Ancient Paintings and Natural Patterns

This author tells of his experiences with the history behind ancient paintings in India...

| June/July 2002

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.

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