The 5 Themes of Pichhwai Art

Pichhwai paintings have the remarkable quality of infusing an air of elegance and authority into the serene gaze of the mischievous spirit of 7-year-old Krishna, a.k.a Shrinathji, the presiding deity of Vaishnava sect in the Pushtimarg tradition founded by Indian saint and a philosopher Shree Vallabhacharaya.

The art of Pichhwai originated over 400 years ago in the Nathdwara region of Rajasthan. The word “Pichh” stands for back and the word “wai'' translates to the textile hanging. Hence the Pichhwai paintings are hung behind the shrine of Shrinathji. These paintings are so detail-oriented that the artist is required to do justice to every element through precision and intense focus.

Let’s delve into some of the meticulously illustrated themes found in the Pichhwai paintings:


1. Janmashtami


(On the left) Krishna Janmashtami celebrating Krishna's birth: Pichwai Painting by Sushil Soni


According to the Hindu Lunar calendar, the birth of baby Krishna, an avataar of Lord Vishnu, is observed on the 8th day (Ashtami) of the dark fortnight (Krishnapaksha) in the month of Bhadrapada. On the occasion of Janmashtatmi, temples and homes are beautifully decorated with flowers and lights. The artwork captures the moment of Krishna's birth, where he is warmly welcomed by the people of Vrindavan. Some of the Janmashtami Pichwai artworks depict Yashoda and Nanda lovingly cradle Kanha (Shrinathji), symbolizing selfless love of parents, or Vatsalya Bhava in the divine tableau. The infant Krishna is beautifully adorned and garlanded. Additionally, Kamal Talai or the lotus pond adds to the auspiciousness of the illustration.


2. Krishna and Gopis


Gopis with Kadamba Tree: Pichwai Painting by Sushil Soni


The representation of Krishna and Gopis (the female cowherd and the devotees of Krishna)  along with his beloved Radha, emanates an imperishable bond between Krishna and his female companions in Pichwai paintings. At times, the gopis are  shown engaging in light-hearted banter with Krishna on the banks of Yamuna river. While during Raas Leela, they immerse themselves in the divine ecstasy of Bhakti Rasa (where the bhakt is overwhelmed with joy and love in the devotion of the Krishna), dancing with him in a transcendental state within the concealed realm of Vraj, amidst the enchanting moonlit night. What is more? All the beings of the forests become witness to their timeless love. The Raasleela Pichwai presents Krishna and Radha and gopis are bejeweled from head to toe. All the partakers of the Raas Lila are shown in their vibrant and richly colored clothes. 


3. Cows


Kamal Talai Cow Plate: Pichwai Painting by Dinesh Soni


In ancient India, Gau Mata (the Holy Cow) held immense significance within every household and remains so even today in many Indian villages. They are recognized as the symbol of prosperity, fertility and divine grace. The Bhagavata Purana, one of Hindus 18 great Puranas and a central text in Vaishnavism, narrates that Nanda (foster father of Krishna) fostered an impressive number of 900,000 cows, with Krishna endearingly familiar with each cow by name, a testament to his boundless affection for them. Pichwai artists have aptly acknowledged the deep-rooted reverence for the cows. Cows occupy an integral place in their artwork. From Gwal ka Darshan (sighting of the cowherds) to Gocharan Lila (Krishna’s playful activities with the cows), Pichwai artists have been skillfully presenting these gentle and joyous creatures in the most enriching manner. At times, they are depicted alongside of Gopal (another name for Krishna, symbolizing his role as their protector), while in other instances, they are shown individually or in groups with their bodies bearing the sacred hand prints representing the touch of  Shrinathji.


4. Annakoot or Govardhan Puja


Annakoot Pichwai Painting by Jayesh Sharma


The signature pose behind Shrinathji’s pose carries a fascinating story! In the village of Vraj the inhabitants used to make autumnal offerings to Indra, the God of rain. Krishna suggested that they instead worship Giriraj Paravat (mount Govardhan), explaining that it is the trees and the plants on the mountain that sustain their life. Convinced by Krishna’s words the Brijwasi (people of Vrindavan) performed puja to the mount and offered their reverence to Giriraj. This offended Indra’s ego, leading him to unleash torrential rains upon the innocent villagers. In response Shrinathji effortlessly lifted the entire mount with his little finger, creating the iconic gesture. The people of Vrindavan sought shelter under the mountain, along with their cattle. Indra finally gave up and asked the lord for forgiveness. 

Since then, Annakut (mountain of food) or Govardhan Puja commemorates this event. Shrinathji is surrounded by Chappan bhog, 56 varieties of sattvic vegetarian meal during this festivity. This essence is amazingly captured in the Govardhan themed Pichwai work, where the splendidly adorned Shrinathji is shown surrounded by bhog and  The platter is representative of the unwavering faith and love of the Vrindavanvasi  towards Shrinathji. The followers of the Pushtimarg sect believe that Lord’s arms and face emerged from the Govardhan hill.


5. The Eight Darshanas


Shreenath ji Pichwai painting by Shehzaad Ali Sherani


The unwavering of devotion of gopis towards Krishna knew no bounds. Their intense longing to be in Shrinathji’s presence led them to approach Yashoda with various excuses, seeking just the glimpse of the youngling. Yashoda, concerned that her child wouldn’t have time to play or rest, devised a plan. She allowed gopis to visit Krishna only at specific times of the day. Taking cue from this incident, Vallabhacharya established the tradition of eight darshanas (sacred glimpse) of Shrinathji. Each darshan lasts for 45 mins and is depicted in the Pichwai artwork with Shrinathji at the center, complemented by different elements corresponding to the specific darshan. Read more about the darshanas here.




Leave a comment