Mithila Traditions: Timeless Images and Inborn Art

Features Issue 20 Aug, 2010
Text by Dr. Ram Dayal Rakesh / Photo: ECS Media

“For three thousand years, Maithil women have painted the mud walls of their homes with scenes of legends of Hindu gods and goddesses.  The art was temporary, however, because the images were erased when the walls were washed.”- Horizon, the Magazine of the Arts, June 1985.

“Mithila paintings have their characteristic themes which collectively express the Maithili attitude towards life: the feelings, the experiences, and thoughts that govern the Maithili way of living.” –Arun Kumar Bajpai; ‘Mithila Art: A Living Tradition’

Traditional Mithila wall paintings have meaningful importance even today, and new uses are being found for this ancient art.  In the age of abstract art, this traditional, age-old art is thriving day by day.  Thanks to the efforts of many preservationists and the Maithil women themselves, the names Madhuvani of Janakpuriya art are now known to the whole world.

Mithila art is intertwined with ancient Hindu religious tradition.  It is concentrated in the eastern Terai around Janakpur, a Hindu pilgrimage site steeped in legend. The Hindu god Ram and goddess Sita are believed to have been married there.  Historically, Janakpur was the capital of the ancient Mithila kingdom, and is still the center of Maithili culture.  In fact, ‘Maithili’ is one of the many names for Sita.  Historian Shashi Bhushan Chaudhary points out the significance of Mithila art: “the Bhagavata {the oldest Hindu scriptures} refers to the Maithila in general and says that they were skilled in the knowledge of the atman {affection, intimacy}.”

One of the main purposes of Mithila art is to decorate homes for ritual occasions. The wall paintings of the kohbarghar (nuptial chamber), and pujaghar (worship room), and those used for folk festivals, especially on the auspicious occasion of Durga ashtami (the ‘Eight of Durga” festival) are particularly elaborate and fascinating. The walls of the house are often decorated with powerful images of Hindu gods and goddesses Ram, Lakshman, Ganesha, Shiva, Durga, and Lakshmi.  In addition to the images of gods and goddesses, themes of nature are central to Mithila art.  Each plant and animal image has come to have specific meaning, and each artist is free to paint the particular flowers, leaves, fruits, peacocks, elephants, and so on in her own style.

On important occasions, the mud walls of the entrance gate of the house are smeared with rice paste and cow dung powder (which is sacred in Hindu tradition).  The women members of the family use red clay to paint Durga, the mother goddess, riding on a lion or a tiger, or Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and fertility. It is generally believed that these will bring good fortune and wealth to the house.  On some occasions women also print fine impressions of their palms, after covering them in rice paste.  The threshold, walls and floors inside the house are decorated with different images according to the specific family, caste, occasion, and inclination of the artists.

Marriage ceremony paintings
Marriage is one of the most important occasions to be blessed with Mithila paintings.  Various motifs are painted on the walls of the bride’s home and/or on the paper wrapping various packets of vermillion tika powder used for the wedding ritual.

Kohbar (lotus) motif: Symbolizing female beauty and fertility, the main purpose of this motif is to create a suitable atmosphere for celebrating the honeymoon night successfully.

Kamaladha (lotus pond) motif:  Symbol of the female sexual organs, this motif is meant to enhance the sexual stamina of the newly married couple.  Maithil women artists are very innovative and imaginative and paint this motif according to their own original ideas and imaginations.

Dasavatara (ten incarnations of god) motif: specifically used on the wrapper of the vermillion sent by the bridegroom’s parents for the face showing ceremony of the bride, as well as for the Gauri puja of the bride. It is said that Sita, the constant companion of Ram, performed this ritual after her marriage, so it has become customary in the whole Mithila region.  A clay elephant and a decorated pot which holds an oil lamp are also made and used for this puja.

Bans (bamboo) motif: The bamboo plant is the symbol of male regenerative energy and the male sexual organ.  The bans motif is also painted on the kohbarghar where the newlywed couple is supposed to celebrate honeymoon night, as well as on the auspicious occasion of the “Duiragaaman” or second marriage, which generally takes place one year after the marriage.

Latpatia Suga (a couple of parrots) motif: This symbolizes and is meant to encourage the union of the bridegroom and bride.  The parrots are often depicted chasing each other as a prelude to mating.

Bidh-bidhata (female and male birds): This motif symbolizes the future destiny of the married couple. Bidhata is a manifestation of Brahma, creator of the universe, and the maker of the fortune of each individual.  He is believed to record an account of a person’s entire future, writing every event –the prosperities and adversities and even accidents and death, in detail.

It is a popular belief that the Bidhhata writes this record on the occasion of the birth of a child, and determines the child’s fate.  For this reason, a good, unused pen is kept beside a new born baby.

Pan ke Ghar (house of betel-leaf) motif: This depicts a beautiful structure covered with betel-leaf creepers.  Betel is planted near a pond or inside a thatched roof hut. The plant is considered to be very pious and auspicious.  It is thought to increase fertility and energy in the body.  (When women chew the betel leaf, it brings out the color of their lips and is used instead of lipstick.)

Drawings of the wedding party itself may also adorn the walls of the family courtyard, celebrating the occasion.

The Patia is a mat made of paper and mothi, a kind of thick grass, on which Mithila designs are embroidered.  This is brought by the bride as part of the marriage ritual. It is healthy and hygienic, cozy and comfortable to sleep on.  The newly married couple spends the whole night on it on the auspicious occasion of Chaturthi (the fourth night).

In addition to all these motifs, the images of many birds and animals, sun and moon, and people have specific interpretations. An elephant stands for good luck; a fish for fertility and good luck; a parrot for teachers and friends; and a Kadam tree for love and affection.  Peacocks, tortoises, and scorpions also appear frequently in Maithila art and have specific meanings.  Human figures may be used to tell stories and illustrate events.

These images are used not only for painting the home, but also are themes found painted on papier mache bowls, plates and other household objects.  They are woven into baskets and used as the basic shapes of kothi, large storage pots made from mud, dung, and rice husk. In recent years, as outsiders have become interested in the art, Maithil women have expanded their range of papier mache objects to include such modern necessities as pencil cans, and have also taken to painting on paper.  This has helped Maithil women support themselves and their communities while preserving their traditions.  These days the women are able to earn a decent income from this art; otherwise they are deprived.

The story-telling aspect of Mithila art has even been put to use by various NGOs and INGOs in assisting local people. For example, when the National Democratic Institute (NDI) was working to encourage women to get involved in the election process and to consider running for office, they used Mithila posters depicting a woman with a microphone speaking to a crowd.  Mark Wallem, former director of NDI, says “The art was simple and beautiful, and it was something local women could relate to. It told women that they didn’t have to give up their traditions in order to be involved in elections.”

Maithila folk art has been handed down from generation to generation.  It is deeply rooted in the soil and soul of the Mithila region, expressing the rituals, customs, beliefs, values, and aspirations of the Maithil people.  The spirit of the people is revealed in this beautiful, bright, and brilliant art and makes it more and more popular day by day. 

For more information about the history and designs of Mithila Art, contact