Murals of India

Print edition : October 24, 2003

On India's great painting tradition, which travelled across Asia and created a vision that shaped the culture of the continent.

INDIA has one of the greatest traditions of painting of the ancient world. A high degree of technical excellence was achieved even in very early times, and the art, born out of the deep philosophy of the land, was graceful and sublime.

Visvantara Jataka, Cave 17, Ajanta, Maharashtra, 5th century. The painters' understanding of perspective is seen in the receding pillars and in the elliptical mouth of the pitcher. The curving strings of the purse that Princess Madri dangles are a marvellous depiction of movement.-

The earliest surviving paintings in the Indian subcontinent are those of Ajanta. The paintings here were made in two phases. The oldest date to around the 2nd century B.C. The marvellous latter phase was around the 5th century A.D., under the patronage of the Vakatakas who ruled the Deccan.

The subjects are scenes from the life of the Buddha and the Jatakas, stories of his previous births. These paintings bring to us great beauty of form, with extremely fine rendering which imparts a sense of volume and roundedness. Yet, amidst the tender and elegant beauty of the world, these paintings constantly take us to that which is within. The great Bodhisattvas (seekers of truth) who are painted upon the walls of Ajanta, always look within. It is this life of the spirit which pervades the entire world of these paintings.

Ajanta is known to be the fountainhead and inspiration of Buddhist paintings across the whole of Asia.

The sophisticated ancient tradition of painting, which was inherited by the artists of Ajanta, was documented as the Chitrasutra of the Vishnudharmottara Purana. This was a verbal tradition, which would have come over many centuries, passed on through guilds of painters. It was penned on paper by perhaps the 5th or 6th century A.D. This ancient treatise places a sophisticated grammar in the hands of the painter. However, he is informed that rules do not make the painting. It has to be given a life of its own by the painter.

Contrary to what is generally known, there are several remnants of ancient paintings found in all corners of the subcontinent, belonging to practically every century of the last 1,500 years and more. These display the fact of a great and unified tradition of painting in ancient India.

There are fragments of paintings of the time of Ajanta which survive at many Buddhist cave sites, including Pitalkhora near Ellora, in Maharashtra.

Nine caves were excavated on the slopes of the Vindhya hills above the Bagh river during the reign of the Guptas, between the 4th and 6th centuries A.D. Unfortunately the paintings on the walls of these caves have been practically lost to the ravages of time. Reproductions of earlier times show that, as at Ajanta, the Buddhist paintings of Bagh present a sense of stillness. There is all the activity of life and yet a profound sense of peace upon the faces of the painted figures.

Very little of the paintings survive in the 6th century Hindu caves of Badami in Karnataka. As at Bagh, what remains evokes the magic of a world of painted splendour when all the walls and ceilings were covered with murals.

In the meantime, in the 7th century, the Pallava kings of what is now Tamil Nadu gave exuberant and glorious expression to themes relating to Siva in the paintings in the temples of Panamalai and Kailashanatar in Kancheepuram.

Worshipper gathering lotuses, Sittannavasal, Tamil Nadu, 9th century. The figure is made with a lilting grace, like the stalks of the lotuses he gathers. The flowers are painted with a great sense of tenderness and beauty and are as large as the humans and animals in the painting.-

The niches in the outer ambulatory path of the Kailashanatar temple were once covered with paintings in brilliant colours. Traces of these are still discernible. In these paintings, we see the beginnings of a sense of imperial grandeur represented through art, in the emphasis on the depiction of lavish crowns and jewellery.

In the 9th century Jain cave of Sittannavasal in Tamil Nadu, there is a marvellous lotus pond painted on the ceiling. It is a scene of the faithful gathering lotuses to place upon the resting place of a Tirthankara, a Jain saint. Elephants, buffalos, geese and fish frolic in the water, which is overflowing with beautiful lotuses. The painter has used the occasion to present a joyous world. He brings to us a sense of sublime happiness; as fish swim in the waters, an elephant appears to smile, and gentle men gather lotuses larger than themselves.

In the meantime, the magnificent Kailashnath temple had been hewn out of a mountain at Ellora in the 8th century. The walls and ceilings of this temple were once covered with murals. Fragments of these, which remain, show the beauty and quality of the art.

There are also paintings of the late 9th century in the Jain caves at Ellora. The painters here continue the older tradition but with contributions of their own. Besides the naturalism and grace inherited from Ajanta, the figures painted here are stylised and elongated. These are significant changes, which, in later years, are reflected in paintings over the whole of India.

In the heart of the Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, protected by massive walls of stone, are the finest paintings of the theme of Siva ever painted. Towards the end of the 10th century, King Rajaraja Chola expressed his devotion and also his power and grandeur by commissioning murals on a spectacular scale.

The colours in the paintings are soft and subdued, the lines firm and sinuous and the expressions true to life. More than ever before, we see the artists' lavish use of embellishments of crowns and jewellery, portraying the royal splendour of the times.

King Rajaraja Chola and Guru Karuvurar Brihadeeswara temple, Tamil Nadu, 11th century. This is the earliest royal portrait in Indian painting. In keeping with ancient traditions, the guru is given importance and the king is shown standing behind him.-

At an altitude of over 3,000 metres, the barren desert plateau of Ladakh is a fascinating crucible of cultures. In days gone by, this was not an isolated place; it was an active centre of trade.

In the 11th century, King Yeshe Od of Guge built 108 monasteries across his kingdom in Ladakh, western Tibet, Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti. Craftsmen and artists from Kashmir were invited by Yeshe Od and they constructed and painted these monasteries, which were to become the backbone of trans-Himalayan Buddhism.

The philosophy of Vajrayana Buddhism offers a new path towards attaining enlightenment. The worshipper meditates upon images of the deity and, by absorbing the qualities personified in the image, he becomes the deity himself. Thus, paintings are very important for Vajrayana Buddhists as an essential part of religious practice.

The monastery of Alchi is an oasis of beauty and colour in the midst of the vast and barren landscape of Ladakh. The dhoti of an Avalokitesvara statue in the three-storeyed temple of Alchi has some of the most gorgeous paintings. These are the only surviving visual representations of the culture and architecture of ancient Kashmir.

One of the masterpieces of the Alchi paintings is the Green Tara. We see here the marvellous shaping of the form with skilful shading. There is also the depiction of the protruding eye which extends beyond the line of the face. This is a convention in Indian painting, which was first seen in the murals of Ellora.

The Kashmiri artists present a lively world, with the grace and beauty of form coming to them from the classical Indian tradition. The rich textiles and decorative elements of these paintings are remarkable and they show that the artists had assimilated the traditions coming to them from Gandhara and Central Asia.

Goddess Tara, Alchi, Ladakh, 11th century. This is a depiction of the Goddess as a saviour. She is surrounded by representations of many fears and the figures turn to her for protection. There is a sense of animated movement caught in these tiny figures, as the goddess stands in dignified majesty.-

The Kashmiri style was mainly responsible for the lovely wall paintings still seen in the beautiful monasteries at Alchi, Mangyu and Sumda in Ladakh, in the Tabo monastery in the Spiti valley and in the Nako monastery in Kinnaur district, Himachal Pradesh.

On the western edge of the trans-Himalayan plateau in Spiti is the monastery complex of Tabo. This appears to be one of the first among the 108 monasteries built by Yeshe Od. It is dated around A.D. 996.

The paintings here show close similarity to Alchi. The sinuous and even exaggerated body forms and the supple lines show a form of painting which is uniquely Kashmiri.

The monastery of Nako, in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, comprises four temples within an enclosure of mud walls. The wall paintings at Nako display a considerable delicacy of execution and an inner grace.

The traditions of Vajrayana Buddhist paintings, which were laid at the time of the grand conception of King Yeshe Od's 108 monasteries, continued in the centuries to come. From Ladakh in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east, across the highest mountains of the world, is the one region which has an unbroken tradition of Indian mural painting.

Parvati with her companions, Lepakshi, Andhra Pradesh, 16th century. This lively paintings reflects the cosmopolitan culture of the Vijayanagar empire. The rich and varied textiles are remarkable. The angular features and protruding eye exhibit the pan-Indian medieval traditions of paintaing.-

Deep in the heart of the plains, in the Lalitpur district of Uttar Pradesh, stand the Siva and Vishnu temples, which are known as the Kacheris. The Choti Kacheri has on the ceiling the remains of exquisite paintings of the 13th century. These are extremely valuable as, after the fragmentary remains at Nalanda and Satdhara, these are the oldest surviving paintings of the northern plains in India.

After the 11th century, the art of painting came to prominence again during the rule of the Vijayanagar kings from the 14th century onwards. In the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Hampi and other sites, we see fine examples of mural paintings.

The ceiling of the Virupaksha temple in Hampi is covered with paintings of the 15th century. There is simplicity and vigour in the style of the paintings. A sense of movement and energy is caught in the painted figures.

In these paintings, there is a deep intertwining of the story of the Vijayanagar empire and its kings with the stories of the gods they believed in. There is also a painting of the procession of the revered sage Vidyaranya, who was the spiritual mentor of the founders of the Empire.

The temple at Lepakshi was built in the 16th century by the Nayaka brothers, Virupanna and Viranna, at a centre of trade and pilgrimage in the Vijayanagar empire. The paintings on the ceiling of the mandapa here are some of the finest mural paintings of the medieval period in India.

Lepakshi presents the richness and colour of a great cosmopolitan society. It presents one of the great moments in Indian painting. There is a sense of liveliness here, which is enhanced by the depiction of the protruding eye. The liveliness is also conveyed by angular features and by the peaked corners of clothes.

Flautist, Fatephur Sikri, 16th century. Though Mughal miniatures are well known and celebrated, few know that murals were also commissioned by the Mughal emperors. This painting is in the interior of Mariam's Palace and depicts a Western lady playing the flute.-

Legends associated with Siva and Parvati, Krishna and Rama were painted on the walls of palaces and temples in Kerala from the 16th to the 19th century.

There is a new sense of power and majesty which one sees in the painted gods of Kerala. The manner of shading to depict volume reminds us of Ajanta and Alchi. Each figure here is larger than life. Their limbs are strong and their bodies are full and firm. The gods painted are proud, vigorous and protective. The idiom of Kerala is unique. Its close relationship to the ancient dance dramas of the land are seen in the elaborate headgear and the heavy forms.

In the 16th century, under the Mughal emperor Akbar, the art of painting was revived in northern India after many centuries. The finest miniatures were made in the court of Akbar and the emperors who succeeded him. At Fatehpur Sikri, the capital city built by Akbar, we have the remnants of mural paintings. These are fine paintings and are very similar to the miniatures of that period. There are representations of busy marketplaces, elephants and horse riders and a depiction of a flautist.

The Bundelas, who were powerful in central India, founded the city of Orccha in 1531. Mural paintings were made on the walls of all the palaces within the magnificent Orccha fort. The Raj Mahal was completely adorned with mural paintings of the 17th century. What remains of these exhibits a blend of the two most significant styles of painting in India at that time - the Mughal and the Rajput. The expressions are often gentle. Exposure to the Mughal court has also led to a sense of courtly sophistication.

There are surviving mural paintings from the 17th century onwards in Rajasthan. They present a varied tapestry, with the constant interaction of the indigenous idiom of mural painting and the influences coming from the imperial Mughal court.

Krishna with a Gaja, Bhojanshala, Amer Palace, Rajasthan, c. 17th century. These simple yet sophisticated drawings have an easy natural sense, which is reminiscent of ancient Indian art. The twinkle in the eye of the elephant is in keeping with the Indian artist's sensitivity towards al forms of life.-

The finest wall paintings of Rajasthan are found in the Bhojanshala of the Amer Palace near Jaipur. These are exquisite drawings of the 17th century, on Vaishnava themes. In depicting the divine images, the artist appears to transcend himself. The drawings are made in panels upon the wall and are small in scale for murals. However, the painter's sensitivity and honest depiction creates an intimacy between the viewer and the painting.

Rajasthan was on the major trade routes of days gone by. The area of Shekhawati has a concentration of 19th and 20th century havelis which are profusely painted. The paintings here reflect the opulence of the flourishing trading community, the Marwaris.

The cultural impact of the sudden exposure to European influences is reflected in the varied and indiscriminate depiction of a wide array of subjects. These range from the eternal religious themes to the new inventions which the traders would have seen in their visits to the major port cities.

The verdant Pahari hills saw the finest continuation of the tradition of murals in India. The 18th and 19th century paintings on the walls of the Rang Mahal in Chamba are among the best surviving examples of Pahari murals.

The themes are mostly religious and the styles are closely related to those of the miniature paintings of the region. We see fine expressions, the refinement of Pahari miniatures, and an exuberant and joyous sense of life.

Siva, Shivdwala temple, Chamba, Himachal Pradesh, c. 18th century. The paintings of the temple reveal a world of beauty and innocence. Siva is depicted with great tenderness as a gentle and loving god.-

Orissa, in the eastern plains of India, is a land of the rich continuation of ancient culture. The 18th century paintings on the walls of the Viranchinarayan Temple at Buguda are some of the finest surviving murals of that period in India.

These are a rare instance of the continuation of the ancient Indian mural tradition. These are not like miniatures made upon the walls. The themes are from the Ramayana. The sense of humanity and humility in these paintings remind one of the finest of ancient Indian paintings.

The murals of Punjab perhaps represent the last phase of wall paintings in India. We see here shades of realism from the tradition of Mughal miniatures and yet faces that are distinctly of the Punjab. The themes and the manner are deeply rooted in the local culture. There is a quiet sense of dignity, which emerges in the best of these paintings. Mural paintings are found hidden away in temples in the midst of busy market places in Amritsar, in temples in villages such as Kishankot, and in Qila Mubarak and Qila Androon in the Patiala fort.

In ancient times, the philosophical ideas of Hinduism and Buddhism spread from India to practically every corner of Asia. As art was an integral part of life and religion, the concepts of Indian art spread far and wide, along with philosophy.

Lakshmana, Viranchinarayan temple, Orissa, c. 18th century. While Lakshmana sharpens his arrow, monkeys and other animals are engaged in playful activity. The angular and stylised idiom of painting, seen here and in the manuscripts of Orissa, travelled to Bali in Indonesia where it is seen till today.-

In 1930, Laurence Binyon, Director of the British Museum, wrote: "Whoever studies the art of China and Japan, at whatever point he begins, starts on a long road which will lead him ultimately to Ajanta." Scholars in all Asian countries trace the roots of their classic paintings to the murals of India.

The paintings of the 5th century of Sigiriya and of the 12th century of Polonnaruva in Sri Lanka; mural paintings of the 12th-13th century pagodas of Bagan in Myanmar and the classic paintings of the Horyuji temple in Japan closely reflect the traditions of Indian paintings.

The art of Asia has been informed by a deep vision of the eternal harmony of the world. It is this vision of life which shaped the grace and forms of the paintings of Ajanta. The art travelled with its philosophy of compassion across Asia to create a vision that shaped the culture of a whole continent.

The writer is an art historian, filmmaker and photographer. He is the author of The Ajanta Caves and is known worldwide for his pioneering photography of mural paintings. He has produced 26 films for Doordarshan on `The Paintings of India', covering the tradition of Indian painting from prehistoric times till the present.