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The Painted Skulls And Royal Swans Of Hallstatt

12/10/2015 8:11 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Ishan Mitra

On a road trip through Europe, the writer and her family visit the charming little Austrian village of Hallstatt.

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Pic credit: Ishan Mitra

Wedged onto a narrow ledge of land between the mirror lake of Hallstätter See and the steep Dachstein mountains, lies the village of Hallstatt... Austria's oldest and some say it's prettiest. It also happens to be car-free. The first views from across the lake are pure drama. Tall, narrow timber houses with window boxes spilling scarlets and crimsons, mauves and purples, the spire of the 15th-century church mirrored in the glassy lake and the crash-bang spectacle of a waterfall right down the middle of the village.

As the ferry nears the shore, we see the swans of Hallstätter See. The swans have a tale to tell. Hallstatt was the summer resort of the Empress Sisi and her husband, the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef. The swans were brought here for the first time in the late 19th century by the Empress. An incandescent beauty with a melancholy streak, Sisi seems to have shared her cousin, mad King Ludwig's obsession with swans. In the Bavarian castles of King Ludwig, the swan theme is everywhere... on tapestries, draperies, centrepieces, murals, fountains and even the pudding moulds in the royal kitchens.

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Pic credit: Ishan Mitra

At the edge of town stands the Catholic Pfarrkirche or the parish church. We scramble up a narrow stony path that winds its way through tightly stacked timber houses perched precariously on the hill slope. Little blackboards dangle against pastel walls: "zimmer frei" or rooms for rent. Hallstatt families rent out rooms to tourists. I make a mental note that on my next visit, the charm of a 100-year-old wooden house and fresh grilled saibling from the lake will triumph over the convenience of wi-fi and free parking in a cheap motel.

The path ends at the foot of a steep flight of stairs that leads to the tiny cemetery. It starts drizzling. The fine rain stipples the fresh turned soil below the asters a darker brown and cloud banks roll in from the Dachstein. The water is a polished grey green from this height. The ferry slices a clean white swathe through it. The Dachstein broods darkly over the lake.

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Pic credit: Ishan Mitra

The beinhaus or ossuary is in a little grotto next to the cemetery. It has been around since the 12th century. Hallstatt is ancient; it existed before there was a Rome. Iron Age settlers and Celts have worked these hills for salt as far back as the second century millennium BC. In fact it was the salt from the Salzkammergut that funded the dizzying cathedral spires and palaces of Salzburg and the lavish lifestyles of its rulers, the Prince Archbishops.

The children race each other up the stone stairs to the mouth of the grotto. What kind of parent takes kids to see a charnel house? I push down vague doubts. After all, children are famously resilient. My firstborn is 14 and delights in all things gross, gory and scatological. Consorting with crania is just the kind of thing that would appeal to him. Besides there must be possibilities of wringing out a modicum of education from the display of femur, tibia, humerus and cranium.

Wedged onto a narrow ledge of land between the lake and the Dachstein range, Hallstatt is so narrow that the village barely had space to bury its dead. Hence the beinhaus. The dead rested in their graves for a mere 10 years before the graves were opened and the skulls and large bones removed, cleaned and placed in the ossuary.

We pay in our six Euros entry apiece at the mouth of the grotto to a little old lady in a glass box. The grotto is tiny... the dead take up very little space. The crania are placed in long neat rows on tiered wooden shelves. Below the shelves, the long bones are tightly packed like firewood -- femur and tibia, humerus and ulna. There are more than 1200 skulls here. There is a kind of brotherhood of the dead here, a social levelling. Only the priests enjoy a somewhat elevated station in death as they probably did in life. The crania of the priests rest on copies of the Bible.

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Pic credit: Ishan Mitra

I steal a glance at the family. Father and son are busy clicking away while daughter is trying to decipher the names in elaborate curlicue script on the skulls. None seem particularly overcome by thoughts of mortality in close proximity with the dead. No hushed reverence, just a lot of animated talk. I am relieved.

After the dead rested in their graves for 10 to 15 years, the bones were disinterred. The skull was cleaned and left out in the open for weeks to be dried by the sun by day and bleached by the moon by night to a beautiful pale ivory. They were then painted by hand in dusty greens and reds - sometimes, but not very often, cyans and yellows burst through the sombre green. The names of the dead are written in flamboyant lettering wreathed in flowers and leaves... oak leaves for glory, laurel for victory, ivy for life and roses for love. Sometimes there are dates painted on the skulls... dates of birth and death bookending anonymous lives lived in a remote Austrian village hundreds of years ago. The cross is always prominently centred above the name. Who were these people? Salt miners and fisherfolk? Maybe some artisans as well, people who worked with wood and metal, stone and clay. "You are not your own," say the first Corinthians. The body of a believer is a sanctified shrine ....."temples of the Holy Spirit". Would there ever have been a crisis of faith in these lives?

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Pic credit: Paul Kranzler, Vademecum

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Pic credit: Paul Kranzler, Vademecum

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Pic credit: Paul Kranzler, Vademecum

I wonder who painted the skulls. Could it be the family of the deceased? Unlikely, as there seems to be a certain continuity in style. Would a gravedigger have the necessary artistic sensibilities? Of course, if it were my country, there would be a whole caste centred around skull painting but this is Austria. I try to find out from the ticket lady but her functional English and my non-existent German are not quite equal to the task.

It is time to leave. It is time to go down the hill to the lake to feed Sisi's swans and continue on our drive through Austria. We hold hands and laugh as we clamber down the stony path. Half-remembered lines keep circling in my head...

"...And God said

Shall these bones live? shall these

Bones live? And that which had been contained

In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:

Because of the goodness of this Lady

And because of her loveliness, and because

She honours the Virgin in meditation,

We shine with brightness."

(From "Ash Wednesday", by T S Eliot)

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