Yogic Identities, Part Two


Mughals Visit an Encampment of Sadhus
Muraqqa' folio - Mughal, c. 1635
St. Petersburg Institute of Oriental Manuscripts

Sep 25, 2014 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial presentation on aesthetic and iconographic identifiers that distinguish various sects of sannyasis and ascetics in ancient India.

In his paper on Yogic Identities, author James Mallinson describes the two main camps of ascetics who were involved in the great battle at Thaneswar: the sannyasis and naths. He writes, "…although the two yogi traditions clearly interacted, sharing both theory and practice, their lineages remained distinct.

They were represented, in the case of the ancient tradition of celibate asceticism, by groups that today constitute sections of the Daśanāmī Saṃnyāsī and Rāmānandī ascetic orders, and, in the case of the tradition of Tantric adepts such as Matsyendra and Gorakṣa, by groups that today constitute sections of an ascetic order now known as the Nāths. These orders were only starting to be formalized in the early Mughal period. Today they remain, together with the Sikh-affiliated Udāsins, the biggest ascetic orders in North India."

Next follows a general description of the ascetic battle scene depicted in the two painting shown in our first segment, from the Akbarnama, along with two similar Mughal miniatures from a folio of the Baburnama.

Figure 2: "Akbar Watches a Battle between Two Rival Groups of Saṃnyāsīs at Thaneshwar"
Mughal, c. 1590
Victoria and Albert Museum

"We know from external evidence that the ascetics depicted fighting in two folios (figs. 2, 3) from the Akbarnāma (1590–95) and those depicted in two folios (figs. 7, 8) from the Bāburnāma are from lineages belonging to the two separate yogi traditions.

Figures 2 and 3 depict a battle, witnessed by Emperor Akbar, that took place in 1567 on the banks of the bathing tank at Kurukshetra. The combatants belonged to two rival yogi suborders, and they were fighting over who should occupy the best place to collect alms at a festival. In his description of the battle, Akbarnāma author Abu'l Fazl called the combatants Purīs and Giris, which remain to this day two of the "ten names" of the Daśanāmī or "Ten-Named" Saṃnyāsīs.

Figure 3: "Akbar Watches a Battle between Two Rival Groups of Saṃnyāsīs at Thaneshwar"
Mughal, c. 1590
Victoria and Albert Museum

Figures 7 and 8 are illustrations from a circa 1590 manuscript of the Bāburnāma and depict a visit Emperor Bābur made in 1519 to a monastery at Gurkhattri in modern-day Peshawar, Pakistan. The manuscript and its illustrations were made under the patronage of Akbar, who himself visited Gurkhattri twice in 1581, so the illustrations are likely to depict the monastery and its inhabitants at that time.

Figure 7: "The Yogis at Gurkhattri"
From Vaki'at-i Baburi (The Memoirs of Babur)
Mughal dynasty, c. 1590
The British Library

Until the partition of India, Gurkhattri was an important center of the Nāth ascetic order, and there is still a temple to Gorakṣa, its founder, at the site today. This does not confirm that Gurkhattri was in the possession of Nāths at the time of either Bābur's or Akbar's visit—many such shrines have changed hands over time—and the inhabitants of Gurkhattri are not identified in the Bāburnāma as Nāths, but rather as jogī (s), a vernacular form of the Sanskrit yogī, which can refer to ascetics of a variety of traditions. However, we can infer that they were Nāths from three attributes that they do not share with the Saṃnyāsīs shown fighting at Kurukshetra in the Akbarnāma.

The first is the wearing of horns on threads around their necks. Today, the single most reliable indicator of Nāth membership is the wearing of such horns. Nāths now call their horns nāds, but they were formerly known as siṅgīs, and this appears to have been the case in the medieval period."

Mallinson goes on to describe how the iconography of these paintings serves to identify which ascetic sect the members of the Thaneswar battle belonged to.

Figure 8: "Babur's 1519 Visit to Gurkhattri"
From Vaki'at-i Baburi (The Memoirs of Babur)
Mughal dynasty, c. 1590
The British Library

"The other two specifically Nāth attributes are the necklace and fillet worn by three of the ascetics in figure 8. At the end of the sixteenth century the Jesuit traveler Monserrate visited Bālnāth Ṭillā, a famous Nāth shrine in the Jhelum district of Pakistani Punjab, which was the headquarters of the order until the partition of India. Describing the monastic inhabitants of the Ṭillā, Monserrate wrote, "The mark of [the] leader's rank is a fillet; round this are loosely wrapped bands of silk, which hang down and move to and fro. There are three or four of these bands." This description seems to conflate two items of apparel often depicted in Mughal paintings of yogis: a simple fillet and a necklace, hanging from which are colored strips of cloth (Monserrate's silk bands). Neither of these is worn today, but they serve to identify their wearers in Mughal paintings as Nāth yogis. These indicators of membership of the Nāth order—the horns, fillets, and necklaces—enable us to identify ascetics in a large number of early Mughal paintings…"

Taking this information into consideration, one can more easily identify those personalities depicted in ancient paintings who are Vaisnava, and those belonging to other sects of sadhus and sannyasis.


"Yogic Identities: Tradition and Transformation" by James Mallinson, Freer|Sackler, Smithsonian Institution


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