The Miracle Plays of Mathura


Janmastami Jhanki

Oct 14, VRINDAVAN, INDIA (SUN) — A series on sacred drama from Mathura and Vrindavan, as explored in the book "Miracle Plays of Mathura" by Norvin Hein.

In secular and occidental literature, the earliest mentions of Vrindavan and Mathura are found amongst the testimonies of the Greek geographers, who derived their information from documents of the late fourth and early third centuries B.C. They described Mathura as a place of great regional importance and suggested that it was then, as now a center of Krsna worship:

"This Herakles is held in especial honour by the Sourasenoi, and Indian tribe who possess two large cities, Methora and Cleisobora, and through whose country flows a navigable river called the Iobares." Some scholars see this Cleisobora as Krishnapura, and many western scholars hold the opinion that the Indian 'Herakles' (from whom Hercules is derived) is Sri Krsna Himself. These scholars point to archeological evidence that proves there was an established Krsna cult in Mathura at least a century or two before the time of Christ. Of course, Vedic literature offers proofs far older than these modern sciences can measure.

Drama, the actor's art, has been prevalent in Mathura and Vrindavan for as long as history of these areas is known. In Mathura, an inscribed stone slab from the first or second century A.D. bears a dedication to "the sons of the actors of Mathura". These actors played roles in various Krsna lila dramas, some of which have become known as the 'miracle plays' of Mathura.

Jhanki at Mathura

During the seasons of pilgrimage to Vrindavan and Mathura, the local temples and ashrams present a continuous offering of devotional music, readings and drama for the enjoyment of the public. A variety of types of religious drama can be enjoyed there, including the following five representational dramatic arts:

    Jhanki, a tableau of living Deities exhibited for worship, enlivened by the devotional songs of the worshipers and by the Deities' delivery of homilies in the form of dramatic dialogue.

    Kathak, which illuminates the words of narrative songs with fleeting impersonations and symbolic gestures.

    Bhaktamal Natak Mandali, an acting troupe which dramatizes favorite stories of Vaisnava saints.

    Ramlila, the choral recitation of the sacred epic, Ramayan, narrated by a running stage commentary in speech and action.

    Raslila, the ritual enactment of Krsna's pastimes in Vrindavan, usually performed in dance and semi-operatic performance.

The first four of these dramatic forms are general North Indian types of performance. They exist in Braja, but Braja is not their special home. The Ramlila is performed across India today. Jhanki, Kathak and the Bhaktamal Natak Mandali were brought to Braja by actors from other northern centers in India. Only the Raslila is a pure native of Vrindavan and Mathura.

The Vaisnava dramas of Mathura District are exquisitely performed, and are complexly evolved in their ability to communicate the transcendental beauty of Sri Sri Radha-Krsna's pastimes in the groves of Braja. Throughout this series, we will explore the sastric and historical substance of these dramas, as well as the literary and dramatic artists who bring them alive for the benefit of humanity.

In tomorrow's edition of the Sun, we will begin with a look at Jhanki, a form of tableaux murtti that stands apart from all other categories of Vedic dramatic expression.


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