Classical Indian Painting
Cave Murals at Ajanta and Bagh: Characteristics, Styles.

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Bodhisattva Padmapani (450-500)
Cave 1, Ajanta, India.

Mural in the Ajanta Caves (detail)
6th Century.

Classical Indian Painting (Up to 1150 CE)


Classical Painting
Buddhist Painting (Ajanta, Bagh, Sigiriya)
Ajanta Painting (1st century BCE - 7th century CE)
Bagh Painting (6th Century - 7th Century)
Sigiriya (5th Century)
Brahmanic Painting (Badami, Panamalai, Sittanavasal, Ellora, Tanjore)
Badami Painting (6th Century)
Panamalai and Sittanavasal Painting (8th Century - 9th Century)
Ellora Painting (8th-9th centuries)
Tanjore Painting (11th century)
Late Classical Buddhist Art in Bengal and Sri Lanka (11th-12th Century)
Pali Illuminated Manuscripts (11th-12th Century)
Polotmaruva Painting (12th Century)

For more about the art of the Indian sub-continent,
please see: India: Art of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture.

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Post-Classical Indian Painting (14th-16th Century)
Mughal Painting (16th-19th Century)
Rajput Painting (16th-19th Century)
Indian Sculpture (3300 BCE - 1850).

Bhimbetka Petroglyphs at the Auditorium Cave and
Daraki-Chattan shelter.
Cupule Art in the Madhya
Pradesh region of India.
For information on India's
and Pakistan's first great
Neolithic culture, see:
Indus Valley Civilization
(3,300-1300 BCE).





The conquest of India by Islam over a period of five centuries divided Indian art into two streams: a classical period, which began with the foundation of the Manrya Empire in the 3rd century BCE. and which ended with Moslem infiltration in the 13th and 14th centuries; and the so-called Mughal (Mughal) period, from the 14th to 19th centuries, during which the splendours of the ancient structures were used with profit by a new society giving birth to a hitherto unknown plastic language. Between these two phases, a period of three centuries, from the 13th to the 16th, served as a buffer between the shock of Hinduism and that of Islam, and was a time of artistic transition.

To see how classical painting in India fits into the evolution of Asian art, please see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present).

Classical Painting

By the 2nd century BCE, Indian art had found a style of its own, expressing movement, naturalism and contemplation. The admirable sculptures of Bharjut and Bhaja are proof of this. This vigorous ancient art, still somewhat naive, came under the influence of Greco-Buddhist art from Gandhara, at the dawn of the Christian era. This was one of the side-effects of Alexander the Great's epic conquests of classical antiquity and permitted Indian art to evolve its own technique and to expand its field of expression. It is to this mature art, in complete possession of its techniques and subject-matter, that the first known works of Indian painters belong.

The ancient treatise on painting, the Vishnudharmottaram, states: "Painting is the best of all arts." There is no doubt that ancient India experienced intense activity in the field of painting: the number of written works devoted to the subject are sufficient proof, with other references in poetry and drama. From these writings we learn that mural paintings decorated the walls of houses, palaces and temples. The analytical Indian mind had early classified their genres and techniques: scenes of gaiety and love were to decorate private houses, while works involving the supernatural were reserved for royal audience halls and places of worship. Figure painting of both men and gods were subject to certain rules; experts would discuss the notion of relativity in the plastic conception of the beautiful. And yet of all these works nothing remains today; they have disappeared, along with the wooden architecture with which they were associated.

Fortunately for the history of art, followers of Brahmanism (a religion characterized by a priesthood and the division of the people into castes - successor to Vedism), Buddhism and Jainism (a reforming religious movement, founded in the 6th century BCE, directed against Brahmanism) gave their temples and meeting-houses a more permanent character; the first cave temples provided painting with a more durable home. Though these caves were adorned with the faces of gods, we should not forget that this cave painting, from its inception, was a secular one. The religions of India have left their mark, just as Christianity has influenced the West, but on the whole these paintings are invested with an image of a contemporary ideal of beauty in order to attract and convince people.

NOTE: For examples of the most famous Asian architecture, please see: Angkor Wat Khmer Temple, (Cambodia); Kandariya Mahadeva Temple (Khajuraho, India); and Taj Mahal (Uttar Pradesh, India).



Buddhist Painting (Ajanta, Bagh, Sigiriya)

Classical Buddhist art is associated with a period of peace and prosperity which came to Northern India during the time of the great Gupta empire. (The Gupta dynasty, founded by Chandragupta, ruled in Central India from 320 to 455.) The splendour of this dynasty justifies the attribution of the term "Gupta" to cover the total output of works in this golden age of Indian art. It should nevertheless be stressed that the great religious centre of Ajanta did not come within the territories of the Gupta empire, and that from the 2nd to the 7th centuries, this site passed under the successive control of Satavahana, Vakatake, Kalachuri and Chaloukya. We cannot say therefore, with any assurance, that there were direct Gupta influences at work at Ajanta. Nevertheless there can hardly be any doubt that the classical spirit which inspired Indian art during the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries was the fruit of that cultural and intellectual emulation which was developed and promoted well beyond its frontiers by the last great Indian Empire. (For developments in China, see: Chinese Buddhist Sculpture c.100-present.)

Ajanta Painting (1st century BCE - 7th century CE)

Buddhist monks were forbidden any prolonged stay in towns and therefore sought sanctuary from the monsoons in natural grottoes, just as modern Indian ascetics do today. As soon as the community became prosperous, they hewed for themselves monasteries and sanctuaries out of the cliffs that edged the Western Ghats. These caves were fairly secluded but always accessible to the laity. They bordered the trade routes which linked the Deccan with Central and Western India, and the main adherents of Buddhism were recruited from the traders and merchants. In a sense the caves of Karli, Bhaja, Nasik, Aurangabad, Ajanta and Bagh were staging houses of the Buddhist faith.

Of all these complexes (and in only a few are paintings preserved), the most important and justly famous is the one at Ajanta. The Ajanta caves were begun around the 2nd century BCE. and were continued until the 7th century. They were dug out over a distance of over six hundred yards, on the flank of a rock face which juts out like a rounded arch over the Waghora river. The site has a savage grandeur well suited to inspire both a state of metaphysical anguish and meditation. (For earlier examples of Stone Age cave painting, see also: Parietal Art: 40,000-10,000 BCE.)

There are twenty-nine Buddhist caves composed of viharas, or monasteries, and chaityas, or meeting-places for the monks and the faithful. The countless sculptures which decorate them were originally polychrome as well as all the flat surfaces. Subjects and themes on a grand scale were painted on the walls, while the ceilings were covered with decorative patterns and serial figures.

Only thirteen of the caves have fragments of paintings, the most important of which are in two chaityas, dating from the 1st century BCE, and in four of the viharas; these were done between the 5th and 7th centuries.

The techniques employed in painting the religious art at Ajanta are peculiar to Northern India. The rock face of the cave is first of all covered with a thick layer of ferruginous, or rust-coloured, earth, bound by organic matter. On this base was applied a smooth coating of lime, a fraction of an inch thick, to which was added an application of glue in order to fix the colour. The composition was then sketched out in vermilion over the ivory-smooth surface. The areas thus demarcated were given a base, a sort of terra verde, over which the colours were applied in detail. (For the range of pigments used, see: prehistoric colour palette.)

Finally, the contours were outlined in black or brown. Though the techniques for obtaining light and shade relief were not known to the Indian painter at this time, by the 5th century, at least, he was using a method of surface relief, an effect he obtained through scraping or boring. It is remarkable how the Indian artist managed to give an illusion of depth, in spite of his flat painting technique; he achieved it solely through the amazing exactitude and sensitivity of his drawing. There is no one who can surpass the Indian artist at conveying, with the help of simple curves, the idea of fullness and plenitude, a sense of weight or the frailty of the female body.

Colour pigments were chosen with regard to their resistance to damp and the limestone, and all had mineral bases: earth colours of red-brown and yellow ochre, green made from finely pounded iron silicates, black and white. However, as the Vishundharmottaram explains, they could get "an unlimited variety of colours by mixing up to three colours, and by the play of imagination and emotion". From the 5th century onwards blue was used, extracted from lapis-lazuli which Indian merchants sought as far afield as Persia. Rare and costly, this blue was only applied in special instances and to highlight certain scenes, like the splashes of azure which caressingly surround the great Bodhisattva in the first of the chaityas. Gold was never used, its effect being achieved through a mixture of green and yellow.

The composition of the frescoes is quite special; it is impossible to translate their extraordinary exuberance. The first caves are still fairly hieratic, particularly where a Buddha is seen preaching to his disciples. This painting has the noble severity of the Autun tympanum. But the composition which at first was in the form of an illustrated strip suddenly bursts forth in the viharas as a design which not only goes from left to right but from top to bottom all over the surface of the walls. The scenes follow one upon another rather like the linked fade-outs of cinema techniques. Stories are recounted simultaneously and on several levels; the only indication that the centre of interest has moved might be an architectural feature, a tree or a face turned away from another person. Each pictorial phase is encircled in a zone of suspense, each scene is punctuated by a beat, regulating the rhythm of the symphony.

Professor Philippe Stern relates this style to the influence of classical Sanskrit, a psalmodic language where "words join together through rules of assonance and meetings between vowels, forming lengthy compounds, long drawn-out phrases which assure continuity and fluidity without interruption; while the rhythms and undulating movements of the language allow one to follow the sentence, the word formation remains exact".

Ajanta paintings are fundamentally consecrations to Buddhist iconography: the life of Buddha and a succession of jatakas, fables illustrating the countless animal and human rebirths, which preceded his ultimate reincarnation as the Blessed One. These jatakas have provided Indian artists with an inexhaustible source of inspiration; their taste for naturalism has here found an admirable pretext for representing their favourite animals: elephants, monkeys, cattle, birds, all appearing in a background of vegetation, treated with that combination of exactitude and stylisation which we find again in the miniature painting of Rajput.

The compassion, renunciation and meditation inherent in Buddhism are all evident in these paintings and give them a halo of sweetness and inner life. Among the scenes from the life of Buddha, the most moving and possibly the most important is the one depicted on the far wall of a vihara cave. The painter has depicted for us the moment when, after his enlightenment, Buddha, on the insistence of his father King Sudodhana, agrees to go and preach the Word in his birthplace, the town of Kapilavastu, and presents himself, begging bowl in hand, at the threshold of his former palace. His wife, Yashodara, whom he has not seen for seven years, comes out holding their child in front of her. One feels that she has an insane hope of winning him back. The child, half-aware of the drama which is being played out, lifts a hesitating hand towards his father's begging bowl. Yashodara's face, turned towards the Buddha, who stands tall and immense beside her, expresses all the distress of her poor human love, while Buddha's half-closed eyes, his unperturbed face presenting a hint of a smile, show perfect serenity and complete detachment. The painter has accentuated the difference by giving the Blessed One a colossal form, which makes the presence of his wife and child at his feet even more derisory. By its starkness, severity and high degree of spirituality, this painting is comparable with the most beautiful of the Italian primitives of the trecento, in Florence and Siena.

Similarly imbued with a deep spirituality, but with intransigence and a hint of theatricality, are the two famous Bodhisattvas which flank the entrance to the antechamber at the end of the interior aisle of one of the vihara caves. The more remarkable of the two and the most widely known is the Great Bodhisattva with a Lotus at Avalokitesvara; its suave beauty, meditative if slightly effeminate grace, and its plastic perfection are indescribable. The composition around the figure adds to the impression of sweetness, restraint and divine feeling. The female figures, in spite of their languorous poses and apparent sensuality, appear a little embarrassed by their charms. Here we find the ripe fruit of a civilisation which had reached its zenith; but we can also perceive in this painting the symptoms of a stylistic decadence. Here virtuosity and seduction are given a more prominent place than the intensity and fervour of the earlier works. Naturalism gives way to formal grace. Religion, in adopting secular art, has codified it and painting has departed far from its original aim, which, as defined in the Vishnudharmottaram, was "to present exact images".

However, as we observed earlier, the Ajanta paintings are not only the outcome of Buddhist thought but of the whole culture of the time. In this way Sanskrit literature, and particularly Sanskrit drama, which flourished in the 5th and 6th centuries - Kali-dasa, the great Indian playright, belongs to this period - have influenced plastic conceptions of both subject-matter and human attitudes. Figures are expressed with a slight exaggeration typical of the theatre. There are character types taken from Indian theatre: the young, strong and handsome hero; the heroine with her languid grace caught between amorous lust and coyness; the confidante, who takes messages back and forth between the lovers; the greedy materialistic Brahman; the noble benevolent ascetic.

The Ajanta paintings are thus the expression of a religious belief and a general cultural tradition; they also reveal details of Indian life during the Gupta period. We can imagine it carefree and patriarchal, refined and bucolic. We see the delicate architecture of their frail wooden palaces, their inner courts, where life was lived out in all its luxury and simplicity. Princes and princesses are adorned with jewels and surrounded by innumerable servants, orchestras and dancers; they travel on the backs of elephants or in decorated chariots, drawn by elegant Asian horses. Yet their furniture is of the most rustic kind, and only the presence of a few utensils of precious metals, placed directly on the ground, indicate the wealth of the masters of the house. In the same way, costumes are very simple, men and women in striped loincloths, their chests naked. Probably the women draped themselves with that extremely fine, transparent material which is made in Northern India and which has always been very popular. We shall come across this gossamer-thin material in later paintings from Northern India. We should point out, while on this matter, that neither nakedness nor physical love has ever been a forbidden subject in India. On the contrary, womanhood, a woman's body, are exalted as symbols of the feminine essence of the universe and, later on, a woman's love became an important means of gaining salvation. We should also note the favourable position women occupy in painting and in Indian society of this time, a position which is confirmed by Indian literature.

But the society we are describing remained fixed at this point. This fact is all the more startling when one notices that a young maiden at her toilet uses the same little pots of engraved metal in the paintings as were used until only a few years ago in present-day India. Languorous maidens, chewing betel, which they take from small, carved boxes, sit under the shelter of small patios which are flanked by delicate colonnades; this scene could have been met with until very recently in the provinces of present-day India. Artisans sit in their raised wooden stalls along the village streets, and some are still making the marvellous jewels with which the heroes of the frescoes were adorned.

Bagh Painting (6th Century - 7th Century)

Two hundred and forty kilometres to the north-west of Ajanta, in western Malva, are the Buddhist caves of Bagh. For almost half a mile they are dotted along a cliff of friable sandstone and have consequently suffered considerable damage. Most of them were painted; important fragments existed up to about 1950, although they have practically disappeared today. While copies were made at the beginning of the century, they are unable to recapture the beauty of the original. However, they do give precious clues as to the general style, movement and feeling of depth which characterises them. In fact, while they are closely linked to the Ajanta archetype, the Bagh paintings show a freshness, a bonhomie, a vibrant, almost earthy, happiness which contrast sharply with the restraint and introspection of their model. The fresco painting techniques are identical, but the figures, once painted, are not outlined again, which increases the general impression of carefree spontaneity. The subjects treated are presented in a broader, more open fashion than those at Ajanta: a long procession of elephants followed by princes and princesses appear to be on their way to a spring festival. Women, clinging to terraces, watch them pass. The most impressive section is a group of musicians, who surround two long-haired dancers. The twirling, frenzied movement of the ensemble is quite remarkable and portrays a purely pagan joy. This painting is a warm and live expression (though no doubt provincial) of classic Buddhist art.

Sigiriya (5th Century)

Tradition has it that the devout Buddhist Emperor Asoka (reigned 264-226 BCE) of the Maurya dynasty sent his own brother Mahendra, in 250 BCE, to convert the Sinhalese to the new faith. He seemed to have succeeded so well that Sri Lanka is still today one of the main bastions of Hinayana Buddhism.

We owe the beautiful frescoes of Sigiriya to a king-parricide. On top of a huge rock, 600 feet high, he had a palace-fortress hewn out of the stone. It is only reached by a narrow path cut out of the rock. About a third of the way up, in pockets sheltered by an overhang, forty feet above the pathway, there are paintings representing bearers of gifts and offerings, fragments of a vast composition which must have accompanied the visitor for the greater part of his climb. Twenty-one of these figures remain. The irregularity of the inner rock surface did not permit the painter to complete the silhouettes in their entirety: women appear to emerge from clouds, their bodies concealed from mid-thigh. They are contemporary with the paintings of cave No. 16 at Ajanta and have the same grace and distinction, but with an added sense of realism. There is an attention to detail in the observation of the human body here which is not so evident in the Ajanta paintings. These ladies and their handmaidens, who are darker skinned and keep slightly in the background, seem to have been painted in such a way as to accentuate their ethnic type rather than their individual personalities. Not only do their facial features differ one from the other but their stance, their hair style and the details of their clothing all vary. This could easily be a portrait gallery of court ladies. This is, perhaps, the only example in classical Indian painting of such careful personalisation.

The sense of volume and depth is particularly noteworthy, thanks to a technique which consisted of first cutting the design on to the smooth surface of the wall, before putting on the red. The outline, moreover, was gone over several times to emphasise the relief. The colours are the same as those used at Ajanta, including yellow ochre, red-brown and mineral green, but to these was certainly added a copper blue, of which there are now but few traces. A final outline in black, as in Northern India, brought the details into greater prominence. The idea of these women, their sensual, haunting grace, their fine supple hands intermingling with the flowers brought as offerings, has little to do with Buddhism. It would seem here that a point has been reached where beauty is glorified for its own sake, where there is a purely aesthetic search for perfect form, of which a foretaste was given us by the great Bodhisattva at Ajanta.

At Ajanta, Bagh and Sigiriya we notice a relaxation from the strict purity of classical Buddhism in favour of a new dynamism, an aestheticism and sensuality, which was soon to be freely expressed in Brahman art.

Brahmanic Painting (Badami, Panamalai, Sittanavasal, Ellora, Tanjore)

The great Indian empires collapsed with the Hun invasions at the end of the 6th century, but the new dynasties, which divided up the peninsula, continued the artistic traditions of Ajanta. Classical art carried on with the same brilliance. But Buddhism was gone; instead the new kingdoms dedicated their sanctuaries to the gods of a reviving Brahmanism. Painting, while maintaining the characteristics of the preceding era - beauty and fullness of form, elegance and sureness of line - was slowly but surely seduced by the passion and grandeur of the Hindu pantheon. Art now began to devote itself entirely to expressing the infinite complexity of this prodigious vortex.

Badami Painting (6th Century)

In the 6th century a power grew up in the Deccan which was to rule Southern India for the next two hundred years. These were the first western Chalukyas. They made their capital at Badami, where, as at Pattadakal, Aihole and Mahakuteshvara, they constructed many fine temples. The Badami site is very beautiful: cliffs and imposing monoliths of pink stone tower above a blue lake. In a Badami cave-sanctuary dedicated to Vishnu (second in the Brahman trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva), built in 578, we find our first example of Brahman painting.

Of the frescoes which once covered the walls of this grotto, only a fragment remains; it occupies the concave surface of a heavy cornice which shelters the entrance to the verandah. It is hard to tell what the actual subject of the composition was, but those figures, which are still distinguishable, are exquisitely graceful. The rounded heads in soft relief are sketched in fine, delicate lines. This delicacy probably stems from the Southern Indian technique of applying the colours a fresco secco. The tenderness and suave and almost friendly charm which emanate from this painting are characteristic of all works of the Chalukya period: elegant, restrained, humane. Their sweet faces, half-erased by time, are identical to the beautifully sculptured pairs which decorate the interior of the Malikarjuna temple at Pattadakal.

Panamalai and Sittanavasal Painting (8th Century - 9th Century)

The reign of the first western Chalukyas was noted for the long struggle they had against the Pallavas, who from the 6th century were the suzerains of India, south of the Toungabhadra. Until the 9th century, the Pallavas dotted their territory with many temples and bequeathed to art the marvellous complexes of Mahavalipuram and Kantchipuram. Only tiny fragments of their painting remain at Kantchipuram, and sixty-two somewhat larger pieces at Panamalai and Sittanavasal.

At Panamalai on one of the walls in the temple, Talagirishvara, there is a ravishing female figure; the delicate, sharp outline, the fluidity of colours give us an idea of the technical perfection reached by these southern people. The position of the young woman, one knee bent and the body graciously leaning backwards, is identical to that of the princess at Ajanta, next to the scene of the birth of Buddha in Cave No. 2. It is a posture which we also find in the Kajurao sculptures of the 12th century and is, in all probability, one of the characteristic poses of the heroines of Sanskrit literature.

The second group of paintings, and the most important of those of the Pallava period, are to be found in a Jainist temple, cut out of the side of a hill near the village of Sittanavasal. The frescoes, which may date from the first half of the 9th century, are in fairly good condition. On the verandah pillars there are paintings of two dancers in fine and delicate silhouette and a group of three other persons. The drawing, as at Panamali, is firm, precise and elegant; it is done in brownish red, and stands out beside the pale yellow of the lightly modelled bodies. The ceiling of this verandah is decorated with a very remarkable composition representing three youths about to pick lotus flowers in a pond where elephants, buffaloes and birds are coming to drink. This interweaving of animals and plants, in greens and browns, is admirably cadenced and the stylisation of the whole painting takes away nothing from its freshness and grace. The charming, youthful bodies of the young men are hardly filled out at all, but the drawing is very sure. The lotus, some in bud and some in flower, haloed by huge rounded leaves, and with their long sinuous stalks, is the centre-piece of this obviously symbolic group.

Ellora Painting (8th-9th centuries)

In the second half of the 8th century the first western Chalukyas were wiped out by a new dynasty, the Rashtrakutas, who controlled the northern Deccan for more than a century. It is to these princes that we owe one of the most beautiful monuments, and certainly the most extraordinary, in India, the Kailasha of Ellora. It is an immense monolithic temple, entirely sculptured out of the massive rock. Of the thirty-four caves at Ellora, twelve are Buddhist, seventeen Brahman and five Jainist. They issue from an abrupt, vertical cliff above the horizontal sweep of a natural platform and dominate the northern part of the vast Deccan plateau. In this huge group, containing the most beautiful pieces of Indian stone sculpture, we have only two examples of painting, in the Kailasha and in the Jainist grotto called Indra Sabha.

The Kailasha frescoes are to be found on the ceiling of the western porch. They are covered by three successive layers of paintings, and are now in process of renovation. The oldest must date from the time the temple was built in the second half of the 8th century. Here we see gods and goddesses in flight, dwarfs and a mythological being astride a monster. The technique is the same as that at Badami, but here the drawing is more important than the modelling. Brahman rhythm grows more and more definite as Buddhist borrowings become less. Shiva is dancing, and meditation is replaced by a cosmetic jubilation.

This intensity, this acceleration of movement, is even more striking in the very lovely fragments from the Jainist cave, which date from the middle of the 9th century and show gods in flight and Shiva dancing with an astonishing virtuosity. One character flies in the sky, revealing his back and curved buttocks, his hands joined above his head; it is startling in the perfection of its technique and its sure brilliance. Here bodies have the elegance, the slimness and the light angularity of the female figure at Panamalai, but there is a great degree of stylisation. The artist has freed himself from the conventions of Ajanta. Brahmanism is never didactic like Buddhism; there is no attempt to convince or persuade but one is carried away by the excitement of the scene. Naturalism is too heavy, and is rejected in favour of schematisation, a neater way of expressing the symbolic geometry of shapes.

Tanjore Painting (11th century)

While the Rashtrakutas were ruling in the north of the Deccan a new dynasty, the Cholas, took over the waning power of the Pallavas in the south and held it from the middle of the 9th century to the beginning of the 13th century. The very special temple architecture of the south developed in the Chola period, the most perfect example being the great Shiva temple at Tanjore.

In six of the rooms at the base of the great tower of this sanctuary, frescoes dating from the construction of the building (early 11th century) have been discovered underneath paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries. Restorers are now at work on the important paintings. On the whole the paintings depict scenes about the god Shiva. Most remarkable are the dancers; with their prodigious expressive strength they convey a feeling of triumphant joy. Although they may resemble the flying genies of Ellora, here something more carnal animates their being, swells their bodies and gives greater curve to their form. Their elan, much more violent here, is reflected in the twisting of the dancer's chest. The colours from mineral pigments seem to be freely applied. According to recent studies, they were applied to the fresco on wet plaster. Like all Indian painting, the contours are etched in red and black, and figures are only lightly filled out. New frescoes have been found in an ambulatory, and once this group has come to light we shall have one of the most important examples of Indian classical painting.

Late Classical Buddhist Art in Bengal and Sri Lanka (11th-12th Century)

In the 5th century Buddhism was born on the borders of Nepal, and it was in this northeastern corner of India that the Buddhist faith, hunted from the peninsula by a triumphant Brahmanism, was to find its last refuge.

Pali Illuminated Manuscripts (11th-12th Century)

The Pali dynasty, rulers from 750 until the middle of the 12th century, were patrons of an intense, artistic and religious movement, with Brahmanism and Buddhism standing side by side, although the Palis always had a clear predilection for the latter faith. Pali art was founded on the ruins of the Gupta empire, whose style it continued, although in a more precious and affected way. Its greatest successes were in the field of architecture. Pali wall-paintings have all practically disappeared, but some illuminated manuscripts remain. They were carried out in the great Buddhist monasteries, the most famous of which, Nalanda, was the resort of countless pilgrims from South-East Asia.

The manuscripts were executed on palm leaves, long and narrow in format and kept together by threads running through the pages, the whole bound between two pieces of wood. The illustrations are scanty and are done in small frames 3-inches by 2-inches inset within the text. As in wall-paintings, the outlines of this book illustration are done in red or black and colours are filled in afterwards; the colours are white, red, yellow, green and indigo-blue. The composition is simple and usually includes a god (Buddha or a Bodhisattva) surrounded by pupils, or their female alter ego (shakti); the latter sometimes take pride of place in the paintings. Here we touch on Tantric Buddhism, and while these paintings do give an impression of calm and dignity, there is a hint of this Mahayana tendency towards eroticism and magic.

The manuscripts, the oldest of which, as far as is known, do not go back further than the 11th century, are of great interest, since they reveal the final outcome of classical Buddhist painting in India. (For more about illuminated texts, see: History of Illuminated Manuscripts - 600-1200).

In the second half of the 12th century, Islam conquered Bengal, and razed the monasteries to the ground. Buddhism was now finally wiped out in the peninsula and was forced to seek refuge in Nepal and Tibet, where there developed an extremely complex iconography, though in style it remained faithful to its Pali origins.

Polotmaruva Painting (12th Century)

Sri Lanka, which remained faithful to Buddhism in spite of two centuries of Chola occupation, underwent a new artistic and religious phase with her regained independence in the 12th century. The island capital, Polonnaruva, was studded with temples and ornate palaces which, according to the chronicles, were covered with many paintings. However, the only ones remaining of this period are the exquisite frescoes in the small Tivamka temple. Unfortunately, they are in bad condition, but they do help us to study the development of Buddhist painting in the southern part of India.

In spite of the recent Chola invasions, the frescoes were not painted in the Tanjore style and lack both the intensity and vivacity of this art. Here Brahman influence is categorically rejected in favour of Buddhist inwardness and sweetness. The artist has gone back to Ajanta for his inspiration, adding that sensual naturalism, nonchalance and simplicity which we saw in the works of 5th-century Sri Lanka. But the painted figures at Polonnaruva are somewhat more restrained, more abstract, more religious, than the opulent young ladies of Sigiriya. There are scenes of jatakas, a procession of the faithful, all conceived with freedom and suppleness. Some people are painted green. Green, in fact, is the only colour to be used alongside the yellow-ochre tones of the whole. The foliage is very beautiful and drawn with great ease, evoking the abundance of the dense Sinhalese jungle.

By their finesse, their serenity and rather languid grace the Polonnaruva paintings show a definite return to pure Buddhist classicism; this was possibly a simple reaction against the attempted Brahman hegemony, or it may have been the stagnation of an inspiration limited by the continued repetition of the same themes. The perfect drawing techniques make us regret, all the more, the loss of these secular compositions.

We have now arrived at the end of the classical period. At the beginning of the 14th century Moslem incursions penetrated right into Southern India. The new epoch was to prove tense and stirring but not one for the expression of classical ideals. A transitional art was born, which opened up the way to a new visual language.

More Articles about Art in Asia

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Guide to the arts & crafts of Japan.

Chinese Painters (c.220-present)
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Traditional Chinese Art
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