Lord Krishna is an important figure in the Hindu pantheon who appears often in works of art and architecture. Krishna is one of the many avatars (forms or manifestations) of the Hindu god Vishnu, who according to devotees was born on earth to create balance and harmony in the universe. Intense personal devotion (called bhakti) for Krishna continues to be important for many Hindus around the world and is the subject of numerous works of art, from very early representations to the present.
Krishna appears in anthropomorphic (human-like) form, as a male figure with blue-colored skin. He often wears a yellow- or orange-colored hip wrapper and a crown ornamented with peacock feathers. He is powerful, mischievous, fun-loving, flirtatious, and the subject of great adoration. Representations of Krishna appear throughout architecture, paintings, sculpture, and textiles in many parts of the Indian subcontinent. Stories about Krishna are also the subject of numerous important religious texts including the Bhagavata Purana and the Gita Govinda. Krishna also assumes the role of the charioteer for the hero Arjuna in the epic story The Mahabharata, and the conversation about dharma (duty or laws of conduct) that occurs between these two figures during a pause in battle is the foundation for the famous poem the Bhagavad Gita.
Depicting the life of Krishna in art
Depictions of Krishna vary greatly across time period, region, materials and methods of production as well as styles. Sometimes we see him as an adorable, chubby baby who has just stolen a vessel full of butter, as in a late 20th-century calendar print. Krishna—who the artist depicts here with light blue skin and adorned with necklaces, earrings, and arm bands—sits on the floor with his hands and feet touching gilded vessels that spill over with creamy butter.
Hyperrealistic, idealized images such as this one became popular in the early 20th century and circulated as inexpensive prints in local marketplaces (or bazaars) and on Hindu religious calendars. The partially visible column and curtain adorned with tassels and fringe in this poster recall props used in photographic portraits of the late 19th century (such as one showing Maharaja Madan Singh) which introduced new degrees of realism into the representation of divine figures, a trend that continues today.
Small sculptural depictions of Krishna as a divine child (also known as Bala Krishna), such as a 16th-century bronze from Tamil Nadu, also reveal the popularity of depicting Krishna in his baby form: this small image would likely have been dressed and adorned, placed on a small throne, and included in a home altar for a Hindu puja. Adorning a murti like this one of Bala Krishna with elaborate clothing, flowers, and jewelry is a practice known as shringar, and is an important aspect of Hindu puja, particularly for Krishna.
In addition to his loveable persona as Bala Krishna, artists create depictions of Krishna that emphasize his power, royal ancestry (as a warrior-king), and ability to vanquish evil. A painting from the late 18th century tells a story from the Bhagavata Purana when Krishna subdued the snake demon Kaliya who was poisoning the Yamuna River. Kaliya’s wives, with their serpentine bodies, emerge from the water begging Krishna to be merciful with their husband.
The same story is also referenced in a Chola-period bronze which depicts Krishna dancing on the back of Kaliya in an attempt to subdue him and send him back to his native environment in the ocean.
Braj and Brindavan
Features of the natural environment, like the Yamuna River, are important characters in many representations of episodes from Krishna’s life. The verdant landscape that figures so prominently in depictions of Krishna is known as Braj (sometimes written as Vraj), which is the region surrounding the Yamuna River. At the center of Braj is the town of Brindavan (sometimes written as Vrindaban) where Krishna grew up. Brindavan is very close to the city of Mathura, which historically has been an important site for artistic production. Because of its connection to Krishna, Brindavan continues to be a pilgrimage destination for many Vaishnavites (devotees of the god Vishnu).
Krishna and Mount Govardhana
A 13th-century carving from the Hoysalesvara Temple at Halebidu in southern India shows an episode in the life of Krishna in which the landscape is once-again a central character. In this depiction Krishna stands in a triple-bend posture which creates an elegant swaying of his body (tribhanga). One of the many postures connected to traditional forms of Indian dance, depicting figures in tribhanga (with alternating bends at the knees, hips / waist, and shoulders / neck) was one way for artists in South Asia to create a sense of movement and dynamism in representations of the body. We can see tribhanga postures used in many different ways throughout South Asian art, both as a subtle sway (as in the Krishna sculpture above) or in an exaggerated form as in Shiva Nataraja (Lord of the Dance). Krishna here is beautifully adorned with jewelry and a conical headdress. Surrounding him on all sides are animals (especially cows which are significant to Krishna as he was raised in Brindavan as a cow herder) and human figures. Most notably, the artist depicts Krishna’s left arm raised above his head, holding up what appears to be a mountain full of plants and animals. The mountain in this scene is Mount Govardhana, also called Govardhana Hill, which is close to Brindavan and in the region of Braj.
The story goes that as a young boy, Krishna noticed the people of Braj spending too much time and energy preparing sacrifices to appease the god Indra, who is the Hindu god of the heavens and also of lightning, storms, and thunder. As a result, the people’s farms and livestock were neglected. Krishna reminded the people of Braj of their duty (dharma) to care for their land and animals and suggested instead that they cease the elaborate rituals and sacrifices for Indra. Indra became angered by this and as retribution sent an enormous storm that began to flood the entire region. In response to Indra’s tempest, Krishna lifted up a nearby mountain, Mount Govardhana, and used it as an umbrella to protect the people of Braj.
The story of Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana is a popular subject for works of art. A fantastic depiction of this story appears in a Mughal-period painting and shows Krishna at the center of the composition lifting the mountain, which is full of stylized rocks, trees, and animals. The grateful residents of Braj, including both human figures and numerous cows, surround Krishna on all sides and appear safely protected from the tumultuous sky (representing Indra’s storm) at the very top of the scene. The artist of this painting renders the villagers of Braj in dynamic postures and with great diversity. Some figures appear fully dressed in Mughal court attire while others wear only simple loin cloths more typical of Hindu ascetics. Children latch on to the bodies’ of their mothers and playfully ride cows. Some of the villagers turn their attention toward Krishna as if to offer their praise and gratitude, while others appear to be conversing amongst themselves almost unaware of the blue-skinned god’s miraculous feat.
Depictions of Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana are most iconic amongst the Pushtimarg sect of Vaishnavite devotees, who worship this form of Krishna (known as Shri Nathji to the Pushtimarg) at their temple in Nathdwara, Rajasthan. In many depictions of Shri Nathji, such as this 19th-century painting, the mountain itself is absent from the composition, though it is implied by Krishna’s raised arm.
Krishna and the Gopis
Another well-known story from the life of Krishna that appears often in works of art is the episode when he stole clothing from the milkmaids (gopis) who were bathing in the nearby Yamuna River. In this 16th-century folio from a Bhagavata Purana manuscript, we see the gopis standing partially nude amongst the swirling waves of the Yamuna. Some of them appear with their hands together in anjali mudra (a gesture of prayer) as if begging Krishna to return their clothing. Others appear to be content frolicking and splashing amongst the waves. Textual versions of the Bhagavata Purana describe Krishna as playfully chastising the gopis for wading, half-naked, into the water (and exposing themselves to the god of waters, Varuna) moments after they prayed for Krishna to become their husband. Some of the gopis beg Krishna to forgive their immodesty, which he laughingly bestows (he was, in fact, jesting all along!). In this image, the river, which bisects the composition and runs beyond the margins of the picture, is a main character of the story.
This iconic episode also inspired an oil painting by the well-known modern artist Francis Newton Souza, a founding member of the Progressive Artists’ Group of Bombay, who depicts the body of Krishna through a thick application of teal-colored paint that seems to merge with the tree in which he is standing. The figure of Krishna continues to be a source of inspiration for many artists living and working in South Asia today, and can serve as a potent subject of spiritual reverence and devotion, a symbol of philosophical beliefs, and/or a vehicle for social and political critique.
Interactions with the gopis who, like Krishna, inhabit the region of Braj, are important themes for many depictions of Krishna. The gopis can be understood as stand-ins for all devotees of Krishna, who wish to be spiritually unified with god; the reference to marriage or sexual union with Krishna is an evocative symbol for divine union. A late 18th- or early 19th-century embroidered coverlet known as a rumal made in the Pahari region of India (around the foothills of the Himalayas), depicts the flirtatious play between Krishna and the gopis. Krishna appears at the center of the textile engaged in enthusiastic dancing and celebration. The borders of embroidered flowers that frame the composition remind the viewer of the verdant landscape of Braj. In another Pahari rumal, Krishna has miraculously multiplied himself so that he is able to singularly focus on each gopi, who in turn gaze at the god with loving devotion.
Krishna and Radha
Most beloved amongst the gopis is Radha, the consort of Krishna and considered by many devotees to be a goddess in her own right (specifically, an avatar of the goddess Lakshmi). An important early text, the Gita Govinda, composed by the writer Jayadeva in the 12th century, describes in poetic verse the loving, and sometimes contentious, relationship between Krishna and Radha. Radha sings,
I followed [Krishna] at night to depths of the forest.
He pierced my heart with arrows of love.…
The sweet spring night torments my loneliness—
Some other girl now enjoys [Krishna’s] favor.
A series of paintings from the Pahari region visualize aspects of this relationship. In this painting, Krishna appears multiple times in the composition as if he is moving throughout the forest, waiting anxiously for Radha to appear. Radha sits in the upper right corner of the composition (in yellow) and speaks with her friend and confidante about whether or not she should meet Krishna. Radha is already married to another man and also knows of Krishna’s tendency to flirt with other gopis, which inspires jealousy within her and fuels her apprehension. Radha’s friend sings,
[Krishna] comes when spring winds, bearing honey, blow.
What greater pleasure exists in the world, friend?…
How often must I repeat the refrain?
Don’t recoil when [Krishna] longs to charm you!…
Why conjure heavy despair in your heart?
Listen to me tell how he regrets betraying you.
One interpretation of the religious meaning of this painting is that it is a metaphor for how divine insight is available and waiting for humans, who need only to release themselves from the lure of the material world and its social conventions. In such depictions, the metaphor of profane love (the love between Krishna and Radha for example) is often used to describe sacred love or union with the divine.
In another painting from the same Gita Govinda series, Radha (now dressed in bright orange and gold) is once again speaking with her female confidante as Krishna prepares a bed of leaves in the forest nearby for a tryst with Radha. At the center of this composition, the artist depicts Krishna a second time as if to suggest he is spying on Radha as he eagerly awaits their union.
A third painting in this series shows Krishna seated on the bed of leaves, still waiting for Radha, but now playing music on his flute—an instrument closely connected to the god and in some cases considered a metaphor for the devotee’s union with the divine. In this painting, the sky is darker, suggesting that night is beginning to fall. Flowers on several of the trees seem to have burst into bloom as if filling the air with sweet fragrance. The blossoming forest and the darkening sky create a mood that seems to call to Radha, like the flute, and echoes Krishna’s desire to be with her.
All [Krishna’s] deep-locked emotions broke when he saw Radha’s face,
Like sea waves cresting when the full moon appears.…
The soft black curve of his body was wrapped in fine silk cloth,
Like a dark lotus root wrapped in veils of yellow pollen.…
Flowers tangled his hair like moonbeams caught in cloudbreaks.
His sandal browmark was the moon’s circle rising in darkness.…
Jayadeva’s singing doubles the power of Krishna’s adornments.
Worship [Krishna] in your heart and consummate his favor!
The intimate, loving relationship between Krishna and Radha parallels the intense religious devotion (bhakti) that many Vaishnavites feel toward the blue-skinned god. It is a sentiment that is visualized not only in refined courtly paintings and monumental stone carvings (like those above), but also in more inexpensive materials and popular art forms. A roadside shrine in Brindavan dedicated to Krishna uses a large tree as its sacred site. Devotees have adorned the branches with pieces of colorful fabric and a small framed painting, likely a depiction of Krishna playing with the gopis.
A sculptural image of Krishna—dressed in red and silver clothing and rendered with his skin a shiny lacquer black—appears seated near the trunk of the tree. The artist shows Krishna playing a small silver flute, perhaps calling to pilgrims who pass by the sacred tree on their way to one of the many stone temples in Brindavan. The Krishna in this roadside shrine is a reminder that, for devotees, the god is present everywhere—in the trees, in the forests, and even carried through the wind like the music of his flute.
Notes: Kajri Jain, Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art (Duke University Press, 2007); Richard Davis, Picturing the Nation: Iconographies of Modern India (Orient Blackswan, 2018); Christopher Pinney, Photos of the Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India (University of Chicago Press, 2004).  Cynthia Packert, The Art of Loving Krishna: Ornamentation and Devotion (Indiana University Press, 2010).  For more on depictions of Shri Nathji at Nathdwara, see Kalyan Krishna and Kay Talwar, Nathdwara Paintings from the Anil Relia Collection: The Portal to Shrinathji (Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2021); B.N. Goswamy, Kalyan Krishna, and Kay Talwar, In Adoration of Krishna: Pichhwais of Shrinathji (Surat: Tapi Collection / Roli, 2007); Kalyan Krishna and Kay Talwar, Indian Pigment Paintings on Cloth: Historic Textiles of India Vol. 3 (Ahmedabad: Calico Museum, 1979); Tryna Lyons, The Artists of Nathadwara: The Practice of Painting in Rajasthan (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).  See Chapter 22, verses 1–27 of the Bhagavata Purana. There are numerous useful translations of the Bhagavata Purana in English, including Harsha V. Dehejia, Celebrating Krishna: Sacred Words and Sensuous Images (The Tenth Book of the Bhagavata Purana) (Mapin, 2005); Bibek Debroy, The Bhagavata Purana (Penguin 2018); and Ravi M. Gupta and Kenneth R. Valpey, The Bhagavata Purana (Columbia University Press, 2016).  For more on the significance of water in this Bhagavata Purana manuscript see Sugata Ray, Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1550–1850 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019), pp. 25–59.  Barbara Stoler Miller, trans., Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda: Long Song of the Dark Lord (Columbia University Press, 1977), 97–98.  Miller, trans., Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda, 109–10.  Miller, trans., Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda, 120–21.
G. Archer, The Loves of Krishna: In Indian Painting and Poetry (Dover Publications, 2004).
Banerjee, The Life of Krishna in Indian Art (National Museum New Delhi, 1978).
Edwin F. Bryant, ed., Krishna: A Sourcebook (Oxford University Press, 2007).
Joan Cummins and Doris Srinivasan, eds., Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior (Brooklyn Museum, 2011).
Neeraja Poddar, Krishna in his myriad forms: narration, translation and variation in illustrated manuscripts of the latter half of the tenth book of the Bhagavata Purana (Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 2014).
John Stratton Hawley, Krishna, the Butter Thief (Princeton University Press, 1983).
John Stratton Hawley, At Play with Krishna: Pilgrimage Dramas from Brindavan (Princeton University Press, 1981).
Lavanya Vemsani, Krishna in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia of the Hindu Lord of Many Names (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2016).