Mandana, floor paintings of Rajasthan

Posted by Chantal Jumel

I always imagined Rajasthan as a relatively dry land, perhaps even as a desert-like region where palaces and imposing forts keep rising on every rocky peak, but the geographical reality tells a different story. Mount Aravalli divides the region into two different lands. The hilly landscapes, though modest in size, stop the southeast monsoons and leave the West of Rajasthan without rainfalls while they pour plentiful on the eastern hill slopes where cotton, linen, peanut, barley, wheat, and rice grow. In contrast, mountains arrest the winds weighed down with sands of the Thar Desert.
Chantal Jumel
I am far away from my cherished Southern lands and it is in Jodhpur, the blue city that my quest for mandana, the colloquial term for floor drawings begins. The doorways of the local houses seem austere by comparison to Tamil thresholds adorned every morning with geometrical allegories. However, it is a very colourful floor painting that welcomes me at the entrance of a princely house converted into a discreet luxury hotel. Rajasthan, or “the land of kings”, lives up to its name, as it is here, in this private residence that I get acquainted with several local customs embodied by the young princely couple. The corridor walls, which lead to my room, reveal life slices of the entire lineage. Equestrian trophies and polo cups won by the great-grandfather are arrayed with pride among the ancestor’s portraits and intimate family photographs.

Maharaj Bharat Singh

Maharaj Bharat Singh


In particular, a black and white picture standing right behind an oil lamp draws my attention, as it captures the father of my host on his marriage day. He can be seen standing in his finest dress surrounded by women adorned with translucent embroidered veils. Holding a sword with his two hands, the tip of the blade touches a metal plate placed on a floor painting composed of several squares enhanced at each center by a stylized flower. The weathered photo reveals hardly this diagram, but it is a custom that on wedding day, the husband moves aside the metal plates as to clear a passage to the divinity. The wife following his steps has to silently place them back one by one on each square. By this gesture, she conveys her patience and discretion in any circumstances within the home. He, likewise, will show his ability to become the head of the family and protect the household by the way he pushes the dishes. Thus began for me the mandana quest. Painted diagrams like their Southern counterparts introduce many Indian ceremonies and rites of passage. Birth, marriage and other Hindu festivals are all reasons to draw.
But how do I continue my research? After an audience with my hosts, they introduced me to two brothers. The siblings are farmers and occasional tour guides for hotel customers whom they ferry around in jeep to visit Bishnoi[1] communities and dhurries carpets weavers. One of them agrees to guide me and I set off the next day in the hope of being an admiring privy to the courtyard of a house, where mandana heralds Dipavali, the Hindu Festival of Lights.

[1]Bishnoi are Vaishnava peasants attached to the protection of nature and with a profound respect for trees. At the time of death, they are buried to avoid using wood.

Mandana paintings of Rajasthan (1)

Posted by Chantal Jumel

After a few kilometers, the city road swaps its black tarred coat for the Thar Desert’s sandy dust. On both sides, stretching as far as the eye can see is a dry landscape punctuated by the austere presence of caper shrubs or ker and various thorny bushes known for their pharmaceutical virtues. But the desert manna is called khedjri or sangri. The miracle tree spreads its umbrella like canopy and bears fine green pods, which look like beans. Once dried, they are mixed with other legumes of flat peas called kumti to create panjkuta[1]or a five-ingredient meal. This precious dehydrated mixture kept in bags is a must-have for all families and it just requires to be immersed in water before cooking it with spices.
The road turns into a potholes trail and the driver bursts out laughing at every swerve which slams me against the jeep door. In the monotonous landscape, my eyes rove over herds of black and fawn spiral horned antelopes. In Mughal miniature paintings, they are the ones listening to the heroine playing an instrument while anticipating the arrival of her lover. The vision fades away with the approach of a dusty cloud which instantly shrinks the trail. Yet I distinguish very clearly the rhythmical jolts of jingle bells attached to the bow of the ravanhatta. A man appears, playing this rustic spike fiddle made of half a coconut and two main strings, one of horse tail and the other of steel.

A multi-coloured procession follows him closely, led by a dromedary hitched to a cart and loaded up with women and children. They are itinerant poet-singers called Bhopas who once upon a time narrated and danced the legend of Prince Pabuji in front of a painted scroll. Today, many musicians have adapted themselves to the changing demand and sing in hotels or in forts as soon as a cloud of tourists approaches. The troop is fading little by little and we pursue our way until the driver stops at the front gate of a house.
Famille de Dhanraj
I get out of the jeep and accompany him to a bountiful shade tree. It is a neem or a margosa whose dense crown keeps cool two women sitting on a charpoy[2]. The youngest one is my guide’s wife and the eldest, his mother. They know the reason of my coming and show me with great pride, the yellow ochre plaster smeared on a large portion of the court-yard of the house on the previous day. Thus begins the Dipavali preparations. The festival of lights celebrates Lakshmi, the prosperity and abundance goddess and drives away her elder sister Alakshmi, who brings misfortune, strife and poverty.
Application de l'ocre
After a cup of tea and a few biscuits, my hostesses make their way back to the house and soon return with earthen jars in which they mix two distinct powders with water. Red, or gheru, is none other than iron oxide and white, slaked lime (chunna) or chalk (khadiya).
Gheru (red) and khadiya (chalk)

[1]In the East of Rajasthan, it is a unique dish made of five specific ingredients harvested  in the Thar Desert:  « khedjri » or « sangri » (P. cineraria), « kumti » (Acacia senegal), « gunda » (Cordia mixa), « ker » (Capparis decidua) and « kachara » (Cucumis sp.)
[2]A traditional woven webbing bed, perfect for a nap. On North Indian roads, at refreshment stalls, it is a common sight to see beds in a row to welcome sleepy lorry drivers.

Mandana paintings, villages around Jodhpur (2)

Posted by Chantal Jumel

To draw a mandana, no brush is needed but a piece of sari turned into a ball. It works as an ink-tank when dipped in the chosen colour and pressed into the palm of the hand. The young woman directs the red liquid and traces the outlines of the drawing. Similarly, she arranges within spaces, straight and curved parallel lines, recurring figures or mirror designs with the white colour. The act of drawing mandana is described as subh karya (literally meaning an auspicious endeavor) and puts forward the idea of center, symmetry and multiplication.Around a circle revering the syllable OM drawn in its centre, I notice at each cardinal point, identical figures; depictions of Lakshmi.

The morning is spent on drawing and with this in mind, the mother and other girls are driven by a joint spirit of enthusiasm in scalloping the courtyard edges as they would festoon a drapery border.
Ornementation
Heartened by my keen interest in these graphical works, the sister-in-law draws a square to host a pair of stylized feet crown by the sun and the moon. On each side of the square, I wonder what the rising arrowheads pattern stand for. However, they make me think of Touareg crosses worn by men and passed down from father to son with the following precept: “My son, I give you the four cardinal directions as nobody knows where you will die”. Is it the desert nearby that gives all the mandana this resolutely geometrical and uncluttered aspect?

After a few days of visiting other villages, my stay comes to an end and I return to Jodhpur with a bag of the invaluable desert manna that I will cook after my return to France, thanks to the recipe which restores life to wild capers and tree grown beans.

Mandana paintings in Bundy (3)

Posted by Chantal Jumel

The next day, I resume my journey towards Bundi in the Southeast of Rajasthan. I plan to meet an art teacher specialized in mandana. The car crosses mount Aravalli which combines plateau, green hills, steep slopes and fields where vegetables and crops grow abundantly. Nestled between hills at the foot of a fortress and overhanging a vivid blue painted neighborhood, Bundi welcomes the traveler with an immense lake embracing the garden of “Nawal Sagar Palace” hotel where I made a reservation.
Bundi, Rajasthan
Visiting the city is like a dive into medieval times. The damaged narrow street surfaces have muddy ruts where strolling black pigs happily feast on garbage and food waste. Then at some point, the street veers toward the market and to a colourful bazar. On opposite sides of the main road, sheltered alleys thread their way between blue buildings revealing here and there mural paintings on house entrances and around the windows. I am told that the writer Rudyard Kipling settled down in the city to finalize his book Kim.
Bundi Dipavali
We are a few days away from the festival of lights and the city is bursting with excitement. The celebrations begin with Dhanteras and the custom is to buy gold or silver jewelry and new utensils for the house. Roop Chaudas, the second day emphasizes the purification of the body but today, an appointment at the beauty salon often replaces the earlier ritual of anointing the body with oil and scents.

The third day finally, Lakshmi is celebrated in a magnificent way. The house is decorated with mandana and symbolic footprints of the goddess guide her into the dwelling.
Paglya ou l'empreinte des pieds

Mandana paintings, around Bundy (4)

Posted by Chantal Jumel

Meanwhile, I meet my local contact who suggests a visit to the neighboring villages the next day. The morning looks beautiful, we are in October and it is not scorching hot. The road transforms quickly into country lanes and the driver weaves in and out of the numerous potholes.
On the road, we often stop to admire the creative inspiration of the peasant women and their luminous graphics which redesign the courtyards and the walls of adobe built houses. Dipavali revives the local bestiary and the diagrams inspired by the philosophical precepts of tantric art[1]. My visual enthusiasm is a little tempered by my guide’s assertions who underlines the undeniable impoverishment of the repertoire and creativity. According to him, the countryside urbanization and the construction of cement houses are the main causes. The villagers move away from unfired clay bricks which require frequent repairs after monsoons. If cement is a symbol of modernity and social achievement, it contributes widely to the disappearance of wall paintings called thapa. The young generation, more educated than their elders, feels reluctant to prepare the muddy mixture and therefore neglects this pictorial expression viewed as naive.
We arrive in a village inhabited mainly by Mina who belong to one of the most ancient tribes of Rajasthan. They live in the fertile plains of the East and are divided into two major clans:  the high status Hindu landowners and the others who possess no land.  In the 19th century, in spite of their prestigious ancestors, they were declared “criminal tribes” by the British and that until 1952 when the offensive list was repealed.
Entrée d'une maison Mina
Perched on a hillock, it is a densely built up area and houses adapt themselves to uneven grounds by spreading harmoniously their volumes on different levels. Alignments, projections and recesses allow glimpses of terraces overlooking other open spaces. This is how I notice freshly painted mandana. Strolling along the village streets draws people’s attention who question my companion about my coming.
Mandana et oiseaux
Thanks to him, we are invited to enter patios and each time it is a source of wonder; hardly a spot in the courtyards which is not adorned. The mandana adapt perfectly to the open-air hearth or chulha, honor the granary with an opalescent lacework, underline the platform’s edges, and transfigure premises. It is here, behind closed doors that women cook, sort out cereal crops, sun-dry peppers and cow dung cakes. To celebrate goddess Lakshmi, the women painters coat the inside as well as the outer walls and terraces. For that purpose, they prepare a primer with dung, water and clay to which light or dark yellow ochre is added.
Enduire l'âtre

To paint, they use a section of a date palm leaf’s midrib (khajur) which works as a reservoir as it is fibrous. My guide tells me that at times it is the tip of a plait which acts as a brush.
Détails du mandana
After a few days of drying, the liming is now ready. The vertical and horizontal surfaces offer themselves to the graphic incantations of the women who perform often in groups. They guide the milky liquid in a multitude of broken, oblique and curved parallel lines letting the ground or walls ‘s ochre appear. The white hesitates a long time between transparency and opacity but the translucent paleness is quickly replaced by a radiant presence capturing the light to become matter. The ochre adds texture to the white in a variety of patterns inspired by village life.

During Dipavali one observes ear millet designs (bharadi), cow hooves, oil lamps, inkpots or pens to symbolize yearly accounts, a scale and weights to increase trade. Other designs mirror hospitability in the shape of sweets (laddu, jalebi), a hand fan (bijani) and the vermilion pot (sindhur).  The women also reinvent in multiple ways, domestic or everyday objects. Among them: the chaupad, a cross checkerboard ancestor of the parcheesi game, the jar (kalasa) or the Rajasthan stepwells (baoli) dug into the depths of the earth and flanked by vertiginous stairs leading down to the water. The iconographic repertory includes four to eight petals floral motives (phulya). A six petal flower (shah phulya) suggests goddess Lakshmi’s lotus shaped throne.

[1]Bindu, the dot or the root matrix of creation. The ultimate figure beyond which energy cannot be condensed.
Trikon, the triangle, symbolic of the three guna (sattvarajas and tamas), the three dimensions of time (present, past, future), the female and male principles (prakriti and purusha), the trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the three goddesses or shakti (Lakshmi, Sarasvati and Kali).
Chaturkon, the quadrangle incarnates order, stability andrepresents the earth.
Panchkon or a pentagon for the five elements.
Shatkon or an hexagram symbolizing the unity of the male and female principles.
Svastika or the four cardinal directions.
Vrita, the cercle indicates time and space.

Paglya and mandana paintings, (5)

Posted by Chantal Jumel

The goddess is also invoked through unusual mandana called paglya, literally “footmark”. Drawn outside the house on the verandah and around the main mandana, they welcome the goddess inside the home to bless the family members. The most stylized paglya patterns look like the letter “Z” with a curved lower angle to signify the heel. Other paglya show a pair of two equilateral triangles connected by the summit. One of the two opposite triangles is of smaller size to display the back-foot and the other, with a wider base and marked with five dots, symbolizes the forefoot and the toes. On the other hand, the more elaborate paglya, include diverse geometrical and braided elements, meshed as in interlace or basketry.