Understanding the Symbolism of Radhe Shyam in Pichwai Art
Illustrated by Nafisa Ruheen. 


“In a poem suffused with emotional mood, even used ideas

All seems new, like trees in springtime.”


Taken from a translation of Dhvanyāloka by J.L Masson in the Harvard dissertation titled “Suggestion in Sanskrit Poetics: The Dhvanyāloka and Dhvanyālokalocana,” this excerpt establishes the fluid tone of this article’s subject. As children, one often heard about the epic “love story” of Krishna and Radha memorialised not just in oral retellings but also through pictorial depictions. From the quintessential image of Krishna playing the flute as Radha hangs on his arm along with other milkmaids, the kahani (“story”) of this couple transcends time. Nevertheless, as one delves deeper into this popularised imaging of Krishna and Radha, we find ourselves being subjected to various interpretations.

As per imminent scholars in Sanskrit and Oriental field of studies, the mention of Radha as an individual in herself, finds mention in texts only from the 12th century— in particular, the text Gita Govinda by Jayadeva. This poet has been credited with the “invention” of Radha so to say. However, regardless of the “figure” of Radha being fictional or inspired by other deities, the impression and effect of the Krishna-Radha relation has been the central subject for various sects like the Pushtimarg tradition (one among the 6 acharyas of the Bhakti movement) emerging out of Hinduism. The Pushtimarg tradition (translated “Path of Grace”) founded by Shri Vallabhacharya in the 16th century was unique in the sense that it blended devotional worship with practical art expressions. 

Sustaining itself through centuries, the followers of this tradition primarily hailing from Nathdwara, Rajasthan, practised the art of painting images deeply immersed in the life of Shrinathji (another swaroop (form) of Krishna). Among the various other specialities associated with this sect, such as the mystery surrounding Ashtashakas, another peculiarity that set this group apart was their traditional Pichhwai art. Simply translated as pich referring to “back” and wai as the action denoting placing/hanging, Pichhwai seems to denote “that which hangs from the back.” Traditionally, art work was performed or drawn (one uses “perform” since all art forms have elements of performance) on cotton or silk cloth. However, in recent times, paper, glass, cardboard, canvas and so on have been included in the medium. While increasing commercialisation has reduced Pichhwai art to just another “exotic” expression to bedeck walls of urban homes, Pichhwai is a deeply sombre and symbolic emotion etched out in reverence. These are lyrical utterances that amalgamate the piousness of believers as well as the community’s personal relationship with their deity. 

Depending on changing seasons, festivals, auspicious days, these sketches of Krishna in various poses, events, and forms, map out an ideal way of living with philosophical depth. Among these depictions that aspire to teach harmonious existence, one image that seems to characterise Shrinathji’s aura is him as a young baalak (“boy”) of seven years of age. Typically depicted as a figure with dark blue or black skin with a hand raised above his head (symbolic of rescuing Govardhana from the flood) and lotus stems framing his form, the iconography of Shrinathji’s employs colours like vibrant blue, gilded gold (outlining trees, cows etc.), pink and while lotuses (both in bloom and budded), milk-girls, cowherds and so on. If one were to glance at portraits emerging from Nathdwara, the exuberant adoration of Krishna and his legacy would be self-evident. It would not be far-fetched to state that these artistic outpourings entrenched in religious faith reflect and reinforce bonds between deity and devotees. The term “Radhe-Shyam” should be studied as significant words in themselves as opposed to only in whole. For example, Shyam in Sanskrit and Hindi translates as “dark, black-blue”, a colour typically symbolic of Krishna. Radha or Radhe on the other hand, is a story as mentioned before, embroiled in imaginative intricacies.

In the essay “Rādhā: Consort of Krsna’s Vernal Passion” (1975), Barbara Stoler Miller writes that due the fluidity of Puranic texts like the Harivamsa, Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana etc., the mention of Radha oscillates between “occurrence” and “absence” (658). She quotes this beautiful excerpt from H.N Apte’s work Anāndāsrama Sanskrit Series (no.54, 1907) to reiterate this (dis)appearance:

“At Sivakunda she is Sivānandā,

At Devakitata she is Nandinī,

At Dvaravati she is Rukmini, 

In the forest of Vrndāvana she is Rādhā.”

What this passage highlights apart from Radha’s manifestations so to say, is the plurality of her representation. Extrapolated from the one-dimensional counterpart of being Krishna’s consort (although she was very much so his companion), she becomes in these renditions, “neither a wife, nor a devoted rustic playmate. She is an intense, solitary, proud figure who is addressed as Srī, Candī, Māninī, Bhāminī, Kāminī” (668). The Co-joining of Radha and Krishna then is one that symbolises a philosophical partnership that goes beyond social relationships and structures. Their forms together should not simply be reduced to a lover-beloved status but rather a sort of depiction of each other (Krishna as Radha and Radha as Krishna). Nimbarkacharya, the Hindu philosopher in 607 CE (approximately) wrote in Vedanta Kamadhenu Dashashloki: “The left portion of the body of the Supreme Lord is Srimati Radha.” Further, the very enunciation of the double-word “Radhe Shyam” in a single breath, bears allusion to a coupling, a connection beyond textual inscriptions. Can hand-drawn exercises or acts be counted upon as ‘more amenable mediums’ for multiple renditions? For instance, the accompaniment of lotuses along with Shrinathji’s image refers directly to Radha’s imprint. According to folk legends and Hindu scriptures, it is said that Radha was found by Yadava king Vrishbhanu of Barsana (present day Uttar Pradesh) floating atop a full-bloom lotus along Yamuna river! 

Mentioned below are a few selected notable mentions which further cements the inter-relation between Radha, Krishna, and the repeated motif of lotuses:

  1. In the 9-10th century AD, Rājaśekhara mentions Radha in Kāvyamimāsa

“Boiling the lotus-honey from his navel,

Wilting the garland on his breast—

Witnessing his memory of Radha’s love

And heard jealousy by goddess Srī” (662).

 Here, the image of lotus stemming from the navel can be seen in a Radha Madhab temple in Bishnupur, West Bengal. In a photograph submitted by Shyamal Chatterji for Chitrolekha Magazine, the description reads, “Vishnu resting on Ananta the snake, his feet up on the lap of Devi Lakshmi. Brahma sits on a lotus emanating [from] Vishnu’s navel.” It will be interesting to note that Radha was also seen as an avatar of Goddess Lakshmi.

  1. Another reference to a word-play verse known as Kavināmānkhāstapattrabandha written by poet Rājeśekhara is made by Miller in her essay. She refers to an illustrated diagram executed by H.D Phātak of the Mysore Orient Research Institute, showing an eight-petal lotus craftily concealing the name of the poet. In the process of reading the entire poem, two paras stood out: 
  2. a) “He subjugates the family of serpent Kāliya in turbulent Jamna river waters,

Black as swarms of bees, cuckoos, dark lotuses, and khol.”

  1. b) “When stories of how his head was washed by water in royal ablution are told about Krsna,

Radha, her eyes moving slowly from excessive pride,

Looks down at the lotus of her own feet.”

  1. In another translation by W.G Archer of Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, the lines state: 

“O woman with desire,

Place on this patch of flower strewn floor

Your lotus foot.”

From all these poetical praise poetries through the ages and across centuries— a myriad of interpretations conjure up. It is nearly impossible to have a single definition of what Radha and Krishna’s union symbolises. This welcome cacophony, this paradox of stories walking the thin lines between fantasy and history, is perhaps what Pichhwai art to some extent strives to corral. Born out of devotion and joy, of imagination and faithfulness, the images of Krishna and Radha forever intertwined with the presence of cowherds, animals, flowers, trees, sakhis and so on portray a union of an everyday, self-fulfilling way of living.


  1. Miller, Barbara Stoler. “Rādhā: Consort of Kṛṣṇa’s Vernal Passion.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 95, no. 4, 1975, pp. 655–71. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/601022. Accessed 19 Aug. 2022.
  2. Shrimati radharani appeard from the lotus flower and was found by the solar king vrishbhanu just … | Krishna radha painting, Radha krishna art, Radha krishna images
  3. https://books.google.co.in/books?id=JsDpBwAAQBAJ&redir_esc=y
  4. Radhe Shyam and Radha Madhab Temples of Bishnupur - The Chitrolekha Journal on Art and Design
  5. The Pichwai Tradition: Tapestries of Krishna https://books.google.co.in/books?id=czhttps://artsandculture.google.com/story/the-pichwai-tradition-tapestries-of-krishna/6gVBMaDSAPGtIwLDAgAAQBAJ&redir_esc=y
  6. Without Kṛṣṇa There Is No Song | History of Religions: Vol 12, No 2  


1 comment

  • Shweta: January 30, 2024
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    Fantastic blog about the symbolism of radhe shyam. If anyone wants to learn how to paint pichwai art then do attend this workshop: https://www.penkraft.in/WorkshopDetails/index?id=951

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