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.
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.
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 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.
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.