There are two conflicting versions about the discovery of Sri Nathji icon, i, e, the Gaudiya Vaishnava and the Vallabhite versions. It is said as per the Gaudiya (Bengali) tradition that the pithika was discovered by the Shankarite ascetic Madhavendra Purl (early sixteenth century AD) in a grove near Gopalpur (now Jatipura village). It was discovered following a revelation granted to Madhavendra by Shri Krishna himself, about the place where the pithika was buried. Madhavendra Purl was believed to first unearth the icon. He then erected it on the Govardhan hill and started worshipping it as Shri Gopal.
It is said that Madhavendra undertook the 'seva' of the new deity and started cooking for it. But, the deity itself objected to Madhavendra Purl's seva and advised him to leave Braj. At that time Shri Nathji was fed only on milk, waiting for the arrival of Shri Acharyaji, i.e. Vallabhacharya. Again, there is a belief that Madhavendra was ordered by Sri Nathji to leave for a world tour from which he never came back.
According to the Vallabhite version of the story, the manifestation of the deity started in 1410 AD with the amazing appearance of a 'bent Arm' on top of the Govardhan hill on a Nag Panchami day. A Brajvasi discovered this wonderful fact. It is said that one day Saddupande was looking for his stray cow. Then he found the cow spilling its milk over a crack in the hill and out of which the divine 'Arm' emerged. Afterwards, the Brajvasis started worshipping the Arm with oblations of milk. According a popular belief, the deity Sri Nathji wished that the most sacred part of his body, his divine mouth, would appear only after the arrival of the divine master, Vallabhacharya in Braj.
According to the Vallabhites, the mukharvind i.e. the 'sun-mouth' of Shri Krishna appeared 1474 AD on Baisakh Krishna. It is the very same day on which Vallabha himself was born.
The icon of Vallabhite Shri Nathji has three specific characteristics. These are:
The demarcation of the mountain cave around the deity's body
The left hand of the deity raised above his head with the palm turned backward so that the five fingers pressed together are seen emerging from the cave
A bunch of lotus stalks which are stuck under the god's right armpit and the hand resting on his waist.
The coloured photos of Sri Nathji are now available in bazaars all over India. Some of these icons from Gujarat symbolises the 'pachis darsan' of Shri Nathji, i.e. the twenty five different garments worn by the deity on twenty five different feasts and occasions. In all these icons, the whole pithika is shown completely covered with clothes. The 'bent Arm' of Sri Nathji in the photo corresponds to the erect Naga hood. The feet of the deity are shown uncovered. During the performance of the rituals, Sri Nathji is taken for 'Snan yatra'. At the time of bathing the deity, the background cloth is partially removed, uncovering the pithika and revealing the rocky hill cave around Shri Nathji. Here the lotus stalks are missing. The deity Sri Nathji wears a simple bathing dhoti and his hair is tied in cloth. A strange kind of cap emerges from that cloth, carved in the stone itself. A kind of garland seems to emerge behind the covered legs, which is carved in the stone. This garland passes over the lifted forearm and looks more like a rope or perhaps a snake.
The darshana of Shri Nathji enclosed in this shrine at Nathavara can be seen only at appointed times. Usually, only the members of a particular sect can have the darsan. Hence, the features of the naked pithika remain the secret of the maharaja and of the few initiated priests attached to the Lord's service.