To the north of Udaipur are a group of small towns and villages famed for their temples and centuries-old handicrafts. They make for a delightful leisurely excursion filled with opportunities galore of experiencing colourful local religious practices and interacting with artists and artisans, away from touristy sights.
The trail starts from Udaipur with stops at Sahasra Bahu Temple, Eklingji Temple, Nathdwara Temple, the Pichwai painters’ neighbourhood in Nathdwara, and the small-scale terracotta workshops in Molela Village, and finally back to Udaipur.
It is easily doable on one’s own. All you would need to do is hire a cab for the 116-kilometre-long journey which amounts to some three hours of driving time.
Here is a visual [where photography is allowed] guide on what to see and do along the trail, an introduction to some of the artisans and artists, together with some tips to make the most of the day trip. Happy travels!
STOP 1: SAHASRA BAHU TEMPLE, A 1,000-YEAR-OLD HINDU TEMPLE
The smaller ‘Bahu’ temple in the set still has its shikhar [spire] almost intact.
What’s travel in India without the inevitable inclusion of a historical monument? With 3,693 heritage sites protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, and countless others yet not on their list, it is hard put to travel through the country without bumping into one monument or the other. This trail is no different. 🙂
Sahasra Bahu Temple, in which Sahasra Bahu refers to the ‘One with a Thousand Arms’, a form of the Hindu deity Vishnu, comprises of two temples dating back to the early-11th Century. They are both in remarkable condition taking into consideration they are over a thousand years old and believed to have been destroyed, along with the town, by the Delhi Sultan Iltutmish in 1226.
Each temple is surrounded with multiple shrines and the complex is entered by a large torana. Popularly known as the Saas-Bahu [mother-in-law – daughter-in-law] temples by locals, the larger temple with the ruined shikhar [spire] is exquisitely carved. Every inch chiselled into intricate motifs, deities, and patterns.
Travel tip: Don’t forget to look up at the scalloped ceiling held up by filigreed makara-toranas above the mandapa inside the larger temple, and the musician ladies with drums swaying to some ancient rhythm on the outer walls of the smaller one.
Profuse ornamentation decorate both the temples of the 11th Century Sahasra Bahu Temple. The image on the right is in fact of a pillar.
Ceiling inside the larger [Saas] temple flanked by makara-toranas.
Just another temple facade with deities, jaalis, and stories from Hindu mythology on the larger [Saas] temple, which is more densely decorated of the two.
A bejewelled Gana or goblin holds up the ceiling.
I wonder what kind of music these musicians had drummed out a thousand years ago?
STOP 2: EKLINGJI TEMPLE, SPIRITUAL CAPITAL OF MEWAR
If you’ve read my blog post on Udaipur, you may recollect I wrote about the four-faced Shiva lingams in the centre of each of the Ahar Cenotaphs dedicated to the rulers. These were representations of Eklingji, an avatar of Shiva and the patron deity of Mewar, on whose behalf the Maharanas claimed to rule their kingdom.
Located a couple of kilometres from the Sahasra Bahu Temple, the town of Eklingji, by virtue of its temple dedicated to Eklingji, is the historical spiritual capital of Mewar. Built, destroyed, rebuilt, renovated, and expanded over the centuries, legends state the original temple was built by Bappa Rawal, the founder of the dynasty in the 8th Century.
The current marble edifice, enclosed within high fortified walls, is attributed to Maharana Raimal in the early-16th Century and is the private property of the royal family. Every-day, at fixed times, priests carry out prayers on behalf of the royal family with the same pomp and pageantry as they have done since the present temple’s inception, a ritual in which plebs like you and me can now partake in.
Travel tips: 1) Eklingji Temple is open from 10:30 am – 1:30 pm in the mornings for darshan. Mid-morning aarti is at 11:30 am. 2) Photography is strictly prohibited.
STOP 3: NATHDWARA TEMPLE, DEDICATED TO THE 7-YEAR-OLD KRISHNA
Life in Nathdwara centres around its temple and the millions of pilgrims who visit the small town annually.
One of Western India’s most famous temples, if not THE most famous temple is the Temple of Shrinathji at Nathdwara.
Called the ‘Haveli of Shrinathji’ by devotees, the temple is always crowded. Be prepared to be jostled in and out of the temple, stuck amidst a sea of pilgrims. For the crowds who come from far and wide, getting a glimpse of their beloved god is all that matters.
The main idol is a 12th Century effigy of Krishna in black stone. It was brought to Nathdwara from Vrindavan by devotees for safety, on Maharana Rajsingh’s invitation, during Aurangzeb’s iconoclastic drive in the 17th Century. And here, it has stayed since.
Its iconography captures a specific moment in Hindu mythology. Krishna, as a 7-year-old child, is shown holding up Mount Govardhan with his finger to protect his devotees from the onslaught of rains brought forth by the god Indra. In this avatar, or role, Krishna is known as Shrinathji.
Pichwais, an art form with imagery of Shrinathji, are traditionally hung as a backdrop in the temple, behind the statue of Shrinathji. To really appreciate this art form, our next stop, and its significance to both the artists and the pilgrims, make sure you do brave the crowds and visit the temple.
Travel tips: 1) Rajbhog aarti is from 11:15 am to 12:05 pm. 2) Cameras and cell phones are strictly prohibited in the temple. There are lockers for safekeeping.
Nathdwara’s houses are renowned for the wall art on their front walls. These range from the religious to secular themes.
STOP 4: PICHWAI PAINTERS’ NEIGHBOURHOOD IN NATHDWARA
Deep in the heart of Nathdwara is the Chitrakaron Ka Mohalla and its stepped by-lanes in which live the pichwai artists: a community practicing an unbroken religious art form for hundreds of years.
Work in progress: A pichwai in the making.
“It’s all about the sweetness of the face, and exact body proportions,” the artists in Chitrakaron Ka Mohalla are quick to explain.
At one time there were scores of families working on this devotional large format Hindu art form in the neighbourhood. Their ancestors had migrated here from Mathura and Vrindavan in the 17th Century, along with the effigy, to create an art form which would become synonymous with the town and intrinsic to Shrinathji’s temple.
The pichwais [literally meaning ‘back hanging’] painted with scenes from Krishna’s life were, and still are, used as a backdrop for the effigy of Shrinathji. It is believed they multiply the sanctity of the effigy multi-fold.
Presently, there are only 7 or 8 families still carrying on this tradition. Many have moved to other more lucrative professions or mass production of the paintings. Some have shifted to working in wood. But the real thing is on cloth, painted with natural mineral colours, and often taking a month to complete. Each piece is unique, based on devotees’ specific instructions, and sell at an average price of Rs. 25,000 in these narrow by-lanes.
Come Diwali, a centuries-old tradition is lived out as the artists gather to paint the pichwais for Shrinathji’s temple in the heart of the old town, finishing it one day before the mega festival. Just as their fore-fathers had done.
Harikant and Vishnu Harnarayan Sharma, two brothers, are 8th generation pichwai painters. Every year, they paint Shrinathji temple’s pichwai as part of their sewa.
Each piece is custom-made in these narrow lanes.
Satish Bhagwandasji Sharma, a pichwai artist, working on a pichwai in his tiny home-studio in Chitrakaron Ka Mohalla. Above: The artist’s toolbox.
Travel tips: 1) Harikant Harnarayan Sharma’s home-studio is right at the beginning of the Mohalla, to your left. His number is +91 83 8685 2955. 2) Satish Bhagwandasji Sharma can be contacted on +91 94 1435 4056, Panna Arts.
STOP 5: MOLELA VILLAGE’S TERRACOTTA VOTIVE PLAQUES
Bhagga Lal Kumhar explaining the fascinating world of tribal votive plaques.
A 30-minute drive west of Nathdwara will bring you to Molela, a village of 15th, 16th generation potters. Bhil tribals from Rajasthan, and Mina and Garasiya tribals from as far as Gujarat and Maharashtra come here twice a year to buy votive plaques to protect their homes and families from disease and misfortune.
Should a wish be fulfilled or the plaque were to develop a crack, an additional journey to Molela becomes mandatory. Some 40 families in Molela, which sadly have been halved because of Covid, are the sole custodians of this handicraft.
Two of the most important tribal deities depicted, from a pantheon of around 36, are Dharmaraja or Yamraja [god of death] and Takaji, a snake god. Made of donkey dung coated in natural clay, with coils used for detailing, the hand-made plaques are dried, baked, and then painted in bright oranges and reds, before getting a finishing coat of lacquer. That’s the original indigenous unadulterated version. The urban exported version is unpainted and unglazed.
Molela terracotta pottery has gained international repute over recent years, to the extent it has even become part of Mumbai airports’ décor. Next time you do see a Molela plaque, remember this is where it comes from and these kumhars are the people behind its charming rustic forms.
Travel tips: 1) Bhagga Lal Kumhar and his four sons run Lakshita Terracotta. His son Manna Lal Kumar can be contacted at +91 99 2965 3143. 2) Time permitting, do visit more pottery workshops along the main road and side lanes as well.
There are around 36 different tribal folk deities, each with its own iconography. Clockwise from top left: Durga Mate, Gora Bheruji and Kala Bheruji, a votive horse, and Takaji.
Keeping up with modern times so as to appeal to wider and more urban audiences.
The kiln to bake the plaques.
These two Bhil customers had made a long, arduous day-trip to Molela from their village to buy this plaque for their home.
Kelasi Bai, Bhagga Lal Kumhar’s wife, with a Takaji plaque. Kelasi Bai is an absolute sweetheart. If you get a chance do meet her. Having chai in a khullar with her and her husband and their Bhil customers, seated on the floor, chatting and laughing, is what makes travel what it is: Extraordinary.
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[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my 35-day solo and independent road trip through Rajasthan from 17 October to 20 November, 2021. To read more posts in my Rajasthan series, click here.]
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When I started reading this post and stumbled upon the name of that first temple, Sahasra Bahu, I immediately thought of a construction technique invented by a Balinese engineer. Indonesia’s second president who was a Javanese then named it Sosrobahu. As a lot of words in Indonesian and many regional languages within the country have loanwords from Sanskrit, I won’t be surprised if both the names Sahasra Bahu and Sosrobahu actually share the same root. However, Sahasra Bahu Temple and the Sosrobahu technique used to build flyovers in Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia couldn’t be more different — while the former is ancient and very ornate, the latter was only conceived in the modern era.
As always, I enjoyed being transported to some lesser-known places in India vicariously through your stories and photos, Rama.
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What a fascinating insight! It is interesting to read how the same word has been used in two very different contexts. Thank you for sharing the existence of Sanskrit-rooted words in Indonesia. I really had no idea.
Glad you liked the trail. I enjoyed putting it together and visiting these small towns and villages with their larger-than-life stories. 🙂
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Folk paintings in Rajasthan are as different as its culture. The folk paintings in Rajasthan are completely handmade. They bring numerous talented painters of Rajasthan. The folk paintings of Rajasthan deal with pictorial depictions of popular Hindu gods, human portraits, common customs and rituals and the elements of nature. Some of the popular folk paintings of Rajasthan include sanjhya painting, phad painting, pichwai painting and miniature painting.
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It is worth undertaking this trip from Udaipur.
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Absolutely! It was very hands on, and I especially loved meeting the artists and artisans, spending time with them, and seeing them at work. The excursion humanized Rajasthan’s arts and crafts. 🙂 Getting to visit the temples was a wonderful bonus!
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That’s one aspect most travelers miss. The people. A single factor that can tilt one’s experience in either direction. Unfortunately, not many travelers in our country undertsand this aspect.
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