Ashtimki, an ancient tradition of painting the story of the evolution of life, holds great significance among the Tharus of western Nepal. While the Tharus in eastern Nepal draw Kohbar on their walls during marriages and other rituals, the Tharus in the west, particularly in Banke, Bardiya, Kailali, Kanchanpur, and Surkhet districts, adorn their walls with Ashtimki on the day of Krishna Janmasthami, the birthday of Lord Krishna. The painting, 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.
Painting inspired by nature
Ashtimki is inspired by folklore and nature. While the painting comprises motifs representing the sun, moon, trees, monkeys, fish, and tortoises, among others, natural colors extracted from red clay, white stone powder, colored earth, vermillion, flower and leaf pastes, and burnt wild grass, etc. are used to create it. Tender bamboo shoots are used as natural brushes by crushing their tips into a brush-like structure. Historically, Ashtimki is painted by men, and the women support them in the process. However, girls and women are also learning to paint these days in order to keep the tradition alive.
Painting depicting evolution of life
Ashtimki painting depicts the evolution of life. Tharus consider Gurbaba as the creator of Earth. According to the Tharu folk epic Gurbabak Janmauti, Gurbaba brought amarmati (clay) from the netherworld with the help of a crab and an earthworm and created this world. A fish was the first creature to evolve as per Tharu folklore. So, the artist, starting to paint from the bottom of the canvas, draws a water source first and adds fish to it. Then, he draws a boat with Gurbaba and his disciples. It is believed that during the apocalypse, Gurbaba, along with his disciples and books, sailed to a safer haven and created a new world. Then, the artist adds a crab, tortoise, crocodile, and other water creatures to the water source.
Just like the ‘tree of life’ in the famous Saura paintings of Odisha, a kadam tree is drawn in the center of the painting, just above the water source and water creatures. Krishna, also called Kanha, is shown playing his flute in the tree. The artist then adds monkeys to the tree. Tharus believe that kadam is the favorite tree of Kanha, and as per the Tharu epic, monkeys resemble the children of Siddhapurush.
On the right and top of the water source, a lily leaf is drawn, and near it Baramurwa (twelve headed demon, the Raavana) is added, representing the bad and the devil. In the middle, a palanquin (doli), used during marriage ceremonies, is sketched. Two palanquin carriers are shown carrying Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas, in the doli. Above it, five Draupadis are added, in a line. Some Tharus say that the doli represents the marriage of Ram and Sita, while the characters above the doli are the Kauravas, the sons of King Dhritarashtra.
On the topmost part of the painting, the artist draws five Pandavas just above the five Kauravas. Then sun is added on the top right corner, and the moon on the top left corner. Beautiful triangular shapes border the rectangular painting. Even elephants, horses, camels, peacocks, chicken, and trees are added to the painting. These days, the artists also add other creatures not mentioned in the Tharu epic to make the painting look more beautiful.
The painter has to fast and keep away from eating anything till the painting is complete. The girls and women worship the painting, starting with the Mahatawa’s (Tharu elder) wife. They worship all the characters in the painting by putting a tika (vermillion mark) on them, except the Baramurwa, which represents the bad and the evil. After the worship, they break the fast and eat fruits. Gathering at the Mahatawa’s house, they sing Ahtimkia, a song about creation and different religious events, through the night.
In the morning, all the ritual items, including the oil lamps, are submerged in a nearby river. The worshippers wish an end to diseases and wounds inflicting them, to be washed away by the water, along with the submerged materials. They then bathe in the river, return to their homes, and offer rice and vegetable curries as prasad, the offering.
Ashtimki needs promotion
Ashtimki painting, almost forgotten by the Tharus and artists, has the potential to be a popular folk art like Mithila/Madhubani painting in eastern Nepal and Bihar; Sohrai and Kohbar paintings in Jharkhand; and Saura art in Odisha. While these art forms have been transferred to paper from ritual wall paintings and have gone global, the Ashtimki remains on the walls of mud houses in the western parts of Nepal.
More research is needed to find further facts about the Ashtimki painting tradition and popularize the stories associated with it to make it more valuable and sellable in the national and international markets. And, above all, promotion at different events is necessary to popularize this ancient art form that talks about the Tharus’ version of evolution of life on Earth.