A heavily padlocked side door was unbolted and we were ushered into a storeroom lined with cupboards. A large wooden box lay on a table in the centre of the room. It was opened and a cloth bundle carefully lifted out and untied. Slowly, 91 Ramayana paintings, each measuring two feet by four feet, were placed before us. I took a deep breath. The paintings were miniature in style but monumental in size. Looking at the images of gleaming palaces of Lanka and Ayodhya, the lush forests of Kishkindha and Panchavati, the scampering monkeys and cavorting elephants, the white puffy clouds of the summer and the dark, looming ones of the monsoon, I was awestruck. I had fallen in love again.
For years I had been completely enamoured with the Hamzanama paintings commissioned by Emperor Akbar in the 16th century, which we used in our first children’s book, The Kidnapping of Amir Hamza. I had believed no other paintings could move me as much as those 500-year-old images, painted in jewel tones and filled with stories of adventure and intrigue. Then, two years ago, my co-author Saker Mistri and I identified a Ramayana manuscript in Garden & Cosmos, a sumptuously produced catalogue of the royal paintings of Jodhpur, commissioned by the Smithsonian Museum. We knew we had found our next project.
We had travelled to the Mehrangarh Fort Museum to see the paintings and hoped to convince their director to collaborate with us on another children’s book. We were excited at the prospect of using these vibrant and bold depictions of gods and demons frolicking in a surreal landscape, in our book. These paintings are usually stored in the majestic Mehrangarh Fort, which sits on a rocky promontory rising 400 feet above the surrounding plains of central Rajasthan’s Marwar region.
At the time of our first visit the fort’s storerooms were undergoing renovation, and the folios we’d come to view were temporarily stored in the Umaid Bhawan Palace, where the former maharaja lives with his family. Part of the palace has been converted into a luxury hotel, and no matter how sophisticated and well-travelled you are, it is hard not to be impressed by the elegant 110-foot dome of the building, the gleaming art deco flooring, and the beautifully lit pillars around the rotunda. To me however, Umaid Bhawan Palace was not a patch on the Mehrangarh Fort, which has a bird’s-eye view of hundreds of acres of land around and I can understand why Rao Jodha must have chosen to build his military base here in the 15th century. In 1974, under the leadership of Gaj Singh II, the current ruler of the Rathore clan, the Mehrangarh Fort was converted into an architectural treasury and a museum of artefacts recording the colourful lives of the Maharaja’s ancestors and their traditions. The structure of the old fort remained the same, but the carved facades and battlements were repaired and the areas which housed soldiers and members of the royal family were renovated and turned into display spaces for the weapons, paintings, textiles and other artefacts. This is a dynamic ongoing process at Mehrangarh, and improvements are always underway. You only have to take an audio tour of the fort to be completely mesmerised by its chowks, palaces, and temples. On our first visit we had felt enormous pride at this world-class museum.
But it was the Ramayana paintings that had us captivated. Each one is a narrative panel that portrays an episode from the epic. As we viewed them, we tried to decode the story within each frame. It was fairly simple with some of the oft-repeated tales of the Ramayana, but quite difficult with the unfamiliar parts of the story. Besides, there are several versions of the epic, so it’s nearly impossible to know each one. Which was the one reportedly written 2,500 years ago in Sanskrit by Valmiki? Every region in India and elsewhere in Southeast Asia has its own adaptation and over 300 Ramayanas are believed to flourish.
The landscape format of these illustrations on paper from Tulsidas’s Ramcharitamanas meant that two assistants had to hold them up—just as they must have once been held up before kings, as a storyteller narrated the tale. Right then, in the presence of these paintings, Saker and I felt just as entitled.
As each painting was held up before us, we admired the way the gilded city of Lanka emerged, distinguished by the use of real gold pigment. Each leaf of each tree, styled in a different pattern and shades of green, made the forests come alive. I could almost feel a light breeze fluttering through the jungle and see the trees shivering imperceptibly as the rivers flowed by like liquid silver.
The performative aspect of the paintings is important, as it is still believed that listening to the Ramayana being recited grants listeners wisdom, grace, and even access to heaven. I felt I had received all of these blessings, right there in the Umaid Bhawan Palace.
On closer observation, we noticed something strange. Some characters appeared more than once in the same painting. In one panel, Ram and Lakshman appeared 15 times. We were told that these folios were synoptic narratives in which characters are portrayed multiple times to convey a plot’s progress. In an epic as long and complex as the Ramayana, the artist would have to work at least a few episodes of the tale into one painting, else the manuscript would run into hundreds of folios. Ninety-one paintings and the whole Ramayana later, our eyes were fatigued and our minds occupied by the enormity of the task we had undertaken to convert this amazing manuscript into a children’s book. We were either very brave or very foolish.
A year later, our story was written, it was time for another expedition to Jodhpur. On this trip, Saker and I met Neil Greentree, a photographer from the Smithsonian Museum, who was going to photograph 25 of the paintings for our book. For two days we remained locked up in the cool underground archives of the fort where the paintings were stored. While Neil painstakingly shot the photos and edited them, Saker and I examined the paintings in even greater detail. Even though we had been seeing these images for an entire year, every time we looked, new details emerged and the paintings looked even more wonderful: We were still spellbound.
Some of the magic from the Ramayana paintings had rubbed off and a strange thing began to happen to me. The city of Jodhpur seemed to have been transformed into a painting. Everywhere I looked, I recognised elements from the Ramayana folios in Jodhpur’s landscape. It was like my eyes had finally opened after years of being tightly shut.
One evening as the sun set, Saker and I were walking down the steep cobbled roads of Mehrangarh Fort. I looked back up and the sky was turning from cobalt to Prussian blue. Suddenly, the lights of the fort came on and it felt like Lanka was towering up behind us. I could almost see Ravana waving his arms on the terrace. I looked down towards the ramparts of the fort and they reminded me of Lanka’s battlements: wide, thick, and unassailable.
As we drove down from the fort towards Jodhpur, the sandstone cliffs bordering the road gleamed pink and purple in the fading light and I thought of the hills that were depicted in so many of the Ramayana paintings. I remembered the painting in which Ram, Lakshman, and their followers stood on just such magenta rocks looking across the ocean at Lanka wondering how they would rescue Sita. Did I see them standing there as we drove along?
The following morning we went for a walk to the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, created in 2006 in the lee of Mehrangarh Fort to restore the natural ecology of the place. Naturalists worked very hard to remove the infestation of jangli baavlia, an invasive shrub which had overrun the land, preventing other plants from flourishing. We walked along the trails admiring the flowering cacti and other succulents that have been brought from the Thar Desert to recreate the natural habitat that existed decades ago. In the background of Rao Jodha Park stood Mehrangarh—imposing and proud, the sandstone glowing from the golden light of the morning sun. Birds flew past and I recalled the beautiful folio illustrating the kidnapping of Sita: A similar flock flies above the Panchvati forest where she and Ram were in exile.
Later that day while exploring the fort, I felt like we had stumbled into the painting of the Ashok Vatika gardens in Lanka where Ravana held Sita captive for many months. On a tour of Chokelao Bagh at the foot of Mehrangarh Fort, I thought I heard Sita sobbing softly as she waited for her beloved Ram. In 1739, Maharaja Abhai Singh had planned the original as a charbagh—a garden divided into four parts. Today Chokelao Bagh has the same trees and shrubs one sees in the miniatures: bananas, desert apple, pomegranate, orange, and jasmine. It is a sight for sore eyes especially in the summer months when the shade of this fragrant garden provides refuge from the scorching sun.
The more I looked at the sweep of the city from the ramparts of the fort—the tiny blue houses of the city below us, the hills in the distance, and the Thar Desert all around—the more I felt like I had plunged into the Ramayana paintings. I felt I was travelling in time as I roamed the same lands that Ram, Sita, and Hanuman had traversed in these epic artworks. I felt the indignities Sita had experienced, the loyalties that gripped Lakshman, the devotion that Hanuman expressed, the passion that burned through Ram, and also the confusion and remorse that Ravana must have felt while making his choices between right and wrong. Finally, I understood why the Ramayana has remained popular for so many centuries. The struggle between the forces of good and evil rages within all of us: The moral battles waged in the epic have always been remarkably contemporary.
Appeared in the October 2014 issue as “Finding Jodhpur In The Ramayana”.
Jodhpur is located in central Rajasthan 338 km/6 hrs southwest of the capital Jaipur. It is the state’s second largest city.
Jodhpur airport has several daily flights from Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur, and Udaipur. Taxis (₹200) and autorickshaws (₹100) are available for the 5-km trip to the city centre. Jodhpur railway station is well connected by train with most metros and several major cities around the country. There are buses to Jodhpur from other major cities in Rajasthan, as well as Delhi and Ahmedabad.
The Old City is best navigated on foot or by autorickshaws. Though easily available it is important to negotiate and fix a price before getting in. Short trips are usually in the range of ₹30-80. To travel to other destinations around Jodhpur, book a private taxi.
Summer (Mar-July) in Jodhpur is blistering hot with the mercury often rising above 40°C. During the two months of the monsoon (Aug-Sep) humidity can be quite high. Winter (Oct-Feb) is pleasant and the time when large numbers of tourists arrive in the city.
There are seven gates along the road going up to Mehrangarh Fort. The main entrance is Jal Pol, while Suraj Pol leads to the palace, which is now run as a museum (0291-2548790; mehrangarh.org; daily 9 a.m-5.15 p.m.; entry₹30 for Indians, ₹150 for audio guide; ₹300 for foreigners, including audio guide; ₹75 for cameras; ₹200 for video cameras).