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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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."
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.
In the example below, Balarama, Krishna's brother forms the subject of representation. As Parmanandadasa, one of the eight ashtachaap poets writes:
Lord Shankar's Serpent incarnate,
Sparkling like its river's ghats."
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.
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.
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