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A 400-year old artform from the temple town of Nathdwara in Rajasthan, Pichwais (pichhwai) are cloth paintings, that are traditionally hung as backdrops behind the idol of Lord Krishna, at the temple at Nathdwara, called “Shrinathji Ki Haveli”.
Pichwais are meant to set the scene and invoke the mood for worship, and are changed according to time of day, different seasons, and festivals that hold significance in Krishna’s life. The Lord is often depicted as Shrinathji in Pichwai paintings, which is his manifestation as a 7-year-old child.
Depicting events from Krishna’s life, Pichwais (pichhwai) are intricate compositions that have, in modern times, made their way from the temple walls, into the homes and personal collections of art lovers. Here are 6 of the most commonly depicted festivals and themes in Pichwai paintings, with a quick guide to help you identify them.
Janmashtami, which celebrates the birth of Krishna, is one of the most important festivals for Krishna devotees. It is typically celebrated either in August or September. In the Nathdwara temple, Janmashtami is celebrated by bathing the newly born Krishna with milk, ghee, honey and curd. Toys are also offered to the deity in the darshans. A typical Pichwai depicting Janmashtami will have the central figure of Shrinathji dressed in a saffron attire, with peacock feathers in his crown. A cradle with the child Krishna is also typically drawn, right under the central figure. In some Pichwais, crowds of people that gather to worship the child Krishna are also depicted, along with his toys.
Nand Mahotsav occurs on the day after Janmashtami, and it celebrates the arrival of Krishna into the home of Nanda and Yashoda, his foster parents. This day is celebrated with great fervour by Krishna devotees, usually by re-enacting scenes from his childhood, like his curd and butter stealing. In Nathdwara, this festival is celebrated by incorporating the figures of Nanda and Yashoda in the daily temple rituals. Usually, the Shrinathji idol is placed in a cradle after the ‘Mahabhog Aarti’ that takes place on the day, and Yashoda is placed next to him to swing the cradle. Pichwais that depict Nand Mahotsav are typically very grand, and depict a child in a cradle below the main Shrinathji figure, with Yashoda and Nanda on either side of the cradle.
Raas Leela and Sharad Purnima
Maha Raas is the festival that celebrates Raas Leela, or the divine dance that Krishna performed with the Gopis (cow herding girls) of Braj. The dance symbolises the divine union and the spiritual love between Krishna and his devotees. The Raas Leela is said to take place on the first full-moon night or Purnima after the monsoon, which marks the onset of autumn, or Sharad. On the night of the festival, the Shrinathji Idol at Nathdwara is dressed in brocade and jewels to symbolically prepare him for this dance. Pichwais that depict Maha Raas typically show the Raas Leela, or Krishna dancing with the Gopikas in a circle. There will also be a full moon above the dancing figures, depicting Purnima. The Shrinathji figure in a Ras Leela or Sharad Purnima Pichwai, is typically embellished with jewels and brocade.
Annakoot (Govardhan Puja)
Annakoot, or Govardhan Puja, is one of the most important festivals for Krishna devotees, that commemorates how Shrinathji saved the residents of Braj from the storm that Indra, the Rain God caused. In most Pichwai paintings, Shrinathji is depicted with a raised left hand, which illustrates how he lifted the Govardhan mountain on his little finger, so the village could take shelter under it. ‘Annakoot’ also translates to ‘Mountain of Food’ and is celebrated on the 4th day of Diwali, by offering the deity a mound of cooked grains and other food items as a mark of gratitude. This scene, particularly the mountain of food, is what is usually depicted in an Annakoot Pichwai. The Shrinathji in the centre is typically dressed in grand clothes with brocade work, and a peacock-feather crown with raised edges that resemble the ears of a cow.
A festival that celebrates cows, Gopashtami marks the day when Krishna officially becomes a cow-herd or a gowala. According to some legends, it is also the day when he gets the title of ‘Govinda’, or ‘Lord of the Cows’, bestowed upon him by Indra, after the incident with the Govardhan mountain. Cows are an important part of Hindu mythology and play a significant role in the story of Krishna. On this day, people generally worship cows in gratitude for all that they provide, by bathing and decorating them and performing rituals for them. This tradition is also followed at the temple in Nathdwara. A Gopashtami Pichwai is easy to spot, because it depicts a lot of cows surrounding Shrinathji. The figure of Shrinathji is typically clad in a grand red, yellow and green attire and is decorated with traditional jewellery.
Holi, the festival of colours, marks the beginning of spring. According to legend, it is also Shrinathji’s favourite festival, hence it is celebrated in Nathdwara for about 40 days, from the day of Vasant Panchami till the day of Holi. The Shrinathji idol is dressed in white during this season, and every day, the priests add more and more spots of colour to the attire of the idol until it turns colourful, by the day Holi is celebrated. A Pichwai that depicts Holi will typically have Shrinathji dressed in white, with spots of colour on him, depicting the play with colours. Sometimes the Pichwais also show pots of gulal (coloured powder) placed before Shrinathji.
Pichwais are appreciated by art lovers all over the world, for their intricate details and breathtaking beauty. But it’s the stories they tell, and the traditions they hold, that make this exquisite artform so fascinating. Understanding the meaning behind the varied depictions in these beautiful paintings, brings one closer to the artwork, adding to the enjoyment one derives from viewing them.
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