Pilgrims Represented on a Gupta Period Frieze from Gaṛhwa, Uttar Pradesh

FIG.1. Garhwa Frieze complete image

I recently published a paper on a Gupta period frieze from Gaṛhwa near Prayagraj (until recently Allahabad); one of the most intriguing friezes to survive from early India. Here I am taking the opportunity to discuss a small detail on the frieze that I only considered once my paper had already gone to press. The paper can be accessed here: https://www.degruyter.com/view/book/9783110674088/10.1515/9783110674088-004.xml?rskey=MYCfm5&result=2

Fig. 9
A view of Gaṛhwa with the ruins of a twelfth-century temple, a colonnade from the same period or slightly earlier, and one of two tanks. Incidentally, the sattra dwellers might have been depicted sitting on the sides of one of the tanks to keep cool.

I have interpreted the frieze as depicting two processions – one leading to a temple enshrining Viṣṇu Viśvarūpa who is offering a magnificent theophany of himself to a kneeling king; while the other procession winds its way to a sattra, a charitable institution that seems to have had its naissance in the early Gupta period. Incredibly, this is the only surviving visual representation of a sattra, and moreover, by happy coincidence, Garhwa is also home to the earliest epigraphic mention of this type of sattra. Such sattras were almshouses of sorts; dwelling places attached to temples for the benefit of brahmins, wandering ascetics and the poor. Clothing and food was given to the inhabitants of the sattras, but beyond this little is known.

The sattra dwellers being fed and watered by pilgrims.

One of the most notable features of the frieze is the clever way in which it draws together gods, astronomical and astrological deities, kings and consorts, soldiers, brahmins, the needy, musicians, servants, and possibly mythical heroes, and also I will argue, pilgrims.

The inhabitants of the sattra, who sit on the steps of a tiered structure, are receiving food and drink from a couple who wear unusual head coverings – the woman’s headdress has a long scarf draping down behind her neck and shoulders. The attire of this couple points to them being pilgrims, probably having stopped off at the sattra during a long journey. This I have deduced by making a comparison with imagery on a stone tympanum in two pieces from Kaṅkalī Tīlā, Mathura, produced during the Śuṅga period (c. 100 BCE), although slightly outside of the Śuṅga empire. In three separate registers this tympanum depicts caravans arriving at the city, and comprises figures riding or walking next to camels, horses, buffalos and elephants. Moreover, in each caravan are coaches pulled by animals. These coaches have several windows, each one framing the face of a person who looks out in anticipation. In the uppermost register to the left, the pilgrims stand above a coach carrying offerings to bring to the stūpa pictured to their fore.

Already by the 1st century BCE Mathura was an important religious centre as is evidenced by material remains and epigraphic records, and this evidence coupled with the iconography on the tympanum, suggests that the sacred monuments pictured here were drawing in (or were hoping to attract) worshippers from far and wide. The most salient point here, however, is that several of the travellers wear head coverings that wrap under the chin – strikingly similar in fact to those worn by the couple in the Gaṛhwa frieze. No doubt this is a practical clothing choice for what would be a very dusty journey.

Red sandstone tympanum from Mathura, c. 100 BCE. National Museum, New Delhi. Photo credit: author.
Screenshot 2020-08-31 at 12.26.09
Red sandstone tympanum from Mathura dating to circa 100 BCE. National Museum, New Delhi. Photo: L. Bachhofer, Early Indian Sculpture, Pl. 102.
Screenshot 2020-08-30 at 15.09.33
Here the characters wear the same type of head coverings as the pilgrims in the Gaṛhwa frieze. Photo: S.R. Quintanilla. History of Early Stone Sculpture at Mathura, ca. 150 BCE-100 CE (Leiden: Brill, 2007), fig. 231.
Screenshot 2020-08-31 at 12.23.57
Photo: Pramod Chandra in Quintanilla, fig. 23.

Since giving to a sattra was considered to increase the merit of the benefactor, it comes as no surprise that pilgrims would find it beneficial to make a stop at Gaṛhwa to donate to the inhabitants of the sattra, and to perform pūjā at the Viṣṇu temple.