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Art In Medieval India And It’s Past Inspirations

Art In Medieval India And It’s Past Inspirations

Expressions are an innate quality of man and Art has been an interface to transcribe them into experiential outer representations. While externalizing those expressions through aesthetic mediums itself is an Art, in the Bharatiya parlance Art is more about an intelligible communication of inner experience, a symbolical language of man’s relation with the universe depicting reality externally for inner searching.

The Vedic people saw the divine aspect of God in nature and commemorated all those natural elements that protected and nourished life. At later times spiritual contemplation in an aesthetic framework was sought as an appreciation of the absolute with a perceptible object or form was easier to comprehend.

The artist who was no less a seer – conceived the form of the formless divinity through meditation. This inner visualization of the form through supreme concentration was later eternalized into physical form with devotional finesse, thus grew the popularity of iconography with distinctive themes and traditions.

The Vedic people meticulously adhered to prescribed precision in all that they created, from the poetic philosophical literary compositions to the use of metals, clayware, bricks, medicines, weapons, ornaments, gold-embroidered garments – to the prescribed measurements of geometric forms and patterns even in sacrificial fire altars – it was an artistic elixir of science and spirituality, a lot of which is still in practice with newer adaptations.

Vastu Purusha on the Vedic Altar

The anthropomorphic form drawn on the Vedic Fire Altar is symbolic of the VastuPurusha _ the cosmic man. The story goes that Purusha the first creation of Brahma was a gigantic being that threatened to destroy all other creations hence the Gods pinned down this giant and sought his protection for prosperity and well-being of all who dwell upon him. This ancient practice of drawing the VastuPurusha Mandala is still practiced during the house-warming rituals by drawing a perfect square with 81 parts where each part represents a deity protecting an aspect of human life. In lay man’s language the concept of Vastu is more about planning structures according to the changing position of Sun for the best and right exposure to sunlight depending on the time, location of our work in the day.

The Vedic seers communicated mysteriously or explicitly either through symbols, spirituality, science or mythological story telling so that essential life lessons were passed on but with time, the meaning of this conceptual symbolism was lost in its aesthetic journey.

Today a Warli painting is widely known as a rural Adivasi art depicting nature and tribal lives but the   similarity in the image of the Vedic Vastu Purusha and  the rudimentary geometric patterns in the Warli art are unmissable. It is also interesting to note that Warli Art was earlier a ritualistic art painted on celebratory occasions like wedding or harvest. The white pigment was made of rice paste that was painted with a bamboo brush on a red canvas made of a mixture of branches, earth and cow dung. The typical Shrnkaala of chain formation with the interlocking of arms in a circular (Chakra) form around the center seems like a symbolical representation of prayers to the Sun God who nourishes lives.

Parenthetically Vedic altars could be constructed not just with bricks but also with rhythms called ‘chandaschitti’ where mantras are recited – while the Agnichit draws agni on the ground in the prescribed shape and constructs an imagery altar by hymnal invocations called a Mantramurthi. The Agnichayana has a bird like altar that stretches like an eagle (Garuda) in layered geometry.

The Sarada Tilaka states that the Kundas could be in different shapes of square, round, crescent or triangular – the triangle is symbolic of Agni. They could also be drawn in rice paste on an elevated mound made of mud and cow dung.

While the rustic aesthetics in Warli continues to appeal even to an empty mind – the Vedic insinuations in it cannot be ruled out as the use of geometric shapes, lines and strokes are characteristic of Vedic symbolism.

In the context of Warli as an Adivasi art, understanding the origin of the word Adivasi is imperative. The Vedic costume consisted of 3 parts _ an undergarment styled Nivi, a garment called Vasa or Paridhana, and a mantle styled ‘Adivasa’, atka or drapi, essentially the Vedic people with their categorization of garments seem sophisticated but it is paradoxical that – ‘Adivasa’ which meant specific clothing in Vedic parlance has today become a connotation for undeveloped primitiveness. But it is the rural belt that has kept the spirit of indigenous art and culture with its innate spiritual symbols relevant in modern times too.

With the progress of time, Art was not confined to mere spiritual expressions but transcended to capture and cater to the aesthetic needs in the social, cultural, political and daily lives and traditions of the people of yore which today constitute an insightful testimony of the past civilizational history.

The history of Indian art is a humongous storehouse of rich heritage, vibrant civilizations with distinct traditions and crafts entailing architecture, inscriptions, paintings, sculptures, music, dance, literature, poetry, drama, handicrafts, textiles, and a whole lot of themes and techniques employed to elevate the creative faculty and engage in the wellbeing of society.

Considering the vastness of the subject this article shall restrict itself to briefly deal with the evolution of Bharatiya Art in the Medieval Times and its past inspirations and significance.

The growth of Art in any society is symptomatic of a prosperous and a benevolent regime. The benign reign of the Guptas is regarded as a renaissance era of Bharatiya art and culture that saw an enrichment of highly developed and perfected aesthetic sense of art that was executed with poise and precision, reverberating a spiritual radiance with high emotional display and exuberance of decorative elements that was innately Indian.

Art in India even with foreign invasions and adaptions always had underlying Indian elements. Anand Coomaraswamy observes that the Pre Grecco-Gandharan Buddha forms were influenced by the Indian Yaksha figures, the lotus seat at Sanchi, the Abhaya, and the Dhyana mudra of the Buddha contain the Indian symbolic and Yogic aspects that are native to our culture.

Art is dynamic where adaptations have been made from one or the other form of existing artistic inspiration. The rulers and regimes changed but the intrinsic traditional essence of indigenous beliefs and practices always reflected in the artist’s work that was largely Indian. Hence Indian art cannot be categorized under the modern prism of isms.

Mankuwar Buddha

The earlier Buddha iconography was aniconic and was represented through symbols of a wheel, a seat or a Paaduka. The later Gandharan art brought in human forms of Buddha much like the concept of a Vigraha or Moorthi. (A Coomaraswamy). The wheel of the dhamma is again symbolic of the ancient Sun worship and revering a Paaduka is again a native aspect found in popular epics like Ramayana. The ambulatory paths, the animal forms, the motifs with ornamental designs of leaves, flowers, the Sun, human figurines are all essentially an indigenous nature-worshipping aspect symbolic of appreciating and celebrating God’s creation hence it is impossible to classify art in India as Buddhist or Jain or Brahminical(read Hindu) like an orientalist because much like the integration of socio-cultural aspects even art- forms are integrated inspired and perfected from each other alternatively at different points of time where the inspiring element as A.Coomaraswamy rightly points out, has always undeniably been Indian that has its the Vedic roots.

In the Gupta period, the Kushan style of shaven head of Buddha images started being made with short curly hair which reiterates the absorbing nature of iconography as per newer requirements.

Dashaavataaram Vishnu Temple Deogarh

The Stupas, Chaityas, Viharas, Apsidal Shaiva and Vaishnava temples with sanctuaries, flat roofed square temples with shikaras in Gupta architecture is in compliance with the ancient architectural constructs. The seals in Gupta Art mostly consisted of Lingam, Vajra, Paaduka or Garuda symbols but inscriptions and coins reveal that the Gupta Kings were Vaishnavites and great patrons of art under whom Buddhist and Jaina Chaityas and Viharas, temple art, architecture thrived extending from present India across Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java, Vietnam and Cambodia in the east and stretched up to Bikaner, Charsada, Sind, Mirpur Khaz, Jamalgarhi in the NorthWest where many stupas and temples have been found. One of the prominent Gupta art is the Dashavataram temple at Deogarh.

The Chitrasutra classifies Paintings into 6 angas namely Rupa Bheda, Pramana, Bhava, Lavanya- yojana, Sadrushya, Varnikaabhanga. It instructs the use of simplistic lines to bring out the characteristic feature, perception, and proportion of the object with articulate gestures, emotions, expressions, and moods of persons by manipulating colors while creating grace and beauty. They could be executed on various surfaces like murals (bitti), boards (palaka), canvas (patta), scrolls (dussa patta) and on palm leaf (patra). Smooth well-coated surfaces made of plants, minerals and lime mixture was recommended for best results.

Such graceful free-flowing strokes with the simple yet articulate expressions in remarkable color compositions together with 3dimensional image effects of shading are found in the cave paintings of Ajanta that delights the mind and excites the conscience. The readying of the caves constituted of spreading the rock walls with clay, cow-dung, and powdered rock, sometimes mixed with rice husk to form a thickness of 20mm, over this a thin coat of white lime plaster was kept moist while painting, later it was slightly polished. Alongside the stories of the spiritual evolution of Bodhisatva the social scenario of the time is also captured.

In one of the ceiling paintings the reception given to Persian embassy by Pulakeshi II is brilliantly depicted with distinction between the native and the Persian figures in their features, skin tones and attire that highlights artistic proficiency. It also shows that the Chaityas and Viharas much like Devaalayas were centers for socio-cultural, educational, and spiritual growth.

The finesse in the artwork and sculptures in these dark caves bring to light the devout concentration and expertise of the artists. It is perhaps this faith on an artistic skill that our Sanskrit literature is full of romantic stories where the protagonists fell in love with each other by looking at each other’s portraits!

The medieval period saw improvised art and architectural styles ranging from Gupta – Pallava – Chola – Chalukya –DevaRaya – Rajputana Art to the Pala, Karkota, Prathihara, Chauhamana, Gahaddavala, and Kalinga Arts.

Magnificent and massive architectural wonders of 1000 pillared halls, long courts, enclosures, gopurams, long colonnades, huge temple complexes, stone forts, palaces, pavilions, water tanks, stables, and step wells with unique interlocking systems or mortar and joints were built. They are all said to be inspired from Gupta art that was elementally indigenous.

Later few modifications were made in the royal emblems or main motifs, ambulatory paths, Vimana storeys as per the Shaiva Vaishnava, or Jaina leanings of the rulers and climatic conditions of the place. Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Nepal shrines mostly had double pyramidal wooden or tiled roofs with triangular pediments because of extreme climatic conditions.

Different materials experimented but ancient Indian temples mostly saw local variants of red or yellow sandstone basalt material or wooden structures. The Vigrahas were made of single or combination of metals or rock and precious stones.

With the onset of 7th century, the Deccan plateau saw a mix of Nagara and Dravidian architectural system. The Kailasa temple in Ellora built by the Rastrakutas is one such architectural jewel carved out of a monolithic rock. Of the 34caves 17 are Vaishnava-Shaiva-Shakta, 12 are Buddhist and 5 are of Jaina tradition.

Housed harmoniously adjacent to each other under one roof, these cave-shrines are testimony to the synthesis of diverse spiritual paths and perspectives in Sanathana Dharma congregating towards one goal without the constructed obligation of categorized sectarianism.

Pattadakal, Aihole and Badami are regarded as the cradle of temple architecture where the Chalukyas and Rastrakutas reigned in glory. Figurines of river deities with Makara carvings and the Garuda arches typical of Vaishnava Gupta inspired art are found here. Shrines dedicated to Shiva and the Jaina tirtankaras can also be found in Badami.

The Chalukyan architecture that consisted of flat roofed temples with small Shikaras later evolved to build expansive pillared halls with intricate carvings. The Badami cave sculptures are a scholarship in architecture. The Pallava art is unique with its Mantapas, Rock cut caves, and the monolithic rathas in Mahabalipuram. The octagonal pillars, thirtams, Arjuna’s cave with classy carvings, the shore temple and the Kanchi Kailashanatha temple are some of the masterpieces of Pallavas.

The sculptural grandeur of Hampi with the glorious Vittala temple, stone chariot, Achutaraya temple and Virupaksha temple with its imposing Vimana tower is the contribution of the Devarayas. The expansive polygonal high plinth bases and pyramidal Vimanas of the Hoysalas at Belur Halebeedu with its intricately carved bands of plinths, cornices, bracket-figures are the finest extant works.

The massive Gomata built by the Gangas in Shravana Belagodu, the Chola masterpieces like the Brihadeeshwara and Chidambaram temples are some of the classy medieval era architectural extravaganzas of the South that highlight the finesse and expertise of the artists and sculptors, the marvelous engineering techniques deployed and the largesse of patronage and reverence it received in those times.

Vimanas and Shikaras in temple architecture

The Vimana of the Brihadeshwara temple is a massive block of stone, to carry which to the top it seems an inclined road was built to roll it up. Ferguson a historian remarks that Chola artists conceived like giants and finished like jewelers.

The Vimana is the mounting tower on the GarbaGriha or the main sanctum of the temple where the deity is housed. The Shikara is the uppermost tapering part of the Vimana, above which is built the Aamalaka (disc) capped by a Kalasha or stupi. The Gopurams are arching towers built at the entrance of big temples.

These terms cannot be used interchangeably. They are made in compliance with prescribed measurements as per the ShilpaShastras. Because of their towering appearance like mountains, they attracted names like Meru, Mandara, and Kailasa in ancient times.

The Brihadeeshwara temple is referred to as Dakshina Meru. At one point in time kings enthusiastically vied with each other in raising taller Vimanas than the others as it had become a prestigious symbol of prosperity.

Oftentimes architectural styles are classified in the geographical lens but temple styles were mostly dependent on the local material available, climatic conditions, leaning of the rulers, architectural schools of the sculptors, and the defining attributes and manifestations of the reigning deities.

The temples or Prasadas were of 3 types as per most texts:

The square or rectangular from base to Shikara is called ‘Nagara’ style

The octagonal or apsidal ones from base or from above the neck are called ‘Dravida’ style

And that which is circular from base to the end of the kundala or circular from the neck is called ‘Vesara’ style

The Manasaara text adds a fourth one called ‘Andhra’ for the hexagonal style.

There are different Vimaanas for different deities with prescribed shapes:

The Brahma Vimana is called ‘viraja’ and it must be square in shape

The Shiva Vimana is called ‘Kailasa’ and it must be circular

The Kubera Vimana is called ‘Pushpaka’ and it can be rectangular

The Varuna Vimana is called ‘Maanika’ and it should be elliptical

The Indra Vimana is called ‘Trivishtapa’ and must be octagonal.

While shikara means summit, stupa in Rig Veda represents the raised lock of hair connoting the summit of consciousness. The word ‘Devaprasada’ is associated with an elevated structure as in a raised platform/storey or seat of God that brings bliss through the purity of mind with supreme knowledge, hence architectural styles adopted in these Devaprasadas(temples) whether Nagara, Dravida or Vesara are only symbolical aesthetics in accordance with the gunas of the consecrated deities and their manifestations that cannot be classified into geographic compartments.

Also, in the Pashupatha philosophy, art itself is classified as art of the sensual perception (indriyarupa kalaa) and art of the consciousness (vishayarupa kalaa) hence ancient temples always tried to maintain the balance of these two aspects, taking into account the spiritual conscious levels of people.

The circular form in temple architecture is mentioned in texts ranging from BrhatSamita, AgniPurana, Aparajita Prccha, Maanasollaasa, ShilparatnaKosha, Tantra-Samucchaya and others. From North to South and from East to West the Vesara denotes a category of circular temples and structures/domes.

An example of Chakra Mandala is found in Bhorbudur of Indonesia. In India the most important circular temples with a clear structure of the bindu, the hub, the navel, garbha and vrtta are in Trichur, Palaghat and Ernakulam. Most important among them are Perumpaludur, Polpulli, Kaviyur and Ramantali. (Kalatatva Kosha)

Vishistam maanam iti vimaanam means –‘that which has exact prescribed measurements’. In this picture of Vesara styled Vimana, you can notice that this circular dome is an old native style that is deployed extensively in Rajputana architecture, Myanmar, and Indonesia. The Apsidal domes in the Stupas or the Rajputana chattris and many other ancient structures that are attributed as a Moghul addition to architecture actually predate the Moghul period as this semi-circular style bears mention in the ancient indigenous texts that might have inspired later builders. Artistic or scientific inspirations have often been sustained through the continuous channel of the Guru-Shishya parampara – from father to son or from teacher to student. Ancient temples were schools for conceptual learning where art was an important medium.

The Dravida Kammalars who are known as Stalapathis (architects) or Shilpins(sculptors) claim to be the descendants of master craftsmen of yore. They still follow the Shilpa Shastras of Kashipam, Manusaaram, Vishvakarmaayam, Maayamatam.

The temples were not mere spiritual monasteries but institutions of social integration for the development of arts, culture, literature, logic, sciences. The very word ‘Mandira’ originates from the root ‘Mand’ meaning ‘to rejoice’ or ‘to become happy’ while Alaya as in Devaalaya is derived from the root ‘li’ means to dissolve implying – to dissolve in meditation.

It is for this reason that classical performing arts like song/music and dance are offered as devotional oblations to God. We call our God as NaadhaBrahma since Brahma created Natya as the 5th Veda to uplift people’s conscience by appealing through Naada(sounds).

The Bha in Bhava, Ra in Raaga and Tha in Thala constitute ‘Bharatha’ while Naatya comprises storytelling along with Nrttha and Nrthya where Nrttha is dance without abhinaya and Nrthya is a dance with abhinaya.

Bharathamuni mastered the NatyaVeda and conceived Natyashastra as a creative art that had the powerful potential to positively influence minds, instill joy, grace, gratitude and virtuous traits amongst people to celebrate the universe and sustain the cosmic order.

The Rangamandira is conceived on the lines of a Vedic Mandala where song and dance are the offering. ‘Saama’ in the Samaveda means – that which destroys sorrows by its sweet melodies and ‘Natya’ is essentially story telling/narration through graceful movements, emotions and expressions to spread the message of moral goodness in the society through Puranic legends.

The Natyashastra was accessible to common people with no barriers. In the medieval times the Kathanakaaras(story tellers) or the Kathees as they were known moved from place to place spreading the message of Puranas and entertaining people through storytelling forms of song and dance, later this form of dance emerged as Kathak under the Moghuls shedding its Puranic elements and was confined to the courts.

Thus, emerged the courtesan dancers who were earlier artistic messengers for upholding Dharma. Similar was the case with the Devadaasis – the temple dancers who dedicated their lives to Natya but over time the practice deteriorated in essence. Kuchupudi dance gets its name from Kuchelapura where it was founded, based on Natyashastra.

It was a pure dance form with Bhagavatha as the main theme mostly performed by male artists initially, it has similar variants like Yakshagana in Karnataka and Bhagvatha Mela Naataka in Tamil Nadu. Its mention is found in 10th-century copper inscriptions.

The onset of invasions in the 10th century saw a fall in Sanskrit plays, art, and culture but was rejuvenated centuries later again by Bhakti saints like Tyagaraja, Mutthuswami Deekshitar, Shayamashaastri, and the likes.

Many kings and queens were themselves great poets and musicians and patronized literature, arts, and culture heavily that kept the tradition of art growing. Even linguistics and their etymological knowledge convey many hidden meanings of art and their spiritual connections.

The Samskrita Adavu(Bol) ‘tad-hi-tvam-nam’ which means ‘that verily thou art, bow to thine self’ is today corrupted beyond comprehension such as ‘tat-tai-tom’ et cetera in the melee of secular modernisms hence an earnest revival of Sanskrit would be a contribution to the cause of restoring the heritage of Indian art.

Even the toys and games of ancient India were comprehensive virtue building tools that celebrated the good over the evil. Games like Astapada which means 64 squares which later came to be known as Chaturanga was a strategizing game(the number 64 plays a significant symbolic role in Bharatiya kalaa), Moksha patam was another game of virtues and vices – the very name suggested path to Moksha by shunning vices like disobedience, anger, ego, vulgarity and pursuing faith, reliability, knowledge and so on, today it is called Snakes and Ladders. Pachisi is also a medieval Indian game adapted as Ludo today, a depiction of Pachisi is found in Ajantha caves.

Many works of Encyclopedia were composed in medieval India, popular ones being Sangita Ratnakara, Shivatatva Rathnakara, Maanasollasa, Sritattvanidhi.

From the Bhagavadgita to the Bhagavatha Purana – enquiring conversations in the form of question-answers and storytelling elucidations and artistic expressions have always proved to be effective tools for imparting learning to enable critical thinking.

It is this enquiring and searching to seek answers, that forms the essence of Bharatiya Art that not only communicates but also raises contemplation.

Bibliographic References

  1. Kalatatva Kosha – Betina Baumer
  2. Anand Coomaraswamy’s Indian and Indonesian History of Arts
  3. History Of Ancient India – RC Majumdar
  4. Art Culture And Spirituality – Swami Vivekananda


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