As the textual tradition has it, long before Krishna incarnated, a
huge multi-hooded venomous serpent Kaliya had migrated to a remote
uninhabited part of Yamuna. Kaliya was a descendant of Pannaga clan of
Nagas, one of their five ancient clans. Before migrating to Yamuna
Kaliya had its seat at Ramanaka, an island in the mid-sea. One of the
territories of the great bird Garuda Ramanaka was often frequented by
it. Garuda not only invaded Kaliya’s peace but also devoured whichever
of the ‘nagas’ it got hold of. Ultimately Kaliya had a treaty with
Garuda under which it presented to Garuda on the last day of every
month necessary food as tribute. However, the arrangement was
short-lived. Dishonest by nature, Kaliya often evaded honouring the
conditions of the treaty. This infuriated the great bird and it began
attacking Kaliya. With no option left the serpent decided to give up
Ramanaka island and to move to Yamuna. The part of Yamuna where Kaliya
settled came to be known as Kaliyadah. In no time the waters around
Kaliyadah were so much polluted that not only those who drank it, even
those who touched it, and the birds that passed across it in the sky
dropped dead. Not the people of Brij, even its cows were afraid of
going around Kaliyadah.
One of the objectives of his incarnation, Krishna had to liberate
Yamuna from the venomous Kaliya. One day, while playing, Krishna
deliberately swung his ball towards Kaliyadah. As intended, it fell
into waters at Kaliyadah. Before anyone could foresee, Krishna climbed
a tree on the river’s bank and jumped from it into the waters of
Kaliyadah. The uproar which Krishna created by falling into waters
irritated Kaliya and annoyed it rushed to punish the intruder.
Initially it caught Krishna in its coils but soon he overpowered the
serpent and began tramping it by dancing over its multi-hooded head.
Dismayed by the whirl-wind like moves of Krishna’s feet the serpent
felt that their pace would suffocate it to death. Subdued it lay under
his feet and prayed for mercy. Listening to its prayers its wives
rushed to its rescue and prayed Krishna to spare it. Krishna agreed to
forgive it on condition that along with its family it would vacate
Yamuna and shift to sea, a wider geography which would better
accommodate it, and also that it would not indulge in activities that
would harm others or damage environment.
Besides a powerful and extensive landscape, the painting well
illustrates the legend in fuller details. Fainted cowherd boys and
cows lying all around suggest that they reached this condition by
coming into contact with the poisonous waters of Yamuna at Kaliyadah.
Krishna’s peacock-crown, Pitambara and Vaijayanti of white Parijata
flowers lying on the trunk of the tree illustrate his act of mounting
the tree and jumping from it. The form of Kaliya reveals both, its
furious rise as well as its helplessness under Krishna’s feet. Most
dramatic is the portrayal of Kaliya’s wives, one of them pulling
Krishna by his sash for drawing his attention, others displaying their
helplessness and thus appealing for mercy, some imploring Krishna by
bowing before him for forgiving Kaliya, others rushing to him with
garland, flowers and trays of offering to appease him and the like.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.
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