THE BRITISH MUSEUM has a whole season of exhibitions and events about India – it calls this its “Indian Summer” – an expression that in English usually applies to unseasonally nice weather rather later in the year, like “fall” or Autumn as we Brits call it.
I visited the British Museum today to see its “Garden & Cosmos” exhibition – sponsored by HSBC and subtitled “The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur”.
There is little about gardens in the wonderful exhibition but there are some beautiful paintings related to an “obscure religious cult” called the Nath Sampradaya.
The Nathas, reckon scholars – and what would they know – started kicking in around the 13th century and many of the paintings in the exhibition reflect the support of the rajas of Jodhpur, in Rajasthan and form part of the collection of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust. Very many of the highly detailed paintings in the exhibition relate to these “nathas”, in particular there are some paintings from the Nath Purana.
The exhibition was very well attended – it’s had quite a lot of publicity. The leaflet doled out to you when you arrive says: “Man Singh’s artists proclaimed Nath greatness and teaching in hundreds of paintings and monumental manuscripts. Nath yogis, recognised by their grey ash smeared skin and pointed hats, are depicted proclaiming their new ideas. Their guru is shown superior to the traditional Hindu gods”.
Man Singh lost his kingship in 1843 when the British arrested two senior Nathas for allegedly kidnapping a Brahmin. The Indian Mutiny – or the First War of Independence – as India describes it, occurred just a few years later and many authors have suggested that sadhus, holy men, helped foment the insurrection against the missionaries’ position.
A rather sad cartouche, next to one of the glorious paintings in this exhibition, suggested that after Man Singh was ousted, the “temples” of the Natha Sampradaya fell into desuetude and the sampradaya (tradition) lost its force.
I dunno who wrote that cartouche. In Rajasthan there are still very many ashramas of the Natha Sampradaya. I’ve visited many of them myself, thanks to the great kindness of one of the abbots. The paintings often show the padukam of the gurus of the Natha sampradaya – one very nice one shows everything flowing from those feet. I tried to count the Nathas – if there’s 108 of them, I would not be at all surprised.
108 is a sacred number in the tantrik and Natha traditions. The rosaries the sadhus wear are often rudrakhas and number 108 beads. A human being is supposed to breathe 21,600 times in a day of 24 hours – half of these are ascribed to the sun, the other half to the moon.
I listened to many visitors closely inspecting the wonderful paintings in the exhibition. Clearly, very few of them had ever heard of the Natha Sampradaya – didn’t know that Gorakhnath and his guru Matstyendranath more or less created hatha yoga – and were clearly puzzled by these strange sadhus who on the one hand renounced the world and on the other hand promoted the common welfare of the people that supported them.
Matsyendranath, pictured above – and the picture is courtesy of a Natha mahant (abbot) in Rajasthan – was swallowed by a fish, a little like Jonah.
It is rather fantastic that the paintings are in the British Museum, though, despite the lack of supporting information to help assist the wanderers in the place. The exhibition lasts until the 23rd of August and it’s £8 to enter. Or free if you’re a British Museum “member” which costs £40 a year.
Almost finally, Thames & Hudson has produced a rather fantastic book which contains many of the paintings in this exhibition. The paperback costs £30 and the hardback edition £36 so there’s some kind of stock control unit (SKU) marketing nonsense going on there. Its ISBN number is 978-0-500-51443-6. The authors are Debra Diamond, Catherine Glynn and Kami Singh Jasoi.
There’s a bibliography but I can’t find any mention of the English translation of Kaulajnananirnaya ascribed to Matsyendrath in 1986.
Almost finally, because on my way out of the exhibition, people seemed to be singing a Baul song, and three lasses were dancing rather effectively. The sound is non existent – sorry about that. Perhaps I should have used my Crackberry.
This exhibition is well worth a visit. If you know nothing about the Natha Sampradaya you will be very puzzled. If you know anything at all about this very ancient tradition of yogis and yoginis, you’ll be very pleased indeed.
Mannath is the founding guru of one of the panths of the current Natha Sampradaya – there are 12 confederated into the Baro Panth.
Quite a lot of the paintings in the exhibition are related to the Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati. Disclaimer: I own www.shivashakti.com. You can read some Natha texts in this PDF book, here. There’s obviously money in India.