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The Resonance of Faith

Temple bells chime across the still silence of the desert, the peals a clear sound that ring for a while, resound, and are then swallowed up into a great nothingness. It is a sound that bathes the dawn with an enchanted, magical beauty, that gives definition to a life of harsh realities: in sand and scrub, the people have found not discomfort but faith, a force that gives them a positive radiance, and the mettle to create a life that is a celebration of their energies and their beliefs.

Every home in Rajasthan has its deities - those from the Hindu pantheon, folk heroes, mother goddesses, sati matas, even maharajas who ran their kingdoms like exemplary welfare states. Every village has its temples - from the vermilion daubed stones revered under the thickening trunks of ancient trees to carved temples that celebrate the spirit of their faith. Every faith has its gods - whether Hindu, Islamic, or Jain, in the nature of gurus, or as the cosmos itself. And every one of them has a place in Rajasthan, not only tolerant of each other's religions, but also participating in many of the events, or letting faiths intermingle to create a new vocabulary for those who believe in gods, and the power of gods.

The warrior spirit is a result, too, of this faith: it is the creed of the warrior to lay down his life in the protection of his motherland, a belief so strongly instilled that a spouse worships her husband in the image of god when he goes out to the battlefield - this even when, should he be slain, the wife would probably have to join in the jauhar procession, jumping into a fiery pit in a mass ritual of suicide. It was this faith too that led them to live with such zest, colouring their lives as they did their clothes, with the passion they believed the gods invested in their days spent on earth.

The religious kaleidoscope is truly amazing: the chanting of Jain hymns, and their observance of strict austerities is at odds with the Bhil zest for ritual festivities in honour of the gods, or even the Rajput exuberance in their faith, and in the preparations leading up to a religious ceremony, or the Muslim month of mourning and fasting even in the harshest climatic conditions. The Jains do not eat after sundown, the Muslims share their sweet porridge of sewaiyan with others on the occasion of Id, and the Rajputs sacrifice goats before their gods, and serve it as consecrated food. Yet, between them, there has always been a sense of harmony. The Rajput kings not only gave permission to the Muslims and Jain to build their religious shrines, they also, often, gave them the lands on which to do so.

These shrines were often, also profusely carved and sculptured, for the people invested their faith in creating temples and mosques of great and abiding beauty. Such shrines were also meeting points for the people, not only at the time of religious festivities, but even otherwise, and it was therefore usual to have plantations, even orchards, surround them. A well was essential for providing the water required to bathe the sanctum, but also for quenching the thirst of travellers who would seek shelter at temples on their journeys across the desert.

Given the hostile climate and landscape, the people found comfort too in the protection of the trees and their wildlife, investing them with spirits, so that tree felling was not encouraged, and even the peacock, monkey, deer and other animals were sanctified by faith. In the case of the Bishnois, followers of a 15th century saint, Jambhoji, such protection became a credo, and they became staunch conservatioists of their environment.

For the Rajputs, their worship is also a form of paying obeisance to their ancestors, for they believe themselves descended from the very gods they pray too, and have the genealogies to prove it. At all important temples and shrines, there are Bhats, keepers of the family records whose duty it is to maintain genealogies, tracing them back not just a few generations but - provided you have the patience - to the very beginnings of time. Most people know the clan's history, and are con-tent with their more recent antecedents, but the royal families, and those of aristocratic background, have written records that go back (and in great detail) to over five hundred generations. No wonder their faith, and their awesome ancestry, draw such reverence. Since these histories were sung for patron families by bards, the heroic deeds of their past ancestors were soon transformed into the mythic, deifying earlier generations. No wonder the people of Rajasthan are so affected by their pasts: it often seems more real than even the present they live in.

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