Tag Archives: Indian paintings

The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Twelve – The Murals of Kerala

[This is the Eleventh article in the series.

This article and its companion posts may be treated as an extension of the series I posted on the Art of Painting in Ancient India .

The traditional mural arts of Kerala are unique in their style of drawing and depiction; and in their colour schemes.

They are among the finest in India; and have unique idioms of depiction. These glorious paintings are easily recognizable with their characteristic warmth and grandeur of rich colours, elaborate ornamentation, sumptuousness of the outline, depiction of volume through subtle shading, a crowding of space by divine or heroic figures;   a strong sense of design and well defined picturing

In the next article we shall see as specific illustration of this art in the murals at the Mattanchery and Padmanabhapuram Palaces.] 

Continued from: The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Eleven – Jaina Kanchi

45. The Tradition

45.1. Kerala has a rich and a long tradition in mural arts; and, it dates back to the seventh and eighth century AD. Kerala is the depository of the largest number of traditional murals in India, next only to Rajasthan. Its Temples, palaces, churches are adorned with profusion of very colourful mural paintings.

45.2. The oldest murals in the Kerala tradition are found in the rock cut cave temple of Thrunanadikkara (assigned to the period between 9th and 12th century AD),  which now is in the Kanya Kumari district of Tamil Nadu.  Among its oldest extant temple murals, the well-known are the 13th-14th century temple murals at Kanthaloor, Pisharikavu, Pardhivapuram, and Trivikramapuram in Tiruvananthapuram. These early murals were greatly influenced by the Pallava art, just as the Kerala architecture was influenced by the Pallava architecture.

45.3. The period between 14th-16th centuries was the golden-age of the traditional mural paintings in Kerala. It was a prolific period. But, more importantly, it produced the best in the Kerala mural art tradition. The Ramayana and Girija-kalyanam panels of Mattanchery Palace; and the paintings in the temples such as Vadakkumnatha, Thrissur; Siva temple, Chemmanthitta; Kudamaloor and at Thodeekkalam are regarded as the best illustrations   of the art of this period. The Kerala murals are largely known by these murals.

45.4. They were, at a later period, followed by the wall paintings at Panayannar Kavu, Thrichakrapuram, and   Kottakkal. Those in Padmanabhapuram palace (the Ananthashayi painting) and Krishnapuram palace (the Gajendramoksham panel) are considered the best of this period.

The 14th -17th century murals of Kerala represent the final phase in the history of development traditional mural paintings of India.

45.5. The traditional texts followed by the practitioners of Kerala mural art are the Tantra-samucchaya, the 15th Century treatise on temple architecture and art written by Narayana; and the Shilparatna, the 16th Century text by Sreekumara. The later is also a standard text on temple architecture; and it lays down, among other things, the tenets of painting including the proper colour schemes the skilful management of which provides stylized balance and rhythm to the painting. Shilparatna is the principal text in Dravida, particularly the Kerala, mural art.

46. The Characteristics

46.1. The Kerala murals blend harmoniously with their surrounding architecture, wood carvings and decorative art. Each art-form inspires the other.

The strong and voluminous figures of Kerala murals with their elaborate head dresses have a close association with the characters from the dance dramas of Kerala, such as Koodiyattam and Mohiniyattam; and the ancient dance ritual Theyyam. The Kerala mural art is also strongly related to the drawing of various mandalas (ritual designs) in vibrant colours and decorating them by sprinkling powders of different hues and shades, filling the spaces within the mandala.

46.2. Unlike the wall-paintings in the temples of Tamil Nadu which are exclusively either Shiva or Vishnu oriented, the Kerala murals present a more balanced treatment of its subjects. The Kerala temple-murals depict the legends of Shiva and Vishnu rather evenly. There are paintings of Shiva worshipping Vishnu; and Vishnu offering worship to Shiva. Further, Kerala adores the unique fusion of Shiva and Vishnu in the form of Hari-Hara; and in the form of the most popular deity Sastha.

46.3. As in the case of traditional murals in other parts of India, the murals of Kerala too are inspired by the legends, the episodes and characters from the Puranas, epics and folklore. But, generally, the depiction of the themes in the Kerala murals, in each case, is related to a classical text or an epic poem. The series of narrative panels on the walls of a temple or a palace, in a manner of speaking, could be viewed as illustrations of a particular classic text. For instance, it is said, the Ramayana panels of the Mattanchery palace follow the narration of the epic- story according to Ezhuthachan (c.15th -16th century) who is revered as the father of Malayalam literary tradition.  Similarly, the depiction of Girija-kalyanam (Shiva’s wedding with Girija) is based on the epic poem Kumara-sambhavam rendered by the great poet Kalidasa (c.4th century).

(From Shakuntalam of Kalidasa)

The scenes from the legend of Krishna – such as, Gajenda-moksha; Poothana-moksha; Kaliya-mardhanam, and Cheera-haranam etc—painted on the walls of Padmanabhapuram palace and Krishnapuram Palace are illustrations of episodes from Srimad Bhagavatham.

The iconic representation of gods and goddesses at the Padmanabhapuram palace are based on Dhyana-shlokas, which are not mere prayers or hymns. They are the word-pictures or verbal images of a deity. A Dhyana-shloka relating to a deity describes precisely, its form, its aspects, its countenance, the details of its physiognomy, its facial and bodily expressions; its posture, details of the number of arms, heads and eyes; and details of its ornaments, ayudhas (objects it holds in its hands) etc. It is said that there are more than 2,000 such Dhyana- shlokas, culled out from various sources like Puranas, Shilpa texts etc. These verses help the artist to visualize the form of the deity that he is about to paint.

46.4. The human and the godly figures depicted in Kerala murals are strong and voluminous, drawn in running, smooth curves and subtle darkening of colours. The exquisite shading depicts the fullness and roundness of their form; resembling the paintings of Ajanta.

46.5. The figures in Kerala murals are highly stylized and rendered with elongated eyes, painted lips, exaggerated eye brows; and, explicit body and hand gestures (mudras). The figures are decorated with elaborate head dresses, exuberant and overflowing ornaments. The expression of the emotions too comes out rather strongly. As compared to these figures, the animals, the birds and the plants drawn in the pictures appear closer to life.

46.6. The wild and erotic scenes also are overtly shown without much reservation. The gods, humans and animals are shown in combat and lovemaking. The murals take a holistic approach to all existence; and almost obliterate the thin dividing line between the sublime and the mundane; and between religion and art .The Kerala murals is another instance in Indian tradition where the sacred and the profane are treated with equanimity in its arts.

46.7. The Kerala murals often look rather over-crowded with too many gods and celestial beings hovering around and filling up the painted surface. The paintings hardly have plain and clear spaces; as if the artist was keen to maximize the space -utilization. The paintings sometimes appear to be lacking in depth.

46.8. A unique feature of the Kerala murals is the deployment of a system for decorating the borders with relief- figures of animals, birds, flowers, creepers etc. It is called the Pancha-mala (five schemes or garlands), a system of five decorative reliefs. They are the Bhootha-mala (of goblins and dwarfs), Mruga-mala (of animals such as elephants, deer etc), Pakshi-mala (of rows of parrot like birds), Vana-mala (of floral motifs) and Chithra-mala (of decorative, artistic designs).

47. The Colours

47.1. Another noticeable feature of the Kerala murals is their rich, warm and loud colours. A traditional Kerala mural follows the Pancha-varna (five colours) colour scheme. The five colours employed in traditional Kerala mural paintings are; red, yellow, green, black and white.

The White, yellow, black, and red are the pure colours, according to Shilparatna. The Ochre yellow, Ochre red, white, bluish green and pure green are the more important colours in Kerala Murals.

The pigments are derived from natural materials, such as minerals and stones extracted from earth, oils, juices, roots, herbs etc.

47.2. There are varying versions regarding the materials used for preparing the pigments. One source mentions that the white is obtained from lime; the black is derived from soot of oil-lamps; red from vermilion (mercuric sulphide); deep red from lac and red lead ( it is also said; Red is derived from red laterite; yellow is derived from yellow laterite) ; yellow from realgar (arsenic sulphide); blue from plants like Neela Amari or Neelachedi  (Indigo ferra); and green from a local mineral called Eravikkara.

The quality of mural-colours depends upon on the preparation of pigments and the meticulous balancing of its various components.

The final treatment to a finished mural consists in applying a fine coating of resin on the painted surface, in order to give it a glossy look.

[For instance; please click here for a description of the stages in the painting of Sriman Narayana] 

(For more on these subjects, please check: )

47.3. Wooden utensils are used for mixing the colours and the binding media is derived from a tender-coconut-water and extracts from the Neem tree (Azadiracta indica).

The painting brushes used were  of three types – flat, medium and fine. Flat brushes were made from the hair found on the ears of calves, medium from the hair on the goats belly and the fine brushes were made from delicate blades of grass.

The  type of grass  that  was used for the purpose of making brushes was  called Eyyam Pullu, in the shape of an arrow, which grows in the riverbanks, . The fully matured grass is boiled with paddy. Then the chaff or the weaker part is removed and fastened together. This brush is tied to a small bamboo stick. The thickness of the brush is adjusted according to needs.

The wall-surface- preparation too was a laborious and a time consuming process. Murals were painted over only after they were completely dry. Lemon juice was used to mellow the alkalinity of surface. The outlines of the murals were sketched by using sharpened bamboo pieces or charcoal or dung crayons (called Kittalekhini prepared by grinding a black stone and mixing it with cow dung).

47.3. The colour symbolisms are related to Trigunas – the natural attributes or disposition – of the characters.  For instance, green is employed for depicting the Sattva (balanced, pure or divine) characters (for instance, the jewel-like green colours of the flute playing Krishna); red or a mixture of red and yellow  for Rajas ( active , irascible); and white for Tamasa (inert or base).

[The Natyashastra also mentions the colours associated with each of the Rasas. According to that : Srungara with light green; Hasya with white; Karuna with grey; Raudra with red ; Vira with yellowish pale ; Bhayanaka with black; Bibhatsa with dark blue; and Adbhuta with yellow.

śyāmo bhavati śṛṅgāra sito hāsya prakīrtita kapota karuaścaiva rakto raudra prakīrtita 6.42

gauro vīrastu vijñeya kṛṣṇaścaiva bhayānaka nīlavarastu bībhatsa pītaścaivā-adbhuta smta ॥6. 43]

Kerala Shiva

48. Among the finest in India

48.1. The mural paintings of Kerala are among the finest in India; and have unique idioms of depiction. These glorious paintings are easily recognizable with their characteristic warmth and grandeur of rich colours, elaborate ornamentation, sumptuousness of the outline, depiction of volume through subtle shading, a crowding of space by divine or heroic figures;   a strong sense of design and well defined picturization.

48.2. The traditional murals of Kerala represent the last flourish of the graceful and vibrant tradition of Chitrasutra. Please click here for a list of Mural Paintings in Kerala temples.

[While  in the olden days the murals were drawn on walls , today any surface like paper, canvas, cardboard, plywood and terracotta  is used for reproducing / simulating the traditional style of  Kerala paintings . These innovations are to be understood as the necessities of the times in order to keep alive and to sustain   the interest in the ancient art form. ]

With this brief introduction let’s look at the mural paintings at the Mattanchery and Padmanabhapuram palaces, the Mural Pagodas of Kerala, in the next article.


The mural paintings at Mattanchery and Padmanabhapuram Palaces

 References and Sources

Click to access 254.pdf

 All pictures are from Internet



Posted by on September 25, 2012 in Art, Legacy of Chitrasutra


Tags: ,

The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Eleven – Jaina Kanchi

 [This is the Tenth article in the series.

This article and its companion posts may be treated as an extension of the series I posted on the Art of Painting in Ancient India .

The present article looks at the not-so-well-known Jain temple of Trailokya-natha-swami (Vardhamana) at Jaina Kanchi. It is one of the few surviving ancient Jain temples in Tamil Nadu.

This article presents the case of an overzealous and yet a wrong way of conserving the ancient murals. The Department of Archaeology of the State Government, in their wisdom, laid a fresh coat of paint over the sixteenth century murals drawn in Vijayanagar style, in order to keep the paintings fresh and bright. The art experts and art historians were shocked and angry; and described the action of the Government Department as thoughtless; and a disaster.

There surely must be a sensible way that falls somewhere between total neglect and overzealous reaction, which either way harms the ancient art-objects.

In the next article we shall look at the traditional mural paintings of Kerala. These 16th-17th century murals painted over the walls in temples and palaces have a unique style of depiction and colour schemes. ]

Continued from the Legacy of Chitrasutra – Ten – Lepakshi

40. Jainism in Tamil Nadu 

40.1.  It is believed that Jainism entered Southern India in around fourth century BC, when Acharya Bhadrabahuswamin, the last Shrutakevalin (433 BC- 357 BC), along with a body of twelve thousand disciples, started on a grand exodus towards the South; migrated to the Sravanabelagola region, in Karnataka, as he feared a period of twelve years of severe drought was about to hit the North India. The Mauryan emperor, Chandragupta, abdicating his throne in favor of his son Simhasena (according to Jain work Rajavali-Kathe) took Diksha and joined Bhadrabahuswamin on his exodus. As foretold by Bhadrabahuswamin, a terrible famine  did brake out in the Northern country.

[ Please also read Studies in South Indian Jainism by Ramaswami Ayyangar, M. SSeshagiri Rao, B , 1922 ]

Some time after reaching Shravanabelagola, Bhadrabahuswamin felt that his end was approaching; and, he then initiated Visakhamuni into a higher order. The Sruta Kevalin Bhadrabahuswamin , thereafter, entrusted the rest of the disciples to the care of  Visakhamuni; and, instructed them all to move further South.

And, soon thereafter, the monk Visakhacharya, at the behest of Acharya Bhadrabahuswamin, moved over to the Chola and Pandya countries along with a group of Sramanas (Jain monks), in order to propagate the faith of the Thirthankaras.

It is said; Visakhamuni, in the course of his wanderings in the Chola and the Pandya countries, worshiped in the Jain Chaityas and preached to the Jains settled in those places. This would suggest that the Jains had already colonized the extreme south even before the Sallekhana of Bhadrabahuswamin, i.e., before 357 B.C.

40.2. Some scholars argue that a sizable number of Sravakas (Jain householders) were already present in the Madurai, Tirunelveli and Pudukottai regions; and , they lent support and care to the emigrant monks.

However, the exact origins of Jainism in Tamil Nadu are unclear.

Some scholars claim that Jain philosophy must have entered South India some time in the sixth century BCE; and, that Jains flourished in Tamil Nadu at least as early as the Sangam period.  

According to other scholars, Jainism must have existed in South India, at least,  well before the visit of Bhadrabhuswamin and Chandragupta. There are plenty of caves as old as the fourth century found with Jain inscriptions and Jain deities around Madurai, Tiruchirāppaḷḷi, Kanyakumari and Thanjavur.

The ancient Tamil history , culture and literature depict  a rich legacy of the Jains

[Some scholars believe that Tholkappiar the author of the celebrated earliest Tamil Grammar Tholkappiam (estimated to be written between the 3rd century BCE and the 5th century CE) was a Jain.

And, Saint-poet, Thiruvalluvar, the author of  the celebrated Tirukkurral (dated variously from 300 BCE to 7th century CE), one of the finest collections of couplets on ethics, political and worldly-wisdom, and love, was also a Jain.

Apart from these, the three other major works in Tamil of the ancient times – Silapaddikaram, Civaka Cintamani and Valayapathi – were written by Jain authors.

It is said, that in these texts, in the ancient Tamil regions, the Jain Thirthankaras   were addressed as Aruga or Nikkanthan.  And, the religion of Jains was called: Arugatha or Samanam.  The senior Jain monks were called as ‘Kuruvattikal‘ (Guru), Atikal (Yati), Periyar or ‘Patarar‘ (Tamil form of Bhattara) .

The place where Jain monks lived was called as Aranthaanam and Aravor (Manimekalai. 3:86-112, 5:23); and, as Nikkanthak Kottam (Silappatikaram.9:63). The generous land donations made to the Jain monasteries  (Palli)  were  called Palliccantam ( however, the exact meaning of the term Cantam , is much debated). 

The more important cities where the Jains flourished in sizable numbers were said to be: Kaveripoompattinam (also known as Poompuhar or Puhar), Uraiyur, Madurai, Vanchi (also known as Karur or Karuvur) and  Kanchi (Kanchipuram).

They all had monasteries  (Vihara) which also functioned as schools (Samana palli) run by the Jain monks (the bigger Pallis were called Perumpalli) . Silappatikaram (11:1-9) mentions a Kanthan school and temple at Uraiyur as also in Madurai, the capital of Pandya kingdom.

Even though Manimekalai was a Buddhist, she went to Jain monks at Vengi, the Chera capital; and, learnt about the Jain concepts of morality (Manimekalai 27:167-201).  And, Vengi was also the city where lived the celebrated Jain monk Ilango Adigal – the brother of King Cheran Chenguttuvan and the author of Silappatikaram, which is one of the five Epics of Tamil literature.

Sittanavasal Cave (Sit-tan-na-va-yil) – the abode of great saints – is a second -century  complex of caves in Pudukottai District of Tamil Nadu. It is a rock-cut monastery that was created by Jain monks. Its name indicates that it was the abode of the Siddha (the monk or monks).  It is also called Arivar Koil – the temple of the Arihants.  

The first century Tamil-Brahmi inscription, found therein,  names the place as ‘Chiru-posil’.  It records that Chirupochil Ilayar made the Atitnam (Adhittana, abode or a dwelling place) for Kavuti Itan who was born at Kumuthur in Eorumi-nadu.

[A fairly large number of stone-inscriptions, etched in Tamil-Brahmi , are found in several caves in Tamil Nadu. And, most of such inscriptions are around Madurai , the capital of the Pandyas.  The noted scholars like Iravatham Mahadevan and Ramachandran Nagaswamy, have made extensive studies of the early inscriptions. It is explained; the script of the inscriptions are named as ‘Tamil-Brahmi ‘, because it is , basically, Brahmi, but with slight modification to facilitate insertion of Tamil terms. For instance; in these inscriptions, the Prakrit term ‘Gani’ ( leader of a Gana , a group) becomes “Kani’; ‘Acharya’ becomes  ‘Acirikar’; names like ‘Nanti’ become ‘Nattai or Nattu’;  sacred images Prathima (Patima) be comes ‘tirumenai’; and,’Sranana’  ( a Jain monk) becomes ‘Amanan’.]

The Sittannavasal cave temple belonged to a period when Jainism flourished in Southern India. And, it  served as a shelter for Jain monks till about 8th century when Jainism began to fade away in the Tamil region.

Sittannavasal has the distinction of being the only monument where one can find, in one place, Tamil inscriptions dating back from 1st century BC to the 10th century AD. It is virtually a stone library in time  Sittanavasal is also renowned for remnants of its rare Jaina mural paintings

It appears there were Jain Nunneries too. Silappatikaram (10:34-45 ) mentions that when Kovalan and Kannagi went to Madurai,  on their  way, they secured the  blessings from Gownthiyadigal  , situated close to  Kaveripoompattinam, on the northern bank of the  river Kaveri.  It is said; Gownthiyadigal was a sort of Jain Nunnery. The Jain nuns, it appears, were variously called as Gownthi; Aariyanganai; Eyakkiyar; or Gurathiyar, the female Guru. It is also said , the Sanskrit term ‘Guru‘ and its plural form ‘ Guruvah‘  became in Tamil ‘kuru‘ and ‘Kuruvar‘.  Its polite form was Kuruttiyar or Kuruttikal ]

Some scholars believe that Jainism became dominant in Tamil Nadu in the fifth and sixth century CE, during a period known as the Kalabhra interregnum. And, after the fifth century A.D, Jainism became so very influential and powerful as to even become the state-creed of some of the Pandyan kings.

[ I think , it needs to be mentioned that religious affiliations , say during the fifth century, were rather fluid. For instance, in the Silappadikaram , you find  , sometimes, each member of a family followed her/his own favorite religion : Kovalan’s  father Masattuvan became a Buddhist; and,  Kannagi’s father Manyakan became an Ajivaka. And, while Appar , in the early part of his life, was attracted to Jainism and became a Jain monk  , his sister continued to be a staunch devotee of Shiva. Manimekhalai, the daughter of Madhavi, a dancer by profession (Parathiyar),  becomes a  Buddhist nun. And, Kovalan  and kannagi continued , till end, as Nagarathars – the merchant  community.

Even as late as in the Eleventh – Twelfth Century, the wife of the Brahmin Chandramouli – a minister in the court of the Court of the Hoysala King Veera Ballala II – Achala Devi (also called Achiyakka) was a devout Jain. She caused the construction of a Jain temple (Basadi), at Shravanabelagola, in 1181 A.D, devoted to the twenty-third Jain Tirthankaras Parshwanath.

sravana belagola

It was only when the Bhakthi movement took hold , large numbers of families finally became Vaishnavas or Shaivas. Those that continued to adhere to Jainism were reduced into  small and a minor community of Jain laymen – Samaṇar, Nayiṉār (around 0.13% of the population of Tamil Nadu. ]

However, Jainism began to decline around the 8th century A.D., with many Tamil kings embracing Hindu religions, especially Shaivism. 

Thus, during the middle half of the seventh and the beginning of the eighth centuries A.D., the Jains sustained a series of reverses both in the Pallava and the Pandya country. The Chola kings did not encourage during this period the Jain religion, as they were devoted to the worship of Shiva

In any case, there is evidence to indicate that Jainism came into existence in Tamil Nadu, at least, by about fourth century BC. Thereafter it took roots in Tamil Nadu and flourished till about sixteenth century when it went into decline, due a combination of reasons. It is estimated there are now about 50,000 Tamil – Jains or Samanar who have a legacy that is more than 2,000 years old; and that most of them are engaged in farming in the North Arcot (Thondai-mandalam) region.

40.3. As regards Kanchipuram, the capital city of the Pallavas and a renowned centre of learning, the Jainism flourished there because of the recognition, acceptance and encouragement it gained from the ruling class, as also from common people. It is said; the Pallava King Mahendra-varman I (600 – 630 CE), in the early part of his life, caused the construction of two temples dedicated to Thirthankaras Vrishabdeva and Vardhamana.

40.4. The Jain scholar-monks such as Acharyas Sumantha-bhadra, Akalanka, Vamana-charya Pushpa-danta, Kunda- kunda and others, were highly regarded for their piety and scholarship. Under their guidance a number of Jain temples and educational institutions (samana-palli) were established in the Tamil country, especially in its Northern regions.

[Palli is a Prakrit term, which by extension came to mean, in the Tamil – Brahmi inscriptions, a Jaina monastery or a temple or a rock shelter where the Jaina monks stayed and studied  . Some say that the Tamil term for a school –“palli”- has its origin in the ancient samana-palli of the Jains].

40.5.The recognition accorded to Jainism is evidenced by the fact that a sector of Kanchipuram, along the banks of the Vegavathi , a  tributary of the Palar River, was named as Jaina Kanchi. It is now a hamlet (Thiruparuthikundram) on the southwest outskirt of the present-day – Kanchi, a little away from the Pillaiyaar Palayam suburb. Jaina Kanchi does not ordinarily attract many tourists.

40.6. Jaina Kanchi is now of interest mainly because of its two temples:  one dedicated to Chandra-prabha the eighth Thirthankara; and the other dedicated to Vardhamana the twenty-fourth Thirthankara who is also addressed as Trailokya-natha-swami. And, the other reason of interest is the ancient paintings in the Vardhamana temple.

The Chandra-prabha temple is the earlier and the smaller of the two. It was constructed during the reign of Parameswaravarman II, the Pallava king who came to throne in 728 AD.


According to Dr. T. N. Ramachandran, the Trailokya-natha-swami temple was built perhaps during the end of the Pallava period; that is, in the eighth-ninth century.

41. Trailokya-natha-swami (Vardhamana)


41.1.  The Trailokya-natha-swami temple enjoyed the patronage of Pallava kings as also of Chola emperors Raja-raja chola II (reign ,c.1146–1173) ; Rajendra II (reign , c.1163 – c. 1178 CE) ; Kulottunga I (reign , 1178–1218 CE);  and Raja-raja III (reign , c.1216–1246 CE) during whose periods some improvements were made and a front pavilion (mukha mantapa) was added to the sanctum. The Vijayanagar kings too supported this Jain temple.

During the year 1387, Irugappa, a disciple of Jaina-muni Pushpasena; and a   minister of Vijayanagar King Harihara Raya II (1377-1404), expanded the temple by adding a larger pavilion- the Sangeetha mantapa.

Later additions were made by Bukka Raya II (in 1387-88) and Krishna Deva Raya (in 1518). It is also said; Krishna Deva Raya made a “land-grant” to the temple.

41.2.  The Trailokya-natha, thus, developed into a complex of three shrines: One for Vardhamana and Pushpadanta; the other for Padmaprabha and Vasupujya; and the third for Parshvanatha and Dharma Devi. Each shrine has its own sanctum, ardha-mantapa and mukha-mantapa. The temple is also a repository of a large number of icons.

trilokyanatha 2

During the 14th and 16th centuries, the ceiling of the sangeetha – mantapa were decorated with beautiful paintings, in Vijayanagar style.

It appears Jainism was active in the Kanchipuram region at least till around the 16th century.

42. The Paintings

Sri Sridhar, T. S.- Former Commissioner of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Tamil Nadu , writes :

The ceiling of the Mukha-Mantapa and the Sangeetha-Mantapa in the Trilokyanatha temple bears a series of colorful paintings which illustrates the life stories of three out of the twenty-four Tirthankaras- Rishabadeva, the first, Neminatha, the twenty second along with his cousin Krishna, and Vardhamana, the twenty fourth. The paintings date back to the 15th century CE. 

They are arranged in convenient groups, two running from north to south and two from east to west on the ceiling of the Sangeetha-Mantapa, and one group running from north to south on the ceiling of the Mukha-Mantapa. They are in rows of panels with a narrow band between every two rows for labels in Tamil Grantham explaining the incidents.

 The paintings contain the life stories of Rishabadeva, the first Tirthankara, Neminatha, the 22nd Tirthankara, his cousin Krishna and Vardhamana or Mahavira who is the 24th Tirthankara. They depict different facets of the Tirthankaras life from birth to coronation, celebration of monkhood to renunciation and attainment of World Teacher status. The celebrated procession of Vardhamana and his return to the city and anointing ; the rows of animals with the elephant Airavata leading the procession, are beautifully depicted in vivid detail

jaina paintings

42.1. The paintings drawn on the ceiling of the Sangeetha-mantapa during the period 14th and 16th centuries were in Vijayanagar style of painting; and they depicted the legends of the Thirthankaras, particularly those of Rishabha Deva and Vardhamana.

42.2. A narrative panel relates the story of Dharmendra, the serpent king, who offered his kingdom to the relatives of Rishabha Deva in exchange for their consent not to disturb the meditation of Rishabha Deva.

jaina paintings 2

42.3. Such narratives were alternated with scenes depicting processions of elephants, horses, soldiers, standard bearers and musicians.

jaina paintings 3

jaina paintings 4

42.4. The sequence of the narratives and the court scenes was broken by depiction of Sama-vasarana the adorable heavenly pavilion where the eligible souls gather to receive divine discourse.

The term Sama-vasarana (Sama avasarana) means an assembly which provides equal opportunities for all who gather there. Samavasarana, in Jain literature denotes an assembly of Thirthankara.  At this assembly different beings – humans, animals and gods – are also present to behold the Thirthankara and hear his discourses. The common assembly, at which different beings are gathered for one purpose, treats all alike overriding the differences that might exist among them. A  Sama-vasarana is thus, a tirth, a revered place.

The Sama- vasarana is pictured in a very interesting fashion. Each panel is depicted with eight concentric rings having miniature figures, trees and shrines painted along their periphery. A Thirthankara is enshrined at the core of the Samava-sarana theme.

42.5. There are a few panels that resemble   the Krishna- Leela, the legends of Krishna. But, they in fact, depict life events of Neminatha, the twenty-second Jain Tirthankara. According to Jaina lore, Neminatha was the cousin of Krishna of Srimad Bhagavatha; and he is Krishna’s counterpart in the Jain tradition.

jaina paintings 5

[Please also see ‘ The Paintings of Vijayanagar Empire’ by Dr.Rekha Pande]

43. The other side of bad maintenance

43.1. The pictures posted above are not as they were painted by the artists of the 14th and 16th centuries.

A few years back, the State Archaeological Department of Tamil Nadu repainted the 14th-16th century murals on the ceilings of the Trailokya-natha-swami temple. A fresh coat of  paint was laid over the old murals. The repainting was done allegedly by untrained artists, who were not familiar with the techniques of conservation or restoration of ancient murals. As a result, the murals now dazzle in bright colors.

Sri Sridhar, T. S – Former Commissioner of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Tamil Nadu , writes in his article Conservation of Murals in Thirupparuttikundram temples of Jina Kanchi   

Before proceeding with conservation of paintings in Trilokyanatha temple, we studied carefully the base on which they were etched. The granite roof had a thin layer of lime plaster on which the paintings were done, depicting the life stories of the three Tirthankaras. After studying the history of the paintings, which date to the15th Century, we also looked at the condition of the paintings.  At the time of taking up conservation we found that the murals were intact in some places, but most of them were in a state of considerable damage. The colours had changed, the lime mortar had peeled off in many places, the plaster had fallen off and the labels were unclear in parts.

Overall, the condition of the murals was such that they required extensive conservation work. Accordingly, experts were consulted and it was finally decided to bring in a team from Karnataka. Since there are not many who are trained in Mural conservation it was found necessary to get the expert team from a neighboring state.

Next, we looked at the materials used for the paintings. Lime mortar was the base material; the colours were provided by the use of varied materials matching with the original paintings. For example, herbs like ‘Shank Pushpam’, ‘Neela Amary’ and green leaves to produce green; ‘Manja Kadambai’ for yellow; ‘Red Sandstone’ and ‘Lacquor Bee’ and ‘Wax’ for red; and, black color from burnt lamp waste etc., were used to derive different colours. A mixture of these ingredients was also applied to derive different shades of the above colours.

On studying the condition of the murals, and after detailed discussion with experts, we identified the several areas for restoration. The outside of the paintings was checked for cracks or lack of adhesion due to water accumulation or formation of bird nests. These were arrested and the conservation began. Cracks and fissures in the painted plaster was fixed to the support base by adhesives like Plaster of Paris, Fevicol or PVA solution mixed in Toluene. Wherever there was a bulge, a hole was made in the bulging plaster, and adhesive solution injected into the hole and kept pressed for some time. Later, the holes were filled with plaster of Paris mixed with suitable colors to match the base paintings

The entire mural conservation effort took nearly six months to complete; but it was well worth the trouble. The finished paintings looked stunningly beautiful and added considerably to the footfalls in subsequent months. On the whole, it was a very challenging, yet, satisfying experience.


The pictures you just saw were those of the “re-painted” art works.

jaina paintings 6

43.2. The art experts and art historians were aghast, pained and angry at the thoughtless action, in violation of conservation norms, by the very Department that was entrusted with the task of protecting and maintaining the ancient murals.

Dr. David Schulman, an Indologist, (currently the Professor, Department of Indian, Iranian, and Armenian Studies, Hebrew University, Jerusalem) who has studied mural paintings of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, said “The paintings of the Trilokyanatha temple at Tiruparuttikunram have been ruined by over- painting. This is quite a common thing in Tamil Nadu. If you repaint it instead of conserving it, the subtlety will be lost; the old colors will be lost. This is disaster. These paintings have to be preserved as they were at their height. The way people do it in Europe.”

The other experts too remarked that repainted murals resemble neither the Vijayanagar style nor the present style.

K.T. Gandhirajan, who has studied murals in 35 temples in Tamil Nadu over a period of six years, said “Only experts can do that. The State government should give up repainting the faded murals because there are not enough trained artists to do the work. Instead, it can use the resources to conserve them.”

43.3. At an international seminar titled “Painting Narratives: Mural Painting Traditions in the 13th-19th centuries”, held near Chennai during Jan, 2008, the participating experts expressed their shock and disappointment at the state of conservation of ancient art in India.

According to the experts, the ancient paintings in India are threatened with destruction through negligence and desecration both by the public and, unfortunately, by the very persons entrusted with the task of preserving them. To cite an example , in a major “renovation “ exercise at the Meenakshi temple of Madurai an important series of Nayak murals from the 16th century were covered with cement paint. The ancient paintings are lost forever.

The mural paintings  of Tamil Nadu have a long, rich and continuous tradition, ranging from the Pallava period to the Nayaka period. It was during the Vijayanagar and Nayaka periods that the art of painting in temples in Tamil Nadu flourished. Most of the murals in the State belong to the Vijayanagar and Nayaka periods. A few belong to the Maratha period of the 18th century.

Even in the temples where a few murals have survived, they have been whitewashed. In some cases, ignorance led to the neglect of the works of art. In many other cases, soot from oil lamps settled over the murals; electrical cables and switchboards were installed over them; or nothing was done to prevent cracked ceilings and sunlight endangering the murals.

44. And, now…

44.1.   I have tried to present in this post the other side of the bad conservation. There are countless cases where the ancient art works are ruined because of neglect or wilful harm. There are also cases, as in Jaina Kanchi, where either by ignorance or by over enthusiasm, the authenticity of the ancient works is degraded. Between these extremes, somewhere, there surely must be a sensible way of taking care of our heritage. As Dr. Schulman remarked, “These paintings have to be preserved as they were at their height. The way people do it in Europe”.

44.2. These mural paintings are not mere bunch of drawings; they are the repositories of our art, culture, history and heritage; they are a part of our very being. It is essential that the general public in India and also the trustees of our art works are educated of the value of our heritage and their historical importance.

44.3. Doubtless, there are problems in taking care of our ancient wall paintings, for want of proper conservation facilities; dearth of trained and qualified conservators; paucity of resources etc.  But what is more worrying is the absence of a  plan or  policy  in place; and lack of a  perspective  vision to conserve even those wall paintings that are under the  care and custody of the governments.

44.4. It is a task, which the government alone cannot handle well; several institutions, Universities as also traditional artists need to take part in this endeavour. I wish we had a sort of National Project for Conservation of Wall Paintings, which would comprehensively address the issues of research, training, creating special curriculums in art-schools, and mobilization of various sorts of resources; and above all an effective management and monitoring system.

Jain tablet from Mathura


The traditional mural paintings of Kerala

References and sources

Tiruparuttikunram and its Temples.–By T. N. Ramachandran, M.A

Bulletin of the Madras Government Museum,

Printed by the Superintendent, Government Press, Madras.

Seminar proceedings

Jainism in south India by  T. K. Tukol

Recent discoveries of Jaina cave inscriptions in Tamilnadu by Iravatham Mahadevan

Ravaged murals

Conservation problems of mural paintings in living temples by S. Subbaraman

Overview of the conservation status of   mural paintings in India

All pictures are from Internet


Posted by on September 24, 2012 in Art, Indian Painting, Legacy of Chitrasutra


Tags: , , ,

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



Tags: , , , ,

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


Tags: , , ,