Vrindavani Vastra



Jul 12, 2012 — CANADA (SUN) — A recent news story by Rini Kakati described a seminar held in London on June 29th, which presented a unique Vaisnava artwork produced by Srimanta Sankaradeva, the Assamese saint and early proponent of the Bhakti Cult in northeastern India. Smt. Kakati has now kindly provided a collection of images from one talk given at the seminar, on the Vrindavani Vastra, the work of textile art created under the guidance of Sankaradeva to glorify the pastimes of Sri Krsna.

Richard Blurton, Head of the South Asian Section in the Department of Asia, British Museum, gave an illustrated lecture on the Vrindavani Vastra, presenting the images shown here. The following text is excerpted and paraphrased from the Vedanti.com website's description of the history of Vrindavani Vastra.

"Vrindavani Vastra brings into focus the range of Sankaradeva's creative genius. Katha Guru Charita,a chronicle of events during the saint's lifetime, gives the genesis of Vrindavani Vastra: During his visits to the Koch Behar royal court, Sankaradeva often regaled Prince Chilarai with descriptions of the fun-filled childhood days of the young Krishna in Vrindavan. The prince was enthralled, and wished to experience more deeply the Lord's pastimes, so Sankaradeva agreed to have the narrative inscribed on cloth in pictorial form.

Krsna Subduing Kaliya

He engaged the weavers of Tantikuchi, near Barpeta, to weave a forty-yard long tapestry panel depicting Krishna's early life in Vrindavan. Sankaradeva provided the designs to be woven, chose the various colours of thread to be used, and personally supervised the weaving. It took about a year to complete and, deriving its name from its theme, came to be known as the Vrindavani Vastra.

Sri Vasta-harana (bathing pastime)

When Vrindavani Vastra was first unveiled for viewing, people were astounded to see the true-to-life depictions of Krishna's activities in Vrindavana, the exuberant colours and woven captions, and exclaimed that the cloth has come from the heavens and from makers not human. Not all the images are Vrindavan-lila scenes. As the images here show, the dasavatar, Garuda and other figures are also woven into the tapestry.

Likely the Agasura Demon

A little before Sankardeva's death in 1568, he is said to have presented it to Chilarai and Naranarayana, who were both overwhelmed with the result. How and when it disappeared from Koch Behar is not known and with that, a valuable piece of history was lost. It would be another 400 years before the Vrindavani Vastra was heard of again.

The Rasa Dance

In 1904, Francis Younghusband, a British Army Officer serving in India, led an expedition to Tibet. Among the artifacts he took back to Britain were a few exquisitely woven "figured silk textiles' from Tibetan monasteries. These silk tapestries were donated to the museum in Britain in 1905, and for the next 85 years remained catalogued as ‘Tibetan Silk Lampas', as Tibet was their last known place of origin. This, despite the iconography on the textiles that was clearly Vaishnava, far removed from the Buddhism practiced in Tibet. Only in 1992 did a British scholar finally identify the ‘Tibetan Silk Lampas' as Sankaradeva's Vrindavani Vastra.

How the Vrindavani Vastra and similar tapestries got into Tibet from Assam, and why no similar works are found in their place of origin, Assam, is not yet known. The tradition that produced this beautiful work seems to have disappeared without a trace. The Tibetan connection is explained by the existence of a centuries old and still thriving trade route through Bhutan, just north Barpeta in Assam, where the Vrindavani Vastra was woven. The practice of barter between the merchants of Assam, Bhutan and Tibet was common. Assamese merchants exchanged silk, rice, skins and horns for silver and salt from Lahasa.

This may be Lord Nrsimhadeva, holding a garland symbolic of Hiranyakasipu'a entrails

The history of medieval Assam records that nearly every household had knowledge of weaving, and produced fine clothes of cotton and silk. Professional weavers called tantits were settled at certain locations such as Tantikuchi, where the Vrindavani Vastra was woven and the Barpeta Kirtana ghar now stands. Sankaradeva, on return from his first pilgrimage (c. 1493), is said to have organized a group of weavers to try new ideas and innovations. Further, a mammoth task as the Vrindavani Vastra would not be undertaken without trained weavers already at hand. Contrary to some opinion, experts in the field do not believe that the Vrindavani Vastra is the only work of its kind, but rather say other works like it were produced in medieval Assam.

May be Parasurama

As is the practice in Assamese Vaishnavism, sacred texts are placed on the altar in place of deities. These cloths are used to cover the altar and also to wrap sastric texts. Evidence suggests that over a period of time, the elaborate and complex designs gave way to the simplified, large scale, repetitive motifs found in Assam today.

Popular belief in Assam has it that the tapestry currently housed in the British Museum is at least a part, if not all of the original Vrindavani Vastra presented by Sankardeva to Chilarai in 1567-68. This vast tapestry consists of twelve gorgeous silk lampas panels stitched together, measuring over nine meters wide and nearly two meters long.

Having unfortunately missed hearing Richard Blurton's recent lecture on Vrindavani Vastra, please note that we have labeled the Krishna-lila scenes shown here without benefit of being able to translate the captions, thus the descriptions may not be entirely accurate. But the beauty of Sri Krishna's pastimes tell the story, despite our failings.



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