Vishwamitra

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A portrait of Kaushika by Kaushika. Oil on paper 11″x15″.

In Hindu lore, the sage vishwamitra holds a highly exalted position. Once a king (kaushika), he gave up his mighty kingdom to become a brahmarishi (best among sages). He appears often in the purANas as well as in the rigveda. Vishwamitra is perhaps best known as the guru of Srirama in the ramayana and as the one who revealed the gayatri mantra. A less famous account, that of the battle of ten kings in the rigveda, also pits him against the might of another stalwart vashishta. Vishwamitra is one of the central characters in K. M. Munshi‘s novel Bhagavan Parasurama

This imaginary portrait is painted in oil (alla prima) on paper. After a rough preliminary pencil sketch (mainly for placement of facial details), the paper was washed with an acrylic undertone of burnt umber and ultramarine blue. The paint palette  consisted of Cadmium Orange, Burnt Umber, Ultramarine Blue, Napes Yellow and Titanium White.

Bharata threatens a lion

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Bharata threatens a lion, casein and watercolor on paper 10″x14″.

Emperor bharata can well be considered the founder of the Indian state. His exploits have earned him near legendary status. First as a 6-year-old abandoned prince in the hermitage of the sage kaNva, bharata apparently tamed the wild lions and played with their cubs. Then, as emperor of hastinApura, he is said to have established a kingdom covering significant parts of modern India. Bharata is featured in the mahAbhArata (which derives its name from his descendants) as well as in kAlidAsa’s famous play Abhijñānashākuntala.

Painted in casein on watercolor paper 10″x14″. A thin layer of acrylic matte medium was first used to reduce paper absorbency and aid the flow of paint. The characters are based on several little studies, such as the one below:

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Head and lion studies, pencil on toned paper, 9″x12″.

Bhojadeva paramAra

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Imagined portrait of bhojadeva paramAra. Watercolor on paper 10″x14″

The year is 1010 CE. In south India, the great king rAjarAja has just finished and consecrated what is arguably one of the grandest temple projects in Indian history. His son rAjendra has already shown remarkable prowess in war.

Meanwhile, in central India, the kingdom of mAlava is going through a period of change. The ruling king sindhurAja is dead. Enemy kings threaten the kingdom’s borders on all sides. To the west, the solanki king vallabha is looking to avenge an earlier defeat. To the south, mAlava’s eternal foes, the chAlukyas, are determined to recover lost territory. An even greater threat looms in the north-west. The turuShka king Mahmud has grand imperial ambitions. He wishes to overrun the entire Indian subcontinent and has pledged to plunder and seize her vast wealth and riches. He has already sacked and annexed large parts of north-western India and modern day Pakistan.

It is at this junction in history that a young and erudite prince ascends the throne of mAlava. His name is bhojadeva paramAra. He will go down in history as one of the great military strategists and a noble philosopher king. Forging an alliance with the equally remarkable rAjendra chola, bhojadeva will crush the chalukya threat in years to come. His military might will intimidate Mahmud’s forces and dent hopes of an easy conquest. To rival rAjarAja’s temple in the south, he will embark on the grandest shivA temple yet conceived, near present day Bhopal (central India).

Bhoja’s military expeditions are perhaps outdone only by his contributions to society. See this link for an excellent list of his public construction and literary works (esp. the champU rAmAyaNa). In dhArA (bhoja’s court), poets sing his praise unabashedly thus:

अद्य धारा सदाधारा सदालम्बा सरस्वती। पण्डितः मण्डितः सर्वे भोजराजे भुवं गते।

“Today dhArA (bhoja’s capital) is ever supported, and the Goddess Sarasvati is ever propped up. All the pundits are adorned with the coming of king Bhoja on this earth.”

Viswamitra is enraged

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“Fine! I will go back whence I came. You can then live here happily with your family”, Viswamitra says sarcastically. Casein on paper 10″x14″.

In the great epic Ramayana, Dasharatha, the king of Ayodhya has an unannounced visitor to his court one night. The mighty sage Viswamitra has come all the way from his hermitage to seek the king’s aid:

अहं नियममातिष्ठे सिद्ध्यर्थं पुरुषर्षभ। तस्य विघ्नकरौ द्वौ तु राक्षसौ कामरूपिणी।

स्वपुत्रं राजशार्दूल रामं सत्यपराक्रमं। ककपक्षधरं वीरं ज्येष्ठं मे दातुमर्हसि।
“I am performing a sacrifice, which is being defiled by two shape-shifting demons (Mareecha and Subahu). Send your eldest son Rama with me, so he may defeat them.”, he says.

Shocked by this sudden request, and overcome with love for his teenage son, Dasharatha politely declines Viswamitra’s request. He instead offers to send his huge army for the sage’s aid. He even offers to go along personally.

His request being declined, the mighty Viswamitra is enraged beyond measure. So much so that the earth trembles under his very feet! He shoots back at once:

यदीदं ते क्षमं राजन् गमिष्यामि यथागतं। मिथ्याप्रतिज्ञ: काकुत्स्थ सुखी भव सुहृद् वृतः।
“Fine! I will go back whence I came. You can then live here happily with your family, ‘O mighty king!”, he says sarcastically. Viswamitra then gets ready to storm out of the king’s presence.
After much persuasion by his court advisor Vasishta, Dasharatha finally parts with his son Rama. Lakshmana also decides to go along with his elder brother and along with the (now pacified) Viswamitra, the three of them leave for the sage’s hermitage.
The rest, as they say, is history.

The maker of arrows

Today we travel back in time, some 3500 years into the past. The location is the outskirts of a small village near the bank of a little rivulet in northern India. We stand outside the hut of Astrakaaraja, the local weapon-smith. After much persuasion, he has agreed to teach us the time-tested art of arrow making.

“Listen carefully”, Astrakaaraja says, “If you do not follow the rules explicitly laid down in the scriptures, your arrows will be worthless. They will not even pierce the flesh of a rabbit.” He then goes on to explain, meticulously showing us every step in vivid detail.

“First, you must find the perfect shaft. This does not come easily.The best shafts may be obtained from the branches of the ambuja (Indian oak) tree, such as the one here”, he says and proceeds to carefully pick up one shaft from a pile near him.

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“The shaft must first be checked for straightness. A curved arrow is as useful as a broken wooden sword”. Watercolor on paper, 7″x10″.

“The shaft must first be checked for straightness. A curved arrow is as useful as a broken wooden sword” so saying, he places one end of the arrow on the thumb of his outstretched left arm. Balancing the other end at the tip, he looks down the length of the shaft. “If the arrow is only minimally bent, one can straighten it by heating it a little in the fire. But you must be careful, too much heat and the shaft will be burnt and will crumble.”

Then, like the experienced hand that he is, Astrakaaraja proceeds to the next step. “This is the most important one – the fixing of the arrow head”, he cautions us. “This is how the arrow gets its potency and strength. An arrow without a head is like a snake without its teeth – dead.”

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Our simile-and-metaphor-embracing friend then starts the painstaking process of adding the arrow head. Watercolor on paper, 7″x10″.

Our simile-and-metaphor-embracing friend then starts the painstaking process of adding the arrow head. First, one end of the shaft is carefully chiseled to form a groove. Then, Astrakaaraja opens his little pouch of arrow heads and picks one made of flint among several others fashioned in metal or stone. He seems to keep these pre-prepared heads just for demonstrations like these. He matches the chosen arrow head with the groove he has just made.

“The groove must be a little smaller than the head, otherwise it will fall out.” Once he is satisfied with the dimensions, he proceeds to fix the head in place using torn out animal skins and sinew. He pulls at it several times to make sure it is intact.

To the other end of the shaft, our friend carefully fastens some (presumably chicken) feathers on all sides. One quick look up and down the shaft and he is satisfied. He hands the arrow to us with a hint of a smile. “You are lucky I had all the materials with me. Just looking for the right arrow head could take you days. Obtaining stocks of the correct shafts could take a month’s journey to the mountains. Even then you are not certain of finding them.”

“Here, you can keep this arrow as a token of my respect. I hope you have learnt something from me. You may now leave.”, cautions Astrakaaraja, with some apprehension. Seeing his stern demeanor and the terrible looking weapons he has handy, we’d better be going on our way!

On the Seemantham celebration

The ‘Seemantham’ function is a common traditional South Indian (Tamil, Telugu and Kannada) ritual celebrating the arrival of a couple’s (usually) first child. The function is performed in the odd months of pregnancy (3rd, 5th, 7th or 9th).The idea is to invoke various Hindu gods to bless the couple and baby with trouble-free delivery and a prosperous long life.

There are three components to this function:

  1. The Valaikaappu (lit. valai = bangle + kaapu = protection) function is first performed by the mother-to-be’s mother (or in-laws if convenient). The mother-to-be is given several bangles (made of either glass, gold or silver) to wear on her two wrists. It is believed that the sounds of these bangles clinging onto each other will reach the womb and make the baby happy.
  2. The Udakashanti (lit. udaka = water + shanti = peace) function: This is a common Hindu ritual that is performed to invoke various nature gods. It begins with an invocation to Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity, who is considered to be the remover of obstacles. This is followed by a puja (prayer) involving a kalasam (a vessel containing water and decorated with flowers and mango leaves) and chanting of hymns from the Krishna Yajur Veda. The water in the kalasam is symbolically meant to represent water from the river Ganga (in India) which is one of the most holy rivers for the Hindus. Varuna (the god of the oceans and waters) is invoked to purify the parents-to-be and help them with a trouble-free delivery. The water from the kalasam is then sprinkled on the couple by guests, symbolizing their good wishes. The deity Vishnu (considered the preserver of the universe) is finally invoked to bless the couple with good health. Following this, a small homam (type of puja) is performed with offerings to Agni, the god of fire and light. The couple is then considered to have attained the goodwill of Agni so that they are filled with confidence and courage on this new journey.
  3. The seemantham is the final ceremony wherein the water (considered to contain the blessings of the water god Varuna) is poured over the mother-to-be. Finally, the goddesses Lakshmi (goddess of prosperity) and Saraswati (goddess of wisdom) are invoked to bestow the child with both prosperity and intellect.

The entire ceremony lasts about 2-2.5 hours. Traditionally, the Seemantham function was performed for all children, but it is nowadays common to perform this function only for the first child.