Divine threshold
B.N. Goswamy

A painted Pichhwai from the Deccan, 19th century. Sarabhai Foundation, Ahmedabad.
A painted Pichhwai from the Deccan, 19th century. Sarabhai Foundation, Ahmedabad. 

A great deal has been written on Nathdwara, and about the art that has flourished there for several hundred years: paintings on cloth, and on paper, and all the art that goes into making the ceremonies and the rituals there a unique experience for the devotees. In the famed Calico Museum, and in the Sarabhai Foundation, there is a superb collection of pichhwais, temple hangings of the Krishna Cult. In Nathdwara, the centre of the great sect centring upon the worship of young Krishna founded by Vallabhacharya, life revolves almost exclusively around Krishna and Krishna-worship and one is apt to lose all track of time.

Before setting out to Nathdwara, I re-read was what an Englishman wrote on the cult and the shrine, some 180 years ago. Col. James Todd was the British Political Agent to the states of Rajasthan. He wrote one of the most readable accounts ever, of the region under the title, Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan.

In it the focus remains naturally upon the history of the various Rajput states that the British, had to deal with. But, alongside, the Colonel provided insights into the culture and customs of the people. He kept adding a personal narrative of his travels. It is somewhere between these, that Todd turns his attention to Nathdwara and has left an account extraordinary in its sympathies and full of warm understanding of what the cult of Krishna there means.

The way he spells names of places and personages—Krishna he constantly refers to as the Hindu Apollo, and writes as crishna or kaniya, for instance; vrindavana becomes vindra- belongs naturally to his times, and there are expressions or allusions that might not be easy to understand immediately. The account is charged with feeling, and breathes an atmosphere that lands the reader straight into those times.

Somewhere in this account, he speaks of the "predominance of the mild doctrines of Kaniya over the dark rites of Siva", which tells one immediately of where his preferences lay. But no elaborate comparisons are made further, and it is to the origins and the practices of the sect that he devotes most of his attention.

Nathdwara, the Col. begins, " is the most celebrated of the fanes of the Hindu Apollo`85. As containing the representative of the mildest of the gods of Hind, Nathdwara is one of the most frequented places of pilgrimage, though it must want that attraction to the classical Hindu which the caves of Gaya, the shores of the distant Dwarka, or the pastoral Vraj, the place of the nativity of Krishna, present to his imagination; for though the groves of Vindra, in which Kanhaiya disported with the Gopis, no longer resound to the echos of his flute; though the waters of the Yamuna are daily polluted with the blood of the sacred kine, still it is the holy land of the pilgrim, the sacred Jordan of his fancy, on whose banks he may sit and weep, as did the banished Israelite of old, the glories of Mathura, his Jerusalem."

And then he moves on to what taking refuge in this little town of Nathdwara means to the devotees of Krishna. Here may be found, he says, among the attendants upon the image of the Lord, "those whom ambition has cloyed, superstition unsettled, satiety disgusted, commerce ruined, or crime disquieted `85".

Here, again, he says, "no blood-stained sacrifice scares the timid devote; no austerities terrify, or tedious ceremonies fatigue him; he is taught to cherish the hope that he has only to ask for mercy in order to obtain it `85." And so on it goes, in this very strain: talk of the devotion of the chiefs of Rajasthan to the dark stone image of Krishna installed at Nathdwara, the extraordinary kitchen that is run for the Lord who wears the Yellow Mantle, the gifts that are bestowed upon, and the revenues assigned, to the shrine.

To be sure, there is not much to be found in Todd’s account, of the art of the place—pichhwais of cloth, paintings on paper—that was commissioned by devotees, and then offered to the shrine, but other gifts are spoken of at length. Among them, he says, keep coming into the shrine untold riches: "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 `85with which the god sweetens his evening repast `85 ; the shawls of Kashmir, the silks of Bengal, the scarfs of Benares, the brocades of Gujarat..."

One knows that the place, and the practices of the place, were unusual then, as they are now.

An invisible layer

While speaking of the pichhwais, seeing a truly remarkable piece in the collection of the Calico Museum. In it the image of Krishna himself does not appear, as it ordinarily would. In the centre of the large textile is painted a tree with incredibly lush foliage, and on either side of it stand two gopis, bringing in offerings.

The Lord himself is, however, not to be seen. But only if one sees the textile with casual eyes. When you look closely, around the trunk of the tree are scattered countless little white flowers; and these, when one joins them, turn into an outline of the form of Krishna standing there, cross-legged, playing upon his flute. Suddenly, he becomes visible, but only if one makes the effort. It is magical.