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The bhopas of Rajasthan

Cover The ability of Rajasthani bhopas to recall and recite poems thousands of lines long captivates the author William Dalrymple.

The ability of Rajasthani bhopas to recall and recite poems thousands of lines long captivates the author William Dalrymple.

The landscape, as we neared Pabusar, was a white, sun-leached expanse of dry desert plains, spiky acacia bushes and wind-blown camel thorn. The emptiness was broken only by the odd cowherd in a yellow turban, patiently leading his beasts through the dust, and by a long, slow convoy of nomads in camel carts, pursued by a rearguard of barking dogs. Once, as we turned off the main Jaipur-Bikaner highway, we passed a group of Rabari women, in saris of bright primary colours, resting in the narrow shade of a single, gnarled desert tree; abandoned road-building equipment lay scattered all around them. A little later, we saw a group of three Jain nuns in white robes, with masks over their faces, pushing a fourth in a white wheelchair through the open desert as the heatwaves shimmered and slurred around them. Though it was winter, it was still very hot, and a hot, dry wind blew in from the scrub, and through the open car window, furring our mouths and setting our teeth on edge, and gritting the seats of the car.

With me as we drove through this bleak land was my friend Mohan Bhopa, and his wife, Batasi (which means Sugar Ball). Mohan Bhopa was a tall, wiry, dark-skinned man of about 60, with a bristling grey handlebar moustache and a mischievous, skull-like grin. He wore a long red robe and a tightly tied red turban. Batasi was somewhat younger than him, a silent, rugged desert woman of 50 who had lived all her life in the wilderness. As we drove, she kept almost all her face shrouded in a high-peaked red veil.

Mohan was a bard and a village shaman; but rarer and more intriguing still, he and Batasi, though both completely illiterate, were two of the last hereditary singers of a great Rajasthani medieval poem, The Epic of Pabuji. This 600-year-old poem is a fabulous tale of heroism and honour, struggle and loss, and finally, martyrdom and vengeance. Over time, it seems to have grown from a local saga about the heroic doings of a river-chieftain protecting his cattle to the epic story of a semi-divine warrior and incarnate god, Pabu, who died protecting a goddess's magnificent herds against demonic rustlers. The cow kidnappers are led by the wicked Jindrav Khinchi, whom Pabuji defeats and kills. Pabuji also protects the honour of his women from another villain, a barbaric, cow-murdering Muslim plunderer named Mirza Khan Patan, and wins a great victory over Ravana, the 10-headed Demon King of Lanka, from whom he steals a herd of camels as a wedding gift for his favourite niece.

When this 4,000-line courtly poem is recited from beginning to end - which rarely happens these days - it takes a full five nights of eight-hour, dusk-till-dawn performances to unfold. Depending on the number of chai breaks, bhajans (devotional hymns), Hindi film songs and other diversions added into the programme, it can on occasion take much longer. But the performance is not looked upon as just a form of entertainment. It is also a religious ritual invoking Pabuji as a living deity and asking for his protection against ill-fortune.

The epic is always performed in front of a phad, a long narrative painting made on a strip of cloth, which serves as both an illustration of the highlights of the story and a portable temple of Pabuji the god. India has many other traditions of legends, stories and epics being told by wandering picture-showmen; but in none of the other traditions have the pictures been elevated to the status of an incarnate murti, equivalent in holiness to an image in a temple. The audience is primarily made up of the traditionally nomadic and camel-herding Rabari caste, for whom Pabuji is the principal deity; but other castes also attend the performances, especially the Rajputs of Pabu's own warrior caste.

As we drove through the seemingly empty desert landscape, Mohan pointed out features invisible to the untutored eye of an outsider: here, he said, on this side, where now there were just a few stumps, stood until recently an ancient oran, or sacred grove. It was holy to Pabu's ally and friend, the Rajasthani snake deity Gogaji, who also has an oral poem and a living cult in his memory. For centuries no one had dared to touch the oran, said Mohan, believing that anyone who stole the wood would be struck down by the snakes guarding it. But three or four years ago, loggers had come, chopped down all the trees and carted away the wood to Jaipur: "If people are no longer bothered by the threats of Goga's snake bites," he said, "how will they fear the anger of Pabu?"

I asked if there were still any orans left sacred to Pabu. "Yes," he said. "There is one close to our village. So far we've been able to guard the trees. People only pick the fallen wood for cremations. But who knows for how long it will be safe in times like these?" Mohan went on to tell a story of how the Bishnoi caste, who believe in a very strict ethic of non-violence to all forms of nature, had managed to preserve their khejri trees from loggers sent by the Maharaja of Jodhpur. They had hugged the trees, he said, even as the maharaja's axe men were felling them. Three hundred had died before the order was finally cancelled, and people still gathered every year to commemorate their sacrifice. I asked how long ago this had taken place.

"Oh, not so long ago," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "About 320 years back." I had known Mohan and Batasi for about five years when I set off with them that morning from Jaipur. We had just done an event about the Pabuji epic to a conference, and were now heading in the direction of their village of Pabusar, which lay deep in the desert towards Bikaner. Soon after I had first met the couple, in 2004, I wrote a long New Yorker article on Mohan, and after the piece was published, Mohan and I performed together at various festivals; but in all the time I had known and worked with him, I had never yet visited his home. Pabusar, he told me, was a small oasis of green in the dry desert, and was named after the hero of his epic; indeed the village supply of sweet water was believed to have appeared thanks to Pabuji's miraculous intervention. Now it was the 10th day of the full moon, the day of Pabu, when his power was at its height and he was unable to refuse any devotee. This time the epic was to be recited not in part but in full, at my request, and I was looking forward to seeing Mohan perform it.

On the lonely, potholed single-track road to Pabusar, the last leg of the journey, we began to meet other pilgrims who were coming to celebrate the modest village festivities which marked the day of Pabu. Some of the pilgrims were on foot: lonely figures trudging through the immensity of the desert in the white midnight. Other villagers rode together in tractors, pulling trailers full of women in deep-blue saris. Occasionally, we would pass through a village sheltering in the lee of a crumbling high-walled fortress, where we would see other pilgrims taking their rest in the shade of the wells that lay beside the temples. As we drove on, the settlements grew poorer and the road increasingly overrun with drifting sand. The fields of dew-watered millet grew rarer and more arid; and the camel thorn closed in. Dry weeds heeled and twisted in the desert wind.

In the end, although the drive from Jaipur was less than 190 kilometres, it took nearly the entire day. The roads grew almost impassable with sand, and without four-wheel drive we slipped and slalomed our way, two or three times having to push the car up modest hillocks using sackcloth to give the wheels traction. When we finally reached Pabusar, it was nearly sunset. The goats were being led home for the night, and the shadows of the milkweed bushes around the village were lengthening. It was the pruning season, and a few goatherds had climbed up the khejri trees to chop fodder for their goats, camels and cows. On the edge of the village I saw a lone woman in a yellow sari beating a Kikkur tree with a long stick - not some Rajasthani folk ritual, as I had instantly assumed, but, Mohan assured me, merely an elderly goatherd trying to get the seed pods to drop for her hungry, bleating kids.

The village of Pabusar - Pabu's Well - was, like the roads around it, half-buried by drifting sand, and fenced around on all sides by dry-thorn bushes. We abandoned the car in a final sand-drift only a few hundred yards from Mohan's house, and walked the last stretch. Around the white shrine-temple to Pabu, beside a small water tank, a large crowd was already beginning to gather for Mohan's night performance of the epic. A brightly coloured shamiana tent had been erected next to it, and to one side a generator was chugging away like an old tractor. The farmers were in a relaxed mood, squatting in turbaned groups sipping chai and smoking beedis and playing cards. Their cows had been given their fodder, and, crucially for herders in a desert land, they had also been given water - the key episode and the climactic moment in the Pabuji epic:

O Pabuji, the cows' little calves are weeping, The cows' little calves are calling out to Pabuji. O Pabuji, may your name remain immortal in the land; O Pabuji, may your brave warriors remain immortal! Outside Mohanji's small but newly built concrete house - a mark of some status in a poor village of conical thatched mud huts like Pabusar - Mahavir, his eldest son, was waiting for us impatiently. In his hands he held the furled phad. Another of Mohan's sons, Shrawan, whom I had met several times before, was also standing by, holding his dholak drum.

We had been expected earlier in the afternoon and the two boys, who were worried that we would miss the evening performance, spoke in an agitated manner to their father. But Mohan just smiled and led me over to his pump, where we washed. We gulped down a glass of hot masala chai, handed to us by a daughter-in-law. Then, reverently picking up the phad, Mohan led the way to the small Pabu shrine that he had built in his compound. There he gave thanks for his safe journey and asked the blessings of the deity for the performance. Then, without waiting for dinner, we headed off, through the sandy lanes, on the short walk to the tent where he was to perform.

The temple was a simple village affair, but newly built in marble. It had a single image chamber containing an ancient hero stone showing the mounted Pabuji in profile, sword held high. The temple, tank, well and village of Pabusar were all inexorably linked, explained Mohan. One night, during a great drought, Pabu had come in a dream to one of the poets of the Charan caste in the area. He told the man to follow the footprints from his door, through the sand, to a distant shallow valley where, said Pabu, you will find a stone. Take that stone as your marker, continued the god, and dig down 30 hands deep and there you will find an inexhaustible supply of the sweetest water in all the Shekhawati. This hero stone was the stone in the dream, said Mohan. Once it had been built into the parapet of the well, but now, since the new temple had come up, it was worshipped as a murti.

While he talked, Mohan placed two bamboo poles in the ground and unfurled the phad from right to left. It was like a wonderful Shekhawati fresco transferred to textile: a great vibrant, chaotic 17-foot-long panorama of medieval Rajasthan: women, horses, peacocks, carts, archers, battles, washer-men and fishermen, kings and queens, huge grey elephants and herds of white cows and buff camels, many-armed demons, fish-tailed wonder-creatures and blue-skinned gods, all arranged around the central outsized figure of Pabuji, his magnificent black mare, Kesar Kalami, and his four great companions and brothers-in-arms.

While Mohan set up, I looked closely at the phad. The durbar and palaces of the different players of the epic were the largest images, with Pabuji and his warriors in the centre, and the courts of his enemies, Jindrav Khinchi and Ravana, at the furthest distance from him at the two extremities. In between, all Indian life was here in this wonderfully lively, vivid textile, full of joie de vivre and folk-artistic gusto. The phad has a teeming energy that seems somehow to tap into the larger-than-life power of the epic's mythology to produce wonderfully bold and powerful narrative images. It is also marked by a deep love of the natural world: dark-skinned elephants charge forward, trunks and tails curling with pleasure; pairs of peacocks display their tails, white doves and red-crowned hoopoes flit between mango orchards and banana plantations. Warriors charge into battle against roaring yellow tigers, swords at the ready.

The different figures and scenes were not compartmentalised, but were clearly organised with a strict logic. Like the ancient Buddhist paintings in the caves of Ajanta, the story was arranged by geographical rather than narrative logic: more a road map to the epic geography of courtly Rajasthan than a strip cartoon of the story. If two scenes were next to each other it was because they happened in the same location, not because they happened in chronological succession, one after the other.

Seeing me peering closely at the phad, Mohan said that it was the work of the celebrated textile artist Shri Lal Joshi of Bhilwara. His family had been making phads for nearly 700 years, and their images had more power than those of any other artist. "Even rolled up, Joshiji's phads keep evil at bay," said Mohan. "The way he paints it, the involvement he has with the epic, gives his phads more shakti [power] than any other. His phads have the power to exorcise any spirit. Just to open it is to give a blessing."

Mohan explained to me that once the phad was complete and the eyes of the hero were painted in, neither the artist nor the bhopa regarded it as a piece of art. Instead, it instantly became a mobile temple: as Pabuji's devotees were semi-nomadic herders, his temple - the phad - visited the worshippers rather than the other way around. It was believed that the spirit of the god was now in residence, and that henceforth the phad was a ford linking one world with the next, a crossing place from the human to the divine.

From this point, said Mohan, the phad was treated with the greatest reverence. He made daily offerings to it, and said he would pass it on to one of his children once he became too old to perform. If the phad got ripped or faded, he would call the original painter and take it with him to the Ganges, or the holy lake at Pushkar. There they would together decommission it, or, as he put it, thanda karna - make it cool, remove the shakti of the deity - before consigning it to the holy waters, rather like Excalibur being returned to the lake in the legends of King Arthur.

"It is always a sad moment," said Mohan. "Each phad gives great service, but eventually they become so threadbare you can no longer see anything. After we have laid it to rest, we throw a feast, as if it was the cremation of a family member. Then we consecrate a new phad. It is like an old man dying, and a child being born." Batasi was now cleaning the space in front of the phad, and lighting a clutch of incense sticks. Shrawan tightened the screws of his dholak drum, and began to tap out a slow beat. A small jyot (lamp) of cow dung was lit by Mohan, and circled in front of the image of Pabu. Then he blew a conch shell, announcing that the performance was about to begin. The farmers of the village finished their card games and cups of chai, and began to gather around. It was already getting cold, the temperature dropping rapidly in the desert on winter nights, and several of the farmers pulled their shawls tightly around them, tucking the loose end under their chins.

Mohan then picked up his ravanhatta - a kind of desert zither, a spike fiddle with eighteen strings and no frets - and began to pluck it regularly with his thumb. "We'd better make a start," he said. "The reading of the phad should begin not long after sunset. We have a long night ahead of us, and the flame of my voice only really starts to glow after midnight."

Text © 2009 by William Dalrymple. Taken from The Singer of Epics in Nine Lives, by William Dalrymple, published by Bloomsbury on October 5 at a price of US$21 (Dh76)

Updated: October 3, 2009 04:00 AM