A Jewel in Indra’s Net

Imagine a net that stretches into infinity. On each of its nodes is studded a brilliant jewel. Every jewel reflects all the other jewels on the net, and is in turn reflected in them, thereby creating a phenomenon of a deep and irrevocable interconnectedness. This Vedic metaphor of ‘Indra’s net’ was used in Samkhya Darshan and later in Buddhist philosophy to demonstrate the nature of reality. Which in Samkhya is nonduality, and so the net though made up of a million and more jewels, is essentially an integrated field of consciousness. Phenomena arise in it, but they are not disparate events. Rather, they form nodes in the same flow, the one continuum. In this oneness, creation unfolds.

According to the Buddhist perspective, Indra’s net expresses dependent origination – pratitya samutpada in Sanskrit. Briefly, one set of causes and conditions gives rise to another, and nothing exists without everything else that caused it to arise. One jewel reflects all the others, and its own existence in turn is revealed in them. One cause leads to another and so on, thereby forming a reality where everything is conjoined and is ultimately dependent on everything else.

These profound ideas have been around for a while now, but the radically connective new technology of the last couple of decades has evolved new meanings for them. What could be a better illustration of Indra’s net of interconnectedness than the worldwide web? Its tentacles reach out to cover almost the entire globe. Millions of nodes are logged into it, sending data back and forth along its pathways, creating a virtual prototype of the kind of interconnections that Indra’s net exemplifies.

Technology has increased the experience of connectedness in our daily lives. Yet, with vast amounts of connective information literally a touch away, there is a constant splintering of attention. Conceptually, the worldwide web might be a good example of an integrated field. But our actual experience of it is anything but unitive. Constant connectivity fractures our consciousness again and again, so we exist in many alternative mental realities at the same time. Any actual enrichment of the mind and heart is debatable.

What can we do to deal with this? One simple yet profound shift is to know that we use technology, and not the other way round. Human beings are not vehicles for technology to showcase its capabilities. To use it mindfully, simply become aware. Switch off and prioritize the act of joyfully connecting with what can be seen, felt, heard, touched and smelled. To revitalize the links of interconnectedness, we must begin from where we are. The ground beneath our feet, the water in our taps, the park in front of our homes, the rainwater that could be harvested, the garbage that could be ecologically disposed. Where we are is our world in this moment. We could consciously choose to engage with it mindfully. And savour being a jewel studded in the net of Indra.


A wayward song

Itchy fingers

need to write

not tap

at a keyboard,

a screen…

Need the yoga


wrist, hand, thought, mind

what moves

and what remains


what feels

and what words


This page

Empty to touch and eye

This pen

Marking its empty sky

It unites

It expands

It forms

An untidy multitude

Within which


a wayward song.

When God became Goddess

Devi Mahatmayam, composed in 400-500 CE, is the definitive text of the Shakta tradition, and one that established the Goddess as the supreme creatrix, entrusted with the functions of creation, sustenance and destruction. It could well be the first recorded instance, at least in the Indian subcontinent, where a scripture accords the Goddess supremacy, and celebrates her independence, her power, her intelligence, her uncompromising protection of dharma, her essential femininity, her graceful compassion, and her universal motherhood.

The three central episodes of the Devi Mahatmayam revolve around the allegorical slaying of ignorance by the Goddess. Rapacious demons, symbolic of afflictions of mind and ego, wreak havoc on heaven and earth, symbolic of one’s inner environment. In the first episode, two demons attack Brahma as he prepares to launch a new cycle of creation. He calls out to Vishnu for help, who is asleep. Brahma then petitions the Goddess in her form as Yoganidra (yogic sleep), who withdraws from Vishnu, causing him to awaken. So, while Vishnu does the actual slaying, Devi enables him. She lifts the veil of ignorance from him, an awakening occurs, and the afflictions of mind and ego are slain.

In the second episode, Devi makes her debut as warrior goddess Durga, invoked to overcome the shapeshifter, Mahishasura. Astride a lion, she engages Mahishasura in fierce battle where he changes form each time she is about to kill him, suggesting the slippery nature of the ego and the many manifestations of ignorance that constantly attempts to subdue it. Eventually, Durga vanquishes Mahishasura because of her alertness. Pinpointing the exact moment he is about to change out of a buffalo’s body, she swiftly decapitates it. To better the wiles of the ego, one needs to be ever aware of its movements, and as it begins to draw one’s witness-consciousness into a play of emotions and thought patterns, act quickly in wielding the sword of discrimination to end its hold.

The third episode of Devi Mahatmayam comprises a cluster of stories that introduce an aspect of the Goddess that is perhaps the most feared and the least understood. Kali is mistress of time (kala) and transience, who keeps the cosmic balance by ensuring an end to created life. The reason Kali is such a powerful icon is because she uses the negative impulses of anger, retaliation, vengeance and violence, to create balance and harmony. She is never a slave to these emotions, as most of us are, but their mistress. She channels the basest of human instincts to generate positive power, and is never overcome by them. This alchemy of energy, whereby negativity is not to be destroyed but transformed into its exact opposite, is central to the practices of Shakta Tantra.


Ennui and the Search for Meaning

According to Newton’s first law of motion, an object at rest, or in motion, remains so unless an external force is applied. This ‘law of inertia’ can sometimes afflict us in the form of a human condition, rendering us unable and unwilling to head into challenges, begin something new, or even engage fully with ourselves and our lives. Nothing that we say or do seems to have much meaning, and we can easily get stuck in a vicious cycle where we do not do anything for lack of motivation resulting in inertia, which in turn leads to further inability to act and engage.

Another word, of French origin, used to describe such a state of stasis is ennui. Ennui is closer in meaning to boredom than inertia, though they might appear to be interrelated issues. Inertia indicates an unwillingness to act. It is a kind of passivity in which we remain stuck in the ruts that have come to define the physical, emotional and spiritual content of our lives. Ennui is boredom that might be experienced due to an absence of appropriate stimulation.

Today, so many of us exist in an environment of hyper-stimulation. Easy access to the internet, social media platforms, mobile phones and tablets mean that we can be “connected” all the time. We consequently experience another kind of ennui, that of over-stimulation. All kinds of stimuli exist at a click or a swipe, and yet, it is still meaningless because it does not have the power to draw us out and make us experience something beyond ourselves, if we are not open to it. Ennui often leads to inertia. If nothing has any meaning, why bother?

From a spiritual perspective, cultivation of gratitude and reorienting one’s motivation might come in handy when we are trapped in an ennui-fuelled inertia. His Holiness the Dalai Lama suggests that, “Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it.” Just this very thought has the potential to immediately change our perspective towards ourselves. If life is precious, we will regard it as an opportunity, a blessing, and focus on all the things that are going well in it as opposed to all that which is not.

After shaking off the torpor of ennui, we need to get out of the inertia of meaninglessness as well. According to the Dalai Lama, we must think, “I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.” While enlightenment might be far from our minds, by getting out of our restricted personal bubble and contemplating a goal that is bigger than us will help reorient and revive our internal energies. This could in fact become the “force” that must act on a body to end its state of inertia, as per Newtonian law.


Understanding Tenzin Gyatso

Few of us can claim not to know Tenzin Gyatso, a.k.a the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. The elderly maroon-robed monk with a warm smile and ready handshake is one of the most photographed people in the world. And yet, who is he, really? On his 79th birthday today, it is a worthwhile question to ask.

We know the facts about him – that he is the fourteenth reincarnation of the monk-rulers of Tibet, an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, his name is Tenzin Gyatso though he is addressed by honorifics like Kundun (‘the presence’) and Yeshe Norbu (‘wish-fulfilling jewel’). That he had to flee Tibet in 1959 and has lived in India ever since.

He is spiritual master and politician, ambassador for Tibet and lovable guru-philosopher-hopegiver to the world, practitioner of the 2,500-year-old teachings of Buddhism, a modern mind interested in science, and winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize for Peace. He is able to balance, even integrate, all these roles, while making it seem effortless and a lot of fun!

Instant connectivity

Actually, ‘fun’, ‘the happiest man alive’, ‘intensely human’, are words people most commonly use to describe their experience of the Dalai Lama. On examining his life, one realises what little cause for happiness he actually has.

He has lost home, country, much of his immediate family and many from the larger family of Tibetans, and has seen what was the most sacred to him – monasteries, temples, culture and religion in Tibet – reduced to rubble. Yet, his smile is never strained, his mind is sharp and clear, and he exudes a genuine concern for everyone he comes across.

One of the reasons for the Dalai Lama’s widespread impact is this instant connection he can form with just about anyone. He responds to each individual at an intensely human level, without the baggage of expectations and preconceived notions that usually come into play in dealing with others. There seems to be no ‘otherness’ as far as he is concerned; we are all parts of an interconnected whole.

Scientific spirituality

Though claims of enlightenment, transcendence, even miracles, are made for him, the Dalai Lama is quick to shoot these down as irrelevant. He is firm in prioritising logic and reasoning over unquestioning belief. In doing so, he is really following the Buddha’s injunction to accept only what has been proven after rigorous testing. The Dalai Lama has used this as a torch to guide him into explorations beyond his tradition, which have resulted in a groundbreaking dialogue between Buddhism and modern science in the form of the Mind and Life Conferences.

Such a dialogue requires a great flexibility of mind, for it delves into theories and methodologies that are the fruits of modern science. It also presents a challenge to the Dalai Lama, for it may prove that some of his own long-held beliefs are not true. He has embraced science and the dare it represents without feeling threatened by it. To do so requires letting go sufficiently of attachment to his own religion and the tendency to regard it as the supreme truth. He is quick to discard any religious dogma that is disqualified by evidence, an example being his discovery during aeroplane travel that Mount Meru actually doesn’t hold up the centre of the earth as claimed in certain scriptures.

At the Mind and Life Conferences, the Dalai Lama quickly comprehends the essence of what is being said, and is able to look at it both from the scientist’s perspective and that of his own tradition. He has famously remarked, “I would have been an engineer, if I had not been a monk!” This scientific temperament is evident when he uses his knowledge of Buddhist mind-training, and his interest in science, to form bridges that enable one to understand the other.

Compassion in action

On most public forums, the Dalai Lama emphasises the universal human values of compassion, a “warm heart”, and a responsibility towards the earth. These he places above religiosity of any kind. When approached by people who want to convert to Buddhism, he is quick to point out that there is no sense becoming a Buddhist. Far more important is to be a good, kind human being.

The reason why the Dalai Lama’s words on compassion are so compelling is because they carry the weight of experience. We know he isn’t just saying it, he has done it too. What he is asking of us is what he has perfected in his own self, and continues to practise every moment in the most difficult of circumstances.

As the leader of Tibet, he refuses to classify the Chinese as ‘the enemy’ and has stood by a non-violent path of dialogue, diplomatic initiatives, and peaceful demonstrations to obtain justice. The equipoise and compassion that are a result of his spiritual practice flow into his political role and enrich it. As a political figure, his example is extremely valuable in these times of self-serving politics. He has shown that it is possible to use values like non-violence, honesty and compassion in statecraft.

Perhaps it is because he places the greatest emphasis on his inner spiritual practice, on the core rather than the accoutrements of his life, that he has been able to deepen in his simplicity and clarity, despite the chaos he has often been plunged in.

As to the question asked at the beginning of this article, it is best answered by the Dalai Lama himself – “I am a simple monk.”


As many paths as seekers

The Dwarka Shankaracharya’s recent remarks about Shirdi Sai Baba (see TOI report here) are unfortunate, if hardly surprising. Seers like Sai Baba have existed in the margins of organised religion in the subcontinent, and are often regarded as a threat to the existing religious status quo. The reason is simple. They do not owe or declare allegiance to any organised religion, which in the Indian subcontinent is usually bound up with several layers of heirarchy – caste, gender, class, and so on. They have also usually ‘opted out’ of societal norms, and have embarked upon a spiritual journey that has led to an inner attainment and realisation, a direct experience of the sacred that might be quite different from the prescribed dos and don’ts of ritualised religion. 

Their appeal to the masses is because of their accessibility, their ability to provide spiritual solace and guidance, and because with the passage of time, they might come to be regarded as wish-fulfillers as well. Certainly, this is the case with the sage who is now known as Sai Baba of Shirdi, and it is this aspect of his appeal that draws ever-increasing numbers to his shrines each year. 

One of the reasons the venerable Shankaracharya gives for Hindus to stop revering Sai Baba is because he was a “Muslim fakir”. In which case, I suppose he would want us to stop singing Kabir’s songs because he was a brought up by a Muslim couple, and oh, Meera too, for publicly singing of how her heart belonged not to her husband but to another? Lalla might qualify for the “fallen woman” tag as well, because didn’t she roam around naked? So, off with her divinely beautiful vaakhs. This list could become endless.

I suppose the point I am trying to make here is that guardians of organised religion will always want people’s faith and their connection with the sacred to stick to a particular model (preferably designed and designated by them). In India, for millennia, we have defied those who deem to be the definers of our relationship with the sacred. Sramanas (spiritual seekers) were opting out of the pale of organised society and religion on inner quests of truth certainly before and around the Buddha’s time some 2,500 years ago. A popular saying in India is, ‘There are as many paths as there are seekers’. Each seeker of spiritual truth has the freedom and the right to forge his or her own inner path to the sacred. It is time we stood up and owned this right for ourselves today. 


A Call to Nature’s Sacredness

Watching the horrific devastation in Uttarakhand, I was reminded of my visit to Badrinath and Kedarnath some twenty-five or so years ago. There was nowhere the kind and scale of construction that seemed to have sprung up of late, and the numbers of pilgrims were in hundreds, not thousands. An understanding of the manmade aspect of the tragedy is growing, of how rampant destruction of forests and the Himalayan ecosystem in and around the pilgrimage spots might have magnified the impact of the natural disaster.

That this should happen at sacred sites associated with a religion and a way of life that has an eco-spiritual perspective inbuilt in so many of its traditions is cause for concern. It is a warning that in following the form of ritualised religion, we might have forgotten its spirit. That we might still worship a river or a mountain with flowers and incense, but have become blind to the impact our presence there is having on those very objects of our veneration. That we might chant mantras extolling the elements, but think nothing of polluting them with waste, plastic and toxic fumes. That we might be relating with religion as another consumable material, without bothering to understand its deeper underpinnings.

When we lived closer to nature, and not in the urban concrete jungles of today, perhaps it was easier to evoke and feel a respectful awe for natural phenomena. A river was not just a river. She was a mega-mother, a goddess, who nurtured centuries of civilisation along her banks. She not only fed us but also received our ashes when we died, as a portal of transmigration. She was not to be messed with but propitiated. Most importantly, she was not an object to be consumed for our comfort.

In the hills of Uttarakhand, for centuries people have worshipped mountains, trees, boulders, glades and knolls as abodes of spirits, some benevolent, others malevolent. Some kinds of trees would never be cut, and if they needed to, the act would be preceded by days of pujas to ask its permission. When I see the mindless destruction of forests and nature that the age of science and reason has brought with it, I wonder if in this regard we weren’t better off with superstitions that declared some acts of natural destruction taboo. Even if it played on people’s fears of vengeful spirits, at least it helped preserve the fragile Himalayan ecosystem.

 Perhaps this monumental tragedy will inspire us to consider a re-sacralisation of our connection with nature. To consider the Ganga, the Himalayas, their flora and fauna, and our surroundings wherever we are, as sacred and alive entities, not just myths or idols to be worshipped in temples, or consumables to be exploited for our needs. Perhaps this will be the call to return to our natural selves, and re-visualise the ecological divinity that exists all around us. 

Women’s Songs of Enlightenment

The earliest women ordained into the Buddha’s sangha some 2,500 years ago, experienced profound transformations that they rendered into poetry. Their poems came to be compiled as the Therigatha, literally ‘stories of women elders’. The 73 poems of the Therigatha delineate as if an inner courtyard, where the women shrug off the veils of personality and ego-self, bare their innermost experiences, and swap stories about their struggles and insights. This personal, feminine space frees their voices to speak of what is important to them, in an idiom they are comfortable with. One can almost picture a huddle of women with shaved heads, some young some old, sitting companionably during a vessa (monsoon) retreat, talking their hearts, revealing their selves.

They lament the darkness that hung heavy upon them, woven of loss and sorrow, dissatisfaction and frustration, until the light of dharma set them free. The famous parable of the mustard seed, where a mother learns to accept the truth of death, is one such. The mother, Kisa Gotami, begs the Buddha for a miracle that would revive her dead son. The Buddha says he will, provided she brings him a mustard seed from a home never visited by death. Kisa Gotami hunts for such a home to no avail, and by the time she returns, has understood the play of change and impermanence woven into the nature of life. She says:

It’s not just a truth for one village or town,

Nor is it a truth for a single family.

But for every world settled by gods (and men)

This indeed is what is true – impermanence.

[Thig A X.1, translation Andrew Olendzki]

The soul-songs of the Therigatha provide an intimate view of the concerns and issues particular to women on the path in a non-preachy, non-judgmental way. These have little by way of pulpy, lethargic sentimentality, nor are they dry and clinical. One could describe them best as examples of ‘telling it like it is’, with a clarity of mind and memory that might be expected of an arahat (realised being, which most of the theris were). Perhaps this is why the concerns mentioned therein feel immediate and true even across the chasm of centuries.

Whether it is Patacara mourning the loss of her family, or Gutta who pines for a child born of her womb, or Vimala the courtesan who exults in her beauty, or Anopama the heiress who is restless with her materialistic lifestyle, the theris articulate a uniquely feminine perspective on life, and life on the spiritual path. Their contexts might be dated, but when they speak of the imbalance of uncontrolled emotionality, the debilitation of obsessive attachment, the rigours of relationships, bondage to the body and its appearance, women of any era cannot but find their own challenges reflected in the theris’.

On Tibet

Book Review:

Yak Horns: Notes on Contemporary Tibetan Writing, Music, Film and Politics

By Bhuchung D. Sonam

Published by TibetWrites, Dharamsala, 2012

Pages: 242, Price: Rs 200 

The narrative of Tibet has never lacked for commentators and those willing and eager to tell its story on its behalf. Beginning in the twelfth century, the land, its culture and its people have been scrutinised and written about by a steady stream of explorers who managed to breach its defences and sneak into the remote Himalayan kingdom. These accounts, and those who braved the land of snows to gather them, became invaluable in the nineteenth century when secret spying and mapping missions were despatched to Tibet, as the Great Game began to unfold in Asia.  

Its strategic location, its geopolitical importance, and its exotic appeal as a sort of a last unexplored frontier, ensured that Tibet remained an area of interest for ‘outsiders’ who commented upon it, told and retold its story, and continued to add to the body of writing on it, even as it passed into an era of turmoil and occupation by the People’s Republic of China in the twentieth century, and a section of its population fled their troubled homeland. What is interesting is that a large part of this body of work on Tibet, scholarly, literary and otherwise, was written by non-Tibetan ‘experts’ on Tibet.

As the Buddhism of Tibet, represented most prominently by Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, began to gain currency as a credible spiritual path in the Western world circa 1970s and ‘80s, a new wave of writings emerged. A host of Tibetan Rinpoches became popular teachers and began travelling the world, setting up centres and acquiring students who were affected not only by their teachings of the dharma, but also by their joie de vivre in the face of adversity. The writings that emerged from the dharma’s interaction with the world, most notably the West, are a testimony to its ability and willingness to converse with new perspectives and worldviews that were quite different from its own.

So, the world fell in love with the Thunderbolt Vehicle to enlightenment (Vajrayana Buddhism) taught by affable, ruddy-cheeked Rinpoches, leading to a ‘dharma publishing’ phenomenon. Glossy-backed books on personal growth, often compilations of teachings given by a Tibetan teacher, began appearing on bestseller lists. Though I have never heard or seen any Rinpoche actively reinforce a Shambhala-esque view of Tibet, either in lectures or in their writings, the fact that there had existed this very practical system of mind-training in Tibet, preserved and practised by human beings, who stood before the world and whose equanimity was palpable, did add to the halo of spiritual accomplishment around Tibet. I wouldn’t say it further exoticised Tibet, but it did lead to a somewhat distorted popular perception of the country – that it was a paradise, disturbed but nevertheless idyllic, filled with enlightened, angelic maroon-robed monks.

This is why Bhuchung D. Sonam’s writings, along with those of a small but growing group of Tibetan writers within and outside Tibet, become so crucial. Along with the older Lhasang Tsering and Jamyang Norbu, writers like Sonam, Tenzin Tsundue, Woeser, Jamyang Kyi and others, are engaged in intently surveying and mapping the spectrum of the contemporary Tibetan experience – that ranges from repression at home in Tibet, to a “stateless, homeless” existence as refugees in India and other parts of the world.

Bhuchung D. Sonam’s Yak Horns is a collection of the author’s writings – essays, literary criticism, film and music reviews, et al – that have appeared in journals, the author’s blog at, and on websites dedicated to Tibetan writing, like Through the diverse topics he tackles in the book, Sonam amplifies the voice of an entire generation of Tibetan refugees – those who grew up in exile, never quite at home, assimilating in their adoptive homelands yet never free of the persistent remembrance of the true one they had never seen. In this, Yak Horns presents an invaluable insight into the soul of the young refugee, whose “permanent address has been stolen”, as Sonam’s biography in the book so poignantly states.

The collection of articles and essay in Yak Horns also serves as both a mirror of, and a commentary on, the contemporary Tibetan cultural and literary scene. Those who may not regularly read the blogs and magazines where these articles appear will find in this book an opportunity of a snapshot of the same delivered to them, which suffices as a useful introduction to contemporary Tibetan perspectives and realities. Sonam is an intrepid chronicler, and little seems to have escaped his prolific pen in the years represented in the book. What one also gets is a sense of the secular literary and cultural traditions of Tibet, through his cataloguing of the works of individuals such as the inveterate traveller and controversial writer of the early twentieth century, Gendun Choephel, who could be seen as a precursor to the secular Tibetan intellectual movement of which Bhuchung D. Sonam is a contemporary representative and to which he owes allegiance.

Along with past intellectuals, Sonam keeps his lens trained on the contemporary community of writers within and outside Tibet. For those within Tibet, writing and blogging have proven to be a crucial means to resist mounting repression by a paranoid state-machinery wary of Tibetan insistence on a unique and distinct nationhood, identity and culture. By telling the truth about what is happening in Tibet, one that is often at variance with the ‘official’ version, they risk imprisonment, torture, loss of careers and separation from loved ones.

A case in point is Jamyang Kyi, a journalist employed with the state-run Qinghai Television, whose account of her imprisonment in the aftermath of the widespread protests in Tibet in 2008, was smuggled out of the country and published as a book in exile, titled A Sequence of Tortures: A Diary of Interrogations. This happened after the blog where her account first appeared in 2008 was taken down. Another prolific, and fearless, blogger is Tsering Woeser, who lives and works in Beijing and has often spoken about the “imperialist cultural invasion” of Tibet. Despite repeated curbs and threats to her freedom, she and her husband, the author Wang Lixiong, continue to post content online that attempts to reflect ground realities in both Tibet and China.

Time and again in Bhuchung D. Sonam’s writing emerges the voice of a people chafing at and struggling with the yoke of a brutal colonisation. The only ray of hope seems to be their resilience, and their refusal to give in to their oppressors despite overwhelming odds. This is evident in this quote from Gartse Jigme, a monk from a nomadic family in Amdo, who writes in his book, The Warrior’s Courage, and who Bhuchung D. Sonam quotes:

“As a Tibetan, I will never give up the struggle for the rights of my people

As a religious person, I will never criticize the leader of my religion

As a writer, I am committed to the power of truth and reality

This is the pledge I make to my fellow Tibetans.”

Indeed, it is a pledge that resonates through this book and the many paths it traverses, the many stories it tells, and the one homeland it pays homage to: Tibet.


This review was published in the April 2013 issue of Seminar magazine (

Everyday Enchantment


A ‘multitasking’ woman painted on the entrance of a haveli



Krishna plays Raas Lila on the roof of a haveli

Budding mango trees tremble from the embrace of rising vines

Brindaban forest is washed by meandering Jamuna river waters

When spring’s mood is rich, Hari roams here

To dance with young women, friend –

A cruel time for deserted lovers.

Jayadeva’s song evokes the potent memory of Hari’s feet,

Colouring the forest in springtime mood heightened by Love’s presence.

  – From the 12th century poem, Gitagovinda, by Jayadeva (translated by Barbara Stoller Miller)

The lush groves of Vrindavan reverberate with Krishna’s springtime Raas Lila with gopis. The river Yamuna snakes its way around Radha and Krishna lost in enchanted communion. Colours fly and Holi arrives amidst a playful pichkari battle. And so a vibrant spring pays a virtual visit to a clutch of dry and dusty villages and towns abutting the Thar Desert. Such is the transcendental power of art!

In the region of Shekhawati, which includes parts of Sikar and Jhunjhunu districts in Rajasthan, a unique artistic experience awaits the curious traveller. For here, on the walls and roofs of forts, palaces, and havelis (courtyard houses), are painted the most stunning, intricate murals on a wide range of subjects but most of all, the sacred lives of gods.

The Rajput rulers and chiefs of the area constructed the forts and palaces, while members of the Marwari trading community built the notable havelis. In the nineteenth century, the latter began migrating to trading hubs like Mumbai and Kolkata, where they flourished. They retained strong ties with their roots, though, and ploughed back portions of their profits to create these magnificent havelis in the towns and villages they had left behind.

Though other parts of Rajasthan, notably Jaipur, have much older painted architectural wonders than the havelis, there is something about their homeliness that renders their murals more immediate and familiar. Particularly from the perspective of the present, where most of us live in impersonal, standard buildings made by others, to step into a nineteenth or early twentieth century haveli in Chirawa, Mandawa or Mukundgarh, is like entering an alternative dimension where art was an essential and integral aspect of life.

Unlike forts and palaces that needed to stand aloof from the habitations of common people, the havelis were situated in the middle of town, with their doors opening out into the street. Typically, they comprised a series of courtyards with rooms set around them. The first or outer courtyard was where the men received visitors in a baithak to transact business or for a chat. It led into an inner courtyard, which was the women’s preserve. They would get together to cook, wash clothes, comb their hair, and on festive occasions, to sing, dance and chitchat. Here there would be a tulsi plant, worshipped daily, and adjoining rooms would include a kitchen, a water storage facility, a shrine, and bedrooms. From the inner courtyard, the women would peep out into the men’s world through latticed windows.

The havelis of Shekhawati wear their art on their sleeve, quite literally since many have outer walls painted with splendid processions, caparisoned elephants, and marching armies. In some places, railway engines make an appearance. The entrance invariably has Ganesha, the lord of auspicious beginnings. Though interestingly, at the entrance to the Koolwal Haveli in Nawalgarh, it is a ‘multitasking’ woman who greets visitors, as she fixes her bindi in a mirror with one hand while holding a breastfeeding infant with the other.

Religious themes predominate, including scenes from the epics and popular mythological stories. In India, ever so often, boundaries between the divine and the mundane soften and melt away. So, gods and goddesses are treated as immediate and near, who can be bathed, dressed, fed, sung to, and put to sleep, just like human beings. Devotees recount their stories, at times introducing new layers and meanings to suit their frames of mind and the occasion. A deeply emotional bond exists between the worshipped and the worshipper, which is both delineated and deepened by the kind of proximity between the two one finds in the painted havelis. One cannot help but wonder about the creation of god in the image of man here!

Of course, there are other intriguing elements in the narratives on the walls of the havelis. Folktales like Dhola-Maru jostle with European-style angels and plump cherubs with wings. And Jesus joins the gods of the Indian pantheon in at least one instance – at the Morarka Haveli in Nawalgarh. In other havelis, built in the first half of the twentieth century, one finds Mahatma Gandhi amidst paintings of ancestors and local rulers. Perhaps the act of painting somebody into a mural was one way of elevating them, deifying them by putting them on a wall, so to speak.

Sadly, most of the havelis of Shekhawati are in a state of disrepair, except for a few that have been turned into museums or hotels. In towns like Mukundgarh, an entire section comprising old havelis, wells, temples and lanes lies decrepit, which could be turned into a world-class heritage site. To preserve Shekhawati as an artistic oasis requires quick thinking and collective action. Else, spring will no longer perfume the desert, the koel of longing will fly away, and Krishna’s flute will fall silent, along with Radha’s anklets. And the possibility of enduring enchantment that art brought to everyday living spaces would be lost forever.