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A Rajasthani Fable (via a rare Illustrated Manuscript from North India)

Featured Books 4 June 2018

The Context: Rajasthan, India

In 2006 our firm, RMA Architects, won a competition to design Hathigaon (Elephant Village) – 100 homes for Elephants and their Mahouts (Caretakers) in Jaipur, Rajasthan.  The extended brief included appropriate design consideration for the children of Mahouts, whose relationship with Elephants is like that of a family member.  Therefore, while the elephants were to be close, they were also to be at a safe distance – a tenuous balance of Children and Elephant on the see-saw of life.  Photographs of the architectural and ecological interventions can be seen here: 

https://www.archdaily.com/381679/housing-for-mahouts-and-their-elephants-rma-architects

The Illustrated Manuscript

In January 2012, a curious thing happened while on a site visit:  Rashidbhai, then President of the Mahout’s Welfare Association, brought an old, hand-written and illustrated manuscript for our visual consumption.  We were told that this work was about various ailments of Elephants, and how to heal them.  I eagerly photographed the frail parchment as pages were flipped, understanding nothing of the mysterious contents on display.

Fast forward six years (2018), Urbs Indis is formed – and Rashidbhai’s illustrated manuscript comes to mind.  I dig through my digital archives, and lo-and-behold – there are the photographs.  A few causal enquiries in Mumbai lead nowhere – the text is a challenging mix of archaic Marwari and Urdu (languages of North India) – not traditional or contemporary Hindi.  Further linguistic digging leads to Pune, where an elderly man offers to translate a selected page shared with him.  The outcome is wonderful.

The Fable

The story is a fable used to enlighten children – and the main character is an Elephant.

Many years ago, during the reign of king Mirchand there were many animals residing in a Jungle.  In this jungle there was an elephant who used to boast about his strength. He used to trouble all animals which were smaller than him in size. 

Once the elephant with his strength took away some grass from a cow who was grazing close by. On his way back the elephant hit a tree and the snake residing over the tree fell over his body. The long snake strangled the elephant and bit him on his forehead which resulted in his death. 

Moral of the story: pride has its fall.

I love this story because it speaks to the unique relationship between Elephants and Children – a relationship that we responded to Architecturally more than a decade ago.  We were, in fact, giving spatial form to a bond that has existed and been cultivated for (possibly) centuries. 

I love this story because it speaks to the unique relationship between Elephants and Children – a relationship that we responded to Architecturally more than a decade ago.  We were, in fact, giving spatial form to a bond that has existed and been cultivated for (possibly) centuries. 

Pending Questions

While the translation reveals a wonderful fable and unique relationship between big and small – it also unearths many questions: 

Why did *Rashidbhai say that the book was about ailments of elephants, if it was a collection of fables for Children?

How old is this manuscript? Is this a copy of another document? 

Where did Rashidbhai get this document from, and how long has he had it? 

Why were certain sentences written in red? 

Who is the artist that made the paintings in the book? 

Are all of the stories fables for Children, or are there other types of stories? 

*Unfortunately Rashidbhai passed away in February of this year – and his son is unable to find the literary treasure!

Next Steps

Although the photographs are by no means comprehensive, they are a starting point in understanding this unique illustrated manuscript from North India.  As a next step, I am requesting the elderly gentleman in Pune to translate the available text – to begin fitting the pieces of the puzzle.  As and when new translations are available, they will be documented here on the Urbs Indis Journal.  

Photograph by Robert Stephens

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Urbs Indis is an urban aerial photography studio and archival library founded by Mumbai based architect and artist Robert D Stephens (RMA Architects). Since 2007 he has been documenting urban India from 10,000 feet above sea level, in black and white as well as colour photography.

© Robert D Stephens
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