Monks, Monasteries and Murals – A Photo Story on Puri’s Two Legendary Mathas

Puri, the abode of Lord Jagannath is widely celebrated as a supreme Hindu Tirtha for its legendary Jagannath cult. Everyday Puri is visited by thousands of devotees from all over India for darshan of the Hindu Trinity at Jagannath Temple.

The present Jagannath Temple may be a 12th-century structure testifying the highest achievement of Kalinga School Architecture, but the celebration of Puri or Srikshetra as a Hindu Tirtha goes back to much earlier time. For example, Gobardhana Matha located in Swarga Dwara had been founded by Adi Sankaracharya in 8th Century CE as a centre of learning and culture. From then on mathas or monasteries have been playing an important role in performing seva or duty for Lord Jagannath. There are a large number of mathas belonging to different sects located around Jagannath Temple. Mahantas head these monastic institutions, who are also the spiritual preceptors of many followers of the sect. These mathas are treated as social infrastructure located within historic residential neighbourhoods or shais where monks, austerities, bhikkhus and devotees stay to practice meditation for spiritual growth.


Bada Odia Matha


The Mahanta of Bada Odia Matha

Once covered with murals profusely with time there are only two monasteries left where one can trace the evolution of Puri paintings although in highly faded condition.

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Travel Tips

Puri is a well-known pilgrimage site for Hindus and celebrated as one of the four supreme dhams. The holy city of Lord Jagannath is well connected by rail and road and forms part of the golden triangle in Odisha for tourists world over, the other two places in the triangle are Konark and Bhubaneswar. The nearest international airport is located in Bhubaneswar, 65 km away. Puri abounds in sites for both spiritual and adventure seeking souls. Every street of Puri and its surrounding villages has something to offer whether it is food, craft, ethnic life, devotion or spirituality. Its sea beach is one of the most celebrated beaches of India on the Bay of Bengal and a drive through the Puri – Konark marine drive is one of the most memorable experiences for a traveller. 

Puri is full of hotels and restaurants to suit all budgets. While at Puri don’t forget to eat mahaprasada, the food offering to Lord Jagannath on a daily basis. 

The Bada Odia Matha

The Bada Odia Matha has the largest concentration of Puri paintings on its walls drawn in the 19th century. This matha was established by Atibadi Jagannath Das in the 15th Century CE. He was a great religious poet and composed the Odia Bhagwat. The image of Atibadi Jagannath Das is preserved in the matha. Jagannath was the intimate disciple of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and founder of Atibadi sect of Vaishnavism. The Odia Matha makes arrangement for pankti bhoga in the Jagamohana during Rukminiharana festival and supplies kala sari (black cloth) to Goddess Vimala. It is also vested with the duty of cleaning the Ratnavedi and supplying of canopy for the inner sanctuary and the pillows for the Lord. The matha provides trimundi chandua and silk cloths for chaka apasara, til oil for phooluri neeti, oil and ghee for Deva Deepavali.

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Sahi Jatra – Puri’s Holy Carnival


Portrait of Atibadi Jagannath Das


Inside of the Monastery profusely painted with murals




More than life-size murals of Lord Vishnu, Krishna and Rama with their consorts and allies, the matha boasts some of the finest religious art of the region. As one enters the inner monastery gate the first sight is the murals of Lord Jagannath, his elder brother Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra.

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Illustrating Ramayana Katha – Biranchi Narayan Temple at Buguda


Next, are scenes from Krishna Leela and the Ramayana.




The depiction of Anantasayi Vishnu is yet another major draw among the murals of the matha.


One also finds the episode of Samudra Manthan or the Churning of the Ocean in the monastic wall.



Among the decorative figures, the images of peacocks are eye-catching.



The Kaliya Dahana scene of Krishna is yet another important mural of this monastery.






Krishna and Rukmini



Scenes from the Ramayana

However, sadly most of the murals are on the verge of extinction. The monastery is neither on the heritage trail.





Gangamata Matha

Gangamata Matha located in Bali Sahi is yet another monastery where one can see traces of Puri murals of the 19th century. Belonging to Gaudiya Sect, the matha is located beside the sacred Swetaganga Tank.




Like Bada Odia Matha here also one finds life-size murals of the Hindu Trinity (Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra) at its entrance.










In the next panel, the mural boasts child Krishna along with the depiction of forest environment. There are also depictions from the scenes of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.


One of the Finest Wooden Panels at Gangamata Matha

In Indian mural tradition, Odisha played an important role as a link between south and north. However, unlike other mural traditions, such as Vijayanagara, Cholas and Nayakas of South and Orchha and Bundi of Rajput north, the Puri paintings have hardly drawn attention. One of the major concerns is their preservation from the sultry tropical weather and human interference. However, before they have vanished completely it is critical to preserve them from their further decay with the help of art restorers.

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at

Dundlod in Shekawati – A Timeless Heritage

A short distance from Nawalgarh, one of the largest painted towns of Shekawati in Rajasthan takes you to Dundlod, a picture postcard Rajasthani village famous for its Goenka Havelis and Chhatris.






In the 18th Century, the East India Company had a strong establishment in Calcutta. The backbone of their trade was produced that came from the hinterland. In those days, Calcutta was a major trading hub with huge caravans of camels, horses and bullocks loaded with prized merchandise making a beeline for its port. The transport and supply was generally taken care of by middlemen.

The Indian middlemen were mostly Marwaris from Shekhawati who worked on a commission basis. They were hardworking but shrewd businessmen and acquired substantial wealth over a period of time.




Among the earliest to establish such trading contacts with the British was Ramdutt Goenka of Dundlod. Along with his brother and sons, Ramdutta managed to acquire several profitable brokerships with early British farms such as Kinsel and Ghose, Kettlewell and Bullen. He also traded with the Greek farm Alexander Ralli which was one largest importer of Indian cotton, jute and hessian.

Travel Tips

Dundlod is located midway between Nawalgarh and Mandawa in Jhunjhun District of Shekawati region at a distance of 160 km from Jaipur via Sikar and 250 km from New Delhi via Dharuhera and Rewari. Established in 1750 CE it was a thikana of Jaipur state. Part of the the fort wall still exists in this heritage village. You need a minimum of two hour to appreciate the late 19th century murals at the chhatri of Ram Dutt Goenka and Arjun Das Haveli. The haveli has been converted into a museum with an entry fee of 50 INR. 

Dundlod Fort which is now converted into a heritage hotel ( is a blend of Rajput and Mughal architecture. The Diwan E Khas has stained glass windows and exotic antiquities. It has a library too. The hotel organizes a variety of activities including horse safari and cycle polo. 

Having acquired these agencies, the Goenkas expanded their business in jute and tea rapidly and part of the wealth they generated was invested in construction of havelis in their native Dundlod.

One of the key attractions of Dundlod is the chhatri of Ramdutt Goenka built in 1888. The dome of the chhatris has floral motifs with banners extending from the center. The dome is encircled by frieze showing Krishna dancing with his gopis, interspersed with musicians and peacocks. Another major draw among the frescoes is a man drawing water from a Shekhawati well.

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Though most of the havelis built by the Goenkas are not at their glorious best, the Seth Arjun Das Goenka Haveli is an exception. The haveli is now converted into a small private museum. The haveli is of typical Shekhawati architecture consisting of a public area, a courtyard, a family area and bedrooms on the upper floor. The havelis has 20 rooms spread over two floors.









Built in 1870s by Arjun Das Goenka, the haveli has some of the finest frescoes of Shekhawati. The dioramas in the interior of the haveli reveal aspects of life in those times, beginning with their reception room, cooled by huge pankhas (swinging cloth fans).

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Deeg Palace – A Synthesis of Persian and Indian Aesthetics




Dundlod is small and less crowded compared to other Shekawati heritage towns, such as Nawalgarh and Mandawa. But the wealth of its heritage is no less splendid. Besides havelis, the town also has a Darbargarh (palace) built in the 18th century by Keshari Singh, the erstwhile ruler of Dundlod thikana. The present scion and the owner of the palace which is converted into a heritage hotel conduct excellent customised horse safaris into the desert. The other attraction here is the Satyanarayan Temple located beside the Arjun Das Goenka Haveli. The temple has some breathtaking frescos of Shekawati tradition that are well preserved.

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at

Traversing the Ganges, from Old Times to New – Part I


A lifeline that has defined human civilisation. A river that holds a cosmos in itself,  a fascinating  world of flora and fauna, unseen from above, yet pulsating below, under tranquil waters.

(Pic – Yamuna in Agra. Yamuna is the largest tributary of the river Ganges)

In a land where infrequent monsoons are held as the main season, water is as priceless as a flawless jewel, and rivers are considered sacred. From ancient times when man learned to settle down in what is termed as “civilisation,” water has reigned supreme over man’s life, living, thoughts, writings, paintings, culture, religion, and even wars. Rivers are ancient, and their waters have been flowing persistently even before human beings came into existence. Theirs is a separate universe, a little world of their own, which has sired many tales (mythological and folk), history, religion, philosophy, politics, and also in the modern era, technological incursions. The flowing waters of these mighty rivers have witnessed the creation of some of the earliest cities in the world and have seen their destruction too; they have seen the shaping of some the world’s earliest literature and religious texts and the brilliant minds that shaped those; and now the same waters are witnessing their relentless defiling by the very people that had once started their journey of civilisation on those muddy river plains.

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Map of the Ganges valley Source

What’s in a name?

In North India flows a river with many names. Its name is Ganga, rechristened the Ganges by the British, this river is a sacred entity, a focal point of constant reference that entwines life and death for billions of Hindus living in this country since the ancient times.


The blue pristine waters of the Ganga at Haridwar)

Defying what Shakespeare said about a name not being significant, there are some names that certainly spell magic. They create a reverberation in the mind, leaving an impact like an echo. One such name is Ganga.


The name Ganga evokes a vision of evening lamps, temple bells, smell of burning camphor, and the chants of Ganga stotram. 

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The Bhagirathi peaks from  Gangotri. Photo courtesy: Jay Shankar

One may wonder how the name that is so intermingled with the lives of billions, came to be known to the world? Let’s take a quick look back. Studies show that it was during the late Harappan period (2000 to 1000 BCE) that the node of Indian civilisation shifted from the River Indus to the areas adjacent to the upper Ganges basin, a land termed as ‘Cemetery H’ (reference).


The map here shows the names of the rivers, including the Ganges, around which the new settlements grew up, the names of which are found in the Rigveda. Source

The early Rigveda, composed roughly between 1500 to 900 BCE, mentions Jhanavi (Jhanavi is another name for Ganga). However, Ganga gains greater prominence in the later three Vedas. As historian Romila Thapar aptly sums it, “In the Ṛig Veda the geographical focus was the sapta-sindhu (the Indus valley and the Punjab) with Sarasvatī as the sacred river, but within a few centuries ārya-varta is located in the Gaṅgā-Yamūnā Doāb with the Ganges becoming the sacred river.” (reference P. 415).

The first foreign traveller to mention Ganga was Megasthenes (350 – 290 c BCE), in his book Indika, where he spoke of the mighty river and its tributaries, the canal system that helped in irrigation of the Gangetic pain, and its extensive run that ended at Gangaridai (the ancient name for area near the Ganges delta), which he refers to as the land of large elephants (reference).

Ganga also finds mention in Mahabharata, Ramayana, and several Puranas. In Mahabharata she is the consort of  King Shantanu and the mother of Bhisma; in Skandapurana she is the consort of Shiva and the mother of Skanda or Kartikeya, also known as Kumara, the son of Ganga. In Bhagavad Purana, Ganga is shown to have emanated from the lotus feet of Vishnu, following which she acquired a beautiful pink shade. With Brahma, she is always seen accompanying him in his kamandalu, as the sacred water. According to a passage in the Ramayana, Ganga is also the daughter of Himavat and Mena, chief of the mountains and his wife, which makes her the sister of Uma/Parvati (reference).

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How ancient settlements were centred around the river Ganges and its chief tributary Yamuna  Source

The Legend, Mythological representations, and Iconography

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The descent of Ganga Source 

In Hinduism, Ganga is personified as Devi Ganga, and is in her own self a teertha, a link between heaven and earth. Such is her importance that it is believed that by bathing or taking a dip in her holy waters one is absolved of sins, while immersing the ashes in her waters brings the soul of the dead person closer to moksha. Hence she is often referred to as: Patita Pavani or the liberator of all sins.

In the Indian subcontinent, sometimes other rivers are also referred to as Ganga. This gives the rivers a sacred sanctity that shines through the name Ganga. Its name is also invoked in any ritual where water is used, therefore sanctifying all holy waters used for religious purposes.

Referring to other sacred rivers as Ganga has its own disadvantages too, as is seen in the misconception about the geographical origin of the river. For a long time it was thought Ganga originated in Manas Sarovar near Kailash. While there are no clear theories on how Ganga came to be related to mount Kailash, but one line of thought says that it might have started from an ancient Tibetan text Kailash Purana. A small flowing stream which connects the two lakes, Manas Sarovar and Rakshas tal, is mentioned in the Kailash Purana as Ganga chu (in Tibetan the word chu means river). Could this name have led to the notion that Ganga came from Manas Sarovar? One can only wonder and speculate. However, in 1808 while mapping and tracing the route and origin of the Ganges by Webb and Hearsay, it was specifically proven the river did not originate from Manas Sarovar near Kailash .

The birth of Ganga is beautifully depicted in the Bhagavad Purana, which says that Vishnu in his Vaman avtaar pierced a hole with his left foot at the end of the universe. It was through this hole, the pure Brahm Water came into the universe, in the form of the Ganga River. Since it washed the feet of Vishnu while flowing in, it is also known as Vishnupadi, or the one that emanates from the lotus feet of God. Ganga originally remained in Brahmaloka, until Bhagirath brought her down to the earth in order to release his forefathers from a curse, in what is termed as Ganga avtaran. With Ganga threatening to wash away the earth with her force as she descended, it was Shiva who broke her fall by holding her in his locks and taming her raging waters. There are other legends that give varying versions but this one remains the most popular. Since Bhagirath brought her down, Ganga in the Himalayas is also known as Bhagirathi. From the heaven (swarg or Brahma lok) she descends to the earth or prithvi (via Gaumukh glacier), and finally enters the patal (netherworld) in Ganga Sagar.

As Ganga came down to earth from heaven, she is also seen as the means of moving from earth to heaven.  The  Triloka-patha-gamini, or the one who traverses the three worlds (swarg , prithvi , and patal), she is herself a teertha, or the crossing point of existence (that includes all living and dead).


Ganga avtaran by Raja Ravi Verma. Shiva readies himself to meet the raging waters of Ganga, while Parvati comfortably leans on Nandi watching the avtaran, and Bhagirath looks on with folded palms.  

Ardhanarishwar. Ganga flowing out of Lord Shiva’s matted locks Painting circa 1800 Source

Bhagirath leading Ganga down to Ganga Sagar to release his forefathers who were suffering in patal, Kalighat Patachitra (in print), 19th c. CE. It is believed that Bhagirath led the devi on until Bihar, and when he reached Bengal he wasn’t sure which route to follow that would take him to his forefathers in patal (the netherworld). It was then he requested the devi to take her own route, after which Ganga  decided to branch out in streams (in Bengal there are indeed two major streams, Hooghly and Padma, besides other smaller ones). That created the delta formation in Bengal and Bangladesh.  Finally one such stream led to a point, now known as Ganga Sagar, which took Ganga to patal, and she released Bhagirath’s forefathers from their sufferings.  

In ancient India, Ganga was seen as symbol of fertility, as it provided the daily bread for those that lived on its banks. She is first seen in the Cave V, on a relief in the Udaygiri caves (400 CE), carrying  a pot that symbolises fertility ( a womb), as well as the Brahma’s pot from where both she and Saraswati were born. Ganga is accompanied by a gana who symbolises development and attainment. Her vahana is a makara, a mythical figure with the head of a terrestrial animal (such as an elephant) and the lower body of an aquatic animal (generally a fish, sometimes with floral tail like a peacock). Makara symbolises both the underwater life, and the fear of the unknown, the fear of destruction caused by her uncontrolled waters.


By the end of the 5th c. CE, Ganga was seen as a devi in her own right, symbolising all rivers in India, and her iconography turned more complex. All Hindu temples had the goddess carved at the door, symbolising ablution in the sacred waters of the river, as one enters the garbhagriha (the inner sanctum). Ganga on the temple door frame with her vahana, attendants, and the dwarpala ~ at Teli ka mandir, Gwalior fort, 850 c. CE


Ganga in terracotta, 5th century CE. (Gupta Period), Ahichchhatra, Uttar Pradesh. Source


A red sandstone relief, Madhya Pradesh, 8th/9th century. Very finely carved Ganga in a graceful tribhanga at right, adorned with an elaborate knotted belt, standing on a lotus blossom over a rearing makara, along with a retinue of attendants. Source


Makarvahini Ganga, Kalighat Patachitra (in print), 19th c. CE

How the course runs:

cities beide ganga

Some of the important cities beside the river Ganges as it travels through the northern plains of India and empties itself in the Bay of Bengal near Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta). It provides water to an area of 8,61,452 that is equivalent to almost 26% of the total geographical area in India.  Source


Geographically speaking, the Ganga basin is spread over four countries that include India, Tibet, Nepal, and Bangladesh, covering an area of 10,86,000 The extensive area of the Ganga basin Source

Casting aside the nitty-gritty of geographical data, let’s peek into towns and cities that line the course of this mighty river.


At a height f 13,200 ft amidst the snow clad mountains of Uttaranchal, lies of the snout of a glacier from which the waters of the Bhagirathi rush out with great force. Gomukh literally means the mouth of a cow, and finds mention in the Puranas. It is said that the snout of the glacier from which Bhagirathi emerges looked exactly like the mouth of a cow. However, owing to environmental changes, and the glacier changing its position, the shape of Gomukh opening now remains largely left to one’s imagination. Gomukh, which is a two day’s hard trek from Gangotri, is a Hindu pilgrimage site, and it is not surprising to see sadhus and other devotees bathing or taking a dip in the icy cold waters of the Bhagirathi at its point of emergence.


 Gomukh, the point of emergence of Bhagirathi at the base of Mt. Shivling. The Gangotri glacier is a receding one, and is moving back at an alarming rate, much to the concern of climate experts. The topography here is rather wild, with hard ice, patches of snow, and large and small boulders scattered everywhere. Picture credit: Saket Kumar


The glacier spout from which Bhagirathi rushes outPicture credit: Jay Shankar

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Base of Mt. ShivlingPicture credit: Jay Shankar

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Tapovan at the base of Mt. Shivling, the beautiful meadow through which the Bhagirathi flows after emerging from the Gomukh. Picture credit: Saket Kumar.


It is a small town at 10, 200 ft, popular among the pilgrims that has a temple dedicated to Ganga devi, which was originally built in the early 19th c. CE by  the Gurkha general Amar Singh Thapa. Many sadhus have small kutis here where they stay for most part of the year, pray, and meditate by the riverside. The beautiful, calm surroundings and the sound of the gushing waters of Bhagirathi make it a perfect place for mediation and prayers.

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The evening light on Bhagirathi peaks. Picture credit: Jay Shankar


The Ganga temple at Gangotri. The evening arti performed under the open skies beside the river in front of this temple creates an ethreal aura that one has to experience to believe. Picture credit: Jay Shankar

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Forceful waters of the Bhagirathi gushing down at Gangotri. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

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The Suryakund waterfall in Gangotri located very near to the temple. Here the Bhagirathi falls from a cliff with immense force, making it an unforgettable sight. Photo credit: Jay Shankar


The tranquil waters of Bhagirathi by the side of the Ganga Mandir at Mukhba village (near Harshil), which is the winter residence of the Devi when the temple at Gangotri is shut down on Bhai Ditiya, owing to the heavy snowfall that cuts off the place from the lower reaches during winter. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

Rishikesh and Haridwar:

Bhagirathi from Gangotri flows down the valley passing many picturesque locations such as Gangnani, Harshil, to reach Uttarkashi, which as the name suggests, is another important pilgrimage centre with a Vishwanath temple. Harshil is a Maha Prayag, a confluence of nine rivers, with a Vishnu temple located at the confluence of Jalandhari, Vishnu Ganga, and Bhagirathi. Dharali is another place on the banks of Bhagirathi, where the rivers Bhim Ganga and Hatya Harini meet her. It is believed that by bathing at the confluence of these rivers one is absolved of the sins of even Brahm Hatya (killing of human).


Bhagirathi at Uttarkashi. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

The next important point is Devprayag where Bhagirathi meets Alaknanda, and here the river Ganges is formed. The Ganga which is formed at this confluence contains waters of six rivers, brought in mainly by the Alaknanda that flows in from base of Satopanth and Bhagirath Kharak glaciers, near Badrinath. The waters of Alaknanada contain the rivers Nandakini, Dhauliganga, Mandakini, and Pindar. There are five important Prayags or confluence points on the side of Alaknanda. The five prayags are Vishnuprayag, Nandprayag, Karnaprayag, Rudraprayag, and Devprayag.


The beautiful green waters of Alaknanda (left) merge with the dark waters of Mandakini (right) at Rudraprayag.  Mandakini that comes from Chorabari glacier near Kedarnath is an important tributary of the Ganga. Photo credit: Jay Shankar


Devprayag, the birth place of Ganga. On the left is the tranquil Alaknanda, and on the right is the turbulent Bhagirathi . It is here where the  Vedic rituals for Shraddh ceremonies and pinda pradaan take place. Source

From Devprayag, the river now known as Ganga, moves down to reach Rishikesh. Here the river leaves the mountains behind and enters the north Indian plains. There are many temples (both old and new), and learning centres for religious education in this town.


This place finds mention in Skandapurana (Kedarkhand), while it is also believed that Rama did penance here in Rishikesh for killing Ravana


The RamJhula in Rishikesh, is a newly built suspension bridge over the Ganges. A little ahead is the more famous Lakshman jhula, where it is said Lakshman had crossed the river using a bridge made of jute ropes. A jute bridge was supposed to have existed in this spot until the late 19th c. CE, as mentioned in his travel records by a famous Bengali travel writer Jaladhar Sen. In 1889, a Marwari businessman from Calcutta sponsored the building of an iron suspension bridge to prevent any further deaths, which was later renovated in 1924 after a major flood.

The next important town beside the Ganga is Haridwar. Here a dam diverts some of the water from the main river to a canal, the waters of which are used for irrigation in the Doab area. The river changes its course from south-west to south east in Haridwar.


Haridwar is one of the seven holiest places in Hindu pilgrimage. The evening aarti at Haridwar by the banks of the Ganga is a site worth seeing despite the crowd that gathers there everyday


Har ki Pauri. It is believed that during samudra manthan,  one drop of amrit (elixir) fell on Haridwar in the Brahma Kund, located at Har ki pauri. It is for this reason Haridwar celebrates the Kumbha mela every 12 years, kumbha signifying the pot carried by Garuda, which contained the amrit.


The murti of Devi Ganga  at Haridwar. This is the original murti, which has been shifted and kept in a side temple beside the ghat, while the main Ganga mata mandir now holds a murti of the Devi with Bhagirath.


Haridwar as seen and painted by  Sitaram in 1814, while travelling with Hastings (then Lord Moira) from Calcutta to Punjab. From a recent record, it has been said that most of the buildings seen here in the picture still exist, however they are covered by ugly advertisement boards and so cannot be seen from the river anymore. The main river seen here has thinned down now owing to the dam built to divert water for irrigation. 

Prayag or Allahabad:

From Haridwar the Ganga passes the cities of Kanauj and Kanpur to reach Allahabad, where it meets its chief tributary the Yamuna at Triveni Sangam. Here it is said the Saraswati river was also a part of the confluence. The city was known as Prayag in the ancient times and finds a mention in the Vedas, the Puranas and in Ramayana. Later known as Kausambi, the city according to archaeological finds dates back to 700 BCE. It has seen the coming and going of many empires that include Mauryans, Kushanas, Guptas, Delhi Sultanate, Mughals, Marathas, and lastly the British. During Mughal rule, Akbar renamed the city as Illahabad, and built a fort on the banks of the Sangam. The British later changed the name to Allahabad.


A bridge of boats on the Ganges in Kanpur (then Cawnpore), with two elephants crossing it. A bungalow, few temples, and Sarsaiya ghat are seen on the right side of the bridge on the banks of Ganga. The picture was painted by Sitaram in 1814, while travelling upstream on the Ganga in a bajra with Hastings (then Lord Moira) from Calcutta.

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The Ganga at Prayag. Photo credit: Gency Chowdhury


The Yamuna at Prayag. Photo credit: Gency Chowdhury


Prayag during Kumbh mela. Photo credit: Gency Chowdhury

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Prayag during Kumbh.  Photo credit: Gency Chowdhury


The Allahabad fort built by Akbar at the Sangam. On the left is Yamuna and on the right is Ganga. Far left in the picture, partly seen is a white building which is most likely the Akbari masjid. The magnificent white octagonal structure in the fort seen here from the river, was known as Chalees Satun, and it was destroyed by the East India Company who took over in  1798.  The picture was painted by Sitaram.

Chunar Fort:

After Allahabad the next important city beside the Ganga is Varanasi or Kashi. Between Prayag and Kashi lies the important fort of Chunar on the banks of the Ganga. The fort has been linked to king Bali, Vikramaditya of Ujjain, and Prithviraj Chauhan. While archaeological finds place the fort settlement date at around 56 BC, recorded history starts from the time of Babar. It was taken over from the Mughal subedars by Sher Shah, who married into the subedar family. The fort was won over from him by Humayun, only to be again taken back by Sher Shah. Akbar won it back in 1574, and it remained with the Mughals until the East India company conquered it in 1722.


Chunar fort. After East India Company took over the fort in 1722, they faced stiff resistance from Raja Chait Singh of Benaras in 1781. In 1791 the fort was made into a sanatorium for the sick and dying European soldiers. The picture was painted by Sitaram

Varanasi/Benaras or Kashi:

The name Varanasi rises from the two tributaries of the Ganga that bind the old city, rivers Varuna and Assi. Rigveda mentions the city as Kasi, which in Sanskrit means the city of light. Regarded as one of the holiest cities, Kashi or Varanasi was supposedly built by Shiva, and it is here that the Pandavas came to search for Shiva in order to atone for their killings during the Kurukshetra war. Buddha also started his preaching from Sarnath, a place very near to Varanasi, which was the capital of the Kashi kingdom during his time. Archaeological findings place the start of settlement in this city at around 2000 BCE (reference). The city is also well known from the ancient times for its religious learning centres, textiles (Benarasi weave on silk is famous), sculptures, ivory, and perfumes.

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Such is the religious significance of this city that it is believed that if one is fortunate enough to die in Kashi, that person will attain moksha. Photo credit: Gency Chowdury

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Ganga aarti on a ghat in Benaras. Photo credit: Gency Chowdury


The riverfront at Benaras with Panchganga ghat at the centre, and Aurangzeb’s mosque rising above it. The mosque minarets were later removed because of of their instability. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.


Dasasvamedha ghat in Benaras. The building seen here is the  rest house built by Rani Ahalya Bai. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.


The palace of the Raja of Benaras that was constructed in 1750 by Raja Balwant Singh. He was the governor of Benaras under the Nawab of Oudh. The Nawab transferred the sovereignty of the city to the East India Company in 1755. Seen above is the State Boat of the Raja of Benaras. Painting by Sitaram. 

From Varanasi, Ganga travels further on, crossing the states of Bihar and Bengal. This part of the journey however, will be told another day. Kumbh13-26 (1)For now, I will leave you at Kashidham with Ganga, where the Devi makes a lovely arc and turns uttarvahini.



Author – Monidipa Bose

She can be contacted at or at Moni Gatha

(All pictures used in the post are clicked by the author unless mentioned otherwise. Sita Rams’s paintings and pictorial details are from J.P. Losty’s Picturesque views of India: SitaRam)

Hunting and its Depiction in Indian Art – A Journey through Time


Rama would not have had to go to the forest if King Dasharatha had not killed Shravankumar accidentally while hunting and cursed by his blind parents to die of Putrashoka. Mahabharatha probably would have been narrated differently if Pandu had not killed Rishi Kindama while hunting. He was cursed and so had to step down from his kingship of Hastinapura. So many stories in the Indian sub-continent involve the hunter, or the hunted or hunting, that it feels the act of hunting is as old as the land itself. In fact it is, at least as old as human habitation can be traced back to. After all we have evolved from being hunter gatherers to survive as what we are today.

Myths, legends, folklore, plays, and poetry have been written, enacted and sung over eons, weaving the hunt in them and leaving a lasting impression upon our minds. But it is the miniatures, lithographs, folios and paintings on medium as varied as rocks, lime plastered surfaces, cloth and paper, left behind in the last 500 years that tell us the stories most graphically. These colourful remnants give us a good idea about the land that India was.

Bhimbetka rock shelters, near Bhopal, show paintings, some as old as 30,000 years, of humans hunting. Humans have inhabited these shelters since 100,000 years back. These hunts were probably for survival as well as for protection. The paintings depict hunting of buffaloes, rhinos, bears, tigers, and elephants. A clear indication that the rhino was extant over much larger areas and not confined to a pocket in NE, as it is now.


Plate 1 : Bhimbetka Rock Paintings (Source: Wikimedia)

Greeks, like Ctesias, who lived in the 5th Century BC, and was a historian and physician to the Persian King Artaxerxes Mnemon, through to Cosmas Indicopleustes, an Alexandrian merchant and hermit, in the 6th century BC, have described the rich wildlife of India. Wherever there has been wildlife, men hunted.

What did we hunt?

Humans have hunted almost everything across time. From mammoths to rats, from lions to dogs and everything in between, and we have painted them too. An interesting painting that comes to us from nearly 500 years back, is that of the Mughal king Babur hunting rhinoceros in Punjab. Greek sources tell us that Alexander and his men met the rhinos in Punjab and so did Rao Ram Singh in 1720-30 as the painting below shows. It is a strange feeling that overcomes us when we realise that Rhinos have ranged from Lahore to Guwahati. Babur, in his memoirs, says that a large number of rhinos roamed around in the forests near Hashnagar, Bhera, and Peshawar, and also along the Indus and Ghaggar rivers. These gentle vegetarians have been hunted down from ages, singularly for their horns, thanks to the use of rhino horn powder in elixirs concoted using traditional methods in many Asian countries.

Inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent have not been any different and literally hunted everything that moved right from lions, tigers, cheetahs, bears, elephants to peacocks, cranes, crocodiles, wild boars et al – the list is fairly long to say the least.


Plate 2 : Babur hunting rhinoceros (Source : Wikimedia. Painting at the National Museum, New Delhi)

Plate 3 : Rao Ram Singh I of Kota upon an elephant hunting a rhino 1690-1700 (Source : Sotheby’s)


Plate 4 : Mughal hunting of Lions, Rhinos, Elephants~ 1605 (Source : Sothebys)

Plate 5: Jahangir Hunting Lion, 1590-60 at the Aga Khan Museum (Source : Internet)

Plate 6: A 1760 painting shows Maharaja Isri Singh hunting crocodiles with attendants and helpers (Source : Jay Shankar)


Plate 7: Marksmen on the banks are ready in case the crocodile gets the better of the King (Source : Jay Shankar)

Plate 8: Maharaja Fateh Singh of Mewar hunting female bear, a 1917 painting. The bear lured by a bait is depicted five times (Source : Jay Shankar)

Plate 9: Huntings tigers and wild boars from machan (Source: Jay Shankar)

How did they hunt?

For the kings of India, at least since 16th century, hunting was akin to going on a picnic. They went with their retinue of wives, children, friends, ministers, servants, scouts, and bodyguards. The hunting caravan travelled for days and carried with them essentials  that included tents, food, and the entire kitchen.They hunted both on horseback and on foot as well. They took the help of dogs, trained cheetahs, lynx, hawks, and falcons too for hunting.


Plate 10: Maharana Jagat Singh with his retinue. (Source: Jay Shankar)


Plate 11: Maharana Jagat Singh of Udaipur hawks for cranes, 1744 (Source: Jay Shankar)


Plate 12: Hunting wild boars with dogs (Source: Jay Shankar)


Plate 13: Emperor Shah Jehan hunting blackbucks with his cheetahs (Source: Jay Shankar)

Egyptians used cheetahs for hunting as early as 1500 BC. They introduced the sport to Persians. Emperor Akbar was the first in India to keep cheetahs for hunting. He had as many as a thousand cheetahs after receiving the first one, Fatehbaz, as a tribute. Hunting with Cheetahs continued well into the first half of the 20th century. Though this might be a bit difficult to imagine now but the entire region of North Western India was once lion country. There are reports of giraffes too being extant. Today, giraffes are a myth, cheetahs have gone extinct and lions are cornered in Gir in Gujarat.

Here’s a 1939 film of hunting with cheetah in India.


Plate 14: Emperor Akbar hunting with cheetahs and dogs (Source: Jay Shankar)

Plate 15 : 1878 Painting by Marianne North shows the street of hunting cheetahs and lynx in Alwar (Source :  British Library)

Who Hunted?

The kings hunted and so did the common man especially those who lived in and around the forests. Mughals hunted, Rajputs hunted, and so did the Deccani Sultans. The British, the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese also hunted. Women too hunted. It was a popular sport and naturally a trending topic among artists of the time. Craftsmen too did not lag behind in showcasing their skill in the making of ornamental arms that were used for hunting.


Plate 16: Bhils hunting at night (Source : Sothebys)


Plate 17: Chand Bibi of Bijapur hunting with ladies, 1750 (Source: Victoria & Albert Museum)


Plate 18: Guru Gobind Singh killing a lion (Source: Internet)

It is said that once Guru Gobind Singh was approached by the villagers requesting him to save them from a man eating lion. He killed the lion and on that spot, now stands Gurudwara Shergah, near the town of Paonta Sahib in Himachal Pradesh.


Plate 19: Roopmati and Baz Bahadur, Punjab Hills, 19th Century (Source: Sothebys)


Plate 20: 17th Century Elephant Goad, South Indian (Source: Jay Shankar)

Plate 21 (a, b, c, d): Hunting Sword 18th Century – Mid 19th Century, Rajasthan (Source: Jay Shankar)

Any answer to Hunting?

While it does look as though everyone in India was involved in the sport of hunting, there were also movements and groups of people who were equally protective of the environment. Khejarli, a village 26 kms from Jodhpur, derived its name from Khejri (Prosopis Cineraria) trees that were abundant there. In September 1730, a minister of the Maharaja of Mewar came to cut the village trees to use as firewood to produce lime for a new palace.

A local lady Amrita Devi protested the felling of trees, as their Bishnoi religion prohibited such an act. She refused the bribe offered by the minister, and in the bargain she and her three daughters were killed. The news spread to the surrounding 83 Bishnoi villages and the elders decided that a volunteer would sacrifice his/her life for every tree that was cut down. Initially the older folks hugged the trees and were promptly killed. When the young, women and children hugged the trees, they too were killed.

Eventually the shocked royal team went back to Jodhpur failing to fell more trees and kill more Bishnois. The Maharaja, on hearing the tale of sacrifice, ordered a royal ban on tree felling. 363 Bishnois died protecting their beloved trees. A Cenotaph commemorating the event still stands in the Khejarli village. The famed Chipko movement had a predecessor.

Where are we headed?

In the Indian sub-continent hunting still persists. As recent as a decade back, actors Salman Khan and Saif Ali Khan in separate incidents were charged for hunting the endangered black buck. The case is still pending in the courts. As time ticks by, the rhinos now remain restricted to a very small region in the North East, cheetahs have gone extinct, Indian Aurochs and Sumatran Rhinos are extinct, while another 132 species of plants, reptiles, fishes, birds and mammals are listed as critically endangered in India.

Hunting once earned fame. Names such as Pulikesi, Hoysala etc. are a testimony to the duel between man and wild animal. Today, very little of wilderness is left and even lesser wildlife. Hunting today brings shame upon the famous, as the case of Salman Khan and Saif Ali Khan has illustrated.

Land and water and all that inhabits on or in them are our first heritage. We are born with this. Buildings and man-made structures show the culture of our ancestors. As the human population explodes, hunting that was once an essential act for survival is now an act that we as humans must stop in order to survive. Across the world we are leaving barren the fundamental heritage that truly belongs to all humans of today and tomorrow. It is time we stopped hunting, and started gathering the animals and other beings with love and protect them.


Plate 22 : Huntress Chenchu Lakshmi at the Kolaramman Temple, Kolar, KA (Source: Jay Shankar)

Author – Jay Shankar

The author can be contacted at

Peacock in Indian Art – Depiction in Different Cultures

The idea of India is incomplete without understanding the relationship of its people with the natural world. From time immemorial, in Indian culture and civilization both human and the natural world have co-existed across religions and belief systems. Many of the familiar elements of natural world, such as trees, creepers, birds, mammals and reptiles are found integral to Indian culture. Indians have explored through these elements deeper meanings of life and its connection with earth and universe throughout history. As time progressed, some of these elements became subjects of Indian art as icons of wealth, divinity and royalty.

One of these natural elements is peacock, India’s national bird. Its majestic and graceful form and the charming colours of its plumage have always motivated artists of different faiths to depict it in a range of mediums, from clay to stone and wall to wood and metal.

Rangeen Mahal, Bidar
Eastern Gateway, Sanchi
Hyosala Period Temple, Sira, Karnataka

Peacock is the vehicle of Lord Kartikeya, also known as Skanda in Hinduism, the commander-in-chief of Gods. When he was assigned to kill Tarakasura, the well-known gods assembled before him offering their powers and armies. Garuda presented him his own son, the first growing peacock. There are numerous temples spread all over India dated from the Gupta Period showing Kartikeya with peacock.

Parasurameswara Temple, Kartikeya

Peacock, especially its feathers is closely associated with Lord Krishna, one of the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu. According to a story, in Govardhana Hill at Braj, once when Lord Krishna was playing his flute, peacocks started dancing in joy and excitement listening to the sweet melody. After the dance they spread their feathers on the ground and the chief peacock offered them to Lord Krishna with humility. The lord accepted the gift and adorned himself with it.

Chitrasala, Bundi Fort
Laxmi Narayan Temple, Orchha
Laxmi Narayan Temple, Orchha
Laxmi Narayan Temple, Orchha

It is believed that in Hinduism, when someone worships Lord Krishna with the feathers on his crown, he/she is blessed with auspiciousness, wealth, good health and transcendent knowledge. It is also believed that the feathers protect one from evil eyes and destroys all negativity, like anger, greed, and jealousy and remove poison.

Hawa Mahal in Jaipur designed like Krishna’s Crown
Raginis on Ceiling of Laxmi Narayan Temple Orchha
Laxmi Narayan Temple, Orchha
Warangal Fort, Kakatiya
Warangal Fort, Kakatiya
Warangal Fort, Kakatiya
Ragini, Bundi Fort
Ragini, Orchha Fort

Peacock has a deep connection with Islam as well. According to one story, the God created a peacock and it sat for 70,000 years on a tree. All these years it prayed God using prayer beads. Finally God put a mirror in front of the peacock who was so pleased at his own beauty that it prostrated itself to God five times. So the tradition of five prayers a day arose among the Muslims.

Sarkhej, Ahmedabad (Peacock shaped projection in an Islamic shrine)

Peacock is also a symbol of royalty and therefore it was adopted by both Rajputs and Muslims in their royal courts.


Toranas, Brackets and Mughal-Rajput Arches through Time

Culture is a dynamic process which continuously evolves and changes through interaction with other cultures, climate change and political and economic shifts. However, in most cases we do not appreciate the dynamic nature of culture and instead stick to our own ideas believing that they are supreme and pure. By doing so, we don’t appreciate how other cultures and ideas have influenced on our own ideas and vice versa. This leads to conflict and disrespect for others.

Architecture is a tangible way to show how ideas evolved, refined and influenced other cultures in Indian context. Torana is a type of gateway in Hindu-Buddhist-Jain architecture of Indian Sub-continent. But its influence in Islamic and later Mughal architecture is noteworthy.

Toranas in Hindu and Buddhist architecture are believed to bring good fortune and signify auspicious and festive occasions. The earliest architectural evidence of torana dates back to Sanchi Stupa in 2nd century BC. The Sanchi torana is an imitation of timber and brick construction in stone, which was a popular feature in Ancient Indian architecture.

As time progressed, torana was adopted in Hindu temples with makaras (crocodile) sculptures on base at both ends. Makara is a sea creature. It appears as the vahana of the River Goddess Ganga and of the Sea God Varuna.

Depiction of Varuna God in Rajarani Temple, Bhubaneswar

Makara is also considered as guardian of gateways (torana). An interesting feature of the Makara torana is that it is artfully designed to suggest if the doorway is held afloat, at either end, by the extended snouts of two makaras.

In Gujarat and Central India, depiction of Makara torana was a prominent feature in the 11th century. The best example of it can be found at Sun Temple in Modhera and Kandariya Mahadev Temple at Khajuraho.

In 14th Century AD, Gujarat became a seat of Islamic power under Delhi Sultanate. Several mosques were built of this new faith in Gujarat. One of these is the Jama Masjid in the port town of Khambhat featuring a Makara torana. Most probably it was recycled from an abandoned Hindu temple as in Islam depiction of animals are restricted. However, a century later at Jama Masjid in Ahmedabad we see an earliest form of torana in its true Islamic adaptation.

In Malwa and Bundelkhand, which were already strongholds of Hindu temples, a hybrid variety of slender serpentine brackets evolved in the 15th century. Its best examples are found among monuments of Chanderi.

These brackets formed into ornamental toranas in Gwalior Fort and then adopted in Mughal buildings at Fatehpur Sikri.

At Bundi, in southeast Rajasthan, these further evolved into torana arch.

The earlier variety of Makara torana further evolved into arch in the Mughal and Rajput monuments forming one of the most splendid features of Indian architecture.

Makara Torana and torana inspired arches in Indian art silently tell the story of India, a civilization that is strongly rooted in fusion of ideas representing different cultures and religions.

India as an idea has always been dynamic and open to experimentation. Today when some vested groups are trying to divide us on the basis of religions and castes, the meaningful interpretation of visual history of India can act as a bridge bringing communities together irrespective of their castes and religions.   img_3772-copy

Bundi Paintings from an Artist’s Perspective

Between 16th and 19th centuries AD, the Rajput courts in Rajasthan and Central India had patronized miniature paintings and wall murals of mythological and court themes in an epic scale. Though many of them have faded with the ravage of time, yet whatever are left constitute an integral aspect of South Asia’s visual history and heritage. Each of the Rajput courts had evolved with a distinctive style of murals done on the walls of palaces, inner chamber of the forts and havelis.

Most of these styles however had emerged combining indigenous as well as foreign influences (Persian, Mughal, Chinese, European and also from Gujarat, Deccan and Eastern India). In Rajasthan, the Hadoti region with its capital at Bundi was among the four principal schools that had evolved within the state.

The Bundi School had evolved at the Hadoti Court in the early 17th century in the time of Rao Bhoj Singh, while him overseeing Chunnar near Varanasi as the governor of the province. During his governorship, he came in direct contact with Persian artists (these artists had been brought by Humayun) and commissioned them to illustrate a Ragmala series. The style with strong Mughal influence was first experimented at Badal Mahal in Bundi. In richness and brilliance, the Badal Mahal paintings have affinity also with paintings of Deccan, a region with which the rulers of Bundi were often in contact.

The style emphasized on hunting, court scene, processions, life of nobles, lovers, animals, birds and scenes from Krishna’s life.

The Chitrasala or the Ummaid Bhavan built in the 18th century by Rao Ummaid Singh shows the climax of Bundi paintings, a style characterized by a fondness of lush vegetation, dramatic night skies, a distinctive way of depicting water by light swirls against a dark background, and vivid movement. The walls and ceilings of this palace are completely covered with paintings of the Bundi School and can be compared with among the best of pre-modern paintings anywhere in the world.

Two remarkable themes of these paintings is the Ragamala and Baramasa series depicting moods and sentiments of men and women, seasons and 36 ragas and raginis linked to the seasons, times of the day and the mood of the moment. Under Rao Bishen Singh (1771-1821 AD), hunting and wild animals became favorite subjects.

Bundi School of painting today has survived among a handful of artists, who still paint themes depicted in the Chitrasala. A few have also made some fresh innovations in filling the negative spaces and in colour schemes. Yug Pratap, a young Bundi artist shares his idea on Bundi paintings and his experience as an artist. Yug runs a small studio ‘Yug Art’ near Surang Gate in Bundi.

More on the video.