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The Diverse Interpretations of the Panchasiriya Motif in Warli Painting

The Significance of the Panchasiriya Motif

Everyone knows what Warli art looks like, but few know the exact significance of its motifs. To truly ‘know’ Warli art, we must indulge in the stories of the Warli community. What we consider merely artistic symbols or motifs represent generations of cultural beliefs and spiritual practices that make up the Warli identity. As we explore the Panchasiriya motif, let us also gain a deeper understanding of Warli art itself.

When we delve into the creation myths of the various tribal communities of India, we quickly realise that, in spite of many differences, the concept of ‘god’ was at first very abstract. It was an energy, an element, sometimes a spirit or animal. Slowly, as cultures began developing, the ever-elusive god spirit solidified into a consciousness of somewhat humanoid form. Like us, gods had eyes and mouths, but they were unlike us just as well.

Some gods and goddesses have extra hands; others have animal body parts and terrifying features. God is always beyond our understanding, and the general consensus seems to be that they can assume a particular form, avatar, or possess a living being but are not limited to that existence. Fluid and omnipresent: a deity can assume any form.

The Panchasiriya: An Interpretation of the Ancestor’s Spirit

Warli painting by Jivya Soma Mhase. Image credit: Architectural Digest

“There are individuals, birds, creatures, bugs, etc. Everything moves, constantly. Life is development…”

Jivya Soma Mhase

The Warlis worship all the elements of their surroundings; they have a God of Thunder, God of Lightning, God of Rain, God of Hands, God of Happiness, God of Pillars, Gods of the Sun and Moon, God of the Great Wind, and so on and so forth. Many of these gods have distinctly anthropomorphic forms.

The Pañcaśīriyā (henceforth written as Panchasiriya) is a five-headed male god who rides a horse. He is painted in the centre of the ‘dev chauk’, which is a square shaped boundary drawn in most Warli paintings and specifically the ones done at weddings. Some say that he represents a dead ancestor who watches over the people. Panchasiriya is a depiction of two life forms, man and horse, and thus a celebration of life even in death.

The śirā caḑhavaṇe ritual is essential in the marriage process. In the Warli marriage rites, a picture of the Panchasiriya is drawn. The Panchasiriya is a five-headed male god who rides a horse. If he is not painted, he gets angry with the villagers and does not listen to them.

Women and Witchcraft: The Significance of Panchasiriya

A traditional Warli painting done in white over a red ochre background. Panchasiriya is in the dev chauk in the bottom right of the picture. there is a lagna chauk in the centre.
Image credit: Dsource

The bhagats are the Warli priests. The Warlis believe that these priests are blessed with the knowledge of the gods and thus must be consulted in important matters. Sometimes, this can be harmful, as they choose to live in a state of ignorance and leave the bhagats to understand all the stories and rituals of the Warli culture. 

The bhagats prescribe remedies to the villagers to cure their illnesses. Often, even though the cure does not work, the people still continue to trust the bhagat’s judgement. He is also the one who can point out the presence of the bhutalis. The Warlis believe that witches are always lurking, waiting for a chance to strike. When a series of illnesses, disasters or deaths take place, tensions rise in the village as people begin the witch hunt.

They ask a number of bhagats to confirm the identity of the witch, which he does through a series of rituals like dhan herne (rice grain readings), diva herne (identifying the witch by the light of a lamp), and vati calavane (moving cups that identify the witch). He carefully questions all the women to find one who is quarrelsome or reclusive, without a lot of villagers or family to support her. She is then branded a witch.

If the Warlis find a woman who possesses a statue of the Panchasiriya, she is accused of witchcraft or bhutali. The villagers believe that she harbours ill intent towards a family or certain individuals and achieves her malicious goals with Panchasiriya’s help. She thus lies about possessing him and keeps it a secret from all.

The Panchasariya in Wedding Rituals

A traditional Warli painting done in white over a red ochre background. Panchasiriya is in the dev chauk on both sides of the lagna chauk in the centre.
This Warli painting has two Dev Chauks. Image credit: Craft Gully

The Warlis get married in a shed called Pendol, which is made up of grass and wood. On the first day, the mandapa bandhane ceremony takes place, where two suvasinis paint the Lagna Chauk while the hut is constructed simultaneously.

A suvasini is a woman whose husband is still alive. The suvasinis create the white rice paste first and layer the wall with cow dung, over which they smear red mud, or geru. They then define the chauk (square) and draw the Palaghat goddess within it. The suvasinis sing songs throughout the process, invoking the gods and creating a joyful and festive atmosphere.

The Palaghat goddess is always present in the central chauk. She is the embodiment of marriage and vegetation. Panchasiriya is present at the dev chauk to the side and functions as Palaghat’s guardian.

Meanwhile, other women draw trees, human figures, animal motifs, and a chaukat at the side with the Panchasiriya motif within it. While the Palaghat chauk is decorated with looping patterns, the dev chauk is comparatively simple. Icons resembling hands or harrows spread out from the dev chauk’s outer borders, symbolising both the Panchasiriya’s power and his active role in guarding and protecting.

The suvasinis draw the motifs because they believe that is the way it must be, that it is right, and that it is auspicious. Very few know the significance behind the patterns or motifs, which is knowledge that is reserved for the bhagats. They do not get paid well or very often for the work they do.

The Spirit of Panchasiriya Possesses the People

A traditional Warli painting done in white over a red ochre background. Panchasiriya is in the dev chauk in the bottom left of the picture. there is a lagna chauk in the centre.
A couple is getting married in front of the Lagna Chauk. Image credit: Facebook via Dahanu

During the marriage ceremony, the bhagat sings a song that makes the bride and groom possess the spirit of Panchasiriya, the five-headed god. Due to his immense power, the ones who are possessed by him (in this case, the couple to be wed) become intoxicated. According to Warli tradition, the couple must get married in this intoxicated state.

Possession is a part of the Warli marriage. The dhak bhagats also sing a song for the possession of the Palaghat goddess. As the spirit of the Panchasiriya possesses the couple, the bhagat also gets possessed by Waghdev, or the Tiger God.

This possession is carried out in five stages; each ‘stage’ refers to a particular vein of the body over which Panchasiriya’s spirit travels. The possession takes place in this order: from the toes to the knees, from the knees to the waist, from the waist to the neck, from the neck to the nose, and finally to the eyes and the head.

The Varying Interpretations of the Panchasiriya in Indian Art

Clearly separated round heads. Image credit: Forms of Devotion

At Talaseri, Panchasiriya’s heads are elongated while his body is square-like. They are bent forward in a serpent-like manner, guarding and showing the way to the mother goddess. Snakes are sometimes considered to be ancestors, or the first creatures to roam the earth. In many areas of Maharashtra, snakes are seen as protectors and symbols of fertility.

In Haladpada, southeast of Talaseri, the paintings feature a man with a single head rather than the five-headed Panchasiriya.

The Panchasariya in Gagangaon has more than five heads and expressive, outstretched arms.

Panchasiriya Near the City

The heads of the Panchasiriya look like hands. Image credit: Gaon Connection

At Ambesari, the motif of the man is replaced by the symbolic inclusion of hands in their paintings. Hands dance, meditate, carry loads, and play musical instruments. Even at Jaushet, Panchasariya’s heads are drawn in the form of two human hands.

Further east, Lagna chauks become crude and unrefined. The Palaghat goddesses are drawn for representational purposes only, while the bride and groom occupy a central position. Sometimes Panchasiriya is drawn standing instead of seated on a horse. As such, he resembles the Panchamukhdeva in the Pithora painting. At Kasa Budruk, he is fully a human man on guard, standing at attention with a sword hanging by his belt.

In Javhar, the Panchasiriya is sometimes replaced by the motif of 14 dancing nymphs. Other times, two Panchasariyas stand with sticks in their hands and protect the sacred mother goddess.

At Nashik, icons of the Panchamukhdeva bear a strong resemblance to the Panchasiriya. He sits on the back of an animal with a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. This motif can be traced back to early 17th-century icons with androgynous bodies, with breasts and a penis. These, in turn, may be compared to the ancient concept of bodily androgyny, with similar bodies depicted in the Indus Valley civilisation.

The Panchasiriya: A Rare Male Motif

Aai, the mother goddess, is the focus of Warli worship. They worship her in the form of Dhartari (goddess of Earth), Gavatari (goddess of cows), and Kansari (goddess of corn). This results in their unique perspective of time as cyclical rather than linear. Each year begins and ends after the harvest.

Since time is cyclical, death is not an end but a new beginning. Thus, the Warlis also have firm belief in the wisdom of their ancestors, who died and acquired a new form of life. They worship them by erecting statues and consulting them on important occasions. Male gods like Panchasiriya are rare; they are usually ancestors who are now venerated and worshipped.

Changes in Cultural Meanings and Motifs

A couple replaces the Palaghat Devi in the Lagna Chauk. Image source: Ebay

However, customs and motifs change with time. In the Painted World of the Warlis, Yashodhare Dalmia notes that certain customs among the Warlis allude to the fact that their society used to be matriarchal, later to be replaced by a patriarchal structure. This is represented by both the ambiguous status that women hold in Warli society and their views towards femininity.

The suvasinis are the only ones who can paint the wedding Warlis, and the dhavleris (priestesses) are the only ones who can get couples married and perform the wedding song. Yashodhara notes that women are vested with creative powers due to their role in childbirth, but they are also demonised as witches. The Warlis consider periods to be impure, in this painting, the divine woman Masik represents menstruation, and the others run away from her because of her ‘foul smell’.

Sadashiv Mhase states that when we move towards Mumbai, we now see villagers painting Ganapati in the lagna chauks instead of Palaghat, as the knowledge of the goddess of marriage and abundance has slowly slipped away from the communities of these regions. 

The Dual Nature of the Panchasiriya

The Warlis believe that Panchasiriya looks after the wellbeing of the family. No one knows what he looks like, but the bhutalis ‘carry’ him with them as brass murtis (statues) with five heads. 

Thus, Panchasiriya can be auspicious in the lagna chauk but dangerous if found in the hands of a witch. The Panchasiriya’s diverse interpretations view the complex, multifaceted nature of man, where his major role as a guardian and protector remains consistent. He is powerful and capable of both protection and destruction.

“The concept of Panchasiriya then, in the paintings, is a multiple one which includes with its many heads, as many emotional and physical states as exist in man himself. The five-headed god represents many functions from the essential one of fertilising and guarding the woman to an active one symbolised by the hands. Panchasiriya in fact seems to express man’s own view of himself and its growing complexity.”

Yashodhara Dalmia, Painted World of the Warlis

Learning Rare Art Motifs On Rooftop

A traditional Warli painting done in white over a red ochre background. Panchasiriya is in the dev chauk in the bottom right of the picture. there is a lagna chauk in the centre.
Image credit: Forms of Devotion

Certain motifs are not very well known, even to lovers of folk art. Learning these art forms from non-tribals can often lead to the meanings of the motifs getting watered down. The Panchasiriya can be drawn with ease, but what of the stories behind this motif? In order to do the artform justice, it is imperative to understand the cultural context that surrounds it and to be respectful of the traditions and rituals of the past.

Want to learn Warli art from the tribal artists whose families have been practicing it for generations? Enroll in the Warli Maestro Course, taught by Vijay Sadashiv Mhase and Pravin Mhase, grandsons of the brilliant Jivya Soma Mhase. Or take a look at our Warli Art Books, which carefully explain these motifs and patterns from simple to complex.

Download the Rooftop app from Google Play or the App Store and avail of our in-depth courses and workshops to learn Indian traditional art forms. Stay tuned to Rooftop blogs and follow us on Instagram @rooftop_app.

By Melissa D’Mello

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