Ancient Paintings and Natural Patterns

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Not long ago, I was sitting atop an elephant named Ria, riding up the side of a dry mountainside in the Aravali Hills of north central India. The cobblestone pavement beneath us dated back four centuries, to a time when Rajput kings ruled that region.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as we lumbered along the old road, why rich Rajput kings bothered with such land. It’s a desert with poor soil and sparse rainfall. What little rain does come in the winter is collected in numerous lakes such as Lake Maota, just beneath us.

Just at the moment when I was contemplating those questions, along with whether the elephant saddle I was on (called a houdaa) would fall and dump me over the side of a substantial ravine, Ria turned her pendulous trunk toward me and angrily sneezed. The mahout, or “driver” of the elephant, used his hook, called an ankush, to prod the elephant behind the ear reminding Ria who was in control.

“Sorry! Very sorry,” the mahout said to me as he dug his knees behind Ria’s ears like a cowboy goading his horse to ride on. I couldn’t blame the elephant. The mahout hadn’t tightened the houdaa before putting us on. It sagged to one side and the mahout told us a couple of times to “Sit toward the middle, please.” The houdaa continued to sag and Ria was not happy. The elephant’s way of expressing displeasure was to sneeze a quart of, well, I’ll just call it trunk water, all over my leg. In the dry air it evaporated quickly.

Our trip was to tour the ancient Amber Palace on the side of a mountain. We walked throughout the enchanting complex, looking at the splendid architecture, the majestic gardens and exotic artwork. Most surprising to me was the richness of botanical paintings on the walls of the palace. The main entrances, the interior-facing walls of the gardens, and many of the rooms were covered with paintings of plants.There were roses and marigolds–the official religious flowers of India. Calendulas, mint, coriander, hyssop, coleus, artemisia, capsicums, cinnamon, crocus, luffa, black pepper, alliums, and yarrow were all represented. “These are all medicinal plants,” I said to my friend and guide, Puneet.

“No, these are just decorations, although some might be medicinal,” he replied. “They are painted with ground-up semiprecious stones, painted into the plaster of the walls while the plaster was still wet.” He went on to explain that the Ayurvedic medicinal tradition in India dates back more than three thousand years. It is based on the healing powers of hundreds of plants used in balance with the body and spirit. Ayurvedic practitioners study continuously both the ancient traditions and new ones and are respected for their knowledge of treating the entire body rather than simply treating symptoms.

My own theory is that the paintings, each measuring about 15 inches by 24 inches, are botanical paintings of the important plants of the Empire and of Ayurvedic medicine. They were both teaching tools for the illiterate, and symbols of protection. A king would naturally have yarrow, one of the most important blood-stopping plants known in the ancient world, painted near the entrance of his palace. It would be a symbol of his protection by his doctors and it would signify the importance of that plant in such an arid region.

After our amazing tour of the well-preserved palace, we went a few miles across the valley to shop at a market as ancient as the Amber Palace itself in the city of Jaipur. As we walked along the narrow, crowded sidewalk, we saw a woman leaning out a window with a container of water.

Just as we passed by, under her window, I felt a splash of water hit me on the back of the neck. The memory of the elephant’s sneeze flashed briefly across my mind.

My Hindu friend laughed and said, “In this desert region, that is a blessing. She has just given you the most precious thing we have here, water. It’s polite to turn and thank her.”

And so, laughing sheepishly, I turned and smiled at the generous gesture the woman had shown us. She was a water seller, leaning out her window and selling cups of water. She recognized us as strangers, and the polite thing to do was to splash a little water our way to say, “Welcome to our parched land.”

Slowly I made the connections in my mind. The desert, parched, its people conserving every drop of water, then and now. Artisans of centuries earlier had celebrated the medicinal plants that protected the king by painting them for eternity on the king’s walls. Without water, the plants would not survive. Without plants, the king would not survive, and without the king, the people would not flourish.

Everything was interconnected, dependent upon a balance between all of the elements. I smiled at my theory, seeing the ancient patterns of culture, still apparent in today’s world; they seem to create a precious balance even now.

Jim Long welcomes readers’ questions or comments; you may e-mail him directly at, or tour his gardens at Virginia

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Illustration by Susan Chamberlain

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