Indian History Part 21: OF ART AND ARCHITECTURE

Canberra, 17 December 2013


All old civilisations are proud of their heritage and even claim exclusivity in some cultural developments through the ages. India is no exception. Ancient India was extremely race-conscious and followed a rigid caste system that was enforced by the laws of the land. [While the law of the land in modern India prohibits racism or discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or colour, they are still prevalent in an implicit manner and is also being perpetuated by the affirmative action initiated by the government to achieve the complete opposite!] This continuing race-consciousness is surprising since from the very early days, the people of India have been an eclectic mix of Dravidian, Aryan, Semitic, and Mongolian races. The repeated waves of Aryans that moved into the country mixed with the indigenous Dravidians. For thousands of years migratory people—the Medians, Iranians, Greeks, Bactrians, Parthians, Shakas (Scythians), Kushans, Turks, and Turko-Mongols—came into the sub-continent in small and large groups, assimilating and influencing the existing culture and civilisation while also finding a home within the country.

Fierce and warlike tribes, again and again, invaded its [India’s] northern plains, overthrew its princes, captured and laid waste its cities, set up new states and built new capitals of their own and then vanished into the great tide of humanity, leaving to their descendants nothing but a swiftly diluted strain of alien blood and a few shreds of alien custom that were soon transformed into something cognate with their overmastering surroundings.

Henry Dodwell, in India, 1936

As quoted by Jawaharlal Nehru in The Discovery of India, p. 146.

The Indian civilisation has been fundamentally influenced by the overarching idea of the significance of life, which has been vital to its development and has inspired it through historical ages. This has been one of the crucial elements that have affected invaders and migrants alike, impressing them and absorbing them into the fold irrespective of their differences in custom, religion and societal norms. This essential fact also profoundly influenced the development of Indian art, architecture, language, and philosophy. Civilisations are built on security and stability and therefore artistic works tend to glorify the past rather than provide a pragmatic view of the current situation. In addition, civilizational connection to the progress of the society is a relatively new concept as is the tenuous connection now being established between progress and security. Therefore, harping on the glory days of the past is common to all old civilisation. In the Indian context religion played a central role in the development of its cultural ethos and nearly all ancient artistic remains are of a religious nature. In fact, some of the remains are imbued with an intensity of religious fervour rarely seen elsewhere in the world. However, available artistic remains also reflect the full and active life of the time making them invaluable information pieces.

Ancient Artistic Endeavours

There are three factors that need to be taken into consideration when attempting to provide an account of the artistic developments of ancient India. First, it is a surprising fact that even in the confusion that prevailed in the post-Maurya period, art continued to develop to a remarkable degree in the sub-continent. Stability of governance may not have been a critical necessity for artistic development. Second, the influence of Indian art is tangibly visible in the expansion of Indian culture abroad. There are, even today, some very great examples of Indian art in other countries, especially in South-East Asia. Third, Indian art has an intimate connection to religion and philosophy, deriving its fundamental characteristics from the ideals of religion. The basic conception of Indian art spread to other countries along with the spread of Indian religions.

To know Indian art in India alone, is to know but half its story. To apprehend it to the full, we must follow it in the wake of Buddhism, to Central Asia, China and Japan; we must watch it assuming new forms and breaking into new beauties as it spreads over Tibet and Burma and Siam; we must gaze in awe at the unexampled grandeur of its creations in Cambodia and Java. In each of these countries, Indian art encounters a different racial genius, a different local environment, and under their modifying influence it takes on a different garb.

Sir John Marshall,

Foreword to Reginald Le May’s Buddhist Art in Siam, Cambridge, 1938

A combination of these three factors makes it imperative for a person to have at least a perfunctory understanding of the ideals behind the art work, which are influenced by Indian thinking and beliefs, in order to appreciate Indian art. Indian art and music are different to Western concepts, at best being closest to the concepts eschewed by the artists of the Middle-Ages in Europe. There is a commonality in the palpable religious urge to look beyond the present that is shared by the builders of the great cathedrals of Europe and the builders who fashioned the ornate and elaborate temples in India. However, the structures have very visible differences. The Gothic architecture and sculpture are vertical and in the Middle-Ages, Christ, saints and angels were depicted as tall figures in long flowing robes that accentuated their stature, and had serious expressions on their faces. These conventions were meant to lead the worshipper’s thoughts away from the worldly and towards spiritual upliftment. In India the trend is almost the opposite. The temple towers are normally squat and stocky in appearance and are solidly rooted on the Earth. The gods and demi-gods are depicted as young and handsome with rounded bodies, with both feet firmly on the ground—an indelible indication of worldly understanding. The only exception to this rule is the statue of Nataraja, the dancing form of the god Shiva, normally depicting him in a dance pose balanced on one foot. Further, the sculptors used the beauty of the female form in scantily clad poses as decorative motifs for the basic structure even in temples.

Beauty was always subjective and not objective and closely tied to the spirit, with even lovely shapes being conceived in spirit. This is in sharp contrast to the concept of Greek art that celebrated and loved beauty for its own sake. Indian art was a perennial quest to put a deeper significance to the beauty being depicted, a vision of an inner truth that the artist perceived in creating the art. This made appreciation of Indian art difficult. A supreme example of creativity can perhaps be admired and appreciated even without knowing the artist’s inner vision in creating it. However, lesser works become obtuse and almost impossible to appreciate in the absence of any indication regarding the artist’s ideals and ideas, which makes it difficult to be in tune with the artist’s mind at the time of creation. Since no explanatory notes accompany the artwork, its meaning and beauty are lost in antiquity. This inability of the later day viewer to grasp the inner meaning or the internal essence of the artwork tends to degrade its significance and leads to the conclusion that the artist was not of a good standard. Here it is also necessary to mention that the appreciation of sculptures, paintings and buildings is dependent on individual reactions to them, which is always tinged with the factor of ‘who one is’. There can be no universal standard for the appreciation of art.

Ancient Indian religious art is distinctly different to the religious literature of the same period. The written works were created by men of vocation, Brahmins, monks and ascetics, and therefore has a rigidity to its structure and intent. This is understandable. Art, on the other hand, was created by secular craftsmen, working within relatively rigid iconographical rules. However, along with the underlying quest for the ‘Absolute’ they also delighted in the secular world and felt free to depict the world they knew in great detail.

The initial European reaction to Indian art, predominantly expressed by British scholars, was derived from a purely Grecian point of view and tended to consider it a degraded version of the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara and the western Indian frontier. Over a period of time there was a gradual shift in understanding the individuality of Indian art and the actuality that Gandharan art was only a reflection of the original. That this altered perception originated in Europe and not England is a bit surprising since British researchers had better access to ‘Indian’ culture, art and literature than those from mainland Europe. The fact is that Indian art was more appreciated in Europe than in England. The reason for this state of affairs could be that after the initial period of genuine appreciation of the ‘Indian’ way of life, the English attitude to all things ‘Indian’ became completely deprecatory until the end of their rule in 1947 A.D. An underlying intellectual hatred of all purely ‘Indian’ things is clearly visible in the puritanical British attitude that tended to equate Indian art as the manifestation of the original sin. It could well be that this was not a considered or conscious opinion or view of Indian art per se, but the expression of a sub-conscious dislike of a whole people. This dislike in turn may have stemmed from the collective discomfiture of the British regarding the injustices and atrocities that they had perpetrated on the Indian people. An eminent and representative English author, Osbert Sitwell demonstrates this in-built malicious hatred when he states in his 1941 book Escape with Me that, ‘the idea of India, despite its manifold and diverse marvels, continue to be repellent.’ He further goes on to specifically attack Indian art by deprecating to its beauty as, ‘that repulsive, greasy quality that so often mars the Hindu works of art.’

Great art is always the revelation of the thought process and character inherent in a culture and is best understood with a clear understanding of the cherished ideals of the people it represents. Indian art also does the same. However, Indian art stands apart in that it was not meant for the appreciation of the elite alone, but created in order to provide the masses with an understanding of the fundamental knowledge and central ideas that underpinned religion and philosophy.

That Hindu art was successful in its educational purpose may be inferred from the fact, known to all who have intimate acquaintance with Indian life, that the Indian peasantry, though illiterate in the western sense, are among the most cultured of their class anywhere in the world.

E.B. Havell, The Ideals of Indian Art, 1920, p. xix

The Indian artist identified with nature in all its moods and expressed harmony with the periodical changes in nature. This was also the case with Indian classical music and Sanskrit poetry. Whether through Indian influence or because of a larger common ethos to viewing life, this search for harmony with nature is fundamental to all Asiatic art and is the fundamental reason for the underlying similarity of the art of different countries in Asia, despite the variety of cultural and ethnic differences that are so clearly apparent.

Unfortunately, a large number of old monuments and sculptures, especially in North India, have been destroyed over the years and the course of ages. Even so, sculpture and architectural remnants still form the prominent bulk of available artworks to be studied. Only a limited number of paintings are still available to be viewed, the cave paintings of Ajanta being a prime example. The Ajanta cave paintings are often referred to as frescoes, which is an incorrect term. Frescoes are paintings made while the plaster is still damp on the wall or ceiling. Since the paintings in Ajanta were made after the plaster was fully set, they are more correctly identified as murals. Their condition is deteriorating, although in certain murals the colours are still vibrant. Since they were created inside the caves, it is surmised that the artists worked with the help of reflected light obtained through an elaborate arrangement of mirrors. The caves have been numbered in recent times and Cave X (ten) has been dated with certainty to have been painted at the beginning of the Christian era. Other caves date to as late as the 6th and 7th century A.D. The murals were obviously painted for religious purposes and depict ancient India in panorama. Even though religiously inclined, they provide graphic information of normal life in those times. They depict on the one end, life in the palaces, and ladies in the harem, with the spectrum stretching to paintings of peasants, coolies and even beggars. They also contain descriptive figures of birds, beasts, trees and flowers.

The Ajanta cave murals were created during the Gupta period, as were the Bagh and Badami paintings. A very interesting fact regarding these murals is that they were done mainly by Buddhist monks who, by virtue of their ascetic status, were not supposed to have any detailed knowledge of women. Yet, the main theme of the paintings are women, depicting the moving drama of life, mainly in a distant but beautiful dreamlike manner. These murals continue to influence and inspire Indian artists to the present day. The history of Indian art also shows a prominent Chinese influence, especially in the naturalism that it tries to incorporate into the broader canvas. In turn, the idealism at the core of Indian art seems to have influenced both Chinese and Japanese art forms.

The advent of image worship in India is a matter of conjecture, but seems to have happened in the period of transition to the Christian era or in the late B.C. period. The Vedas were against the practice and it was a late development even in the practice of Buddhism. The first images of Buddha were in all probability carved during the Kushan period in Indian history. However, the concept of idol worship developed remarkably fast and the Kailasa Temple is the centre piece of the Ellora cave sculptures that were carved out of solid rock in the 7th and 8th century A.D. The Elephanta caves and the famous Trimurti, and the monuments at Mammalapuram in the eastern seaboard of Peninsular India date to the same period. The broken statue of Shiva, in his dancing form of Nataraja found in the Elephanta caves, although in a mutilated state still conveys the majesty and conception of titanic power. It is an excellent example of ancient Indian sculpture.

Though the rock itself seems to vibrate with the rhythmic movement of the dance, the noble head bears the same look of serene calm and dispassion which illuminate the face of the Buddha.

Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, p. 227

Architectural Expression

From around 200 B.C. to about 300 A.D., Indian architectural expression, and much of its other artistic manifestations, were centred on Buddhism. This could be attributed to the patronage of wealthy merchants who followed the religion and to royal donations from both Buddhist and non-Buddhist kings and chieftains. The religious architecture were mainly took the form of Buddhist stupas and cave temples that contained murals and sculptures. The stupa originated from the pre-Buddhist burial mound where the mortal remains of a celebrity or royal personage was interred. The oldest stupa is from Bharhut, dated to 2nd century B.C., which is now on display at the Kolkata Museum. The gateways to the stupas were architectural masterpieces, although all the sculptures on a particular gateway did not necessarily revolve around the same theme. This could be attributed to rich citizens commissioning different parts of the gateway without caring to create a coherent picture for the whole gate. Even then, the gateways emanate a sense of overall harmony that transcends the limits of rule and pattern. The general impression is of the unity of a prosperous culture, confident in its diversity and pious in their devotion to its gods.

The stupas did not depict Buddha in the human form, relying on symbolic signs to depict his presence and various aspects of his life. For example, a horse symbolised Buddha’s renunciation of princely life; a tree the attainment of enlightenment; a wheel the delivery of his first sermon; and the stupa itself depicted his death and attainment of nirvana. The stupa at Sanchi is the most striking of the architectural remnants of the Buddhist stupas in the sub-continent. However, the stupa, Abhayagiri Dagaba at Anuradhapura, the capital of the Buddhist kings of Ceylon at that time, is the largest stupa in existence—327 feet in diameter and even larger than some pyramids. The Buddhist also carved elaborate caves on the hill sides that could be equated to free standing buildings with different halls and separate living quarters for the use of resident monks. One of the better examples can be found in Karle in western Deccan.

The Stupa at Sanchi

The stupa at Sanchi can be considered one of the best achievements of ancient Indian architecture in North India. There is a smaller stupa with archaic characters on it, which some authorities consider to be even older than the Bharhut stupa. The railings around the main stupa are not adorned, but the gateways are elaborately carved with a large number of figures and reliefs. The entire gateway from top to bottom and on all sides have depictions of the life of the times. The brackets are supported either by massive carved elephants or mischievously smiling dwarfs; the flat surfaces of the upright columns of the gateway depict scenes from the life of the Buddha and also from the Jataka tales; there are representations of cities being besieged, of processions on horse-back and on elephants, and wild animals in the forest; peacocks, yakshis and nagas fill any empty space and floral motifs are numerous. Although some of the motifs are clearly inspired by Mesopotamian and Persian designs, the overall impression of the gateway is of it being typically Indian without a doubt.

Sculpture is an adjunct to architecture and early examples in India were done on wood and ivory. They were used as ornamental additions to gateways and entrances to ceremonial buildings and palaces. By 2nd century A.D. the artisans had mastered work on stone, which is seen in the Deccan. The followers of Jainism were great believers in erecting monumental sculptures to their ‘Thirthankaras’. Their free standing figures are centred on Mathura. These sculptures are full of a rare earthly quality and are made of the red sand stone that is readily available locally. The Mathura School of sculpture, as it came to be known, gained from the patronage of the Kushan dynasty during which time it produced the first image of the Buddha. The sculptures usually followed three fundamental designs—the vegetation designs of lotuses, trees, garlands of flowers and winding stems of vine; individual figures of yakshas and yakshis (semi-divine male and female life spirits); and deities such as Indra and other gods. In addition there were also the narrative tableaus of daily life and various scenes for Buddha’s life.

Millennia of Musical Tradition

Indian classical music was not developed in isolation, but had links to Persia, Arabia and Afghanistan as well as to Arabia and Turkestan. This influence was not one-sided, and Indian music also in turn provided its own independent nuances to the music of these countries. By medieval times Indian music was highly developed and played an important role in establishing Indian influence in South East Asia.

There is some evidence to prove that the ancient Aryans knew the heptatonic scale of music and also had laid down instructions for the intoning or chanting of the Sama Veda, which has been preserved almost intact till the present day. In essence the tradition of Indian classical music has its roots in the Hindu religion. Around the 1st century A.D., an anonymous author composed a textbook on drama, music, and dancing, which he attributed to an earlier work by the sage Bharata. This book, Bharata Natyasastra, has survived to this day and is the earliest Indian authority on these three art forms. It also proves that by the 1st century A.D. India had a highly evolved system of music from which the later Indian ‘classical’ music traditions were developed. The basic scale of the music is heptatonic and its seven notes. The notes are called sadja, rsabha, gandhara, madhyama, panchama, dhaivata, and nisada, abbreviated to Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni roughly equivalent to the Western major scale C-D-E-F-G-A-B. These notes were also compared to the cry of the peacock and the calls of the chataka bird, the goat, the crane, the cuckoo, the frog and the elephant.

The scales were known as ‘grama’, along with other basic classifications of tunes called raga. The term raga however appears only in texts that were written later than Bharata Natyasastra, although it is confirmed that by 10th century A.D. the ragas were firmly established as fundamental to the musical tradition. A raga is a series of five or more notes on which a melody is based. Orthodox theory claims only six basic ragas—Bhairava, Kausika, Hindola, Dipaka, Sriraga, and Megha. The ragas are classified according to the time of the day suitable for their rendering as well as for the ‘rasa’ or mood that they would create. According to the Natyasastra, every artist should be attempting to create one of the prescribed nine rasas or emotions—wonder, terror, disgust, joy, pathos, anger, love, serenity, and valour. It has been opined that western music describes a mood whereas Indian music creates it. Indian music does not need to be developed perfect harmony and the tune is sustained by one or more drone notes and drumming. The tala or musical time is as important an element as the raga in its rendering and is also oriented towards producing a designated mood.

The chief musical instrument was the ‘veena’ which could loosely be translated as a lute that was developed from the ten-stringed bow harp. Flutes and reed instruments of various kinds were common but instruments of the trumpet type was only used as signals, the conch being the most common. The conch was blown as a war cry before battle, as invocation to the gods, and during celebrations since its sound was, and still is, considered to be auspicious. Percussion instruments were plenty and the small drum played with the fingers was an essential part of all musical soirees. This continues to be the case even today.

Indian Classical Dance

The classical dance form in India has not changed over the centuries. In the Indian context, nrtya (dance) is closely associated to natya (acting), both being different aspects of ‘abhinaya’ which is the portrayal of the nine emotions or rasas that have been listed earlier. Natya achieves this through words and gestures and nrtya through music and gestures. The Indian dance is of the whole body with every movement having a definitive meaning. All movements, even that of the little finger, must be fully controlled with the slightest movement of an eyebrow also being significant to convey a particular meaning. The poses and gestures of the dance have been classified in great detail in the Bharata Natyasastra, and describes 13 postures of the head, 36 of the eyes, nine of the neck, 37 of the hands, and 10 of the body. Each of these depict a specific emotion or describe an object. It can be seen that the permutations and combinations can be innumerable.

An accomplished dancer was capable of telling a story in detail. The most important part of this story telling was the mudra or hand gesture that was done according to a rigid code that was complex and complicated, but also exquisitely beautiful. They could depict or portray a range of objects, emotions and actions. Mudras also had a religious connotation and were used in worship and iconography. The complexity of the dance form and the rigidity of its performance code made mastering it require long periods of training. This led to most of the performances being undertaken by professional artists who trained long and hard to achieve the necessary proficiency. In addition to the classical dance, there were also a number of folk dances that were performed on festivals. Dancing in public was common in ancient India and the taboo attached to dance performances was the later invention of a more puritanical period. The ancient Indians revelled in dance and music as part of the celebration of life.


Indian artistic endeavour predates even the Maurya Empire, although recognisable patterns emerged in the period of transition to the Christian era. The surprising part is that even though it is recognised that art and architecture tends to flower in periods of relative tranquillity, the confused post-Maurya period did not have a detrimental effect on their development in India. Since most of the art was intimately connected to religious activities, it is not surprising that the spread of religion, both internally and into other nations, was accompanied by Indian art influencing the indigenous artistic development. This link between religion and art also produced a peculiar trend in Indian artistic development be making it a perennial quest for the inner meaning of life, while also depicting beauty. This is unique to Indian art. The harmony and exceptional beauty of the artwork could also be attribute to the secular, rather than religious, nature of the artists themselves.

The murals of the Ajanta caves depict the daily life of the country from the highest strata of society down to the plight of a beggar in beautiful panorama. This provides first-hand information to historians to understand the society of the time and its day-to-day functioning. Further, the elaborate gateways to the stupas also indicate the state of affairs of the society and the priorities that the general populace laid on all aspects of daily life. They also indicate that Indian artisans were adept at working on stone, to create stand-alone sculptures, at a very early period in Indian history. Although the first image of the Buddha was carved only during the Kushan period, since image worship was frowned upon by the Vedas, the progress of his life was depicted through an elaborate symbolic system in earlier times. Ancient India had developed a highly sophisticated form of music and also a ‘classical’ dance form that is practiced in its rigid format even today. The music and dance are perhaps the most enduring of the artistic endeavours of ancient India, a testimony to the veracity of the foundations laid as early as 1st century B.C. and to the vivacious celebration of life practised in ancient India.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2013]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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