India Prehistoric and Mural Paintings

India Prehistoric and Mural Paintings

Potteries of pre-historic period can be considered as earliest specimens of creative painting in India. This is evident with the discovery of drawings and paintings on the walls of rock cut caves of primitive people. Early Brahmanical and Buddhist literatures contain numerous references to paintings like Citragaras, Lepyecitras, Dhuli Chitra, Bhitti Chitras, etc. However, the art of painting gained popularity and a high asthetic standard during the Gupta period.


  • These are hollow cup impressions created to rock surfaces using hammer stones.
  • They are considered as the earliest form of rock art.
  • Daraki-Chattan of Madhya Pradesh is the richest known early Paleolithic cupule site in the world.
  • They have also been found in Arunachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

Prehistoric Paintings

  • Rock paintings are the earliest a aesthetic expression of mankind. It serves as an important source material to understand the world of prehistoric people. It was the prehistoric artist’s “perception of reality”.
  • In India, paintings and carvings have been known to exist from the Mesilithic Age. The tradition continued through the Neolithic Age, the Iron Age and the early historic period.
  • Almost all the rock- shelters in India contain rock-paintings depicting a variety of subjects.

Tradition of Painting in India

  • In India, the earliest paintings have been reported from the Upper Palaeolithic times.
  • The first discovery or rock paitings was made in India in 1867-68 by an Archaeological Archibold Cardlleyle (twelve years before the discovery of Altamora in Spain).
  • Cockburn, Anderson, Mitra and Ghosh were the early archaeologists who discovered a large number of sites in the Indian sub-continent.
  • The rock shelters on the banks of the river Suyal at Lakhudiyar (which literally means one lakh caves) bear these prehistoric paintings.
  • The richest paintings are reported from Bhimbetka (located in the Vidhyan hills of Madhya Pradesh)

Bhimbetka is located forty five kilometres south of Bhopal.

  • The caves of Bhimbetka were discovered in 1975-58 by an archaeologist VS Wakankar.
  • The themes of these paintings are of a great variety, ranging from mundane events of daily life to sacred and royal images.
  • At Bhimbetka, in some places, there are many as twenty layers of paintings.
  • The drawings and paintings can be categorished into seven historic periods. The paintings of the Upper Palaeolithic phase are linear representations. Green and dark red colours were used. The green paintings are of dancers and the red ones are of hunters. The paintings of Mesolitic period are smaller in size. Mesolithic paintings were dominated by group hunting, community dance and depiction of family life.

According to recent report mentioned in the Frontline, 2015, India has about five thousand rock-art sites, next only to Australia and South Africa.

  • Amazingly, the paintings made on rough, unprepared rock surfaces have stood the test of time.
  • The distribution of these sites in wide-spread. They have been found in Chargul in north-west Pakistan to Odisha in the east, and from the Kumaon hills in the north, to Kerala in the south.
  • Some of the important rock-paintings sites are-Murhana Paharin Uttar Pradesh, Bhimbetka, Chaturbhujnath Nala, Adamgarh, Lakha Juar in Madhya Pradesh and Kupagallu in Karnataka.
  • The technique used in rock art varied from full wash form to outlines to stick style.
  • The artists used a variety of symbols like the sun, the ladder, hand prints, rectangles, circles, honeycomb, squares, etc.
  • The rock cut of the Neolithic Age is marked by the presence of geometric symbols, totemic symbols and petrogylphs, besides human figures.
  • The artists used locally available material and dominant colours were red, yellow, white and black.
  • Probably used bird feather or calf tail for the brush.
  • Gum from trees was used as a binding material.
  • Most frequently depicted subject was different animals (either alone or in groups).
  • Humans are shown indulging in various activities like dancing, running, hunting, playing games, etc.


The Kamasutra of Vatsyayana lists painting as one of the sixty-four kalas or fine arts and mentions paints, brush and drawing boards as essential accessories of an average . Yasodhara’s commentary on Vatsyayana’s work refers to the Sadanga or six limbs of painting. These six limbs have been interpreted differently by various modern scholars.

Tradition of Mural Paintings in India

Murals are large works executed on the walls of solid structures. It comes from he Latin word murus, which means wall. They are public art

The Brihat samhita and the Vishnudharmmottara introduce such technical details as vajralepa or method of preparation of the ground for murals, preparation and application of colours, method of shading, adding highlights, foreshortening of limbs and features, different methods of treating the volume, expression of mood and movement and classification of painting according to the themes. All these and other references in contemporary literature , including the works of Bhasa, Kalidasa, Vishakhadatta, Dana and Buddhaghosa, the epics and the Puranas, leave no doubt that intellectual ferment of the classical period led to serious and detailed thought about the theory and technique of painting.

Ajanta Paintings-India paintings

  • Ajanta is located in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra.
  • There are twenty-nine caves at Ajanta.
  • It is the only surviving example of painting of the first century BC and fifth century AD.
  • Ajanta is known to be the fountain-head and inspiration of Buddhist paintings across the whole of Asia.
  • There are two phases of activity at this site, five caves were excavated in the Satavahana period, while twenty-three belong to the Vakataka period.
  • It has four Chaitya caves.
  • Cave numbers 9, 10, 12, 13 belong to the early phases.
  • The two chaityas (Cave numbers 19 and 26) belong to the last 5th and early 6th They stand apart from cave shrines of the earlier period on account of their richer sculptural ornamentation, both within and outside.
  • The cave has an elaborately carved façade, with Buddha figures, attendants and various ornamental devices.
  • Caves number 26 has more elaborate sculptural decoration. It enshrines a huge stupa with a seated Buddha carved in high relief, adorned with richer ornamentation than its counterpart in Cave number 19. The main Buddha figure on this stupa sits with legs hanging down from his seat.
  • Like the chaityas, the Ajanta vihara too display a profusion of sculptural ornamentation. They consist of a colonnaded porch and three entrance doors leading into a hall. The hall with pillars arranged in a square, leads into an antechamber with a pillared portico, which in turn opens into a shrine room. The introduction of a shrine room into the vihara is an innovation of this period. Monastic cells are arranged around the central hall, and in some cases, also at the front.
  • Originally, most of the caves had paintings. However, to this date, paintings only in six caves-cave numbers 1, 2, 9, 10, 16, 17 survive. Out of these, cave numbers 9 and 10 seem to belong to the first and second century BC.
  • The second phase of paintings corresponds to the Vakataka period.
  • The technique of painting is known as Fresco Secco in which a thick layer of mud, mixed with vegetable material, was applied on the rock surface.
  • A thin coat of plaster was applied on top of this. Paintings were made on this prepared surface, using pigments mixed in a glue or gum medium. This type of fresco is different from true fresco (fresco buon), in which powdered pigments are mixed with water and applied on wet lime- plastered walls, on which the colours dry and set along with the plaster. The artists must have used brush made of animal hair. They used and blended six colours-white made from lime, kalin and gypsum, red and yellow from ochre, black from soot, green from a glauconite (a mineral), and blue from lapis lazuli. All these materials, except for lapis lazuli, were available in the vicinity of Ajanta.
  • Apart from narrative scenes connected with the Buddha, Boshisattavas, and J a takas, The Ajanta frescoes also depict yakshas, gandharvas and apsaras.
  • In addition to the ‘religious scenes’, there are many scenes of everyday life of cities and villages. The artists deep and sympathetic understanding of nature is evident in the representation of trees, flowers and animals such as elephants, monkeys, deer and hares. There is also a great variety of decorative patterns.
  • In the narrative paintings, episodes flow from and into each other in different directions, without any clear demarcations.


Bagh Paintings

  • There are altogether nine caves in Bagh (Madhya Pradesh).
  • The earliest is cave number 1
  • Cave number 2 at Bagh represents an elaborate monastic establishment . It is locally known as the Panda vas Cave.
  • Cave number 3 is locally known as Hathikhana.
  • Cave number 4 is locally known as Rang Mahal from the fine series of paintings that still survive and is the most importance of all the Bagh caves. An ornamental porch is also found inside this cave.
  • few of paintings of the sixth century Hindu caves of Badami in Karnataka survive to this date.
  • The chaitya hall is absent in the Bagh series.
  • The pictorial art seems to have been in a highly developed state.

Ellora Paintings

  • Mural paintings in Ellora are preserved in the Kailasa temple.
  • The painters here continue the older tradition with contribution of their own.
  • Besides the naturalism and grace inherited from Ajanta, the figures painted here are stylised and elongated.
  • Scenes of Ramayana and Mahabharata are painted here along with mythological animals and flowers.
  • The paintings were made in two phases. The paintings that belongs to the first phase usually portray Lord Vishnu and Goddess Laxmi. In the later phase, the masterpiece is that of a procession of Shaiva, the holy men. The paintings also illustrate beautiful apsaras in a graceful flying pose.

Mural Tradition of Karnataka

  • Badami is a site which was discovered in the state of Karnataka.
  • Badami was the capital of the western Chalukyan dynasty who established their power in the Deccan region after the decline of Vakataka.
  • The Chalukya king, Mangalesha, patronised the excavation of the Badami caves.
  • The paintings on this cave represents an extension of the tradition of mural painting from Ajanta.
  • This cave is popularly called Vishnu Cave.
  • Scenes of palaces dominate the paintings of this cave.
  • The gracefully-drawn faces of the king and the queen are similar to the Ajanta style.

Mural Tradition of Tamil Nadu 

  • The mural tradition of Tamil Nadu developed under the Pallava, Pandava and Chola kings.
  • Paintings at the Kanchipuram temple, Panamalai temple and Mandagapattu temple were patronished by the Pallava kings.
  • The faces in these paintings are round and large.
  • Pandayas also patronised painting. Tirumalaipuram Caves and Jaina Caves at Sittanvasal are some of the important examples. In Sittanavasal, paintings on the ceilings of shrines, in verandas and on the brackets are prominent. Dancing figures of celestial nymphs can also be seen on the pillars of the veranda.
  • Chola paintings can be seen in temples like Nartamalai and Brihadeswara temple.
  • Chola paintings were executed on the walls of the narrow passage surrounding the shrine. These paintings show narration and events related to Lord Shiva (Shiva as Nataraj, Shiva in Kailash, Shiva as Tripurantaka). Chola paintings are also related to portraits of kings and dancing figures.

Vijay Nagar Murals

  • The paintings of Vijaya Nagar period have also survived to this date, in a number of temples.
  • The paintings at Tiruparakunram (near Trichy) represent early phase of Vijay Nagar style.
  • In Virupaksha temple (Hampi), paintings are found on the ceiling of its mandapa.
  • The glorious example of Vijayanagar paintings are found in Lepakshi.
  • Vijay Nagar painters and figures and objects are two-dimensional. Lines become still but fluid while compositions appear in rectilinear compartments.
  • Nayaka paintings were an extension of Vijay Nagar style. These paintings are found in Thiruparakunram, Sreerangam and Tiruvarur.
  • In the early piantings of Nayaka style, scenes relating to the life of Mahavira were prominent.
  • Nayaka paintings also depict episodes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayan. In the shri Krishna temple at Chengam in the Arcot district, there are sixty panels narrating the story of Ramayana.

Murals of Kerala

  • The painters of Kerala evolved a language taking cue from contemporary traditions like Kathakali and Kalamezhuthu.
  • They used vibrant and luminous colours representing three- dimensional human figures.
  • Kerala paintings can be seen on the walls of temples and inside the palaces.
  • Most of the themes of the paintings were related to episodes of Hindu mythology.
  • More than sixty sites have been found with mural paintings which include palaces like Kochi Dutch Palace, Krishnapuram Palace and Padmanabhapuram Palace.

Important topics Prelims

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