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Pata-Chitras of Orissa:
An Illustration of Some Common Themes

by Bernard Cesarone

May 16, 2001

click on small images for large images with captions


The state of Orissa in northeast India has a long tradition in various arts, including dance, architecture, and painting. Among the painting traditions, the devotional art of the pata-chitras,1 or paintings on cloth, is a folk or popular style that centers around the worship of the god Jagannath (or Jagannatha) but that depicts many other religious themes as well, using the strong line and brilliant color that are typical of Orissan folk painting.

This article presents a collection of pata-chitras, organized around a series of general themes, in order to highlight various formats and particular thematic subjects used in the tradition. So that the paintings might be understood within a context, introductory information is provided on the god Jagannath, on the Jagannath temple in Puri and its rituals, and on pata-chitra painters and their work. Subsequent sections illustrate paintings related to the god Jagannath, scenes from the epic stories, pictures of deities, a picture with a folklore theme, and a picture with erotic overtones. Each section explains some of the details of the particular images, identifies some of the iconography used in the images, or recounts some stories related to those images.

1. The Jagannath triad

Jagannath is a deity widely worshiped in Orissa (and elsewhere in India). The god's Sanskrit name means "Lord of the world" (from jagan, world, and natha, lord). However, some scholars have suggested that the word is a sanskritization of a tribal word 2 and have presented arguments related to the god's possible tribal origins.3 Nevertheless, by the devotees who come to see their Lord at the temple, he is typically identified with Krishna. The most famous of the god's many shrines is his temple in Puri. In this temple, Jagannath is not installed alone, but is part of a triad of deities that also includes his brother Balabhadra and his sister Subhadra. Of these, Balabhadra is identified with Balarama, the brother of Krishna, and Subhadra is said to be the goddess Bhubaneshwari. The iconography of the three deities will be discussed below.

2. The Jagannath temple in Puri

Orissa is justly famous for its many beautiful temples. The classical period of Orissan temple building was from approximately the beginning of the eighth century to around the middle of the thirteenth century. Temples were constructed to various deities, but the temples to Jagannath in the towns and villages of Orissa are most relevant to the pata-chitra tradition. As mentioned above, the most famous of these is the temple to Jagannath in Puri, which is a seaside pilgrimage city on the Bay of Bengal. This temple was built in approximately 1135-1150 by Codaganga, a king of the Eastern Ganga dynasty.4 The temple became a great center of pilgrimage and, in recent centuries at least, pilgrims who came to the temple for a darshan (viewing) of the deity frequently purchased a pata-chitra painting as a memento of their visit or as a gift for friends or family back home. This practice continues today. Figures 1, 2, and 3 (below) present some views of the Jagannath temple at Puri at its principal eastern entrance or gateway, the so-called lion gate.


Jagannath Temple
Jagannath Temple, Puri
Jagannath Temple, Puri
Figure 2
Jagannath Temple, Puri
Figure 3

3. Chitrakaras

The artists who paint pata-chitras are known as chitrakaras. Often, a whole family is engaged in the work of preparing pata-chitras, under the supervision of the master painter in the family. Sometimes, a master artist will operate a studio in which apprentices and other artists of varying levels of skill work under his direction. As the products of the chitrakaras' work are intended for a pilgrim audience, the chitrakaras typically live in the vicinities of temples, such as the Jagannath temple in Puri. Chitrakaras are also concentrated in the village of Raghurajpur, just outside Puri.

Besides painting pata-chitras, the chitrakaras have other artistic duties, often related to the yearly cycle of festivals around the Jagannath temple. For example, chitrakaras paint anasara patis, which are paintings that temporarily replace the principal images of the three deities while those deities are considered "ill" and are unavailable for viewing by the faithful.5

Grand Road, Puri
Figure 4.

The chitrakaras of Puri also have several painting duties on the cars, or chariots, on which Jagannath, Balabhadra, and Subhadra ride during the annual ratha yatra (car festival) each summer. In this festival, each of the three deities rides in a large chariot (Jagannath's is 45 feet high) from their home in the Jagannath temple, along Puri's wide Grand Road to the Gundica temple about three kilometers away, and then back again. Figure 4 shows a view of Grand Road, looking away from the Jagannath temple.6

Chitrakaras paint the walls of a small temple next to the Narendra reservoir during the chandana yatra (sandalwood festival), a festival during which images of Krishna, Lakshmi, and Sarasvati are rowed in boats in the reservoir. The painters also paint pedi, or dowry boxes, that are given to the bride at the time of marriage.7 An illustration of a painting on a dowry box is included below in the discussion of the kanchi avijana episode in the mythology of Jagannath.

4. Techniques of pata painting

The process of producing pata-chitras has been documented elsewhere,8 and thus will be only briefly described here. The process begins with a sheet of cotton cloth being laid out on the ground. To this cloth is applied a coat of gum or glue made from tamarind seed. Then a second cloth is laid on top of this and another layer of tamarind glue is applied. The cloths are then left to dry in the sun. When the layered cloth is dry, it is cut to the desired sizes of finished pages and burnished on both sides, first with a coarse stone and finally with a smooth pebble. The design is sketched and the outlined areas of the sketch are filled in with primary colors, traditionally from vegetable or mineral pigments, but in recent years from store-bought colors also. Large areas of color are applied first and the details are then painted in these areas of solid color. When the painting is completed, it may be covered with a coat of lacquer.

5. Themes depicted in pata-chitras

It is possible to categorize the themes of pata-chitras in various ways. But for the purposes of this article, we will follow the convenient system suggested by Mohanty (1984, p.9). He identifies the following themes:

  • Jagannath and the triad of deities
  • episodes from the Hindu epics
  • themes related to the worship of various gods and goddesses
  • themes from folklore
  • erotic themes

Mohanty actually lists a sixth theme, that of animals and birds. However, these paintings will not be illustrated in this article. For the first of the themes, we will look at some examples of paintings that involve Jagannath and the other deities of the triad in their roles at the Puri temple, that show scenes from the mythology of Jagannath, and that provide a schematic diagram of the Puri temple. We will deviate a little bit from the focus on pata-chitras to show related wood carvings of the Puri triad. Next, episodes from two of the epics (or puranas), the Bhagavata Purana and the Ramayana, will be illustrated. Related to pata-chitras that portray puranic episodes is a more modern type of painting in which multiple scenes surround a central scene. The last section of the article will discuss pictures of various deities, the folklore theme of navagunjara, and the kandarpa ratha, a picture with erotic connotations.

In pata-chitras on these various themes, the images depicted are often based on dhyanas (Mohanty, 1980, p.12). Sanskrit texts (puranas, tantras, and other texts) commonly contain passages describing a deity in a way that allows the god or goddess to be clearly imagined in meditation. Such a description is called a dhyana (meaning "meditation").9 A dhyana, for example, may be an image of Sarasvati standing with her vina in hand, or Krishna playing his flute while embracing Radha.

Before proceeding to the illustrations of pata-chitras, let us note some common (but not necessarily universal) characteristics of the pata paintings that are presented. 10

  • the use of red as a background color
    Studies in the 1980s reported red to be very common in recent pata paintings, noting that it had been a traditional background color since the 19th century. However, in the late 1990s, the present author found many paintings, perhaps a majority of paintings, from Raghurajpur and Puri that had background colors other than red, with white being a common background color, as well as peach and a pinkish color.
  • the use of a standard palette of colors, typically including red, blue, yellow, green, black, white, and pink
  • a particular style of drawing faces in which noses are extended, chins jut out somewhat from the face, and the eyes are elongated
  • the drawing of faces in profile
  • the drawing of fine details in clothing
  • the inclusion of a double border
    The inner border often uses a sort of leaf-and-scroll motif and is narrower in width than the outer border, which often uses a floral motif.
  • the practice of filling in much of the background space with stylized forms

Besides these common characteristics, there are also many typical iconographic details in pata-chitras, such as the following:

  • the use of blue for Krishna's body
  • the use of white for Balarama's body
  • the use of yellow for Radha's body and for the bodies of other gopis (cowherd girls)
  • the use of green for Rama's body

Figures are typically shown with a frontal view of the body but a profile view of the head. Figures do not usually overlap; that is, one character in a painting will not be shown in front of another. Sages are depicted with matted hair. Characters often wear jewelry. Noted personages wear crowns, such as the crown with the tilted plumes that Krishna wears and the crown with a mango-shaped (similar to paisley) crest worn by queens.11 Colors are applied flat within outlined areas of pata-chitras; that is, shading is not used. There is no attempt to convey a sense of volume to the figures. Perspective is absent and the chitrakaras do not strive for realism in their portrayal of people or the natural world.

Continue to Part II:  Themes Related to Jagannath

Text and pictures ©  2001 by and Kalarte Gallery.
All items collection of the author or Kalarte Gallery unless otherwise noted.

[1] In this article, Sanskrit words, not including proper names (such as Jagannath) will generally be italicized. However, there are a few exceptions related to words repeatedly used throughout. These words, which are italicized at first usage only, include pata-chitra and chitrakara. Sanskrit words will also be defined or explained, at least by the use of the English term next to the first use of the Sanskrit.[Return to text]

[2] Mohanty (1980) quotes Misra, who states that in the villages of the Sabara tribe in Orissa, the tribals worshiped a deity called Jaganaelo, meaning "made of wood."[Return to text]

[3] Starza (1993, p.65 ff.) reviews various writers' theories on the tribal origin of Jagannath, as well as theories on a Buddhist, Jain, or Vaishnava origin (p.53-64). After this presentation, he begins his next chapter by stating "…several early theories regarding the origin of Jagannatha have been refuted; only the tribal theory remains a possibility" (p.72).[Return to text]

[4] Despite the fact that he built this great temple to a deity revered in the Vaishnava religion, Codaganga was a devotee of Siva (Starza, 1993, p.18).[Return to text]

[5] The painting of the anasara patis of the Jagannath trinity is a very important ritual type of painting done by chitrakaras. During the snana yatra (bathing festival), which occurs on the full moon day of the month of Jyestha (May-June), the deities are given a ceremonial bath on a bathing platform outside the temple. After this bath, they are brought back into the temple. However, the bath has discolored the painted wooden statues. Thus, the deities are considered to be "ill" for fifteen days and are not to be viewed by the public. This period of illness is called anasara (or anavasara). During this period, the statues are repaired as necessary and on the fourteenth day of the "illness" they are repainted by a particular chitrakara who has been chosen for this seva or service (Das, 1982, p.36-37).[Return to text]

[6] The ratha yatra is held yearly during the bright fortnight of the month of Ashadha (June-July). During this festival, the three deities are taken from the temple and placed in large chariots which are then drawn along Grand Road to the Gundica temple. After they have stayed in that temple for seven days, the deities again ride the chariots back to their home temple. This is the most famous ritual related to Jagannath in Puri, and is very ancient. In fact, Starza (1993, p.133) notes that the ruling Ganga dynasty instituted the car festival at the completion of the great temple around 1150. This festival was one that was early reported to the West. Friar Odoric of Pordenone visited India in 1316-1318, some 20 years after Marco Polo had dictated the account of his travels while in a Genovese prison (Mitter, 1977, p.10). In his own account of 1321, Odoric reported how the people put the "idols" on chariots, and the King and Queen and all the people drew them from the "church" with song and music. (Starza, 1993, p.129; Das, 1982, p.48).

The cars are very large. The one for Jagannath, for example, is approximately 45 feet high and 35 feet square and takes about 2 months to construct (Starza, 1993, p.16). The chitrakaras of Puri have several painting tasks on the cars. These include painting flower petals on the wheels, the wood-carved charioteer and horses, and the inverted lotuses on the wall behind the throne (Das, 1982, p.40).[Return to text]

[7] The painting is often done on cloth which is then pasted to the wooden surface of the dowry box (Mohanty, 1980).[Return to text]

[8] The production of pata-chitras is described, for example, by Das (1982, p.90 ff.) and Mohanty (1980, p.11 ff.).[Return to text]

[9] Descriptions of deities that may be used as aids in meditation are common in the epics such as the Bhagavata Purana. Mohanty (1980, p.12) also notes that there are books which are specifically collections of dhyanas. He mentions the existence of one such hand-written book of dhyanas that was in the possession of Jagannath Mahapatra, a skillful chitrakara of Raghurajpur. Das (1982, p.141) also notes the availability in Orissa of dhyana, or dhyanamantra (meditation images with mantras, or sacred words or phrases), texts in the form of palm-leaf manuscripts. He adds the proviso that, though available, these texts are not necessarily useful because they are in Sanskrit, a language not read by the typical chitrakara.[Return to text]

[10] Characteristics of pata paintings are elaborated on by Mohanty (1984) and Das (1982). [Return to text]

[11] For a fuller discussion of the iconographic colors, postures, facial types, crowns, jewelry, etc., used in pata-chitras, see Das (1982, p.99 ff.).[Return to text]

Table of Contents
Introduction | Jagannath | the Epics | Gods and Goddesses | Folklore and Erotic Themes | References | Articles