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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

‘A Sacred Journey’ weaves a wondrous journey of 5 pilgrims to the abode of Bhagwan Shiva

This is an elegant and evocative work based on the Kedara Kalpa, a relatively little-known Shaiva text only slightly better known than which are a series of 19th-century Pahari paintings that depict the journey of five pilgrims to the land of Bhagwan Shiva.

The paintings showcased in “A Sacred Journey” (Artibus Asiae/Niyogi Books) have been sourced from widely dispersed collections, including the National Museum, Delhi, as well as museums and private collections around the world.

This fine-art volume is well-structured in a manner that helps the reader understand the mystery behind the paintings and their present state of identification. As the authors – eminent art historians (late) Karuna Goswamy and B.N. Goswamy – explain in the Introductory Essay, paintings of this series seem to have been widely dispersed and were incorrectly described by scholars as illustrating episodes from various other texts, such as the Mahabharata. For instance, the five sages shown in the paintings were misidentified as the five Pandavas.

It was the location of a Kedara Kalpa manuscript in the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana at Cologny, Switzerland, that led to the authors identifying the paintings in this series, spread across museums and collections worldwide, as visual depictions of this lesser-known manuscript.

The Kedara Kalpa manuscript begins with a conversation between Shiva and his consort Parvati. The discussion is meant to enlighten devotees and readers, as Parvati poses questions such as: “Where is the pilgrimage site Kedara located? What are the spiritual benefits of undertaking the pilgrimage to Kedara? What if a person is unable to reach Kedara, do they still attain salvation?” Shiva answers that Kedara is the “very essence of pilgrimage, the foremost among tirthas”, thus establishing that a pilgrimage to Kedara earns a devotee immense merit.

The Kedara Kalpa then depicts Shiva and Parvati’s son Kartikeya asking his father: “What is the ‘Great Path’ of the pilgrimage? What does journeying on it entail? What should the sadhakas (seekers) be aware of, and therefore do?” Shiva replies that the journey is not easy, as the way is beset with great difficulties and impediments.

The core of the series of paintings begins here, as the text describes the five sadhakas beginning their journey. The sadhakas visit various nagaris (towns) and en route, they successfully face different trials and finally reach Shiva and Parvati’s abode at Mount Kailash, where they receive the blessings of the divine couple. Shiva informs them that they have attained their goal due to their perseverance, unshaken resolve and great devotion. They will now live forever, free of the fear of death.

The text, therefore, describes both a physical and a spiritual journey, leading the authors to ask if the text is a parable or a description of a dream? Is the journey real or is it only in the mind?

The authors discuss in detail the two series of paintings based on the Kedara Kalpa text. They succeeded in gathering 33 works, 20 of one series and 13 of another. The similarities and subtle differences in the two series are explained with accompanying images. The authors then explore the origin of these Pahari paintings and elaborate on their reasons for attributing them to the painter Purkhu and his family, who worked for the court of Raja Sansar Chand of Katoch in the Kangra region of the present day Himachal Pradesh.

This is followed by a Catalogue of the paintings, which is the core of the book. The 33 works are showcased with a detailed explanation of each of the paintings, and the elegant commentary discusses the subtle nuances and spiritual significance of each image. Beginning with “Shiva in conversation with Karttikeya” and ending with “The sadhakas reach the Kedarnath shrine and offer homage”, the series describe the journey of the sadhakas, the trials they encounter on the way and the spiritual significance of their achievement.

The authors compare similar images from both series, commenting on the fine detailing of each painting and the intricacies of the artists’ skill in depicting the scenes from the manuscript. Delightful touches emerge in the paintings. For instance in the painting “The sadhakas bathe, offer worship at a linga shrine, and move on, northwards”, around the sadhakas bathing and praying, the local populace of Gaddi shepherds make an appearance, as does their woolly black sheepdog.

The authors explain the difference between the two series of paintings, suggesting that the second series came later, that the painters were aware of the first series and attempted to “go beyond” the work of the original series, though they did not always succeed.

The images depict the sadhakas travelling through landscapes with craggy, snow-covered mountains and witnessing marvellous sights. They visit glittering cities of the Naga kings (not to be confused with present-day Nagaland), whose opulent courts are packed with people and beautiful dancing girls. They are requested to stay by the kings Shankha Pal and Shruta Pal, who offer them untold wealth, beautiful maidens and a long lifespan, but decline this offer and proceed on their journey, since they maintain it is Shiva that they seek.

On their way, the sadhakas encounter a fierce tiger, actually Indra in a fierce form, who threatens to tear each of them apart. They are able to banish this fearsome threat by chanting the aghora mantra. Indra, pleased by their actions, grants them any boon they wish. The sadhakas reply that all they wish for is for their remaining journey to be free of impediments. Indra grants them this boon and disappears.

Finally they encounter an aged man, who asks them: “Who is Shiva? Is he real? I have been looking for him for thousands of years.” They reply that Shiva is tall and fair, has three eyes and ten arms, his throat is blue, he bears a trident in his arms and he rides on Nandi the snow-white bull. The old man, who is none other than Shiva himself, then appears with Parvati at his side. The sadhakas are overcome with emotion at this beholding of the deity for whom they have undertaken this arduous pilgrimage. The final image, “The sadhakas reach the Kedarnath shrine and offer homage” depicts the gods showering flowers on the seekers in blessing as they offer worship at this sacred shrine.

The latter sections of the book include Citations: Notes by other scholars with descriptions of the paintings by experts, an Addendum, An Abstract and Excerpts from the Kedara Kalpa text, followed by images from the manuscript in the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana and a Select Bibliography. Together the various sections of the book reveal and resolve the mystery behind the paintings, now understood to depict the Kedara Kalpa.

As the authors explain, the Kedara Kalpa is a sthala-purana, a text composed to draw attention to the sacredness of a site, lauding the merit of a pilgrim who journeys to it and narrating the history of how the place came to acquire the status it does in the eyes of devotees. These two series of paintings depicting the Kedara Kalpa lead one to wonder if there are two journeys here – one that takes place in the land of the mortals and another that takes place purely in the mind.

It is for each reader to decide – the authors appear to say.

This is a book quite stupendous in its scale and it is a matter of deep regret that Prof Karuna Goswamy did not live to see its publication. She was suffering from Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome and passed away at the PGIMER, Chandigarh, on October 25, 2020 after her lungs collapsed. She was 80.

(The story has been published via a syndicated feed with a modified headline and minor edits to conform to Hindu-Post style-guide.)

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