A Themed Week on Instagram featuring posts on Lord Krishna brought me face to face with a treasure I knew I possessed, to which sight I woke up every morning but somehow I never connected the dots.
I am talking of Pichhwais which are typical to the Nathdwara school of painting. Pichhwais are handpainted backdrops to adorn the walls behind the Krishna idols in temples in Rajasthan especially in the Mewar region. The word Picchwai is derived from the Sanskrit words: Pich = back; wai = hanging. They are painted on a starched cloth with the painter making a rough sketch and then filling it with colours. Traditionally natural colours and brushes made of horse, goat or squirrel hair were used. With modernisation and technology swamping the country you may find many instances of faster and less expensive materials being used. However, you will still find artistes using traditional colours on combing the inner lanes.
Legend goes that in 1409AD, an image of Lord Shrinathji, the mountain lifting form of Krishna, was discovered near Mathura when a cow strayed away from its herd to offer milk to the Lord. A temple was established there which was held in high reverence. In 1671 AD, in anticipation of the raids by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, it was decided to shift the temple to Rajasthan where it would remain safe. Along with the idol of Shrinathji, the halwais ( sweetmakers), the priests, the cows and their caretakers and the Picchwai painters all moved. They first stopped at Eklingji in Rajasthan where there was a grand temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. However, they moved further since popular thought said two temples of equal sanctity could not exist in one city. At one point the bullock cart got stuck and would not move. It was decided to establish the temple of Shrinathji there in the town of Nathdwara (Nath = Lord; dwara = gate).
Since then, this town of Nathdwara is an important centre for pilgrimage. The lives of the people and their occupations all revolve around the temple. Even after hundreds of years the rituals remain the same. During the darshan , which is held at intervals, the sound of drums and trumpets announces the opening of the gates to the temple. The devotees press forward to get a glimpse of their beloved idol who is no less than a king to them. Since photography is prohibited in the temple, it is these Picchwais which serve as a memory and souvenir. The idol in the paintings is characterised by large eyes, a broad nose and a heavy body similar to the idol in the temple. Different motifs are used for different seasons. While summer is depicted by pink lotuses a night scene would have a radiant full moon. Other than their artistic appeal, they also serve to narrate tales of Krishna to the illiterate.
The Picchwai adorning our home was bought in Udaipur some twenty five years ago and takes pride of place. However, it was not until the long weekend of August 15th, 2016 which saw me retracing my steps to Nathdwara , this time leading a group of art and heritage lovers to places in Udaipur and around. We left Udaipur bright and early to enjoy the 55 kms drive through the Aravallis. 2016 being a good year for the monsoon, the entire journey was through verdant green fields, lush forests, waterfalls and rivers.
The car park was a km before the entry to the main temple. The walk to the temple too was interesting as one passed shops selling wooden toys, ornamentation for Lord Krishna, puja items and of course Piccchwais. Nearer the temple were lodgings, guests houses and many a shop selling kulhad ki chai, rabdi, kachauri, the halwais speaking in Awadhi which almost transported you to the streets of Mathura. The temple is grand but unfortunately does not allow photography. Since our group had some senior citizens I had thought it more prudent to arrange for a VIP darshan ( yes, you can do that!). It goes against my principles but sometimes one has to think of the larger picture. A very well-educated, well-informed priest met us to escort us through some private routes towards the sanctum sanctorum. We awaited awhile for some other VIPs to join and then we were led towards the idol. The VIP entry ensured we superseded the queues and also got to stand in front of the idol without being pushed around. I sent up a silent apology to the Lord and his devotees behind us and applauded them too for their patience. The priest then arranged for us to buy the prasad after which he escorted us out, a satisfied lot, and took our photograph at the exit gate with the mobile he was allowed to carry 🙂
We returned to Udaipur feeling blessed and when I woke up to my Picchhwai this morning I felt like sharing this story .
NOTE : The trip to Nathdwara was under the aegis of One Life to Travel, a travel club which I run with the aim of promoting Indian heritage trails and off-beat destinations. Look forward to your joining us in one of our explorations discovering our own Incredible India.