Eternal India

Print edition :

The Padmapani, the Bearer of the Lotus. This gentle figure is one of the masterpieces of Indian art. Cave 1, Ajanta.

Descent of the Ganga, 7th century, Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu. This vast rock in the ancient port town has been transformed into a world teeming with beings: human, animal and divine.

Rani ki Vav, 11th century, Patan, Gujarat. The shrine of Vishnu is deep in the heart of the earth, close to the source of the water in a well. Photo: th

Siva’s family, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. From the time of the Pallavas, Siva’s family is one of the favoured themes in art. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Rajarani Temple, Bhubaneswar, A.D.1000. Architectural styles, motifs and iconography spread swiftly in early times to all corners of the country.

Indus Valley seals (National Museum, New Delhi). More than 4,000 of them have been found during excavations at Indus Valley sites.

From the first part of a 25-part series published on August 24, 2007, in which Benoy K. Behl captures through words and images the origin of Indian art and the joyous surrender to the natural order that marks its vision in centuries to come.

THE early art of India is a valuable record of the vision of one of the most ancient civilisations of the world. It is a view of the world that sees a harmony in the whole of creation. It sees the same that is in each of us, in the animals, the flowers, the trees, the leaves and even in the breeze that moves the leaves. All that there is, is seen to be a reflection of the One.

The moment of the aesthetic experience is stated in Indian thought to be “akin to brahmananda”, or the final ecstasy of salvation itself. Therefore, art has played a most important part in the life of the Indian subcontinent. Chitrasutra of Vishnudharmottara Purana, which was penned out of earlier oral traditions in the fifth century A.D., is perhaps the oldest known treatise on art in the world. It states that art is the greatest treasure of mankind, far more valuable than gold or jewels.

For about a thousand years in early times, vast quantities of art were produced in India. This depicted deities, mythical creatures, animals, plants, trees, forms that combined these beings in a great harmony, and also common men and women. Yet this art never depicted the kings who patronised it. Nor was the name of the artist mentioned. According to Chitrasutra, personalities are too unimportant to be depicted in art. The purpose of art is a noble one: to show the eternal beyond the ephemeral.

Thus, works of art were meant to convey the Truth as experienced yet again by the artist. No thinker nor any artist claimed that it was solely he who had seen the Truth. Each teacher of the ancient period in India, including the Buddha and Mahavira, stated that he only followed in the footsteps of others who went before him. The emphasis was on the loss of ego and not the perpetuation of it. And art was a prime vehicle of the communication of these ideas.

There is evidence everywhere in Indian monuments of a great cosmopolitan culture from earliest times. There are Buddhist art and pillars in India that were patronised by Greeks, Parthians and others from faraway lands. Influences of art from everywhere were received warmly and some of them continued in the main flow of art through the centuries.

Artistic styles, motifs and iconography spread swiftly in early times to all corners of the country. Therefore, we find that there were pan-Indian themes and artistic styles from ancient times. Regional variations and colour add further richness to these traditions. What survives today of the early art of India is only a small fraction of what was created.


In the fourth millennium B.C., one of the earliest civilisations of the world was developing in the river valleys of the Indian subcontinent. The basic cause for this was the growth of agriculture. Instead of fighting for survival, people could now begin to improve their lives.

The first sites of this civilisation were discovered in the basin of the Indus river, and the name Indus Valley civilisation has remained. However, hundreds of other sites have been found in recent decades over a vast area, including coastal Gujarat, Maharashtra and eastwards up to Uttar Pradesh. Estimations of the area covered by this civilisation vary from 1.2 million square kilometres to 2.5 million sq km. It was by far the largest area of any civilisation in the world at that time.

There was a sophisticated concept of town planning. The cities that have been excavated reveal that there were well-planned grids with broad main roads and smaller lanes intersecting at right angles. There were large networks of hundreds of wells, which supplied water to the residents. A sophisticated drainage system was in existence and even the smallest houses were connected to it. Houses were made of fired clay bricks. The standardised dimensions of these bricks, found in the many cities across this civilisation, are remarkable. The houses had several storeys.

Excavations across this culture have not revealed evidence of military forces or weaponry for warfare. While the art of other civilisations has many images of prisoners, monuments to war victories and of other activities relating to warfare, the art of the Indus Valley has not a single such depiction.

The site of Lothal, in present-day Gujarat, on the western coast of India, has a large structure that has been identified as a tidal dock for sea-faring ships. There is a great deal of evidence that Indus Valley cities traded extensively with other civilisations of that period. Mesopotamian records mention trade with cities here, and objects from the Indus region have been found in West Asian cities.

More than 4,000 seals have been recovered in excavations at Indus Valley sites. These were used to mark trade goods and for other purposes. Most of these seals combine text with images of animals, plants and persons. They are made of clay, stone or copper and would have been pressed into soft clay to leave their impression.

The writing of this period has not been deciphered as yet, so many of our questions about this culture remain unanswered. It is the art of the Indus Valley civilisation that provides vital clues to understanding it. As with any culture, art provides a glimpse of the political, social and religious ethos that underlies it.

Animals such as bulls, elephants, bisons, rhinoceroses and crocodiles are depicted in a highly naturalistic manner, even within the small space of the seals. Different breeds of bulls can be distinguished in these representations. One of the most fascinating seals from Mohenjodaro is the one depicting a man sitting cross-legged on a seat.

The posture is very significant. The splayed arms with the palms held over the knees and the crossed legs are formal gestures, very similar to yogic asanas, or postures, and mudras, or gestures. The torso is serrated with diagonal markings, which give the appearance of a tiger’s skin.

The figure is flanked by several animals, leading some to identify him as a prototype of the later Siva, who is also known as Pashupati, or the Lord of Beasts. The seat on which he sits indicates his high rank. Animal figures are made on the seat, as is seen in the depictions of seats of deities in later Indian art. Such seats, as well as the other elements of this depiction, are very similar to the images of Hindu and Buddhist deities in later Indian art.

The artefacts that have been excavated from the Indus Valley civilisation are unique in their small scale. No monumental sculpture has been found. All the art objects, whether in terracotta, stone or metal, can be described as being on a human scale. This is surely also related to the fact that no palaces or other monumental architecture has been found. All excavated evidence points to the existence of a cooperative system and not a conventional kingship. Monumental structures and art that displayed royal authority only followed much later in the Indian subcontinent.

The high level of the development of art can also be seen in the use of a variety of materials. The artist was not merely using those materials that were most readily available to him in the area. Instead, specific artistic and aesthetic choices were made, and objects were fashioned from pliant terracotta to hard stone and metal.

A variety of styles were also in vogue in the Indus Valley art. These range from the highly naturalistic to abstract and stylised forms. The naturalism that is seen in the depiction of animals on the seals is matched by the vitality of the stylised figure of the Dancing Girl. Approximately 10 centimetres in height, this tiny figure stands with one hand on her hip.

The body is composed of long tube-like limbs. She is shown resting her weight on one leg in a very natural fashion, as in the contrapposto techniques of later sculpture. The jaunty manner and liveliness of the figure are remarkable. The figure has been depicted unclothed but adorned with heavy ornaments.

Around 1700 B.C., with changes in the course of the rivers, many of the settlements in the river valleys had to be given up. In this period, populations began to move south into Gujarat and also eastwards into the valleys of the river Ganga.

From the early river valley civilisation onwards, we see the foundations of the art of one of the oldest civilisations of the world. We see a vision of the world and the roots of a culture that has survived for more than 5,000 years. It is a culture based upon the belief of an underlying unity of the whole of creation. Joyous surrender to the natural order, rather than assertion and control over the forces around us, marks the vision of life and art in the centuries to come.

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