The Pichwai Tradition: Tapestries of Krishna

Museum of Art & Photography

In the 15th century, perhaps as a reaction to the increasingly ascetic direction in which Hinduism was going, there was born in North India, a new off-set of Krishna worship called the Pushti Marg, or the Path of Grace. The Pushti Marg lays claim to a distinctive culture—reaching back centuries and still vital today—in which art and devotion are deeply intertwined. An introduction into their resplendent visual world, this exhibit explores the unique aesthetic tradition of the pichwai. 

Painted portion of a pichwai for Gopashtami, Unknown Artist, Mid 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
Krishna as Shrinathji
The Pushti Marg or Path of Grace was founded by Vallabhacharya, one of the six main acharyas of the Bhakti tradition in India, at the turn of the 16th century. Unlike many other religious sects, the Pushti Marg does not advocate asceticism as a path to enlightenment, believing instead that the true spiritual goal is achieved through personal devotion and surrender to Krishna in the midst of worldly pursuits and pleasures. Due to its philosophical belief of monism, or Shuddhadvaitam, the Pushti Marg maintains that all existence is derived from a single Supreme Power and that all living beings carry its essence within them. The soul's awareness of its oneness with the Almighty, then, comes only through God's grace (pushti) and the revelation of Himself in His divine play (lila) – the path to which lies in the adoration of Krishna (bhakti). This adoration is particularly centered around Shrinathji – the youthful manifestation of Krishna, who Vallabacharya believed to be the most complete incarnation of Vishnu. Thus, the childhood sports (lilas) of Krishna among his cowherd friends on the banks of the Yamuna, is believed to be the most potent and divine play of the Lord, allowing devotees to partake in the highest degree of divine bliss. 
Shrinathji Swaroop, Karodimal/Kajodimal Ratan Lal, Early 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography

The main Pushti Marg swaroop (form) of Shrinathji represents Krishna at the age of seven. He is shown with his left arm held above his head, in the act of lifting Mount Govardhana to protect the people of Vraja, while his right hand rests on his waist.

This is the central deity enshrined in Nathdwara (translated as 'gateway to the lord'), the primary pilgrimage spot for those of the Pushti Marg order.

Shrinathji Swaroop, Unknown Artist, Late 19th to Early 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
Shrinathji Swaroop, Unknown Artist, Late 19th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography

Although most pichwais feature Krishna in his various swaroops, particularly those of childhood and adolescence, and primarily that of Shrinathji, some hangings and paintings also feature other important figures in the Pushti Marg pantheon or history, including specific goswamis or priests.

Seen below is a portrait of Yamunaji. The river Yamuna—daughter of Surya (the sun god) and sister of Yama (the god of death)—assumes a divine form as the fourth patranis or Queen Consort of Lord Krishna. The fourth of his eight patranis, she is held to be the patron goddess of Pushti Margis, the bestower of bhakti and grace.

A Pichwai of Shri Yamunaji, Unknown Artist, Early 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
Pichwai of Daan Leela, Unknown Artist, Early 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
The Pichwai: Adoration & Adornment of Shrinathji
The word pichwai, literally translates to 'that which hangs at the back', and refers to a unique form of pictorial textiles made specifically for use as backdrops in the shrines of Shrinathji. Constituting an essential part of Pushti Marg worship, they are exuberant outpourings of adoration for Krishna that add a visual dimension to the already elaborate sewa or service to Shrinathji. Painted on cotton; made of brocade and heavy silk; embroidered; painted and dyed; tinsel printed; block printed; even made of machine-made lace – they also constitute a resplendent addition to the unique textile arts of India. The pichwais are multilayered with respect to the Pushti Marg seva (worship), constituting on the one hand the day-to-day adornment of the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine; while on another level they are deeply symbolic—artistic expressions of deep religious faith and devotion that embody and impart the bhava or mood in the shrine and among devotees. Part theatrical backdrop, part religious icons, they are made manifest by the celebratory spirit and desire to surround Krishna with all the luxuries and comforts available, rooted in the tenets of the sect. 
Pichwai of Shrinathji Arti, Unknown Artist, 19th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography

Although pichwais were usually made in Rajasthan and Gujarat, a few examples from the Deccan, as well as machine-made roller-printed or lace pichwais from Europe are also known.

The pichwais are changed daily, seasonally, and for various rituals and festive occasions in the temple. They create the setting for all related seva and as such depict key events significant to the Vallabha sampradaya or doctrine.

The story of Krishna presents in itself a blend of legend and symbolism. The numerous incidents associated with his life are integral to India's cultural and religious ethos, particularly in Viashnava-Hindu worship across the country. However, the pichwais, in keeping with the core values of Vallabha's philosophies focus primarily on events from Krishna's youth, drawing inspiration from the Bhagavata Purana.

Pichwai of Daan Leela, Unknown Artist, Early 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
Pichwai of Daan Leela, Unknown Artist, c. 1900, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
Contexts and Themes
Worship at Nathdwara is an elaborate affair with eight daily darshans (or formal viewings) and a year marked with 24 festivals particularly important to the Pushti Marg, aside from observances to mark the changing seasons, significant events in the sect's history, and other regional and pan-Indian festivals. On all occasions, the pichwai serves as more than a mere backdrop—interacting and altering meaning at each viewing. Each darshan and festival observed by the Pushti Margis has a special mood, a particular emotion that is made manifest through music, poetry, dancing, offerings of sumptuous food (bhoga), and adornment (shringara) – in which the pichwais play a major role, as part of a matched set of textile coverings including wall coverings, ceiling canopies and coverings for the throne, steps, and other platforms.
Painted section of a pichwai for sirhi (steps), Unknown Artist, 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography

Two episodes of particular relevance to the Pushti Marg sect, depicted in several pichwais and paintings, are those of events relating to Mount Govardhana, i.e., Annakuta and the Ras Lila.

Annakuta

The most renowned festival of the Pushti Marg, it commemorates the lifting of Mount Govardhana by Krishna. Mount Govardhana or Giri Raj, prominently located within the Vraj landscape is of particular significance to the Vallabachari sect, as it was on this summit that the image of Shrinathji was discovered. The episode represented by this image relates to the autumnal offerings the villagers of Vraj were about to make to Indira, the nominal king of the Gods. Krishna suggested that worship instead be offered to the spirit of the mountain that sustained the pastures and woods that supported their livelihoods – and transformed into the mountain king in order to receive their offerings. The annual reenactment of this scene thus gains the name Annakuta or 'mountain of food'. When a wrathful Indira unleashed a rainstorm in fury, Krishna vanquished him by lifting the mountain on the little finger of his left hand – captured by the key iconographic gesture of Shrinathji's raised left hand.

Sapta Swarupa Annakutotsva, Unknown Artist, Mid 19th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
Pichwai of Sapta Swarupa Annakutotsva, Unknown Artist, Early 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography

Ras Lila or Maha Rasa on the occasion of Sharad Purnima

Bhakti, the central tenet of the Pushti Marg doctrine is epitomised by the Ras Lila, where adolescent Krishna dances with his gopis. On a full moon night in the Vraj forest, by the flowing Yamuna, Krishna's melodious flute calls out to the gopis like the pied piper, and they are forced to abandon everything to dance with him. The spirit of abandon and surrender that the Ras Lila evokes, is the realisation of bhakti: it represents the ultimate union of the soul with the Lord, a joining together in cosmic dance. Thus, it is a theme dear to most patron-devotees and an extremely popular choice for pichwais.

A Pichwai for Rasleela, Unknown Maker, Early 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
Pichwai of Rasleela for Sharad Purnima, Unknown Artist, c. 1900, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography

Other common subjects found in pichwais include the Daan Lila, Gopashtami and Janmashtami.

Surdas, most revered of the Ashtachaap poets writes:

"Yashoda rocks Hari's cradle.
She rocks and strokes and caresses him singing whatever comes to her mind:
'Come to my baby, sleep do come and lull him to rest, do come quickly, Kanha is calling you.'
Now Hari closes his eyes, now his lip trembles—
And thinking him asleep, Yashoda sits quietly, gesturing to Nanda.
With that, Hari stirs suddenly, and Yashoda starts to sing softly again.
Sur knows that Nanda's lady enjoys a bliss beyond attainment of the gods and sages."

This tender scene described by Surdas is what is enacted on Nandamahotsava, where the vatsalya bhava or selfless parental love of Nanda and Yashoda is commemorated. On the occasion of the Nandamahotsav, celebrated the day after Janmashtami or the birth of Krishna, the doors of the inner sanctum remain open for darshan all day long. Shrinathji in his Navnitpriyaji swaroop is swung in a cradle by priests who dress up as Yashoda and Nanda to enact this scene. There are also celebratory dances with the temple servants dressed as the gopas and gopis of Vraj.

Pichwai for Nandmahotsava, Unknown Artist, Late 19th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography

As Krishna grows up, he becomes beloved of the whole village. Indulged as he is, he becomes a mischievous child, his love for milk and butter becomes legendary, and his charm grows steadily more irresistible.

The festival of Daan Lila is celebrated in August-September and has its origins in bhakti poetry where Krishna demanded milk and butter from the gopis as a toll for safe passage home. It is believed that this occurred in a valley in Mount Govardhana known as Daan Ghati, and while some pichwais depict the entire narrative and enactment of the gopis sharing their milk with Krishna, others only suggest the event with Shrinathji being approached by gopis bearing milk pots on their heads. At Nathadwara, teh festival of Saan Lila, goes on for twenty days!

Pichwai of Daan Leela, Unknown Artist, c. 1900, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
Pichwai for Maha Daan Leela, Khubiram Gopilal (1891-1970), Early 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
Pichwai for Daan Leela, Unknown Artist, 19th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography

Krishna grows gradually into the perfect cowherd: the one who all cows heed, answering to his flute as if in a state of intoxication.

The Gopashtami festival takes place in the late autumnal months, and marks the elevation of Krishna from a younger herders of calves to a full cowherd. Cows are adorned with henna and sindur hand prints, peacock plumes and with bells around their necks. At Nathadwara, the cows, decked in their finest, are brought into the haveli.

Painted portion of a pichwai for Gopashtami, Unknown Artist, Mid 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
Pichwai for Gopashtami, Unknown Maker, Late 19th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography

As mentioned earlier, every event in Krishna's day becomes an occasion for the Pushti Margis. The sandhya aarti or ritual lighting of the lamp in the evening that celebrates the aavni or coming of Krishna, takes place every day at the Shrinathji haveli.

The Sandhya aarti pichwai is an age old composition that depicts Yashoda and the gopis standing at the door to greet Krishna, Balarama and their gopa friends as they return home from the fields with their herd after a day at pasture.

Chaturbhujadasa, another of the eight ashtachaap poets writes:

"Govinda goes to graze the cows (today).
Ma Yashoda watches with delight,
Declaring, 'How auspicious is the day!'
Having bathed and bedecked him
With rich robes and ornaments,
Greetings and salutations pour in
Form the wise of the firmament.
Anoints she his forehead,
Performs then an aarti.
The cowherd God, thus blessed
Chaturbhujadasa recounts joyously,
Watching Giridhar and Balarama
In rich attire, (walking arm in arm).
She emrbaces the Lord,
With kisses tender and warm."

Pichwai for Sandhya Arti, Unknown Artist, Early 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography

Pichwais are also, as mentioned earlier, changed to reflect the seasons. In the summer months, the pichwais chosen are often of the Kamal Vana or Jal Vihar categories, featuring lotuses and water bodies, and meant to provide Shrinathji respite from the sweltering heat.

Pichwai for Jal Vihar, Unknown Maker, Early 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography

In the example below, Balarama, Krishna's brother forms the subject of representation. As Parmanandadasa, one of the eight ashtachaap poets writes:

"Brother (Balarama),
Lord Shankar's Serpent incarnate,
Safeguards Vraja
Sparkling like its river's ghats."

Balarama Jalavihar, Unknown Artist, Early to mid 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography

In the monsoon months, the Morakuti and Varsha or Vrikshachari pichwais are brought out.

Pichwais for Morakuti, as seen below, depict peacocks with crested crowns dancing in full abandon in the rainy season. Named after a small village in Vraja, near the birthplace of Radha, where peacocks abound – these pichwais mimic the ras lila, or Krishna's dance with Radha and the gopis.

Pichwai for Morakuti, Unknown Artist, 19th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography

Varsha or Vrikshachari pichwais evoke Krishna as a vrikshacharya or tree dweller. He is only symbolically represented in the painting therefore, usually through the kadamaba tree, while in anticipation of his arrival gopis appear on either side of the tree carrying offerings of garlands, peacock fans, flowers and fly whisks.

Detail of a Vrikshachari or Varsha Pichwai, Unknown artist, Late 18th to Early 19th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
A Chhint Divalgiri or Chintz style wall furnishing for Morakuti, Unknown Maker, Late 19th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
Artists and Materials
The pichwai artists are exponents of a living tradition, centuries old, in Nathadwara, the temple town devoted to Shrinathji. Little is known of their history before the early 19th century, or how they took to their profession. They belong primarily to three sub-castes: the Adi Gaur and the Jangid, and the lesser known Mewaras. From the nineteenth century on, many of their names appear on paintings and pichwais, though reliable details about them are still hard to find. What is certain however, is their participation in the development of a unique visual idiom in Nathdwara during the 19th and 20th centuries, that reinvented the traditional iconography of Shrinathji with ingenuity and creativity, inspired by newer forms such as photography, Ravi Varma oil paintings and calendar art. As mentioned earlier though, pichwais were not restricted to painted hangings, but also included printed, woven and embroidered pieces. In the havelis of the Pushti Marg, painted pichwais are not displayed during winter months, when heavy brocades, zardosi, and khari works are deemed more appropriate – because of both the warmth they are considered to bestow upon the deity, and the fact that the reflected light from the glowing flames of the aarti is captured by them through a silvery or golden glitter in dim winter months, elevating the experience of the darshan.          
Fragment of a Woven Pichwai, Unknown Maker, c. 1850, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
Brocade Pichwai Panel, Unknown Maker, 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
Khari (or Tinsel) Print Pichwai Panel, Unknown Maker, 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
Applique Pichwai, Unknown Maker, Early 20th century, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
Conclusion 
As eminent art historian, B. N. Goswamy writes: "To the Portal of the Lord—Nathadwara—come many offerings. Here keep continually pouring in, as Col. Todd observed, 'the spices of the isles of the Indian archipelago; the balmy spoils of Araby the blest; the nard or frankincense of Tartary; the raisins and pistachios of Persia; every variety of sweet preparation... with which the god sweetens his evening repast... ; the shawls of Kashmir, the silks of Bengal, the scarfs of Benares, the brocades of Gujarat...' But, as ancient texts keep reminding one, there is no offering greater than that of devotion. And, no matter what they received in payment or as prasada, the makers of the great pichwais appear to have brought devotion to their work, their great skills and their artistic vision apart... Perhaps this is what Coomaraswamy was speaking of when he wrote about the magic world of Rajput painting being 'not unreal or fanciful, but a world of imagination and eternity, visible to all who do not refuse to see with the transfiguring eyes of love.' For here, as he said, 'if never and nowhere else in the world the Western Gates are opened wide. The arms of lovers are about each other's necks, eye meets eye, the whispering sakhis speak of nothing else but the course of Krishna's courtship, the very animals are spell-bound bu the sound of Krishna's flute, and the elements stand still to hear the ragas and raginis. This art is only concerned with the realities of life; above all, with passionate love-service, conceived as the means and symbol of all Union.'" 
Credits: Story

Curation & Content: Shilpa Vijayakrishnan

References & Further Reading:

Amit Ambalala. "Krishna as Shrinathji". Mapin Publishing, 1987

Eds. Kalyan Krishna & Kay Talwar. "In Adoration of Krishna: Pichwais of Shrinathji, TAPI collection". Garden Silk Mills Ltd., 2007

Vivek Nanda. "Krishna & Devotion: Temple Hangings from Western India". Asia House, 2009

Robert Skelton. "Rajasthani Temple Hangings of Krishna Cult". American Federation of Arts, 1973

Tryna Lyons. "The Artists of Nathadwara: The Practice of Painting in Rajasthan". Indiana University Press, 2004

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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