To travel with art

Devout men and women often carry with them little images of their ishta (deity) when they set off on travel, writes B. N. Goswamy

Detail from the Shivamahimnastotra scroll; Kashmiri, 19th century. Collection of the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, Jodhpur
Detail from the Shivamahimnastotra scroll; Kashmiri, 19th century. Collection of the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, Jodhpur

THE first time I saw a prayer book in miniature was when I was still studying in college. A class mate showed me a tiny little bound volume, literally no bigger in size than a match-box: it was the complete text of the Bhagavadgita in Sanskrit, printed in letters so fine that it was difficult to read even then. Printed and published by the famous Gita Press of Gorakhpur, it was priced, if I remember right, at two annas.

Certainly inexpensive, but what use would it be, I wondered to myself, if it was that hard to read. The answer, at least for me, came years later when I found a young lady whom I knew a little wearing a finely crafted gold locket round her neck of exactly the same size as the Bhagavadgita volume I had seen years before: and, true enough, inside the ‘locket’ was the same little book in miniature.

She had been wearing it for years, she told me. It reminded her of her mother who had given it to her, and it protected her wherever she went. She did not read it, or recite from it: it was simply something sacred, like a talisman, an amulet.

A lot of time has gone by since then, and I am a little more familiar with objects such as these now. Devout men and women, I know, often carry with them little images of their ishta (deity) when they set off on travel; popular among the Jains have been small flat and easily transportable convex-lidded boxes with paintings of the revered tirthankaras; for carrying around, devotees of the Vallabhachari sect used routinely to get made tiny booklets with painted images of Krishna as Shrinathji; and so on.

To this very category belong small gutka-books containing anthologies of prayers, miniature Qurans, esoteric drawings on small pieces of paper. For centuries people have been carrying these as auspicious objects: for setting up intensely personal, miniature shrines for daily worship in the course of travels, or simply for protection. They may not always have been of the highest artistic quality, but they were there: simply there.

Of the class to which art-to-travel-with belongs, I came recently upon some objects—in the course of my research into manuscripts for a show in Frankfurt on behalf of the National Manuscripts Mission—that I found of uncommon interest, and to at least two of which I wish to draw attention here. One was what initially looked simply like a necklace of rudraksha or similar beads, meant for wearing around the neck. But it was being referred to by the curator repeatedly as the ‘Gita Govinda’ necklace.

I know the Gita Govinda, Jayadeva’s great 12th century text, and was aware of the reverence in which it is held as a sacred work to this day by millions, especially in the eastern part of the country. But a Gita Govinda necklace? It is only after the necklace, in fact one of the beads on it, was ‘opened up’ that I understood what that meant.

Pressed between two halves of the bead, which had been sliced into two, was a little stack of round, gently-graded palm-leaf strips on which verses from the sacred text were inscribed in minute Oriya characters. Bead after bead was filled with stacks of leaves containing portions of the text: and, when strung on a cord—there were twenty-eight of them, each only with a diameter of 1.7 cms.—they formed a mala-like necklace, containing the entirety of the sacred text.

Whoever this text was prepared and written for in the 19th century must have worn this exquisitely crafted object with delight, one can imagine. And moved about, or travelled, with Jayadeva’s great work, sensuous and sacred at the same time, around his neck.

The other object was a manuscript on paper: a long scroll, again with a complete sacred text inscribed on it. One knows that scrolls have long been a part of the Indian tradition—as much a part of the Buddhist-Jain-Hindu world as the Islamic—but the one I am drawing attention to was of unusual quality.

Written on very fine glazed Kashmiri paper in small Devanagari characters, it bears the entire text of the celebrated Shaiva work in Sanskrit: Pushpadanta’s Shivamahimnastotra. Delicate ornamental borders run all along the entire length of the scroll; at the very top is an exquisite panel with delicate arabesque work in gold and lapis-lazuli blue of the kind that one finds in illuminated Persian manuscripts; then follows, before the written text begins, a small panel showing Shiva and Parvati seated under a canopy on a full-blown lotus; flanking the divine couple on either side are their two sons: Karttikeya and Ganesh, and diminutive ganas, while the vahanas of the deities—the Nandi bull, the mouse, the peacock—remain stationed as if waiting for a command.

Below this finely painted vignette—so appropriate at the head of a text that is an impassioned hymn to Shiva—begins the text, sections of it contained within diamond shaped panels. Om Namah Shivaya is the sacred mantra with which the long text opens: the words are lettered in gold but this is not the only area of gold on the scroll, for every alternate line in the text is also written in the same glistening pigment, the other lines being in red or black. So the text proceeds till the end where it bears the name of "Motirama Kashmiri" as the painter/illuminator/scribe of the scroll.

This is of course entirely in keeping with the style of painting and calligraphy, which is so "Kashmiri’ in character. But one thing that one almost does not notice at first is the fact that within each letter of the text, is the word "Shiva" written in micro-characters, so that each letter turns into a mantra on its own. And then of course the narrow, oblong format of the scroll was evidently chosen so that it could be rolled up, put into some kind of a thin silver casing, and carried around.

Once again, there are surprises here, and a preoccupation with making objects that one holds dear to one’s heart: sacred on the one hand and a delight to behold on the other. Travel in those times could not have been easy, and there must have been great solace in carrying auspicious objects along.