The Pithora paintings are done on the walls of Rathwa tribe dwellings as vows in a ritual. They were also believed to be used as maps depicted with codes. The tribes also paint their surroundings in vivid colours and in abstraction. Though the tribes consider it a divine painting and not used for commercial purposes, nowadays it is done on fabrics and also used as wall hangings.
The Pithora paintings are abstract descriptions of the surroundings they live in. These are not literal depictions but of how they perceive the elements of their environment and nature. The recent ones also have modern elements like railway tracks, airplanes, and computers too.
These paintings are also considered to be highly sacred. The villagers consult a 'Tantrik' or a witch doctor of sorts to cure illnesses or release them from bad omens. They pray to 'Baba Pithora' and if the prayers are granted, they paint a Pithora painting on their walls in gratitude. This painting is also supervised by the Tantriks or priests. The completion of the painting is celebrated with ceremonies.
The presence of Pithora baba is considered auspicious in a household. A Pithora is always located at the threshold or the 'Osari', outside the first front wall. The Pithora artists are called Lakaras and the ones who keep an account of the paintings are called Jhokaras. Badwa or the head priests performs the rituals. When the 'Lakharas' paint, the 'Badwa', with his colleagues, sings and chants. In the evening before the sacrifice the priest goes into a trance and finds out what has been forgotten in the painting. That too is drawn and painted in. Most of the work is done by hand. Only men from the tribe are taught this art and allowed to paint. They are trained by the senior members from a young age.
Myths & Legends
The story of the deity 'Pithora' is a very popular legend amongst the tribes in this regard.
King of Gods, Raja Indra had seven sisters. One day, one of his sisters, Rani Kadi Koyal went into the forest where she met Raja Kanjurana. She had an affair with him and after 9 months and 9 days, she gave birth to a son. Since she was still a maiden, out of fear of her brother, Raja Indra, she set the child afloat in a stream. That day Rani Kajal and Rani Makher (Indra's other sisters) went to fetch water from the stream and found the baby crying. Rani Kajal fed milk of Akda / Banyan tree flower to the baby and bathed him with seven kinds of auspicious things. She named the baby "Pithora - and took him to the palace with her.
As the time passed, Pithora grew into a fine boy. One day when he was playing, he broke Rani Kajal's earthen pot. This made her angry and she scolded him saying, "As it is, your maternal uncle holds the share of entire kingdom- She indirectly told him that Raja Indra is his maternal uncle.
Hearing this, Pithora decided to find out who his parents are. He went to Raja Indra's court and introduced himself. After hearing his story, King Indra accepted him in the family with great joy and decided to find a suitable bride for him. But Pithora needed to know about his parents, if he wished to be married. So Raja Indra invited a grand court. He invited everyone; all the gods and goddesses, kings and queens, noblemen and respected citizens. When Pithora came in the court, he pointed at Raja Kanjurana and identified him as his father. After much rejoicing, a grand wedding ceremony was arranged and Pithora wed Pithori with much aplomb. All the gods and goddesses attended the wedding. They arrived on horses and elephants. Hence Pithora painting has gods arriving on horses along with Pithora and Pithori.
The style of the Pithora paintings are believed to have originated for use in a sort of cartography. These maps were created in codes using abstractions for the natural elements around them by the tribes in Bharuch. It started in the 11th century when Bharuch was an important center for traders from the North. The roads and pathways were rugged and treacherous to travel in if you did not know them well. So the tribes took to escorting the Indian and foreign traders through Bharuch in exchange for silver coins, creating a niche profession for themselves.
To keep the land a mystery to the outsiders and make it easier for the locals, the tribal leader devised a method of creating a map with codes. Thus, the seven hills became represented by seven horses and the mouth of river Narmada by two tigers. The leader also ordered the escorts to make the same painting in their houses. The people who showed loyalty by painting the map at their home came to be known as "Rathwas- while those who disagreed, were called "Talavis-. The Rathwas then got rights to climb and dwell atop the seven hills. This practice went on till 1812 A.D. till the British rulers put a stop to it. Then the act of making Pithora painting became a ritual and Pithora became the god of Rathwa tribe.
The sacred enclosure contains the pictorial depiction of the mythology of the Rathwas. Generally the uppermost section of the enclosure, above a wavy line with geometric motifs, represents the world of Gods. Just below this line there is the procession of the marriage of Pithora and Pithori. The lower half of the enclosure depicts the actual myth of creation wherein the Earth, the mythical farmer, the cowherd, the kings, the Bania (trader/grocer), the Badvo, the goddesses of destiny, the cow and the bull, the various creatures of the forest and the minor deities are shown. The painters also include various other illustrations from regular life of Rathwas which cannot be seen in Pithora paintings from Madhya Pradesh.
In Gujarat region, Pithora painting has various connotations. One meaning attached to the Pithora Paintings is the idea of a map. This tradition is supposed to have started in the 11th century. The painting seems to be giving a map of the area where these tribes resided. There are various items present in the painting that prove this assumption.
The rectangular fence around the borders in the painting is assumed to be defining the geographical area over which the Rathwa tribe is spread. This rectangle usually extends up to the Arabian Sea in the west, Bharuch in south and Indore in north and east. The wavy line in the painting, dividing the painting is a representation of river Narmada. The seven horses depict seven hills present in the region. Things like fields, trees, farms, wild life, railway tracks are present in their relative positions in the map. Thus even in the literal sense, Pithora Painting depicts the world of Rathwa tribe. This deduction has been also possible by studying the socio-economical and political history of the region.
In middle ages, Bharuch was the "Gateway of India- for traders from the North especially, and Bharuch is present at the mouth of river Narmada . In those times, roads joining north and south region were very poor and also dangerous to some extent. As the adivasis were well versed with their region, they found an opportunity area which gave rise to a new profession: escorting foreigners as well as Indians to and from Bharuch through this region.
In those times, India had silver coins as currency. The escorts were from the tribes in this area. They were paid in monetary means that is; in silver coins. All this silver was collected in one place, mostly by the head of the tribe. The tribal people mystified the route of travel to ensure their income. They used the seven hills in this region to great advantage, as watch towers. They kept an eye on the travelers, controlled their movement, and frightened them.
The escorting happened till the onset of monsoon, when the trading did not take place. The tribes cultivated the land for four months till Dussehra. After Dussehra, the escorting started again and continued till Holi. The silver was distributed equally among the escorts on the auspicious occasion of Holi.
The leader of the tribe made a map of the region for the convenience of the escorts. There he showed the river Narmada with wavy line. The river mouth was indicated by painting two tigers. He showed the seven hills as seven horses. The tribals have no direct association with horses. He also ordered the escorts to make the same painting in their houses. To define the community of the escorts, the leader made a parallel of a state. The citizens of this state were called as "Rathwas-. All citizens showed their loyalty by painting the map on the wall at home. Only they were given the right to climb and dwell atop the seven hills. They were the ones who received the silver on the occasion of Holi.
The people who did not join the state and stayed at the foothills and were called as "Talavis-. They were not allowed to climb up the hill. Also, they did not hold any share in the collected silver. This practice went on till 1812 A.D. till the British rulers put a stop to it. Then the act of making Pithora painting became a ritual and Pithora became the god of Rathwa tribe.