Sacred journeys

Surrealistic images dominate the Pahari paintings of the Kedara-Kalpa, writes B.N. Goswamy

Five siddhas offer homage to Shiva on their way to Kailash From a Kedara Kalpa series. Pahari; early 19th century. Private collection, UK
Five siddhas offer homage to Shiva on their way to Kailash From a Kedara Kalpa series. Pahari; early 19th century. Private collection, UK

I had occasion sometime back to be at a slide-lecture by a relatively young scion of the Nehru family: Sunil. The theme? His trip to Kailash-Mansarovar as a member of one of the small pilgrims’ groups that make the arduous journey each year, part-sponsored and aided by the Government of India, and suffered in sullen silence by the Chinese in whose territory the sacred places now lie. It was an absorbing talk, for somehow Sunil made everyone present at it not only a witness but also a participant in the long and challenging trip through some truly treacherous terrain. It was clear that he had not started off on it as a devout yatri — or ‘jatroo’ as the Pahari word has it — and yet, by the time the month-long trip came to its end, something in him had changed.

Strands of fascination, self-doubt, adversity, despair, courage, but above all wonder, ran through the web of the talk. One almost felt exhausted going through the travails, but through his eyes one had darshans of the holy Mansarovar, and seen some of the majesty of Kailash, eternal abode of Shiva: perennially snow-bound, and almost defiant.

All the time I was listening, and seeing, an extraordinary series of 19th century paintings was going through my own mind. Not much is known about this Pahari series, the leaves of which are now dispersed throughout the world, and the theme of which has been speculated upon by scholars over the years. Five barely clad, shrivelled pilgrims figure in this series, appearing in folio after folio — very often more than once within the same painting — moving across difficult mountainous regions, and seen offering worship at shrines dedicated to Shiva’s emblem along the way, or being welcomed in palatial mansions. But who were these pilgrims, and where were they headed? Nobody knew. There were no captions; no texts appeared at the back; all that one had was a tantalising number inscribed on the top border: ‘3’ or ‘’ for instance, which clearly suggested that they belonged to a series. One had therefore to speculate.

The guesses made varied from identifying them as the five Pandava brothers who, one knows, went on a long pilgrimage to the Himalayas after the battle of the Mahabharata, to a truncated group of the seven rishis. But no one was certain. Till, with a slice of good luck and some study, my wife and I landed upon a relatively little known text called the Kedara Kalpa. It is something like sthala purana that celebrates the greatness of Kedar-Kailash and speaks of the great merit of undertaking a pilgrimage to these high-ranging Himalayan regions.

The form is that of a somewhat jerky narrative in which some stories come together, the point of each of them being the glorification of Shiva and of pilgrimages. Among the first stories is that of a young Brahmin boy who resolves to go on a pilgrimage to Kedara, despite dissuasion from his parents. His mind made up, however, the boy sets off, but is killed on the way by a kotwal by mistake who then, for fear of being discovered, throws the body in a ditch. When the boy’s anxious parents set up a search party, they are encountered by the spirit of the boy who assures them that he has already entered Shiva’s glorious abode, his resolve to undertake the yatra alone having sufficed to bring him this extraordinary merit. Thus is established, initially, the incomparable phala of the pilgrimage to Kedara-Kailash.

The more extended narrative that follows this story however is what the paintings in the Kedara Kalpa series seem to deal with. In this, five siddhas — also called sadhakas in the text — go on pilgrimage to the land of Shiva through snow-clad mountains, past the domains of the moon, and encountering on the way not only the greatest of difficulties, but also the most wondrous of sights. Golden cities, apsaras singing and dancing, young maidens hanging like ripe fruit from tree branches, roads paved and rocks studded with rubies and emeralds, come their way.

Temptations are strewn in their path, for rulers of celestial domains offer them vast treasures, the company of thousands of beautiful damsels, untold numbers of elephants and horses, if only they would stay with them, and not proceed further. But with exemplary single-mindedness of purpose, they decline each honour, each temptation, and keep moving onwards. On the way their appearances change: they turn young, and old again; shave their heads or grow long beards. What does not change is the firmness of their resolve. Finally, they do reach their goal and gain the blessed sight of Shiva: seated in all his majesty with his consort, Parvati, on Kailash.

The paintings of the Kedara-Kalpa series — in fact there are two series, one now finds — are not the greatest of Pahari works. But there is something so arrestingly artless about them. And a decided bit of defiance. In them are conjured up magical visions: snow-bound wastes, golden stretches of land, tall crystalline peaks piercing the sky, dark caverns, decaying shrines. And suddenly, as the five wrinkled figures move about in these surrealistic surroundings, the painter intersperses among them the most unlikely of details: a lunar silence broken as it were by the shrill cries of aquatic birds, trees growing out of the snow and laden with lush sprays of flowers, mauve rivers filled with blooming lotuses. One might find some of this disorienting, for things do not seem to match. But it is as if in these painted pages the painter, exercising his right to do things as he pleases, were addressing the viewer and saying: "This is my imagination. Where is yours?"