Arts in Ancient India

The Arts in Ancient India

Indian art is very intimately associated with Indian religion and philosophy. There is always an irresistible urge to find an expression for spiritual longings. Beauty to Indian artist was something subjective. E.B Havell an eminent critic art is all praise for the ideals of Indian art and the underlying spirit behind it. He says that great art brings out national character and thought in a revealing manner and such art can only be appreciated if the ideals animating it are sympathetically understood. Indian art was not meant to cater to the aesthetic taste of a small elitist society. It was meant to propagate religious ideals and reach as large as audience as possible who for the most past were not literate. The masses of India though not considered to be well educated have reacted through the ages in the most enthusiastic manner to art and revealed their essential culture.

Practically the entire remnants of art of ancient India which have survived the ravages of time are of a religious nature or with some religious motif. Secular art also existed as for example in the wall paintings and sculptures in the palaces of kings proclaiming the transitoriness of human splendour. There are also few critics who hold the view that Indian art did not emphasize spiritual and religious ideas to the exclusion of everything else but also was an expression of the vitality of life of the people and their sense of pure joy in life. In Indian art the temple towers though tall are firmly based on earth. The figures represented are beautiful and a smile on the face is quite common. It is also worthy of note that female forms are depicted with decorative often voluptuous motif and often are made to appear strikingly beautiful. While religious literature in ancient India was the work of learned Brahmans and ascetics religious art was the work of expert craftsmen who were secular in their outlook and who enjoyed thoroughly their life without any thought of asceticism. It is their view of life that is prominently depicted in art and literature.

Ancient Architecture

Between the Harappa period and the period of the Mauryas there are no significant architectural remnants to be seen. In the Mauryan period the buildings were mainly constructed with wood which only goes to prove that wood was in abundant supply while stone was rather scarce. That the Mauryan builders were well versed in stone construction is amply evident from some of their monolithic columns. The stone masons of the Mauryan period were expert craftsmen who seem to have learnt craft from the Persians and the Greeks. During the Buddhist period the stupa cult became popular. The stupa originally was an earthen burial mound in which the relics of the departed were kept and revered. Ashoka raised stupas in honour of the Buddha all over India. Those were large hemispherical domes with a middle chamber in which the relics of the Buddha were kept in a casket. The stupa was crowned by an umbrella of wood or stone and was surrounded by a wooden or stone fence with a path to enable the worshippers to go round un Pradakshina.

The period between the Maurayas and Guptas were one of intense architectural activity for the Buddhists. It was during the period that the stupas existing then were enlarged and enriched. Notable among these were the Bharhut and Sanchi stupas in MP and the Amaravati stupa in the lower Krishna valley. The Sanchi stupa received particular attention and it was enlarged to a hemisphere 120' in diameter with gateways noted for their carved ornamentation. The stupas became more and more ornate in their architecture. The Amaravati stupa completed in 200 AD was larger than the Sanchi stupa and it had many carved panels depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha. The stupas of Sarnath and Nalanda were more famous of a later period. The stupa at Nalanda gives the impression of a brick pyramid with steps leading up to its terrace.

Cave temples

The caves now excavated are the chief architectural remains other than stupas of a period earlier than the Gupta period. Ashoka dedicated two caves at Barabar Hill near Gaya to the Ajivika monks. They were in the form of a plain rectangular outer hall at one end of which is an inner chamber with curved wall and overhanging eaves. The caves developed in size and splendour as time passed. One of the finest examples is the great Chaitya hall at Karli which is cut 124 feet deep in the rock. The most famous of the cave complexes is that of Ajanta in Maharashtra. The superb sculpture and fine paintings which adorn them make them wonderful monuments of India's past. Even more impressive are the Ellora about 30 km from Ajanta. There are no less than 34 caves in this complex constructed from the 5th to the 8th century AD. The most conspicuous achievement of Ellora is the great Kailashnath temple.

It was not just a hollow scooped out of the rock but a great temple complete with shrine room, hall, gateway, lesser shrines and cloisters. At Mahabalipuram on the sea coast are found 17 temples carved from hillocks of granite by the Pallava kings. The newest cave temples discovered are those at Elephanta, a beautiful little island on the coast off Arabian sea. The style is similar to those of Ellora. There is a beautiful trimurti figure of Siva.

Ancient Temples
It is from the Gupta period onwards that we have remains of Hindu temples in many places especially in western India. They all conform to the same pattern. There are ornate pillars with heavy bell shaped capitals surmounted by animal motifs. The entrance was often carved with mythological scenes and figures. The masonry indicates that the builders had not yet mastered the technique and the cave was very much in their minds. In the 6th century Hindu temples there was sanctum sanctorum containing the main deity. There was a hall for the congregation of worshippers. The Garba griha was surmounted by a tower and there were also other towers rising from other parts of the building. The whole was enclosed in a rectangular courtyard. The enormous temple building was patronised chiefly by the kings. The technique of temple architecture also improved. There were even rules laid down in text books silpa sastra to be strictly followed by the builders. Decoration of the temple was highly ornate. There were heavy cornices, sturdy pillars well proportioned. The broad base of the sikhara or tower gave the temple a feeling of strength and solidity. During the time of Pallavas of Kanchi, temple building gained great momentum. At Mamallapuram and Kanchi are found the important temples of the Pallava kings. The shore temple at Mamallapuram and the Kailashnatha temple at Kanchi are standing monuments of Pallava architecture.

The tower is generally in the style of a rectangular truncated pyramid. The Pallava style was developed further by the Chola kings.Rajaraja the Great built the great Shiva temple at Tanjore.His successor Rajendra I built a magnificent temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram.The Pallava style was replaced by a great pyramid rising from a tall upright base and crowned in a domed finial. The Pandhya kings made further changes. From the 12th century onwards the temple was surrounded by massive walls with gates on the four sides. This style involved elaborate ornamentation and the use of animal forms in columns including the horses imparting a distinctive character to late Dravidian architecture. These changes in Dravidian temple architecture culminated in the great temple complexes of Madurai and the Vaishnava temple at Srirangam.The Srirangam temple contained an outer wall and six inner walls each one with gopuram surroundings a shrine of modest proportions.

Ancient Sculpture

It is significant that while the architecture of ancient India bears no resemblance to the brick houses of Harappa, the earliest sculpture on the other hand shows a similarity to that of Harappa. The art of sculpture seems to have kept alive during the intervening vast period of time. The Mauryan Emperors patronized it and the influx of western influence also seems to have fostered it. After the seal engravings of the Indus Valley cities the earliest sculpture we have are the capitals of Ashokas' columns. The famous lions of the Sarnath column and the beautiful bull of the column of Rampurva are both the work of realistic sculptors inspired to some extent by the Iranian and Hellenist traditions. The animal sculptures are strongly reminiscent of the engravings of the seals discovered at Harappa. In the post-Mauryan period the most important sculptural remains are those found in the Buddhist sites at Bharhut, Gaya and Sanchi. These are carvings on the rails and gateways. The Gaya railing encloses a sacred path where the Buddha was believed to have walked in meditation after he had attained enlightenment. The sculptors here show greater skill and maturity than the sculptors of Bharhut who seemed to have been better versed in ivory carving than in stone. The Sanchi stupas are without doubt the grandest achievement of early North Indian sculpture. The smaller strip is adorned with carvings of archaic character. The main strip has unadorned railings while as a thorough contrast the great gateways are adorned with a variety of figures and reliefs. There is a great complexity of pattern.

Life in its infinite variety is depicted in an exuberant way. There is no formal unity in the result but it had a unity transcending the narrow limits of pattern and rule. It impresses one with the feeling that it is all the work of a people who were very happy and contented and wanted to give it an undying expression. The Mathura style of sculpture began at the end of the 1st century BC. The craftsmen made plaques depicting the Jain saints in meditation. It is also significant that while portraying a thiranthankara cross-legged in silent meditation the craftsmen adorned the railings of a stupa with the figures of ladies splendidly bejewelled gay and sensual expressing the antinomy in ancient Indian outlook in which buoyant enjoyment of life existed side by side with a spirit of other worldliness. The Gandhara School was influenced by the art of the Roman Empire. Trade with the west, the growing prosperity of Rome were the factors that contributed to the impact of Roman art on the Gandhara School. From the point of view of art, the Gupta period is generally taken to include the 4th-6th centuries and the first half of the 7th. There is certain earthiness about the art of Bharhut, Sanchi and Mathura. The Gupta art on the other hand is remarkable for serenity, security and certainity. Some of the finest specimens of religious art were produced during this period particularly in the lovely Buddhas of Sarnath. Most renowned of these is the icon showing Buddha turning the Dharma Chakra which eloquently conveys the message of Buddhism. The serene figure of the Buddha depicted in the process of preaching as indicated by the Dharma Chakra Mudra conveys much more than scriptures can and emphasize that it is possible to transcend the sorrows of mortal life and find ineffable peace and inner joy. In the south during the Pallava period wonderful works of sculpture were created. The most important among them all are the Mamallapuram sculptures adorning the complex of rock temples. The descent of the Ganga is an exquisite specimen of sculpture. It covers a rock over 80 feet long and 30 feet high.


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