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Reflections from Rajasthan

What a supportive and nourishing place the built environment would be if more of it, much much more of it, were designed – or rather, allowed to grow organically – in the spirit of some of the magical old cities of Rajasthan. Time spent strolling in the labyrinth of ancient streets and small squares clustered below the fabulous fortress of Jodhpur is enchanted by the friendliness of the people, and their easy-going sweetness cannot be unrelated to a life lived in such fantastical surroundings.


For one whose daily horizons are filled by this seemingly infinite maze of ornately carved old buildings, all arranged in a vast organic sculpture of interlocking forms, much of it painted in fanciful shades of vivid blue, and with the Arabian Nights fortress towering above, some poetry, some sense of the enchantment of life must inevitably remain. When patient and masterful craftsmen have laboured until the stone house fronts have dissolved into intricate patterns of lacy filigree, how could anyone feel existence has failed to honour him with a fine enough home? In such an exuberant outpouring of beauty, magnificence and playfulness, how not to feel some celebration and gratitude?


In truth, the people of Jodhpur, who have inherited the homes built by their ancestors, are probably not even aware of their extraordinary beauty – and may be yearning for a nice modern concrete house with all mod cons – but still, this fairytale environment works its subtle magic on their nature, and is a living illustration of the ideas raised in On beauty and healing.


The same can certainly be said for Jaisalmer, a delicate jewel of a city filled with equally magnificent havelis all carved out of golden sandstone. With many of these nestled inside its fantastically beautiful fortress, the whole place seems to come straight out of the Arabian Nights. As enchanting in its way is the city of Udaipur, but here it is an astonishingly high concentration of artists, producing the exquisite miniatures for which the place is famed, that assures its special flavour. Every second shop is a feast for the eyes, filled with the dazzlingly detailed paintings on silk, board and plastic that are created in the dozens of artist’s schools and studios scattered in the environs of the town.


Surely there is nowhere else on the planet where so many delicate windows open onto so many splendid and magical other worlds. And the presence of such a dense population of artists spills over onto the walls of the city, too. Surfaces that, anywhere else, would be left blank and dead are here adorned with brightly coloured elephants and lovers and flowered borders.


Again, how can the ambiance of this city fail to be affected by the presence of so many consciousnesses devoted to producing so much timeless and delicate imagery? True, all this labour is now for the tourists, but still, there is a sweetness here, a charm about the built environment – and how much more attractive the most ordinary daily life becomes when lived amid such an overflowing celebration of beauty.


The dazzling white marble Jain temples of Dilwara, near Mount Abu, and the small golden ones clustered inside the fort of Jaisalmer, are another astounding instance of Rajasthani exuberance. The exquisite intricacy of their carving defies belief, transforming marble and sandstone into weightless layers of swirled and folded lace. All over the ceilings of the temples at Dilwara and also in Jaisalmer, fantastical three-dimensional mandalas dazzle, dismay and delight. The most elaborate of my own mandalas – Pulse of the universe, Silent mirror, Eternal light and Restful restlessness – are not even pale shadows of these carved masterpieces.


Osho’s words on objective art were never more apposite. For some these remarks will seem hopelessly naïve, and I haven’t checked the crime or wellbeing statistics (if they exist) or done any proper journalistic research at all, but the lived experience of these cities is enough. It is a glimpse of the beautiful, supportive, healing environments that humans are capable of creating. The intuition has no doubt that these places promote a softer, more harmonious, contented society than all the harsh, aggressively linear geometry of concrete, steel and glass that seems to be the basis of almost every contemporary attempt to ‘improve’ our habitat.


Sleek and flashy such brave new worlds may be, but their sharp shapes and stark surfaces feel inhuman and cold, and seem to preclude all the innate human impulses to surround ourselves with a more organic, decorative beauty. Small wonder, then, that those who live and work in them so often feel alienated, dehumanised and indifferent, and that so much ugliness and unkindness seems to happen in them.


These Rajasthani cities are the most concrete examples I have come across of an antidote to all this modernist puritanism – living, breathing fairytale worlds that touch and heal the heart with their fancifulness and playfulness.






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