Sanjhi Art is one of the many art forms prevalent in the culturally rich land of Braj.
Braj being a cultural landscape associated with Lord Krishna has been an important center for various folk traditions. Like art, music, architecture, sculpture, etc. since ancient times. The name of folk hero Sri Krishna indelibly brings to mind the clusters of creepers and the bank of the Yamuna River in his playground, the sacred land of Braj. The string of artistic and cultural jewels of Braj emerged from this very same sanctified playground which remains ever inspired by the lord’s all-pervading presence.
The different constituents of art, including various kinds of music, dance, literature, and visual art, do however not exist in isolation from each other but come to live in a homogenous synthesis. During the Bhakti movement in 16th CE, these art forms gained momentum due to people flocking from different parts of India to Braj. It became the center for Krishna’s pilgrimage in the ecstasy of Prema Bhakti i.e. a higher form of Bhakti encased in love. In 16th CE Braj became home to various cultural traditions and art forms. On such art form was Sanjhi. It had its root in the sacred texts related to the pastimes of the Radha & Krishna.
What is Sanjhi?
The word ‘Sanjhi’ comes from the Hindi term ‘Sandhya’ that means dusk – the time when cows return home. It is considered the most sacred time for the ritual. According to the Srimadbhagwatam, Radharani herself initiated the practice of Sanjhi by creating such designs with the fellow Gopis. They visited the forest and collected the flowers to make beautiful patterns on the ground in order to please the angry Krishna.
This is the spiritual grounding of this tradition. The theme of feigned anger features prominently in the play of Sanjhi. It represents the subtle emotional state associated with the amorous sports of the divine couple. In other words, it’s an ancient folk custom deeply rooted in the Braj region which refers to an image depicting a religious theme.
Festival of Young Girls
Originally such designs were molded from cow dung and flowers by the unmarried girls of Braj. They would subsequently venerate these designs as the embodiment of a goddess, Sanjhi in order to obtain a suitable husband. The practice of creating it from cow dung and flowers are still followed in present-day Braj. This art constitutes an inseparable component of Braj art and culture. Its roots rest in the folk tradition.
Swami Haridas thus describes the cowherd girls creating Sanjhi image on the wall made of the cow dung:
“कामधेनु के गोबर सो रचि साँझी फूलन चिति”
Kamdhenu Ke Gobar So Rachi Sanjhi Phulan Chiti
From the dung of Kamdhenu, the Sanjhi is created using flowers
Apart from Braj, this tradition of Vrindavan constitutes an excellent example of the adoption of folk elements by the religious traditions and their subsequent transformation into high art. The rural customs of designing and worshipping these images were taken up by the Vaishnav temples in Vrindavan. From here it was developed into an extremely sophisticated art form of exceptional aesthetic appeal.
Sanjhi in Braj Temple Traditions
Sanjhi designs in the temples are prepared as part of a fifteen-day autumnal festival celebrated during the dark fortnight of the month of Ashwin (September-October). In Vrindavan, Vaishnav sects like Pustimarg, Gaudiya, and Radhavallabhi were instrumental in the task of adapting this art form into the temple tradition under the banner of their independent Sampraday Bhava respectively.
There was a time in Vrindavan when all the temples were used to make this art form during the Ashwin month. But now we have only three temples in Vrindavan which are following this 500-year-old tradition. They are Radharaman Temple, Bhatta Ji Temple, and Shahjahanpur Temple.
Making of the art form in Temples of Vrindavan
Brahmin priests specially trained in this art prepare them in temples. They are composed using dry colors upon an octagonal earthen platform symbolizing an eight-petalled lotus.
Parallel to the architectural design of a temple, the heart of the Sanjhi houses the sanctum sanctorum. Embodied by a depiction of the divine couple Krishna and Radha immersed in one of their transcendental sports. The inner sanctuary is encircled by several layers of artfully interlocked ornamental patterns. Representing the expansion of divinity towards eight directions.
The intricate patterns are prepared by the paper stencils one over another. That is made by the extremely talented paper cutting artists. These artists have to be well versed in paper cutting art too. There was an era in this tradition when the stencils were made on the spot according to the mood of the artist.
Time of the Festival
The period of the festival coincides with the period when village girls do Sanjhi worship. It also corresponds to another significant annual ritual – Pitra paksha. The fortnight for offering ablutions to the ancestors. Interestingly this period of time is regarded highly unsuitable for auspicious undertakings of any kind. No rituals and ceremonies meant to yield beneficial effects are conducted during Pitra Paksha.
Sanjhi however transcends the limits of mundane inauspiciousness; perceived in essence as a festival of love. It incorporates the idea of transcendental flawlessness that goes beyond the bounds of worldly restrictions. Despite the absence of concrete reference of it in Puranic texts, Vaishnav theology has integrated the folk custom into its contextual frame. To an extent that makes it difficult to separate folk mythology from the scriptural sources.
The preparation of intricate designs demands a considerable amount of time and effort on the part of the artist, paired with high artistic proficiency. The most common type of temple Sanjhi is made of colored powder. Another type of design is created from dry colors on water and underwater respectively. Flower designs are also in vogue. Like the attire of a deity, the art form design, too, is prepared behind closed doors throughout the day. To be disclosed to the public during the hours of evening worship. Every day throughout the period of the festival a new design is created and displayed.
Songs of Sanjhi
The rituals in the Vaishnav temples can never be complete without the rendition of the appropriate verse of devotional poetry. The presentation of these art designs is always accompanied by musical performances. Featuring devotional songs from the seasonal repertoire for the festival. Thematically, the verses are centered on the rural customs of worship. In an explicitly Vaishnav context, it is Radha and her companions gather flowers to create the designs and venerate the goddess Sandhya in the evening.
Sri Gallu Ji Goswami of Radharaman Temple wrote the following devotional verses for the art form and festival:
श्रीराधारमणलाल प्यारी की निजकर सांझी चितत।
सखि भेष धरि रसिक शिरोमणि बिलसत है सुख की तत।
Shri Radharamanlal Pyari Ki Nijkar Sanjhi Chitat
Sakhi Bhesh Dhari Rasik Shiromani Bilsat Hai Sukh Ki Tat
Other verses dwell on the sentiment of sweet love that inspires the ritual. Overall, reflected in each and every manifestation of art revealed is divine love. A second thematic cycle for the poetic repertoire sung during the festival is opened up by the designs themselves, nourished by the artist’s own creative mind.
Whatever aspect of the divine play is depicted at the center of the design, the visual representation offers the singer ample scope to deliver verses relating to the respective Leela. Rendered conjointly with the verses from the actual Sanjhi repertoire, these supplementary songs enhance the aesthetic appeal of the festive arrangements. Thereby adding a further literary dimension of the musical performance. At the same time singing amplifies the emotional vibrations emanating from the visual manifestations.
Offering the Bhog
After the design is made, traditional Bhog is offered to it. Just like it is offered to the deities in the Vaishnav tradition. Generally, the design is created just opposite to the place where deities are housed. This helps people connect with the divine. Both in the form of Murti and art. As the night approaches the darshan of these designs is closed. The next day morning, in the early hours after offering an Arti the intricate patterns, is poured with one color. After that, the divine colors are mixed, collected, and finally offered to river Yamuna. All this before the Sun is out. After some time the next day starts with the implementation of new designs.
Sanjhi is a culmination of various art forms in the mood of Bhakti. Here art manifests in the form of a divine couple doing there transcendental Leela in its intricate patterns. Besides being an art form, it is a representation of the age-long tradition of Vrindavan. Here the folk traditions associated with Krishna take an important place inside the daily rituals of the old temples. The priests have been learning this from their forefathers following the same school of Guru-Shishya tradition. In order to sustain this jewel box of art for more generations to come.
This is a guest post by Sushant Bharti.
Sushant Bharti is a Conservation Architect. He graduated from the School of Planning & Architecture, New Delhi with a Bachelor’s degree in architecture from Vastukala Academy College of Architecture. Keenly interested in understanding the cultural aspect of India. In addition to architectural diversity, his main area of research is around the ‘Cultural Heritage of Braj’ and ‘Indian Temple Architecture’. Currently, he is working as a Research Assistant at the National Museum Institute, National Museum, Janpath, New Delhi.