Maharao Shatru Sal I Celebrates the Birthday of Krishna as Brijnathji

Artist/maker unknown, Indian

Made in Kota, Rajasthan, India, Asia


Opaque watercolor, gold, and silver-colored paint on paper

Image: 16 7/8 × 11 13/16 inches (42.9 × 30 cm) Sheet: 19 1/2 × 14 5/16 inches (49.5 × 36.4 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Alvin O. Bellak Collection, 2002

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The small, golden image of Krishna as Brijnathji (paired with his love Radha) in the golden shrine is a representation of the real statue that was considered the protector and most sacred possession of the state of Kota. It is worshiped at the Kota Palace to this day. The courtiers and Maharao Shatru Sal (reigned 1758-64), distinguished by the gold halo around his head, gaze at the statues in adoration. Three courtiers, however, turn away from the shrine and instead gaze adoringly at Shatru Sal. According to certain Kota traditions, the Maharao and Krishna are essentially interchangeable, a fact that this artist has chosen to highlight.

Additional information:
  • PublicationIntimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection

    According to an inscription on the reverse, this boisterous painting depicts the birthday festival of Krishna (Janmashtami) as celebrated in the principal courtyard of the Kota palace in the year a.d. 1764 (Samvat 1821).1 As Krishna’s birthday occurs in the month of Bhadra (August-September), we know the 1764 festival was the last that Maharao Shatru Sal I (reigned 1758–64) celebrated: he died about three months later, that is, on December 17 of the same year.

    In this painting the nimbate and still healthy-looking maharao stands at the center of a riotously skewed composition, his figure a stable upright outlined by a tilted rectangle of brilliant white. Shatru Sal I is gazing with adoration at the tiny golden image of Krishna, and his equally small consort, that occupies the flower-bedecked swing that has been installed in the Raj Mahal section of the Kota palace. This small golden image is a representation of Brijnathji, a form of Lord Krishna associated with the Vallabha Sampraday community, to which the Kota royal house and a majority of Kota’s Hindu population belong.2 The image depicted here is a representation of the actual icon that was given to an earlier Kota ruler, Maharao Bhim Singh (reigned 1707–20), in the year he became a follower of the Vallabha Sampraday. Bhim Singh installed this small golden statue in a special shrine in the Kota palace. And from 1719 until the present day, it has been regarded as the tutelary divinity, and the most sacred possession, of Kota state.3

    Traditionally the Janmashtami celebration begins around midnight with the sighting of the new moon. In this depiction, a white smear in one corner of the inky sky indicates that the 1764 celebration has already begun. Brijnathji has been bathed, and arati (the circling of oil lamps) and puja (the presentation of honor offerings) have been performed. Brijnathji has also been offered prasad, food that he has consecrated and returned. In the ceremony depicted here, this grace of the Divine Lord is being distributed to the courtiers who are standing in the lower right and at the center left. The principal devotee, Maharao Shatru Sal I, presides at the center, accompanied by his youthful commander in chief, Zalim Singh Jhala, who wears the Bundi-style turban that denotes his foreign birth.4 The maharao is also accompanied by three attendants who mimic his attitude of adoration, but with their gaze directed not at Brijnathji, but at Shatru Sal himself. (According to certain Kota traditions, maharao and god are to some degree interchangeable.) Dressed in saffron-colored garments appropriate to the occasion, courtier-devotees line the walls of the enclosed courtyard, while female singers, standing at the rear, perform bhajans (devotional songs) as if prompted by a frenzy of uncontrollable emotion.

    These festive and sacred rites unfold in the Raj Mahal section of the Kota palace, where the maharao normally received important visitors and conducted public affairs of state. This symmetrical, two-story structure contained an imposing throne room on its ground floor. This room was partially enclosed by a verandah, and fronted by a spacious courtyard and ornamental pool. (At present, the Raj Mahal and its courtyard still retain much of their original appearance, but the pool no longer exists.) As the marble pool evoked the mythical lake where Krishna once dallied with Radha (see Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-64), the Raj Mahal made an appropriate backdrop for the celebration of Janmashtami. But the setting conveyed another idea as well. As Brijnathji is being honored not in the temple where he is normally housed, but in the throne room of the royal palace, his presence underscores a belief that had been current since the days of Maharao Bhim Singh: Brijnathji is the actual ruler of Kota state. Terence McInerney, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 166-167.

    1. Sorting out the Rajasthani inscriptional material on the reverse is complicated, as the three principal inscriptions were written in two different places, at three different times. After the painting was finished, it was inscribed at Kota with the following notation: “A painting of Janmashtami as celebrated in the informal sitting place of the Raj Mahal [section of the Kota palace].” Shortly after, the painting was sent by Zalim Singh Jhala, the commander in chief at Kota, as a gift to Maharana Ari Singh of Mewar. After the painting had arrived there, it was inscribed again (in a different hand): “This painting was sent as a gift by Jhala Zalim Singh of Kota. [Received] on the first day of the month of Agrahan [November-December] Samvat 1821 [A.D. 1764].” Twenty days later, it was inscribed once again: “Entered in the records on the fourth day of Pausha [December-January], Samvat 1821 [A.D. 1764].”
    This painting has a known Mewar provenance. As it had remained in the Mewar royal collection until relatively recent times, it also bears a number of typically Mewar archival notations on its reverse. For discussion of the three inscriptions, see Joachim K. Bautze. “Zur Darstellung der Hauptgottheiten Kotas in der Malerei der zweiten Hälfte des 18. und der ersten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts.” Berliner Indologische Studien, vol. 3 (1987), p. 268 n. 3.
    2. Woodman Taylor, “Picture Practice: Painting Programs, Manuscript Production, and Liturgical Performances at the Kotah Royal Palace,” in Stuart Cary Welch, ed. Gods, Kings, and Tigers: The Art of Kotah. Exh. cat. Munich: Prestel, 1997, p. 61.
    3. For discussion of the Brijnathji cult at Kota, see ibid., pp. 61–72.
    4. Zalim Singh Jhala would become the éminence grise at Kota during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For discussion of his career, see Joachim K. Bautze. “Zur Darstellung der Hauptgottheiten Kotas in der Malerei der zweiten Hälfte des 18. und der ersten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts.” Berliner Indologische Studien, vol. 3 (1987), pp. 50–54.