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Visit to Rajasthan 3—Trip from Jodhpur to Nathdwara

Visit to Rajasthan  -- July 1997

Part 3: Trip from Jodhpur to Nathdwara

 "The Fragrance of Devotion"

The road to Nathdwara took us from the plains into the Aravalli Mountain Range. This is the most ancient mountain chain of peninsular India and it is considered one of oldest geological formations in the world. The air grew cooler as we ascended amidst this rocky landscape composed primarily of granite and slate rocks and boulders of all sizes and shapes. Many trees and shrubs cloaked the rock strewn ravines through which our road passed and it was so undisturbed by anything of our age that it was easy feel the pulse of an India that is beginning to disappear in urban centers. It is still possible to find many such natural settings throughout the country and if one is willing to expend a little effort, they can enter a world that is a direct link to what seems to be a forgotten past.

In the early afternoon we reached Nathdwara. This small town located about 30 miles north of the more well-known Udaipur is one of the important pilgrim centers for Hindu devotees. Its famous temple houses the image of Shrinathji or Lord Krishna. Originally the image was installed at Mathura but in 1691, a group of devotees, fearing the sack of the temple by the fanatical Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, decided to transport it to a more remote and safe location. Sanctuary for the idol was offered by Raj Singh 1, the Maharana of Mewar, but on route to its new temple, the chariot carrying the idol sank into the mud at the site of present day Nathdwara. Despite repeated efforts to free it, the chariot could not be moved so the priest who have been sent by Raj Singh 1 as an escort to the idols new home proclaimed that it was a sign from Lord Krishna that the idol was to be installed there. A temple was constructed on the spot and today it is one of the most celebrated places of pilgrimage for Vaishnava pilgrims.

With great good fortune we were able to locate a nice hotel down a narrow cobbled street near the temple. The rooms were equipped with all modern facilities and we were one of the first guests to be welcomed to the well-appointed rooms that looked out upon this small city surrounded by the rocky mountains of the Arvalli range. After getting settled and washing up, we had a quick snack which had been procured by Ramakant from a local food stall. Included in this packet of food was a type of juice made from fresh mangoes, saffron, camphor, and basil. It was one of the most delicious and refreshing drinks I have ever had in my life. After this simple repast we proceeded barefooted from the hotel to the temple. Our path took us through the narrow streets of the old bazaar which still had the feel of medieval times. It was a delight to wander up the hill to the temple in the evening light amidst a rich tapestry of sights and smells. The streets were alive with people, sacred cows, tiny shops with a multitude of traditional arts and crafts, old homes with richly carved doors and paintings with religious motifs, and stalls selling freshly prepared savory dishes and tea.

We entered the temple compound where many devote Hindus were gathered to have the darshan or vision of Shrinathji. Up until recently non-Hindus were not allowed to enter into the inner sanctuary so I felt honored to be absorbed yet deeper into the heart and soul of the Indian people through this experience. As a prelude to describing what it was actually like being in the room where the idol was kept, I would like to describe a bit the idol.

".......The temple itself is architecturally very simple. The Shrinathji image, carved in black marble, has the quality of a mysterious and powerful monolith, with wide hypnotic eyes and one hand held up, as if to support a mountain. It is treated with great ritual and ceremony: its clothes and jewelry changed six times a day between puja(prayer) services, when it is presented before the devotees in the various different aspects of Lord Krishna."

India: Rajasthan

Knopf Travel Guides

At particular set times during the day the call to prayer is heard above the din of the city and people flock to the sanctuary where the idol is open to view for about a half hour. Hundreds of people jam into a tiny space in a state of great religious fervor. Cries of ecstatic praise fill the air and the crowd sways back and forth in a united mass of devotional enthusiasm. I was caught in this tremendous surge of humanity all united by the intense desire to behold the object of their devotion in the form of Shrinathji. This experience is something which we know little of in the West. Here people of every conceivable background are united as one while drinking in the site of this elaborately decorated image its most prominent feature being a huge diamond from which a scintillating light came. Fresh flower garlands and finely sown silk garments also clad the Shrinathji. Other symbols of spiritual significance surrounded its feet.

After having the darshan of the image of Lord Krishna, we entered the outer courtyard where devotees mingled in conversation or prayer. We emerged into a narrow lane that took us to the shop of an acquaintance of Navneet who he thought might be able to guide us to a good miniature painter. One of our goals on this trip was to find a miniature painter who could create for us images of the different ways flowers and aromatic plants have been used throughout India's cultural history. We felt that if we could find such an artist it would be a great asset as it is our hope to present our information in an informative, creative way that would appeal to people throughout the world interested in this subject. We wanted though to capture it within the spirit of India, the land in which these aromatic traditions flourished, and it seemed like a good idea to present it in the miniature style as this tradition has a long history of painting pictures in which aromatic plants appear.

Good fortune was with us and we were guided to the studio of an artist living near the temple. He welcomed us into his simple work place and we immediately began discussing our ideas with him. He showed us some of his work which I liked very much and then he brought out a number of books on classic miniature painting which we looked through. These books gave us some good ideas as to how to begin the work and we commissioned 15 different paintings with the understanding that he would gradually develop his own style as we have a very specific theme in mind. Our meeting ended with a plan to visit Udaipur on the following day to visit the studio of his brother, a well known miniature painter, so that we could have an expanded idea of our possibilities.

By this time, darkness had fallen on the city and it was decided that we would take up one more important task and that was to find some reputable person that could provide us with beautiful perfume bottles as the day is not far off when we will start introducing some of India's pure attars, to the rest of the world. When I visited Bombay in May, we started the process of finding the true sources for real attars as well as subjecting them to quality control analysis tests, so that in the time to come we could offer a certified authentic product. Up to this time very little work has been done in the area of purity certification and the truth of the matter is that it is difficult to locate real attars. Well over 80% of the attars sold in the market place are composed of synthetic ingredients and the sandalwood oil base which is one of the hallmarks of a true attar is either stretched with liquid paraffin or some other cheap substitute. So along with providing pure attars to aromatherapists and lovers of fragrance in general we want to have fine bottles that convey to the user the complete story of their Indian origin.

Again through the kind assistance of Navneet and his local contacts we were guided to an excellent jeweler who was engaged in making lovely silver and minakar style bottles. This art of minikar has been practiced since at least the 16th century and consists of applying colorful enamels in intricate designs to gold, silver, or bronze. It our hope that we can commission the making of small minakar bottles with individual themes of rose, jasmine, champa, etc. So that we can present attars in a bottle that befits the precious essence it contains. For several hours we were engaged in purchasing a selection of bottles that have potential for our purpose. One of our ambitions is to overcome some of the negative attitudes that have developed around products coming out of India and the only way to do this is to carefully put together a package that we are personally involved in from start to finish. We also would like to see that product be Indian from start to finish so that local craftsman and artists can be employed in this work. The opportunity to help create a new perception of Indian products is ever before us and we know that it will take a careful attention to every detail because such attitudes are not easily overcome but there is no doubt that with the proper guidance India can emerge as a prime supplier of high quality goods of all kinds.

After completing our purchases at the jewelers we headed into the main bazaar for a late evening snack at an outdoor food stall. In cities and towns throughout the country, people go out in the evening to shop, visit friends, and enjoy local cuisine. For forty or fifty cents one can get a very tasty meal, prepared from freshly procured spices, vegetables, fruits, herbs and grains. In a very small space, expert chefs prepare before ones eyes masterful dishes that delight the nose with their smell, the tongue with their taste, and the eyes with their site. Hundreds of people patronize these small outdoor establishments as they provide excellent value for the money spent. After enjoying our simple repast we walked back to our hotel after completing another full day of travel and project oriented work.

Early the next morning we rose early to prepare ourselves for having the darshan of Shrinath. As we walked into the temple compound we enjoyed the site of the flower and vegetable vendors who sat along the roadside hawking their colorful and fragrant wares. The delicious odor of fresh roses and jasmine filled the air and co-mingled with the gentle aroma of incense drifting into the courtyard from home and temple. Pilgrims poured into the sanctuary as the day before and the same fervent devotional scene was enacted. This is a scene that has been repeated daily for hundreds of years and there can be no doubt that the sincerity of their deep reverence for and belief in the Divine Mystery of Life has charged this atmosphere in a unique and special way. The unique attribute of the Indian way of devotion is that it is both tangible and intangible simultaneously. The five senses are purified through chanting, incense, symbols, etc. With the hope that the devotee will be led to a transcendental state where the soul becomes awakened and enters into a direct communion with the Supreme Power. It is a worthwhile experience to become absorbed in this world so one can feel the spirit of a people who believe there is a great and beautiful power that is the sustainer of all life.

After our morning devotions, we had a simple breakfast at a tea stall that was tasty and nourishing. I watched the proprietor spin his magic of cooking several dishes at once while keeping up with a steady demand for hot milk and tea. He moved from one pot to another to be sure everything was being cooked to perfection and in the midst of it all he would elegantly swish a drop of tea into his hand to taste if it was ready for consumption. Numerous scenes like this are repeated in every shop as owners prepare their wares for sale. One can find endless enjoyment and entertainment in the most common activities of Indian life as it is all played out before one at every moment.

Our 50 mile journey to Udaipur from Nathdwara began at 9:00 AM and we were accompanied by Mr. Sharma, the miniature artist and Radhesyam, a close friend of his. Both are very knowledgeable about the area and proved to be excellent guides. We stopped at a small village famous to its terracotta statuary depicting local deities and legendary heroes. All these objects are made by hand with no molds, and painted in bright colors. We visited the shop of one local craftsperson and saw them at work fashioning these charming works of art and devotion. They told us that the tribal people from the surrounding area would come to their town during a certain season each year to purchase the deities for home and village. They would come on foot from as far as 200 kilometers as this was considered a holy undertaking and their sincerity and devotion were to be shown by adopting this mode of transportation. I feel greatly moved when I hear these things. I know that by Western standards such acts may seem naive or overdone but I think it shows a reverence for the sanctity of life which cannot be appreciated enough.

Our road then took us to Haldigatti, the site of one of the most famous battles in Indian history. It was in this valley that the mighty forces of Emperor Akbar met the valiant forces of Rana Pratap Singh in June 1576. Akbar was victorious in the battle in which 14,000 Rajput warriors died but the intrepid Rana Pratap Singh survived and continued to wage guerilla warfare on the Mughal army eventually weakening its hold on the area. Today this valley has become a miniature version of the Valley of Roses in Bulgaria as it grows the finest Damascena roses in India. We took the opportunity to visit some of the small farms each which had dedicated a portion of their land for growing roses and the plants were truly healthy and robust. Fine rose water, gulkand and rose attar is produced here and I think that some of our future work will be done here.

Along the way we stopped at a beautiful old temple for which Mr. Sharma had done some of the entry way paintings. One of the most beautiful features of the temple was a huge Frangipani or Temple Tree(Plumeria spp.). In the Bangalore area I had seen numerous specimens of this tree but this one was the loveliest I have ever seen. The flowers shade from a delicate yellow at the center to a cream at the edges. At night time it exudes a rich, tenacious odor in which the aromas of gardenia and neroli can be detected. One of its unique characteristics is that the perfume continues to develop even after the flowers are plucked from the tree. In southern India, where an absolute is made, the flowers which have fallen naturally from the tree or by shaking the branches are collected and extracted. One interesting thing to note is that the fragrance between trees can vary greatly so some good method needs to be developed to insure a high quality odor if the flower is to attain commercial success. This could probably be accomplished through tissue culture. It is most often used for preparation of garlands, hair decorations and to a smaller extent in the preparation of absolutes and attars.

We arrived in Udaipur around noon and met went to the home of Mr. Sharma's brother. We spent an interesting four hours with he and his family sharing with them the different aspects of our project in the form of a slide presentation. I had fortunately brought my images from my presentation in England so we had the material at hand and Ramakant gave an in-depth commentary on our work so that a full idea could form in the minds of these two artists as to what we were looking for in terms of the paintings that could be done to complement our project. It was a congenial atmosphere in which a lot of good ideas were shared and we came away confident that now this piece of our work was in place. On our way out of the city we circled around the beautiful Lake Palace and other lovely buildings in the lake district. As we left the city to return to Nathdwara we stopped at the art gallery of BJ Sharma, who is considered one of the finest artists in India today. Two floors of the gallery contained his works and they were of the most transcendent beauty. Many of them depicted scenes from the great epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana. Fragrant flowers and aromatic plants factored significantly in his paintings in the form of garlands, incense, hair ornaments, etc. Close observation of the paintings showed that his brush was of the most refined type and the colors selected revealed that his vision was filled with the understanding of a more refined world. I felt very excited on seeing his work as it serves as a true inspiration for the type of work we would like to have done for our work on Indian flowers.

In the late afternoon we reached Nathdwara and we completed all our remaining work their so that early the next morning we could begin our return journey to Jaipur. As we continue to move through the country I realize that I it is up to me to absorb as much as I can because time is very limited for us. It seems that at every moment some new bit of information is coming in and somehow I have to fit it into the overall picture of what we are doing. It is something like putting a very elaborate puzzle together only one does not know where the next piece is coming from nor does one exactly know what the real picture is supposed to look like. I realize that much of what we are doing is based upon information that is being passed onto us verbally or that we are trying to pick up from the environment we are in. We do not have a cohesive body of literature to draw from but rather bits and pieces that are being picked up as we meet different people and visit different places. My wish is that somehow this work will inspire others to fill in the areas for which we only have hints and inferences. I am not trying to present some scholarly work but rather to present whatever I can find out in hopes that any mistakes may be corrected by people with better resources at their command. But I do feel it is important that scholarly research should not be divorced from actually being in the country and absorbing the spirit of the land. These two things must walk hand-in-hand. India is not a place that can be understood by intellect alone. It must be seen, heard, felt, tasted, and smelled so that the senses become informed about the nature of the country. Then one can study the various literatures connected with the topic of India's aromatic tradition to great advantage. Furthermore one must earnestly seek to distill all the information in the crucible of the higher mind so it is seen from the highest possible perspective. In other words one must attempt to put themselves in contact with the spirit that moved the sages of ancient India so they can get a glimpse of the fresh and illuminated world which was a reality and truth for them.