkata), published by Francis Jukes in 1795, a part of King George III’s Topographical collection, Based on an original drawing made for James Steuart, who was head of a firm of coach-makers. The premises of his farm is seen here, located behind the Old Court House where they remained from 1783 to 1907.The Old Court House was demolished in 1792 and the Old Court House Street could get a clear view. The roads were not very suitable for coaches and the company made palanquins and elephant harnesses. Most likely Francois Solvyns, the artist from Antwerp who was in Calcutta from 1791 might have made the original drawing as he is known to have painted palanquins for Stueart and Company.

By Francis Jukes –, Public Domain,


 A scene from Srirangapatna during Tipu Sultan’s period in 18th century,palanquin can be seen, painting from Mysore. ‘Dhoolies’ were used to carry the wounded from the battlefileds.

By Jrsanthosh – Own work, Public Domain,


Fateh Raj Singhvi carried in a palanquin by his attendants, Marwar painting,Rajasthan, 1820-40.

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



Wooden palanquin at Mehrangarh Fort Museum, Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

By Gili Chupak (IMG_1738  Uploaded by Ekabhishek) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

One excellent depiction is an empty covered sedan or palki  for the queen, carried by nine men and three other attendants, one holding a sun shade. Built for the Eid festival at end of the holy month of Ramzan. The illustration is a company painting which were paintings produced by Indians mainly for the British working in East India Company. The style incorporated both Indian and western elements. These paintings were usually specially commissioned , though some were mass produced too.


Company painting, gouache on paper, depicting a palki from Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s ceremonial Eid procession, Delhi,1840. 

By Khan, Mazhar Ali (possibly, maker) –, Public Domain,


Bridal doli  during British rule in India.

Thomas Metcalfe, 4th Baronet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sarojini Naidu, poet and freedom fighter (1879 – 1949) from Hyderabad, India has composed a beautiful poem capturing the movement and emotion of  palanquin bearers of a bride in a poem by the same name :

Lightly O lightly we bear her along

she sways like flower in the wind of our song

She skims like a bird on the foam of a stream

She floats like a laugh from the lips of a dream

Gaily o gaily we glide and we sing

We bear her along like a pearl on a string.

Softly O softly we bear her along

She hangs like a star in the dew of our song

She springs like a beam on the brow of the tide

She falls like a tear from the eyes of a bride

Lightly O lightly we glide and we sing

We bear her along like a pearl on a string!


References :

  • Parihar, Subhas/Land transport in Mughal India, New Delhi : Aryan Books International,2008.
  • Archer, Mildred/Company paintings : Indian paintings of the British period, London: Victoria and Albert Museum,1992.

Posted by :

Soma Ghosh


© author

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