When I stepped into the paintings gallery of the Government Museum at the Gadh Mahal in Jhalawar, a depressing sight greeted me — flickering fluorescent lights, dusty glass-fronted cabinets, and a general air of neglect. All this combined to ensure that the visibility of the exhibits was poor. The saving grace was the pops of colour on the walls from where the paintings were mounted.
I must admit that I was tempted to turn back without seeing the paintings, but then decided to do a quick round of the gallery — there was always the chance that there would something interesting lurking in the room somewhere. The first set of paintings I saw was a Baramasa, or a set of 12 paintings that depicted a mood and emotion for each month of the year. They were nice, but not particularly exceptional, and I moved on to the next display, a set of four paintings.
And realised immediately that I was seeing something extraordinary and unusual. So much so that I read and re-read the labels accompanying the paintings to reassure myself that the paintings were indeed a pictorial representation of the Vedas — Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva — in (zoo) anthropomorphic forms.
The Vedas are a vast body of knowledge in Sanskrit that are believed to have been composed between 1500–500 BCE. They were transmitted orally for centuries before being compiled, written down and canonised in the way we recognise today. There are four Vedas — Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva — with the Rig Veda considered to be the oldest, since the other three refer to it. The Vedas are in the form of hymns, which are sometimes abstract, puzzling and even mysterious. Today, they are considered to be a sacred body of literature and also the oldest sacred texts from the Indian sub-continent.
I have heard the Vedas being chanted and read the translations of some of the hymns, seen them being represented as young boys in paintings and sculptures, but have never come across the four Vedas being depicted like this, each with a distinct identity and iconography. The miniature style of paintings with lush foliage, floral carpets and jewel tones are a treat to the eyes. Unfortunately, there was no further information on these paintings — neither the subject, nor the painter, or the patron or its age or anything else. I can’t tell you how frustrating it was to stand in that gallery and know nothing about this set.
Back home in Mumbai after the Hadoti Trip, I tried to find more about these painted Vedas, but was unsuccessful. And then one day, this retweet appeared on my timeline. To say I was thrilled to see this is a bit of an understatement.
The line of text that appears above the illustrations translate to, “As per Vishvakarmashaastra, Vratakhanda, Chaturvarga Chintamani, by Hemaadri”. A little bit of digging around on the Internet and I found that Hemaadri lived in the 13th century in the Dakshina Kanada region and authored the Chaturvarga Chintamani, a treatise on temple architecture. What I have not been able to find is whether the drawings are based on Hemadri’s descriptions, or are they his illustrations?
Even though the ones that I saw at Jhalawar and the one shared on Twitter are different in style and execution, it is still clear that there is a standard iconography for the Vedas. What is not clear is how and when did the (zoo) anthropomorphic Vedas develop. Why did they develop in this fashion? Are there more depictions of the Vedas in a similar manner? Questions, questions. I have so many of them !
Dear reader, have you come across or know of the painted Vedas like this? If yes, can you please tell me more about them? Thank you.
Note: Apologies for the awful quality of the photographs. Considering the way they were displayed, this is the best that I could do.
The Museum Treasure Series is all about artifacts found in museums with an interesting history and story attached to them. You can read more from this series here.