Kalarte Gallery: India

Par (paintings on cloth)
from Rajasthan

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Painters and techniques of par painting
Design of par paintings
History of par paintings
Appendix 1. The epic of Pabuji
Appendix 1. The epic of Devnarayan


The Rajasthani par (sometimes spelled phad) is a painting on cloth that is a visual accompaniment to a ceremony involving the singing and recitation of the deeds of folk hero-deities in Rajasthan, a desert state in the West of India. Pabuji-ki pars depict incidents from the life of Pabuji Rathor. Devnarayan pars illustrate that folk hero's exploits. The legends are painted on long rectangular cloths that may be 35 feet long by 5 feet wide for Devnarayan pars and 15 feet by 5 feet for Pabuji-ki pars.

Pabuji was a Rajput prince who lived in the early 14th century, when Rajput families contended in territorial feuds that would ultimately determine the settled states of a later time. Pabuji was involved in various minor disputes. To many rural villagers since his time, and continuing today, he is worshipped as an incarnate god. However, this god is not served by Hindu Brahman priests. Rather his priests are bhopas (or bhopos), members of one of the so-called "scheduled castes" low in the Hindu social structure. Likewise, the devotees of Pabuji are generally non-Brahman. Devnarayan was a contemporary of Pabuji (there is a scene in which they confront one another). His deeds are also sung by priests in ceremonies similar to those for Pabuji.


With the painting rolled up on two shafts of bamboo, the bhopa travels from village to village with the intent of singing the liturgical epic of the life and death of the hero god. This performance is the principal ritual of the cult of Pabuji (and Devnarayan). There are only two temples actually dedicated to Pabuji, which are located in his native village of Kolu. So rather than the worshipers coming to the temple to honor their deity, the bringing of the par paintings to the villages represents, in a sense, the temple coming to the worshippers.

When the bhopa arrives in a village, he determines whether there will be sufficient financial incentive for him to perform the ceremony. Sometimes, a performance of the epic will be commissioned by a villager for a specific purpose, perhaps in thanks to the deity for an answered prayer. If the performance of the epic of Pabuji is scheduled, certain preparatory rituals are performed, such as the sweeping clean of and the burning of incense in the area where the par painting will be displayed (typically a common area in the village), and an arati (waving of lights) before the picture of Pabuji. Shortly after nightfall, the par painting is unrolled (according to tradition, it is never unrolled during daylight) and set up for viewing. When the epic of Devnarayan is performed, the par is unrolled to the blowing of conches. Incense and coconut are offered to Devnarayan, who is the central image on the painting. A cushion and a lamp are placed beneath that central image.

The bard-priest recites incidents from the epic poem describing the exploits of Pabuji or Devnarayan. The bhopa is assisted by his wife, his son (who may be an apprentice), or another person, who points to the scenes on the par about which he is singing. The scenes in the epics tend to be of a martial nature. Thus the heroic mode that characterizes these stories appeals more to the men in the audience. In fact, women devotees of Devnarayan tend to identify him with Krishna. Songs about Devnarayan that women sing—outside the ritual of the par—may focus emotions on the baby Krishna.

While singing, the bhopa accompanies himself on a fiddlelike instrument called a ravanhattho or jantar. The recitation and singing continue all night long. The audience, which knows many of the words of the epic, may join the bhopa in the singing. Just before dawn, the ceremony ends and the par is rolled up.

Used in this manner, par paintings wear out after several years of service. When this happens, the painting is ritually destroyed by immersion in a body of water. Ideally, the immersion takes place in the holy Pushkar Lake, but if that is not possible, then in a more convenient body of water.

Painters and techniques of par painting

The traditional skills of painting pars are typically handed down from father to son. Besides painting pars, these artists also paint other pictures for the villagers and sometimes wall paintings. A par painting is commissioned by a bhopa, who uses the painting in the rituals described above. Beginning in the twentieth century, pars were painted for collectors as well. These pars are of a much shorter length than ceremonial pars.

Traditionally, the painting is done on cotton cloth that has been prepared with an application of a paste of flour and gum and then polished with a stone. However, this process is not necessarily followed in pars painted for patrons other than the bhopas.

The traditional painting of a par commissioned by a bhopa is a religious procedure. An auspicious date is chosen for beginning the painting, on which date an offering is made to Sarasvati, goddess of learning and the arts. The first stroke of the brush is done by a virgin girl who is a member of the painter's family or a member of a high-caste family.

The artist sketches the whole painting in a light yellow color. The colors used to paint the figures themselves are earth colors, vegetable colors, or indigo. Colors are mixed with gum and water and are painted one at a time on the cloth. That is, the artist will paint all the areas that require orange first, then yellow, and so forth. Finally, the artist finishes with an outline in black.

Again on an auspicious day, the final transaction is made between the artist and the commissioning bhopa. The artist signs the painting in the middle, near the image of the hero-god. He may include the name of the purchasing bhopa and any patrons, as well as the date. Finally, the artist paints the pupil in the eye of the hero-deity in order to "awaken" the deity and the painting. Now the bhopa pays for the picture.

Design of par paintings

Ceremonial par paintings are designed in such a way that the various areas of the painting correspond to the several places in the life story of Pabuji (or Devnarayan). Sometimes a scene in the painting is used to illustrate more than one incident in the hero's epic. Not surprisingly, the central image in the painting is typically a large-size image of Pabuji (or Devnarayan). In Pabuji-ki pars, immediately to the right of the hero deity is his court, consisting of his four principal companions. Somewhat to the left of Pabuji's court is the court of his brother Buro. Farther left still is the land of Umarkot. At the lefthand edge of the painting is Lanka. To the right of Pabuji's court is the court of the Lady Deval. At the far right of the painting is Khici's court.

These areas are not immediately contiguous. There are scenes that fill the spaces between the areas. For example, incidents that happened during Pabuji's journey from his homeland to Umarkot will be depicted between those two areas on the cloth. Sometimes there are pictures of deities (Ganesh, Sarasvati, Vishnu in various incarnations) along the top of the par. Given the placements of the images in the painting, the par can be conceived not only as a picture of various scenes in a story, but also as a geographical map.

Note that this placement of scenes applies to the full-sized traditional pars. Obviously, those pars of smaller size that are painted for sale to collectors will not contain all the scenes required in a painting that a bhopa intended to use in a ritual ceremony.

History of par paintings

Par paintings have a long history. John Smith, a scholar of the epic of Pabuji, states that the earliest par known to him dates from 1867. The British Lieutenant Colonel James Tod, in the account of his travels through Rajasthan in 1819 (published eight years thereafter), reports a ceremony that included a par painting. Perhaps the tradition of the cloth par derived from an earlier wall painting tradition. There are examples of Devnarayan pars painted on the walls of Devnarayan temples in Rajasthan; these are similar to wall paintings in Rajasthan's Shekhawati district that date from the 18th century.

However, the narrative, bardic tradition of the recitation of the hero epic has faded—as have other similar oral traditions in India—in the face of the mass media of the twentieth century. And similarly, the purpose of the par painting has changed. Many Rajasthani pars painted today are no longer meant for the bhopas' use but are expected to be purchased by collectors. Thus, sizes smaller than the original 35 by 5 feet are often produced. Also, new themes are being introduced, such as scenes from the life of Krishna; nevertheless, paintings of the exploits of Pabuji and Devnarayan are still very common.


Barnard, Nicholas. (1993). Arts and crafts of India. London: Conran Octopus. (pp. 76-77)

Cooper, Ilay and John Gillow. (1996). Arts and crafts of India. London: Thames and Hudson. (p. 108)

Joshi, O.P. (1976). Painted folklore and folklore painters of India: A study with reference to Rajasthan. Delhi: Concept Publishing.

Singh, Kavita. (1998). To show, to see, to tell, to know: Patuas, bhopas, and their audiences. In Jyotindra Jain, Ed. Picture Showmen: Insights into the Narrative Tradition in Indian Art (pp. 100-115). Mumbai: Marg Publications.

Smith, John D. (1991). The Epic of Pabuji: A Study, Transcription and Translation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Appendix 1. The epic of Pabuji

The epic of Pabuji is an oral epic in the Rajasthani language that tells of the deeds of the folk hero-deity Pabuji Rathor, who lived in the 14th century.

Buro was the elder and Pabuji the younger son of Dhadal Rathor. Pabuji wasn't born of Dhadal's wife, but from a celestial nymph who had promised him that she would return to him in the form of a mare when he was 12 years old. He had four companions in his adventures.

One of Pabuji's early exploits was to fight the Khici clan, which had encroached on his country's borders and was treating him and his brother arrogantly. He acquired the black mare Kesar Kalami from Lady Deval of the Caran clan. The mare, of course, was his own mother returned to him. Pabuji overthrew Mirza Khan, the cow-killing king; arranged for the marriage of his niece to the snake god Gogo; and stole a herd of she-camels from Lanka (Lanka here not referring to the island, but symbolically referring to a kingdom west of the Indus river) for his niece Kelam. On the way to deliver the camels, he passed through the land of Umarkot in Sindh (present-day Pakistan), where the princess Phulvanti fell in love with him. When Phulvanti's father pressed Pabhuji to marry his daughter, Pabhuji at first resisted but finally agreed.

On his later return to Umarkot to be married, he stopped at Lady Deval's court. She tried to detain him, saying she needed his protection. He said he intended to proceed but that he would return to help her whenever she called. So he and his party proceeded to the wedding, but encountered many bad omens, such as the finding of a tiger which his companion Dhebo killed. While at the wedding ceremony, Pabuji received word from Deval that Khici had stolen her cattle, so he immediately left to win back the herd. He accomplished that deed in a series of adventures that cost the life of his friend Dhebo.

Still, Deval detained Pabuji by various ruses. Meanwhile, Khici returned with his army for revenge against Pabuji. During the ensuing battle, Pabuji goaded Khici into a fury against him. At this point, a chariot came down from heaven and took Pabuji and his mare up to heaven. Subsequently, the Khici army destroyed Pabuji's army.

The wife of Buro, Pabuji's brother, had a dream that night in which she saw the destruction of the Rathor army, her husband among them. The next day, the widow, who was in advanced pregnancy, cut out the baby from her womb, named him Rupnath, and sent him to be cared for by her mother. Then she became a sati, by immolating herself on the funeral pyre.

Rupnath grew up without knowing of his origins. But when he was 12 years old he met the Lady Deval and she told him the truth of his origin. He became filled with a desire for revenge and plotted to kill Khici. Disguised as a holy man he found admittance to Khici's palace. He came into the room where Khici was sleeping and beheaded him. He returned home to play ball with Khici's head. Finally, his mission accomplished, he retired from the world to be a true holy man, living on a sandhill near Bikaner.

Appendix 2. The epic of Devnarayan

The epic begins with long accounts of the escapades of the twenty-four Bagravat brothers. Eventually, all the brothers are slain by Raoji's forces; all of the brothers' wives commit sati (self-immolation); all that is, except Sadu, who retires to the mountains to practice penance. By the power of her penance, out of the rocks a lotus bloomed; out of this lotus stepped Devnarayan, an incarnation of Vishnu.

Raoji, hearing of this, sent his men to kill Devnarayan, who took the form of a snake and frightened them away. Devnarayan then married the daughter of the serpent king of the underworld. After he learned from a genealogist what had happened to his father and uncles, he brought back to life all the slain forces of the Bagravat brothers.

Among his exploits, Devnarayan managed to wrest away the mare Bavali from the raja of Savar, killing a lion in the forest on his way to doing this. Devnarayan, who lived in Daravat, sought revenge against the neighboring king Raoji for his slaying of the Bagravat brothers. He instructed one of his vassals to graze cows on Raoji's land. Raoji, furious when the animals ate the wheat harvest, impounded the cows. This act was the pretext for Devnarayan's forces to attack Raoji's at Ratankot. Raoji and his soldiers were all slain, but Devnarayan brought Raoji back to life.

Copyright 2000-2004 Kalarte Gallery and Bernard Cesarone

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