In the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, a rare form of ephemeral painting known as sanjhi developed in the temples of Mathura and Vrindavan in the 17th century, becoming an integral part of Vaishnavite religious traditions. According to an ancient belief, almost all the temples in this region, also referred to as the land of Braj, used to practice this votive art. Today, only a handful of priests and craftsmen master and perpetuate the art of sanjhi in a few sanctuaries.
In 2007, on my way to the Taj Mahal, I stopped off at Vrindavan, a pilgrimage centre and mythical holy city where, according to legend, God Krishna spent his youth. It was Krishna's birthday and waves of pilgrims were pouring in from all over India, on foot, by car, lorry, or tractor. I had been told that there was a tradition of ephemeral painting in Vrindavan, and I hoped that on this day dedicated to the child-God, I would be able to admire some of them. I was disappointed, as there were no paintings. It was only a few months later, when I read the monograph "Evening blossoms", sponsored and published by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in New Delhi in 1996, that I discovered the history and practice of sanjhi in the temples of the Braj region. The paintings, linked to the life of God Krishna, are created using stencils and coloured powders and illustrate episodes from the life of the Lord of Vrindavan.
According to the stencils, Krishna styles his beloved Radha's hair, plays tricks on his gopi friends (cowherdesses or milkmaids, depending on the translation) or plays the flute and bewitches the hearts of the gopi who leave their homes, husbands, and children to go into the forest and dance with him all night long. The circular dance known as rasalila is a popular theme in Indian art.
February 2023, I am back in Vrindavan to meet Sumit Goswami, one of the few custodians of this pictorial tradition. On my way from Delhi to Vrindavan, I imagined the mythical city nestling on one of the banks of the Yamuna, a tributary of the Ganges. For centuries, widows have sought refuge in this town to escape ill-treatment, superstition dictating that their presence at any celebration is considered a bad omen. It is also here that the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) has built an immense white marble complex. Its members are colloquially known as "Hare Krishna" because of the mantra chanted by its followers. In 1970, a whole generation of Westerners hummed along with Gorges Harrison to "My Sweet Lord", a spiritual song in which "Hallelujah" alternates with the mantra "Hare Krishna".
To me, Krishna will always look like he does in the Kathakali dance-drama of Kerala. Although he appears as a prop baby in the play "Putana Moksham" (The Salvation of Putana), one can feel his aura, his wisdom, and the extent of his powers. The story tells how Krishna's uncle, the evil king Kamsa, sends a demon named Putana to kill the child-God. Dressed in her best finery and sporting a charming smile, Putana travels to Vrindavan, happily mingling with the dances and games of the milkmaids. Although charmed by the presence of the divine baby, she remembers her mission, goes to meet Krishna, takes him on her lap and offers him her poisoned breast. Krishna, knowing her vile purpose, suckled her heartily. As she breathes her last, Putana dies, liberated forever from the cycle of rebirths (moksha).
I soon reach the outskirts of the holy city, and, on the way, I recall the opening lines of the Kathakali play, which describe Putana's amazement when she discovers the city of Ambati near Vrindavan, on the banks of the Yamuna.
“Not even the King of Serpents could describe Ambati's qualities. The mansions, seven storeys high, are sumptuous with their inlay of precious stones, and these flowerbeds are of such splendour. The streams that flow through the flowering gardens exude freshness. Truly, nothing on earth can surpass the magnificence of these places before which the city of the gods can only bow.”
Arriving in the city brought me back to reality; I was surprised by the rampant and chaotic urbanisation of the town, but it did not matter that some of the temples were only a few decades old, they were already timeless. In addition to the five thousand temples, Vrindavan is home to gardens, lakes, sacred trees, institutes for religious and cultural education and tombs of famous religious figures. The central part of the city, where I will be staying for a few days, is a maze of narrow streets, constantly jammed with traffic, with very few parking facilities. Along the alleys, the temple merchants mainly sell Krishna statuettes accompanied by various accessories (crown, flute, jewellery, and colourful garments).
Other stalls abound with rosaries and necklaces made from holy basil wood (tulasi kanthi mala), prayer stoles bearing the printed names of the divine lovers "Radha-Krishna", and bags or pouches embroidered with the name of Radha, Krishna's childhood friend.
In fact, in this city and in the Braj region, people greet each other with a राधेराधे "Radhe, Radhe" in reference to Radha, who is said to be the feminine principle of Krishna and that their love story, stands for the soul seeking union with the divine Principle.
In town, women with trays on which are placed various religious brass stamps kindly call out to passers-by to offer them temporary tattoos made with sandalwood paste or turmeric and coloured chalk. One of them, in the shape of an elongated U, distinguishes devotees of Vishnu/Krishna. The other stamp displays all the Hindi letters of Radha's name - राधे -.
Vrindavan, described in texts and poems as a peaceful town on the banks of the magnificent Yamuna River, is now bearing the full brunt of mass religious tourism. The river is heavily polluted, as is the water table. The entry of vehicles from other cities has been banned from Friday evening to Monday morning, to make way for electric vehicles. Thousands of trees have been planted, but the dust is omnipresent.
Finally, the constant threat of monkeys is proving to be a real nuisance for pilgrims and locals alike. It is clear that it is the humans who are caged and the monkeys who are free. The ashram where I stayed was fenced from balconies to ceilings to prevent the monkeys from entering the rooms. Teenagers stationed at the main entrances to the residence use sticks and slingshots to keep groups of monkeys in check, and at night, lying on my bed, I cannot count the number of times I have imagined an Indian version of the film "Planet of the Apes". In the city, during the day, muggings multiply like the monkey population. They snatch glasses, mobile phones, cameras, and bags. The victim can only recover the stolen object with the help of the locals, in exchange for food given to the thieves. The trees struggle to grow as the hungry monkeys eat their leaves and break the branches. Many solutions have been devised, but to no avail, as excessive urbanisation has transformed the monkeys that used to live in the forests and groves of Vrindavan into urban monkeys.
Story to be continued...