The Art of Painting in Ancient India – Chitrasutra (1)

18 Sep

[I propose to post a series of articles on the art of painting in ancient India with particular reference to the Chitrasutra of Vhishnudharmottara purana, a text dated about Sixth Century AD.

The current article, by way of introduction, talks about certain concepts concerning the art of painting in ancient India. It also briefly mentions the influence of Chitrasutra on the paintings of Ajanta.

The next set of articles will discuss, briefly, the text of the Chitrasutra.

The articles to follow thereafter will try to cover different aspects of Indian painting such as the preparation of the surface for painting the murals; the costumes of various persons; and more importantly the proportions (tala-mana) to be observed while drawing various figures etc.

I propose to round up with a note about the legacy of Chitrasutra-Ajanta tradition.]

1.1. Indian art has a very long and an illustrious history. Painting as an art form has flourished in India from very early periods as is evident from various epics and other literary sources; and also from the remnants that have somehow survived the test of time, vagaries of nature and vandalism- wanton or otherwise – caused by humans.

1.2. The main characteristic of Indian art has been its remarkable unity and consistency. Though there were regional variations and individual styles, the works produced in diverse geographical and cultural regions shared certain common values, concepts and techniques. And, all those varied   manifestations were inspired by a common general principle. The regional idioms, nevertheless, contributed to the richness of Indian art, and their mutual influences gave birth to multi-faceted development of Indian art.

1.3. That was true not merely of the classical paintings but also of the art works and paintings created by the village craftsmen and artists. Since there never was a nodal body to preserve and develop art in India, it was the initiative, enterprise and imagination of those dedicated humble artists that kept alive the ancient traditions. Their exquisite themes inspired by life around them, painted in their homemade bright colours employing indigenous styles have enriched the cultural diversity of India.

Shiva Parvathi Durbar

1.4. Another significant feature of the ancient Indian art was its vision of life and its world view. That inward vision and a sense of peace and tranquillity are its hallmarks. The old paintings serve as a valuable record of the thoughts and aspirations of our ancients. These ancient arts present the world as a great harmony that blends seamlessly into the whole of creation. It recognizes the oneness that exists in all of us, in the animals, the flowers, the trees, the leaves and even in the breeze which moves the leaves. All that is indeed seen as a manifestation of That One.

2.1. Indian art is often classified as religious art, though not all Indian art is purely religious, and some of it is only nominally so. The impression was perhaps grafted by the contemplative imagery presented by the ancient Indian art. But, the art, in general, was inspired by life, by reflecting upon human concerns and aspirations; and celebrating and delighting in the life of this world.

folk art

2.2. Even the religious art is not sectarian. It is at once Hindu, Buddhist and Jain, for its style was a function of time and region and not of religion. Thus, it is not strictly correct to speak of Hindu or Buddhist art, but, rather, of Indian art that happened to render Hindu or Buddhist themes. For example, an image of Vishnu and an image of Buddha of the same period are stylistically the same, religion having little to do with the mode of artistic expression.

Mrs. Fatemeh Taghavi in her research paper writes :  Indian Painting cannot be described in terms of a linear development or chronology unlike the Western art ; but,  it is considered to have evolved in a parallel manner in the course of time and space. The  different styles of paintings  emerged in the due course of time in different geographic locations as a result of  cultural impact. Each style appears  distinct from the other in its  technique;  though, there is a friendly and complex internal relationship by which they can be recognized as uniquely Indian. 

2.3. The Indian art that rendered religious themes shared a common pool of symbols and avoided imitation of the physical and ephemeral world of the senses.For instance ,in all  the Hindu , Jaina and Buddhist themes , alike,   the Chakra – the revolving wheel of time symbolizes the cyclical rhythms of all existence;  the Padma – or the lotus embodies creation – that springs from the bosom of the earth; the Ananta (represented as a snake) symbolizes  water – the most important life-giving force from which all life emerges, evolves  and then resolves; the Swastika – represents  the four-fold aspects of creation ,motion and a sense of stability ; the Purnakalasha the over -flowing pot symbolized creativity and prosperity; the Kalpalata and Kalpavriksha –  the wish-fulfillment creeper symbolize  imagination and creativity; and ,  Mriga – or deer – symbolizes  desire and beauty.

Similarly there were common set of gestures (mudra) by position of  fingers, hands, limbs; and by stance of images in paintings and in sculptures.   These varied mudras made explicit the virtues such as wisdom, strength, generosity, kindness and caring etc.

The objects depicted in Indian art evoked an imagery or represented an idea that sprang from the mind. That might perhaps explain the relative absence of portraiture and even when it was attempted the emphasis was on the ideal person behind the human lineaments rather than on the physical likeness.

Another feature is the absence of the sculptures and other representations of rulers or rich patrons. And, hardly any sculpture or painting bears the signature or the name of its creator. That might again symbolize a move from particular to the universal. But , it surely baffled generations of historians.

3.1. Indian figurative art is therefore not mere portraiture of the specific; but is a symbol pointing to a larger principle. It is akin to the finger pointing to the moon. For instance the image or the painting of the Buddha could be seen as that of the Buddha the historical prince Siddhartha Gotama and Sakyamuni. But, it is more than that. The Buddha –figure is the embodiment of all the compassion, pathos and grace in absolute. Often, certain symbols surrounding the Buddha-image are meant to amplify its message. For instance, the idea of reverence and holiness could be represented sometimes by the surrounding vegetation, flora, fauna, yakshis, gandharvas, and apsaras each playing a specific role in building a totality; or it may be the single austere simple statement of the still centre of peace and enlightenment suggested through the symbols of the Buddha such as the Bodhi tree, seat, umbrella, sandals, footprints etc.

The Buddha –image is , thus, at once particular and universal. The spirit and soul of the Buddha is contained in the body of the particular but impersonalized form; the serene mood of compassion it portrays is everlasting and universal.

4.1. The earliest substantial specimens of Indian painting, that have survived, are the murals found in caves of Ajanta and in Kailashnath temple at Ellora. The Cave temples at Badami, in the Karnataka, and Sittanavasal, in Tamil Nadu too contain paintings of similar style.

Ajanta view from the veranda of cave XVI by J Griffiths

The view from the veranda of cave XVI, Ajunta  by J Griffiths 1880s

But, the most well –known of them all is the set of murals on the walls in Ajanta caves, he oldest of which probably dated from the second century BC  , there on to the early 6th and 7th centuries.

William Dalrymple writes: Sometime, in 1819, a British hunting party in the jungles of the Western Ghats had followed a tiger into a remote river valley and stumbled onto what was soon recognized as one of the great wonders of India: the painted caves of Ajanta. On the walls of a line of thirty-one caves dug into an amphitheatre of solid rock lay the most beautiful and ancient paintings in Buddhist art, the oldest of which dated from the second century BC an otherwise lost golden age of Indian painting. In time it became clear that Ajanta contained probably the greatest picture gallery to survive from the ancient world… Ajanta’s walls represented perhaps the most comprehensive depiction of civilized life to survive from antiquity.

The Art of the Ajanta reflected the glory of the golden age of the Guptas. They depict the tales of the Buddha in his previous births on his way to enlightenment.

Most famous, perhaps, are the two astonishing images of the compassionate Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara and Vajrapani, beings of otherworldly beauty, swaying on the threshold of enlightenment, caught in what the great historian of Indian art Stella Kramrisch described, wonderfully, as “a gale of stillness.” Even today, the colors of these murals glow with a brilliant intensity: topaz-dark, lizard-green, lotus-blue.

Bodhisattva Padmapani  avalokitesvara2

Bodhisattva Padmapani, the bearer of the Lotus is painted amidst playful monkeys and joyous musicians. Yet, amid all that activity, the Bodhisattva looks within in tranquil harmony. There is a sense of sublime peace that pervades this figure, which is one of the masterpieces of Indian art. And, on the ceilings of the caves are the illustrations of the teeming life of the world, its flowers and fruit, the animals of the world and mythical creatures. The murals also bring to life an innumerable variety of other persons such as princesses, maids, soldiers, guards, mendicants, merchants etc.

4.2. The artists of Ajanta, who created those valuable treasures of the art world, were the inheritors of an ancient tradition that painted and decorated palaces, temples and caves. The theories, principles and techniques followed by those artists came down to them through oral traditions bequeathed by a long line of artists spread over several generations. The narrative mastery and technical knowledge demonstrated by artists at Ajanta suggest existence of several Schools of arts, where painting technique, procedures and preparatory work to be followed in preparing the mural surface were described.

Ajanta by Robert Gill, oil on canvas, 1850-1854

Copy of painting in the caves of Ajanta by Robert Gill, oil on canvas, 1850-1854,

The artists of Ajanta   , in turn,  inspired and guided  the principles and techniques  for the benefit of future generations of artists . These gave raise to many texts.

Some of the  main texts of such nature that dealt with painting techniques were:

The Vishnudharmottara Purana composed in 6-7th A.D. shortly after the mural works of Ajanta.

– The Samaraga Sutradhara, a text of the Shilpa-shastra attributed to  Raja Bhoja,  king of the Paramara dynasty of 11th century , mainly dealing with pictorial and iconographic art.

– The Manasollasa, an encyclopedic work dealing , among other things, the  Southern India paintings tradition attributed to king Somesvara of early 12th century Chalukya dynasty.

– The Silparatna, written in 16th century, a section of which entitled Pratima -Lakshmana (characteristics of images) which contains lot of information on painting technique.

– The Aparajita Pecha of Bhuvana Deva, probably composed after Silparatna that describe architecture and contains concepts on decorative design and preparation of paint ground.

Among these texts, Vishnudharmottara and Samaraga Sutradhara describe the technique of preparation of paint ground using clays earths. The text Manasollasa and Silparatna represents the preparation of ground under southern traditions of the subcontinent where the basic component is lime or burnt and powdered conch shells or white earth of calcareous nature, available in south of India. Some of the important ancient Indian painting text showing basic ingredients and procedure to be followed in the preparation of paint ground and colors are elaborate

There are also many other texts written in Sanskrit in which instructions on mural paintings techniques are systematically stated. Some of the ancient paintings texts have not yet been translated.

M. Singh and B.R. Arbad who conducted technological studies on Ajanta painted mortars , write in their in their research paper Ancient Indian painting recipes and mural art technique at Ajanta

Although Vishnudharmottara was composed one or two centuries after the execution of Ajanta murals, it may be considered as true reference text for proper understanding of painted procedure and appreciation of the painted murals.

The pigments identified at Ajanta are red ochre, yellow ochre, green earth, lapis lazuli, carbon black and shell/kaolin lime. The outlines of the Ajanta paintings are mostly drawn by carbon black or red ochre. The mud mortar thickness varies from few millimeters to an inch in some cases where basaltic stone is very roughly cut. Organic matters such as rice husks, plant seeds and plant fibers are generally found admixed within the mud mortar.

… The raw materials used for the preparation of clay ground are mostly locally available materials collected from either Waghura river in front of Ajanta caves or nearby places. Except blue, all the pigments are locally available materials including green which is the product of basaltic rock disintegration. It appears that aggregate used as fillers to the mud mortar at Ajanta are also byproduct of weathered basalt collected from ravine of Waghura in front of Ajanta caves or nearby places. Except blue, all the pigments are locally available materials including green which is the product of basaltic rock disintegration. It appears that aggregate used as fillers to the mud mortar at Ajanta are also byproduct of weathered basalt collected from ravine of Waghura. The aggregates mostly identified are quartz, zeolites and celadonites.

It is observed that 8-10% lime with organic additives was mixed in the low swelling clay to prepare the mud mortar at Ajanta. The technique of paintings is purely tempera and animal glue has probably been used as binding agent to the pigments at Ajanta and related sites. Unlike fresco painting, the paintings technique in India is either tempera or Sacco and binding medium identified at Ajanta is animal glue. An understanding of the composition of ancient mortar and technology is necessary for creation of new mortar for restoration at Ajanta and other sites.

5.1. Among the many texts,  the Chitrasutra of the Vishnudharmottara Purana, which attempted to preserve the ancient and pass it on in its purity to the subsequent generations , is considered most significant. That ancient treatise provided the artists a grammar to articulate their art expressions. Apart from describing the basic tenets of painting, Vishnudharmottara, literally, provided hundreds of details on the art and the techniques of painting. The Chitrasutra gave a framework of instructions and suggestions on the ways to prepare the walls and other surfaces that hold the murals; the preparation of colours and paints; appropriate choice of colours; different ways of shading; proportions and ratios to be maintained while painting different kinds of male and female figures according to their position and standing in the social strata and occupations; and the ingenious ways of introducing symbolism through plants , birds, animals, and other symbols; and so on.

Main characteristics of the Ajanta paintings are the use of free flowing lines for delineating beautiful figures and their delicate inner feelings; together with use of shading different parts of the body to produce three dimensional effects in the images. The other was use of proper colors at times contrasting and at times matching to create magical effects. These were precisely the principles that Chitrasutra emphasized repeatedly.(explained in the next post).

5.2. Benoy K. Behl an art-historian, filmmaker and photographer who has written extensively on Ajanta art  explains the basic preparation of the surface for painting the mural was guided by the methods recommended in the Chitrasutra. He also explains that “The mural paintings of Ajanta are not frescoes, as they are sometimes mistakenly described, for they were not painted on wet lime plaster. These murals were executed with the use of a binding medium of glue applied to a thin coat of dried lime wash. Below this surface wash were two layers of plaster covering the stone walls. The first was a rough, thick layer of mud, mixed with rock-grit, vegetable fibres, grass and other materials; the second was a finer coat consisting of mud, rock dust or sand and finer vegetable fibres, which provided a smooth surface for the lime wash on which the paintings were made.

The artist got his colours from the simple materials that were available in these hills. For his yellow and red he used ochre, for black he used lamp soot, for his white he used lime. Only for his blue he used lapis lazuli, which came from Afghanistan. These simple colours were blended to provide the numerous colours and subtle hues, which are seen in the Ajanta paintings. “

The Academy of Archaeology & Sciences of Ancient India (A.A.S.A.I) observes “The technique adopted in preparing the ground and pigments were sound and in many places they have stood the test of time. But, in large number of cases, they are fast disappearing not due to the fault of the painter or his technique but due to external conditions like the structural problems, location problems and above all foolish and senseless vandalism.”

6.1. Chitrasutra paid enormous importance to the delicate painting of the soulful and expressive eyes that poured out the essence of the subject. It describes five basic types of eyes. The artist was told that the eyes are the windows to the soul; and it is through their eyes the figures in the painting open up their heart and speak eloquently to the viewer. The painting of the eyes called the “opening of the eyes” was therefore the final and most important detail to be painted. It was usually done in the guiding presence of the Master or was completed by the Master himself. It is not therefore surprising that the expressive set of eyes of the Ajanta tradition continue to influence generations of Indian artists.

7.1. The text clearly mentions that rules do not make the painting; but it is the artist with a soul and vision who creates the art expressions. The Chitrasutra aptly concludes with sagely observation: “In this treatise only the suggestions are given, oh king, for this subject can never be described in detail even in a hundred years. Whatever has not been said here should be inferred by other means…Painting is the best of all arts.”

7.2. The artists appeared to have taken full benefit of the liberty provided by the text. Shakti Maira a noted artist writes “I did not see the figures as having been rendered in a particularly formal way. Their proportions were usually off — head and upper torsos too long for the rest of the body, arms out of proportion with lower limbs, there was hardly any evidence that the strict rules of drawing in the Vishnudharmottara had been followed! What I saw was a powerful freedom and looseness in drawing, what we artists hope to achieve after we have learned all the rules of drawing. These illustrative images were free from formalism, and that is the strength of the expressed emotions and lavanya in this work.

For me, the reason why the Ajanta paintings are so great is that they did not get bogged down in the formalism of art making.


As an artist, I would urge you to experience the mysteries beyond cognitive intellect. Don’t just try and understand the work, try also to experience it directly. That is where the real rasa is. “

Shri S Rajam’s rendering of  Ramayana theme in Ajanta style

As I mentioned earlier , such  artistic freedom was  encouraged  by Chitrasutra of Vishnudharmottara,  which said, valuable as these various instructions are , they are derived from and  subservient to practice . He(artist) has the freedom to work according to his own intellect.


8. Let’s talk about the Chitrasutra of Vishnudharmottara, in a little more detail, in the next post.



Continued in 

Part Two

Chitrasutra of Vishnudharmottara


Sources & References

Ajanta, the fountainhead

Ancient Indian Costume

A.A.S.A.I: Paintings Preservation


Ajanta: An artist’s perspective

All Ilustrations are taken from Internet


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16 responses to “The Art of Painting in Ancient India – Chitrasutra (1)

  1. sreenivasaraos

    September 18, 2012 at 2:39 am

    Dear Matt George , Thank you for the appreciation. Please follow the rest of the posts in the series. Regards

  2. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 7:41 am

    never realised the reason why the eyes have been revered as the most important part depicating the soul.. even kamban the great tamil poet introduces rama to sita only through the medium of eyes.. ‘he also saw and so did she”

    eyes have palyed a very imporatnt part in the literature and also in the indian art…

    i wonder whether chtra sutra or vishnu dharmttata has anything to say on this…

    also , lips , sthana, the shoulders and long hands(ajanu bahu).. and what is ccarried in the hands..all mantra slokas are descriptive and have lead to artistes making paintings out of it.. ravi varma was a modern day pioneer who gave rupa to sraswathi , lakshi and man y other deities whose form is familiar today..

    great post enjoyed it.. grren colour was derived form w hch vegetable base?

    thank you .. very informative and interesting as usual…

    loved it..


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 7:42 am

      dear shri sampath,

      i am glad you read; and delighted you liked it.

      yes, eyes as soulful pools of expression are the most important aspect of an image or a painting. i would be posting about what vishnudramottara said about eyes and other features in the next part (part three).

      the colors were derived from vegetable and mineral sources (mica, red lead, tin and lac etc.). as regards green it talks about deep colored brass. is it a sort of derivative from patina? i am not sure.

      i just posted second part dealing with the text of chitrasutra. it deals with some concepts and its other observations. please check and let me know.

      thank you.


  3. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 7:42 am

    dear mr. sreenivas rao…thanx for nice info.. waiting for the next post…regards and love…kalpita

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 7:42 am

      dear kalpita raj,

      thank you for the comments and recommendation. i am glad you read the post.

      i just posted second part dealing with the text of chitrasutra. it deals with some concepts and its other observations. please check and let me know.


  4. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 7:45 am

    sreenivas: i read this with great interest: i was struck by your statement that there was no nodal agency to propogate the art: in europe you had guilds to propogate any kind of workmanship: were there guilds probably at a local level ?

    thank you for writing this in simple terms so that even i can understand. i look forward to reading future article on the subject.

    best, girdhar

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 7:45 am

      dear shri gopal,

      i am glad you read; and delighted you liked it.

      yes, what you said about guilds in europe is very true. in the indian context there were no organized guilds per se, particularly in the field of crafts. but the art was transmitted from generation to generations in oral traditions. the learners were younger members of the family or disciples. these persuasions were generally caste based; and they were scattered, because a rural community could support only a limited number of them.

      i have posted the second one in the series. it discusses the text of the vishnudharmottara; and certain of its concepts and principles. in the articles to follow thereafter, i hope to discuss the particular aspects such as the delineation of the figure, colors, shades, symbolisms etc. it might at times get heavy and technical , i fear.

      kindly read the rest and let me know if it made sense.

      thank you.


  5. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 7:45 am

    i would like to know about the interest of common people in this art. kings obviously patronized painters. also ajanta is supposed to have been painted by only monks. is it true ?regards

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 7:46 am

      dear shri palahali,

      thank you for reading. you might find answers to some of your questions as you read along.

      as regards the ajanta, all the artists were not monks. the concepts and practices discussed in vishnudharmottara applied to all practitioners of shilpa and chitra. the ajanta art too was guided by chitrasutra; and it is one of the few art works of that age to have survived.

      please keep talking.


  6. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 7:46 am

    very delightful and inspirational narration.

    i enjoyed the beautiful presentation.

    will be looking fw to the other articles.


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 7:47 am

      dear indu, thank you for the visit. i am glad you read. the other five articles are already posted. please check them too. regards

  7. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 7:47 am

    dear riverine, i am delighted you read. i miss you on sulekha. you were my initial guide and advisor; and helped me to navigate around the mysteries of the blog-world. thank you.

    the article you just read was by way of introduction to chitrasutra. the second article outlines certain concepts and theories of painting, perhaps, as they existed in around 6-7th century. the other articles deal with specific subjects like the proportions, colors and visualization etc .please check them too.

    yes, what you said of the temple at penang is true; it was influenced by thai .the temples at thailand have themselves an interesting history. they were an amalgam of hindu- buddhist influences. and, both traditions followed the same set of texts in chitra, shilpa and natya. (please read my posts on natya-shastra and its commentary abhinavabharathi). another reason is that the hindu and buddhists entered those regions almost at the same time; and their growth too was parallel.

    an interesting feature of the architectural development in south east was that while the masters, their theories and practices were indian, a number of artisans were locals trained by indian masters. that is reason, i think, while the themes were from indian mythologies, the treatment of flora, fauna as also the forms and figures of persons remained rooted in the local soil.

    the indian influence in thailand was both direct and indirect. the latter was through khmer empire of cambodia of which thailand was a part. the earlier thai temples (say, at raj-buri, chanta-buri and kedah etc.) followed the gupta and pallava styles of architecture. it was during the 11th century that thai art gained its typical form for depiction of human and other figures. some of its best portraitures of the buddha and vishnu came about during the late 14th century. this influence spread to sukhothai bronze statues too.

    thank you for your patience.


  8. david benson

    May 16, 2015 at 11:58 pm

    dear sir i loved your text and info on chitra i am a artist working in australia practing hare krsna devotte and curruntly trying to realize the unique and transcendantal essence of chitra i.have made many trips to bharat vasha i look forword to your next blog hare krsna dhanesvara das

    • sreenivasaraos

      May 17, 2015 at 6:03 am

      Dear David, Thank you for the visit.
      I am glad you found this interesting.

      The next and subsequent parts of the article are already posted.

      Please navigate through the indicators
      appearing at top and the bottom of the pages.

      Please do read and let me know

      Cheers and Regards


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