Tag Archives: First War of Indian Independence

Garden & Cosmos: The Natha Sampradaya revisited

THE BRITISH MUSEUM has a whole season of exhibitions and events about India – it calls this its “Indian Summer” – an expression that in English usually applies to unseasonally nice weather rather later in the year, like “fall” or Autumn as we Brits call it.

I visited the British Museum today to see its “Garden & Cosmos” exhibition – sponsored by HSBC and subtitled “The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur”.

There is little about gardens in the wonderful exhibition but there are some beautiful paintings related to an “obscure religious cult” called the Nath Sampradaya.

The Nathas, reckon scholars – and what would they know – started kicking in around the 13th century and many of the paintings in the exhibition reflect the support of the rajas of Jodhpur, in Rajasthan and form part of the collection of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust.  Very many of the highly detailed paintings in the exhibition relate to these “nathas”, in particular there are some paintings from the Nath Purana.

The exhibition was very well attended – it’s had quite a lot of publicity. The leaflet doled out to you when you arrive says: “Man Singh’s artists proclaimed Nath greatness and teaching in hundreds of paintings and monumental manuscripts. Nath yogis, recognised by their grey ash smeared skin and pointed hats, are depicted proclaiming their new ideas. Their guru is shown superior to the traditional Hindu gods”.

Man Singh lost his kingship in 1843 when the British arrested two senior Nathas for allegedly kidnapping a Brahmin. The Indian Mutiny – or the First War of Independence – as India describes it, occurred just a few years later and many authors have suggested that sadhus, holy men, helped foment the insurrection against the missionaries’ position.

A rather sad cartouche, next to one of the glorious paintings in this exhibition, suggested that after Man Singh was ousted, the “temples” of the Natha Sampradaya fell into desuetude and the sampradaya (tradition) lost its force.

I dunno who wrote that cartouche. In Rajasthan there are still very many ashramas of the Natha Sampradaya. I’ve visited many of them myself, thanks to the great kindness of one of the abbots. The paintings often show the padukam of the gurus of the Natha sampradaya – one very nice one shows everything flowing from those feet. I tried to count the Nathas – if there’s 108 of them, I would not be at all surprised.

108 is a sacred number in the tantrik and Natha traditions. The rosaries the sadhus wear are often rudrakhas and number 108 beads. A human being is supposed to breathe 21,600 times in a day of 24 hours – half of these are ascribed to the sun, the other half to the moon.

shri shri 108 matsyendranath jiI listened to many visitors closely inspecting the wonderful paintings in the exhibition. Clearly, very few of them had ever heard of the Natha Sampradaya – didn’t know that Gorakhnath and his guru Matstyendranath more or less created hatha yoga – and were clearly puzzled by these strange sadhus who on the one hand renounced the world and on the other hand promoted the common welfare of the people that supported them.

Matsyendranath, pictured above – and the picture is courtesy of a Natha mahant (abbot) in Rajasthan – was swallowed by a fish, a little like Jonah.

It is rather fantastic that the paintings are in the British Museum, though, despite the lack of supporting information to help assist the wanderers in the place. The exhibition lasts until the 23rd of August and it’s £8 to enter. Or free if you’re a British Museum “member” which costs £40 a year.

Almost finally, Thames & Hudson has produced a rather fantastic book which contains many of the paintings in this exhibition. The paperback costs £30 and the hardback edition £36 so there’s some kind of stock control unit (SKU) marketing nonsense going on there. Its ISBN number is 978-0-500-51443-6. The authors are Debra Diamond, Catherine Glynn and Kami Singh Jasoi.

Samadhi of Shri Shri 108 Mannath Ji

Samadhi of Shri Shri 108 Mannath Ji

There’s a bibliography but I can’t find any mention of the English translation of  Kaulajnananirnaya ascribed to Matsyendrath in 1986.

Almost finally, because on my way out of the exhibition, people seemed to be singing a Baul song, and three lasses were dancing rather effectively. The sound is non existent – sorry about that. Perhaps I should have used my Crackberry.

This exhibition is well worth a visit. If you know nothing about the Natha Sampradaya you will be very puzzled. If you know anything at all about this very ancient tradition of yogis and yoginis, you’ll be very pleased indeed.

Mannath is the founding guru of one of the panths of the current Natha Sampradaya – there are  12 confederated into the Baro Panth.

Quite a lot of the paintings in the exhibition are related to the Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati. Disclaimer: I own www.shivashakti.com. You can read some Natha texts in this PDF book, here. There’s obviously money in India.

In the graveyard, I met a Hussar

IT’S THE DAY BEFORE Armistice Day and I had to go see my  accountant in Harrow and take a short cut, through the park and via a cemetery. It’s a short cut, normally.

An extraordinary thing happened. As I was  being soaked by cold cold rain, I saw a four by four  – no not a tank, you fool – slowly drive down the cemetery main road, and a chap wound down the window and said to me: “Could you spare me 10 minutes, I am looking for a grave?”

The man had a map of the local Harrow graveyard and he was on a mission to honour a certain World War One chap called Finch, who fought for the 4th Hussars and who was highly decorated. I hadn’t realised that detailed maps of graveyards existed with names and that. So I helped the man, who had served 28 years of distinguished service in the Hussars, on his quest to put a wreath on the ex-soldier’s  grave.

Alas, there was no headstone but we located where Finch had been laid down. My job was to take a photograph of the decorated alive soldier honouring former members of the regiment, standing where the gravestone should have been and putting a wreath next to Finch’s grave. The cemetery has been  vandalised with everything higgledy-piggledy and topsy turvey as well tuti-puti.

Job done, we fell to chatting about my job in Bangalore. Transpired the soldier was on a mission to go to India and to Egypt, where the Hussars had fought. In the first case, the Hussars apparently helped to suppress the “Indian Mutiny” which I was at pains to point out is now called the First War of Indian Independence. The soldier had just come back from Russia, where apparently the Fourth Hussars fought too – perhaps at Sebastopol, in the Crimea? The second world war in Russia is now called, of course, the Great Patriotic War.

This was all rather strangely moving. The man was clearly on what he considered to be a sacred mission to track down former heroes in the Hussars, and register their presence. As I said to him, I was born in 1949, and so had been the luckiest soul to escape major wars, unlike my parents and their parents before me.  I have never been pitched into battle, except in the famous “laundry wars” of Ole Bengaluru. I can hardly conceive what war is like, although my Uncle Joe not only had to swim back to a barque from Dunkirk, and then had to fight Rommel’s troops in the Second World War as a member of the “Desert Rats”.

Dear Uncle Joe could hardly be persuaded to talk by me, when I was a five or six year old of the horrors in the desert but when he did, he told me of his best mate destroyed by a Stuka bomb right next to him, and how they were given unlimited amounts of alcohol and amphetamines to keep them going. The “laundry wars” hardly equate, do they? ♥