Category Archives: Vishnudharmottara

The Art of Painting in Ancient India – Chitrasutra (6)

[This is the fifth in the series of articles I would be posting on the art of painting in ancient India with particular reference to the Chitrasutra of Vhishnudharmottara purana

The previous (the fourth) article was about colors; the concepts, classifications and application of colors. It also briefly mentions about shading and how to go about drawing.

The current article covers the concepts about depiction of things seen and unseen in the world around us, or rather how the objects in nature could be visualized and personified as if each aspect of it is a living person with a character and attribute of its own.]

shiva devi

20. The abstract and the realistic depiction

20.1. The Chitrasutra, at several places, discusses how the persons and objects that we see in our day to day life, as also the nature that surrounds us could be depicted in art. It adopts a two-pronged approach. It instructs; while the representations of the objects and persons,   as drawn on the canvas should bear a credible resemblance to their original, the artist , at the same time, should not restrict himself to just  faithful  reproduction of   forms and appearances, but should try to go beyond “the phenomenal world of separated beings and objects that blind the reality beyond”.

20.2. In other words, it was emphasizing that art was more than photographic reproduction of visible objects. It was about the experience of a person and his expression of it through art; and about his unique creative genius, imagination, enterprise and individuality as an artist .It was not about how the world appears to one and all, but how the artist experiences and visualizes it. Its object is to elicit an emotional response, the viewer’s experience, the rasa.

20.3. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive; they exist side by side on a canvas and complement each other. The abstract and the realistic depiction are thus the two sides of Indian art. The latter is outward looking, and derived through observation; while the other is inspired by emotive perception and visualization of its essence. The two together enrich the aesthetic experience provided by an art work.


21. Realistic depiction of objects

21.1. As regards the realistic depiction of the objects, the text considers it essential to lend credibility to their depictions. The text, therefore, reckons   rupa-bheda and sadrushya, among the six essential elements of a painting. Rupa-bheda consists in the knowledge of special characteristics of things – natural or manmade; say, the differences in appearances among many types of men, women or natural objects or other subjects of the painting; while Sadrushya aims to depict, in painting, those distinctions and resemblances.

21.2. The Chitrasutra instructs the resemblances should not merely be general but should extend to details as well. Every part of the object represented should agree with the general treatment of the whole object. It also says that the persons should be painted according to their country; their region, their colour, dress, and general appearances as observed. Having well ascertained the person’s country, region, occupation, age and his status in life; the text says ,  his other details such as his seat, bed, costume, conveyance, stance, and his gestures should be drawn.

Bhudya rupam yatha-vesham varnam cha manujo-utthama / Deshe-Deshe naraha karyaha yatha-vath samudbhavah /3.42.49/

Desham niyogaha sthanam karma bhudhya cha yatna-thaha / Aasanam-Shayanam-Yanam -Vesham-Karyam Naradhipa /3.42.50/

[The Chitrasutra explores this subject in great depth, detailing the characteristics of persons hailing from various regions and occupations. The text also describes the characteristics of different tribes and castes as distinguished by their complexion; noticeable physical features, costumes and habits. Since it is rather detailed, I have posted it separately. Please check Part four]


22. Drista & Adrista

22.1. The representation of objects as they are seen or observed normally in life, is termed in the text as Drista, meaning in the way the things appear or as they are visible. In contrast to that, the text speaks of Adrista, meaning objects as visualized or personified by the artist, though they might not actually appear as such.

Having made this distinction, the text suggests that the two should together be employed to harmoniously blend the subject and its illustration; the subject and its effect; and the reality and its symbol, in order to provide the painting an expressive language. For instance, while faithfully depicting the details of the subject (say, the hours of day or night, or the seasons), its effect on the nature around and on the persons are also to be symbolically pictured. These help enhancing the quality of depiction of the subject and the artistic eloquence of the painting.

22.2. Hours of day and  darkness


The time of the day, morning noon and evening with its approaching darkness are suggested by appropriated indicators.

The daybreak is suggested by the opening of the lotus petals in the pond and the bees swarming around; the farmer with his plow proceeding to his fields

Midday is suggested by the Muni-kumaras clasping their hands in yama-pasa-mudra peeping at the sun through the aperture created by the joining of the fingers.

Evening is suggested by the approaching darkness, lighting of the lamps and return-home of the cows at go-dhuli.

The twilight is also suggested by the roaming on highstreets of courtesans and paramour vita-s, cheta-s and raja-vallabhas.

The Chitrasutra suggest that night may be indicated by the moon, the stars and sparse human movement as also by the lurking or prowling of the thieves in the shadows and of men asleep

Sachandragraha-nakshatram tatha darsita-laukikam / asannaatas-taskarm  ratrim darshayet supta-manavam // 3.42.68

In this context, the text, by way of illustrations, enumerates the following suggestions for showing the subject –the hours of darkness:

Evening – by the red glow in the sky, cows and calves retuning home raising a small clouds of dust, Brahmins engaged in their prayers;

Setting in of darkness – by men hurrying back to their homes, the birds flying back to their nest, lamps just beginning to glow;

The first part of the night – by young and eager love struck women walking hurriedly with side glances to meet their lovers;

The night – with moon , planets and stars, thieves lurking in the shadows, men fast asleep; couples amorously engaged;

Moon shine – by kumuda flowers (the type of lotus that bloom at night)  in full bloom while many petals of lotus are closed;

Early dawn ending the darkness – by rising sun, street -lamps looking dim and crowing cocks.

dawn dawn 2

[There is an interesting argument going on, alongside, in the text. It argues that the art of sculpting is far more difficult than painting. It says; it is almost not possible to depict, directly,   in a sculptural panel the time of the day or  night –  darkness, evening , twilight  or bright light etc.. That difficulty also applies to depiction of colours (colour, in fact , is not a medium directly compatible  with sculpting).

And, it is also not easy to bring out the differences between a dead body and a sleeping person, particularly if the two are placed side by side.  The sculptor – artist (shilpi) will have to resort to some other clever suggestions to bring out the differences. That depends on the ingenuity of the artist.  ]

22.3. The seasons

Similarly, the text describes the characteristics of each of the six seasons as are gathered through keen observation of nature. It says that in general, the seasons should be shown according to their character. It also instructs , the  explicit depiction of the  nature of each season could be complimented    by  suggestions  and  effects  of the season on the state, the form  and appearance of the trees, flowers, fruits, birds, animals etc looking delighted or otherwise ; as also on the moods and lives of persons.

It is amazing how sincere was the detailed observation; and how close was the author’s involvement with nature. The text suggests showing the ways of depicting in the painting the six seasons (ritu) of the year . Such descriptions also abound in the classic Kavyas .

springspring.2 jpg

:- The advent of  Spring season (Vasantha ritu) is announced by profusion of flowers, fresh shoots, hum of the bees and the notes of the cuckoos. The fresh blossoms of the Asoka trees excite the amorous lovers with budding sprouts decorating their ears.

And, by merry men and women, vernal trees in bloom, bees swarming about and cuckoos perched on tree branches.

Kusumanjanma tata nava-pallava tadanu  shad-pad-kokila-kujitam  iti yatha-kraman avirbhun-madhura druma-vatin avatirya vasanthalim (Raghuvamsha 9.26)

Kusumam eva na kevalam artavam navam Asokataros samaradhipam / Kisalayaprasavo pi vilasam madayita dayitasravanarpitah/ ( Raghuvamsha .9.31)

Meghair medhuram ambaram ( Gitagovinda)

:- Summer season (Grishma ritu) – by dried pools, languid men, deer seeking tree shades and buffaloes burrowing in the mud and wallowing in shallow ponds;, diminished water level in the lotus ponds; the moss exposing the length of lotus stalks; the water level in the ponds reaching up only to the hips of the bathing damsels

The fun-loving young women play in the water (jala-krida) – with the decorations on their faces in disarray; the braid unbound; musk painted patterns on their arms washed away; the pearl earrings loosened, the wet silken garments stuck on the hips, with pearl-white waistlines appearing like stars dimmed by moonlight. – Raghuvamsa 16.67.65

The ladies smear their breasts with sandal paste, stroll along the garden in the shade of thick leafy trees among the waterfowls in the cool water channels

Sarpatsarini varistalate vinyasta-pushpa-potkare nirandhre kadalivane guru-dala-achchhayapahatar –katvishi / karpura-guru-panka-pichchhila-ghana-uttunga stanalingibhih kantakelir-ratrair aho sukritibhir madhya-nadinam niyate (Subhashita-ratna-bhandagara)


:- Rainy season (Varsha ritu) – by flashes of lightening, heavily laden clouds, lions and tigers sheltered in caves;

The rainy season with its dark clouds, lightening streaks, long rows of  white storks in their picturesque splendor flying low against the backdrop of rain bearing dark clouds is lovingly immortalized in several of Indian poetic works.

The Rainbow on dark clouds stimulate mirth of the peacocks with spread colorful tails dancing as if to celebrate the arrival of cool showers, add luster and grace to beauty of the picture.

In the paintings, the gentle rain is shown by slight vertical dots in white, like scattered pearls, against the darkened sky.

Ghana eva tarala-balike tatid iva pite (Gitagovinda)

Garajabhis satadid-balakas-balair meghais sasalyam manah (Mricchkatika.6.1)

Garbha-dhanakshana-parichayan nunam abaddhamalas sevishyante nayana-subhagam khe bhavantam balakah (Meghaduta .1.10)

Srenibhutah parigananaya nirdisanto balakah (Meghaduta.1.22)

Navambhumattas sikhino nadanit meghame kunda-samana-danti Ghatakarpara/ sukla-apangis sajalanayanais svagataikritya kekah pratyudyatah katham api bhavan gantum asu vyavasayet (Meghaduta.1.23)

:- Autumn (Sharad ritu) – by trees laden with fruits and flowers, earth covered with ripe cornfields, tanks full of water with swans and lotuses;

akampayan phala bhara aanata shaali jaalaan  aanartayan taru varaan kusuma avanamraan utphulla pa.nkaja vanaam naliniim vidhunvan  yuunaa manaH calayati prasabham nabhasvaan (Ritusamhara.3.10)

:- Dewy season (Hemanta ritu) – by frost on horizon and earth covered by dewdrops; and

nava pravaala udgama sasya ramyaH praphulla lodhraH pari pakva shaaliH  viliina padmaH prapatat tuSaaraH hemanta kaalaH samupaagato ayam (Ritusamhara.4.1)

:- Winter season (Shishira ritu) – by horizon shrouded in hoar-frost, shivering men and delighted crows and elephants.

The winter with its blast of cold winds forces one to seek the warmth of the indoors, covering oneself with heavy wraps and enjoying the cheerful company of  youthful damsels  in front of the crackling fire .

Niruddha-vatatayanam-mandirodare hutasano bhanumato gabhastyah , guruni vasamsyabala sayau-vanah prayanti kaletra janasya sevyatam (Ritusamhara.5.2)

cloudsclouds.j2 pg

There are classic depictions of other figures as well :

Abhisarika, the beautiful girl, going out, in moonlit night  (jyotsni or Shukla), to meet her lover should be in serene white and flowing garments ; and , should be decked in pearls (mukta-abarana-bhushitam) .

Abhisarika nayikaAbhisarika-nayika2

And,  on  other dark nights  (Tamasi)  she  wears blue garments (nilamsu parigraho).  And, in either case, she covers her head ; and, she  does not wear bangles and anklets to avoid twinkling sounds. 

There is even a case of an impetuous young girl , aided by her chamber-maid, eloping with her Lover, riding an elephant (of all the escape vehicles…!!) under the cover of night. She looks anxious and rather scared.

elephant ride

The lovelorn (viraha vyasthaya), lonely maiden in search of lover is to be drawn as pale (vyanjayanti) and emaciated (krisyam) ; her hair in a single braid (eka-veni) is twisted and unkempt .

virahalover seperationpregnancy

The Proshita-bhartrka whose lover is in distant lands , on war or business,  is pining for him. She , in sorrow, has given up applying cosmetics or wearing ornaments and colourful dresses. She has grown lean and pale ; her eyes are constantly searching for her separated lover.

Pregnancy is suggested by pallor in the face, slimness of the body, sparce ornaments and a natural languor.


In contrast , Svadhina-bhartrka who enjoys the company of her lover , and loves to dominate him; and, the Vasaka -sajja who  is busy tidying up her room in anticipation of meeting her lover  , are  to be pictured as happy, radiant, light hearted and  sportive , wearing their best and joyous dresses .

svadhina-patika vasaka-sajja


The bridal sarees (vadhu dukulam), generally, have a swan design (kalahamsa lakshanam) on their border. It was a popular design. 



The heroic warrior facing his opponent is depicted in the challenging stance of Alidha  is a representation (bhava-chitra) of Vira -rasa. His torso is somewhat thrust out, the hair tied up, the front knee is bent back and retracted; and he is ready to attack.


Pratyalidha is used in relation to Alidha-sthana. The  strung bow with the arrow in position is pulled back up to the ear; the arrow is about to be discharged; and , he is looking heroic and magnificent.


The amalgam of subject and its symbols   renders a work of art at once particular and universal. That is the reason the Indian figurative art is not mere portraiture of the specific; but it is a symbol pointing to a larger principle, akin to the finger pointing to the moon.

22.4. Barahmasa

Inspired by the vivid word-pictures portrayed in the Chitrasutra, a school of painting known as Barahmasa (meaning, the twelve-months), flourished during the later periods. Its scenery epitomizes the landscape of the imagination, in Indian painting. This school lovingly captures the delights, the emotions and the enjoyment of the lovers in each of the six seasons. These sublime works of art, which gained fame as iconic representations of the seasons and as metaphors for emotions, have inspired generations of artists, poets and lovers.

The essential theme of the Barahmasa is the passionate yearning of lovelorn hearts, the pangs of separation that each change of season stimulates. Each month bringing a special message to the beloved, every season a special reminder of the joys of love and longing. The nature participates in the world of human emotions and mirrors the lovers’ or singer’s experience of tenderness and pain of love.

The transformations in nature , such as the gentle unfolding of a bud’s petals; or melting of a winter night into dew-drops; or the dark dreadful clouds rending with their roar the sky and the earth and frightening the lovely nayika into the arms of her beloved Nayaka and bursting forth into torrential rains – all become symbolic expressions of the seasons and the state of love of the ardent lovers. The Barahmasa depictions of poetry, music and painting, bind the two confronting worlds, the worlds of man and of nature into one thread.

The Barahmasa pictures do tell a tale; each one narrates an event that illustrates the beauty, love and togetherness in the lives of the lovers. That story is entwined on the splendour of nature that surrounds them, in each season.

Let’s take a quick look at a couple of such picture. The painting associated with rainy season (varsha ritu) ‘the Bhadon’ (Bhardapada masa: August-September) captures the characteristic features and symbols of an evening in Indian monsoon.  The lovers relax in the balcony of a beautiful garden-house, enjoying the company of each other, watching the graceful flight of cranes against the background of dark monsoon clouds. And,  as the peacock dances and jumps on to a window in the courtyard, there is a sudden roll of thunder and flashes of lightening across the dark clouds. The lady-love is frightened and she clings to her lover in delicate embrace. Yet, she cannot take her eyes away from the spectacular and amazing drama of thunder and lightning being enacted in the skies.


The month of Chaitra (March-April) , in spring (vasanta ritu) is depicted by clear blue sky, water-filled streams and lakes, the bushes adorned with flowers just sprouting and singing birds perched on tree branches. The lady love, dressed in her best, is exhorting her lover to stay at home and enjoy with her the intoxicating delights of Chaitra.


The painting that illustrates the month of Agahana (Agrahayana or Margashira: Nov-Dec), in Hemantha ritu, the early winter, depicts clear skies, the swans migrating from the cold mountains and the lovers standing on the terrace overlooking the river with water-birds floating lazily. The day is neither cold nor warm; it is just comfortable. The lovers are wrapped in light-warm clothing.   Peace and tranquillity abounds in nature. The lovers are saying to each other how fortunate we are to be alive and to be together in this lovely evening.


22.5. Ragamala

During the later times, another school , the Ragamala  School of paintings too used the descriptions provided in Chitrasutra , of nature, men, women, birds, animals and plants, in each season and blended them with the musical  mood of the Raga or its queen the Ragini ; as also with the time of day in which the raga is sung  and  with the emotional response associated with that time . All these produced a series of most enchanting pictures. Those paintings are a delightful combination of art, music, poetry and a studied, controlled sophistication.

ragamala3ragamala 4

The Ragamala (garland of Ragas) School of painting attempted to translate the emotional appeal of a raga into visual representations. Each raga personified by a colour, mood, the nature surrounding the hero and heroine (nayaka and nayika).  It also elucidated the season and the time of day and night in which a particular raga is to be sung. The colours, substance and the mood of the Ragamala personified the overall bhava and context of the Raga. It is a delightful amalgam of art, colour, poetry and music. 

One of such pictures is Todi Ragini, a painting associated with Raga Malkauns, as its Ragini. Here, a young woman plays veena as she waits for her lover. But he’s been so long that she gets bored, distracted and a bit apprehensive. As she stops playing the veena and paces restlessly, clutching a flower garland, the deer in the park surround her as if expecting her to continue playing the melody.   She’s growing sad, and fears he might not keep his date this evening.

todi ragini

22.6. Landscapes

Continuing on the Drista, the text explains how the subjects associated with landscape paintings; such as: the sky, the hills, dales, trees, etc could be depicted in a painting. Here again the faithful depiction of the subject is to be juxtaposed with   its suggestions   and its effects, enhancing the artistic expression of the subject.  Its scenery epitomizes the landscape of the imagination.

For instance, along with the bright sun, one could depict the images of creatures suffering from heat; and of the flowers and creepers wilting under the hot sun. The shower of rain could be suggested by a person well covered; or running for shelter under a tree. Similarly, along with the full moon the kumuda flower in full bloom could also to be shown. Such artistic suggestions, symbols and effects add to the depth of a painting.

Some of the pictures lovingly capture the delights, the emotions and the enjoyment of the lovers in each of the six seasons.  The sense of belonging, togetherness and identity with each other is suggested in a rare and a beautiful painting that shows Radha (highly idealized lady love)   and Krishna having exchanged their clothes. It is as if each has entered the other’s soul.


She wears his peacock feather,
He dons her lovely, delicate crown;
She sports his yellow garment,
He wraps himself in her beautiful sari
How charming the very sight of it. . .
The daughter of Vrsabhanu turns Nanda’s son,
And Nanda’s son, Vrsabhanu’s girl.

(Srivasta Goswami, Trans. The Divine Consort, 87)

Elaborating on how the nature in a landscape painting could be depicted, the text suggests:

The sky should be shown without any special colours and full of birds;

A hill – by a cluster of rocks, peaks, trees, creepers, waterfalls;

A forest – by various sorts of trees, birds and beasts;

Water – by fish, tortoise, lotuses and other water plants.

While on the subject of water, King Vajra interjects querying “I cannot wait to ask. Please tell me more about representation of water. What are its true and untrue colors?”

The sage explains “The untrue color of water resembles that of lapis lazuli; that is because of the blue sky reflected in a pool of water. But, the natural color of water is seen in the cascades of a water-fall; its colour resembles moonlight.” 

22.7. Cities and village scenes


The text also explains the ways for depicting the atmosphere of a locale.

It suggests showing:

A city by beautiful temples, palaces, shops and royal roads;

Markets- by a variety of merchandise and people busy trading;

Drinking and gambling dens – by men rolling in intoxication; and gamblers without their upper garments-the winners making merry and the losers crestfallen;

Richly caparisoned chariots or carts , be decked  in colorful decorative coverings

bullock cart 1815

And, A village by its hedges and sparse gardens; and , its women folk

village well


23. Visualization and personification of deities and objects

lakshminarayana on garuda  vishnu lakshmi on elephant 2

23.1. While Elaborating on Adrista, the text says the objects in nature could also be visualized or personified by the artist, endowing its objects with distinct personality. In this respect, the art of painting, the chitra, enjoys a distinct advantage, and a far greater artistic liberty and freedom of expression, as compared to sculpture, the shilpa. A painting can comfortably handle things that are virtually impossible to be shown in sculpture; those things include the color, space or the darkness of the night etc. Painting enjoys the virtue and facility of rendering the absolute in tangible and visual forms.

23.2. In the traditional Indian painting, the ambiguity of color and appearance in its descriptive and suggestive forms was clearly kept apart. Each form of depiction had a purpose and a place of its own; but they often combined to produce a magical effect, bestowing on the Indian art a unique character and vision.

23.3. We therefore see in the work of the ancient painters, subtle nuances as also the representations of the tangible world, the beauty of its forms, its volume and weight; and yet there is always a suggestion of something which is more and beyond.

23.4. The visualization and personification of objects in nature, as envisaged in the Chitrasutra, employs whole sets of symbolism. For instance, the sky when painted in its natural and descriptive context should be painted almost without any color. But, when sky is personified, it should be depicted as noble person, blue-lotus in color, wearing a garment of that color; and carrying sun and moon in his hands.

23.5. The sun in its natural depiction should be bright and shining, lightening up the canvas. But, when personifying the sun, it should be shown as a person with four hands , very lustrous , in the color of vermilion, with all auspicious marks;, with glowing garments; adorned by flower garlands and rich ornaments. His left and right hands should be shown projecting sunbeams, resembling reins of a chariot.


Varaha Mihira, in his masterly encyclopedic work Brhat Samhita (Ca. Sixth Century CE), under the Chapter 58 – Prathima Lakshana Adhyaya– specifies that:

    1. In the image of the Sun, the nose, the forehead, the shanks, the thighs, the cheeks and the breast shall Be large. In adorning the image, the method followed in the northern countries shall be followed. From breast to the feet shall appear covered.
    2. The Sun shall be represented as holding a lotus in each hand, as wearing a crown and pendants, with garlands hanging from his neck and as surrounded by Devas.
    3. The face shall be bright as the lotus. The body shall be covered with stitched coats / the countenance shall be cheerful and the luster of the gems shall add beauty to the image. He who fixes in a temple an image of the Sun of the above description will enjoy prosperity.
    4. An image of only a cubit high is good; one of 2 cubits long will bring on wealth; and if the height be 3 or 4 cubits there will be plenty and prosperity


The personified Moon should be made with a white body (as composed of water), in white garments, lustrous, with all ornamental and four hands. In his two hands he should be shown holding two kumuda (night-lotuses) flowers in full bloom .He should be endowed with luster and beauty.


While visualizing and personifying the rivers, they are to be represented as persons having their own character and personality. They have to be given a human shape, and they should be astride their vahana (mount) on bent knees, and holding in their hands a pitcher.

Each river it is said has a distinct personality and character. For instance, the Ganga turbulent and milky in color gushes down the mountain slopes. The Yamuna, in contrast, is of dark hue, placid and wide.

ganga on crocodile

Another name for water in Sanskrit is Apah. The term Apah is invested with varieties of meanings. Apah, the waters are called the mothers (apah asmin matarah) : ‘The waters are our mother (ambayah), womb of the universe’ (RV.1.23.10).Water is  the nourishing mother who gives birth to the manifest world. She is the Mother of all creation; and, denotes freedom from bondage. Apah, as rivers is the creative energy which is active and moving Since Apah suggests movement (gati), the life-giving (jiva-nadi) , flowing rivers and streams are deemed feminine (Prakrti) ; while the stagnant Samudra the ocean into which all beings go and from which all beings emerge acquired a masculine identity (Purusha).

Samudra (the Sea) is described as the gatherer of waters; the goal of all rivers; and, the eldest of the rivers (samudra jyestha), The sea is personified as the King of Oceans (Samudra –raja); and, is represented by a noble looking Lord holding afloat in his hands jewel-vessel. The halo around his head should be drawn resembling water.


The person of a mountain symbolized as Parvatha –raja (king of mountains) –  the lordly mountain, a sublime shelter for sages, the greatest treasure trove of minerals , giving birth to and sheltering great rivers,  cascades, cataracts, and caves is usually shown as a semi human mountain peak with a halo around his head.

Kama the amorphous desire (cupidity) that drives us and resides in each one of us, too, is personified. The text (Part Three; chapter: 73; verses 1-15) mentions that Kama as one of unrivalled beauty. He should be riding a parrot; and should be carrying a bow and arrow with five arrow-heads. His eyes half closed as if intoxicated and curled smile on his lips. His beautiful four wives Rathi, Priti, Sakhi and Madasakthi   should be done extraordinarily charming and bewitching.


24. Rasa

24.1. The artistic creation though not real can arouse in the mind of the viewer, the experience of the original object. The objects in art are virtual and not physical. The artistic experience is, therefore, inferential and indirect; rather than direct perception.

A real work of art, in addition to possessing emotive charge carries a strong sense of suggestion and the potential to produce various meanings. It can communicate through suggestions and evoke layers of meanings and emotion.

Rasa is that experience which the viewer derives from an art expression.

Sage Markandeya said (43- 1-39): The Rasa-s, (emotions) represented in painting are said to be nine, viz., :

    1. Srngara (erotic),
    2. Hasya (humor, cheer),
    3. Karuna (pathos),
    4. Vira (heroic),
    5. Raudra (ferocious),
    6. Bhayanaka (horror, frightful),
    7. Bibhatsa (loathsome),
    8. Adbhuta (wonder, exotic and supernatural) and
    9. Shanta (tranquil, peaceful).

Pictures to embellish homes should depict Srngara, Hasya and Shanta rasas. The rest of the Rasas should never be used in the house of anyone where women and children dwell; including the residential quarters of the ruler. But, in the assembly halls of kings, palace of a ruler and in the temple of a god all the sentiments may be represented

krishna srngara

24.2. The text says, “Anything be it beautiful or ugly, dignified or despicable, dreadful or of a pleasing appearance, deep or deformed, object or non-object, whatever it be, could be transformed in to rasa by an artist’s imagination and skill”

24.3. The great scholar Abhinavagupta (10th-11th century), remarked, a creation in art is the expression of a feeling that is freed from localized distinctions; it is the generalization of a particular feeling. It comes into being through the creative genius (prathibha) of the artist. And, it finds its fulfilment in the heart of the viewer, who derives ananda the joy of aesthetic experience. He is, therefore, central to that art -experience. That pleasure must not, however, bind the viewer but must liberate him from his limited confines.

24.4. A true aesthetic object, Abhinavagupta declares, not merely stimulates the senses but also ignites the imagination of the viewer. That experience sets the individual free from the confines of place, time and ego (self). Thus, art is not mundane; it is alaukika, beyond the ordinary.

It is that magical quality which the Chitrasutra too was talking about.


While on the subject of Rasa, let me mention that The Vishnudharmottara is the earliest text that seeks to elaborate the theory of Rasa in the context of visual arts such as painting.

The Vishnudharmottara and another text the Samarangana-Sutradhara recognise the role of the Natya-Shastra from which they derive and modify their own theories.

At the same time there are also certain differences between the two texts. While the Natya-Shastra mentions only eight Rasas, the Vishnudharmottara accepts and introduces Shantha as the ninth Rasa.

Another main difference is that the Vishnudharmottara considers the “separation from the beloved (Viraha)” as a state that produces Karuna-rasa; whereas the Natya-Shastra clearly states that the Vipra-lambha involves the condition of sticking to hopeful expectation of reunion with the beloved out of yearning and anxiety, and is therefore a case of Srngara -rasa.

As regards the depiction of the Rasas in a painting, the Vishnudharmottara suggests:

For the erotic sentiment (Srngara), the figures should be depicted clad in sophisticated dress and ornaments; and their amorous beauty should be expressed by the exquisite beauty of the lines.

To bring about laughter in the representation of comic sentiment (Hasya), one should portray the hunch-backed; the dwarfs; the things which look somewhat distorted;  and , such gestures such as the unnecessary clenching of the fists and so on.

In the case of the tragic sentiment (Karuna), one should paint situations that evoke sympathy such as begging, separation from the beloved, renunciation, ailment and calamity.

 To express the wrathful sentiment (Raudra) in a painting, one should depict harshness, agitation, anger, hostility; and, the destruction of property and food. Its effect should be enhanced by  display of glinting weapons and armour.

 In a painting expressing the heroic sentiment (Vira), there should be a display of nobleness in form of oath taking and pride; the hero should be depicted with a frown and an arrogant expression.

In a painting expressing the terrible sentiment (Bhayanaka), the subject of portrayal should be vile, frightful to look at, fading away in decay and looking contemptible and murderous.

 The painting that represents the sentiment of disgust (Bhibhatsa), should disturb the mind of the viewer, because of its terrifying subject matter such as the funeral grounds and the acts of reprehensible violence.

The marvelous sensation (Adbhuta) is conveyed by depicting someone having a wide-eyed look, an expectant face and beads of perspiration.

The representation of the tranquil sentiment (Shanta) consists mainly of ascetics in meditative postures with a band clasping their legs and of any other subject that expresses calmness


The element of Rasa is essentially not different from the other constituents of painting. As in other concepts, its exposition involves an expressive technical sophistication that lends scope to introduce the viewer or practitioner into a profound understanding of the meaning of a painting through the appreciation of its depictions; and, thereby, to experience the sentiments expressed in it.

Rasa, therefore, should not be considered as a separate entity from other technical constituents like measurement and proportion, stances and colors. A good painting should be performed with a working knowledge of all of these factors. Without knowing the theory of Rasa our understanding of painting would remain fragmentary and superficial.

Hanuman on lotus

25.1 . The Sukraniti Sara remarks: These laws that the Shastras lay down; these fine analysis of what an image should be, are only of limited extent. But, verily, endless are the forms..! No Shastra can ever define, appraise or enumerate all the perfect (Sarvangai sarva-ramyo) works of art.

And , in a similar manner, At the end of Chitrasutra – the treatise  dealing with the Rules of Painting, the Sage Markandeya observes :

Oh King…! In this treatise only suggestions are given; for, this subject can never be described in detail even in as many as hundred years. Whatever has not been said here, should be inferred from the rules of dancing (Nrtya), Oh lord of the earth;

Painting is the best of all arts, conducive to Dharma, and emancipation-Kalanaam pravaram-chitram; Dharma-Artha-Kama-Mokshadam.

It is very auspicious (mangaly-parmam-hetu) when placed in a house (griha-prathistitham). As Sumeru is the best of mountains; Garuda is the chief of birds; and, a lord of the earth is  the most exalted amongst men, so is painting the best of all arts- Kshitisatha kalanaamiha pravaram chitra-kalpaha .


Sources and References:

I gratefully acknowledge Shri S Rajam’s sublime paintings

And the other paintings from internet

Citrasutra of the Visnudharmottara Purana by Parul Dave Mukherji

Stella Kramrisch: The Vishnudharmottara Part III:  A Treatise on Indian Painting and Image-Making; Second Revised and Enlarged Edition; (Calcutta University Press: 1928)

The Painter in Ancient India by  Dr. C. Sivaramamurti

Technique of painting prescribed in ancient Indian Texts

The “Sarvatobhadra” temple of the Vishnu-dharmottara-purana

All illustrations are from Internet


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The Art of Painting in Ancient India – Chitrasutra (5)

[This is the fourth in the series of articles I would be posting on the art of painting in ancient India with particular reference to the Chitrasutra of Vhishnudharmottara purana

The previous (third) article dealt with the physical features of various classes and types of images, proportions, projections, foreshortening etc. covered certain concepts and general aspects discussed in Chitrasutra.

The current article is about colours; the concepts, classifications and application of colours. It also briefly mentions about shading and how to go about drawing.]

shiva nilakanta


13. Colours

13.1. Chitrasutra in one of its passages observes that delineation, shading, ornamentation and colouring are the decorative aspects of a painting; suggesting that rekha the lines that articulate the forms are the real substance of a painting.

At another place, the text remarks, “The masters praise the rekhas –lines (delineation and articulation of form), the connoisseurs praise the display of light and shade, women like the display of ornaments,; and , the richness of colours appeals  to common folks.”

Rekham prasamsaniya -acharya; vartanam apare jaguh / striyo Bhushanam ichchhanti; varnadhyam itare janah // 3.41.11

13.2. Yet, the colors are very important and significant aspects of a painting; they enliven a depiction. The text says , ”  when a learned and skilled artist paints with golden( radiant)  color, with articulate and yet very soft lines with distinct and well arranged garments; and graced with beauty, proportion , rhythm and inspiration, then the painting would truly be beautiful.”

13.3. The six limbs (anga) of painting enumerated in the text include Varnika-bhanga, which represents the artistic manner of improvising colour combinations, tones and shades. It provides for infusion of emotion, creation of lustre and irradiance. That involves, among other things, delicate and skilful use of brushes and other aids. It represents the maturity of the artist’s techniques and fruitfulness of his experience

Colour, therefore, is a major medium in painting; the emotions and moods are expressed through manipulating colours, their density, tones, lines, light, shades etc. The ingenuity, imagination and skill of the artist discover their limitations here.

13.3  While the Sutra-pata-rekha is the first line of the outline, the subha-varti-rekha is the finished sketch, ready for taking the colors. Now is the time for mandala – karya, drawing of curves, characterized as manorama (charming) and askhalita (un -erring) is the final stage of subha-varti-rekha. In this stage, the initially blocked rough contours are carefully rounded off at their edges; and, a new grace is added to the figures by more definitive work.

The initial coat of color is to be light (virala vilepana) and only the later depths are suggested by Vartana.

13.4 . The term Varna-krama indicates the general arrangement of color-scheme in a painting, the balancing of the tints to achieve a color-harmony. That term is also said to indicate the laying of tints like green, yellow and the rest (varnakramo harita, pita adi  varna-vinyasah). Another term, varna-sthiti –  is meant to indicate the color laid in its proper place in the picture. Such placement of just the right color in just the right place on the canvas is considered very essential, at least in the preliminary stages of coloring, when the effect of one color over the other, their contrast, the balance, the tone and such other details are to be determined.

The refinements of touching and blending etc. might come in later at proper time and place.

14. Colour – symbolism and suggestions

14.1. The colors in a painting have a descriptive and also a suggestive significance. Colours bestow a personality to a figure and speak eloquently of its character and mood. Colours also carry rich symbolism; they might depict the gunas such as the satva, rajas or tamas; and make explicit the essential character and attributes of an image.

In certain  Vasishnava traditions  , Radha   the personification of love and beauty, is adorned in the colour dearest to her,  the enchanting blue of Krishna, while he  is clad in pitambara  the lustrous golden hue of his beloved Radha, signifying sanidhya ,  the sense of being ever together.

radhye shyam

There was, in addition, a class of pictures called rasa-chitra, the pictures of emotions, also called varna-lekhya meaning interpretations through colour. These were different from realistic paintings and sought deliberately to represent various emotions through distinct colours. In this school, idioms of colour visualized a range of emotions; and, each rasa had to be portrayed in its uniquely expressive colour.  For instance:

    • Srinagar (erotic) was of shyama hue(light sky blue) ;
    • hasya (that which evokes laughter) in white;
    • karuna (pathos) in gray;
    • raudra , (the furious) in red;
    • vira (the heroic) in yellowish-white;
    • bhayanaka (the fearsome) in black;
    • adbhuta (supernatural and amazing) in yellow ; and
    • bhibathsa (the repulsive ) in blue colour.
      • krishnam vande

14.2. The colours of our mythological figures represent, symbolize and convey their attributes. For instance, the highest divinities with supreme attributes (gunas) are sky blue signifying their true infinite nature; Shiva, the ascetic the supreme yogi is Gauranga; he is colourless and almost transparent, he is without any attributes; Hanuman and Ganesh are red like the blood;   full of energy, vitality and life; and Kali’s black does not signify absence of colour but is the sum and culmination of all colours and energies in the universe. Her black is endowed with limitless powers of attraction that draws into her the entire existence.

maha kali

14.3. During the later periods, the Ragamala School of painting attempted translating the emotional appeal of a Raga into visual representations. Each raga was personified by a colour, mood, the nature surrounding the hero and heroine (nayaka and nayika).  It also elucidated the season and the time of day and night in which a particular raga is to be sung. The colours, substance and the mood of the Ragamala personified the overall bhava and context of the Raga. It is a delightful amalgam of art, colour, poetry and music.

ragamala ragamala2

II. Colour in Chitrasutra

15. Primary colours and their derivatives

15.1.Talking of colors; Chitrasutra mentions basic colors as five, while the others only four (red, yellow, blue and white); though both agree on white as a primary color.

Chitrasutra, in chapter 27, mentions five primary colours (mulavarna) : white (svetha), yellow (pitha)  , black (krshna), green (harita) and red (raktha).  

Mula-rangaha smruthaha pancha, Shewtaha Pitha vilomathaha / Krishno Nilash cha Rajendra shatha shontaraha Smurtha /

raktas tatha pitah krishno harita eva cha, mulavarnas samakhyatah panha parthivasattama, ekadvitrisamayagat bhavakalpanaya tatha, sankhyaivantaravarnanam loke kartum na sakyate.

The idea of four colors with yellow composed of gorochana; white sandal, crimson saffron; and dark musk in the varied hues of gems like turquoise, diamond, ruby and amethyst.

Pita vadata arunanilabhasam deho padehotkiranair maninam / gorochana-chandana-kumkumai-nana-abhivilepanam punruktayantim / /

At another place (ch.40) it mentions white, yellow, black, blue (shyama) and the colour of myrobalan (the dried fruit of a bush that resembles a plum) as the five principal colors.

15.2. The text says , it would be impossible to enumerate the mixed colors in the world created by the dexterous mixing of various colors and their derivatives;  the combinations are limited only by ones imagination and logic. The mixing of two or three colors, in various shades and tones,  and their manipulation is a mark of artist’s ingenuity. There is no limit to the numerous finer varieties of tints that can be produced by the imagination of the artist. Coloring should , however, be natural.

It appears, the range of colors employed by the ancient artists was wide enough to render with subtlety the local colors of the objects.

The mixing of these colors is left to the of the ingenuity of the artist. He may coat them with lac and resin. Coloring substances are : gold, silver, copper, mica, deep coloured brass, red lead, vermilion, tin, yellow orpiment, yellow myrobalan, lac, indigo and some kind of iron oxide.

[Prof. Beni Madhav Barua points to a passage in the Samyutta-Nikaya (Part III, p. 152) , where the Buddha ,incidentally, mentions the following vegetable substances used by the dyers or painters for preparing dyes or colours ; (1) resin (rajana); lac (lakha); turmeric (balidda); indigo (nili);and, madder (manjetthi).]

15.3. Chitrasutra classifies the application of colours into four categories: as those that are employed to depict  :

    • (i) the faithful representations of nature;
    • (ii) the true proportions but largely exaggerated size of the object;
    • (iii) artificial qualities and perspectives of objects; and,
    • (iv) an admixture of the three.

15.4. The text mentions five kinds of whites of light shade (gaura); and twelve kinds of whites of dark shades (shyama). The light -whites are the :

    • gold like white (rukma) ;
    • ivory like white (danta-gauri);
    • white like the split sandal(sphuta-candana-gauri);
    • autumn cloud like white( sharada- ghana) ; and 
    • autumn moon like white (sharad –candraka-  gauri).

Some other texts, which followed Chitrasutra give a slightly varied versions of the light -whites as: milk, pearl, silver, star or a conch-shell (Kasyapasilpa); Foam-white, champaka and karnikara flowers (Bana); and lime (Manasollasa).

15.5. The twelve types of dark (shyama) shades of white which are derived by the mixtures and manipulations of white with other colors and shades, as mentioned in the text are:

  • the mixtures with dark red (raktha-shyama);
  • with brownish red like the mudga pulse (mudga-shyama);
  • with dark green like durva grass (durvankura-shyama);
  • with pale green (pandu-shyama);
  • with greenish like topaz (harita -shyama);
  • with yellow (pitha-shyama);
  • with brown like priyangu creeper (priyangu- shyama);
  • with reddish brown like monkey’s face (kapi -shyama);
  • with blue like blue lotus (nilothpala -shyama);
  • with slight blue like casa bird (casa- shyama);
  • with purple- lotus – red (raktotpala-shyama) ;
  • and , with grey- dark like a dark cloud (ghana-shyama).

The objects gain a character (vishesha) and a dimension with judicious inter-mixture of colors.

15.6. The text then goes to describe the forms of a few other colours.

colour is said to be of three kinds: with white predominating, with very little white; or with both in equal parts.

When blue is transformed a great deal it becomes green; and, it could be pure green or an admixture of white; and green with blue predominating. Blue with black and red becomes metallic blue (nila-lohitha). Blue is transformed variously while   in association with anything applied as an astringent.

Blue tinged with yellow and white gives rise to a variety of colours and shades; and to Blue- lotus colour when shaded dark.

Thus beautiful paintings should be made greenish like durva sprout; Yellowish like wood-apple; and dark like mudga.”

The kinds of red mentioned in Manasollasa and Kasyapasilpa are   :

    • red lead (darada),
    • crimson (sona),
    • juice of lac (alaktarasa),
    • blood red (raktha),
    • soft red (mridu-raktha), and
    • red ochre (lohita).

 “A painting in red and dark like the red-lotus (rakthothpala)
becomes beautiful when combined with white lac, covered by a coating of lac and resin

Four kinds of yellow are mentioned in Kasyapasilpa:

    • golden (svarna),
    • yellow (pita),
    • turmeric (haridra) and
    • like pollen of lotus (pisanga ).

As regards black,  Kasyapasilpa mentions four shades:

    • of clouds (nila),
    • of forest crow (shyam),
    • of a peacock (kala) , and
    • of wing of a black-bee (krshna)

To that list Bana adds :

    • light black like that of a buffalo;
    • darker black like the face of a golangula monkey;
    • black of the pitch dark night.

By proper selection and distribution of colours a painting becomes beautiful.”

A painting should be then very beautiful, when a learned artist paints it with golden colours, with articulate and yet very soft lines, with distinct and well arranged garments ; and blessed with beauty of proportions and rhythm.”

16. Colour pigments

The colour pigments were made from mineral and vegetable colouring substances (Rangadravyas) or dyes.

16.1. The text mentions some colouring articles :

    • gold (kanakam ) ,
    • silver (rajata),
    • copper (tamra),
    • mica (abrakam ),
    • lapis lazuli’s (rajavarta),
    • red lead (sindhura),
    • lead (tavara),
    • yellow orpiment (haritala- a bright yellow arsenic sulphide mineral),
    • lime (suddhe),
    • lac (lakshya),
    • vermillion (hingulakam) and
    • indigo (nila).

Rangadravyani kanakam rajatam tamram eva cha abhrakam rajavartam cha sinduram trapur eva cha, haritalam sudha laksha tatha hingulakam nripa, nilam cha manujasreshtha tathanye santyanekasah, dese dese mahaaja karyas te stambhanayutah, lohanam patravinyasam bhaved vapi rasakriya- 3. 40. 25-27

It is said; in case of all colors the liquid of sindhura tree is desirable.

16.2. The text further says:

“In every country, there are many such substances. They should be manufactured with an astringent (stambhanayutah). The irons or metals should be either thinned into leaves (patravinyasa) or they should be made liquid (rasakriya) – by chemical treatment. A mica defile placed in iron should serve as a distiller. In this way, iron becomes suitable for painting”

[There is also a reference to dying the cloth with varied figures. Not only were paintings made of cloth but the cloth itself was dyed so as to be decorated with figures. It is a technique for which, later ,  was made famous by the weavers of coastal Andhra Pradesh.]

16.3. The Gold sheet and powder was used to make the background or details in painting. Gold is of the most malleable and softest of metals. Therefore, it can be made in to a very thin sheet and cover wide surfaces. There were various methods for the preparation of powdered gold.

There is an interesting description of the process of turning gold into gold-paint. The text says:

“Pure gold, which is costly, should be slowly ground on a stone slab with an instrument (tunda) having at its tip the virana grass.

The gold-powder thus prepared should be placed in a bronze vessel and melted over again. Thereafter water should be poured into it and then be stirred up time and again. Now water of the vessel should be so carefully shifted that the stone-dusts remain for their solidarity. In this manner, pure golden pigments, showing the hue of the luster of a newly risen sun, would be prepared.

Thereafter, this gold-pulp should be mixed with a small quantity of vajralepa, should be placed at the tip of the brush and all ornaments, imagined as of gold, should be gilded therewith. When the gold applied in painting becomes dry, it should be slowly rubbed with a boar-tusk as long as necessary to attain a brightness of lightning.”

Sri rama durbar

A painting should be then very beautiful, when a learned artist paints it with golden colors, with articulate and yet very soft lines, with distinct and well arranged garments; and blessed with beauty of proportions and rhythm.”

The Shilparatna (1.46.124-132) mentions two systems for application of gold on to the painting: one, with gold powder mixed with vajralepa; and, the other with gold leaves.

The first method requires that before grinding gold, it should be turned into thin and soft leaves; and, those leaves should be very minutely fragmented and mixed up with small quantity of sand and clean water. And, thereafter, it should be mixed with water and poured into a pot, which should then be well shaken, so that the sand will rise above the gold, which is heavier. After removal of dirt and sand, the gold would shine very bright. And, that gold should be pasted along with proportionate glue (vajralepa) ; and , skillfully applied with a suitable brush. When dried up, it should be slowly rubbed with the tip of boar-tusk till the gold glitters.

As per the second method, the spots on the painting meant for gliding should be smeared with glue; and, extremely thin gold leaves should be laid thereon very steadfastly. Again, the gold-spots should be brightened by rubbing.

17. Shading.

17.1. Methods of producing effects of light and shade were considered very important for projecting three dimensional presentation of the image.* Weakness or thickness of delineation, want of articulation, improper juxtaposition of colors are said to be defects of painting.”

One of the endearing features of Ajanta art is shading the 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.

The Shilparatna (1.46.113-117) explains that a skilled painter should fill in colors slowly and spotlessly with a flat brush in order to achieve the three-dimensional special effects of depressions and protrusions. Everything should be made to appear pleasing by differentiation of darkness and brightness; and, of hardness and softness. In application of individual colors, the effect of thickness is dark; and, that of thinness is bright. This effect is also achieved by using different colors. Where yellow stands for bright; red would be dark. The borderline should be carefully drawn in lampblack (kajjala-varna) with a fine brush.

17.2. The text mentions three methods of Vartana-krama or delineation of depth on a flat surface by the suggestion of light and shade. Such effects are sought to be achieved by one or more of the techniques: Patraja (cross hatching); Binduja (stipping) and Rekhika (fine lineation).

Tisrascha Vartanah proktah patra-rekhika-bindujah ( 3.41.5)

The first method of shading (Vartana) is called (Patraja) on account of lines being in the shape of leaves. The Binduja method is restrained (i.e., not flowing) handling of the brush while planting dots patiently. And, the Rekhika method is said to be very fine line-shading

17.3. While stressing the importance of proper shading of an image the text mentions that a painting in which an object is devoid of shading (varttana) is of average class (madhyama). A picture which in some parts are shaded and the rest is un-shaded is below average or is bad (adhama). And, a picture shaded skilfully all over is best (uttama).

A painting in which everything is drawn in an acceptable form in its proper position , in its proper time and age becomes excellent, while in the opposite case it becomes quite different.” 

“A painting drawn with care, pleasing to the eye, thought out with supreme intelligence and remarkable by its execution, beauty, charm, taste and such other qualities, yields desired pleasure.”

Shuiyue Guanyin' (Avalokiteṣvara), the mural in the Fahai monastary Bejing

[The murals at Ajanta, which were rooted in the principles of the Chitrasutra, are said to have influenced the Chinese painting techniques, particularly with regard to  the style of depiction  and shading;  giving a three-dimensional effect to the details in the painting .

“The Indian Painting Technique introduced from India is also called the concave and convex method. The concave and convex method is one of the traditional painting techniques of India. The concave and convex method was widely used in the murals of the Ajanta Caves in India. This method in Indian traditional paintings was also introduced in China across central Asia, which is called “Indian Technique” in Chinese painting history.

The Chinese scholar Xiang Da said, “Both Indian and Chinese paintings give priority to the lines. But Indian painting adds the concave and convex method in the lines to present a three dimensional sense in a flat surface. For the figures painted, such as the arms, contour lines are clean and lively, deep colours are added along the lines, which change gradually to soft and light internally, forming a round shape. This is what is called the concave and convex method. The Ajanta and Sigiriya Caves in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) all used this method to show light and shade. The Indian painting was introduced in China; the most notable and worth praising part of it is also this concave and convex method, going in the same channel of western painting introduced in China in Ming and Qing Dynasties.”

Source: (Civilization of Chang’an and the Western Regions in the Tang Dynasty).]

Dunhuang murals during the northern Wei Period in China. It is preserved in cave number 254 of Mogao caves

18. Brushes and crayons

The text mentions the tools required for drawing and sketching. Vartika was a general term used to denote both a brush and a crayon or a pastel for drawing. The Chitrasutra suggests that brushes could made of hairs collected from the ear of a calf; from the belly of a goat; from the tail of muskrat; or from tips of grasses.

It appears Tindu was a crayon too, of carefully burnt ebony twig; while kitta was black carbon prepared as a roll for sketching.  Tulika was brush prepared, perhaps, out of animal hair like sable, squirrel and hog; and , of bird feathers. It is said; a painter used at least nine brushes for every color.

The text says, “A painting firmly drawn with a tulika , a magnificent hairy brush , on a canvas dipped in juice of the best Durva grass cannot be destroyed ; and it remains intact for many years , though washed by water.”

Eberhard Fischer in his paper The Technique of Indian Painters A short note observes :

It may also be of interest to mention that the fine brushes used by the Indian masters for precise lines are made from squirrel hair. The tied-together hair bushel cut from the tail is pulled through a bird’s feather quill and fixed to a bamboo handle. For each color, a separate brush is usually used. The finest brushes for outlining do not end in a straight tip but are considered best when the hair possesses a natural sickle-like curve ending in a tip. With this peculiar brush, a master can draw a circle with an utmost uniform thin line! One should also not forget that Indian painters traditionally sit on the floor when working and keep the tablet with the picture on their left thigh. (When a low table is used its top is generally slanted at an angle.) The painter’s hand with the brush touches or even rests on the picture, which is covered at that point with a small piece of paper. The regular viewing distance is thus given by the length of the arm. The traditional miniaturist has his pigments mixed with gum Arabic (from the babul or acacia tree) and sometimes with catechu sap or with shellac for an even flow. Mixed pigments are usually stored in small river-mussel shells placed to the right of the painter on the ground.

19. How to go about the task?

The first requisite for a painting , of course, is bhu-labha or bhu-lambha the preparation of a proper, smooth, white surface to paint. It could be a canvas (pata), board (phalaka) or a wall (bhitti).

In the process of preparing the ground and then in fastening colors on that ground, the binding medium plays a very significant role in painting.

In fact, in the characterization of technique of a painting the nature of the medium is always taken into consideration; and accordingly, the universally accepted classification, such as, oil, water, tempera, fresco, etc. is generally formulated on the basis of the medium.

preparation of Bhumi: – preparation of board phalaka or canvas, pata, or ghattana –  phalaka ghattinchi: is the preparation of the board with canvas applied to it; and, – Merungidi is ‘giving brilliance’.

In the case of canvas on a board, Sri Vidyaranya describes that process in his Panchadasi,

yatha dhauto ghattitascha lanchhito ranjitah patah “-

‘like the canvas whitened, prepared, marked i.e. sketched out and colored….’

-As regards the preparation of wall: Bhitti- samakara , it is said : The preparation of loam to be applied to the plaster on the wall to make a proper base for painting is as follows: a mixture of powdered brick, gum resin, bees wax, molasses, oil, burnt lime plaster, in definite proportions, pulp of bilva, bark or pinhchhila, sand and lime all to be soaked for a month in water. The surface of the wall to painted on has to be prepared by the application of this loam, the coat neither too thick nor too thin, making it meticulously even in its surface and glossy, smoothened with clayey liquid, juice of sarja and oil and rubbed by repeated sprinkling of milk, so that when it is dry it could last a century.

[ For a detailed note  on the subject of Paint grounds and binders according to ancient Sutras, please refer to the latter half of Part Four of this series.]


Sutra-pata-rekha are the very first lines of an outline of a preliminary sketch. The outline sketch is usually drawn a stump of a sort pencil called Vartika.

–  purvam tinduka-lekhyam syad yad va vartikaya budhaih / aakara -matrikam rekham vina likhet punah // 

 This rough sketch seems to be called as varnaka or hastalekha.


The outline, no doubt, is a quickly drawn rough sketch. Yet, it is a well thought-out , meaningful , studied drawing.

While the Sutra-pata-rekha is the first line of the outline, the subha-varti-rekha is the finished sketch, ready for taking the colors. Now is the time for mandala – karya, drawing of curves, characterized as manorama (charming) and askhalita (un -erring) is the final stage of subha-varti-rekha.

In this stage, the initially blocked rough contours are carefully rounded off at their edges; and, a new grace is added to the figures by more definitive work.

The initial coat of color is to be light (virala vilepana) and only the later depths are suggested by Vartana.


The text briefly mentions how a painter should go about his task. The outlines ought to be drawn in yellow and red as a rule.

“The painter should think of the proportionate size of the thing to be painted, and think of it as having been put on a wall. Then calculating its size in his mind , he should draw the outline marking the limbs. It should be bright in prominent places and dark in depressed places . It may be drawn in a single color , where comparative distinction is required. If depressed places are required to be bright , jet black should be used . “

At another place, the text mentions that outlines should be drawn with un-oozing black and white brushes in due order fix them on the duly measured ground.

Outline has to be filled with the first colour-wash which could either white or green. And, it can later be filled with colour in appropriate places.

Chitrasutra cautions that an inconvenient painting stance or a bad seat or thirst or absentmindedness or sloppiness or bad temper could spoil the picture.

Dur-asanam, dura-nitam pipasa cha anya-chittaha / yete chitra-vinyasasya hetavaha pari-kirtitaha /3.41.13/

Sva anuliptva akasha nideshanam madhuka Shubha / su-prasanna abhi gupta cha bhumihi sat-Chitra-karmani /3.41.14/

Su-snigdha vispusta Suvarna -rekham vidvan anyata desha vishesha vesham / Pramana  Shobha-birahiyamanam krutam bhaveth Chitram ativa chitram/3.41.15/


The text, Samarangana-sutradhara, mentions eight-limbs’ (asta-angani) of painting to which an artist should adhere for achieving success as a painter:

Bhumibandhana (preparation of surface) ; Vartika (crayon work) ; rekha-karma ( outline work ); laksana (features of face) ; varna-karma ( colorings ); vartana-karma (relief by shading ); lekha-karma (correction) and dvika-karma ( final outline)

Eberhard Fischer in his The Technique of Indian Painters A short note explains that  Painting a picture is generally done in eight stages after the paper is burnished to make it compact, smooth and less absorbent:

1 The rough outline of the composition is sketched with charcoal.

2 The first drawing – often in sanguine – is done with the brush.

3 A first thin white wash is applied above this drawing.

4 The drawing is repeated, now in a thin but precise black line.

5 The white priming is laid over the drawing in such a thickness that its black lines remain feebly visible.

6 Before now filling in colors, excess pigments are erased with a sharp knife-blade, and the surface is burnished.

7 The pigments are laid – one by one – in thin layers, the first ones being a rather liquid wash and usually somewhat lighter than the final color. The picture is burnished from the back when dry, followed by a second round of applying pigments and burnishing.

8 When all colors are placed and dried, the outlines are traced,  details incorporated  and shading or volume indications done.  Some wash with yellow or light brown may be given, gold can finally be applied on yellow undercoating, and white drops may be made for pearls from powdered conch shells or zinc oxide mixed with chalk. The gold (or tin for an silver effect) can be powdered foil and applied like other mineral pigments, but also gold leaf could be glued on the picture. In both cases its surface was often pierced with a blunt needle after burnishing it to enhance the glittering effect.



 Chitrasutra continued

Sources and References:

I gratefully acknowledge Shri S Rajam’s sublime paintings

And other paintings from internet

Chitrasutra of the Visnudharmottara Purana by Parul Dave Mukherji

Stella Kramrisch: The Vishnudharmottara Part III: A Treatise on Indian Painting and Image-Making;

Second Revised and Enlarged Edition; (Calcutta University Press: 1928)

Technique of painting prescribed in ancient Indian Texts

The “Sarvatobhadra” temple of the Vishnu-dharmottara-purana


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The Art of Painting in Ancient India – Chitrasutra (4)

The Art of Painting in Ancient India – Chitrasutra (Annexure to three)

wallpainting in cave 1 Ajanta

This segment is in the nature of a supplement to The Art of Painting in Ancient IndiaChitrasutra (3) . I mentioned therein: “The Chitrasutra explores in great depth the characteristics of persons hailing from various regions and occupations. Since it is rather too detailed, I would be posting a summary of that, along with few other issues, in a separate article”. Hence, this post.

The Chitrasutra, at several places, discusses the appearances  of  persons and objects that we meet/see in our day to day life. It instructs, the representations of the objects and persons,   as drawn on the canvas should bear a credible resemblance to their original.

The text, therefore, reckons   Rupa-bheda and Sadrushya, among the six essential elements of a painting. Rupa-bheda consists in the knowledge of special characteristics of things – natural or man-made; say, the differences in appearances among many types of men, women or natural objects or other subjects of the painting; while Sadrushya aims to depict, in painting, those distinctions and resemblances.

Things that usually are visible to all should be well represented,  resembling what is  commonly seen in nature.”

Shilpa-ratna, another ancient text, also refers to painting as that which bears resemblance to, and looks like a reflection  in   mirror.

figures in Ajanta cave 10

The Chitrasutra instructs that the resemblances should not merely be in general but should extend to details as well. Every part of the object represented should agree with the general treatment of the whole object. It also says that the persons should be painted according to their country; their region, their colour, dress, and general appearances as observed. Having well ascertained the person’s country, region, occupation, age and his status in life; the text says ,  his other details such as his seat, bed, costume, conveyance, stance, and his gestures should be drawn.

The Chitrasutra explores this subject in great depth, detailing the characteristics of persons hailing from various regions and occupations; the nobility, widows, courtesans, artisans, wrestlers, soldiers etc.  It presents a virtual catalogue.

I am posting some of them, in a summarized form along with some illustrations (wherever available) from the sketches of the figures depicted in paintings of Gupta period.

[ Please also see HISTORICAL ANALYSIS OF THE COSTUME IN INDIAN ART, for a scholarly discussion on costumes in ancient art.]

[Bharata in the Chapter Twenty-one of the Natyashastra also gives indications of the costumes to be worn by characters of different class and types. Briefly, according to him:

Such men and women as are devoted to religious practices; and kings , gods as also beings such as Yakshas, Gandharvas, Nagas and Rakshasas ; the maids in the queen’s quarters (Kanchuki), tradesmen, ministers and priests should be dressed in white robes  with, of course, each with their distinctive styles, qualities and richness , depending upon their nature and station in life.

In the case of the Nagarikas, their garments should be of fine texture. The garments of the damsels should be sprinkled with perfumes like musk (Kasturi), saffron (kumkuma) etc; and, cosmetics like laksha, alaktika, gorochana and chandana.

The rouges, the Vita and the vicious ones, intoxicated, should be in dark, gaudy costumes.

Those playing the roles of ascetics, monks and nuns should wear robes in vermilion or yellow or any other colour in keeping with each ones tradition.

As regards the hermits and their celibate disciples, they should be decked in garments made of the bark of the birch tree.

The warriors and soldiers of various class and ranks should be attired in the appropriate military uniforms and turbans, sporting various medals, arms. The Commander-in-chief s should be adorned with coronets and crests.

Gods, divine beings and kings should be presented with crowns, diadems decorated with gems and other precious stones.

brāhmaṇāḥ kṣatriyāścaiva gaurāḥ kāryāstathaiva hi ।
vaiśyāḥ śūdrāstathā caiva śyāmāḥ kāryāstu varṇataḥ ॥ 113॥

evaṃ kṛtvā yathānyāyaṃ mukhāṅgopāṅgavartanām ।
śmaśrukarma prayuñjīta deśakālavayo'nugam ॥114॥

śuddhaṃ vicitraṃ śyāmaṃ ca tathā romaśameva ca ।
bhaveccaturvidhaṃ śmaśru nānāvasthāntarātmakam ॥ 115॥

śuddhaṃ tu liṅgināṃ kāryaṃ tathāmātyapurodhasām ।
madhyasthā ye ca puruṣā ye ca dīkṣāṃ samāśritāḥ ॥ 116॥

divyā ye puruṣāḥ kecitsiddhavidyādharādayaḥ ।
pārthivāśca kumārāśca ye ca rājopajīvinaḥ ॥ 117॥

śṛṅgāriṇaśca ye martyā yauvanonmādinaśca ye ।
teṣāṃ vicitraṃ kartavyaṃ śmaśru nāṭyaprayoktṛbhiḥ ॥ 118॥

anistīrṇapratijñānāṃ duḥkhitānāṃ tapasvinām ।
vyasanābhihatānāṃ ca śyāmaṃ śmaśru  prayojayet ॥ 119॥

ṛṣīṇāṃ tāpasānāṃ ca ye ca dīrghavratā narāḥ ।
tathā ca cīra baddhānāṃ romaśaṃ śmaśru kīrtitam ॥ 120॥ ]

floral design2

1. A king should be drawn as if he were a god


The handsome looking King wears a brown striped silk garment. He is offering flowers to the gods , placed  on a tray painted with designs.

He wears a tiara of floral motif from which hand string of pearls and sapphire. He has on his wrists bracelets of different kinds.

2. Prince


The tender looking Prince wears a classy, decorative crown, twisted like turban in stripes; and, bound, at intervals, with braid. The crown is studded with large gems and is encrusted with   brooches at the sides;  and,  has a central ornament on the top.

He wears a simple earrings (Kuntala) ; a single string of pearls (Muktavali).

His flowing hair comes down to his shoulders; is loosely knotted at the nape; and, bound at the back with ribbons.  On his young forehead, play the stylized curls.  

3. Queen

Women of good-families should be made bashful, wearing ornaments and not showy dress.


The beautiful looking queen seated on a decorated chair is dressed in antariya, a sort of lehenga tied to body at her waist. She has an uttariya (duppatta) the upper garment made of fine material.

She is adorned with several pearl neck-laces (mukthavali), ornamental pearl -bracelets on wrists (valaya), on upper arm (keyura).She wear rings (angulya) on her fingers, and anklets (nupura) round her ankles.

Her hairstyle is elaborate and made into a bun at the nape. Her hair is adorned with flowers, jewels and a tiara.

[Note: BTW, the bodice or blouse is a late entry into the Indian notion of dress. The aristocracy, the ladies of position, and queens of vey ancient India did not usually use a bodice or blouse (as you can see from ancient fresco at Ajanta etc). The women in orthodox families,   engaged in religious duties too did not use one such. But , somehow the chambermaids , the  female attendants on the king and the queen,  were required to wear a bodice –  Kanchuka , a  long narrow scarf, which did not require much tailoring. The chambermaids were therefore, generally, designated Kanchuki (कंचुकी) – as in the old Sanskrit dramas of 2nd century BCE.

The Buddhist nuns were, usually, allowed to use three pieces of cloth: samghati (for lower part), antarvasaka (for the upper part) and uttarasanga (covering garment, in cold season). Kanchuka or bodice was allowed to young nuns.

Some say that wearing a blouse or jacket came into vogue after the entry of Scythians, Kushanas and such others who hailed from cold regions. And, it became fashionable during the Muslim period. The northern influences took some time to percolate down to  the orthodox Deep South.

ravi varma

For instance ; even during the 18th and19th centuries , the ladies of the Kerala royalty , portrayed  in their traditional costume,  did not wear ‘blouse’.  ]

4. Chamber maid

courtlady (1)

While her upper body is left uncovered, she wears a skirt (Ghagri )  stretching up to the knees ; there is a draw-string (nada) at the waist ; the border of the woven silk material is  vertically down the center.

She wears graded ivory or conch-shell bangles (Valaya); and a bead necklace (Hara)

Her hair is parted at the center , with chignon on nape decorated with ribbons; a wreath of leaves is worn around the head.

5. Queens’s maids

queens maid

The queen had several maids, and each had her function. Their dresses, styles and ornaments too varied accordingly.

Court lady or a sort of superintend over queen’s quarters

She is a rather stern looking lady with her hair neatly done and decorated with a tiara (makuta).She has wheel-like large ear–rings (kundala), a strand of pearls across her neck (haravsti) and a twisted wire necklace.

6. Maid servant

maid servant

She carries a fly-whisk (chauri). She wears a short lower garment tucked in under her belt (mekhala) and perhaps a choli too. She is modestly adorned with a strand of pearls round her neck (haravsti), an armlet (keyura) and a bracelet (valaya).She has simple ear-rings. Her hair is drawn back into one plait with few curls on her fore head.


7. Another maid  is dressed in a lehnga –type , of striped cloth(Anatriya); and, choli-type blouse (Cholaka) with an apron front and V-neck made of pulakabandha-tie and dye cloth.

On her ears, she has rings (Kundala); and, wears simple bangles (Valaya).

 Her hair is made into a simple bun with flower wreath (mala)


8. This maid appears to be from the West.

Her hairstyle is simple and is not ornamented.  Her curly hair is held back by a fillet

 For dress, she wears a double jacket (Cholaka), of bandhni (tie-dye cloth) the upper one with shorter sleeves in the angarkha style; the lower one with longer sleeves. The angarkha is shown open;, the left edge of the neckline fastening is curved to fit the inside right edge probably with ties .

She wears two necklaces (Hara), both of beads with the central bead of different shape

maid from west

9.Another maid servant has a simple skirt with a draw-string (nada) and a breast-band (prathidhi). She has an armlet (valaya) , large ear-rings (kndala) . Her hair is worn loose and long. She carries a palm-leaf fan.

maid simple

10. There was an Ayah (nanny) type of maid too. She wore a long sleeved tunic and covered her head. She had large ear-ring (kundala) and a simple chain (hara).


11.This Nanny was, perhaps, from the North-West region. She is dressed in a tunic (Angarkha) reaching up to her knees; with long sleeves; and, bordered all around the edges. She wears a heavily gathered skirt (Ghagri) tied at the hips with a nada. Her head is covered with a scarf –like long cloth (Uttariya) having a decorative border; and hanging behind the shoulders.

As for her ornaments, she has a tiara-like headgear (Mukuta); a flat, heavy short necklace (Kantha); and, bangle on left wrist (Valaya)

As regards her hair; it is shaped into a thick twisted roll, with a padding fixed at the center parting and held in place by tiny plaits of hair. Her head is covered the head with the veil , which is possibly of Parthian /Scythian origin ,and is seldom seen at Ajanta.

12. Dancing girl

dancing girl

The dancer who entertains the queen has an apron-front dress with long sleeves. Her lehanga (antariya) is short with patterned stripes. She perhaps has a choli too. She is well decorated with strands of pearls (muthavali), bangles and brace-lets (valaya), elaborate ear-rings (kanchana kundala) and a tiara (makuta).

For hair-style, she wears a large bun on her nape; she is adorned with flowers, several strands of pearls and chains, held in position by broaches.

hair style

13. Another dancer is clad in a sari-like garment and a full sleeved upper garment. She has a simple twisted sash round her waist. She is adorned with a necklace (hara),a row of bangles (valaya)on her left wrist, ear rings (kundala)and a set of heavy rings(nupura)  round her ankles. Her hair style is a chaplet of leaves.

14. Widows

Widows are to be shown with grey hair, wearing white clothes.


She wears a sari –like garment fully covering. Her ornaments are modest; with a string around her neck, simple brace-let and ear-rings. Her gray hair is drawn back in a knot.

15. Female Guard

female gaurd

The female security guard  in queen’s quarters  was well covered with a knee-length tunic having long sleeves. Below that she wore another garment reaching up to her ankles.

Her hair was drawn back tightly. She wore a simple neck-lace (hara) bracelet (valaya) and a heavy –twisted sash round her waist. She wore heavy anklets (nupura).

She carried along sphere and an embossed shield.. She appeared to be a mixture of indigenous and foreign styles.

16. Musicians

Musicians, dancers and those in their party entertaining the royal couple should wear gorgeous dresses.


The dancer, usually, has a long garment from his waist down to ankles. He is heavily ornamented with rows of neck-laces and jewelry around his arms, wrists and around the waist. He has an ornamented head gear too.


17. Heralds

Heralds should be drawn tawny and squint-eyed, carrying staffs in their hands.


A Herald is often shown in calf-length tunic with pointed ends; and with trousers narrow and clinging to legs. He also had a sash round his waist. He is not shown with jewellery; but holds a staff.



He has an ankle length tunic and a long sleeved upper garment. A round cap with border and a plume sits on his head .

19. Bards


Bards should have a resplendent dress. Their look should be directed upward and the veins on their neck should be shown.

20. The doorkeeper

Door-keepers should be shown with a sword hanging by his side. He holds a staff in his hand; he should not look mild. His dress should not be too conspicuous.

door keeper

He has a coat made in kachcha (Gujarat) style; and turban with twisted clothing. He holds in his hands a sphere and a shield. There is perhaps a sword hanging by hid waist-band.

21. Sage


Sages, emaciated yet full of splendor should be represented with long stresses of hair clustered on top of their head, with a black antelope –skin as upper garment.

22. Minister


He wears a simple tunic-like garment (Kancuka) with a round neck and long sleeves. It is open at the front. On top of that tunic,  he is wrapped with a long garment  (Uttariya) coming around his waist , and thrown over his left shoulder  like a  upavita ; with  the final end resting on his left arm.

He does not wear many ornaments, except for an earring (Bali), with a pearl suspended. Round his neck, he wears a simple necklace (Haravsti) of large pearls .

His long hair is combed back , smoothly.

23. Priest

Priests should be represented with white garments, and emitting splendor.


A priest was shown wearing a dothi type of garment and an upper garment (uttariya) thrown across his left shoulder. He had a simple string round his neck. His hair was tied in a top-knot.

24. Female worshiper ( or priestess)


She perhaps was a counterpart of the priest. She wears an elaborate tiara-like ornament around the head (Ratnajali); and, there is a central ornament at the forehead from which are suspended the strands of pearls.

 She is decorated with garland (Mala) of flowers. And, large flower rests on  top of one of her ears like an ornament (karnavathamsa).And, on the ears she wears a large-sized ring  (Kundala). Further, higher up on her ears are suspended small earrings of pearls (Bali).  On her chest she wears a string of pure pearls (Suddha Ekavali), with a gem hanging from its centre.

Her hair is worn in a large pompadour style on the crown of the head with tiny curls neatly arranged along the forehead. And, strands of pearls form a net over the hair-style.

25. Another pristess


She carries an offering. She wears two long strings of pearls crossed at the chest (Vaikaksha); and , a string of pearls (Muktavali ) round her neck. On her ears , she has large disc-type earrings (Kundala). On her upper arms , she wears  armbands (Keyura); and, bracelet, one on each wrist (Valaya). One her legs, she has anklets (Nupura).

As regards her dress, she wears a short blouse (Choli); and, over that, an upper garment (Uttariya) worn over the left shoulder. She is dressed in a striped drawer- a short strip of cloth worn around the waist with an attached strip from the centre of the waist which is drawn up between the legs and tucked in at the back.

 For the head, she has a striped scarf tied around the head and knotted at the back, tassels are visible behind the right shoulder; further back on the head is a decoration of leaves with a central motif probably tied around a chignon-type hairstyle.

26. Commander


The commander of an army should be represented as strong , proud and tall, with big head, powerful chest; fleshy shoulders , hand and neck; firm hips,; prominent nose , broad chin with eyes raised upward towards sky.

27. Soldiers

Soldiers should generally be painted with frowns on their faces. Foot soldiers should be represented with short and showy uniforms, carrying weapons. They should have arrogant looks.


A foot-soldier wore a short jacket (cholaka) with half-sleeves, covering the chest. The lower garment (antariya) was short above the knee –level and had decorative stripes. He wore long hair and no headgear. He often wore domed caps with bands.  He carried a sphere and a shield.

foot soldier

Another soldier carrying a sword and shield is dressed in a calf-length tunic and a girdle at the waist. He has a disc type ear-ring (kundala). His hair is drawn in large top-knot bun.

28. Archer

Good archers are to be shown with bear legs. Their dress should not be very short and they should wear shoes.


He has a tunic with short sleeves and up to the mid-thigh. He has a wide wrap round his waist (kavabandh); an elaborate turban with top-knot; and, has earrings.

29. Elephant riders

Elephant raiders should have swarthy complexion. Their hair should be tied in a knot. They should wear ornaments as well.

elephant rider

It is said the foot soldiers and elephant-riders in the Gupta army wore a similar uniform. They wore sometimes more resplendent in gold-striped antariya and skull caps or fillets on their heads.

30. Horsemen

Horsemen were shown dressed in coat having pointed collar and floating ribbon ties; baggy trousers up to ankles and wearing dome-cap.


31. Wrestlers

Wrestlers should be drawn with broad shoulders, fleshy neck and lips; with closely cropped hair; and with arrogant and impetuous looks.


32. Elders

The elders and respected people of town and country -side should be painted looking calm, with almost grey hair, adorned with ornaments suitable to their status, wearing white garments; and stooping slightly forward, ready to help.


An elderly gentleman’s hair is arranged in a large top-knot and with turban in a twisted style. He is decorated with elaborate ear-rings , necklaces and bracelets.

33. Merchants

Merchants should be shown with their heads covered on all sides by turban.


A merchant is usually shown in a calf-length tunic (kanchuka) gathered at the neck, with long sleeves. He has a heavy looking and a long cloth (uttariya) thrown across his chest and shoulders. He has waist band too (kavabandh).His turban has a fan shaped frill. He carries a baton like stick.

34.  Buddhist Monk (Bhikshu)

buddhist monk

He wears a long lower-garment (Antaravasa) , folded into layers around the body. At the waist the garment is was secured by a girdle or tucked into the nada (drawstring). He has the upper garments (Uttarasanga) thrown over the shoulder in a loop.

He is clean shaven’; and is usually shown carrying a bowl.


Stella Kramrisch: The Vishnudharmottara Part III:  A Treatise on Indian Painting and Image-Making; Second Revised and Enlarged Edition (Calcutta University Press: 1928)

Gupta period [Early Fourth to Mid-Eighth Century AD] –Ancient Indian costume


Sml. Attr Nainsukh, A Troupe of Trumpeters

The following is also by way of  an appendix.

This is about the details provided in Chitrasutra for preparing the wall-surface for  the purpose of painting a mural.

A word of caution ; the instructions detailed here are rather too technical me. And ,  I do not pretend I understand all that is said in the text . That is the reason,  I am posting those details in the form of an appendix.

Preparation of the wall- surface for painting a mural

The text details two methods. It assures that if its recommendations are followed “it (the wall-surface) does not go to ruins even at the end of hundred years.”


A. The wall has to receive a thick coating  of bricks , burnt conches and the like , powdered and mixed with sand; the watery preparation of molasses and drops of the decantation of mudga(phaseolus munga –mung pulse) amounting to a fourth part of the mortar powder.

In to that, smashed ripe banana fruits have to be added, also a fourth part of the amount of the mortar.

After three months, when the mixture is dried, it shall be ground again.

Then it must be mixed once more with molasses-water, until it gets a touch of fresh butter.

In this stage, buffalo-hide has to to be boiled in water, until it becomes soft like butter. The water then has to evaporate and sticks have to be made of the paste and dried in the sunshine.

This hard plaster is called Vajra-lepa (diamond like –paste). If, then boiled in mud vessel with water, it will make any colour fast with which it is mixed. If mixed with white mud, it has to be used as coating for the wall, in three layers, each layer being allowed to dry before the application of the next.

The wall having been cleansed with coconut fibres and having been sprinkled for some time with molasses- water, on this the painting may be applied.

This is the two-fold process by which the wall is made ready for the drawing and application of colours.


B. Brick powder of three kinds has to be mixed with clay, one third part (in amount of the brick powder). Having mixed saffron with oil, one should mix it with gum resin, bees’ wax, liquorices, molasses and mudga preparation in equal parts. One-third part of burnt yellow-inyrobalan should be added therein.

Finally , the astringent made of Bel-tree (Feronica-elephantum) destructive (of all injurious agents) mixed in proportion of two to one should be added and also a portion of sand , proportionate to the amount of the whole.

Then the artist should drench the mixture with moist split pulse dissolved in water. The whole of the moist preparation has to be kept in a safe place for one month. After the moisture has evaporated within a month, one should put this dried, yet still damp, plaster on the wall, having carefully considered everything.

It should be plain, even, well distributed, without ridges or holes, neither too thick nor too thin. Should it look ill-done after having become quite dry , due to shrinkage , then it ought to be carefully smoothened by coatings of plaster made of that clay (as mentioned before) mixed with resin of the sala-tree (shorea-robnsta) and with oil.

It is further made smooth by repeated anointing, constant sprinkling with water and by careful polish. When this wall has promptly dried, it does not go to ruins anywhere even at the end of hundred years.

By this same means various jeweled floors can be made of variegated mixture in two-fold colors.


For a detailed discussion on the subject of Paint grounds and binders according to ancient sutras, please refer to : 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

 (A) Vishnudharmottara Purana

 For the preparation of paint ground this text prescribes three types of brick dust and three parts of mud mortar to which Guggula (gum or resin), madhu-cchlliioa (bee wax) are added in equal quantity. According to the text all these must be mixed with one third of powdered burnt lime, pulp from bilva (Aegle marmelos) in two to one ratio along with necessary quantity of salt free sand. The text recommends storing this mixture in water mixed with the bark of picchila (a legume, probably Dalbergia sisoo, Bombax heptaphyllum) for one month. An experienced artist removes this mixture from the container and applies it to the wall and allows drying. Particular care has to be observed that this layer is smooth and uniform and neither too thin nor too thick. If the wall that is starting to dry does appear not properly done, then it must be carefully polished to make it uniform with a layer of intonacco (lepna) made up of earth mixed with a juice of oarja (Shorea robusta). The surface is also polished with a fine lamp black (anjana) and repeatedly spread with milk. The text confirms that the wall mortar treated in this way will not deteriorate even after one hundred years. It also says that the same procedures must be followed to prepare various paint grounds.

For the binder, the Vishnudharmottara prescribes the use of decoction of skins (Carmakvatha) which corresponds to famous Vajralepa glue, used in the mixture to cover the surface that act as protective coat. The text provides five different recipes for the preparation of Vajralepa. One of the recipes lists ox or buffalo horns among the ingredients, a buffalo or cow or goat skin mixed with juice of bimbo (Momordica monadelpha) and kapittha (Feronia elephantum).

In Vishnudharmottara the use of binders with vegetable origin is also prescribed. One such recipe is the juice of bakula (Minusops elengi) and sindura (Grislea tomentosa) which are mixed with Carmakvatha.

For protective agent or fixative, the text recommends application of juice of Cynodon dactylon (durva grass) to the finished paintings with the help of cloth soaked in it.

(B) Samaragao Sutradhra

The Samaragao Sutradhara describes very clearly to Vishnudharmottara between the first preparatory layer known as bhumi-bandhana and intonaco, known as Lepkarma. It recommends that juice from various plants, such as Snuhivastuka (Euphoria anti quorum), kuimaoa (a cucurbit, Beninacasa cerifera), kuddali (Bouhina variegata), Opamarga (Achyrantes aspera) and Ikika (Sugarcane sp.) are let to rest for a week and them mixed with the juice of Siaoapa (Dalbergia sisso), Ashoka tree, Nimba (Azadirachta Indica), Triphala (Myrobalan sp.), kuooja (Wrightia antidysenterica) and kaiayaka (Acacia catechu) together with sea salts (about 2%). This mixture is sprayed in previously leveled wall where the painting work has to be undertaken. The juices of these plants are used to wash the wall surface that also probably works as insecticides.

Some of the fine earth is mixed with double quantity of sand, to which juice of kakubha (Terminlia arjuna), Maia (seeds of beans or other legumes), oalmali (Salmalia malabarica) and oriphala (Aegle marmelos, bilva or bel tree) in variable proportions are added. The mortar thus prepared by mixing the ingredients are applied to the wall in sufficient quantity to get what has been described as thickness of elephant skin. When the wall is dry it must be washed with care. Whitish lime stone fine powder is mixed with boiled rice and starch in correct proportions and applied three times to the prepared wall.

After the application of first preparatory layer (bhumi-bandhana), neutral colored, red or brown clay collected from different places (such as bank of lotus pond, side of the wall under the roof of tree or along the bank of the river etc.) is applied on the wall. For the third layer, the text says that earth from anthill (free from stone grains) should be added to the juice of Oalmali (Salmalia malabarica), kakubha (Ferninalia arjuna), triphala (myrobalan), chopped betel nuts (Areca catechu, kramukha), bilva pulp (Aegle marmelos, bel tree), horse hair, ox hair, coconut fiber, a certain quantity of rice husk, and double quantity of mud and sand in one to two ratio in respect to mud is applied on the already prepared wall. A further mixture of mud slip and marble dust, gypsum or sugar dust is applied to the mortared ground with a brush. Finally, the mixture of lime putty and wax is applied.

(C) Shilpratna

Silpratna is the southern Indian traditions of preparing paint ground with lime based materials. The text prescribes that the mixture of first layer is prepared with lime obtained from conch-shells burnt in wood fire and grounded into powder, mixed with a quarter part of mudga juice (Phaseolus mungo), a quarter parts of sand and molasses and a quarter part of paste of banana burnt in fire. After proper mixing, these are stored for three months, after which it is grounded in the form of a mortar with molasses until it has the consistency of fresh butter. In the meantime, the wall is first leveled and polished with coconut coir brush. It is then tampered with molasses water to keep it wet for at least a day. The lime mortar prepared as above slowly applied layer by layer to the wall so that the surface becomes smooth and uniform. While intanaco application is under progress water must be sprayed on to the surface using coconut coir brush. For the preparation of upper preparatory layer, powdered shells or white earth fine powder mixed with kapittha (Feronia elephantum) and nimba (Azardirachta Indica) is applied to the wall. This compound must be applied using the bark of ookooa (Trophis aspera) tree or with a brush made up with the stem of ketaki plant (Pundunus odoratissimus) plant until the wall becomes smooth and polished. The same powdered lime having been moistened with the milk of a tender coconut is again grounded and diluted with hot water and applied again to the intonaco as described above.


The authors conclude:

Although ancient Indian painting text were written after Ajanta, it is worthwhile to explore where what is written in the text are in consonance with the technique employed at Ajanta

Analysis of mud mortars and its composition reveals that there are no changes either in composition or technology of preparation of mud mortar and execution technique of murals at Ajanta supporting the short chronology. The investigation showed that the organic binder has invariably been used in the preparation of mud mortar of Ajanta in accordance with ancient text which might have now transformed into calcium oxalate, observed through FTIR images. The mortar is also found mixed with organic additives such as rice husk, plant fibers and seeds for re-enforcement. With minor variations, almost similar technology was used for the preparation of mud mortar and pigment layers were also found mixed with organic binder and sometimes with kaolin as per ancient text. With minor modification, the technique of painting at Ajanta remained almost identical and the pigments used are always natural mineral colors. All the pigments are of local origin except lapis lazuli which was probably imported from Persian countries through trade on silk route. The studies are of great importance in planning future conservation measures of Ajanta murals and understanding of execution technique.


References and sources

Chitrasutra of the Vishnudharmottara Purana by Parul Dave Mukherji

Stella Kramrisch: The Vishnudharmottara Part III:  A Treatise on Indian Painting and Image-Making; Second Revised and Enlarged Edition; (Calcutta University Press: 1928)

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


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The Art of Painting in Ancient India – Chitrasutra (3)

[This is the third in the series of articles I would be posting on the art of painting in ancient India with particular reference to the Chitrasutra of Vhishnudharmottara purana. The previous (second) article covered certain concepts and general aspects discussed in Chitrasutra.

The current article deals with the physical features of various classes and types of images, proportions, projections, foreshortening etc.

The next article discusses colours and representation of things seen and unseen; and briefly talks about certain symbolisms mentioned in the text.]

Krishna Tends to Radha's Feet

8. Tala-mana

8.1. The Indian artist never took in the world at a sweeping glance. He had an eye for details. In the canons of Indian art there is a definite and prescribed proportion of the limbs and their ratio to one another. The Indian artist paid more attention to ratio than to the actual standard of measurement of the different limbs. The ratio being the same, the figures may be pygmy or colossal. A standard measurement, however, was in vogue.

The absolute and relative systems of measurement

 It is said; the Indian Vastu and Shilpa shastras recognize two standards of measurement: the absolute and the relative systems.

 In the absolute standard, the smallest unit of measurement is the almost microscopic particle of dust observable in the solar rays or atom. This measurement is named in different ways according to the texts, like for example Trasarenu, Paramanu or Chayanu (shadow of an atom).

Other measurements of the absolute system are the particle of dust called raja or renu, the tip of hair called Balagra, Valagra or Keshagra, the nit called Liksha or Likhya, the louse or yuka, the barley com or yava and the highest unit of this system is the digit or angula which corresponds to the width of the middle finger. They have a relation of one to eight as follows:

  • 8 paramanus make 1 renu
  • 8 renus make 1 balagra
  • 8 balagras make 1 liksha
  • 8 likshas make 1 yuka
  • 8 yitkas make 1 yava
  • 8 yavas make 1 angula
  • 12 angulas make 1 Tala

Manangula is a linear measure; a determined by the length of the middle finger of the artisan or of the patron’s right hand and is employed for the construction of images. This measurement is a fixed unit.

Dehangula is the angula that is in relation to the image itself; and, is derived from the total height of the image to be fashioned. The Dehangula is essentially a relative unit, to indicate the height of an image.


According to the Citra-sutras, there are six types of measurement (mana) to be taken along the body of an image. These kinds of measurements constitute the six kinds of iconometric measurement as applied to standing, seated and reclining images.

Mana or measurement of the length of the body or its units (dhirgha); such as the distance from the hair-limit to the eye-line; from that point to the tip of the nose; the length of the arms and of the legs; and so on.

Pramana is the horizontal measurement or breadth (vistara), such as the distance between the two shoulders, the width of the body at the chest level, the width of the belly or the width of the arm or of the thigh

Unmana is the measurement of the elevation or thickness, such as the height of the breasts or of the nose

Parimana is for instance the girth of the arm or of the thigh.

 Upamana is the measurement of the interspaces, i.e., the width of the navel, the interval between the two thighs or the two big toes.

Lambamana are measurements taken along the plumb-lines or sutras.


The Chitrasutra gives an elaborate classification of different types of men and women. They are classified into one of the five standard types (Pancha-purusha) called: Hamsa, Bhadra, Malavya, Ruchaka and sasaka.

Hamso Bhadrao tatha Malavyo Ruchaka Sasaka tatha/Vigneyaha Purushaha panch tesham vakshami lakshanam /3.35.8/

Their respective measures are given in terms of angula. The measurement of each of the types would be relative to their respective angulas, such as 108, 106, 104, 100, and 90 angulas.

In the context of mana or proportion, the division of the limbs in terms of tala measurement is elaborately discussed in the Vishnudharmottara. Tala is said to be made of 12 Angulas : dvadasa-angula-vistaras tala ityabhidhiyate (3,35,11) . And,  one tala,  was taken as  the length of the palm from the edge of the wrist to the tip of the middle figure. Usually, the face of the image would measure a length of one tala, which, in other words, would be one-ninth of the body length of a Hamsa category image. The proportions of the various parts of the image –body would be in terms of the tala and its denomination (the angula). Hamsa is the standard measurement of body -length of an image; and the proportions of the other categories of images (Bhadra etc.) are to be worked out by taking Hamsa as bench mark.

[A similar tala-mana system of proportions and measures governs the shilpa iconography. Its iconometry prescribes the proportion of the limbs and other parts of its body in relation to its face -length. The Indian artists are governed by proportions than by actual measurements. Thus a figure might look pygmy or colossal while the principles that govern the proportions would be the same.

These rules specify the various standards to be adopted for ensuring a harmonious creation endowed with well proportioned height, length, width and girth. These rules also govern the relative proportions of various physical features – of each class and each type of images.

In shilpa-sastra, the madhyama navatala(standard height of nine-face lengths) is normally used for images of celestial beings such as Yakshas, Apsaras and Vidhyadharas. Here, the height of the image would be nine talas (with each tala divided in to 12 angulas) or a total height of 108 angulas.The angula (literally ‘finger’) is a finger’s width and measures one quarter of the width of the shilpi’s fist. The value of the angula so derived becomes a fixed length (manangulam), for all practical purposes, for that image. All other measurements of the image are in terms of that unit.

The face – length of the image i.e., from its chin up to the root of its hair on the forehead – would be 12 angulas or one tala. The length from throat to navel would be two tala; from navel to top of knee would be three tala; from the lower knee to ankle would be two tala making a total of eight tala. One tala is distributed equally between the heights of foot, knee, the neck and topknot. The nava tala thus will have a total of nine tala units, in height (108 angulas).

Hamsa of Chitrasutra corresponds to Nava-tala of the Shilpa sastra.


Sthana or stance for the figures grouped in a painting is very important; for, it is vital to indicate the action or repose in the picture, apart from highlighting its central theme.


“In composition the central figure is given importance  over  the other figures. And , that leads to the heightening of the fundamental emotions or fuller expression of the central figure for which alone the others exist.”

Portrait of a Nobelwoman, Mughal c.1740

8.2.The text describes the characteristic features of the five categories of men.

(i). Hamsa (108 angulas) should be strong, with arms resembling the king of serpents (Sesha) , with moon-white complexion, having sweet eyes, having the color of honey, set in a good-looking face; and with lion-like waist and swan-like majestic gait. The deities are depicted in Hamsa category of style.

(ii).Bhadra (106 angulas) is learned, is of the color of lotus; with full grown tapering round arms, a hairy cheeks and   elephant like step. The rishis, gandharvas, vidhyadharas, ministers and family priests are depicted under this category.

(iii). Malavya (104 angulas) is dark like a mudga –pulse (kidney bean?), good looking ; with a slender waist, arms reaching up to the knees, thick shoulders, broad jawas and a prominent nose like that of an elephant. The kinnaras, nagas, rakshasas and domestic women are depicted under Malavya category.

Hamsa Bhadra

(iv). Ruchaka (100 angulas) is high souled, truthful and clever, of good taste. He is of autumn-white complexion and strong with a conch-like neck. Yakshas, vaishyas and prostitutes are depicted under this category. And,

(v). Sasaka (90 angulas) is clever reddish dark and of a slightly spotted colour; with full cheeks and sweet eyes. The tribal chiefs and sudras are depicted as Sasaka.


Measurement of Hamsa is the standard measurement given, in relation to which the measurements of the other types are to be worked out;  keeping in mind the characteristics of that particular type.

8.3. As regards the female figures, there is a discussion about the body types of women; but , it has not been specified .However,  the discussion does state that they too fall under each of the above five categories of males, according to the measurements of the limbs and parts. Therefore, there would be  five  kinds of female bodies. The figures  corresponding to various categories (say Hamsa, Bhadra etc.) too should be depicted in proportions that are applicable to that male-category. 

shiva with consoet

But the size of the female figures should be smaller than of the male figures appearing on the same canvass or surface. Her height should be made to reach the shoulder of the man placed near her, in proportion. Her waist should be two angulas thinner than that of a man. On the other hand, her hips should be made wider by four angulas. The breasts should be rendered soft, charming and proportionate to her chest.

Purushasya sameepastha kartavya Yoshi-Isvara /Nara-skanda pramanena karyeka sa yatha -mithi  / 3.37.2/

Angulau dva Nara-vaksham Striyo madhyam vidiyate / adhika cha katih karya tathaiva chatur-angulam /3.37.3 /

Uruh pramanataha karyai sthanau nrupa manoharau / Nrupascha sarve karthaya Maha-purusha lakshanaha /3.37.4/


Talking about women, the text mentions elsewhere, “a female figure should be drawn with one foot calmly advanced, and with the part about the hips and loins broad and flurried on account of amorous dalliance”.

Leela-vilasa-vibrantham-vishala-jhagana-sthalam/sthira-eka-paada-vinyasam-stri-rupam-vilekhe-adbudhaha/ 3.39.50//

The women of good-family should be made bashful, wearing modest ornaments and not-showy dresses; and, with a slender waist, depicted under Malavya characteristics.

– Malavya maana-thaha karya lajja-vathyaha Kula-striyaha ; Na atyunnatena veshena sa-alamkara thathiva cha / 3.42.25/


Her expressions of love are Sukumara (gentle, delicate and graceful). When she is in love, her eyes clearly show her feelings. Her eyes are, at the same time, tearfully smiling, slightly closed; while her eyelids droop. When she looks at her lover with half closed eyes, she appears beautiful, graceful and inviting. And, when she blushes, there are drops of sweat on her cheeks; and, there is a discreet thrill, stiffening her body. It is mainly through her smiling eyes that she expresses love. Her quivering lips, sometimes, show her agitation.

Flower of Rafflesia Arnoldi , Painted and Engraved by Waddell

The courtesans on the other hand should be painted with vermilion or emerald color, moon-like complexion or dark like the petals of blue-lotus. Her dress should be unrestrained, designed to excite and evoke erotic feelings. She should be painted as a Ruchaka character.

Ruchakasya tu maanena Veshyaha karya tatha striyaha / Veshyanam uddatham vesham karyam srungara sammatam / 3.42.24 / 

The courtesan expresses her desire through alluring side glances; by touching her ornaments; by scratching her ears, while her big toe draws designs on the ground; and, generally by attractive body-gestures. She is also shown as  exposing her navel, and partially, her breasts; polishing her nails; lifting up her arms ; and, tying  her hair.


9. Drista – those things visible

9.1. The text then goes to describe in great detail the characteristic appearances of country folk, the nobility, widows, courtesans, merchants, artisans, soldiers, archers, door-keepers, wrestlers, monks , mendicants , bards , musicians , dancers and others. Vivid descriptions of their dresses, movements, habits, and features peculiar to their class are given in Chitrasutra. They make a very interesting reading.

9.2. The text also describes the characteristics of different tribes and castes as distinguished by their complexion; noticeable physical features, costumes and habits.

9.3. The Chitrasutra instructs things that are usually visible should be well represented; resembling what is ordinarily seen in life. The aim of painting is to produce a credible resemblance; but not to merely copy. Persons should be painted according to their country; their colour, dress, and general appearance as observed in day-to-day life . Having well ascertained the person’s country, region, occupation, age and his status in life; his other details such as his seat, bed, costume, conveyance, stance, and his gestures should be drawn.

[The Chitrasutra explores this subject in great depth detailing characteristics of persons hailing from various regions and occupations. It is rather too detailed to be posted here. I have posted a summary of that, along with few other issues,  separately, in the next  article.]

10. Features of the Chitra

10.1. General

There is a detailed enumeration of the features of the images of deities, kings and other class. The Chitrasutra also makes some general remarks of such paintings; and says:

A painting drawn with care pleasing to the eye, thought out with great intelligence and ingenuity and remarkable by its execution beauty and charm and refined taste and such other qualities yield great joy and delight.

A painting without proper position, devoid of appropriate rasa, of blank look, hazy with darkness and devoid of life movements or energy (chetana) is considered inauspicious.

A painting cleanses and curbs anxiety, augments future good, causes unequalled and pure delight; banishes the evils of bad dreams and pleases the household deity. The place decorated by a picture never looks dull or empty.

10.1. a. Deities

While discussing the image of the deities to be painted, the text says, the painted image should have a pleasing body, a well finished and well proportioned limbs, delicately painted effects of shade and light, facing the viewer. It should be pure and charming adorned by manifold lines and embellishments.

The front view, face, chest and abdomen should remain undiminished; but, it should grow narrow towards the waist from thighs and also from the shoulders. Its shoulders should be broad.  The abdomen should neither be shrunk nor bloated.


The deities should be drawn wearing strings of garlands and ornamented by crowns, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, ornaments of the upper arms, long girdles reaching up to the ornaments on their feet, and sacred threads with ornaments for the head.

The text says, in general, an image possessed of all auspicious and beautiful marks is excellent from every point of view. Its mudras (gestures of hand and fingers) should be benevolent blessing people with welfare, peace and prosperity. Such an image would add to the wealth, crops, fame and the longevity of life of the worshipers. ”  Blessed is the work of art that is endowed with auspicious marks as it is a harbinger of fortune, fame to the country, to the king and to the maker.”


As regards the depiction of great men such as kings and noble persons, the text recommends their images should possess the auspicious lakshanas associated with greatness.

The height of the head should be 12 angulas and its girth 32 angulas. The structure of the face should be divided into three parts:  forehead (lalata) – 4 angulas high and 8 angulas wide; nose (nasika)- 4 angulas high, 2 angulas deep and  3 angulas wide; the nostrils being 1 angula broad and 2 angulas wide and, chin (hanu or chibaku) – 4 angulas high.

The Chitrasutra lists typical features of the Hamsa – including that of Urna (tuft of hair on the forehead, between the eyebrows) – ½ angula; and, Usnisa ( a sort of protrusion of the skull) – 4 angula high and 6 angula wide. (Yuva is 1/8 of an angula). 

The hair on the head should be made thin, wavy, shiny, with natural glossiness and like the dark blue sapphire. They should be properly ornamented.

As regards the ears, they should be 2 angulas wide and 4 angulas high; the opening auricle being half (1/2) angula wide and 1 angula high.

As for the mouth, the Chitrasutra (36.12-14) mentions that the space between the nose and the lip should be half (1/2) angula. The size of the upper lip is 1 angula; and, the thickness of  the lower lip is half (1/2) angula. The mouth is 4 angula wide.

In chapter (36.25-27) the Chitrasutra mentions some bodily measures, as: the nape is 10 angulas high and 21 angula girth. The distance between the nipples is 16 angulas. The space between the chest and the clavicle is 10 angula. And again, in the same chapter (lines 37-42) it mentions: the abdomen measurement is 42 angulas. The navel is 1 angula. The hip is 42 angulas wide. The penis being 6 angula in size.

Chitrasutra (35.13) mentions the distance between the penis and navel as 1 Tala; and the same measure from navel to heart; and from heart to throat.

Apart from that, it also mentions that their hands should reach up to their knees (aa-janu bahu). The hands and feet of a chakravartin should be webbed (jala). The auspicious mark of small circle of hair (urna or tuft of hair) should be shown between their eyebrows. On the hands near the wrist three delicate auspicious lines slender curving should be drawn; as if scratched by a hare.

Shoulder to elbow 17 angulas long and 18 angulas in girth; and  Elbow to wrist: 17 angulas long and 12 angulas in girth

As per Chitrasutra (36.30-34) : Palm is 6 angula long and 5 angula wide. The middle finger has a measure of 5 angula. The forefinger is half the size of a part less. The fourth finger has the same proportion. The little finger is the smallest among them.

The thumb should be divided into two parts: 4 angulas and 3 angulas. The space between the fingers should be webbed (jaala-anguli)

As regards legs and feet; the Chitrasutra (35.12-13) indicates: the height of the foot up to the end of the ankle should be ¼ tala (3 angulas). The legs- from ankle to the knee- are 2 talas (24 angulas); and, the same are from knees to thighs. Heels -3 angula wide and 4 angula high. Foot 12 angula long and 6 angula wide.

As regards the toes; the big-toe is 3 angula; the next toe is as long as the big-toe; and the other toes are 1/8 shorter than those.


The text also warns, when an image is devoid of these auspicious marks (lakshanas) it would cause destruction of wealth and crops. And, it instructs that such an image should therefore be made with great care, dedication and devotion.

chitrasutra ch 36

chitrasutra ch 36 - 2

[ The Sukraniti-sara says:

Where the image  is intended for worship and  is approached in the spirit of a devotee submitting to his deity, or of a servant appearing before his master, the image must be made to adhere, scrupulously, to the forms and characters prescribed by the Shastras. All other images, which are not meant for worship, can be made according to the artist’s own individual preferences.

Sevaya-sevaka-bhabeshu pratima- -lakshanani smritam. ]

As regards the images of the deities, Prof, S K R Rao writes (The Encyclopedia of Indian Iconography) :

Dhyana sloka extract 5

10.1. b. Others

Vidhyadharas should be shown with garlands and ornaments; and accompanied by their wives on either side. They should be shown either on land or in air, with swords in their hands.

10.2. Face:

10.2. a. Deities

The gods should be represented according to Hamsa measure. The face beautiful should be well developed, well finished, and benign marked with all the auspicious lakshanas. The face should be youthful radiating peace and joy. The face should not be triangular or crooked; nor should it be oval or round. The face should never look angry, sad or blank and lifeless . If such expressions creep in, the image should be discarded.

All organs of senses like eyes, nose, mouth and ears should be made visible.

Gods and gandharvas should be represented without crowns but with crests.

10.2. b. Others

All kings should be endowed with auspicious marks. They should be ornamented suitably.

Daityas and danavas (demons) should be made to have frightened mouths, frowning   faces  round eyes and gaudy garments but without crowns.

10.3. Eyes:

The text pays enormous importance to the depiction of eyes of a painted figure.

The text informs 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 section related to the eyes is quite detailed. It gives the measure of each part, as also the descriptions of different types of expressions. The Chitrasutra emphasizes the fact that the fundamental element for a painting to be auspicious is the way that the figure glances – neither upward nor downward; neither too strong nor weak; and, neither angry nor fierce.

Unmilana, ‘opening of the eyes’ , infusing life into the picture by opening the eyes of the figure was the final stage of painter’s work. The importance given to  Unmilana is  stressed by Vishnudharmottara: Sajiva iva drisyate, sasvasa iva yachchitram tachchitram subhalakshanam (3.43. 21-22) – ‘that is an auspicious painting in which the figures appear to be alive and almost breathe and move’

As regards the measure of the eyes, Chitrasutra (36. 19-22) mentions: ‘the eyes are 1 angula high and 3 angula wide; the black orb (Krishna-mandala) – perhaps the iris-  is the third part of the eye. The pupils are the fifth part. The eyebrows are half (1/2) angula thick and 3 angulas long.

The text describes   some positions of the eyes : looking straight; half of eyes , nose and forehead are seen ;one eye is seen in full and half of the eyebrow is suppressed; one eye, one eyebrow, one temple , one ear , half of chin are seen etc.

In each case it describes how the eyes and eyebrows should be foreshortened, that is delicately reduced in size or suppressed by artistic means such as gentle lines, delicate shading or by dots.

The text describes five basic types of eyes. And, it says the eye could be in the form of a bow (chapakara); or like the abdomen of a fish (matsyodara); or like the petal of blue lotus (utpalaptrabha); or like a white lotus (padmapatranibha) or like a conch (sankhakriti).

Chapakara – 3 yava measure; Matsyodara– 4 yava; Utpalapatrabha – 6 yavas; Padmapatranibha – 9 yavas; and Sankakriti – 10 yavas ( 8 yuvas make 1 angula)

similie Eyes- Vishnudharmottara  Eyes two- Vishnudharmottara

It is explained that   the eye assumes the shape of a bow when looking at the ground in meditation or when lost in a thought.

The eye in the shape of fish should be painted in the case of women and lovers.

The eye in the shape of blue lotus is said to be ever calm and look charming with red at the corners and with black pupils, smiling, gentle and ending in long eye lashes sloping at its end.

The eye in the shape of white lotus petal befits a damsel frightened and crying.

A  conch like eye suggests angry and woe stricken state.

10.3. a. Deities

The eyes of gods  ( of Padma-patra type) should be wide with black pupils, enhancing the beauty of the divine face, beautiful to look at, charming the mind, smiling and with slight reddish tint at its ends like those of blue-lotus petals, with eyelashes bent at the ends, of equal size, gentle; and fluid and pure like cow’s milk. Such gentle serene eyes and pools of tranquility  expressing love and compassion bless the viewers with happiness.

The images with white-lotus petal eyes bring wealth and prosperity. Its eyes should also be even, wide, serene and pleasant to look at. It should have eye-lash sloping at the end and black pupil. Its look should be placid,

Unmilana ‘opening of the eyes’ of the figure is described as the final act; a painting would be complete only with that; and after that, ” an auspicious painting in which the figures  will appear to be alive and almost breathe and move’ . Drawing of eyes with delicate lines and giving an expression to the image infuses life into it.

The artist is cautioned to be careful and not to give an upward or downward or sideward look to the deity. An image of god with too small or too wide eyes; or looking depressed, angry or harsh should be discarded.  In case such mistakes happen, the deity should be discarded.

The text warns of the ill effects of making a painting of a deity with bad proportions or unacceptable dispositions.

[ In a similar manner, the Shukraniti-sara also warns : An emaciated image always causes famine ; a stout image spells sickness for all ; while the one that is well proportioned, without displaying any bones, muscles or veins, will ever enhance one’s prosperity.

Krisa durbhikshada nityam; sthula rogaprada sada, Gudhasandhi  asthi-dhamani  sarvada  saukha vardhini ]

An image of god should  , therefore, be properly made with great care and devotion; and with all the auspicious marks

10.3. b. Others

Daityas and danavas should be given round eyes wide open in fright. Their mouths should also be open as if about to scream. They should be given gaudy ornaments, but no crown.

Representation of human figures with too thick lips, too big eyes and testicles and unrestrained movement are the defects.

10.4. Hair

Hair is an important aspect of the image. It provides it with individuality and it also symbolizes its character.

The text specifies six types of hairstyles: Kuntala (loose) hair; Dakshinavarta (curled towards the right); Taranga (wavy); Simha kesara (lion’s –mane); vardhara (parted) and jatatasara (matted).

10.4. a. Deities

Hair should be represented auspicious, fine resembling deep blue sapphire, adorned by its own greasiness and with endearing curls.

In case of gods, the halo should be drawn around their heads, proportionate to the measurement of the head and colour of the hair. The colour of the halo circle should enhance the glow of the deity. Their body should be devoid of hair.  On their faces, they should have hair only on their eyelashes and eye brows.

Gods and gandharvas should be represented without crowns but with crests.

10.4. b .Others

Sages emaciated yet full of splendour should be represented with long stresses of hair clustered on top of their head, with a black antelope skin as upper garment.

The manes of the sages, ancestors and gods should be made to glow like gold and with ornaments consistent with their own colour, outshining all others.

In the case of kings a circle of hair should be drawn auspiciously between their eyebrows. The hair on a king’s body should be drawn one by one.

The respectable people of country and town should be painted with almost grey hair, adorned with ornaments suitable to their status.

Merchants should be represented with their head covered on all sides by turbans.

Wrestlers should be represented with cropped hair, looking arrogant and impetuous.

Widows are to be shown with grey hair , wearing white dress and devoid of ornaments.

The artist should use his skill and imagination in providing appropriate hair-styles to the figures.

10.5. Arms and hands

In case of gods and kings, arms reaching up to the knees should be strong and tapering resembling the king of serpents or the trunk of an elephant; and should reach up to the knees. Hands should be delicate. The images of the kings should be shown with webbed hands. (I do not know the “why” of this requirement). All kings should be endowed with auspicious marks.


The hands of deities should be delicate and expressive. Their mudras, the gestures by hands and fingers, should be auspicious in benediction.


10.6. Feet

There is an elaborate discussion on the feet-positions, which enhance the mood and message of the image. The positions described include, standing straight in traditional position (sampada); standing with a spans apart (vaisakha) ; half straight with left knee advanced and right knee retracted- suggesting movement (pratyalidha); its counterpart that is right knee advanced (alidha) legs in circular motion (mandala).

The knee-bent positions are related to an archer or a javelin thrower or a swords person etc. (as in pratyalidha or alidha). These positions are improvised to show a fat man running or a pitcher- carrier. The bent knees and feet apart positions are also used to depict the broad hips, flurried loins of the amorous dalliance of a woman.

Accordingly, the gods should always be made beautiful, having gaits like: a lion, bull, elephant or a swan.

Nineplanets Navagraha 2

[ The Sukranitisara, another text, recognizes five different classes of images: — Nara (human); Krura (terrible); Asura (demoniac); Bala (infantile); and, Kumara (juvenile).  Each of these five classes or sets of images (murtis) is assigned a particular scale/proportion (Tala-mana):

Nara murti = ten Talas; Krura murti = twelve Talas; Asura murti = sixteen Talas; Bala murti = five Talas; and, Kumara murti = six Talas.

Here, a Tala is defined as: a quarter of the width of the artist’s own fist is called an Angula or finger’s width. And, twelve such Angulas make one Tala.

It says; besides these given measures there is another measure current in Indian iconography which is known as the Uttama Nava-tala. In this type of images, the whole figure is divided into nine equal parts which are called Talas. A quarter of a Tala is called an Amsa or Unit. Thus, there being four Amsas to each Tala, the length of the whole figure from tip to toe is 9 Talas or 36 Amsas.

The Sukraniti-sara and Brihatsamhita describe the  details  of the various features of a Nava-tala image. 

According to Sukraniti-sara :

Head : 

The face of the figure is divided into three equal portions:  middle of forehead to middle of pupils; pupils to tip of the nose; and, from tip of the nose to chin.

The Forehead should resemble  the form of a bow. The space between the eye-brows and the fringe of hair in front should show the arched crescent form of a slightly drawn bow.

The Eyebrows are to be  like the leaves of a Neem tree or like a bow. The various emotions, of pleasure or fear or anger etc., are to be shown by raising, lowering, contracting or otherwise modifying the eye-brow like a leaf disturbed by the wind or a bow under different degrees of tension.

The Eyes are usually described as ‘fish-shaped’.  But all similes   used to describe the eyes are inadequate; as  the range of emotions and thoughts that can be expressed through them are truly endless .

The nose should have the shape of the sesame flower ; and the nostrils are to be  like the seed of the long bean. Noses shaped like the sesame flower are to be seen chiefly in the images of goddesses and in paintings of women. In this form, the nose extends in one simple line from between the eyebrows downwards, while the nostrils are slightly inflated and convex like a flower petal.

Parrot-noses are chiefly for  the images of gods and  male figures. In this type ; the nose, starting from between the eyebrows rapidly gains in height and extends in one sweeping curve towards the tip, which is pointed, while the nostrils are drawn up towards the corners of the eyes. Parrot-noses are invariably associated with heroes and great men, while, among female figures, they are to be seen only in the images of Devi .

Lips, being smooth, moist and red in color, are to resemble the Bimba fruit. The  red and luscious Bandhuka flower should  admirably be adapted to express the formation of the lower and upper lips.

The Chin should have the form of the mango-stone. As compared to  the eyebrows, the nostrils, the eyes or the lips, the chin is more or less inert; being scarcely affected by the various changes of emotion which are so vividly reflected in the other features. It has therefore appropriate to  compare the chin to the inert stone of a fruit, while the others to the living  objects like flowers, leaves, fish, etc.

The ear is also a comparatively inert portion of human  face, and, its shape is compared  to the letter ला ( La in Sanskrit ) .


The Neck is supposed to exhibit the form of a conch, the spiral turns at the top of a conch being often well simulated by the folds of the neck. Besides, as the throat is the seat of the voice the analogy of the conch is well suited to express the function, as well as the form of the neck.


The Trunk, from just below the neck to the abdomen, is to be formed like the head of the cow;  suggesting the strength of the chest and the comparative slimness of the waist as well as the loose and folded character of the skin folding near the abdomen.

The middle of the body should resemble in shape a Damaru (Hour-glass formation); and,  the lion’s waist (Simha kati).

Arms and hands

The, arms are to resemble Elephant’s trunk; strong and supple. 

The Forearms, from the elbows to the base of the palms,  are to be modeled like the trunk of a young plantain tree; emphasizing the supple symmetry as well as the firmness of the arms.

The Fingers are to resemble the  formation of young Champaka flower-buds.

Lower Limbs

The human thigh, in male as well as in female figures, is to be like the trunk of the plantain tree, simulating its smoothness, strength and firmness of build.

The knee-cap should compare to the shell of a crab

The Shins are to be  shaped like fish full of roe.

And, generally, the Hands and Feet  should have a  resemblance to the lotus or the young leaves of plants .


As regards the measures and proportions of various features of a Nava-tala image, the Sukraniti-sara and Brihat-samhita   prescribe :

From the crown of the head to the lower fringe of hair = 3 Angulas in width; forehead = 4 Angulas ;  nose =  4 Angulas ; from tip of nose to chin = 4 Angulas; and , neck = 4 Angulas  in height;  eye-brows =  4 Angulas  long and half an Angula  in width; eyes = 3 Angulas  in length and two in width ; pupils = one third the size of the eyes ; ears =  4 Angulas in height and 3 in width.  Thus, the height of the ears is made equal to the length of the eye-brows.

Palms = 7 Angulas long’ the middle finger = 6 Angulas; the thumb = 3 Angulas, extending to the first phalanx of the index finger.

The thumb has two joints or sections only-, while the other fingers have three each. The ring finger is smaller than the middle finger by half a section; and, the little finger smaller than the ring finger by one section, while the index finger is one section short of the middle.

The feet should be 14 Angulas long; the big toe= 2 Angulas; the first toe = 2 ½ or 2 Angulas; the middle toe = 1 1/2 Angula; the third toe = l ½  Angula ; and , the little toe = l ½  Angula.

Female figures are usually’ made about one Amsa shorter than males.

The proportions of child-figures should be as follows:—the trunk, from the collar-bones below, should be 4 ½ times the size of the head. Thus the portion of the body, between the neck and the thighs is twice and the rest 2 1/2 times the size of the head. The length of the hands should be twice that of the face or the feet.


Prof. Ordhendra Coomar Gangoly (1881-1974), popularly known as O.C. Ganguly, one of the foremost authorities on Indian Art, remarks:

The Talas given here (Sukranitisara and Brihat-Samhita) do not exhaust the various measures current in Indian sculpture.  In the 4th chapter of the Sukrnniti Sara as also in the chapter on Pratima lakshana of the Brihat Samhita measurements are given for the average human body according to which the average male figure is stated to be eight times the face which is represented by one Tala.

Any height for a human ‘male, which is less than the eighth measure is conceived in the Sukranitisara as dwarfish or below the average.

The average human female figure is given as of the seventh measure (Sapta-Tala).

The average infant figure is laid down as of the fifth measure (Pancha-tala).

The measures higher than the Asta Tala are reserved for the images of gods ;, demons, Rakhsas and other super-human beings.

 Thus the image of the goddess according to the Sukranitisara is always in the ninth measure (Nava Tala smrita Devi).That of the Rakshasas   is the tenth measure.

The South Indian manuscripts however differ a little from the Sukranitisara and other works in respect of the rules for the measure of the deities.

But; except in the case of the image of Ganesha and Krishna, all the measures given for the images of the deities are higher than the Asta-tala , the average human measure, the higher measurements suggesting a relatively ‘heroic’ type.

 In the South Indian manuscripts each measure is again divided into three different classes e.g. the Uttama (best) Madhyamā [medium) and the Adhama (lowest). Thus the Uttama Dasa-tala is represented by 124 Angulas or parts; the Madhyamā-dasa-tala by 120 parts; and, the Adhama-dasa -tala by 116 parts.  Special injunctions are laid down for constructing particular images in a measure specially reserved for them. ]

Shiva Parvathi22

11. Postures and perspectives

Abhanga etc

Chitrasutra mentions that an image could be presented in any number of positions; but categorizes nine positions as the leading attitudes.

[For more on  postures (Sthanas) please click here; and,  for more on  measures and proportions (Tala-mana)  please click here]

11.1. The nine postures, mentioned under, can perhaps be understood as stylized views, as they are the same figure viewed from different angles. That causes portraying the same figure, with altered body- proportions, because some parts are hidden from view while some others are prominent. The ratio of the head with the other limbs of the body has to be altered in accordance with the different postures and view positions (perspectives). Yet, the image should not look disproportionate. That has to be done by manipulating density of light and shades. These indicate that the Chitrasutra had a sound understanding of the spatial perspective of things.

11.2. The various positions and perspectives are achieved by what the Chitrasutra calls – kshaya and vridhi, decrease and increase, which is the art and skill of foreshortening. The positions are:

(i)*. front view (rivagata);

(ii)*.back view (anrju);

(iii)*.bent position – in profile view (sat-chikrat-sarira);

(Iv)*.face in profile and body in three quarter profile (ardha-vilochana);

(v)*.side view proper (paravagata);

(vi)*.with head and shoulder-belt turned backwards (paravritta);

(vii)*.back view with upper part of the body partly visible in profile (prastagata);

(viii)*.with body turned back from the waist upwards (parivrtta);


(ix)*.the back view in squatting position with head bent (samanata).


11. 3. Then, the Sage goes on to describe the nature of these positions; and how to draw them (39. 1-32)

(1)  The front view (rivagata) is, of course, the pre-eminent position amongst those enumerated earlier. It presents a beautiful static posture (rju) of a well-proportioned pleasing body  , expertly  shaded with artistic display of light and shade . The pure, charming figure, adorned by manifold lines and embellishments, faces the viewer, in full. The front view, face, chest and abdomen should also remain undiminished. The figures grow narrower towards the waist from the thighs, as well as from the shoulders. Their nose-wings and lips appear foreshortened by a fourth part of their width; and their limbs are foreshortened by a third part of their breadth.

(2).  For the back view (anrju), the portions on the back should be without foreshortening (lit. diminished limbs)

(3) . The profile view in a bent position (sat-chikrat-sarira) could be very alluring. The bent posture (tiryak), well rounded, but slender and tender limbs all contribute to enhance the charm of the posture.  In this profile; only one of the eyes and a portion of the forehead and also of the nose are shown. The one eye that is shown, in the profile, is foreshortened by artistic means; and, the eyebrow is also artistically suppressed (i.e., foreshortened); and is painted with gentle lines. The face is neither straight nor serious; neither black nor shady.

(4)  The next position is called ardha-vilochana ‘ – with one eye – face in profile and body in three quarter profile. Here, the one eye in the face of the figure is shown in full; and, half of the eyebrows is suppressed (i.e., one eyebrow is not to be seen). The forehead (the curve of the forehead in half its usual size); and, the curve of one eyebrow are visible. The other visible part is half of the cheek from one side only; while the other half is invisible (lit. suppressed). Half of the usual length (lit. measure) of the lines on the throat and a yava only of the chin are shown. The navel, one angula less than the opening of the mouth, and three quarters (lit. half and half of that half) of the waist and other (parts) should be shown.

(5)  The side view proper (paravagata) or Parsvagata is as if it is emerging out of the side or the wall (bhittika) or out of the shade (chhayagata). Only its one side is seen – either the right or the left. Only its one eye, one eyebrow, one temple, one ear; and, half of the chin and the hair should be shown. The figure which is well proportioned should exude grace and sweetness.

(6) . The position with the head and shoulder-belt turned backwards (paravritta) is   said to be ” turned back by the cheek” (ganda-paravrtta) whose limbs are not very sharply delineated.  It has appropriate measurement in proper places; looking tender; and, artistically foreshortened, kshaya with dark shades in forehead, cheek and arm and also in the throat, (i.e., the parts that are vaguely discernible, as they are lying in the shade) .

(7) Usually, the wall paintings presenting a back view with upper part of the body, partly visible in profile, are tradition-ally called (prastagata)- ‘derived from the back ‘.  Such pictures reveal the attractive back frame of the body, showing muscles and joints. In such depictions, only one side is seen; the chest, (one) cheek and the outer corner of the eye are only faintly visible.  Such well-proportioned profiles possess qualities like sweetness (madhurya) and grace (Lavanya) .

(8) The Parivrtta is a figure whose upper part of the body is turned back from the waist upwards; and, only a half of it is seen on account of its reversed position.  The upper and lower portions of the body, towards the front, are somewhat lost in shade. Its face is tainted with envy; and, the lower half of the body is like that of a rustic; and, its middle is properly foreshortened and made agreeable to the eye.

(9) The back view in squatting position, with the head ;  with the buttocks in full view; with the soles of the feet joined; with half of the body faintly seen from above; with the part about the entire waist shown; with the two entire soles shown;  with foreshortened lower part of the toes, beautiful all round, well finished, not terrible-looking, with arms visible ; with head and trunk well joined and  bent down towards the legs is known  by the name of Samanata – methodically bending .

The text cautions; these positions should be drawn with care, accompanied by qualities like mana (proportionate measurement, etc.). And then , it adds; if these nine positions are depicted thoroughly , as prescribed,  ‘there is none besides and superior to these’- ( 39. 34-51 )

12. Foreshortening

The concept of foreshortening i.e. the lengthening or the shrinking of the limbs is called Kshaya-vriddhi. It is explained with the help of nine postures (as mentioned above)  when viewed from different angles.

The techniques of foreshortening –  Kshya (decrease); Vrrddhi (increase) and Pramana (proportionate measurement) – are vital to the art of drawing. These techniques are said to be of two kinds – Chitra (simple) and Vichitra (multicolored). the latter, again is graded into three sorts, according to the quality of the results obtained by proportionate measures:  Uttama (full), Madhyama (middling) and Adhama (small).

Further, the techniques of Kshya and Vrddhi are said to be of thirteen varieties, depending upon the nine positions or postures to be depicted in the painting, as mentioned above. The foreshortening will also have to take into account the various positions of the feet and the series of their movements like alidha (the right knee advanced and the left leg retracted); pratyalidha (i.e., with the left knee advanced and the right knee retracted); and, vaisakha (i.e., with feet a span; apart)- as described above.


In describing the various kinds of postures, the Chitrasutra advises the display of various kinds of light and shade in and through which the exact position of the postures could be expressed. According to diversity in posture there is a diversity of relation of the different parts of the body which disturbs the normal relation that the head bears to the different limbs. Twelve such postures are described in the Chitrasutra

Foreshortening is achieved, as the text says, by manipulating light and shadows with the aid of coloring, shading with delicate cross lines, stumping and dots; and at the same time maintain the proper proportion (pramana) of the figure and its aspects.

“Weakness or thickness of delineation, want of articulation, improper juxtaposition of colors are said to be defects of painting.”

Daur-balyam sthula-rekhatvam avibhakta tvameva cha / varnanam samkaracha tre chitra-doshaha prakirthitaha / 3.43.18/

*A painting without proper position, devoid of appropriate rasa, blank look, hazy with darkness and devoid of life movements or energy (chetana) is inauspicious.

Sthana -hinam gata-rasam shunya-dristi malimasam /Hina-angam malinam shunyam bhaddam vyadi bhayakulaihi /3.43.22/

“Proper position, proportion and spacing; gracefulness and articulation; resemblances; increasing or decreasing (foreshortening) are the eight good qualities of a painting.”

Sthana Pramanam Bhu-lambo Madhuratvam vibhaktata /Sadushyam Kshaya-vruddi cha gunah astaka idam smrutham /3.43.19 /

Lasativa Bhu-lambo bhibyati iva tatha Nrupa / Hasativa cha Madhuryam Sa-jiva iva drushyate /Sa-svasa iva chitram tat-chitram Shubha-lakshanam /3.43.1-21-22/

The paintings created by the competent artists well-versed in the Shastras, ushers in prosperity; drives away poverty and wretchedness. A painting properly and well positioned, is viewed with wonder and admiration. It ensures a pleasing ambiance, charged with love and happiness. It drives away nightmares; and pleases the Deities resident in the homes. The home indeed looks complete with all the auspicious aspects.

Shastragnaihi su-krutam dakshai Chitram hi Manujaadipa/ Sriya -mavahati kshipram A-lakshmim chapakarshati /3.43.24/

Nirner-jayathi  cha utkantam nirudhya-gatam shubhum / shuddam prathayati -pritim janyatya -tulamapi /3.43.25/

Dus-swapna-darshanam hanthi  preenathi Griha Daivatham /3.43.26 /

Vishnudharmorrata. 3 jpg



Chitrasutra continued

Sources and References:

I gratefully acknowledge  Shri S Rajam’s sublime paintings;  And the other paintings from internet.

Line drawings from Dr. G Gnanananda’s Brahmiya Chitrakarma Sastram

Citrasutra of the Visnudharmottara Purana by Parul Dave Mukherji

Stella Kramrisch: The Vishnudharmottara Part III: A Treatise on Indian Painting and Image-Making.  Second Revised and Enlarged Edition ; (Calcutta University Press: 1928)

Technique of painting prescribed in ancient Indian Texts

The “Sarvatobhadra” temple of the Vishnu-dharmottara-purana


Problems of Iconometry: Comparing the Citrasūtra with the Citralakaa by Matteo Martelli

I gratefully acknowledge the illustrations from the works of Shri S Rajam

All other pictures are from internet


Posted by on September 18, 2012 in Art, Chitrasutra, Natya, Vishnudharmottara


Tags: , , , ,

The Art of Painting in Ancient India – Chitrasutra (2)

[ This is the second in the series of articles I would be posting on the art of painting in ancient India with particular reference to the Chitrasutra of Vhishnudharmottara purana.   This article covers certain general aspects discussed in Chitrasutra text. ]

1. The Text

1.1. The Vishnudharmottara Purana or the Vishnudharmottara (as it is usually referred to) is a supplement or an appendix to the Vishnu-purana. It is generally believed to be a later insertion into Vishnu Purana. Some say , it is affiliated to the Pancharatra Agama, associated with the Vyuha doctrine. 

The   part three of the Vishnudharmottara gives an account, among other things, of the then – known branches, theories, methods, practices and ideals of Indian painting. 

The text deals not only with its religious aspects but also, and to a far greater extent, with its secular applications. It initiates the aspirant into a world of joy and delights that only the colors, forms and representation of things — seen and unseen — can bring forth.

1.2. The Vishnudharmottara asserts that it is but a compilation ; and , is an attempt to preserve the knowledge that was hidden in older sources. Sadly, all those older texts are lost to us. Vishnudharmottara is thus the earliest exhaustive treatise available to us on the theory and practice of temple construction, painting and image making in ancient India.

[Perhaps no other Indian text on art (except  the Nätyashästra)  received as much scholarly attention from art historians as did the Chitrasütra of the Vishñudharmottara Puräna. The text of Chitrasütra was first published in 1912. And, its earliest translation into English was rendered by Stella Kramrisch (1924). She also provided explanations of its art; the interpretations of the key concepts as given in the third khanda of the Chitrasütra. Kramrisch had, in the process, also discussed, in fair detail, the artistic criteria, as also their pictorial modes and conventions.

Ananda. K.  Coomaraswamy, in 1932, took a broader perspective; and, provided the explanations on the creative processes involved in ancient Indian art, in general. He described the visualization of form of the subject, by the artist, through meditative internalization, as a sort of Yoga.  It was in this light that he explained connotations of the specific idioms employed in the theories of Indian art. And, he then interpreted their  depictions , in the light of the aesthetic and iconometric injunctions  detailed under  the six limbs (shad-anga) of traditional Indian painting , as  given in the Chitrasütra 

    1. sädrusya (similarity);
    2. pramäna (proportion);
    3. rüpabhedä (differentiations or typologies of form);
    4. vvarnika-bhanga (colour differentiation);
    5. bhäva (emotional disposition);and,
    6.  lävanya yojanam (gracefulness in composition) .

The efforts of these two pioneers were carried forward by scholars, such as: Priyabala Shah (1958); C. Sivaramamurti (1978); Parul Dave Mukherji (1998); Isabella Nardi (2003); and others, who provided deeper insights,   additional explanations and interpretations.

We owe all these scholars a debt of deep gratitude.  ]

1.3. Chitrasutra is that part of the Vishnudharmottara which deals with the art of painting (citraśikhaṇḍa – Khanda III, Adhyayas 35-43).  This section , which concentrates on the theory and practice  of painting , is named after its first line of Adhyaya 35.1a  :

– atah param pravakshyami Chitra-sutram tavanagha.

Its compiler described it as “the legacy of the collective wisdom of the finest minds”. 

[As regards the structure of the text :

:- Adhyaya 35 considers the mythic origin of painting and the five types of males together with their differing proportions.

:- Adhyaya 36 discusses measurements and proportions of the different parts of the body and the colours and other distinguishing features of the five male types.

:- Adhyaya 37 deals with the measurements of the five types of females, hair and eye types, and the general characteristics of a Cakravartin, the supreme ruler.

:- Adhyaya 38 gives details on auspicious marks that divine images, both sculpture and painting, should  possess.

: – Adhyaya 39 treats the different postures (sthanas) for figures.

 :- Adhyaya 40 describes how to mix paints, prepare the surface, and apply the paints.

:- Adhyaya 41, of cardinal importance, defines the four types of paintings.

:- Adhyaya 42, equally significant, prescribes the manner in which a large number of beings–royalty, priests, nature and heavenly sprites, demons, wives, courtesans, attendants of vaisnava deities, warriors, merchants, and others should be depicted.

:- And, Adhyaya 43 talks about the nine Rasas in painting, strengths and defects in painting, as well as sculpture in different materials.

In the closing, III.43.37, as if to underscore the unity and interdependence of the arts, states that whatever has been left unsaid about painting can be understood from the section on dance, and what is not given there can be supplied from painting.

-Yad-artha noktham tanruta vigneyam Vasudadhipa / Nruttepi noktham tat Chitram na atra yojyam Naradhipa / ]


Explaining why he took up the compilation; Sage Markandeya said , he was prompted by his concern for the future generations; for their enlightenment, delight and quality of life .

He said it was his firm belief that paintings are the greatest treasures of mankind as they have the aura and power to beneficially influence the minds and lives of the viewers.

1.4. In that context Chitrasutra makes some amazing statements:

*. Great paintings are a balm on the troubled brow of mankind.

*.Of all arts, the best is chitra. It is conducive to attainments in life such as dharma-artha -kama ;  and has the virtue to liberate (emancipate) an individual from his limited confines

Kalanam-Pratamam-Chitrm;Dharma-Artha-Kama-Mokshadam/Manglya-Pradam-chaita-tad-gruhe-yatra Pratishtitm

*. Wherever it is established- in home or elsewhere- a painting is harbinger of auspiciousness.

*. Art is the greatest treasure of mankind, far more valuable than gold or jewels.

*. The purpose of art is to show one the grace that underlies all of creation, to help one on the path towards reintegration with that which pervades the universe.

*. A painting cleanses and curbs anxiety, augments future good, causes unequaled and pure delight; banishes the evils of bad dreams and pleases the household -deity. The place decorated by a picture never looks dull or empty.

1.5. The Vishnudharmottara is dated around sixth century AD, following the age of the Guptas, often described as the Golden Age of Indian Arts. It is perhaps the world’s oldest known treatise on art. However, not much is known of its author, as is the case with most Indian texts .

Vishnudharmottara follows the traditional pattern of exploring the various dimensions of a subject through conversations (Samvada) that take place between a learned Master and an ardent seeker eager to learn and understand. Chitrasutra too employs the pretext of a conversation between the sage Markandeya and king Vajra who seeks knowledge about image making (shilpa).

2. Concepts

2.1. The Chapter 46 of the Third Book of the Vishnudharmottara commences with a request by king Vajra to sage Markandeya seeking knowledge about image-making.

King Vajra questions “How could one make a representation , in painting or image , of   a Supreme being who is devoid of form , smell and emotion ; and destitute of sound and touch?”.

Rupa-Gandha-Rasa-hinaha, Shabda-Sparsha vivargitaha / Purushatu tvaya prokta tasya rupma idam katham / 3.46.1/

Sage Markandeya explains ”The entire universe should be understood as the modification (vikriti) of the formless (prakriti) . The worship and meditation of the supreme is possible for an ordinary being only  when the formless is endowed with a form; and, when that form is full of significance. The best worship of the Supreme is, of course, contemplation of the formless with eyes closed and all senses subdued  in meditation.”

Prakruti-Vikruti tasya rupena Paramathmanha / a-lakshyam tasya tad-rupam Prakruti sa prakeertita /3.46.2/

Sa-kara Vikruti-jneya tasya sarvam Jagatha-tasyaitam /Puja-Dhyana-adikam karthrum Sa-kara sevya shakyate /3.46.3/

Vishnudharmorrata. 2 jpg

2.2. With that, the life in its entirety becomes a source of inspiration for artistic expressions. In another passage, Chitrasutra cites the nature that envelops the artist as the source of his inspiration. The text, therefore, mentions that, as in dance so in painting, there has to be a close relation with the world around us; and, reflection of it in as charming a manner as possible

2.3. And, as regards the skill required to express those emotions in a visible form, the text suggests that painter should take the aid of Natya, because an understanding of Natya is essential for a good painter.

Yatha nritte , tatha chitre  trailokya-anukritis smrita / drishtayas cha tatha bhava angopangani sarvasah / karas cha ye maya nritte purvokta nripasattama / ta eva chitre vijneya nrittam chitram param matam // 3.35.5-7 //

The sage then instructs that without the knowledge of music, one cannot understand Natya. And, without the knowledge of Natya , one can scarcely understand the technique of painting. — “He who does not know properly the rules of Chitra (painting)”, declares the sage , “can scarcely discern the essentials of the images (Shilpa)”.

The same teaching is put in another way too.

One who does not know the laws of painting (Chitra) can never understand the laws of image-making (Shilpa); and, it is difficult to understand the laws of painting (Chitra) without any knowledge of the technique of dancing (Nrtya); and, that, in turn, is difficult to understand without a thorough knowledge of the laws of instrumental music (vadya). But, the laws of instrumental music cannot be learnt without a deep knowledge of the art of vocal music (gana).

All these , mean to say that  the arts of  Music -> Dance -> painting -> sculpture are inter related; and, that Music is at the base of all such fine-arts.


Dr. Isabella Nardi , in her Doctoral Thesis ‘ The Theory of Indian Painting (2003) , in summary, opines :

It is difficult to strictly separate certain theories of painting from those of sculpture; as, these two artforms are sometimes treated side by side without distinction in the texts.

While term Citra is generally translated as “painting,” the texts posit Citra in a more abstract sense as a ‘mental image’ that can be differently interpreted and effectuated in practice in both painting and sculpture. The term Citra , therefore, is open to a variety of uses and interpretations; and, a more holistic approach needs to be adopted in understanding the theory of Indian painting.

The tendency to separate the theory of painting from the theory of sculpture is misleading. Indeed, the characteristically holistic outlook of Indian knowledge generally implies that the drawing of such strict boundaries between the sciences, whether art or non-art, is ‘unnatural’.

The text Chitra-sutra places painting and the science of painting in a wider perspective, together with the other arts. It explains how all the arts are correlated to each other; and, stresses the need to know all of them in order to perform painting or sculpting.

3. Chitra and Natya

3.1. That does not mean, the positions of the dancers have to be copied on murals or scrolls. What it meant was that the rhythm, fluidity and grace of the Natya have to be transported to painting . The Chitrasutra says “it (Natya) guides the hand of the artist, who knows how to paint figures, as if breathing, as if  the wind as blowing, as if  the fire as blazing, and,  as if the streamers as fluttering. The moving force, the vital breath, the life-movement (chetana)  are to be explicit in order to make the painting come  alive with rhythm and force of expression . The imagination, observation and the expressive force of rhythm are the essential features of painting”.

[ The Visnudharmottara Purana deals with dance, in its third segment –  chapters twenty to thirty-four. The following is an extract from The Evolution of Classical Indian Dance Literature: A Study of the Sanskritic Tradition (1989) by Dr. Mandakranta Bose, Somerville College.

In chapter twenty (the first chapter of the section) , the author follows the Natyasastra in describing the abstract dance form, nrtta; and, in defining its function as one of beautifying a dramatic presentation.

The chapter twenty deals with the appropriate places for the performance of each category, discussing aspects of the stage and the presentation of the preliminaries. The discussion includes the characteristics of actors, the four different types of abhinayas, namely – angika, vacika, sattvika and aharya, and the names of all the complicated movements necessary for the composition of a dance sequence. In addition, the author briefly touches upon the pindibandhas or group dances mentioned by Bharata and goes on to describe vrtti, pravrtti and siddh; that is – the style, the means of application and the nature of competence.

The twenty-first chapter discusses sthanas or postures while lying down, while the twenty-second deals with the sthanas assumed while sitting. The focus of these two chapters seems to be on dramatic presentation.

The twentythird chapter is devoted to postures meant for both men and women.

The twenty-fourth chapter lists the movements of the major limbs, the angas, along with the meaning attached to each of them. The major limbs, according to this text, are the head, the neck, the chest, the sides, the waist, the thighs, the shanks and the feet. In conclusion, the chapter defines the cari and the karana, the two vital and complicated movements required in dancing.

In the twenty-fifth chapter, the movements of the upangas or minor limbs are discussed, including the glances that express rasa and sthayi and vyabhicaribhavas, the movements of the pupils, eyebrows, nose, tongue and lips as well as the application of these movements.

The twenty-sixth chapter describes three types of hand-gestures, those made with one hand, those made with both-along with the meanings they can convey-and hand-gestures meant for dancing, which convey no meaning.

The twenty-seventh chapter is devoted to the explanation of different kinds of abhinaya and the costumes and decorations necessary for a performance.

The twenty-eighth chapter deals with samanyabhinaya, giving general directions for expressing different moods and responses to seeing, touching and smelling objects. Although the author designates this chapter as a discussion of samanyabhinaya, he includes citrabhinaya, that is, special presentations. In fact, this chapter is a conflation of the contents of chapters twenty-two and twenty-five of the Natyasastra and contains extensive quotations from it.

The twenty-ninth chapter describes the gatis, that is, gaits, the thirtieth discusses the nine rasas and the thirty-first the bhavas.

A new feature of the treatment of body movements that is added to the discussion of body movements appears in the thirty-second chapter, which deals with what is termed rahasyamudras, that is, hand-gestures meant for mystical and ritualistic purposes.

Continuing the discussion in the thirty-third chapter, the author lists more mudras, all meant for religious purposes, and calls them mudrahastas, and associates them with hymns to the gods and goddesses.

The thirty-fourth and final chapter on dancing is devoted to the legend of the origin of dancing. Since the work is devoted to the worship of Vishnu, it is not surprising that its author should view Vishnu as the originator  of the art of dancing]


The Chitrasutra recognized the value and the significance of the spatial perspective.

*.“He who paints rolling waves, darting flames, smokey streaks; fluttering banners and Apsaras floating in the sky , indicating the direction and movement of the wind, should be considered a great painter”

Taranga- Agnisikha- Dhuman ; Vijayantya -Apsara -adhikam vayu-gatya likhed yas tu vijneyas sat u chitrakrit // 3.43.28

*.“He who knows how to show the difference between a sleeping , an unconscious and a dead man ; or who can portray the visual gradations of a highland and a low land is a great artist “

Suptam cha chetanayuktam , mritam , Chaitanya-varjitam / nimnonnata-avibhagam cha yah karoti sa chitravit // 3.43.29

3.2. The Shilpa (sculpture) and Chitra (painting) are closely related to Natya (dance) in other ways  too. The rules of the iconography (prathima lakshana appear to have been derived from the Natya-shastra. The Indian sculptures are often the frozen versions or representations of the gestures and poses of dance (caaris and karanas) described in Natya-shastra. The Shilpa and chitra (just as the Natya) are based on a system of medians (sutras), measures (maanas), postures of symmetry (bhangas)   and asymmetry (abhanga, dvibhanga and tribhanga); and on the sthanas (positions of standing, sitting, and reclining). The concept of perfect symmetry is present in Shilpa and chitra as in Nrittya; and that is indicated by the term Sama.

3.3. The Natya and Shilpa shastras developed a remarkable approach to the structure of the human body; and delineated the relation between its central point ( Nabhi, the navel), the verticals and horizontals. It then coordinated them, first with the positions and movements of the principal joints of neck, pelvis, knees and ankles; and, then with the emotive states, the expressions. Based on these principles, Natya-shastra enumerated many standing and sitting positions. These, demonstrated the principles of stasis, balance, repose and perfect symmetry; And, they are of fundamental importance in Indian arts, say, dance, drama, painting or sculpture.

3.4. Another aspect of the issue is that painting as a two-dimensional form, can communicate and articulate space, distance, time and the more complex ideas in way that is easier than in sculpture. That is because , the inconvenient realities of the three dimensional existence restrict the fluidity and eloquence of the sculpture.

The argument here is , making a sculpture is infinitely harder than making a painting.

According to that; it is almost not possible to depict, directly,   in a sculptural panel the time of the day or night – darkness, evening, twilight or bright light etc.. That difficulty also applies to depiction of colours (colour, in fact, is not a medium directly compatible with sculpting). And, it is also not easy to bring out the differences between a dead body and a sleeping person, particularly if the two are placed side by side.  The sculptor – artist (shilpi) will have to resort to some other clever suggestions to bring out the differences. That depends on the ingenuity of the artist

4. Painting in ancient society

4.1. According to Chitrasutra, all works of art including paintings played an important role in the life of its society. The text mentions about the presence of paintings as permanent or temporary decorations on the walls of private houses, palaces and of public places. Apart from wall paintings, the floors of the rich homes and palaces were decorated with attractive patterns and designs inlaid with precious stones.

4.2. Paintings had relevance in the private lives too.The  polite education of a Nagarika  the educated urbane man of town included knowledge and skill of several arts in addition to erudition in literature, rhetoric, grammar, philosophy and allied subjects. Painting was rated high among these Vaiharika-silpas or vinoda-sthanas seats of pleasure or hobbies or arts for one’s own pleasure, enjoyment and amusement (gītaṃ,vādyaṃ, nṛtyaṃ, ālekhyaṃ, viśeṣakacchedyaṃ, KS.1.3.15).

The gentleman   of leisure and culture , painted for pleasure or in earnestness; but, of course, not for earning a living. Such persons, therefore, considered Alekhya, the art of painting as Vinodasthana – a pleasant diversion from other gnawing concerns and thoughts – Ardhalikitam idam Vinodasthanam asmabhihi .

[Sometimes, a gentleman of leisure who had learnt the art as a leisure pastime  had to use it to earn a livelihood when bad days had fallen upon him . The Samvahaka in Mrichchakatika was one such hapless character who bemoans his lot  forced to earn a living  by practicing an art (kaleti sikshita jivikaya samvritta )… It was therefore said that , in any event, it is safer to learn some art , as it might come in handy in your lean days – who knows…!!! ]

Vatsayana  as also Syamalika , describes the tasteful set up and arrangement in the room of a typical urban gentleman of pleasure who evinces interest in literature, dance, music and painting. The articles  in his room  would include  a vina   hanging from a peg on the wall (naaga-danta vasakta vina);   a painting board (chitra palakam) ; a box-full of colors and brushes (vatika tulika samgraha) ; a cup for holding liquid colors  (meant for painting) casually kept on the window sill (alekhya-varnaka-paatram) ; and, books of verses (kurantaka maala).

nāga-dantāvasaktā vīṇā. citra-phalakam. vartikāsamudgakaḥ. yaḥ kaś cit pustakaḥ. kuraṇṭaka-mālāś caKamasutra 1.4.4 

Tatoham aasannam alekhya -varnaka-paatram  gavakshad aksipya.. Padataditaka of Shyamalika  , a monologue play

The courtesans too were proficient in fine arts such as music, dance, painting poetry as also in body-care techniques. Damodaragupta mentions that a courtesan evinced keen interest in enhancing her array of skills; and, she devoted much time and effort to excel in painting and other fine-arts , to add to her other accomplishments

alekhyadau vyasanam vaidagdhya-akhyataye na tu vinodaya  (Kuttanimala)

Even a calculating courtesan would madly fall in love with a talented painter, though impoverished. Somadeva’s Katha-sarit-sagara narrates number of delightful stories of such young and impetuous courtesans, bordering on recklessness. .

Syamilaka , in his Bana play Padataditaka , provides the instance of Kusumavatika, a courtesan who passionately fell in love (mahan madanon-madah) with a Chitracharya (master painter) Sivasvamin. She was drawn to him mainly by his excellence in his art , though he was utterly poor.

Janita evasmatsvami yathasmatsakhya kusumavatikayah chitracharyam sivasvaminam prati mahan madanonmadah iti- Padataditaka

There were also Shilpini-s the court maidens in the service of the princesses. These talented Shilpini-s were well trained (prauda) painters who excelled in delicate drawing of portraits (viddha-chitra); and, they were often commissioned with the task of carrying the portraits they had drawn of their princess to distant courts to show them to the eligible princes for seeking alliance in marriage. And, sometimes such portraits – of princes and princesses –  were sent round several Royal Courts in search of  suitable alliances . The katha-sarit-sagara carries numerous such tales.


It is said; Nagarakas (city dwellers), connoisseurs of art, accomplished courtesans, painters, and sculptors among others studied standard texts on painting. Such widespread studies naturally brought forth principles of art criticisms as in alankara-sastra.

For the gentlemen of leisure , fine arts like music , dance painting and sculpture were the source of ones’s own pleasure and amusement (vaiharika-silpa or vinodasthana). But , there were several professionals  who practiced these arts and art-forms  as a craft, the main stay of their life.

Kautilya deems it a responsibility of the state to support all such art-masters that spread knowledge among youngsters.

The play Malavikagnimitra mentions that Chitracharyas who combined the theory of the art with proficiency in dance performance were respected  and treated on par with Natyacharyas  in the kings court.

The art of  painting – chitra kala– was recognized as an essential part of the curriculum in the upbringing of children of “good families”.

Education in fine arts like music, dance and painting was considered essential for unmarried maidens of affluent families. The ancient stories are replete with instances of young lovers exchanging paintings as loving gifts.

4.3. While on the subject , I may mention that Chitrasutra  regards the Alekhyas or paintings as mangalya-lekhyas – auspicious in homes; and , it  observes:  

the pictures which decorate the homes (including the residential quarters of the king- rajnaam vasagriheshu) should display sringara, hasya and shantha rasa. Only such paintings that depict moods of laughter, fun, playfulness, love and peace should be seen at homes. They should exude joy, peace and happiness; and, should brighten up the homes and lives of its residents.

The pictures that depict  horror; and ,  the ones that evoke fear, rage, disgust , sorrow  and cruelty ; as also those that show battle scenes, death, cremation / burial grounds, heart rendering episodes, wretchedness, glorifying evil and base motives, inauspicious themes etc., should be forbidden and should  never be displayed at homes where children dwell.

Further, the text mentions that the pictures which show a bull with its horns immersed in the sea; men with ugly features or those fighting or inflicted with sorrow due to death or injury; as also the pictures of war, burning grounds as being inauspicious and not suitable for display at homes.

But, the text says, the pictures of all types of depictions and Rasas could be displayed at court-halls, public halls,  galleries and temples.

[Sringara, hasya, shantakhya lekhaniya griheshu te // parasesha na kartavya kadachid api kasyachit / devavesmani kartavya rasas sarve nripalaye / rajavesmani no karya rajnaam vasagriheshu te , sabhave’smasu kartavya rajnam sarvarasa grihe, varjayitva sabham rajno devavesma tathiva cha / yuddha-smashana-karuna-mrita-dukkha-aarthakutsitan / amangalyamscha na likhet kadachid api vesmasu // ]


photo16Gopalas returning Home

4.4. Icons were generally classified into four categories:

(1) as those painted on the wall, canvass, paper, wall or pot (chitraja) ;

(2) as those molded in clay or any other material like sandal paste or rice flour (lepeja, mrinmayi, or paishti);

(3) as those cast in metal (pakaja, lohaja, dhatuja); and,

(4) as those  carved in stone, wood or precious stones (sastrotkirana, sailaja, daaravi or rathnaja).

Early icons were made in clay or carved wood; and such images were painted over.

[ As regards the images made of clay, sand or lacquer etc., the Sukraniti-sara says : Images that are drawn or painted, or made of sand, clay or paste or those made for learning – it is no offence if such images fail to conform to the prescribed rules. For , these are intended only  for temporary use; and, are usually thrown away, afterwards, as these are generally made for mere  amusement. They need not always strictly adhere to the conventions prescribed by the Shastras.

Lekhya lepya saikati cha mrinmayi paishtiki tatha, Eteshani laksliana-bhave na kaischit dosha iritah ]

Hallow figures (sushira) of gods, demons, Yakshas, horses, elephants, etc., were placed on the verandas of houses , on the stages and in public squares etc., as pieces of decoration . Such hallow images were usually made of clay, cloth, wood or leather .

Paintings were classified  as those drawn on the ground – like Rangoli, floor decorations etc (bhumika); those on the wall-like murals and frescoes (bhitthi); and,  portrait (bhava chitra).The first two were fixed (achala); and, the third was portable

4.5. The Patas (poster or banner like paintings) were commonly displayed in public squares. It is mentioned, such paintings were employed as a means and as a method of communicating with the town’s people. The messages displayed picturesquely on the Patas could be understood by all – lettered and unlettered alike.

The art, thus, entertained , educated and enlivened common people.

5. Art Appreciation

5.1. As regards the deities depicted in art, it is explained; in the Indian tradition a deity is a Bimba the reflection or Prathima , the image of god; but , not the god itself. Bimba is reflection, like the reflection of the distant moon in a tranquil pool. That reflection is not the moon ; but, it is a suggestion (prathima) of the moon. In other words, a deity is a personification of a sublime  idea, a conception or his/her mental image of god, translated to a form in lines, color, stone, metal , wood or whatever .

The Chitrasutra says, those qualities that we admire in a divine being are within us. And,  when we respond to those images brought to us in art, we awaken those finer aspects that are latent in us. When we are filled by that grace, there is no space left for base desires and pain; we have become that deity.

5.2. When we view sunrise or a great work of art, Chitrasutra says, we experience the joy brought to us by its sublime beauty (ananda , ahlada), as we let dissolve our identities and attachments; and, become one with the object of beauty. It is a moment that bestows on us the grace that underlies the whole creation. Art, it said, is a liberating experience.

[ Dr. Harsha V. Dehejia  in his The Advaita of Art writes :

The concept of Artha also appears in the theories of Art-appreciation. There, the understanding of art is said to be through two distinctive processes – Sakshartha, the direct visual appreciation of the art-work; and, Paroksharta, delving into its inner or hidden meaning. The one concerns the appreciation of the appealing form (rupa) of the art object (vastu); and, the other, the enjoyment of the emotion or the essence (rasa) of its aesthetic principle (guna vishesha). Artha, in the context of art, is, thus, essentially the objective and property of art-work; as also the proper, deep subjective aesthetic art-experience.

In the traditions of Indian art, the artist uses artistic forms and techniques to embody an idea, a vision; and, it is the cultured, understanding viewer (sah-hrudaya), aesthete (rasika) that partakes that vision.

It is said; an art-object for a connoisseur is not only a source of beauty; but is also an invitation to explore and enjoy the reason (Artha) of that beauty. Thus, Artha is the dynamic process of art-experience that bridges the art-object and the connoisseur.

A work of art  is not a mere inert object; but, it is so rich in meaning (Artha) that  it is capable of evoking manifold emotions and transforming the aesthete.]


6. Elements of painting

6.1. While discussing the elements of a painting, the Chitrasutra says “ The masters praise the rekha‘s –lines (delineation and articulation of form); the connoisseurs praise the display of light and shade; women like the display of ornaments; and , the richness of colors appeals  to common folks. The artists, therefore, should take great care to ensure that the painting is appreciated by everyone”.

 Rekha cha Vartana chaiva Bhushanam Varna meva cha / vijnaya manu-sresta Chitra-karma tu Bhushanam /3.41.10 /

Rekham prashamsam tya Acharyaha ,vartanam cha vichakshanaha / Stri yo Bhushanam icchanti , varnadai itare janaha / 3.41.11 /

Ithi mathva tatha yatnaha karthaya chitra-karmani / sarvasya chitta-grahanam yatha sthanai  manujottama / 3.41.12 /

Talking about lines, Chitrasutra favors graceful, steady, smooth and free flowing lines; but not the crooked and uneven lines. It was said; while the free flowing, continuous, smooth and graceful line are soothing to the eyes (Rekha-nivesotra yad ekadharah), the broken lines offend the eyes. A good painting must be graceful, free of crooked lines.

idam cha paurandram avaimi karma Rekha-nivesstra yad eka-dharah // karma parinata-rekha mamsalair anga-bhangair laghur api likhiteyam drisyate purna-murtih 

The text appears to hold the view; while delineation, shading, ornamentation and coloring are the decorative aspects (visual) of a painting, the rekha, the lines that articulate the forms are its real substance.

Its Masters valued the effects best captured by least number of lines. Simplicity of expression symbolized the maturity of the artist. The artist and the art critics appreciated the best effect in a picture captured by a minimum number of lines composing the figure. In the Viddhasalabhanjika , there occurs a remark of the vidushaka  (court jester) that the painting looks complete with even a minimum of drawing : api laghu likhiteyam drisyate purnamurtih

Incidentally, the 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 the use of proper colors at times contrasting and at times matching to create magical effects. These were precisely the principles that Chitrasutra emphasized.

6.2. The text says  in another context, when a learned and skilled artist paints with golden color, with articulate and yet very soft lines with distinct and well arranged garments; and graced with beauty, proportion , rhythm and inspiration, then the painting would truly be beautiful.

Sva anuliptva akasha nideshanam madhuka Shubha / su-prasanna abhi gupta cha bhumihi sat-Chitra-karmani /3.41.14 /

Su-snigdha vispusta Suvarna-rekham vidvan anyata desha vishesha vesham / Pramana  Shobha-birahiyamanam krutam bhaveth Chitram ativa chitram/3.41.15 /

6.3. The elements that contribute to help a picture to attract  a spectator are merits like delicacy  of line , sweetness of execution , symmetry , likeness to the original , foreshortening , suitable background , spirited and life-like deportment of the figure and so forth .

And, as regards the  defects that  repel the viewer , they are generally : coarseness of line work , weak and vague drawing , lack of symmetry , color-muddling , inappropriate pose, lack of emotion, vacant look in the figure , smudgy execution, life-less portrayal , disproportionate limbs , disheveled hair and so on

Durbalyam, sthula rekhatvam , avibhaktatvam  eva cha / varnanam sankaras, chatra chitradoshah , prakirtitah / sthanam pramanam bhulambho madhuratvam vibhaktata / sadrisyam kshayavriddhi cha gunastakam idam smritam / sthanahinam gatarasam sunya drishtimalimasam / chetanarahityam yat syat tad astakam prakirtitam // lasativa cha bhulambo slishyativa tata nripa / hasativa cha madhuryam sajiva iva drisyate//sasvasa iva yachchitram tachchitram subhalakshanam/ hinangamalinam sunyam baddha-vyadhibhayakulaih // vrittam prakirnakesaischa sumangalyair vivarjitam / pratitam cha likhed dhiman napratitam kathanchana // 3.43.17-23

6.4.  The renowned scholar Sri C. Sivaramamurti , quoting another Shilpa text Upamiti-bhava prapancha-katha  mentions : For a critical appraisal of a picture  of excellent drawing composed of fine lines, the brush strokes of which are almost imperceptible under a delicate coat of bright color , it is essential to project an excellent treatment of an illusion of relief on a flat surface , technically styled chiaroscuro , appropriate ornamentation , systematical representation of limbs composing an ideal body , a proper shading of the figures by a mode of stippling and a proper  representation of emotion in the heart by an expression of it in the eyes , are all essential factors that go to make a good picture.

Tatas samarpito bandhulayasam dviputasamvartitas chitrapatah , pravighatya cha nirupito harikumarena /  yavad drishtam alikhitam ekapute suvibhakto ujjvalena varnakramena nimnonnata avibhagena samuchhitena bhushanakalaapena suvibhaktha avayava archanayati vilakshanaya bindu vartinya abhinava Sneha rasotsukatyaya parasparam harshotphulla-abaddha-dristikam-samruddha-prema-ati-bhanduraikataya-alanghita-chittanivesam vidyadharam  – mithunakam iti // Upamiti-bhava prapancha-katha

These qualities, while composing a picture, essentially, stress the importance of the virtues of the purity of line-work; arrangement of ornamentation; appropriate manipulation of color; and, clarity in the expression of emotions. It is said; the emotion is the most significant aspect of a painting, the true depiction of which sets apart a Master from the rest

Abhihitam anena aho ranjitoham anena chitrarara-kaushalena , tatha – atra suvishuddha rekha . saghatadi bhushanani , uchitkrama varnavichchhittih pari-sphuto bhava-atishayah – iti / dushkaram cha chitre bhava-aradhanam / tad eva chabhimatam ati-vidagdhanam / tasya chaatra prakashah paripusto drishyate // Upamiti-bhava prapancha-katha 

The master-stroke of the painter, which makes great art distinctive; and which, independent of color and line, adds vitality to the picture is praised by scholars and connoisseurs

6.5. It is said; a great painter tries to represent the ideal. As for the faults that meet his eyes, he ignores them and presents only the good things in life.  Thus, it is in his power to better  the world we live in  , at least in his picture.

Whatever that is not beautiful can be made  to look different in painting ( yad yat sadhu na chitre tat tad anyata syat kriyate )


The Guna (merits) and the Dosha (blemishes), the proper portrayal of Rasas, emotions, suggestive imports, styles of execution are all elaborated in  the Chitrasutra, the standard text on the principles of painting in ancient India.

Srungara Hasya Karuna Veera Raudra Bhayanakam / Bhibathsa Adbhuta Shantha cha Nava Chitra-rasaha smruthaha /3.43.1/

Tatra yat Kanthi Lavanya Lekha Madhurya Sundaram / Vidagda Vesha-bharanam Srungare tu Rase -bhaveth /3.43.2

The text at various places airs its clear opinions on what it considers auspicious (good) and “bad “pictures. To put some of these in a summary form :

*.Sweetness, variety, spaciousness of the background (bhulamba) that is proportionate to the position (sthana) of the figure, resemblance to what is seen in nature and minute and delicate execution are the good aspects of a chitra.

*.A painting drawn with care pleasing to the eye, thought out with great intelligence and ingenuity and remarkable by its execution, beauty and charm and refined taste and such other qualities yield great joy and delight.

*.Chitrasutra mentions: proper position, proportion and spacing; gracefulness and articulation; resemblances; increasing or decreasing (foreshortening) as the eight good qualities of a painting.

*.A picture in which all aspects are drawn in acceptable forms in their proper positions, in proper time is excellent.

*.A painting without proper position, devoid of appropriate rasa, blank look, hazy with darkness and devoid of life movements or energy (chetana) is inauspicious.

*.Weakness or thickness of delineation, want of articulation, improper juxtaposition of colors are said to be defects of painting.

*. In a picture one should carefully avoid placing one figure in front of another.

*.A painter who does not know how to show the difference between a sleeping and a dead man or who cannot portray the visual gradations of a highland and a low land is no artist at all.

*. A picture shaded only in some parts and other parts remaining un-shaded is bad (adhama)

*. Representation of human figures with too thick lips, too big eyes and testicles and unrestrained movement are defects.

sharing bhang

[There was even a down-to-earth or rather a harsh discussion on what is ‘good’ and what is ‘beauty’ in a painting.

Nilakanta Dikshita (Ca. 16th-17th century), minister, poet and theologian of Nayaka-period,  known for his incisive satirical wit and quick repartee , in his Vairagya-shataka, poses a mute question: ‘What is beauty?’.

And, he replies;  there cannot be a single definitive answer to that question; as it differs from person to person. And, at times, what one appreciates and adores as ‘beautiful’, the others might find it utterly ridiculous. 

At the end, the question remains unresolved.:

‘A dog delights in the curl of the bitch’s tail; the pig finds joy in the rotund belly of the sow; the monkey jumps with glee and great excitement at the sight of his mate’s toothy chuckle; a donkey can hardly restrain itself when drawn by the loud bray of his sweetheart; and, a human male goes agog bursting into song and dance at sight of lumps of flesh on a woman’s chest.

What is called ‘beauty’ is not in the thing; but, is in the feeling that it evokes. Each one rushes after his own sense of beauty – Loko bhinna ruchihi.

[Svanah pucchanchala-kutilatam; sukurah kukshiposham ; kisa danta-prakatana-vidhim; gardhabha ruksha gosham. . ! ; martyah vakshassvaya -thum api cha strishu dristva  ramante tat saundaryam kim iti phalitam tattadajnanato anyat ..]

There are varied sorts of people who inhabit the earth. Among them are countless who are devoid of education, not to talk of aesthetic sensibilities, who are incapable of appreciating art. Only a few, cultured connoisseurs (sah-hrudaya, rasika) freed from prejudices are blessed with the gift of true art appreciation.

The artists , in general, intensely desire their work to be appreciated.  In their such anxiety, some eagerly offer their creation or handiwork (hastochchyam) to the view of royal connoisseurs  and wealthy patrons with deep humility. But, sadly , mere wealth does not guarantee true appreciation of art.

And, at the same time, the painter too has his own favorite among his creations. Thus, there is a wide range even among art-lovers.


Further, the concept of what is beautiful, what is appealing and what is appropriate , also depends on each viewer’s taste; rooted in her/his cultural and intellectual background.

Rudrabhatta, in his Srngaratilaka (3), describes a scene where a group of forest-dwelling hunters, along with their women folk , stray into an abandoned palace, whose king had fled following his defeat. As the hunter-folk wander through the deserted rooms in the building, they come upon murals painted on its walls.

As they gaze at the paintings, they are surprised, amused ; and, break into uncontrollable laughter. Each points out to the other in the group, the details in the painting; and, criticize the dim-witted painters. The women poke fun, ridicule and laugh heartily at the paintings, till their eyes are wet  with tears .

“ I wonder , how could this dumb wit show pearl-strands as jewels on the breasts of these good-looking women, instead of adorning them with Gunja beads; and, why did he put such heavy lotus flowers on their delicate ears, instead of light and colorful  peacock feathers. Strange are the ways of men ….!!!”

tyaktvā guñjaphalāni mauktikamayī bhūṣā staneṣv āhitā strīṇāṃ kaṣṭam idaṃ kṛtaṃ sarasijaṃ karṇe na barhicchadam / itthaṃ nātha tavāridhāmni śavarair ālokya citrasthitiṃ bāspārdrīkṛtalocanaiḥ  sphuṭaravaṃ dāraiḥ samaṃ hasyate // ST_3.3b // ]


6.6. Chitrasutra cautions against  inconvenient painting stance or a bad seat;  sloppiness and bad temper ; thirst and absentmindedness – as such distractions might affect the quality of the painting.

Durasanam , duranitam , pipasa cha anyachittata / ete chitra-vinasanasya hetavah parikritah / – 3.48.13

6.7. Vishnudharmottara regards art creation  (Chitra-yoga) almost as worship of the divine. It asks the artist to approach his task with reverence. While preparing to paint the deities, it advises the artist to be restrained; wear proper apparel; offer salutations to his Guru, to his elders;  to contemplate on their Dhyana-slokas; sit, facing East, in a serene attitude of peace and joy in his heart; and, commence his task with diligence and great devotion.

Chitra-yoga viseshena svetavasa yatatmavan / brahmanam pujayitva tu svati vachya pranamya cha / pramukho devata-adhyayi chitra-karma samacharet – 3.40;11.13

6.8. Chitrasutra also mentions six limbs (Anga) of painting as:

  1. rupa-bheda (variety of form);
  2. pramana (proportion);
  3. Bhava (infusion of emotions);
  4. lavanya-yojanam (creation of luster and having rainbow colors that appear to move and change as the angle at which they are seen change);
  5. Sadrushya (portrayal of likeness); and
  6. varnika-bhanga (color mixing and brushwork to produce the desired effect)

Roopabhedah pramanani bhava-lavanya-yojanam | Sadrishyam varnakabhangam iti chitram shadakam ||


(i). Rupa-bheda consists in the knowledge of special characteristics of things – natural or man-made. Say, the differences in appearances among many types of men , women or natural objects or other subject matter of the painting.

(ii). Pramana: correct spatial perception of the objects painted and maintaining a sense of harmony, balance and a sense of proportion within the figure and also in its relation to other figures; and to the painting as a whole. The sense of proportion also extended to the way major figures are depicted by placing at the center and surrounding them with lesser figures in smaller size symbolizing their status Vis a Vis the main figure. The Indian artists were guided more by the proportions than by absolute measurements. The proportions were often symbolic and suggestive.

(iii). Bhava: consists in drawing out the inner world of the subject; to help it express its inner feelings. It takes a combination of many factors to articulate the Bhava of a painting; say , through eyes, facial expression, stance , gestures by hands and limbs, surrounding nature, animals , birds and other human figures. Even the rocks, water places and plants (dead or dying or blooming or laden) are employed to bring out the Bhava. In narrative paintings, the depiction of dramatic effects and reactions of the characters from frame to frame demands special skill.

Since colour is a major medium in painting, the emotions and moods are expressed through manipulating colours, their density, tones, lines, light, shades etc. The ingenuity, imagination and skill of the artist discover their limitations here..

(iv). Lavanya –yojanam: Creation of grace, beauty, charm, tenderness and illuminating the painting and the hearts of the viewer. It aims to uplift and brighten the mood of the figures, the viewers and the surroundings.

(v). Sadrushya: Achieving credible resemblance to objects of the world around and to the persons. The resemblances are not mere general but extend to details too. And ,

(vi). Varnika-bhanga : Artistic manner of improvising color combinations, tones and shades. It also involves delicate and skillful use of brushes and other aids. It represents the maturity of the artist’s techniques and fruitfulness of his experience.

Auchitya, the most appropriate expression of a theme, as either in poetry or in art, is a very relevant aspect of any creative activity. The painters took special care to adhere to the basic principles of that factor. It was said; a thing in its right place is beautiful; and, in a wrong place, it is just ugly. A piece of precious diamond that has fallen into one’s eye is nothing but a speck of dust that has to be hurriedly removed, with due care.

The merit of a painting is enhanced or diminished by arrangement of figures and the background in a picture appropriately; avoiding ill-advised depictions.

7. Types of presentations

7.1. The first requisite for a painting is bhu-labha or bhu-lambha the preparation of a proper, smooth, white surface to paint. It could be a canvas (pata), board (phalaka) or a wall (bhitti).

The paintings were executed on various surfaces: wall paintings (bitthi), pictures on board (phalaka), on canvas (pata), on scrolls (dussa-pata) and on palm leaf- manuscripts (patra). The last mentioned, i.e. the scrolls were often in the shape of lengthy rolls facilitating continuous representations. The Chitrasutra instructed that the surface chosen should suit the purpose of the proposed painting; and, in any case, it should be smooth and well coated (anointed). That would help achieve a better presentation of the painting.

7.2. As regards the shapes of the boards and scrolls, Chitrasutra mentions four types: sathya – realistic pictures in oblong frames; vainika – lyrical or imaginative pictures in square frames; naagara -pictures of citizens in round frames; and misra –  mixed types.

Sage Markandeya says (41.1-5): Painting is said to be of four kinds:

    • (1) true to life (Satya);
    •  (2) of the lute player (Vainika);
    • (3) of the city  or  of common man (Nagara) ; and,
    •  (4) mixed (Misra).

I am now, going to speak about their characteristics.

Sathyam cha Vainikam chaiva Nagaram Mishra-meva cha / Chitram Chatur-vidham proktham tasya vakshyami lakshanam /3.41.1/

Yath kinchi loka Sadrushyam chitram tatsy ucchate / Dhirga-ange sa-pramanam cha Sukumaram su-bhumikam / 3.41.2/

Chatursram su-sampurnam , na Dhirgam, no ulbano -akriti / Pramanam sthana lamabadyam Vainikam tan nigadyate /3.41.3/

Drudo cha sarvangam vartulam nahya ulbhanam / Chitram tan Nagaram jneyam talpa -malya -vibhushanam /3.41.4/

:- a painting which bears resemblance (Sadrishya) to the things on earth with their proper proportions in terms of their height, their volume (gatra), appearance etc., is the “true to life or naturalistic” (sathya) category of painting. The resemblance should not be mere general; but, it should extend to details, such as all parts of the tree, creeper, mountains or the animals.[ Dr. Sivaramamurti interprets Satya as : “portraying some object of the world that it intends to represent.”]

:- a painting that is rich in details, in display of postures and maintaining strict proportions; and when placed in a well finished square format   is called Vainika. It obviously is the delight of the connoisseurs. [In certain editions , the term daisikam is inserted in place of Vainikam, to suggest  resembling (sadrsya) provincial or local  characteristics.]

 :-  the Nagara which depicts common folks,  is round , with well developed limbs , with scanty garlands and ornaments. ( It could also mean urban, in contrast to daisikam

:- and, Oh ! The best of men, the Misra derives its name from being composed of the other three categories.

The text again cautions that an artist should not aim to copy.  He may depict the resemblance but, more importantly, he should aim to bring out the essence or the soul of the object.

7.3. The concern of the artist should not be to just faithfully reproduce the forms around him. The Chitrasutra was referring to what is now termed as the “photographic reproduction”. It suggested; the artist should try to look beyond the tangible world, the beauty of form that meets the eye. He should lift that veil and look within. The Chitrasutra suggested to him to look beyond “The phenomenal world of separated beings and objects that blind the reality beyond”.

elepphant carriage


 Chitrasutra continued


Sources and References:

Greatfully acknowledge  Shri S Rajam’s sublime paintings

Citrasutra of the Visnudharmottara Purana by Parul Dave Mukherji

Stella Kramrisch: The Vishnudharmottara Part III: A Treatise On Indian Painting And Image-Making. Second Revised and Enlarged Edition ; (Calcutta University Press: 1928)

Technique of painting prescribed in ancient Indian Texts

The Painter in Ancient India by  Dr. C. Sivaramamurti

The Theory of Indian Painting: the Citrasutras, their Uses and Interpretations by Isabella Nardi

I gratefully acknowledge the illustrations of Shri S Rajam

Other images are from internet



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

[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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