Pilgrims’ Progress: Kedara Kalpa series of Pahari paintings

Kedara Kalpa series of Pahari paintings and the painter Purkhu of Kangra', by eminent historian Karuna Goswamy and art historian BN Goswamy, is a fascinating study of a group of 33 Pahari paintings

Pilgrims’ Progress: Kedara Kalpa series of Pahari paintings

Shuma Raha

Sacred Journey: The Kedara Kalpa series of Pahari paintings and the painter Purkhu of Kangra', by eminent historian Karuna Goswamy and distinguished art historian BN Goswamy, is a fascinating study of a group of 33 Pahari paintings, and the equally fascinating story of determining its source — a little-known Shaiva text called Kedara Kalpa, which extols the virtues of undertaking a pilgrimage to Kedar Nath, the holy shrine of Lord Shiva amidst the icy reaches of the Himalayas, and dwells upon the spiritual rewards that it brings to the pilgrim.

Two sets of the paintings exist — one somewhat larger in size than the other — and both are attributed to the Guler or Kangra aregion of what is now Uttarakhand. In all likelihood, say the authors, they were produced some time during the first quarter of the 19th century.

The works, which show five ascetics journeying into the mountains, praying at various shrines, visiting resplendent cities, and finally meeting Lord Shiva and his divine consort Parvati in Kedar Nath, kept turning up in museums and art collections in the last century. But for decades, there was uncertainty over their theme and source material. Some scholars felt that the series depicted the five Pandava brothers on their last journey, when they left the abode of men and made their way high into the mountains towards heaven. Others felt that the pilgrims were five rishis sent by the god Indra to please Shiva.

However, in 1996, the authors had occasion to study a relatively unknown text written in Sanskrit called Kedara Kalpa, and they were immediately struck by the narrative’s similarity with this intriguing series of Pahari paintings. It became obvious to them — and since then the conclusion has been accepted by art historians around the world — that the paintings that had puzzled scholars for so many years, were actually a visual rendition of the Kedara Kalpa text, believed to be part of one of the Puranas.

In the text Shiva tells Parvati (in some versions, his interlocutor is his son, the six-headed Kartikeya) about the infinite merit of making the journey and worshipping at the holy Kedar Nath shrine. Among other stories that he narrates to illustrate the amazing grace and piety of the Kedara tirtha, there is also the story of five sadhakas (worshippers) who undertake the pilgrimage with dedication and resolve and attain salvation upon reaching their goal.

Both sets of the paintings, albeit with minor variations in style, capture this journey of the sadhakas. Each unfolds the progressive stages of their arduous trek — now by icy streams, now through barren crags and vast, brooding mountain scapes, now past opulent celestial cities filled with beautiful maidens — narrow of waist and high of breast — who would pleasure them if they so desired. However, the five pilgrims spurn every temptation and press on towards their holy grail.

But whose hand wrought these intriguing works of Pahari art? Was it by a single person or a group of disparate artists? The authors agree with the commonly held view that the paintings bear the stylistic imprint of a master artist of the time called Purkhu. The paintings probably emanated from his family workshop and the book dwells at length on Purkhu’s artistic oeuvre and his style.

The high point of the work is without doubt the detailed description and analysis of each of the 33 paintings that make up the two Kedara Kalpa series. Though it cannot be ascertained which set was produced first, the large or the small, the paintings in the large series are clearly more mature and finely rendered, evoking the dreamy, wondrous, almost surreal, nature of the sadhakas’ journey.

Sumptuously produced and meticulously documented, A Sacred journey is a scholarly work that will not only delight lovers of art; it will also entrance the lay reader with the enthralling story it tells about the coming together of mythology, art and history, and with the tantalising questions it raises: are there two journeys here — one that takes place in the land of the living and one that takes place in the mind?

(The reviewer is a journalist and author)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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