With their own unique pantheon of goddesses, the ‘Devipujak’ community, still found in parts of Gujarat were forced to transform an adversity into a fascinating art form. Barred from temples in a rigid, casteist society that prohibited ‘lower castes’ from entering places of worship, these nomads decided to take the goddess with them, through the elaborate hand painted tapestry they created. Known as Mata ni Pachedi (quite literally behind the goddess), as here the background came alive, these large vivid strips of cloth are used as shrines for community worship even today.
Barred from temples in a rigid, casteist society, these nomads decided to take the goddess with them
The Devipuajaks also known as Vaghera or Waghri are a scheduled tribe found in the states of Rajasthan (Jaipur District) and Gujarat in India and the province of Sindh in Pakistan. In Gujarat today, they are mainly found in Eastern area in districts of Sabarkantha, Banaskantha, Panchmahal, Kheda and Ahmedabad. Little is known about the community in Sindh or Rajasthan. Landless labourers, the old colonial establishment was quick to dub them as nomads. In fact, so suspicious were they of the tribes that they actually listed them under the draconian Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 which was revoked in 1952. This Act was often used to harass locals.
While very little is known about the Devipujak community and very few studies have been done around their origins, a lot of what we do know, has come down through the oral traditions that the community still follows. According to community members, their art form evolved some 300 years ago as they were barred from entering temples, thus forcing them to make their own shrines. Instead of elaborate structures or temples, the tribes used large rectangular cloth to make paintings of a cross section of goddesses meticulously ‘narrating’ the stories around them and the miracles they performed through paintings.
The old colonial establishment was quick to dub these landless labourers as nomads
While there were artisans who made the Mata ni Pachedi, there were others who carried out the rituals related to the goddesses in these portable temples. ‘Bhuva’ and ‘Jagaria’ for instance were two sects of the community who performed rituals and narrated the legends using the motifs as a reference point. Song and music were the standard accompaniments in the narrative.
The local patron goddesses of this community are also unique, they include the ‘Meldy Mata’, ‘Khodiyar Mata’ ‘Mugol Mata’, ‘Vihat Mata’, and ‘Chamundi Mata’ among others and they are depicted riding their vahans or animals associated with them. There are a vast array of these vahans painted. You can find roosters, crocodiles, buffalos and goats.
The local patron goddesses of this community are also unique
The Mata ni Pachedi also has some classic patterns. The different forms of goddesses are depicted in the centre against the maroon background and her stories are painted around it. Traditionally the painting would include a limited shade of colours and a long process stretching over months to complete a single piece. Maroon and black were the common background colours as they are both associated with mother Earth. The colours were prepared with a mixture of jaggery and iron (for black colour) and tamarind seeds (for the maroon colour). The fabric was then boiled in an alizarin solution which is an organic compound that has been used throughout history as a prominent red dye, and then washed off to get rid of the excess colours. Different sacred cloth pieces are brought together to prepare a shrine for the goddess that the community could use.
While the goddesses and the motifs around them were originally hand drawn, today they are only a few who still follow this practice and most have shifted to block painting. But even though new methods are adopted, old associations remain. White is seen as a colour of purity and is used in contrast with black which was meant to repel malevolent spirits.
A rare Mata ni Pachedi piece is, in the collection of the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad. it shows the Sikotari Mata or Vahanvati Mata. In this Pachedi, Sikotari Mata, the goddess of sea farers, is depicted as riding a boat.
Today, various other colours are incorporated in the process and the cloth which once narrated the sacred story of a Goddess has become a commercial product. Sadly there are barely a handful of artisans remaining in the community who practice this art form and so will be able to pass it on to the next generation. An authentic piece of Mata ni Pachedi may range from Rs 1,200 upwards.
For the once nomadic Devipujak tribe, the Mata ni Pachedi depictions served as portable temples. While with time, this community has settled down they still continue their art retaining their own unique tradition of worship.