Visual Evidence for Royal Yogins

by JACQUELINE HARGREAVES

A crowned prince performs prāṇāyāma
Chamba school, circa 1740-50 CE. 
Bhuri Singh Museum, Chamba, Himachal Pradesh.


Although there is significant textual evidence to suggest that yogic techniques, such as āsanas, mantra repetition and prāṇāyāma, were practised by householders, it is unusual to find visual depictions of this and, in particular, members of a royal court. As such, I was quite excited to come across this mid-18th century painting of a crowned prince seated in a yogic posture while performing prāṇāyāma. According to the Bhuri Singh Museum, this is in a local style that flourished in Chamba before new trends were introduced by the Guler school of painters. The yogic body of the prince contains figures of Śiva (at the forehead), Brahmā (at the heart), and Viṣṇu (at the navel). The depiction of deities at these places is symbolic of the cakras (energetic centres) or granthis (knots) within the practitioner's body.

Not surprisingly, most of the premodern visual evidence for the practice of yogic techniques depicts ascetics. So, the image above of a richly jewelled prince performing prāṇāyāma is quite unique. It reminded me of the late-17th century painting of Man Dhata (below) in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Depicted here, in a similar profile portrait, the crowned prince is seated in a yogic posture with his right hand lowered. The unusual gesture of this hand might suggest that he has just completed the practice of prāṇāyāma. As in the painting above, the same three deities are represented. However, in this case, the lower two are reversed with Viṣṇu at the heart and Brahmā at the navel. Dated slightly earlier, this bold and vibrant miniature is representative of the sub-Himalayan and Himachal Pradesh miniatures of this period.

Man Dhata seated in a yogi position.
c. 1690-1700. India, Pahari, Nurpur, late 17th Century. 
Ink and color on paper; overall: 20 x 14 cm (7 7/8 x 5 1/2 in.). 
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Edward L. Whittemore Fund 1966.27.


Another important painting of a person of high rank performing yoga is the striking 19th-century miniature in the Wellcome Collection (see below). The inscription on the back of the painting states:

Appu [?] Sahib Patumkar [?] performing jogh, awaiting inspiration preparatory to turning [into a] devotee.

The painting depicts Appu Sahib Patumkar performing a yogic posture (āsana) outdoors on a mat of antelope skin with a temple perched upon a distant hill. The practitioner's name suggests he is a person of noble family.

Appu Sahib Patumkar performing jogh [āsana].
c. 19th century. India. Painting, gouache on paper; image size: 15 x 24 cm.
Wellcome Library no. 574888i


The form of the posture matches the description of an unnamed āsana (no. 51) in the prone (nyubja) section of the 18th-century yoga text called the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati. The description of this āsana is as follows:

hastadvayena pādadvayāgre gṛhītvā ekaikaṃ pādāṅguṣṭhaṃ karṇayoḥ spṛśet || 51 ||  
Grasping the toes of the feet with both hands, [the yogin] should touch the big toes, one at a time, on the ears. 
Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati 51 

Although the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati doesn't provide a name for this āsana, the artists of the Mysore Palace, who skilfully illustrated the chapter on āsana in the Śrītattvanidhi (19th century), borrowed the description from the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati and named it the bow pose (dhanurāsana).

I have previously written about the bow pose (dhanurāsana) and other manuscript material on this posture here:  




Citation: 
Hargreaves, Jacqueline. 2020. “Visual Evidence for Royal Yogins.” in The Luminescent, 6 August, 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.theluminescent.org/2020/08/visual-evidence-for-royal-yogins.html








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