ART OF MEDIEVAL INDIA – Painting

From the Medieval period subsist very few painted works whether murals or illustrations of manuscripts. However they are enough to show that after the Pallava and the Rashtrakuta, the Pandyan and the Chola dynasties perpetuated in the South the pictorial tradition of India so magnificently represented by the paintings of Ajanta from the Vth and VIth centuries. On the contrary, in the North of India there isn’t known vestige of paintings from the medieval period.

Several fragments of mural painting are attributed to the middle of the IX century especially in the temples excavated in the rock in Thirumalapuram and Sittannavasal. In the grotto of the first site there are some representations of small secondary deities (gana*) on the roof, one of which rides on a mythical lion and others show lotus foliage among which there is a duck treated in a very naturalistic way. These works unfold with confidence in a sober range of colors: white, indigo, black, and light blue. Also in Thirumalapuram on a column’s capital there’s a group of bearded characters (maybe hunters?) in the company of girls, a drum player, and several gana dancers all quite dynamic.

Frescoes at the Sittanavasal cave (Tamil Nadu, India). The most central and most important fresco in this rock cut cave represents a pond fill with lotuses. These flowers are collected by monks, ducks, swans, fishes and animals. This particular scene refers to the Samava-sarvana an important scene in Jain religion. The Samava-sarvana represents a special, beautiful audience hall where Tirthankaras (or the great liberated souls according to Jain religion) deliver sermons after they reached realization (kevala-gnana). Bulls, elephants, apsaras and gods gathered in this audience hall to witness this grand scene. The picture above shows some details of this Lotus pond fresco.

There are more important painting fragments in the Jain cavern of Sittannavasal where two superimposed layers of frescoes were discovered as well as an inscription of about the year 850. Here Pandyan-style frescoes from about 850 are located on the ceiling, walls, and columns of the veranda. One of them represents a couple whose busts appear abundantly jeweled, another represents two female dancers, and a third includes a rather enigmatic composition in which there is a stylized lotus lagoon inside which there are three men who have taken some flowers, fishes, birds, and several quadrupeds including some elephants. This last fresco was painted in a style related to the Ajanta frescoes and it is so by several peculiarities: attitudes and simplicity of the characters, purity of the line, use of more sustained colors to indicate a modeling, etc. But in this fresco can also be noticed the dravidian facies, more elongated, and a curious disposition between human and animal figures. As for the characters of the two other compositions, female dancers and a couple, they are closely related to the Chola paintings and therefore they would be more recent than the lotus lagoon fresco.

More details of frescoes from the Sittanavasal cave. Top: An intricate floral pattern. Middle: Women and man dancing. Bottom: An stylized duck.

From the Chola period (XIth century) there are other frescoes: the temples of Narthamalai, Malayadipatti, and others contain vestiges of them. But in the vimana of Thanjavur is where in 1930 (under a layer of frescoes of the XVth century) the most important frescoes were discovered. They develop mainly on the western wall of the pradakshina patha* that surrounds the cell of the sanctuary: a guru meditating under the banyan tree attends the dance of two celestial female dancers (apsaras) while the very dynamic divine orchestra paces their steps. Another dancer, seen from behind with her face in profile and in a very surprising position, gives the impression of an unbridled movement and allows us to appreciate the skill of the painter who was able to indicate everything masterfully by employing pure and safe strokes without artifice or adornment. There are also some gana and musicians playing the drum and other instruments, a gentleman, and shaiva scenes (that is related to the god Shiva) such as the wedding of Siva Tripurantaka on a chariot driven by Brahmma and surrounded by four deities. Although this last subject is purely iconographic it was treated with the same mastery as the frescoes we just mentioned. Contrasting with the rather dark color range of Sittannavasal (where dark browns and greens dominate), the pictorial palette of Thanjavur is very lively with warm ochers, pinks, and “golds” that accentuate the rhythm of the characters. However, these examples represent the peak of classical wall painting which lasted until the medieval period. After the XIVth century a completely different artistic spirit will preside over the development of the mural compositions.

Some mural paintings at the Brihadishvara Temple in Thanjavur (Tamil Nadu, India). These Chola frescoes are located on the sanctum walls along the circumambulatory pathway and cover floor to ceiling. They mostly narrate Hindu mythology, as well as scenes of Chola royalty, courtly and common life.
More mural paintings at the Brihadishvara Temple in Thanjavur.

As for the illustration of manuscripts the medieval painting was concentrated mainly in three regions: Bengal (under the Pala and Sena domination), Gujarat to the west, and Mysore to the south. In some as in others, the manuscripts were made of palm leaves whose dimensions imposed a long and narrow format (generally 55 x 6 cm approximately). When the paper was adopted towards the end of the XIVth century this format was hardly modified.

Mural paintings at the Brihadishvara Temple in Thanjavur.
Mural paintings at the Brihadishvara Temple in Thanjavur.

The Bengal school of the XIth and XIIth centuries was Buddhist, its workshops migrated to Nepal at the beginning of the XIIIth century. Very traditionalistic, they illustrated iconographic themes with great finesse of lines and attention to detail. The colors are few (indigo, cinnabar, green, and yellow) and skillfully arranged to obtain a relief effect.

A palm leaf folio of a medieval manuscript from Bengal representing a Green Tara (female Buddha).

The Gujarat school of the XII-XIV centuries developed in a Jaina environment and gave evidence of a remarkable unity of style which offered a very particular stylization of the characters and of all the elements of the composition: the faces are seen in three quarters with very prominent eyes. This style lasted for a long time (until the beginning of the XVIIth century) progressively filling the painted surfaces with a myriad of details and gilding. The background of the compositions was red until the XV-XVI centuries and was painted in blue centuries later.

Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra, an illuminated manuscript on Pattra* (dried palm leaf) from the Pala era, late 11th century.

Finally in the Mysore under the Hoysala (XIth-XIIIth centuries) there was a manuscript made on palm illustrating a Jaina theme and dated in 1113. Its style is less refined than that of the Pala miniatures but is more spontaneous and more animated. The illustrations are surrounded on their sides by beautiful plant or geometric motifs that separate them from the text.

Detail of a Pattra leaf manuscript representing the birth of Mahavira, a spiritual teacher in Jainism (Kalpasutra Manuscript, ca. 1375–1400).

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Gana: In Hinduism, the Gaṇas are attendants of Shiva and live on Mount Kailash. Ganesha was chosen as their leader by Shiva, hence Ganesha’s title gaṇeśa or gaṇapati, “lord or leader of the ganas“.

Pattra: Or Palm-leaf manuscripts are manuscripts made out of dried palm leaves. Palm leaves were used as writing materials in the Indian subcontinent and in Southeast Asia dating back to the 5th century BCE, possibly earlier. The palm leaves used included species of the genus Borassus (the Palmyra palm) or the leaves of Corypha umbraculifera (the talipot palm), also known as the Ola leaf. 

Pradakshina patha: (from Sanskrit meaning “to the right”-pradakshina). Also known as Parikrama (“the path surrounding something”). Refers to circumambulation of sacred places to imbibe their energy in Sikh, Hindu, Jain or Buddhist context, and the path along which this is performed. In Hinduism and other Indian religions, the Parikrama inside temples or sacred sites is traditionally clockwise. Most Hindu temple structures include various Pradakshina paths.

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