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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Ten – Lepakshi

 [This is the Ninth 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 paintings on the ceilings of the Veerabhadra temple in Lepakshi (AP).They represent some of the best of Vijayanagara art. This temple is one of the earliest constructed not by the Kings but by two brothers who were philanthropic noblemen.

The textile and fashion designs depicted in the Lepakshi paintings have influenced handicrafts, sari designs etc.

In the next article we shall look at the Paintings at another specimen of Vijayanagara art. It is the not-so-well-known Jain temple at Jaina Kanchi.]

Continued from The Legacy of Chitrasutra –Sri Pampa Virupaksha temple, Hampi


2.1. Lepakshi , in Anantapur district, on the Andhra Pradesh – Karnataka border, near the Pennar River, is a group of temples built in the 16th century, on a single granite outcrop that is curved like the back of a tortoise.  And, the hill was aptly called Kurma-shila.

32.2. Lepakshi is an excellent display of the Vijayanagar School of architecture, sculpture and painting. It brings together magnificent sculptures carved with intricate designs; and a whole set of beautiful, narrative and innovative paintings on its ceilings. The temple is hailed as a delightful synthesis of architecture, sculpture and painting.

32.3. Lepakshi is regarded very important for its historical, archaeological and aesthetic value.  It houses some of the finest sculpture of the period; it has the earliest preserved cycle of mural paintings in the Vijayanagar style; and it also has inscriptions in old-Kannada dating back to many centuries. The Lepakshi temple is a source-material for the study of architecture, painting, iconography and the mythological presentations of the Vijayanagar period. It also offers a few lessons to the art historians and those interested in the preservation and restoration of traditional arts.

33. The Temple

33.1. The construction of the temples at Lepakshi is attributed to the initiative and enterprise of two brothers: Veeranna and Virupanna, noblemen and wealthy merchants of their time. It is said; Virupanna was the officer in charge of the state treasury of the local government with its seat in the Fort of Penukonda, administered by a governor appointed by Achyuta Deva Raya (1529-1547) the Vijayanagar King of   Tuluva dynasty.

33.2. Penukonda (meaning The Big Hill and mentioned as Ghana-giri in the inscriptions) was an important and an affluent province of the Vijayanagar Empire; and the rulers of Vijayanagar and Penukonda were also related by marriages. After the fall of Vijayanagar (1565), Penukonda served as its temporary capital providing a safe house to its vanquished rulers.

33.3. An ancient temple of Lord Veerabhadra – the ferocious and formidable aspect of Shiva- stood on the tortoise-hill (Kurma-shila). The Veerabhadra cult was quite popular during the Vijayanagar period and a number of temples were dedicated to that fearsome lord; the most prominent being the Uddane Veerabhadra, a larger than-life idol with four arms and armoured with sword, mace, axe, shield and bow ready to launch an attack on the enemy. Veerabhadra was the mascot, the war- cry and the inspiration of the armies and fighting forces of Vijayanagar. 

33.4. One of the brothers, Veeranna, was named after the warring deity. The brothers, perhaps, had a special affinity towards Lord Veerabhadra.

The brothers took upon themselves, as an act of devotion, to renovate and enlarge the ancient temple and to expand it into a temple complex. By around the year 1538, they did succeed in erecting exquisite temples of Veerabhadra, Shiva and Vishnu, between two asymmetrical enclosures, containing a central pavilion (mukha-mantapa), an intermediate hall (ardha-mantapa) and a pavilion for dance performances (ranga-mantapa).

34. Sculptures


34.1. The Lepakshi temple complex is a wonderful example of Vijayanagar architectural style. It is an exquisite shrine; rich with profusion of gopuras, vimanas, apsaras, half-relief carvings, sprawling structures with wide spaces and courtyards. The ranga-mantapa and the ardha-mantapa are adorned with splendid architecture. The sculptures here depict images of dancers, musicians; as also themes from puranas, like those of Anantha-shayana, Dattatreya, Bramha, Tumburu, Narada and Rambha etc.

34.2. A monolithic Naga-linga, a Shiva linga with a multi hooded Naga serpent over it; the huge and majestic looking Nandi Bull carved out of single granite; and an imposing Ganesha, are some of the other splendid architectural features.

34.3. Even with all that, the temple is incomplete. The sprawling kalyana-mantapa, meant as a sacred space for celebrating the wedding of Shiva with his beloved Girija, has splendid and richly carved massive pillars; but there is no roof over them. It looks like an unfinished saga in stone. The stories and legends that narrate how and why the builders’ dreams were aborted; and how the place acquired the name Lepakshi, abound. Yet, the unfinished kalyana-mantapa has about it a sort of haunted look.

35. The Paintings

35.1 The Lepakshi temple is also celebrated for its paintings; though some have vanished and the others are weathering with time. But, at one-time the paintings were covered under thick layer of soot. Thanks to the efforts of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), a number of panels on the ceilings of the ranga-mantapa and the natya mantapa have been restored. Shri S. Subbaraman, who retired as Superintending Archaeological Chemist from the ASI says that he was thrilled when “A ten-handed, highly ornamented figure of Veerabhadra, 16 feet in length, all but invisible under the thick layer of soot, made a spectacular reappearance in all its details and bright colour”.

35.2. The ceiling of the natya-mantapa have eight panels depicting themes from mythology , such as the manifestations of Shiva- Shiva as Kiratha ( boar hunter), Dakshinamurthy and scenes from Shiva’s wedding with Girija; the scenes from Krishna’s childhood; and the legend of the compassionate King Manu-neethi-cholan who dispensed justice even to animals.

Girija kalyana theme

       Sages at the wedding

Women at the wedding

The Kiratha theme

35.3. The ardha-mantapa ceiling has bout fourteen panels again depicting the legends and manifestations of Shiva (Dakshinamurti, Chandesa Anugraha murthy, Bhikshatana, Harihara, Ardhanareeswara, Kalyanasundara, Tripurantaka, Nataraja, Gowriprasadaka, Lingodbhava, and Andaka- asuras-amhaara etc.)

35.4. In one corner, the brothers Viranna and Virupanna are shown worshipping Shiva and Parvathi in the company of other courtiers.

35.5. The paintings that have survived are some of the most outstanding murals in India. They are also the best among the Vijayanagara style of pictorial art.  The drawings are eloquent, natural and full of vitality. The sense of liveliness is enhanced by the depiction of the protruding eye, the angular features and by the peaked corners of clothes. The beauty of line and form; grace and movement too are delightful.

35.6. The narrative panels are framed and structured by bands and beams with textile patterns. They depict not merely the themes from the epics but also from the contemporary life, bringing to life a variety of costumes, textile patterns, jewellery, headgears etc..

35.7. The Lepakshi paintings have continued to influence generation of artists. It is practiced, even today, as a craft. The birds, beasts and foliage depicted in its paintings and sculptures have spawned a style that decorates the block-printed Indian textiles and rugs; popularly referred to as the Lepakshi motifs.

35.8. The paintings provide a glimpse of   the richness and colour of a cosmopolitan society; its styles and fashions. The costumes of men and women, colour and embroidered sarees, jewellery, hair styles , tall headwear (kulavi) etc. now  serve as a resource for the textile and fashion designers,  as they provide details of costumes etc of a distant past .

Men wearing Kulavis

[The conical –headgear of those times named Kulavi has an interesting sidelight. A lot has been written about Kulavis by the scholars in Indian history. For instance, there is a theory that the Pallavas who first established their kingdoms in the upper regions of the Krishna river during the third century and extended it up to Kanchipuram, further down south, by around fourth century  ; and ruled over large parts of south India till about ninth century , were immigrants from north.

It further puts forward the view: “the Pallavas of kañcipuram must have come originally from Persia, though the interval of time which must have elapsed since they left Persia must be several centuries. As the Persians are generally known to Indian poets under the name Parasika, the term Pahlavi or Pahlava or Pallava must denote the Arsacidan Parathions, as stated by Professor Weber”: venkayya, pp219–220

One of the arguments in support of that theory is the tall conical headgear worn by the early Pallava kings, which resembles the typical cylindrical Iranian head-dress.

Until the British took root (by 1857), the idiom of administration in India was Persian. The elite conversed and recited poetry in Persian; they dressed in Persian style; and the official language of the kings’ offices, courts etc. was Persian. A number of terms in present-day India’s revenue administration are derived from Persian.

The wealthy traders and   the officials of the king’s court during the vijayanagar times (16th century) too perhaps dressed in Persian style, as depicted in the Lepakshi murals.

Another interesting observation about the conical cap is that the most famous idol of Balaji (Sri Venkateshwara) atop  the  shrine at Tirumala – Tirupathi hills is adorned with an eighteen inch tall cylindrical crown . And, it is never taken out; the head-priest alone is authorized to change it and that too in strict privacy.

The crown of the Tirumala Balaji is unique; and no other ancient temple idol or a divinity in India has such a crown. It is said; the tall cylindrical crown is meant to cover the hair coiled into crown – shape (ushnisha –jata) atop the idols head. The tall crown, surely, was not chiselled into the stone image. It is not clearly known why or when or at what period the tall crown came to be regarded as an inseparable part of the idol. All these fuelled the debate on the nature of the Tirupathi idol.]

39. Fashion and Textile designs

39.1. Brigitte Khan Majlis, Cologne; has done a wonderful study of “Lepakshi: Architecture, Sculpture and Painting”. Please also see the paintings in Vijayanagar Empire by Rekha Pande; and, the Lepakshi Paintings.

39.2. Brigitte Khan Majlis says, “The costumes worn by the figures in the paintings demonstrate that distinct costume pieces and headgear were worn according to gender and status. The textiles show a wide spectrum of patterns. Some of them bear a close similarity to extant cotton textiles, produced along the Coromandel Coast for export to Indonesia in the 17th and 18th century”.

Further, while researching into the textile fashion designs depicted in the Lepakshi paintings, Brigitte Khan Majlis says she was overwhelmed by the abundantly decorated textiles gracing the figures of the narrative panels. And,  was impressed by their display a wealth of garments, jewellery and accessories of fashion. She remarks that the textile patterns in the pictures seem to be sufficiently detailed to take them as examples of real textiles; and connect them with possible textile techniques.

Please take a look at a few of her presentations.

39.3. The women’s upper body is bare except for jewellery or in one case a breast band worn by Parvathi. Sometimes the upper part of the fabric is draped in such a way, that it conceals the bosom. The lower end of the fabric is pleated and tucked in at the waist. Like this it fans out in a “fishtail” manner and in fact this appearance has given this kind of sari wrap its name.

Most of the sari fabrics appear to be white with stripes or chequers as ornamentation or a band of blossoms along the borders. Some of the material is very fine displaying the outlines of the legs.

39.4. Even today, the chequers and stripes are a choice ornamentation of saris and other textiles in South India.

39.5. Male attire: The paintings reveal quite accurately how the pleated part of dhoti was pulled between the legs and tucked in at the back. The dhotis are usually rather plain, white with stripes, tiny dots or of a chequered material.

 A second more ornate hip cloth was worn atop of the dhoti, encircling the hips at least twice, with the ends flowing gracefully in the air or one part tucked in under one arm in a big loop.

A third cloth could be wrapped diagonally across the upper body or around the neck.

A third cloth could be wrapped diagonally across the upper body or around the neck.

39.6. However there are some personages among the paintings which represent actual people of political status.

Retinue in Muslim fashion

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



We shall look at another set of paintings of the Vijayanagar School:

 Jain temple at Jaina Kanchi


Sources and references

All pictures are from Internet


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


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Appendix to Seven – Brihadishvara – Part 8

 The Maratha Nayak paintings in Brihadishvara temple

The following is an appendix to Part seven.

1. During the reign of King Vijaya Raghava Nayak (1645-1673), the restoration and improvement works were undertaken in the Brihadishvara temple. Due to constant exposure to smoke and soot from the lamps and burning of camphor in the sanctum over a period of centuries, certain parts of the Chola paintings on the circumambulatory passage walls had been badly damaged. The artists of the Nayak period tried to set it right, as they thought it fit; and decided to replace the old paintings with paintings of their own. They went on to paint their pictures over the thousand year old Chola murals; covering the old murals completely.

The modern day scholars could not help remark that the artists of the Nayaks’ rather ham-handed and overdid their task.

2. The Department of Archaeology, during the 1980s, did a remarkable conservation of the 11th century Chola paintings, by scientific cleaning. And, they at the same time achieved to retain intact the upper layer on which the Nayak paintings were drawn.

3.  The Maratha Nayak paintings (18-19th century) can be seen on the ceiling of the adjoining great-hall (maha-mantapa); on the west and north walls of another pavilion (tiruchchurru-maaligai); as also on the walls of the mantapa in front of the Subramanian shrine.

4. Since the pictures of these beautiful paintings, looking fresh, could not be posted along with the Chola paintings, I am posting a few of them here as an Appendix to the main post. Please look at them.

brihadishwara appendix 1

brihadishwara appendix 2

brihadishwara appendix 3

brihadishwara appendix 4

brihadishwara appendix 5

brihadishwara appendix 6

brihadishwara appendix 7
All pictures are courtesy of internet.

Continued in Part Nine

Paintings on the ceilings of the Sri Pampa Virupaksha temple, Hampi (Vijayanagar )


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Seven – Brihadishvara

[This is the Seventh 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 surviving Chola murals (earlyeleventh -century) at the magnificenttemple of Brihadishvara, Thanjavur (Tamil Nadu.)  This temple is a jewel among the Indian temples; and is the best of the Chola temples.

A brief mention is also made of the paintings of the Nayak period (17th century)

In the next article we shall look at the Paintings at the historic temple of Pampa Virupaksha at Hampi (Karnataka) , which belongs to the Vijayanagara School of art. ]

Continued from the Legacy of Chitrasutra – Six – Sri Kailasanatha of Kanchipuram

23. The Big Temple

The greatest of Chola emperors Rajaraja-I (985 A.D – 1012 A.D) the son of Sundara Chola (Parantaka-II) and Vanavanmaha  Devi, built a magnificent temple dedicated to Lord Shiva at Rajarajeshwaram near the head of the Cauvery Delta; and called their Lord as Rajarajesvara udaiya Paramasami (The Great God who resides at Rajarajeshwaram).

Thanjavur Brihadishwara3

Rajaraja also affectionately addressed his god as Peruvudaiyar (the great lord or the great master); and, his temple as Peruvudaiyar-kovil. The epigraphic evidences suggest that Rajaraja commenced his temple building project in the 19th year of his reign and completed it successfully on the 257th day in the 25th year of his reign (c.1010 AD). 

Tanjore temple by Capt. Trapaud - 1788.

Watercolour of the Brihadishvara temple at Thanjavur with a tank in the foreground, by  Col. Elisha Trapaud (1750-1828), c.1785.

Thanjavur pagoda

Pagoda at Thanjavur,  – 1797 Coloured etching by William Hodges

Thanjavur pagoda.3 jpg

 Thomas and William Daniell’s ‘Oriental Scenery’-1798

Thanjavur pagoda.2 jpg

Pagoda at Tanjore – 1809- from Salt’s ‘Twenty Four Views ‘

In the early eighth century, the Rājasiheśvara (Kailāsanātha) temple at Kancipuram was probably the largest structural temple complex; with the highest Vimāna thus far built anywhere in India. It was successfully completed in just a matter of six years;  a remarkable feat; especially when you consider that   the hard granite stones that went into the construction of the huge temple were not found anywhere nears the project site.

Tanjore temple William Daniell 1798

by William Daniel -1798

The central temple located in the western part of a large rectangular Prākāra (walled enclosure), which is encircled by more than 50 Devakulikās (subsidiary shrines).The surface of these sub shrines as well as the spaces between them are carved with hundreds of sculptures, all related to Śhaiva iconography, thus assembling the largest pantheon of Śhivamūrtis perhaps ever created in India. Also the temple’s main body (Vimāna) with originally at least seven Parivāra shrines built against its outer walls is carved all over with different forms of Shiva.

The layout of the temple follows a very precise and well-planned concept.  The outer walls of the two-storied vimāna, Ardhamatapa and Mukhamatapa are embellished with niches all containing Shiva-mūrtis; whereas the niches of the first storey show different forms of Shiva, with a Tripurāntaka placed in the northern niche inside the Ardhamatapa facing east. All the 32 niches of the second storey are exclusively filled with images of Tripurāntaka. Thus, there are, in all, 33 life-size standing stone sculptures of Tripurāntaka, the largest number of a single Mūrti   ever installed as niche figures on the walls of a single temple.

The whole central temple (Vimāna-chariot of the gods”) at Tanjavur with its overwhelming presence of Tripurāntaka images could be regarded as symbolically depicting Lord Tripurāntaka’s chariot.

23.2. The inscriptions at the temple indicate that Rajarajesvaram was exclusively a royal temple conceived, designed, and managed by the Emperor himself. The Big – Temple was, in a way, an expression of the devotion as well as the power and grandeur of Rajaraja Chola. It also became a benchmark in the south Indian architecture, highlighting the maturity and technical excellence achieved by the Chola architects and sculptures.

Tanjore temple

23.3. The crowning glory of the temple is the staggering cupola of the Vimana comprising two huge, sculpted, granite blocks weighing 40 tons each. The engineering skills and the expertise that mounted these huge stones atop the fourteen-story high tower structure, standing over 216 feet tall organized by pilasters that break up the façade of the base creating spaces for niches and windows in between, must have been way ahead of their times. The entire structure is built employing the interlock method; where no cement, plaster or adhesive was used between the stones.

It is said, over 130,000 tons of granite was used to build the Temple. Legend says that the stone was brought from Sarapallam (scaffold-hollow), transported by 3000 elephants over a distance of four miles north-east of the city.  The monolithic stone Kumbham, weighing over 80 tons, was placed atop the 200+ feet Vimana, using a specially designed ramp. 

Brihadeeswarara Vimana . jpg

The basement of the structure which supports the tower is 96 feet square. It is said that nearly 100 underground passages existed below the temple-structure; most of which were sealed off centuries ago. The architects and engineers attribute the stability of the massive temple to its pyramidal structure, more robust than the complex curvilinear profiles of other styles .


23.4. In course of time (17th to 19th centuries) the territory came under the rule of the Maratha Nayak rulers .They added various shrines and Gopuras within the temple complex. During their time, the temple came to be known as Brihadisvaram; and its presiding deity as Brihadisvara. The temple-city came to be known as Thanjavur. In Tamil, the temple is the Thanjai Periya- kovil (the Big-temple of Thanjavur).

brihadeshwara dwaja

24. The Paintings

Brihadeshvara painting

24.1. During the reign of King Vijaya Raghava Nayak (1645-1673), the restoration and improvement works were undertaken in the temple. Due to constant exposure to smoke and soot from the lamps and burning of camphor in the sanctum over a period of centuries, certain parts of the Chola paintings on the circumbulatory passage walls had been badly damaged. The artists of the Nayak period tried to set it right, as they thought it fit; and decided to replace the old paintings with paintings of their own. They went on to paint their pictures over the thousand year old Chola murals; covering the old murals completely. The modern day scholars could not help remark that the artists of the Nayaks’ rather overdid their task.

Brihadeshvara. 3 jpg

24.2. How the underlying Chola   murals again saw the light of the day after incarceration of about four hundred years, is an interesting story. It is said that, during the year 1930, while late Professor S.K. Govindasamy of Annamalai University was inspecting the walls of the six-foot wide dim lit  ambulatory (pradakshina patha) around the sanctum of the Brihadisvara, he noticed that the painted surfaces on the walls on either side of the ambulatory had,  at places, crumbled exposing some exquisite ancient paintings. He examined it further; and was thrilled when he discovered that the paintings hidden underneath the Nayak paintings were the thousand-year-old murals of the time of Rajaraja Chola. Professor S.K. Govindasamy published his findings in the Journal of the Annamalai University, Vol. II, 1933.

Researchers have discovered the technique used in these frescoes.  A smooth batter of lime stone mixture is applied over the stones, which took two to three days to set. Within that short span, such large paintings were painted with natural organic pigments.

During the Nayak period, the Chola paintings were painted over. The Chola frescos lying underneath have an ardent spirit of Shaivism is expressed in them. They probably synchronized with the completion of the temple by Rajaraja Chola.

Thereafter, attempts were made  by the Researchers to bring to light the Chola murals; and at the same time to preserve the paintings of the Nayak period.


       The passage

24.3. The Department of Archaeology has done a remarkable conservation of scientifically cleaning the exposed portions revealing the excellence of the Chola paintings and at the same time retaining intact the upper layer on which the Nayak paintings are drawn. It is said that during the 1980s, the chemical branch of the ASI came out with a unique `de-stucco’ process to remove the upper layer of Nayak paintings and display the same on fiberglass boards. For a report on that, please check:

[ Incidentally, etched on the  Gopuram  of the Brihadeshvara temple , there is a figure of a man wearing a hat and a coat. There is no clear explanation about who this person was; and, how he came to be illustrated on the temple Gopuram. ]

Brihadesvara Tanjore man with a hat

25. The Chola panels

25.1. The magnificent temple of Brihadisvara at Thanjavur is a splendorous jewel of Indian temple art and architecture.

The original Chola paintings, so far brought to surface, are mainly in the corridors of the ambulatory around the sanctum. They are on the South, North and Western walls of the sanctum.

The Maratha Nayak paintings (18-19th century) are on the ceiling of the adjoining great-hall (maha-mantapa); on the west and north walls of another pavilion (tiruchchurru-maaligai); and on the walls of the mantapa in front of the Subramanian shrine.

( For the paintings of the Nayaks’ period : please see the Appendix posted as Part 8 )

25.2. The themes depicted in the panels so far exposed (1,200 sq ft) are : Shiva as Dakshinamurthy; the story of Sundarar; Rajaraja and his three queens worshipping Nataraja at Chidambaram; Tripurantaka; the marriage of Shiva and Parvathi; Rajaraja worshipping the Linga to be enshrined in the temple; and Ravana at Kailasa mountain.

Sadly, none of these is panels is complete. The figures too are not very clear; and it is difficult to make out the details. But for the efforts of ASI these ancient wall-paintings would have been totally lost.

Let’s take a brief look at some those panels.

25.3. The Dakshinamurthy panel

The Dakshinamurthi panel is rather huge and occupies almost the entire  space  on the southern wall. It is often cited as an example for lucidity and display of imagination in Chola paintings. It depicts Shiva as Dakshinamurthi under a banyan tree.

However, the figure of Dakshinamurthy is barely visible. The panel is very rich in details; it is populated with sages, Bhirava as dog, playful monkeys and birds such as peacocks, swans and owls.

There is a stillness of body and reverence on the face of the sages worshipping Dakshinamurthi, in contrast to the vivacious animals. Flying apsaras and gandharvas (celestial beings)complete the scene .But as a cobra enters the picture; there is a sudden change in the scenery. A monkey rushes away while another stares at the new entrant. Another, on a faraway branch, is not yet aware of the danger. A few sensitive swans flutter their wings in fear. The owls do not react as the whole thing happens in daylight. A peacock bends his long neck to watch. A squirrel, unmindful of all this, happily bites into a nut. Below the tree is a herd of elephants; one ferociously breaks a branch and another runs uphill with its trunk coiled around the branch. Another one calmly enjoys the peaceful surroundings.

The other panels are fragmentary but they, too, contain some marvellously drawn figures, bearing testimony to the skilful brushwork of the Chola artists.

25.4. There are also the graceful pictures of the Apsaras.

25.5. Saint Sundaramurti Nayanar

The panel on the west wall depicts the episodes in the life of Saint Sundaramurti Nayanar. In this panel the scenes of Sundara’s wedding are depicted in detail. These include scenes of Lord Shiva appearing in the guise of an old man clutching a document proving his claim over the bridegroom Sundara, an angry Sundara in a white coat , examination of the document by the villagers assembled there, and Sundara appealing to the mercy of Shiva etc.

sundaramurti sundaramurti.j2 pg

25.6. The scene of Indra (the king of gods)   worshipping the Linga is on the opposite wall.

sundaramurti.j3 pg

25.7. The next panel in northwest corner is the scene of four disciples who are now

identified as disciples (Kuravars: Sanka, Sananda, Sanathana, and Sanathkumara) of Sri Dakshinamurthy. Two figures among them were earlier assumed to be that of Rajaraja standing behind his Guru, Karuvurdevar, portraying a sense of humility. Now, the scholars seem to doubt that plausible explanation.

king guru

25.8. Tripuranthaka theme of Shiva raiding a chariot like a warrior, going into a war fully armed and wielding a bow, followed by an army of his supporters was a favourite of the Cholas. The Brihadisvara too has a panel dedicated to Tripurantaka. It must have once been a magnificent and awe inspiring painting, bringing to life the power, glory and the grandeur of the imperial Cholas and their Lord. It is said that Shiva in the mural had a twin expression: the ferociousness in the eye and the sweet smile on the lips. The daemons too have been depicted in detail. The panel, sadly, has not survived in its entirety.


The demon with his consort on the Tripurantaka panel.

25.9. There is a picture of Ravana at Kailasa the snow-abode of Shiva; labouring hard to destabilize mountain peak.

tripurantaka.j 2 pg

26.Prof. C. Sivaramamurthy , a scholar and art historian of great distinction, described the Chola frescoes of the Thanjavur Big Temple as a masterpiece of Chola art, distinguished by power, grandeur, rhythm and composition, and unparalleled by any other contemporary painting. What is significant about the Chola paintings of Thanjavur is that there is great emotion in all the faces, whether it is the compassion of the guru counselling Rajaraja, or a contemplative rishi, a devout queen, an animated dancer or an angry Shiva.

26.1. Those who have examined the Chola paintings closely have observed that even while depicting a sombre theme of devotion, the artist does not neglect the mundane aspects. The bedecked royal ladies continue to chatter among themselves, in spite of their being in a holy place. In contrast, the common ladies and elders seem absorbed in the performance.


26.2. According to Prof. C. Sivaramamurthy, “If expression has to be taken as the criterion, by which a great art has to be judged, it is here in abundance in these Chola paintings. The sentiment of heroism – vira rasa– is clearly seen in Tripurantaka’s face and form; the figures and attitude of the Rakshasas (demons) … wailing tear-stained faces of their women… suggest an emotion of pity – karuna– and terror – raudra; Siva as Dakshinamurthy… is the mirror of peace – shanta; the hands… of the dancer suggests the spirit of wonder – adbhuta… the ganas (Shiva’s followers) in comic attitude represent hasya. The commingling of emotions is complete in this which is a jumble ofvira, raudraand karuna” (Paintings of South India).


27. The Chola artists of the Brihadisvara murals were the inheritors of the hoary tradition of Chitrasutra. They preserved and practiced the concepts and the techniques of the Chitrasutra. The delineation of lines, use of colours and shades, arrangement of the figures on the canvass and treatment of the subject strongly resemble the murals of Ajanta. Its figures are alive with rhythm and movement.


The saints, kings and queens are celebrated in their idealized forms; the emphasis was on the ideal person behind the human lineaments rather than on their physical likeness. They figures of humans, animals, birds and vegetation always seem to suggest to something beyond the obvious. Its gods and goddesses too are full of virtue, vitality and grace; and have a universal appeal. They not merely stimulate the senses but also ignite the imagination of the viewer and set the viewer free from the confines of place, time and ego (self).The Chola murals of Brihadisvara have that magical quality, which brings out the essence of life and the grace that permeate the whole of existence.

[ I gratefully acknowledge the corrections and improvements suggested by Shri Vijay Kumar the creator of the delightfully articulate website on Shilpa and other related subjects : ] 

For the paintings of the Nayaks’ period : please see the Appendix posted as Part 8


The Vijayanagar period paintings on the ceilings of the Sri Pampa Virupaksha temple, Hampi (Karnataka)


References and Sources:

The Big Temple

The Great God of Rajarajeshwaram

Restoration of Chola paintings by ASI

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

Legends across panels by Nandtha Krishna

The Swami as photographer

Tanjavur Paintings in Koviloor, Sittannavasal, Panamalai, Tanjavur Early Chola Paintings;

Photographed  by C. Nachiappan (Koviloor Swamy), Kalakshetra Publications. email_work_card=view-paper



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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Five –Panamalai

[This is the fifth article in the series.

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

The present article is about the surviving mural (ninth-century) at the Talagirishwara temple in Tamil Nadu. This temple is one of the earliest constructed by the Pallava kings; and it served as a model for the other bigger Pallava temples.

In the next article we shall look at  the  Paintings at another Pallava temple –  Sri Kailasanathar of Kancipuram]

Continued from

The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Four – Sittannavasal



Panamalai situated about 7km to the south of the famous heritage fort at Gingee ( Tamil Nadu) is renowned for the ancient temple dedicated to Shiva as  Talagirishwara , the Lord of the Talagiri. (It is his earth abode here). The exquisite temple still has a few remnants of beautiful paintings.

talagisvara16.1. The Talagirishwara temple on top of the rock-hill overlooking a placid lake is dated around seventh – eighth century, based on the inscriptions found in the temple. The temple is attributed to the creative genius and enterprise of the great Pallava king Narasimhavarman II aka Rajasimha (son of Parameshwaravarman I), who ruled for more than three decades from c.690 to 728 AD. By the time Narasimhavarman II ascended to the throne, the Pallavas had gained supremacy over their rivals – Chola and Pandyas; and were established as the dominant power in Southern India. The Pallavas had even established trade and diplomatic relations with China. The long reign of Narasimhavarman II was free from conflicts with the neighbouring states; and was blessed with a fairly long spell of peace of prosperity during which literature and arts flourished.

Narasimhavarman II, the Pallava King

16.2. It is said, Narasimhavarman, in particular, was a great patron of art and literature. Dandin, the great scholar was his court – poet. Narasimhavarman himself was an accomplished playwright and poet; and had to his credit many works in Sanskrit and Tamil. Though most of his works are now not extant, his plays on Ramayana and Mahabharata themes continue to influence the traditional theatre. For instance, his plays kailasodharanam and kamsavadham, in Sanskrit, are still a part of the repertory of Kutiyattam, the ancient School of drama in Kerala.


16.3. Pallavas were the pioneers of south Indian architecture; and, laid the foundations of the Dravidian school which blossomed during the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Vijayanagar kings and the Nayaks. Among the later Pallavas, the contribution of Narasimhavarman was phenomenal. During his reign he caused as many as fourteen major temples to be constructed. The prominent among those were: the Kailasanatha and the Airavatesvara temples of Kanchipuram; the shore temple of Mamallapuram; the Atiranacanda temple of Saluvankuppam; and, the Talagirisvara temple of Panamalai. He is also credited with the construction of the Buddhist Vihara commonly known as ‘China-pagoda’ at Nagapatam, for benefit of Chinese merchants, mariners and visiting monks. Marco Polo who visited the monastery in 1292 AD wrote about it.


shore temple at Mahabalipuram datable to late 7th century

Tiger Cave complex in 2005 led to the excavation of a Sangam Period

   Saluvankuppam Yali Cave, façade 

16.4. The architecture of his time was versatile and innovative. While the Mamallapuram temple was located on seashore, the kanchi temple was in the plains and the Panamalai was atop a rocky hill. Architecturally, each temple was distinct in its style and in its depiction of the details.

While the sanctum of the Kanchipuram temple was decorated with sculpture, the one at Panamalai was painted with the Somaskanda murals. It is also said, Narasimhavarman’s shilpis (sculptors) displayed a great deal of imagination and artistic liberty; and, did not strictly adhere to the prescription of the Agamas.

shiva talagisvara

Shiva at Talagirishwara 

Panamalai temple

Panamali_temple_viewITNTG004general view

( It is believed that the modest sized graceful looking Vimana of Talagirishwara temple, with its sharply recessed corners leading up to the stupi (top point)   served as a prototype for the more intricate vimanas of the later Pallava temples.)

17.1. The temple at Panamalai is smaller in size; its inner and outer walls are plain unlike that of the other Pallava temples of its time. The inner walls of its cells and the sanctum were, at one time, covered with paintings of exquisite beauty. Interestingly, it is said, the Panamalai murals resembled closely with the sculptural details on the inner walls of the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram.


Somaskanda panel at Kailasanatha-Kanchi

17.2. The Somaskanda murals on the sanctum walls and other paintings in the pavilion front of the sanctum have all but vanished, leaving behind few traces of paintings.


The lone painting

umbrellaPanamalai Parvathi

18.1. The only identifiable figure now visible on the temple walls is that of a beautiful looking, well adorned graceful young lady standing beneath a royal parasol, wearing a tall bejewelled kirita (tiara)and jewellery, typical of the Pallava period. The skilful shading has endowed the figure a three dimensional appearance. It is regarded one of the most beautiful paintings of ancient India. 


Detail of the parasol

18.2. She, with the parasol, resembles Parvathi of the Kailasanatha temple, Kanchipuram, and the Vakataka women of Ajanta. She is identified by some as Parvathi, the consort of Shiva; but she could be any beautiful woman of refinement and elegance. In any case, the influence of Ajanta is unmistakable. The enraptured gaze and the tender grace are inherited from the Chitrasutra and Ajanta tradition.

ajanta tradition

18.3. The idiom of Pallava painting, which began here, later blossomed into a grand imperial style of painting under the Cholas.


The Pallava temple – Sri Kailasanatha of Kanchipuram.




All Pictures are from Internet


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Four -Sittannavasal

[This is the fourth article in the series.

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

The present article is about the Jain murals (ninth-century) at Sittanvaasal caves in Tamil Nadu. These are perhaps the earliest surviving Jain murals

In the sections to follow we shall look at   Paintings at Panamalai and Kailasanathar of Kancipuram]

Continued from  : The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Three – Badami


12. 1. As Benoy. K. Behl  (the well known art-historian, filmmaker and photographer who has written extensively on Ajanta ) remarked “If Badami and Ajanta represent the earliest surviving Hindu and Buddhist murals, Sittannavasal caves are the earliest surviving Jain murals”.

12.2. Sittanavasal, near Pudukkottai in Tamilnadu is renowned primarily for its rock-cut cave temple with its rare Jaina mural paintings. The name indicates abode of the Siddha (the monk or monks).The first century Tamil-Brahmi inscription 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. The territorial division of Eorumi-nadu is   identified with the present-day Mysore region.

The cave floor, in fact, provides slightly elevated beds and pillows carved out of rock, for use of the monks.  There are about seventeen beds, rectangular even-spaces; each with a sort of stone pillow. It is likely that on these rock beds the Jain ascetics performed austerities such as kayotsarga and sallekhana (voluntary starvation leading to death).

An inscription of 7th century AD,written in Tamil Brahmi, in 7 lines, mentions some names (perhaps of Jain monk residents):

Kadavulan Tirunilan of Tolakkunram, Tiruppuranan, Tittaichchanan, Tiruchchattan, Sripurnachandiran, Niyatakaran Pattakkali and Kadavulan.

[There is mention of another inscription written in vattelettu script dated 5th – 6th centuries AD, found in another natural cavern in the same hill.]

[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].

It is likely that the Sittannavasal cave temple dated around first or second  century (based on the Tamil-Brahmi inscription found on the cave floor) 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.

12.3. Sittannavasal, a natural cave, located on top of a modest granite hill, called Eladipattam, served in the ancient times, as residence for the Jain monks. The cave temple is quite spacious and has a low roof. But, Sittannavasal is rather small in size in comparison to Ajanta with which its paintings are often compared.

13.1. The importance accorded to Sittanavasal is not because of its size or grandeur, but because of its significance in the history of development of Indian art and also because of its exquisite style of depiction, as evidenced by the fragments of its remnant murals. The Sittanavasal paintings are regarded as a surviving link between the Ajanta paintings (c.6th century) and the Chola paintings of Thanjavur (11th century). They are also classified with the Sigiriya (Srigiri) frescoes of Sri Lanka (fifth century) and the Bagh frescoes in Madhya Pradesh (sixth and seventh centuries).

Sigiriya-Sri Lanka                Bagh caves- Madhya Pradesh

13.2. Sittanavasal is the earliest example of Jaina paintings. These paintings gathered attention of western world after an inscription was published during the year 1904.Though the cave and its interior carvings are dated to around 2nd century, the surviving remnants of the beautiful paintings on the ceiling of the sanctum and the ardha-mantapa (front pavilion) are dated around seventh century, as they appear to be based in the classical Ajanta style. Some scholars say, the pillars and cave paintings belong to the period of the  Pallava king Mahendra-varmanI (580-630 CE).

13.3. Another reason for dating the Sittannavasal murals around 6th -7th century is that they exhibit some Pallava features. Further, the temple in its architectural style resembles the cave temples built by the Pallava king, Mahendra-varman.

As regards the wall-surface and its preparation, they closely resemble that of Ajanta. The base of Sittannavasal paintings is well consolidated, firm yet thin with lime plaster used as binding agent. The painted plaster is made up of three layers: rough plaster, fine plaster and a covering layer of paint, as in Ajanta.

The paintings 

14.1. The paintings that were on the temple walls have almost completely perished. Only the fragments of the paintings that were on the   ceilings, the beams and the upper regions of the pillars have partially survived.

I understand, these remnants too are eroding fast clouded by the fine granite dust emanating from the nearby quarries. And, this ongoing disaster might eventually emaciate the rock-hill, weaken the ancient temple structure and bring the whole of it crumbling down.

14.2. Of the remaining fragments of paintings, those on the pillars and the lotus pool scene on the ceiling of the ardha-mandapa (pavilion) and the carpet canopy on the ceiling of the inner shrine are the most important.

sittanvasal ceiling design

Design on the ceiling

14.3. Among the pictures painted on the pillars, the figures of the dancers adorned with ornaments and distinctive hair styles; and displaying graceful dance postures are very attractive. They closely resemble the Apsaras (celestial maidens) of the Ajanta. 


There are two dancers painted on western face of the two pillars, greeting those who enter the cave. However, the images are much weathered now; and, only upper the portions of the dancers remain. Apsara’s hair is tied together and is adorned with varieties of flowers. She wears necklaces around her neck. Her upper body is bare (as in the classical style of depicting the aristocracy) . It is likely that the full figure was depicted   with elaborate clothes below her waist.

14.4. A painting on the southern pillar of perhaps the king and his queen has somehow survived. The benign looking male figure is adorned with an elaborate crown, ear-rings set in gems (patra-kundala and makara kundala). The female figure behind him is rather simple.

14.5. Canopies of vivid patterns are painted on the ceiling over the images of Thirthankara Parshvanatha a Jain Acharya (preceptor) employing the lotus motif.

15.1. The most important mural of Sittannavasal is the exquisite composition depicting the delightful Jain heaven. The painting depicts Sama-vasaranathe adorable heavenly pavilion with theBhvyas, the eligible souls fortunate to receive divine discourse in the Samava-sarana.

The termSamavasarana (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  Samavasarana is thus, a tirth, a revered place.

According to Jaina faith, the Bhavyas have to pass through seven bhumis or regions before they gain eligibility to listen to the divine discourse. Among these bhumis, the second bhumi is the khatika-bhumi (region-of-the-tank).

The Sittannavasal mural depicts the joyous scenes at this divine lotus tank.  It pictures bhavyas amusing themselves in the delightful lotus tank full of lotus flowers, fishes, birds and animals.

It is a picture of sublime happiness, where the Bhavyas happily gather, with tender care, lotus flowers larger than themselves, while elephants appear to smile; and the bulls, birds and fishes are in playful mood. The figure of the bhavya is made with a lilting grace, like the stalks of the lotuses he gathers. It is a gracious world.

Line drawing

the detail

15.2. The lotus with their stalks and leaves, and the birds, fishes, bulls and elephants are utterly simple and beautiful in their natural charm. Some art critiques have remarked, this might be one of the most beautiful depictions of flowers in ancient Indian art.

These flowers attract viewer’s attention due to their sheer size and bright colours. This bright colour fades gradually towards inside of flower. These flowers are depicted in various stages of development, from a bud to a well blown flower. The bright red lotus with green leaves and thin stem presents a very pleasant sight.

There are three buffalos in this lake, one totally submerged and two in state of getting out of the lake as men approach. There are three men in the lake who are shown collecting flowers. Elephants are shown carrying lotus stems and in process of handing those to nearby men. One of them is holding a basket to place flowers into it. These men probably represent Jaina monks who are getting flowers for offerings to their teachers. Smile on their faces suggest that they are happy and content.

15.2. The unique features of the Indian art are seen here, where humans share the joy of life with the animals, birds and plants. It is a celebration of life, even in after-life. It echoes the spirit of life immortalized in an inscription at Ajanta: “The joy of giving filled him so much that it left no space for the feeling of pain.”

It seemed to convey “Every leaf, every flower, every ant, deer, elephant and human form is filled with the same joyous spirit that flows through and connects all that there is in the world”.

Please see reproductions of some of the ancient paintings of Sittanvasal




The Panamalai temple of the Pallava times

Resources and References

All pictures are from Internet


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra- Three – Badami

[This is the third 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 .In the present set of articles , I propose to talk , briefly, about the influence of Chitrasutra – its outlook, its theories and its recommended practices – on the Indian mural paintings. In this process I propose to cover some , not all , of the main mural paints of India that succeeded Ajanta , such as : Pitalkhora (c.6th century), Badami (c, 6th century), Sittannavaasal (c.7th century), Pannamalai (7thcentury), Kailasanatha – Kanchipuram (8th century),Brihadeshwara – Tanjore (11thcentury), Lepakshi (16th century), Mattancheri (c.17th century) and Padmanabhapuram palace (18th century).I propose to round it up the discussion with a note on the sublime paintings of Shri S Rajam , who kept alive the tradition of Chitrasutra in the modern times.

The first article was meant to serve a brief introduction to the subject outlining the characteristics of the Chitrasutra tradition.

The present article attempts to give an account of the murals at Badami.]

Continued from the Legacy of Chitrasutra- Two-Pitalkhora


Badami caves, Karnataka

8.1. Badami, along with Aihole, Pattadakal and some other sites in and around the valley of the River Malaprabha in Bagalkot District of Karnataka, contain some of the earliest temples built in stone in the regions of Southern India.  Badami known as Vatapi in the earlier times, founded in 540 AD by Pulikeshin I was the capital of the early Badami Chalukyas from 540 to 757 AD.

The rock-cut cave temples of Badami located in a ravine at the foot of rugged sandstone rock formation were carved and sculpted mostly during the 6th and 8th centuries. However, the history of construction of monuments in stone go back much farther in time, as evidenced by the large number of megalithic monuments that are distributed at several sites in the Malaprabha Valley.

The ceiling designs in the Badami temples are highly intricate; and, are decorated  with  stylized padma-vitāna, lotus-ceiling involving radial symmetry, and concentric borders enclosing lotus motifs.

Badami ceiling designs 2

The four cave temples depict the art of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religious inclinations, evidencing the secular outlook and religious tolerance of the ancient Kings of Badami. The rock cut temples at Pattadakal (UNESCO world heritage monument), Badami and Aihole are among the most celebrated monuments of ancient India.

8.2. It is said; the cave temples of Badami influenced the development of the rock-cut structures of Mahabalipuram. Rev H Heras SJ in his ‘Studies in Pallava History’ (SG Paul and Co, 1933) discusses in fair detail the similarities between the two groups of sculptures and traces certain features of  the statues and sculptures at Mahabalipuram to the caves of Badami. According to Rev Heras, soon after his accession to the throne the Pallava king Mahamalla Narasimhavarman I (ruled 630-668 AD), in retaliation, successfully attacked Vatapi (Badami) the capital of the Chalukyas. While at Vatapi, Mahamalla was greatly impressed by its extraordinarily well executed cave-temples; and particularly by cave No.3 the largest and most ornamented of all the Badami caves.

Badami ceiling motiff

Narasimhavarman was struck with admiration at the beauty in the architectural concept and the perfection of its execution in those elaborate cave-temples. Rev Heras asserts it is beyond doubt that the Pallava king studied the Chalukya style of cave building took designs of some of the architectural elements and motifs of ornamentation. He also broadened his views on stone carving and fostered in his mind new ambitious projects to emulate the artistic achievements of his enemies. And he did succeed.


8.3 .Rev Heras points out striking similarities between the pillars the Varaha Mantapa of Mahabalipuram and the pillars in the veranda of Cave No.1 of Badami:” The same prismatic appearance; the same bulbous lotus-like development of the capital; the same interruption of the fluting by a band of filigree work; the same rosary-like garlands “. He also points out that Mahamalla adopted the Badami style of decoratively covering the side-walls with large sculptural panels displaying elaborate figures that resemble the Badami depictions. For instance Varaha, Vamana, Gaja-Lakshmi and Durga in Cave No. 2 and Cave No. 3 of Mahabalipuram closely follow in their depiction the figures of the Badami caves. Rev Heras remarks; the statues and sculptures of Mahabalipuram are plainer than those of Badami; there is neither profusion of ornamentation nor richness of details. But the figures of Mahabalipuram seem richer with their’ naturalness s and freshness of the poses ‘that is   not found in the more conventional panels of Badami.

badami.jpillars pgvishnu badami d1613

8.4. It is remarkable; while the cave temples of Badami influenced the carved structures of Mahabalipuram, about a century later the Pallava temples influenced the style, structure and depiction of the Chalukya temples. Over a period the two rival schools enriched each other giving place to composite styles of sculpture and architecture.  

Badami swasthika Badami chakra


9. Though its exquisite carvings and sculptures are fairly well preserved, the murals in the Badami caves have all but vanished. Only a few fragments of the paintings tucked away in the concave surfaces of the vaulted cornice of the 3rd and 4tn cave have survived. They are perhaps the earliest surviving specimens of the Hindu wall paintings.

578 CE Mangalesha Kannada inscription in Cave temple 3 at Badami

Badami inscription of Mangalesha

An inscription dated 578 AD records, in Kannada language; the caves were completed during the reign of King Mangalishwara (aka Mangalesha) son of Pulikeshin I. The wall paintings might therefore have been executed during that period. Some other paintings in cave 4 might belong to a later period (6-7th century) as they appear related to paintings in Cave 1 of Ajanta, depicting the visit of a Persian emissary to the court of Pulakshin in 625 AD.


10. It is likely that the caves were earlier painted and fully decorated. The fragment remains of the Badami murals still evoke the images of splendour and magi of the bygone eras. The remains of the Shiva and Parvathi murals, and of other characters from the Puranas ( in cave 3) strongly resemble the figures painted in Ajanta .


The mural in cave 4, dedicated to Adinatha Thirthankara, depicts Jain saints relinquishing the world for attainment of knowledge   , is truly uplifting.


Pen-and-ink drawing of two sculptures from Cave I, Badami, depicting Harihara and Ardhanarishvara, by an  unknown Indian draftsman, dated 1853.

badami sketch

Pen-and-ink and wash drawing of two sculptures of Vishnu as Trivikrama and Varaha from Cave II, Badami

badami sketch 2

11.  The secular paintings too closely resemble the Ajanta paintings, thus carrying forward the tradition of the Chitrasutra. Shri SM Sunkad an artist from Hubli (Karnataka) has attempted reproducing a mural each from Ajanta and Badami and illustrating how closely they resemble in style.


This was the commencement of Chalukya style of architecture and a consolidation of South Indian style.



— Sittanvaasal->


All pictures are from Internet



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The Legacy Of Chitrasutra- Two-Pitalkhora


[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 .In the present set of articles , I propose to talk , briefly, about the influence of Chitrasutra – its outlook, its theories and its recommended practices – on the Indian mural paintings. In this process I propose to cover some , not all , of the main mural paints of India that succeeded Ajanta , such as : Pitalkhora (c.6th century), Badami (c, 6th century), Sittannavaasal (c.7th century), Pannamalai (7thcentury), Kailasanatha –Kanchipuram (8th century),Brihadeshwara – Tanjore (11thcentury), Lepakshi (16th century), Mattancheri (c.17th century) and Padmanabhapuram palace (18th century).I propose to round it up the discussion with a note on the sublime paintings of Shri S Rajam , who kept alive the tradition of Chitrasutra in the modern times.

The first article was meant to serve a brief introduction to the subject outlining the characteristics of the Chitrasutra tradition.

The present article attempts to give an account of the murals at Pitalkhora.]

Continued from the Legacy of Chitrasutra- One

The previous post viz. The Legacy of Chitrasutra- One  tried to present, as a backdrop, an outline of the general principles of the Chitrasutra tradition: its outlook, its concepts and theories; and its recommended practices. As mentioned, the school of Chitrasutra wielded enormous influence on the artists of the sub-continent, over about fifteen centuries. We shall now look at some celebrated murals of ancient India, which either belonged to the period of Ajanta or to sometime thereafter.


6. The caves

6.1. The Buddhist caves at Pitalkhora are the closest to Ajanta; both in terms of space and time. They too are situated in the Aurangabad region of Maharashtra; about 40km west of the famous rock- cut temples at Ellora. The Pitalkhora caves are cut into the side of a secluded ravineand are located deep inside a valley with a gentle stream running through it.

6.2. The set of fourteen caves of early- Buddhist period are similar to Ajanta; and are dated around second or third century BCE. Some scholars identify Pitalkhora with ‘Petrigala’ mentioned in Ptolemy’s history and with ‘Pitangalya ‘mentioned   in a Buddhist tantric text Mahamayuri of 3-4th century AD. The inscriptions found here (c. second century) indicate that ‘Pitangalya ‘had close connections with Pratishtana (modern Paithan), the capital of the Imperial Shatavahanas. Pitangalya was also an important trade centre along the caravan -route from Surparaka (Sapora) to Nasik, further north.

A unique feature of Pitalkhora is its ingenious arrangement to drain out the seepage that found its way into the cave through cracks in the rocks. Long tunnel like openings were bored into the ceilings and the water was channelled underneath the cave floor, in concealed drains, leading to outside cave entrance.

Pitalkhora caves occupy a significant place among the ancient Buddhist monuments of 2 C B.C. But, sadly the caves are in a poor state of preservation.


6.3.  Pitalkhora consisting of 14 Buddhist Caves forms one of the earliest centres of the rock-cut architecture; and are said to belong to about 2nd C BCE. The architectural and sculptural representations are similar to that of the Sanchi stupa; and are approximately of the same period. The sculptural remains at Pitalkhora include some   unusual sculptures; such as those of the wonderful animal motifs, miniature Chaitya windows, the elephants, yaksha (semi divine beings), dwarapala  (door-keepers) and mithuna (twin ) figures.

7. The paintings

7.1. As regards the paintings, only a few fragments of the murals dated around 5-6thcentury AD (of the time of Ajanta murals) can be seen in the Chaitya and Monastery Caves. The best paintings are in Cave 3. These appear on the pillars and side walls. They bear a strong resemblance to Ajanta style of painting; carrying forward the tradition of the Chitrasutra.

7.2. This is evident from the gentle expression and typical soulful eyes (characteristic of the Ajanta) depicted in the figure of a worshipper in a Pitalkhora fragment. The hair- do and colour scheme of the Pitalkhora fragment resembles greatly the Ajanta figures.

7.3. The Buddha figure to with its benign countenance and soulful eyes does resemble the Ajanta.


The rock-cut cave temples of Badami, in North Karnataka, carved and sculpted mostly during the 6th and 8th centuries, depicting the art of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religious traditions.



All pictures are from Internet


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – One- Introduction

[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. In the present set of articles, I propose to talk, briefly, about the influence of Chitrasutra – its outlook, its theories and its recommended practices – on the Indian mural paintings.

In this process I propose to cover some , not all , of the main mural paints of India that succeeded Ajanta , such as :  Pitalkhora (c.6th century) , Badami (c, 6th century), Sittannavaasal (c.7th century), Pannamalai (7th century), Kailasanatha-Kanchipuram (8th century), Brihadeshwara -Tanjore (11th century) , Lepakshi (16th century), Mattancheri (c.17th century) and Padmanabhapuram palace (18th century). I propose to round it up the discussion with a note on the sublime creations of Shri S Rajam, the classical painter who kept alive the tradition of Chitrasutra in the modern times.

The present post is a brief introduction to the subject outlining the characteristics of the Chitrasutra tradition. This will be followed by an account of the murals at Pitalkhora and Badami in the next section.]


From  the caves of Newari region on the borders of Nepal and China(8-9th  cent)

1. Indian murals

1.1. Murals in India date back to times beyond the pages of history. India has a rich tradition of mural wealth. The treatises such as Vishnudharmottara, Silpashastra, Manasollasa, Shilparatna, Narada-shilpa-shastra and Kashyapa-shilpa, discuss at length all aspects of painting, including murals. The murals are perhaps the only surviving examples of ancient Indian painting.

1.2. The Chitrasutra of Vishnudharmottara describes itself as a “legacy of the collective wisdom of the finest minds”. That legacy inherited by the Chitrasutra was, in turn, carried forward by the scores of artists, spread across the centuries, who produced priceless works of art. Those were acts of intense devotion and dedication. The earliest surviving of those works of art are the murals at Ajanta, which we have already discussed. The decorative motifs, richly populated compositions, well defined figures, appropriate costumes and adorations are some of the notable features of the Ajanta mural paintings. The tradition of Chitrasutra and Ajanta was nurtured, practiced and kept alive in other parts of the country, during the next fifteen centuries. The widespread acceptance and a sustained propagation of the principles of Chitrasutra in a country of diverse cultures and religions, is one of the marvels of ancient India. Some residuals of those ancient murals have somehow survived to this day.

sigriyasri lanka

Sigiriya-Sri Lanka

1.3. The Chitrasutra tradition, in a way of speaking, was the unobtrusive soft silken bond that tied the country together in a common cultural web, by providing idioms of art expressions that all could share and regard it as their own. It put into the hands of the artists a well structured grammar of painting. Chitrasutra was an inclusive and a unified tradition of painting. One of the main characteristic of this tradition was 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 the general principles of Chitrasutra. The regional idioms, nevertheless, contributed to the richness of Indian art, and their mutual influences gave birth to multi-faceted development of Indian art.

2. Outlook

2.1. Chitrasutra tradition was at once Hindu, Buddhist and Jain; for its style was a function of time and region; and, not of the religion. It is not, therefore, 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; the religion having little to do with the mode of artistic expression. Apart from that, the Indian art that rendered the religious themes shared a common pool of symbols, gestures (mudras) and a common set of values that avoided imitation of the physical and ephemeral world of the senses.

Let me try to illustrate this aspect. In all  the Hindu , Jain 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-fulfilling creeper symbolize  imagination and creativity; and Mriga or deer – symbolizes  desire and  fleeting beauty.


Similarly, the gestures (mudra) by positioning of fingers, hands, limbs etc. , making explicit the virtues such as wisdom, strength, generosity, kindness and caring etc. are employed and interpreted commonly by all the persuasions.

3. Concepts

3.1. There is a marked absence of portraitures in the ancient murals. One rarely comes across the physical representations of the monarchs or the patrons who caused the paintings to be done. This could be viewed as one of the strength of Indian art. It strived to move away from the ephemeral towards the long lasting; and from particular to universal. It also meant that the ancient Indian kings were not vain enough to assume their portraits would override the art.

3.2. Even in cases where the figures of kings and queens were depicted, the emphasis was on the ideal person behind the human lineaments rather than on their physical likeness. Most of those kings and queens were celebrated in their idealized forms. Their representations were therefore visualized or abstract rather than “photo-like”.

3.3. That approach seems to have sprung from the concern of the artist not to just reproduce the forms but to look beyond the tangible world of appearances. The Chitrasutra suggested, the artist should try to look beyond the beauty of the form that meets the eye; to lift the veil and look within. It asked him to look beyond “The phenomenal world of separated beings and objects that blind the reality beyond”.


3.4. The art expression was, therefore, not about how the world appears to one and all, but how the artist would experience and visualize it. In other words, the Chitrasutra tradition emphasized that art was more than photographic reproduction of visible objects. It was about the experience of a person and his expression of it through art; and about his unique creative genius, imagination, enterprise and individuality as an artist. Its purpose was to present that which is within us; and to evoke an emotional response (the rasa) in the viewer’s heart.


3.5. The Indian murals are rich in expressive realism. For instance, the Paintings at Ajanta, Bagh and Sittanvasal testify to a love of naturalism – both in the depiction of the human form and in the depiction of nature.  Yet, they always seem to suggest to something beyond the obvious.  They not merely stimulate the senses but also ignite the imagination of the viewer. That experience, according to Chitrasutra, sets the individual free from the confines of place, time and ego (self).

3.6. That aspect brought into the fore the concept of the abstract; and with it a whole set of symbols and symbolisms.  Further, the objects in nature were visualized or personified endowing each with a distinct personality. That enabled rendering the absolute and the undefined, into tangible visual forms. It, in turn, gave rise to a tendency to draw abstractions from nature in a manner that was both aesthetically pleasing and very effective as decorative embellishment.  Painting also developed into a medium for expressing visual fantasies. The elements of natures like rivers, sun, moon etc   were personified bringing out their virtues and powers through eloquent symbolisms.  Birds and flowers, trees and creepers too were depicted with a loving grace and tenderness. In certain cases, idyllic nature scenes were created just to convey a sense of joy and wonder.

joy and wonder

3.7. The virtues and powers of the gods and demons too were made explicit by employing varieties of forms, symbols and abstract visualizations. The ancient Indian artist thus enjoyed far greater artistic liberty, freedom and felicity of expression as compared to his peers in the western world. That was made possible mainly because the Chitrasutra encouraged innovation and display of imagination. The text said, “Rules do not make the painting; it is the artist with a soul and vision who creates the art expressions”.

sarpa shiva

The Indian murals indicate that its artists took full benefit of the license granted by Chitrasutra. Its artists did not strictly adhere to the prescriptions of the texts, but improved upon them and instilled a life, rhythm and vigour of their own in the murals.


3.8. Chitrasutra while discussing the depiction of deities says, those qualities that we admire in a divine being are within us. 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.

The murals of India have that magical quality, which brings out the essence of life and the grace that permeate the whole of existence

4. Techniques


4.1. Traditional Indian texts have a three-fold classification: bhumikabhitti and prastara — floor, wall and ceiling respectively. Murals in South India, for that matter in India, are not the fresco type of paintings. In the present-day context the wall paintings are usually called murals (derived from the Latin root murus, meaning wall).The other term used to describe wall paintings is fresco , which generally refers to buon fresco, or ‘true fresco’ where colours mixed with water is painted directly on wet plaster. There is also fresco secco, or ‘dry fresco’ where the painting is made on dry surface. Most of the Indian murals, including the Ajanta murals, are painted on dry plaster.

4.2. One of the noticeable features of the Chitrasutra tradition is the deployment of its lines; delineating beautiful figures and their delicate inner feelings through graceful, steady, smooth and free flowing lines that capture the essence of a picture, in least number of lines. Its line-drawings are full of grace and vitality. The delicate touches and intimate details added   enliven the paintings.   The Simplicity of expressions symbolized the maturity of the artists.  Chitrasutra did not favour straight or harsh or angular or uneven lines.

4.3 . There is a natural quality and grace in the ancient murals; they almost seem effortless. The vigour, the strength and the power of a heroic figure are brought to life by the vitality of its lines; not by his fat muscles or his sheer size. Even the demons in the murals are never depicted as muscular or excessively fat. . The outlines are strong and very sure and there is an easy and natural depiction of volume, evidencing a good understanding of the rhythm and the structure of the human body.

Ajanta.2 jpg

4.4. The figures were never rigid and static. Their stances were always suggestive of flowing movements of languid grace and charming rhythm. Their display of the sense of balance is lovely. The painted figures of the “heroes” present a profound sense of peace and joy even while placed amidst activities and contradictions of life.


4.5. The Chitrasutra tradition regarded the eyes as the windows to the soul. And, it said, it is through their expressive eyes the figures in the painting open up their heart and speak eloquently to the viewer. It therefore accorded enormous importance to the delicate painting of the soulful and expressive eyes that pour out the essence of the subject. The lively sets of lustrous pools of eyes continue to influence generations of Indian artists; those eyes are, in fact, a hall mark of Indian art works.


Benoy K Behl  the scholar and art-historian remarks, ”This stylization, increasing linearity and the protrusion of the farther eye, which extends beyond the line of the face, are significant changes that take place in the paintings of Ellora. In later years, these are reflected in paintings over the whole of India”.

4.6. The other was use of proper colours:  soft and subdued, the lines firm and sinuous and the expressions true to life. The colours, at times contrasting and at times matching were artistically employed to create magical effects. That effect was enhanced by the skilful shading of the body-parts,  giving them a three dimensional appearance; and providing depth to the picture.


5.  After this brief introduction let us now turn to some of the celebrated murals of ancient India, which display the characteristics and influences of the Chitrasutra tradition that we so far discussed . To begin with let’s look at the ancient murals at Pitalkhora (Maharashtra –c. 6th century) and Badami (Karnataka –c.6th century) in the next section.


Legacy of Ajanta: by Benoy. K. Behl

Developments in Indian Art and Architecture:

All pictures are from Internet


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