Telling Tales

Craft, Handloom, Art, Micro-history, Art History

Telling Tales: The Kaavad, The Miniature Portable Shrines of Rajasthan

Sethi, Ritu


The evidence of the antiquity of painted narrative traditions extendsfrom architectural remains and mural paintings to textual evidence that dates back to the 3rd Century BCE. Serving the needs of a broad swath of people by bringing access to religious stories and didactic teachings the creativity of the myth-teller was expressed not only through the orality of the storytelling but the painted imagery of the characters that peopled the story. From easily portable rolled-up scrolls and painted textiles to wooden devices the stories were transported from village to village to be unveiled to gatherings of people by the itinerant myth-tellers.

In the age of cinema, television and digital media this tradition is now rarely to be seen though there are still some rural pockets of Rajasthan where miniature portable shrines – the Kaavad is an existent  tradition thatcontinues to be brought to the doorstep of devotees across the state.

The Kaavad conjures up a temple withnarrative myths vividly illustrated, the detailed figures and scenes hand-painted.This wooden shrine with its ingeniously hinged multiple doors that are folded concertina-type is ceremoniously opened during the recitation by the itinerant storyteller-priest – the Kaavadiya-Bhat. A single Kaavad can be used to recite multiple stories, each finding place in the painted panels, doors and corners of the Kaavad from the depictionof episodes from the Hindu epics, stories of local hero-gods and saints, family genealogies to heroic deeds of clan ancestors.

The viewing of the Kaavad simulates a visit to a shrine as the Kaavadiya-Bhat’s recitation called the Kaavad-Banchna leads the devotee through the spaces characteristic of a temple. Moving from panel to panel the Bhat draws his audience deeper by folding and un-folding doors to reach the innermost chamber of the sanctum sanctorumwhere the doors open to   eventually reveal the deity. Attending the recitation is considered to be part of the devotees’ sacred ritual duty, and to make gifts in cash or kind to the Kaavadiya-Bhat part of their obligation.

The origin of the Kaavad dates back to the great Hindu epic the Ramayana when Raja Dashrath the father of Lord Rama, accidentally killed Shravan Kumar during his hunting expedition. Shravan Kumar who was taking his blind parents on a pilgrimage asked Raja Dashrath with his dying breathfor help in fulfilling his vow by bringing the temple to his parents. Thus the Kaavad the mobile temple shrine originated.

The origin myth of the Kaavadiya Bhats extends back in time to the mythical Queen Kundanabai who possessed a Kaavad but did not have anyone to interpreting the story of the temple deity for her, so she called for a person and the tradition of singing and reciting the Kaavad started. Kumhara village in Bhopalgarh Tehsil in Jodhpur district is where the Kaavadiya Bhats live, with the almost 40 families who reside here having their roots as Bhats.

The rectangular construction of the Kaavad outer-box is usually 12.5” in length, with a width of about 5‘’ as it is sized for the convenience of Bhats  who travel from village to village. Carried, with the respect and deference due to a holy object, the Bhat holds the Kaavad in front of his upper body, strung with a strong rope that is strapped around his neck and shoulder and supported by his hands at the base of the Kaavad.

Following time honored traditions each Kaavad was specially customised to the requirements of the Kaavadiya-Bhat by five families of the Jangid-Suthar community of carpenters based in the village of Bassi in Chittor,Rajasthan,  Rajasthan  who constructed and painted the mobile shrine. Painted in bright and vivid colors of  red, blue, yellow, white and tonal-skin colors the figures are usually outlined in black. Of note is panel of the Kaavad that depicts the Kaavadiya Bhats patron. The Bhats instruct the Suthar to draw the image of their main patron or Jajmaan in a flattering manner – often seated in a heroically on a camel.

While these once sacrosanct customs are on the decline and the Kaavadiya Bhats visit to his patrons becoming rarer the makers of the Kaavadhave expanded the scope of their craft. The wooden cabinet, usually made of mango wood, is now put to contemporary usage as new stories have been introduced the temple shrine has taken on the new role of storytelling device that also extends to its application as a teaching tool with alphabets and numbers on the panels,traffic rules to an effective device communicating public health messages in rural areas. A additionally as a decorative object for urban homes it is produced in many sizes from a further miniaturized 5” to huge ones for public display and special orders for museums and exhibitions.

However like most things in India there are adaptations and changes as tradition takes on a new avator. In the rough and tumble of  heavy traffic a portable shrine was being transported by cycle  from place to place waiting to be unveiled for a crowd of devotees.


First published in Sunday Herald.


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