The Patron’s Hand: Murals from a Queen’s Temple in Jodhpur

by Nadini Thilak, Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies, Heidelberg University / Linden-Museum, Stuttgart

Dear Prof. Dr. Monica Juneja,

On your 65th birth year, I want to thank you for your scholarship and generosity, which have been guiding lights leading many a graduate student (not least me) out of the thickets. Here is to celebrating your next birthday.

Nandini Thilak

 

In my doctoral thesis, which is centred on women patrons of architecture, I use early nineteenth-century records to trace the actors, processes, and networks that constituted architectural patronage in early modern Jodhpur. A close reading of sources from the period demonstrates that prolific female patrons of architecture from the kingdom’s royal zenana or harem were able to erect monumental architecture only with the hard-won cooperation of a large array of agents within and outside Jodhpur, among them skilled artisanal groups, suppliers, supervisors, architects, genealogists, zenana staff and so on. Evidence from Jodhpur demonstrates that agency, especially in architectural production, is better understood as a diffused or distributed phenomenon, wielded simultaneously, if not in equal measure, by multiple actors operating within dynamic networks rather than certain subject positions (such as architect or patron) that art history has historically privileged. Such an understanding owes much to a transcultural perspective on art history, especially Monica Juneja’s critique of style and style-based evolutionary classificatory regime.[i]

Perhaps ironically, the agency and the direct role played by zenana women patrons themselves in the course of a construction project (outside their role as financiers) is not easy to reconstruct using archival records. It is clear that the patron’s will is what drew all the other agents together in the interest of executing a building project. However, it is difficult to pinpoint the ways in which she exercised her agency and personal tastes in determining the shape a building took. The archives hold no clear answers to this question, so we must look for it in the buildings themselves. In this blog entry, I want to introduce a surviving monument by a woman patron from Jodhpur that perhaps holds some clues. The monument, seen here in images, is a mid-nineteenth century Jodhpur temple commissioned by the queen Pratap Kanwar Tījā Bhaṭiyāṇi that features a set of murals that map the queen’s religious life.

Pratāp Kanwar, the daughter of the thākur (chieftain) of Jakhan, a principality in Marwar ruled by the Bhāṭī clan, married Maharaja Man Singh of Jodhpur in 1832, becoming his third (tījā) bride from a Bhāṭī rajput family. Referred to simply as Tījā Bhaṭiyāṇi in zenana records, she, like several other zenana women of her time whose careers as patrons I study, continued to live in the royal zenana during the reigns of Man Singh’s successors Takhat Singh (r. 1843-1873) and Jaswant Singh (r. 1873-1890). The queen is reputed to have been a learned woman. She composed several literary works in praise of Vaishnava deities in Rajasthani and Braj Bhasha.[ii] A bulk of her commissions were executed after Man Singh’s death. Her largest surviving architectural commission in Jodhpur city is the temple discussed here (fig. 1), dedicated to the Vaishnavite Ram-Sita-Lakshman trinity. It was completed in 1856 and is located on the busy market street adjoining the ghās mandi or grass market in the city. This temple is popularly known as ‘Tījā Mājīsa Mandir’ after its patron. Tījā Bhatiyāṇī also commissioned two more temples in the city, one to Shiva as Someshvar, and yet another Vaishnavite temple.[iii] In addition, she commissioned a temple to Shiva in a parcel of land owned by the Jodhpur state on the banks of the holy lake Pushkar.

The Tījā Mājīsa Mandir, dedicated to the Vaishnavite Ram-Sita-Lakshman trinity, as seen from the street in front. © Nandini Thilak.

In 1854, Tījā Bhatiyāṇi, by then a widow and queen mother, made a highly publicized pilgrimage, travelling with an entourage to bathe in the river Ganga in Haridwar. On this grand tour, she also visited the city of Mathura, a Vaishnavite pilgrimage center on the banks of the river Yamuna considered to be the birthplace of the deity Krishna. On her way back to Jodhpur, Tījā Bhatiyāṇi made a stop in Pushkar, where she worshipped at a Nāth Sampradāya temple that her husband Maharaja Man Singh had commissioned on the banks of the sacred lake, and presumably also visited the temple that she herself had commissioned in this pilgrimage site. The queen continued to be active until at least 1885, by when she held the title of rājdādīsa or royal grandmother to then king Jaswant Singh II.

A remarkable feature of the Tījā Mājīsa Mandir is a set of richly decorated murals (fig. 2) executed on the inner surface of the dome in front of its sanctum sanctorum. Due to their relatively ‘late’ execution in the middle of the nineteenth century, these murals have survived mostly intact into the present. The mural is divided in four panels, one covering each of the four surfaces of the rectangular dome. Each of these inscribed with freehand text noting the subjects featured in each portion. Notably, the subjects depicted correspond with what we know about this queen’s life and religious pursuits from archival sources.

Tījā Mājī Mandir, painted dome. © Nandini Thilak.

A mural panel on the portion of the temple dome closest to the sanctum (fig. 3) features the Ram-Sita-Lakshman trinity, reflecting the temple’s dedication to these Hindu gods. Three scenes are depicted in this panel, which depicts Rama’s coronation day in a three-part composition crowned by images of angels celebrating in the skies. Read from right to left, the first section of the panel depicts Rama and Sita moving in procession towards their palace with a large entourage. The second and central image depicts the couple enthroned in the palace during coronation ceremonies waited on by Lakshmana and other attendants. Pictured prominently among the attendants here is Maharaja Man Singh, who stands with folded hands next to the central group. This coronation visual, which would be the first one to attract notice from a devotee standing below, is showcased as the main motif of the mural scheme by framing it within flowered margins. Maharaja Man Singh can also been seen pictured as part of the entourage of Rama and Sita as they travel in procession. The third part of the coronation panel depicts the bustling city of Ayodhya, Rama’s capital.

Tījā Mājī Mandir, mural depicting Ram’s coronation, with Man Singh (highlighted) in attendance. © Nandini Thilak.

To the right of the panel depicting scenes from Rama’s life is a panel (fig. 4) featuring Shiva and Parvati in their mountain abode. Here, too, the figure of Maharaja Man Singh is inserted into the group of attendants waiting on Shiva and Parvati. In addition, the river Ganga, worshipped as goddess in Hinduism, is depicted prominently in silver paint as she cascades down to earth from Shiva’s locks. The silver stream crashes down before flowing away in different directions at the base of the composition. This depiction appears to be an allusion to Haridwar, a pilgrimage town located not far from the glacial source of the Ganga, which believed to be the site where the river is believed to have touched the earth on her fall from the heavens. As we know, Haridwar was the first major site that Tījā Bhaṭiyāṇi visited on her pilgrimage tour of 1854. She stopped to bathe in the Ganga before she proceeded to Mathura, and later to Pushkar. To the left of the main Rama panel (fig. 5) is a detailed mural depicting the lake town of Pushkar. This depiction can be read as a commemoration of both the temple that the queen built on the banks of the lake Pushkar as well as the pilgrimage she undertook to the lake as part of the great tour of 1854.

Tījā Mājī Mandir, mural depicting Shiva and Parvati with attendants including Man Singh (highlighted) and the Ganga depicted prominently in silver (now oxidized to a dull grey) pigment in the middle and at the base of the scene. © Nandini Thilak.

Tījā Mājī Mandir, mural depicting the lake Pushkar. © Nandini Thilak.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      .

The last panel, which faces the Rama mural (fig. 6), is dedicated to another Vishnu avatar—Krishna— and his childhood abode of Braj on the banks of the river Yamuna. Using two compositions, Braj is represented through three iconic sites—the city of Mathura, the Mount Govardhan, and the village of Gokul. All three are extremely sacred to devotees of Krishna—they are sites where the child god is believed to have performed many of his miracles. More importantly for us, these are likely places that Tījā Bhaṭiyāṇi, like most pilgrims to Mathura, paid homage to on her 1854 pilgrimage to the region. Both Gokul and Mount Govardhan lie on the outskirts of Mathura in Brindaban.

Tījā Mājī Mandir, scenes from Krishna’s life in Mathura and Brindaban. © Nandini Thilak.

The panels in this mural scheme unify and reflect the queen’s eclectic religious interests, which crossed sectarian boundaries prevalent in her time. Moreover, when examined in the light of biographical information gleaned from other sources, the murals in Tījā Mājīsā temple, though haphazard in their thematic arrangement can be read as a commemoration of the queen’s devotional life, especially her well-documented pilgrimage tour of 1854. Though the queen herself is not depicted in these murals, her presence is marked by the depiction of sacred sites, visits to which were significant events in her career as a queen mother in the zenana. The iconic form of the former Maharaja Man Singh, which appears multiple times within the mural scheme, can be considered to be standing in for Tījā Bhaṭiyāṇi in this context. It is perhaps in these traces of the patron’s personal life that we find inscribed on the walls of the temple she commissioned that we can locate Tījā Bhaṭiyāṇi’s hand in the creation of this monument. The mural, which explicitly maps her life as a pilgrim queen mother, leaves little doubt that it is the queen, who, through her agents, directed its content and arrangement.

Endnotes

[i] Monica Juneja, “‘A very civil idea…’ Art History and World-Making – With and Beyond the Nation,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 81, no. 4 (2018): 461–485; Monica Juneja and Christian Kravagna, “Understanding Transculturalism,” in Transcultural Modernisms, ed. by Moira Hille et al. (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013), 22–33.

[ii] Other members of the Man Singh zenana, including the queen Aejan Kanwar and the concubine Tulach Rai also composed poetry. See Bhagavatilal Sharma, Mān Padāvali Sangīt (Jodhpur: Maharaj Mansingh Pustak Prakash, 2008), 119–120; Rima Hooja, A History of Rajasthan (New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2006), 834.

[iii] Mahendra Singh Naggar, ed., Rāṇī Mangā Bhātōn Kī Bahī (Jodhpur: Maharaja Man Singh Pustak Prakash, 2002), 75–76.

 

Nandini Thilak is a curator at the department for East, South and South-East Asian collections at the Linden-Museum, Stuttgart. She is now in the final stages of her doctoral studies at the Heidelberg Center for Transcultural Studies supervised by Prof. Dr. Monica Juneja.