Gardens and Cosmos Revisited: Paintings from the Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

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Rudyard Kipling called the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, ‘a palace that might have been built by titans and coloured by the morning sun’. This poetic description aptly captures the character of the colossal stone fortress perched on the top of a rocky hill, towering over the faded blue city below. I visited the fort for the first time in the Summer of 2016. Usually even glittering palaces lose their appeal in temperatures approaching 50 degrees celsius, but not Mehrangarh. Within the fort, the architecture ranges from the solid, sturdy and seemingly invincible, to the fragile, exquisite and richly ornate. The highlight of my visit though, was not the magnificent architecture, the mirrored ceilings or the gilded furniture, but rather a room full of paintings, many of which were displayed at the British Museum exhibition, ‘Gardens and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur’ in 2009. I was breath-taken when I first laid eyes on the paintings and even more astounded when viewing them in the setting for which they were intended. The paintings were commissioned by three consecutive maharajas and range in date from the first half of the 18th century to the mid-19th century. Their scale, most measuring over a metre in length, make them unusual in the oeuvre of Indian miniature painting. The painting itself though, remains deliciously detailed and intricate, every brush stroke made with expert precision.

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Many of the paintings created for the perusal of Maharaja Bakhat Singh (1725-1751) depict typical princely scenes portraying the king frolicking in his pleasure palace surrounded by graceful ladies adorning manicured gardens. The painting below shows the Maharaja immersed in a playful water fight with his wives and courtesans in a palace pond.

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During this period depictions of scenes from sacred texts and epics such as the Ramayana were also created. These are vivid, bold and fantastical compositions. One could wax lyrical about them for days on end. A fascinating aspect of some of these paintings is that they show a sequence of events happening within a single image, in contrast to most compositions which capture a moment in time. The image below imaginatively portrays a sequence of episodes from the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas (based on Valmiki’s Ramayana). The focal point is the crossing to Lanka, with Rama and Lakshmana leading an army of monkeys and bears across the sea in preparation for battle. Rama and his half-brother Lakshmana are depicted four times. Firstly, they are shown standing on top of a cliff on the left hand side of the painting puzzling over how they will cross the ocean; secondly, performing a sacrifice; thirdly, crossing the causeway built for them by monkeys and bears; and lastly, in wicked Ravana’s kingdom of Lanka. The ten-headed, multi-armed demon Ravana can be seen looking down at the approaching army from the uppermost terrace of his golden palace. Most of the subordinate demons are shown with horns.

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The two images below form halves of one exquisite painting commissioned by Maharaja Vijay Singh between c.1780 and 1790. It is an illustration of an episode in the Durga Charita. On the left we have a hermitage peopled by long-haired ascetics with ash-smeared skin seated within little huts made for one. The leaf covered habitations blend seamlessly into the verdant, hilly landscape. The main focal point of this half of the composition is Sage Markandeya seated on an antelope skin outside his dwelling place. Kneeling before him are a king and a merchant. The two visitors tell the sage of their miseries. The first has lost his kingdom, the other, his wealth. Markandeya soothes their woes by revealing that the world is but an illusion. The reality is depicted in the other half of the image: Lord Vishnu asleep on his thousand-headed serpent Sesha in the vast cosmic ocean. In his slumber the god dreams up the world.

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The paintings below were created for the last of our three maharajas, Man Singh (r. 1803-1843), who could not have been further removed from Bakhat Singh in his approach to kingship and to life in general. Man Singh was deeply spiritual and fell under the spell of the guru Dev Nath and the legendary yogi, Jalandarnath. The Naths became so powerful under the maharaja that they were governing the land by proxy, enforcing law and carrying out retributions. Man Singh went as far as to call his kingdom an offering to the Naths. His devotion to these increasingly troublesome yogis was to be his undoing. Eventually he was overthrown with the help of the British. Below is an ash covered Nath Siddha (a perfected being) in meditation. Positioned along the spinal cord of the Nath are energy centres or chakras inhabited by Hindu deities and Nath Siddhas. The Nath Siddhas are placed above the deities because the Naths believed that perfected beings or yogis were more powerful and more invincible than the gods.

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The triptych below represents spirit and matter. In a startling move away from tradition, the first panel representing the origins of the cosmos and of the formless absolute is painted plain gold. The two deities in the second and third panels represent consciousness and matter.

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~ by laxshmirose on April 26, 2018.

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