The Paintings of Sita Ram, Part 6

BY: SUN STAFF - 23.5 2023

The Visrant Ghaut on the River Jumna at Mathura
Painting by Seeta Ram, c. 1815

A serial presentation of the extraordinary collection of Sita Ram's early 1800's watercolors depicting Indian temples and landscapes.

Like the Vrindavan temples and Mathura landscapes, another category of excellent paintings by Sita Ram are his watercolor illustrations of bathing ghats. One of these, the Visrant Ghat shown above, is itself in Mathura.

This painting of the 'Visrant Ghaut on the River Jumna at Mathura' is included in the folio entitled 'Views by Seeta Ram from Tughlikabad to Secundra, Vol. VIII'. The artist's inscription states: 'Bissaram Ghaut at Muttra'.

A description of this painting is also provided by the British Library staff, who call it an "Idealised view of the Vishram ghat on the river Jumna at Mathura. Mathura, on the banks of the river Jumna 150 kms south of Delhi, is a sacred city for Hindus. Mathura became a centre for the Vaishnava cult by the 15th century and it is celebrated now above all… As an important pilgrimage site there are hundreds of temples here. The Vishram Ghat is the most important of the ghats of Mathura. Legend states that Krishna rested at this ghat after killing the demon Kamsa (hence the name Vishram which means 'repose')."

Among the twenty-five ghats in Mathura, the Visrant (Vishram) Ghat is considered to be the topmost. Devotees traditionally begin and end their circumambulation of all Mathura's holy place by coming to this ghat to take holy bath.

Visrant (Vishram) Ghat

Visrant Ghat is surrounded by many beautiful temples, including the Radha-Damodar Temple, Yamuna-Krishna Temple, Murli Manohar Temple, Lord Narasimha's temple, Neelkantheshwar Temple, Mukut Temple, and Langali Hanuman Temple.

Each evening, a beautiful aarti is held at Visrant Ghat. Small lamps are floated out onto the water, creating a transcendental atmosphere.

Although the artist's depiction of Visrant Ghat is very peaceful, the historical reality of what was taking place in Mathura at the time this painting was produced is an entirely different picture. There is an interesting passage in the book, "Doon Rediscovered" by Shyam Ganguli, in which he describes the military forces that were amassing at Mathura just prior to the date of the painting above. Following failed negotiations between the Raja of Nepal and the British government, war was about to be declared by the British invaders. Ganguli writes:

"Lord Hastings declared war in October 1814 and was determined to attack Nepal simultaneously from as many quarters as possible. Major General Marley was given the command of eight thousand men in Bihar and ordered to march at once on Kathmandu, the capital. In Gorakhpur a force of four thousand men was entrusted to Major General J.S. Wood and Major General Ochterlony was to attack the enemy's position on the extreme west between the Sutlej and the Jumna…"

Shyam Ganguli goes on to provide a very interesting quote about the scene at Mathura, and interestingly enough, the recorder of this historical footprint is named Sita Ram Pande. We cannot know for certain if this person is the same as Sita Ram the artist who was engaged as expedition painter by Lord Hastings, but it's fascinating to note the similarity of names. And we would not be surprisied to learn that they are one and the same, because it was often the custom that persons keeping journals and written records of campaigns and expeditions also kept sketchbooks and recorded the visual scenes as well.

So as Lord Hastings was declaring war on the Nepalis and gathering men and munitions at Mathura, Sita Ram Pande was one of the soldiers who accompanied Hastings' associate, General Gillespie, during the first attack. Sita Ram Pande writes:

"A short time after I became a regular sepoy it was rumoured that the Company was going to take Nepal from Amar Singh Thapa, and our officers were full of hopes of going with the army which was being assembled at Mathura. Orders soon arrived and we marched from Agra to Mathura in two days. There we were attached to General Gillespie's force."

Things obviously did not go well for the British on that particular campaign, as Sita Ram Pande concludes:

"The operations of General Gillespie were most unfortunate, but they were not disgraceful, for he showed himself to be at least a brave and zealous soldier."

While art historians note that there is no information available on the great painter Sita Ram, except that he is known to be a Bengali, perhaps one day historians will connect the dots to British Military journals like this one. Given that the surname Pande is common in Bengal, perhaps one day they will confirm that Sita Ram the watercolourist is one and the same as the sepoy, Sita Ram Pande who gives the account above of the scene at Mathura in 1814.