Lost & Found Histories

The Travels of a Deity

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How a Krishna sect in Rajasthan bridges multiple divides

A FRIEND WITH FRIENDS in the right places had piloted us into the shrine well before daybreak, before the massed crowds of devotees waiting outside its great gateway had been granted entry. Just before the sun rose, the heavy wooden doors, studded with metal spikes, swung open, and the faithful surged into the courtyard in their hundreds. With uncanny smoothness, this onrush of devotees in a state of exaltation subsided into disciplined rows. There was, however, a grander marvel in store. Within moments, the air filled with a flourish of music, the wafting fragrance of incense and the ringing of bells. The doors of the inner sanctum opened and we were permitted a glimpse of the deity who presided over the shrine. This was the mangala darshan or ‘auspicious glimpse’, the first of eight darshans that the deity grants his followers every day, from dawn to nightfall, in the temple-town of Nathdwara, near Udaipur in southern Rajasthan. Nineteen winters ago, this was my first audience with Shrinathji.

Nathdwara is the centre of the Vaishnava tradition of spirituality and ecstatic devotion known as the Pushti Marg, ‘the Way of Grace’, which is focused on the worship of Shrinathji, Krishna visualised as a seven-year-old child. To describe Shrinathji as an icon is misleading, for the devout treat him as a svarupa, a living manifestation of the Divine. In Nathdwara, the god is the king. His shrine is described, not as a mandir or temple, but as a haveli or palace. The town’s calendar turns on the axis of his daily, monthly and seasonal activities. Each darshan is a renewal of the senses. It draws the pilgrim into an enchantment kaleidoscopically composed of song and the sounds of bell, drum and shehnai, the scintillation of light and reflection, clouds of incense, the colours of the deity’s robes, the priests’ vestments and the delicate pichhvais or painted backcloths hung behind the deity. Every darshan is defined by its own special set of rituals, with the deity presented in different costumes and accompanied by varying paraphernalia.

As we followed Shrinathji’s progress from one darshan to the next, we realised how silken turmeric could be and yet how pungent; how camphor can prickle the skin and stir the throat to melody. The burning orange of one pichhvai resonated with fires in winter, while the lotuses floating on the crinkled blue surface of another plunged us into a mythic Yamuna. The tinkling of bells sparked off the honey-silvered flavour of prasad on the palate. To trace the circumference of the haveli is to celebrate synaesthesia, a heightened state of experience in which a stimulus applied to one sense is registered as a feeling by another.

The Pushti Marg, whose followers are known as the Vallabha sampradaya—after their founder, the philosopher Vallabhacharya (1479-1531 CE)—rejects self-mortifying austerity. It teaches that spiritual transcendence can be achieved in the midst of the householder’s worldly life. It regards every earthly pleasure, if refined, as a reflection of Shrinathji’s resplendence. As the artist and scholar Amit Ambalal—the friend who invited me to my first mangala darshan—writes in his authoritative study, Krishna as Shrinathji (1995), ‘Painting is only one of the many facets of the Vallabha cult as practised in the haveli of Shrinathji. Poetry, music, cookery, flowers and floral arrangements, costumes and jewellery are integral to this mode of worship.’

EACH DAY IN Nathdwara summoned forth a new surprise. The doors of a balcony would be flung open, and a burst of music would herald another darshan. We came upon the deity’s presence at every street corner, as we savoured the murals glowing on the walls of an abandoned pleasure pavilion, or waited while traditional pichhvai painters unwrapped their heirloom folios in the neighbourhood known as Chitrakaaron ki Gali, ‘the lane of the painters’. In Nathdwara, the highest form of worship is chitra-seva, the dedication of the devotee to Shrinathji’s painted image.

Nathdwara is the centre of the Vaishnava tradition of spirituality and ecstatic devotion known as the Pushti Marg, 'The way of grace', which is focused on the worship of Shrinathji, Krishna visualised as a seven-year-old

That image is distinctive. Shrinathji is represented with his left arm upraised, lifting Mount Govardhan to protect the villagers of Vrindavan from the anger of the sky-god Indra. His right arm rests on his waist. His skin is rendered in the deep nocturnal blue reserved for Vishnu, suggestive of his cosmic nature. His extraordinary dagger-shaped eyes look upon his worshippers in an attitude of pushti or grace. Meanwhile, the icon in worship—which the laity cannot approach—is reported by scholars to be reddish-black in colour, similar to the rocks near the summit of the Govardhan Hill in Mathura, where it was discovered by Vallabhacharya and his disciples in 1493 CE.

Long worshipped by villagers as a naga or serpent guardian, the icon was consecrated and installed in a temple at the site in the early 16th century, even as northern India slid into a time of turbulence. Within the space of three decades, the embattled Lodi dynasty was overthrown by Babur, whose son Humayun was in turn driven into exile by Sher Shah Sur, the founder of the Suri dynasty whose last representative, Hemu, was defeated by Humayun’s son Akbar. During this period, the the icon of Shrinathji that was moved several times to remote places of safety. The chaos ended with Akbar’s coronation in 1556. Under his aegis, Ambalal writes, the Vallabha sampradaya received the patronage that allowed it to ‘grow and establish itself as a popular sect. During the reigns of Akbar’s successors, Jehangir and Shah Jehan, and under Vitthalnathji [Vallabhacharya’s son] and the Goswamis [spiritual leaders] who followed him, the seva devised for honouring the deity became more subtle, complex and lavish’.

Vitthalnathji, whose artistic preoccupations rivalled his scholarly commitments, imparted to the Pushti Marg its dazzling aesthetic character. He organised the rasa mandalis or companies dedicated to the sacred choreographic theatre of the rasa, Shrinathji’s divine revels. Combining rasa with raga (music and poetry), bhoga (feast) and shrungara (ornament), Vitthalnathji’s seva cast its enchantment over a wide variety of followers. The teacher maintained strong connections at court. The Baso-baavan Vaishnav ni Varta, the ‘Stories of the 252 Disciples’, an exemplary text of the Vallabha sampradaya, records that Akbar was captivated by Vitthalnathji’s wit and wisdom. The Bhaavasindhu ki Varta records how Akbar, visiting a Pushti Marg shrine in Gokula on the occasion of Janmashtami, had a visionary experience during the festivities.

Mughal patronage of the sampradaya continued through the reigns of Jehangir and Shah Jehan, as their firmans, granting lands and titles, attest (those whose ideological fixations prevent them from acknowledging such imperial proclamations should consult the National Archives of India, the archives of the Vrindavan Shodh Sansthan, and the sampradaya’s extensive varta sahitya or teaching compilations). Jehangir’s wife, the Rajput princess Jodh Bai, was known as Jagat-Gosaini, ‘one to whom the world is imbued with the spirit of Vitthalnathji’. Their son Shah Jehan invested the head of the sampradaya with the title of ‘Tilakayat’ (‘the anointed one’), which Nathdwara’s chief Goswami has borne ever since. This harmonious relationship was ended by Aurangzeb, who violently reversed the inclusive policies of his predecessors. In 1669, he destroyed the Vishvanatha temple in Varanasi and the Keshava Deva temple in Mathura.

In 1670, the 15-year-old Damodarji, the Tilakayat of the time, set out on a dangerous journey westward to Rajasthan, in disguise, with Shrinathji concealed in his bullock cart. Two years later, deity and custodian began a new life under the protection of Mewar’s Sisodia rulers, in Sinhad, a village that grew into Nathdwara. It was a long journey from Mathura, but a longer one yet from the Andhra country where Vallabhacharya’s Telugu Brahmin parents had originated. The circulations of the Vallabha sampradaya remind us, yet again, of the fatuity of dividing India into the North and South beloved of mindless caricature. The cultural realities of the Subcontinent have always been far more complex, and shaped by multiple migrations.