Nathdwara: Where Devotion Begets Art

Nathdwara: Where Devotion Begets Art
The cult of Shrinathji inspired the famous Nathdwara School of Painting, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The Shrinathji Haveli of Nathdwara inspired an eponymous school of art, especially the Pichwai paintings

Uttara Gangopadhyay
March 01 , 2021
07 Min Read

Nathdwara, about 45km by road from Rajasthan’s famous lake city of Udaipur, is a pilgrim town revered by Vaishnav followers, especially those who believe in the ‘Pushti Marg’ (founded by Shree Vallabhacharya). Because here resides Shrinathji – an incarnation of Krishna.An aerial view of Nathdwara townThe idol – carved in bas relief on black stone – represents Krishna aged seven years, where he is seen symbolically raising Giri Govardhan in his left hand while his right hand rests on his waist. A diamond shines on his chin. Adorned with rich clothes and ornaments (some believed to predate the Moghul period), the idol looks very different from the typical icon of child Krishna. It is said that Vithalnath, the son of Vallabhacharya, who established the worship of Shrinathji.

 
 
 
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Rising in the heart of Nathdwara is the sprawling mansion or the ‘haveli’ of Shrinathji, where the idol is being worshipped since 1672. Apparently, he was originally installed in a temple in Govardhan in Mathura (Uttar Pradesh). When the Mughals attacked Mathura in the mid-17th century, the custodians of the temple took down the idol and escaped to Rajasthan (according to some sources, the idol spent about six months in Agra). Maharaja Raj Singh of Mewar offered to shelter the idol. As the idol was travelling to Mewar, the wheels of the chariot (or bullock cart, according to some sources) got stuck in mud in a village called Sihad on the Banas River, which was taken as a divine signal that the deity was wishing to settle down in that village.

With the temple as the centre of attraction, a town developed around it and came to be known as the doorway (dwar) to god (nath). People from various professions, such as potters, weavers, silversmiths, carpenters, cooks, began to settle here, offering their services to the deity and the temple, and the pilgrims who began to arrive as the word spread around.

 
 
 
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Like in other Krishna temples, Nathdwara too became known for its various festivals, such as Holi, Janmashtami, Nand Mahotsava, Govardhan Puja, Annakuta, Diwali, etc. To symbolise the different seasons, the events in the life of Krishna, and the festivals, representative paintings would be hung behind the idol. According to many art historians, it was this ritual which earned the paintings the name of ‘Pichwai’ (roughly meaning ‘pichh’ or back and ‘wai’ or painted textile).

Gradually, the Pichwai paintings as well as the paintings began to gain popularity and were bought by the followers and pilgrims to be hung at home, often with the image of Shrinathji painted within decorated borders. Some commissioned ‘manorath’ paintings as reminders of their pilgrimage to Nathdwara and their communion with the divine.

With the paintings found on the walls of the Shrinathji haveli and the Pichwai, were born a school of religious art, popularly known as Nathdwara paintings, more than 300 years ago, which has now evolved into a collector’s item.

Reminiscent of Rajasthani schools of paintings, with significant ties to the Mewar School of art, Pichwai largely deals with stories related to the life and times of Krishna, including the festivals. Apart from representative images of Shrinathji or Krishna, trees and floral designs, cows and peacocks, etc. are used to illustrate the paintings. Take a walk down the narrow lanes of Nathdwara for a sight of the artists at work.

 
 
 
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Noted art collector Anil Relia is known for his collection of miniature Nathdwara School of miniature paintings. Two recently published books which delve into Relia’s collection, offer significant insights into the development of the art form and the artists. ‘Portraits of Devotion - Popular Manorath Paintings from Nathdwara in the collection of Anil Relia’, authored by South Asian paintings specialist Isabella Nardi, was published by Mapin Publishing Pvt Ltd in March 2019. ‘Nathdwara Paintings from the Anil Relia Collection - The Portal to Shrinathji’, authored by distinguished art historians Kalyan Krishna and Kay Talwar was published by Niyogi Books in November 2020. According to authors Kalyan Krishna and Kay Talwar, Relia ‘currently has about 250 pieces that range from icon paintings made for the pilgrimage trade to representations of historical celebrations in the temple’.

 
 
 
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Interestingly, readers may draw comparison with the traditional Pattachitra art of Odisha which started as a mark of devotion to Lord Jagannath of Puri (also an incarnation of Krishna) and encouraged by its popularity among visiting pilgrims.

Best visited in winter, remember, the Shrinathji haveli temple in Nathdwara opens at fixed hours (eight times daily) for ‘darshan’ and there can be quite a rush.


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