To visit the temple town of Nathdwara in Rajasthan is to be engulfed in a sea of devotion. In this town, 50 km from Udaipur, Lord Krishna is everywhere – wherever you look, you see images of the Lord. The most popular representation of Krishna, though, is on Pichhwais, paintings of Krishna on cloth, and these are found in the temples of the Pushtimarg sect.
Pichhwais originated in Nathdwara and are traditionally used as the backdrop of the Krishna idol in the sanctum sanctorum of the Pushtimarg temples. The term is, in fact is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘pich’, which means ‘back’ and ‘wai’, which means ‘hanging’.
These devotional, painted wall-hangings are an exuberant depiction of tales from Krishna’s life. They owe their origin to an unusual story, one that is almost divine, and changed the fate of Nathdwara forever.
The town of Nathdwara is the main pilgrimage centre of the Pushtimarg sect, a Vaishnavaite sect founded in the early 16th century CE by Vallabhacharya, a Telugu Brahmin in Braj. A quadrangle that extends from Palwal in Haryana to Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, and from Bharatpur in Rajasthan to Etah in Uttar Pradesh, this region is famous for Krishna worship, especially cities like Vrindavan and Mathura.
The word ‘Pushtimarg’ means ‘The Path of Grace’, and was thus christened by Vallabhacharya as he had rejected the ideas of monasticism and asceticism and believed that devotion to Lord Krishna was the ‘path to salvation’.
So why is Nathdwara in Rajasthan its main religious centre and not Braj, where the sect was originally established?
Shrinathji Moves to Nathdwara
In the mid-17th century, Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb rose to power in the subcontinent and was known for his religious intolerance. According to the legend of Nathdwara, when Aurangzeb threatened to destroy Hindu temples in the 1670s CE, the presiding tilakayat or head of the Pushtimarg sect, Damodar I, fled from Mathura with the idol of Shrinathji, an avatar of Krishna, to protect it. Aurangzeb had banned the worship of Krishna in Mathura and Pushtimarg devotees felt there was a very real threat to Shrinathji.
When the tilakayat fled, Maharana Raj Singh of Udaipur (r. 1652-80 CE) invited him and Shrinathji to his capital and sent a contingent of Rajput warriors to escort the party to safety. It is said that the bullock cart carrying the idol of Shrinathji got stuck in the mud in Sinhad village, 50 km from Udaipur, and could not be pulled free. This was taken as a divine sign and the Shrinathji idol was enshrined in a new temple that was built around it in Sinhad. In honour of the miracle, the village was renamed ‘Nathdwara’ – the door (‘dwar’) of the Lord (‘nath’).
This physical shift of the idol of Shrinathji heralded an era in Krishna Bhakti as well as the art of depicting him. The setting up of the temple at Nathdwara attracted artists from the Adi Gaud and Janki Brahmin sects, who moved to Nathdwara. Their traditions began to blend with the artistic traditions that already existed in Mewar, to create the art of Pichhwai.
The earliest references to Pichhwai are by the 16th century Ashtachap poets. They were 8 eminent, learned men who were the early disciples of Vallabhacharya and composed religious verse for the sect. In their poetry, they describe a backdrop of flowers behind the idol. According to Amit Ambalal, an Ahmedabad-based artist and scholar of Pushtimarg and author of the book Krishna As Shrinathji: Rajasthani Paintings From Nathdvara (1987), the first reference to painted Pichhwais is from 1730 CE.
Embellishments in temples traditionally take the form of sculptural art, rather than paintings. It was believed that its three-dimensional nature, regardless of the material, was a more appropriate domicile for the spiritual presence of the gods.
Art Historian John Listopad of the California State University writes that Vallabhacharya turned things around when he said that sculpture and painting were both equally capable of being endowed with divinity. Thus, Krishna could reside not only in stone and metal sculptures but also in paintings.
One important factor in the popularity of the Pichhwai paintings is the fact that the Pushtimarg sect encouraged chitrasewa, that is, the worship of the painted icon. This practice was unique for the times. It also encouraged and supported the artists, as the paintings would be made not only for the temples but also for devotees to take them home and worship the Lord.
It is said that to consecrate a painting and make it suitable for worship, a priest would pick up the painting, study it, and then offer it bhog, a sacred offering of food.
Pichhwai: The Craft
The devotional wall hangings of Pichhwai usually depict Krishna in his Shrinathji form, that is, the seven-year-old Krishna holding up the Govardhan mountain. They depict different episodes from the life of Krishna as well as festivals like Sharad Purnima, Raas Leela, Annakoot or Govardhan Puja, Janmashtami, Gopashtami, Nand Mahotsav, Diwali and Holi.
The Pichhwai in a temple changes to correspond with the festival being celebrated and the season. This is done through the use of motifs and colours like pink lotuses for summer or a bright full moon for Sharad Purnima. These themes are usually depicted in a lush landscape with abundant flora and fauna.
Pichhwai artists are partial to the colour green, which is used to symbolise the union of Krishna and Radha. Since blue is used to depict Krishna and yellow for Radha, green symbolises their union.
In its early days, the Pushtimarg sect was patronised by many Mughal Emperors, especially Akbar, who granted the sect tax exemptions in return for prayers for the well-being of the monarchy. Some historians, like textile scholar Dr Kalyan Krishna, even say the Pichhwai tradition may have been influenced by Mughal textiles, especially Mughal tents called ‘qanats’, based on some of the motifs.
Traditionally, Pichhwais are made on starched cotton cloth, on which the artist first makes a sketch using a black pigment held between his fingers. The sketch is then filled in with coloured pigments. Next, the artist redraws the outlines so that the subject and motifs stand out clearly.
Artists traditionally used natural pigments and dyes like madder for red, lapis lazuli for blue, and lamp black for black and gold. Even the brushes were made from the hair of animals like squirrels and goats. Depending on the level of detail and scale of the painting, it could take from a few days to a fortnight to make a single Pichhwai painting.
While the textile painting is the most well-known form of Pichhwai, paintings were also made on paper and the walls of Nathdwara, a tradition which continues to date. A visit to Nathdwara will reveal the walls of the city richly painted with Krishna in his different moods.
After centuries of painting on cloth, the craft has undergone a change. Artists now sketch with pencil, and instead of natural pigments, acrylic, oil and water colours are used. Besides, the motifs are now painted on souvenirs and keepsakes sold in shops all across Nathdwara. You can even find embroidered, printed and machine-made Pichhwais today.
Pichhwais depicting Lord Krishna in his famous Shrinathji form, surrounded by beautiful motifs like lotuses and peacocks can be brought from the digital platform Peepul Tree, which supports local crafts and brings forth the works of award-winning artisans. These are painted by Pichhwai artist Sushil Kumar Soni from Bhilwara in Rajasthan.
One of the Pichhwai paintings available on the Peepul Tree portal portrays Srinathji playing the flute while surrounded by his beloved cows flying through the clouds to meet him in Vaikuntha, the celestial abode of the Gods.
The Pichhwai tradition of Nathdwara is still thriving today, and the streets of Nathdwara are teeming with artists who paint Krishna in all his glory, every single day.
DID YOU KNOW?
At some point, a Pichhwai tradition developed in the Deccan. Here, the paintings are done on a dark background with extensive use of gold pigment. The Deccani Pichhwais too depict Lord Krishna, not in his human form but through symbols.
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