Banda Shah’s Temple

Feudalism’s collapse brought a redistribution of wealth and the rise of merchants. This happened during a period of about five hundred years, but at different times in different parts of the world. The Islamic Maghrib perhaps began this transition earliest, but did not develop resource hungry capitalism. Parts at the edges of Europe, on the other hand, evolved into mass-market capitalism by the seventeenth century. By the time the transition happened in the rest of Europe and the world, resources had already been grabbed by the new empires of market capitalism. One can see that seeking markets and capital as a major cause of wars after that. Independent beginnings of other streams of mercantilism can be seen almost everywhere in the world. Bikaner turned out to preserve such a history.

I’d seen seen gushing reviews of Bhandasar (Banda Shah) Jain Temple in various travel web sites. When I tried to locate it on the map, I saw that it was close to several groups of havelis in the town. Rajasthani havelis are mansions built by the new merchant class which arose as the feudal system which supported the Mughal Empire, and its dependent kingdoms, began to collapse. The earliest of these grand havelis date from the early and middle 18th century CE, and their construction continued into the early 20th century. The temple in its present form is likely to be 18th century. The local legend says that it dates from the 12th century could perhaps mean that there was a temple in that locality which dated from earlier. It is not uncommon even now for rich families to build grand structures for pre-existing temples where they worshipped. The external structure of sandstone and marble, with whitewashed masonry bits looked interesting, but not terribly grand. The inside was another thing altogether.

The entrance portico was richly painted, and I paused to take a photo of the ceiling (featured photo). The caretaker opened the door, told me to keep my shoes and bottle of water outside, quickly instructed me that I could take any photo I wanted, that I should not enter the garbhagriha, that I should circle it clockwise, that I could leave an offering of money if I wanted but none was required, and that I had an hour before he had to close up for the afternoon. I stepped on to an abstract geometric mosaic on the floor, looked up, and was flabbergasted at the decorations in the mandapa. Overhead were scenes from the life of an ascetic preacher. There were paintings of walled cities with people in celebration, a desert scrubland much like that outside Bikaner, black buck, chinkara, and camels, skies full of dark blue clouds with bolts of lightning corkscrewing from them, caparisoned elephants, masses of jewelled horsemen, and among them an ascetic preaching. The temple is dedicated to the fifth of the Jain Tirthankars, so I suppose that is him.

Jainism is an ancient religion, contemporary with Buddhism, but unlike its companion religion, had been somewhat marginalized until the rise of Indian mercantilism. In the two millennia before the modern era , it had built for itself an elaborate mythology, including that of the twenty three Tirthankaras which precede the founder, Mahavira. There are few tangible remnants of its early history. The immense monolith in Sravanbelagola from the 10th century is an early Jain monument, but most major Jain temples were built in more recent times. This temple is so organically integrated into its surroundings, that it is clear that it is must have evolved with the rise of the merchants of Bikaner. Sculpture is not its forte, painting is. Every surface was painted. Welcoming couples were painted on to the numerous doors which granted access. This is usually a symbol of openness to all people regardless of gender or belief. I noticed that each human figure was richly jeweled. Was this aspirational, or did it reflect the lifestyle of the Jain merchants when they were first painted?

One corner of the temple was dedicated to music and dance. I saw musicians painted on to doors, playing hand held stringed as well as percussion instruments. Another set of doors had dancers performing something close to the modern garba. The statues in this corner also represented dancers. The learnt from the caretaker that the temple committee commissions restorations of a few sections of paintings at a time, but the process is fairly common. That was one reason that only a few paintings looked faded.

The walls were so full of details that I was lost in them as I traverse the narrow alley around the central garbhagriha. But when I looked up, I noticed that the ceilings were richly decorated too. I wondered whether these delicate shades of blue and green were traditional or require ultramodern chemical technology to achieve. Of course, the 18th century was fairly modern, and a lot of the technology of colours had already been developed by then. There are Portuguese documents from a century earlier which talk the of profusion of artificial colours that they saw in India. Temples are the most conservative organizations in the modern world, so changes would be slow. Nevertheless over three centuries colours could have evolved.

Off in one dark corner was this gem of a door. With the semicircular arch above it, and stained glass insets it was one of a kind. Strangely, it seemed not to be regularly used. The niches in the wall were stacked with account books and loose papers, and a bed roll was piled up near it. What was its purpose? I looked around for the caretaker, but he was busy instructing new arrivals. I noticed that he gave them half an hour. I was sure we had spent more than half an hour inside, so perhaps his times were a little elastic. We thanked him and stepped out into the bright sunlight outside.

Discovering Marianne North

While looking for books on the wildflowers of Kumaon, I came across a mention of Marianne North (b 1830, d 1890). I knew little about her although she is famous enough to have a whole gallery devoted to her paintings at the Kew Gardens. I looked at a few examples, and realized that I’d missed something very special. The Victorian age was a time when the biodiversity of the world was under great scrutiny. Charles Darwin, and Alexander von Humboldt before him, were merely the most famous of explorers. Marianne North became one of them when she journeyed twice across the world, keeping painted records of what she saw.

I don’t have the time now to get a copy of the folio of her paintings of the flowers of Kumaon before I leave on my next holiday, but it is one that I intend to get (this post is a reminder). She lived at a time when botanical illustrations were in high demand, as Europe woke to the riches of flowers from across the world. Many of today’s common garden flowers in the temperate zones of the world are wildflowers of other continents. I will see and taste whole groups of them, rhododendrons, primula, magnolia, gentian, on my travels soon. Taste too, because wildflowers are used for flavouring food in Kumaon. I’m looking forward to it.

Court life

Mehrangarh, the seat of the Rajas of Jodhpur contains a gallery of paintings. The ones on show are largely from the 18th and 19th centuries. They show what life at the court was like during this peaceful period in Jodhpur’s history.

A painting by the renowned Mughal artist Dalchand shows Abhay Singh listening to court musicians. The painting contains a portrait of the king, as well as many details of the court. I can recognize the dholak, but the stringed instruments are different from modern ones. The singers have cymbals in their hands. Notice also the lack of tables to hold food, although the wine is on a table. Although Abhay Singh is supposed to have built the exquisite Phool Mahal, this scene is not set in that room.

This painting of a hunt by royal women was extremely instructive. Some women were not cooped up in purdah, but trained in the arts of riding and the use of weapons. I spent a long time admiring the painting of the deer and of the typical Jodhpur horses. The artist’s name is not recorded, unfortunately.

The painting of Holi at the court of Man Singh is an enormously detailed collaborative work by Rai Singh and Shivdas. I found it interesting to compare the portrait of Man Singh in this painting with that of him playing Polo. Notice that Holi is not played by women. Another interesting thing is the differentiation of the troops on foot: some wear white, others have largely bare bodies.

The painting of Man Singh and one of his queens playing polo with other courtiers is by Shivdas. I liked the beautiful geometry of the polo sticks around the puck. The portraits of the king and queen are also executed extremely well. Notice again the Jodhpur horses.

These two portraits of courtiers by unknown artists are separated by three quarters of a century, but shows a nice continuity of cultural style. The courtiers ride with attendants carrying a staff, a whisk, and a hookah. The style of the hookah also remains unchanged. There is little change in the style of saddle cloths too.

I’m sure there are many more paintings with the Mehrangarh trust. I hope they get a curator to put together a larger display at some point. It would be lovely to see such an exhibition. I’m especially looking forward to seeing the very rare paintings which show the life of less exalted people at the court.

The Exquisite Punakha Dzong

If there is only one Dzong that you have time to visit when in Bhutan, there is no question that it should be Punakha. The wonderful location at the confluence of the Po Chhu (Papa river) and Mo Chhu (Mama river), the beautiful Jacaranda and Magnolia trees surrounding it, the exquisite woodwork and paintings (featured photo), and its renowned history, make this undisputedly the most beautiful Dzong in Bhutan. Don’t take my word for it. The present King was married in this Dzong, and all the kings have been crowned here.

Mural in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

The Punakha Dzong was constructed in 1637 at a site where an older and smaller Dzong stood since 1326. Construction was completed in 1638, and the gold dome was added in 1676. In the second courtyard (dochey) I saw several buildings with beautiful paintings. The one above shows a monk with his left hand, holding a lotus, extended in a gesture that wards off evil (karana mudra). I liked the painting because of the detailed study of black-necked cranes at the monk’s feet. I’, not able to identify who this could be. I guess he is a monk and not a celestial being by the fact that he has a halo, but it is brown in colour.

To reach this place we had to climb a steep set of stairs. It seems that this is protection against invaders as well as flood waters. Entrance to the main buildings in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan The ladder that you see in this photo is apparently pulled up at night and the door behind it is locked. The ladder is so steep that I had to hold the handrail to climb up. The height is a protection against floods. Since Po Chhu is snow-fed, melt-water often floods in early spring. Even so, the Dzong has flooded several times in its history. The waters eventually cross the border into India and feed the Brahmaputra river. We spent a long time in the halls around the second dochey, admiring paintings and statues.

Mural in Punkha Dzong, Bhutan The two images here were taken because the light was good. They depict celestial beings of great power. This is clear from the green halos that surround their heads. Apart from that I’m clueless about who they can be. They are neither the Sakyamuni (since they do not hold a begging bowl) nor are they depictions of the Maitreya Buddha (since their feet do not rest on lotus flowers).

They are not Avalokiteshwara (since they are looking forward), nor are they Tara (since they are male). They do not hold a sword, so they are not Manjushri. They are not surrounded by flames, so they cannot be Mahakala or Vajrapani. Mural in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan Both are bearded, so they could be Padmasambhava. But I have no idea whether the Guru is depicted holding a musical instrument, as the one on the left does, or a prayer wheel, like the one on the right. The identified images of the Guru that I have seen show him with the Sakyamuni seated on the crown. That is not the case here. These could be someone else, but I like to think of them as the 8th century sage who brought Buddhism to the Himalayas.

View of Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

This was the second time we visited the Punakha Dzong. Both times we arrived in May, and found the Jacaranda in bloom. The beautiful purple colour looks wonderful against the white walls of the Dzong. It would be nice to come back here in another season to see what it looks like.

Birdwatching in the museum

2015-05-28 16.18.41 2015-05-28 16.20.05 2015-05-28 16.21.19

The first time I encountered realistic Indian miniature paintings of birds was in the museum of the City Palace of Jaipur, a long time ago. Since then I have found little examples hidden away in galleries across the world. They are not as famous as the paintings of court life, but there seems to be a dedicated band of collectors and curators who love to acquire and display these.

2015-05-28 16.17.54From almost the earliest times, Chinese painters have delighted in depicting nature. The most famous subjects which the paintings deal with are grand vistas of landforms, and hidden away somewhere a few people, houses, boats, and domestic animals. They are beautiful.

Now, with a month of visiting museums and collections of paintings, I see that there is a less well-known stream of work: nature in the small, beautifully observed and rendered. The Shanghai Museum had two remarkable paintings: one of a praying mantis done almost calligraphically, with a minimum of brush strokes, and one of a lotus seed pod. I found later that the lotus seed pod is a staple, every master seems to try his hand at it. But also, over the weeks, I began to notice birds. Mandarin ducks are ubiquitous because they represent marital fidelity in the Chinese culture. But there are so many other birds which we saw.

2015-05-28 16.21.46Today, walking through the National Museum in Beijing, our birdwatching instincts came to the fore. We stalked through the galleries looking for birds, and we hit a jackpot. There are lovely pieces in the collection, but photographing them is not easy. There are multiple layers of glass between the painting and you. As a result, you can see my reflection in many of the photos here.

I wish I could have shared more details about the painters and their times. Unfortunately, many of the galleries in the National Museum only have labels in Chinese. There is an audio guide, but I could not get any information on them from the information desk.

The photos here show only the paintings. The jade and bronze galleries hide more birds. Herons and peacocks abound in the pieces of jade, but there are also other birds. A popular genre of jade carving was a scene in a forest. These are usually full of animals and trees, and, hidden in the trees, birds. Hidden among the displays of ritual bronze vessels are small figures of birds.

I wish there were good quality reproductions which one could buy, and information in English.