The Sacred and the Temporal Arts of Sanjhi

Art History/Craft History, Craft, Handloom, Art

The Sacred and the Temporal Arts of Sanjhi

Sethi, Ritu


The depiction of episodes from the life of lord Krishna in the form of floor-illustrations – the Sanjhi – in the hallowed temple precincts of the Pushti-marg Vaishnavite sect has been traced back to the 17th century. The Sanjhi itself a huge elaborate floor-art, the laying of which is considered a form of worship and seva – offering to the deity by the priests and craftsperson’s who are steeped in devotion to Thakurjee Lord Krishna. This sacred art is additionally being practiced in its secular avatar in Mathura in Uttar Pradesh and Alwar in Rajasthan

It is believed that the practice of Sanjhi is rooted in the ancient folk custom that has its origin in the ritual worship of the mother goddess Sanjhi Devi. Unmarried girls propitiated the goddess by invoking her blessings for an ideal husband. Creating decorative collages on plastered walls, using bits of colored stone, shiny metal pieces and flowers the prayer to the goddess is performed at sanjh – the twilight hour when light passes and night descends and when all  worlds coalesce  into one, hence too, the term Sanjhi. Legend has it that Radha created the first Sanjhi to woo Lord Krishna, the other gopis soon following suit, with this practice continuing till today in several villages across north India.

In the 17th century when Sanjhi became become part of temple tradition linked to the devotional Bhakti movement the practice of laying the Sanjhi commenced. Today several temples across the Braj Bhoomi area associated with Lord Krishna’s youth continue the practice –  in Vrindavan they include the Radhavallabh and the Radheraman temple while one temple in Barsana, the birth place of Radha celebrates the practice.

During the last 5 days of the Pitri Paksh – the  ancestor worship lunar fortnight  that falls in September-October between the ekadasi or 11th day and the dark night of amavasya the Sanjhi  is  laid out  each day in the temple precincts

The process of laying the Sanjhi   starts with the building of the vedi, a raised platform that is plastered over with mud and cow-dung that can extend up to a size of 8 feet by 12 feet  and  be either in an octagon, square, rectangle, or circular shape

Paper-cut stencils, the sancha, of a chosen episode from Lord Krishna’s life that have been cut free-hand on a series of interconnected paper stencils form the tools of the trade. Skilled craftsmen accompanied by temple priests gently, without taking breath sift powdered colors through the open cuts of the stencil laying the Sanjhi in a slowly stead dhyan-meditation. The work is enormously difficult and painstaking, as a breath of air can displace the powders and distort the image. Lifting the stencils once the colours have been laid is as complicated aPs a slight slip can result in a mixing of colors and smudging of the image in an inappropriate way. When much smaller sizes of Sanjhi’s are to be laid the option of a floating Sanjhi on top of a water body or submerged in a shallow water dish that is lightly coated with oil and then  water-insoluble powders  filled in through the paper-cuts are additional options available.

Depending on the size and intricacy of design the laying of the Sanjhi usually start in the early hours of the morning to be unveiled for darshan/ the auspicious public viewing at  dusk – the time of sanjh. The Sanjhi is then worshiped with bhog – food and aarti – prayer by the priests and the worshippers.

This elaborate creation after it’s unveiling and worship is as carefully effaced at the end of day, the powdered colors collected and immersed in the flowing waters of the nearby Yamuna River. The ephemeralP ritual created and recreated for each of the five auspicious days, with the creation of a fresh Sanjhi  starting the next day at dawn.

While the Sanjhi has to be laid between dawn and dusk its planning can take several months. The themes from Lord Krishna’s life to be depicted over the five days are too be decided, the elaboration of the episode, its layout, the spatial patterning and the  hand-cutting of the stencils with a basic scissor requires time, immense skill and dedication.

Sanjhi is also practised outside the temple tradition by Ram Soni in Alwar, Rajasthan and by Vijay and Mohan Kumar Verma’s family in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh. Retaining their links to the contemplative and meditative aspects of their traditional vocation they create the most detailed of patterns, figures and motifs for their wide customer base. Using the most minimal of tools – a single small size  iron scissor that has been customised to suit the hand of the practitioner the craftsperson cut intricate and complex designs on  paper for screens and room dividers, lamp-shades, wall hangings, wedding cards, and coasters. Ram Soni’s peice de resistance can be seen at the INA metro station in New Delhi by all those who pass by.

In its secular form the elaborate and highly detailed paper-cuts are now the focus of the craft and not the ephemeral powder filled images laid out for worship by the devotee. What was once considered the tool of their craft – the hand-cut stencil – is now central to the creative process and is the final product.


First published in the Sunday Herald.

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