Pithora wall painting is practised extensively among the Rathva Adivasi of the Chhota Udepur and Panchmahal districts of Gujarat. Pithora painting is not merely a form of art for the Rathva, but an integral part of the ritual for their chief god Baba Pithora. They undertake vows in times of hardship to gain boons from Baba Pithora, and to rid themselves from troubles. On the fulfillment of their vows, they create the Baba Pithora painting in their homes. The primary motif in these paintings are horses—symbolic representations of gods, goddesses and ancestors of the Rathva. The wide range of motifs in the paintings portray varied scenes of daily life, their beliefs, mythologies and histories.
Rathva: A General Introduction
The Rathva derive their name from the geographical origins of their community. In ancient times, their ancestors resided in a region named Rath, literally meaning a jungle or a hilly region. Colloquially this area is referred to as Rathvistar or the Rath area around the borders of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. They are also known as koli or koli-rathva. Members of the Rathva community also reside in Chhota Udepur, Jambugam, Pavijetpur Nasvadi, Bodeli, Sankheda and Kawant talukas of Chhota Udepur district, and Halol, Kalol, Jambhughoda, Dahod and Baria talukas of Panchmahal district. According to the 2011 Census, the population of the Rathva was 6,42,348. They speak a very distinct dialect of Gujarati—Rathvi. Their main occupation is agriculture, with the majority populace being small to medium farmers. The community is divided into 56 clans, and marriage within the same clan is prohibited.
The Rathva community worship several gods and goddesses ranging from gods for the family, village, animals, marriage, rain, children and women, illness, and agriculture. Each god and goddess is worshipped in a common village shrine created on the periphery of the village. Wood-carved totems, terracotta horses, terracotta lamps are the main offerings in the community shrines or devasthal (a place where god resides). In recent times, the educated among the Rathva have chosen to join Hindu sects such as Swaminarayan, Satvaikal and Ramanandi.
The main festivals of the Rathva community are Holi, Dev-divaso (divaso), Dusshera, Dev-diwali, and Akhatrij. It is during the melas (fair) that one can view the cultural diversity of the Adivasis: Telav Mata Mela in Pavijetpur, Gher Mela in Kawant, Mela in Dungarvat, Jhojh, Raisingpur, Chhota Udepur, Amrol are organised after Holi.
The Haat (weekly market) is where most Adivasis meet their needs. A spectacle to experience, where Adivasis come to buy and sell, everything—from vegetables, grains and livestock to bows and arrows, ornaments, bamboo articles and cooking vessels—is available in the haat. Barter is the prevalent system in the absence of money. Each day of the week there is a haat in different places in the adjoining areas of Chhota Udepur. Apart from being an all-inclusive market, the haat is a place of congregation, for relatives and friends to meet and converse.
Baba Pithora Painting: An Introduction
Baba Pithora is chief among the gods of the Rathva community, and the painting is done in the homes to appease him. It is drawn on three walls inside the homes of Rathva, especially in osari (main threshold of the house) and the process is part of a ritual to invoke peace, prosperity and the eradication of obstacles from the lives of a particular family.
Mythology of Baba Pithora
Birth of Baba Pithora: It is said, Baba Ind (probably Indra) ruled heaven and earth. He was also known as Meghraj (lord of the rains). Baba Ind had seven sisters—Rani Kajal, Rani Makhal, Rani Dharti, Rani Hora, Rani Kalu and Rani Kali Koyal. Rani Kali Koyal, was the youngest and most beautiful of them all. One day she went to graze seven cows and a goat in the mango farm of Raja Bhoj near the seacoast. While in the farm she was admiring flowers and was collecting wood from the kesuda tree. Suddenly she noticed someone coming and as the person got closer, she realized he was none other than Kandu Raja (also known as Savariya Maulan). Rani Kali Koyal requested Kandu Raja to help her lift the stack of wood and place it on her head. After helping her with the wood, they started to walk together and were engrossed in each other’s company. Rani Kali Koyal suddenly complained that a thorn has pricked her and requested Kandu Raja to take it out. After examination Kandu Raja found no thorn and Rani Kali Koyal confessed it all to have been a ruse and ran into the jungle, with Kandu Raja in pursuit, where they made love.
After several months, Rani Hantu, wife of Baba Ind enquired about Rani Kali Koyal’s bulging stomach. Since she was unmarried, Rani Kali Koyal replied that she had consumed the eternal water of the Mahuda tree. Rani Kali Koyal realized that since her brother Baba Ind is an almighty God, she would have to conceal her pregnancy from him. She went back to the mango farms of Raja Bhoj near the seacoast, where after nine months and nine days she went into labour. Harja Bai Hoyani a celestial midwife and Baar Matha no Dhani (the enlightened one with 12 heads) arrived from heaven to aid Rani Kali Koyal in the delivery process. Rani Kali Koyal gave birth four times, first to leaves, flowers and fruits, the second time to different grains and pulses, third to gods of nature like rain, air, fire, lightning, animals and insects, and the fourth was the celestial child ‘Pithora’.
Recognition as an incarnation: Being an unmarried woman, Rani Kali Koyal decided to abandon the divine child Pithora. She wrapped him in a cloth, placed him on a lotus and set him afloat on the Ganga-Jamuna. Rani Kajal noticed a child floating in the river while drawing water. She rescued the child and fed him milk of the akdo tree and juice of various flowers and plants. One day, she left the child Pithora in his crib and went to draw water. Upon her return, she found the child missing. She searched for him everywhere but could not find him. In order to protect the missing child from evil, a worried Rani Kajal prepared a packet of leaves from the khakhra tree, udad pulses (split black gram) and a gold coin, went around the palace and placed it in a corner. She invited Titiya and Bramma Joshi (Joshi: one who is able to read the future) for predictions based on their readings of the content in the packet. They inspected it and told Rani Kajal that her adopted child was divine and was hiding in the wall because he had chosen the wall as his seat in the palace. They suggested to her that if she accepted this seat chosen by the child, the problems of her life would be resolved, and that as soon as she accepted this, the child would return to his crib.
Over the years, Rani Kajal and her adopted son Baba Pithora lived a happy, content and peaceful life. Baba Pithora completed his celestial education of the entire world. One day, he told Rani Kajal that he wanted his share of the kingdom. Baba Pithora pursued Baba Ind and demanded a part of his kingdom. This sudden demand worried Baba Ind, who called for an assembly of gods and goddesses. In this assembly, Baba Ind discussed the matter and a huge debate arose as Baba Pithora's lineage was unknown. How could Baba Ind give a part of his kingdom to Baba Pithora? In the midst of this confusion, Baba Pithora stood up and pointed his finger at Kandu Raja, his biological father and also a faithful servant of Baba Ind. The assembly thus realized that the child was actually the son of Rani Kali Koyal and Kandu Raja, who was brought up by Rani Kajal. This recognition clarified that Baba Pithora was in fact the nephew of Baba Ind and could rightfully claim a part of his kingdom. Baba Ind refused to cede to his demands, which created a tense situation between uncle and nephew.
To resolve this situation, Rani Kajal sought the guidance of Khoda Gahavin, who suggested inviting Lakhari and Jokhari (scribes of future) to predict the future of her adopted son, Pithora. Upon accepting the invitation and arriving at the palace, Lakhari and Jokhari asked Rani Kajal to recite to them the life of Baba Pithora. Based on their learnings, Lakhari and Jokhari commenced drawing horses of Baba Ganesh, Rani Kajal, Vadiya Vaniya, Baba Ind, Baba Pithora, Rani Pithori, Baba Hundol, Rani Makhal, Kanhari, Kaida Kunbhi, Dhaneri, Jahu Valen, and Huta Valen on the chosen seat of Baba Pithora. After this several miracles occured, proving the divinity of Baba Pithora and his recognition as a god. The gods and goddesses thus decided to intervene and prevail on Baba Ind to grant half of his kingdom to Baba Pithora.
Story of the Pithora ritual: There came a time when the earth was suffering from severe drought, and living here became difficult. During this time, a devotee undertook a vow to please Baba Pithora and win a boon to be rid of trouble. Soon after it started to rain, and the earth became all green and obstacles were erased. The devotee organized several rituals in order to fulfill his vow, which concluded with painting Baba Pithora on the walls of his home. From then on, vows and rituals are undertaken in Rathva homes to overcome difficulties.
Performance of the Baba Pithora ritual: The painting is actually a ritual associated with Baba Pithora. There are specific parameters which identify this painting. In order to fulfill certain vows, the Ghardhani (home owner) performs the painting in his home. The Lakhara (painter) paints according to the rules and the Badva (shaman) performs rituals. The ritual of the Baba Pithora painting is complete when all three fulfill their duties.
Role of Ghardhani (home owner): Ghardhani is at the centre of the installation of Baba Pithora. During times of severe difficulty, such as issues related to health, poor harvest and farming, failure to give birth, infant mortality, a Ghardhani visits Badva with a bag of arad grains and leaves of kesuda to seek his guidance. The Badva inspects the bag and initiates his reading of the situation based on his ancestral knowledge, and suggests undertaking the installation of Baba Pithora if the situation is very grave. The installation begins with a vow, which the Ghardhani has to undertake in order to gain the boon from Baba Pithora. Once the Ghardhani is relieved of difficulties, he has to fulfill his vow by undertaking the installation of Baba Pithora through the painting in his home.
Role of Badva (Shaman): In the Rathva community, the Badva foresees all activities related to the belief system. The tradition of Badva is as old as the community and the knowledge qualifying him as a Badva is passed down by heredity. He possesses knowledge of incantations required for each and every foreseeable situation. He is a repository of ritual stories and songs and associated customs and rituals. The Rathva community often seeks his guidance in difficult times, and he is considered to be a medium for the gods. In the ritual of Baba Pithora, he serves as a channel between Ghardhani, Lakhara and Baba Pithora. He is responsible for supervising each and every ceremony so that it is performed in accordance with tradition. The Badva exclusively oversees ‘Panga Vidhi’ and ‘Makai ni Vidhi’, which are the main ceremonies and at the time of installation of Baba Pithora, the Ghardhani seeks the guidance of the Badva to choose a Lakhara from the community. The Badva selects a Lakhara based on his credentials and reputation in the community. The Badva also performs weddings in the community, and pre-sowing rituals of farming. He is responsible for the welfare of ghardhani in all walks of life and receives a share from their annual harvest. During special occasions, festivals, and rituals he receives food grains and on important occasions, he receives money, chicken, coconut, a new dhoti together with foodgrains. He is entitled to receive the head of a goat, which is offered as a sacrifice.
Role of Lakhara (painter): Lakhara simply means a creative individual of the community. The tradition of being a Lakhara is also hereditary, they are taught within the family. The older the family, the greater the reputation! In the Baba Pithora ritual, when the Ghardhani invites the Lakhara, it is called ‘Notru’. On the day of the invitation, Lakhara visits Ghardhani, and undertakes ‘Pandu Vidhi’ in the presence of Badva. Pandu Vidhi is the application of white clay procured from river banks on the wall chosen for painting. Pandu or white clay has to be applied on the walls only by unmarried girls in the family of Ghardhani. This ritual takes place the day prior to the painting of Pithora. On that day Ghardhani (husband and wife), Badva and Lakhara with his first assistant worships the wall chosen for the painting. Lakhara then requests Ghardhani to commence the painting by colouring the horse of Baba Ganesh, while the Badva chants, which officially marks the begining of the process of Baba Pithora painting.
Lakhara has complete freedom to paint the Pithora based on his own aptitude. To paint a traditional Pithora, Lakhara forms a team of 10 lakharas, which also gives young lakharas the opportunity to start practising their art early. Traditionally, brushes are made from bamboo, while pigment-based colors are naturally obtained and dissolved in mahuda alcohol and cow’s milk. In total, there are almost 165 types of motif which can appear in a single Pithora painting.
Types of Pithora
There are two types of Pithora, based on the progress of vows and the monetary capacity of the Ghardhani. Based on the variations they are Ardho Pithoro ('half Pithor'), and Akho Pithoro ('complete Pithora'). In Ardho Pithora painting, usually five to nine horses are drawn and none of the horses have riders except for Baba Ganeh. An Akho Pithora painting consists of a total of 18 horses with their celestial riders.
Tribal art of India has its roots in the traditions of the communities who practice them. Often merely viewed as a form of art, individually they do not present a complete view of culture of their respective communities. The art form is often connected with a vast maze of stories, mythology, songs, dances and music. Keeping this mind, this essay attempts to illustrate the Rathva community's view of Baba Pithora ritual art. For the Rathva, Pithora is not merely a form of art. In fact, while referring to the Pithora they never use the word ‘painting’! Pithora is a form of writing, a medium to express their faith, culture and history.
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Tribal Research and Training Institute. 'Rathva'. Online at https://trti.gujarat.gov.in/rathwa (viewed on March 14, 2017).
Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India. 'Demographic Status of Scheduled Tribe Population of India'. Online at http://tribal.nic.in/WriteReadData/userfiles/file/Demographic.pdf (viewed on March 14, 2017).