Ashtimki Painting by Sarita Pachhaldangya
The ancient tradition known as Ashtimki holds deep cultural significance among the Tharu (the indigenous tribe of Southern plains) in western Nepal. While Tharus in the eastern region commemorate weddings and rituals by adorning their walls with Kohbar art, those in the western areas, particularly in Banke, Bardiya, Kailali, Kanchanpur, and Surkhet districts, adorn their walls with Ashtimki.
On Krishna Janmashtami, the birthday of Lord Krishna, the Ashtimki painting, an aesthetic in form, not only represents an art form but depicts the Tharus’ version of the evolution of life and tells the story handed down from generation to generation.
Drawing inspiration from folklore and nature, Ashtimki showcases a mesmerizing array of motifs including the sun, moon, trees, monkeys, fish, and tortoises, among others. It is crafted using natural materials such as red clay, white stone powder, colored earth, vermillion, flower and leaf pastes, and burnt wild grass, the painting comes to life. The process involves using delicate bamboo shoots as painting brushes, crushed on end to form brush-like structures.
Traditionally, men have been the artists behind Ashtimki, with women playing a supporting role, but nowadays, girls and women are actively learning to paint to preserve this cherished tradition.
The heart of Ashtimki’s narrative lies in its depiction of the evolution of life. Central to Tharu beliefs is the notion of Gurbaba as the creator of Earth. The Tharu folk epic “Gurbabak Janmauti” recounts how Gurbaba, aided by a crab and an earthworm, brought amarmati (clay) from the netherworld to shape the world.
According to Tharu lore, the first creature to evolve was a fish, hence the artist begins at the base of the canvas, crafting a water source and introducing fish. The depiction continues with Gurbaba and his disciples aboard a boat, sailing to safety during an apocalyptic event to forge a new world. Additional aquatic creatures like crabs, tortoises, and crocodiles join the scene.
At the painting’s center, akin to the iconic ‘tree of life‘ in Saura paintings from Odisha, a kadam tree and just above the water source and creatures. Krishna is drawn playing his flute on Kadam, his favorite fruit tree. The artist then adds monkeys who according to the Tharu epic resemble the children of Siddhapurush. Ascending the painting, five Pandavas (Five protagonists from the epic Mahabharata) are depicted, juxtaposed with the five Kauravas (Five antagonists from the same epic, the cousins of Pandavas). The celestial bodies find their place as the sun graces the top right corner and the moon the top left. Intricate triangular borders frame the rectangular masterpiece, while elephants, horses, camels, peacocks, chickens, and trees fill the canvas.
The Ashtimki artists often include additional creatures beyond the Tharu epic to enhance the painting’s aesthetic appeal. The process of creating Ashtimki is accompanied by rituals and observances. The painter undergoes a fasting period until the completion of the artwork.
Women and girls gather at Mahatawa’s (Tharu elder) house and partake in worshipping the painting, led by the Mahatawa’s wife. Each character within the painting is adorned with a tika (vermillion mark) during the worship, with the exception of Baramurwa, the embodiment of evil. After the worshipping ritual women eat fruits to break the fast for the day. They sing Ashtimkia, a song about creation and different religious events, through the night.
Come morning, the ritual items, including oil lamps, are immersed in a nearby river, symbolizing the cleansing of ailments and afflictions. The worshippers then bathe in the river, return to their homes, and offer rice and vegetable curries as prasad, the food offering to conclude the ceremony.
While Ashtimki painting has the potential to become a widely recognized folk art, akin to Mithila/Madhubani painting in eastern Nepal and Bihar (India), Sohrai and Kohbar paintings in Jharkhand (India), and Saura art in Odisha (also India), efforts are required to elevate its status. Conducting further research to uncover additional facets of the Ashtimki tradition and sharing the associated stories will enhance its value and marketability on a national and international scale.
Moreover, promoting Ashtimki at various events is crucial to popularizing this ancient art form that encapsulates the Tharu people’s unique perspective on the evolution of life on Earth.