The bustling temple town of Nathdwara in Rajasthan nestles in the Aravalli Hills about forty–five kilometers from the city of Udaipur today. It has grown around the haveli of Shrinathji, the principal sectarian image for the Pushtimarg that was brought here in 1672. Instead of a traditional Hindu temple with its characteristic tower over the sanctum, Shrinathji is housed in a haveli—a mansion, modeled on the homes of contemporary Rajasthani merchants and kings, that was meant to recall the residence of Krishna’s foster father in Vraj. In time it became the elaborate complex that we see today which is regularly whitewashed and adorned with fresh wall paintings by the artists of Nathdwara every year around Diwali.
The Vallabha sampradaya (sect) was founded by Vallabhacharya (1479–1531), a Brahmin from the Andhra region of southern India who formulated the philosophy of shuddhadvaita (pure nondualism), which became the basis for the Pushtimarg or the Path of Grace.
Vitthalnathji and Vallabhacharya, Nathdwara, Rajasthan, India.
Mid 19th century. Opaque watercolor on paper. 25.2 x 34.3 cm.
Amit Ambalal Collection, India.
During his first pilgrimage to the north, he went to Gokul, which was identified as the place where Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, grew up and was associated with his childhood lilas (sportive pranks). By the late fifteenth and the early part of the sixteenth century, a very powerful devotional movement had developed around Krishna and some of the sacred sites associated with his early life in Vraj around the banks of the river Yamuna where he had grazed his cattle. Krishna is said to have appeared before Vallabhacharya and commanded him to go to Mount Govardhan, where he discovered the svarup of Shri Govardhananathji, which came in time to be known as Shrinathji to his followers and remains their principle devotional image to this day.
This sculptural image, which is regarded by the followers of Vallabhacharya as the living image of Krishna—his svarup—shows an aspect of the deity as a seven-year-old boy, lifting Mount Govardhan above his head with his left arm while holding his right hand by his waist.
Tilkayat Damodarji II Performing Arati on Sharad Purnima,
Nathdwara, Rajasthan, India. First quarter of the 19th century.
Opaque watercolor heightened with gold on paper.
25.1 x 34.8 cm. Amit Ambalal Collection, India.
It refers to the miraculous feat in which Krishna lifted the mountain on the little finger of his left hand to shelter the villagers from the storms sent by the king of the gods, Indra. Vallabhacharya had a small shrine erected over the svarup and prescribed a simple seva (devotional service) in his honor. Vallabhacharya was eventually succeeded by his younger son, Vitthalnathji (1516–1586), who developed an imaginative seva that informs the Pushtimarg approach to veneration even today. Vitthalnathji nurtured important connections with Mughal rulers and succeeded in securing some significant grants for the sect, including rights over Gokul, from the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605). The regal splendor that he introduced into the veneration of Shrinathji was greatly influenced by the aesthetics and etiquette of the Mughal court.
Vallabhacharya developed the basics of the seva that the sect followed, dividing the day into eight darshans, periods when the worshippers could view Shrinathji but it was Vitthalnathji who created a much more elaborate seva around the veneration of Shrinathji. A great deal of attention was paid to the shringara of Shrinathji, which came to emphasize raga (music and poetry), bhoga (food offerings), and shringara (adornment) that were varied for every daily darshan. According to tradition, Vitthalnathji brought together the ashtachhapa (group of eight) poets, who composed verses for Shrinathji with rich new imagery that influenced all the arts, including painting and pichvais; these padas continue to be sung today. Floral decorations, costume, jewelry, wall hangings and pichvais, which served as backdrops to the svarup, were also important elements. The sect developed such elaborate traditions in these areas that one cannot help but be impacted aesthetically when, as a worshipper, one catches a fleeting glimpse of Shrinathji in the midst of the teeming crowds that come to see him daily. All eight darshans are planned with keen attention to the season, the time of day, and the mood of the deity. The temples in Nathdwara and elsewhere also celebrate special festivals throughout the year; these are staged with yet more fanfare, and elaborate settings are created daily. Shrinathji is adorned differently on each occasion, with regulations dictating how he will be dressed every day and what accouterments and amusing playthings will be laid out before him.
One can get a rare glimpse into this cloistered world when one glances at the pichvais and miniature paintings produced by and for the sect.
Kamalan ki Pichvai
Nathdwara, Rajasthan, India. Early 20th century
Cotton, painted with pigments 178 x 154.4 cm
Amit Ambalal Collection, India.
The artists of Nathdwara have captured each occasion right down to the last detail, recording the precise ornamentation of Shrinathji. It is worth keeping in mind that this entire visual culture is a product of the discerning taste of a succession of tilkayats, maharajas, and goswamis, or descendants of Vallabharcharya over the last four hundred years.
The visual and performing arts are still a part of daily life in Nathdwara. These traditions have been nurtured for the last few centuries by the intimate, mutually beneficial relationship between the temple, its wealthy patrons, and its pilgrims, who come from all walks of life. However, old patterns of patronage are no longer relevant in today’s rapidly changing Nathdwara. The arts—whether miniature painting, pichvai painting, or other crafts that still survive in the lanes around the temple—need new patrons if they are to continue. As the Pushtimarg rapidly spreads around the world, I hope that new patrons step forward and ensure that the artistic traditions that have made the Vallabha sampradaya so unique, are able to flourish and grow.
Dr. Madhuvanti Ghose
Alsdorf Associate Curator of Indian, Southeast Asian and Himalayan Art
The Art Institute of Chicago, USA
Curator of the exhibition, The Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings (2015/16)