Uncharted journeys

THERE always are uncertainties, and one never ceases to learn. Some years back, I — together with Caron Smith, my colleague — was working on the famed Binney Collection of Indian Paintings at the San Diego Museum of Art, preparing for an exhibition. There were treasures of all kinds in the collection, things that one knew or could make an educated guess about.

Most of the Mughal paintings were within my mental reach: Rajasthani series, mostly of religious paintings ‘rooted in the earth’, one had seen before; Deccani pictures of sultans and mystics were not too difficult to make out; Pahari paintings with their wonderful clarity of vision I was already very familiar with. But when Caron led me to a painting that showed Krishna driving Arjuna’s chariot across unknown terrains, I was a bit puzzled, for neither the subject nor the style rang a bell. I was told that the painting had already featured in a show that a neighbouring California museum had borrowed it for, but not much had been written on it. The work, however, was so intriguing, and the task so challenging that both of us decided to include it in our show, which eventually appeared under the title: Domains of Wonder. The difficulty was to make sense of what was going on in the painting.

This is part of what we wrote as a note on the painting then, groping as we were in the dark. It started with a description. "Like segments of giant rings, different terrains appear here, separated from one another by intervening rows of water. Moving steadily across them is a chariot driven by Krishna, with a warrior, almost certainly Arjuna, seated on it. The journey has begun from known, terrestrial space — a green stretch of land dotted with flowering and fruit-laden trees. The inscription (at the back of the painting), from an unidentified text, speaks of the celestial chariot moving in the westerly direction, ‘crossing seven islands, seven seas, seven mountains, and then, having travelled 12-and-a-half crore yojanas of distance, reaching a mountain, beyond which there is only darkness, and no sun rises."

Journeying through Unknown Lands. Central Indian Painting, ca. 1750. Binney Collection in the San Diego Museum of Art
Journeying through Unknown Lands. Central Indian Painting, ca. 1750. Binney Collection in the San Diego Museum of Art

We spoke, then, of the long journey, suggested by the chariot appearing four times across the page, in which the twosome cross plains and mountains, water courses of different colours and densities, habitations with huts and houses, lamas and temple structures on hill tops. When they go past the final pile of rocks, marked by no vegetation or sign of human life, that is the point, we said, "where another — mysterious and uncharted — space begins".

It is easy to see that, as we wrote that note, we were unsure, and we said so in our book. It was difficult to ascertain what was envisioned or represented in the painting. The Bhagvadgita, which features Krishna as a sarathi-driver of Arjuna’s chariot, came to mind as a possible source but we were certain that this episode did not figure in it even remotely. Arjuna’s visit to the mountainous abode of Shiva for securing the boon of divine weapons from him also occurred to us as a possibility, but several details did not work out.

Cautiously, therefore, we concluded the note thus: "All this is in the area of speculation. Meanwhile, there is this little miniature, which leads the viewer into vast, uncharted domains."

That was some five years ago. The painting had stayed in my mind, but questions about it remained only a faint memory. Then, a few days back, when I was with two colleagues at the Sawai Man Singh Palace Museum in Jaipur, something suddenly happened. We were seeing, on the computer screen, digitised images of some part of the collection of paintings in that museum.

There is a very extensive set of paintings of the Bhagvatpurana in that collection, some 400 works: late, but quite innovative. There were familiar images, familiar episodes, and then all of a sudden appeared a painting with a series of giant rings against a changing landscape that made me sit up and take notice. It reminded me instantly of the San Diego painting. There was a brief inscription on this work, mentioning "Loka-aloka".

I know the text of the Purana quite well, but apparently had not come upon that passage or term. So, I decided to search, in part with some help from the curator there, who said in the sequence the painting belonged to the uttara-ardha — the latter portion or half — of the Tenth Book of the text. That part of the Purana not being as well known as the first part, at least to me, I began reading. This is what I found.

In chapter 89 of the Tenth book, there is an episode that speaks of a Brahmin living at Dwarka — Krishna’s own kingdom — who loses nine of his sons, one after the other, almost as soon as they were born. Sinless as he himself was, the Brahmin reproached Krishna, the king, for these untoward happenings, accusing him of having committed some sins, for in those days, the sins of kings visited themselves upon their subjects.

Hearing these reproaches, Arjuna, who was visiting, promised the Brahmin that he would protect his next son, and said he would enter the fire if he failed. In due course, another son was born but, in the very presence of Arjuna, who was sitting there with his famous bow, the child wept, rose up high in the air, and disappeared. The Brahmin now reproached and taunted Arjuna for having made a false promise. Stung, Arjuna decided to search for the son. He went to the Yama Loka and the Indra Loka, went to the regions of Agni, Chandra, Vayu, travelled to the nether world, but could not find the Brahmin’s son.

Having failed to honour his commitment, he was about to jump into the fire when Krishna intervened. "I shall show you the Brahmin’s sons", he said: "Do not disregard yourself." Then, with Arjuna in a chariot, the two went towards the west. The text says: "They crossed the seven oceans and the seven islands. They crossed the Loka-aloka and entered the regions of chaotic darkness" in which the horses could not even move. Krishna, however, pierced the darkness with his Sudarshan chakra and they came to a spot where "infinite, endless, divine light" spread out.

There, in a house glittering with gems and stones, sat the Supreme Spirit who welcomed Krishna and Arjuna, saying to them, smilingly, that it was He, who had taken the Brahmin’s sons away, for He wanted to see them both for instructing them in the ways of dharma, knowing that they would come looking for the boys. Saying this, He returned the Brahmin’s sons, who were, of course, restored by Arjuna to their father.

Obscure as the meaning of this story is, I suddenly saw that San Diego painting with great clarity.