Nathdwara and the Pushtimarg

Nathdwara and the Pushtimarg

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.

NATHDWARA AND THE PUSHTIMARGVitthalnathji 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.

NATHDWARA AND THE PUSHTIMARGTilkayat 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.

Amit Ambalal 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)

The Artists of Nathdwara

The Artists of Nathdwara

Nathdwara is famed not just for its temple, but also for the small group of traditional artists who arrived there in the seventeenth century along with Shrinathji (an aspect of Krishna), the principal image for the Pushtimarg sect. Nathdwara and its artists are unique, even in a place like India which has seen the survival of many artistic traditions from the past. Rich artistic practices developed around the veneration of Shrinathji and the other svarups (living images) of the sect between the sixteenth century and today, with the use, for example, of the beautiful cloth paintings known as pichvais being developed there. Even today, the hereditary artists of Nathdwara led by their head (the mukhiya) perform seva (devotional service) for Shrinathji by adorning the walls of the entire temple complex with fresh wall paintings at the time of Diwali; and they still make the pichvais for which the town was once so famous.

 Parmanand Sharma, the present mukhiya, or head artist, of the

temple of Shrinathji in Nathdwara. Photo courtesy: Anuj Ambalal

The artists who accompanied Shrinathji to Nathdwara in the seventeenth century and settled near the temple were very responsive to the tastes of their different patrons, whether tilkayats (head of the sect) or kings. They were also sensitive to the artistic winds that blew their way, whether from Mewar itself, in which kingdom Nathdwara was located, or from nearby princely states such as Kotah and Kishangarh, whose rulers were devout followers of the Pushtimarg. By the nineteenth century, a distinctive Nathdwara style had emerged that was characterized by dreamy-eyed cows and human figures with full bodies, bell-shaped skirts, and large, almond-shaped eyes.



Pichvai for Sharad Purnima, Nathdwara,

Rajasthan, India. 19th century. Cotton,

painted with pigments. 193 x 155 cm.

TAPI Collection (T99.1801), Surat, India.

The artists of Nathdwara did not forget how to paint in the style of Kotah or Kishangarh, which they can do even today; indeed, they could turn their hands to anything their patrons wanted.

It is important to remember why these paintings were created. Within the Pushtimarg, there is an ancient and important tradition known as chitra seva, in which devotees could venerate painted representations of the actual svarups. Paintings also served as accurate records of a particular darshan, operating as reminders of important religious experiences for the people who commissioned them. Finally, there were large pichvais that were usually made to adorn the back wall of a sanctum, behind the deity. Artists and patrons could not paint what they wished. The tilkayat or the goswami in charge of the temple would have decided what could be depicted, and they usually followed traditional prototypes.

Nathdwara’s distinctive style flourished during the nineteenth century, and by the time of Tilkayat Govardhanlalji (1862–1934), it had evolved further thanks to the arrival of European prints, Victorian postcards and photography, and the availability of new pigments. The town’s artists were masters at taking these diverse influences and making them their own. Some of the most important included Sukhdev (1853–1925), Narayan (1860–1932/33),Ghasiram (1869–1931) and Champalal (c. 1875–1930). In their heyday under Govardhanlalji, these men proudly proclaimed their status and expertise, signing their names as chitrakars, or artists. At that time, Nathdwara not only absorbed aesthetic influence but exported it as well, and its artists took on work in nearby areas including Udaipur, Kotah, Jhalawar, and Dungarpur. They were also in great demand in the various havelis of the Pushtimarg across western India while wealthy patrons also commissioned works.

Of all the artists of Nathdwara, no one was able to create the same impact with their distinctive style as Narottam Narayan Sharma (1896–1990) during the 20th century. Indeed, Narottam’s style was so successful that it is imitated in the bazaars of Nathdwara to this day and has come to define the town’s art since the 1950’s. Individuals such as the National Award winning Revashankar Sharma (1935–2016) were capable of working in any school of Indian painting, responding to the dictates of the market and the desires of foreign visitors and nonresident Indians. He was deeply admired for his lyrical depictions of Krishna and Radha in his paintings.

Nathdwara continues to shape the work of generations of Indian artists. Perhaps its biggest impact has been on Amit Ambalal (b. 1943), who in turn has influenced many other renowned artists. Originally, he was searching for an imagery of his own that was nevertheless rooted in tradition, and Nathdwara was the source of his inspiration. When he first started to study and collect works from Nathdwara, they were not yet recognized as a legitimate genre within Indian art history. Ambalal, in turn, opened the doors of Nathdwara to an entire generation of Indian artists. The aesthetics of the popular Nathdwara idiom certainly appealed to Bhupen Khakhar(1934–2003), who was not only moved to create works but also turned into an avid collector of Nathdwara paintings. So did A. A. Ramachandran (b. 1935), whose own works seem to reflect their aesthetics. Nilima Sheikh (b. 1945) received a fellowship to study with the hereditary artists in Nathdwara, and one can see the impact of pichvais and the traditional sanjhi stencils in her painted scrolls. Nathdwara and its visual traditions have also helped form the career of the English artist Desmond Lazaro, who trained in the pichvai tradition, and his recent work is a testament to the enduring legacy of the haveli of Shrinathji and of the artists of this temple town on generations of modern and contemporary artists.

And what of the artists of Nathdwara today? A new breed has emerged who have studied both within their family traditions as well as in art and design schools beyond the town.

  The artists of Nathdwara photographed in December 2014.

The bustling town of Nathdwara is undergoing rapid expansion today. The visual and performing arts which are still a part of daily life in Nathdwara are under incredible strain. It is important to have new patrons step forward and ensure that the artistic traditions that have made the Vallabha sampradaya so unique are able to flourish and grow as the Pushtimarg spreads rapidly across the world. With their help, Nathdwara’s artists will be able to draw upon the inventiveness and creativity that has helped them stay relevant for centuries. As Narottam Narayan used to say, jo samay ke saath rahega, vohi tikega (the person who will stay with the times, will survive).


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)