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The Contradictions of India

The Contradictions of India

Religion, art, and society

According to the writings known as the Puranas (religious writings of the 5th century BC), Bharata conquered the whole sub-continent of India (named Bharatavarsha) and ruled the land in peace and harmony. It is now understood that significant human activity was underway in India by the Holocene Period (10,000 years ago) and that many historical assumptions based upon earlier work in Egypt and Mesopotamia, need to be reviewed and revised. The beginnings of the Vedic tradition in India can now be dated, at least in part, to the indigenous people of ancient sites such as Balathal (discovered in 1962 near #Udaipur, recently excavated) rather than to the Aryan invasion of c. 1500 BC.

Ancient India Map
Indus Valley Map

Indeed, the Indus Valley Civilization dates to 5000 BC was characterized by larger cities than contemporary settlements in other countries, built of mud bricks, often kiln-fired. Mohenjo-Daro is one of the most famous examples, with streets laid out evenly at right angles and a sophisticated drainage system. The citizens were skilled in the use of metals such as copper, bronze, lead, and tin (as evidenced by artworks such as the bronze statue of the Dancing Girl and by individual seals) and cultivated barley, wheat, peas, sesame, and cotton. Trade was an important source of commerce and it is thought that ancient Mesopotamian texts which mention Magan and Meluhha refer to India generally or, perhaps, Mohenjo-Daro specifically. However, Mohenjo-Daro was not yet opened to visitors at the time of my travel in 2008!!!

India Udaipur Rajastan
Udaipur’s Palace

Between 1800 and 1200 B.C., Aryans (Sanskrit Arya means “noble”) entered the Indian subcontinent. They brought with them a group of sacred hymns known as the Vedas (“knowledge”), composed in the ancient Sanskrit language. The Vedic hymns praise an entire group of deities to whom the Aryans offered homage. Several are personifications of the powerful forces of nature, such as Indra, the god of thunder and rain and the patron deity of war; the solar deity Surya; and Agni, the god of fire. The Vedic Period in India (c. 1700- 150 BCE) is characterized by a pastoral lifestyle and adherence to the religious texts known as The Vedas. Society became divided into four classes (the Varnas): the Brahmana at the top (priests and scholars), the Kshatriya (the warriors), the Vaishya (farmers and merchants), and the Shudra (laborers). The lowest caste was the Dalits, the untouchables, who handled meat and waste. This understanding was a reflection of the belief in an eternal order to human life dictated by a supreme deity. During this time the Vedas became systematized as the religion of Sanatan Dharma (eternal order) known as Hinduism (from the river sindus). Hinduism’s three most popular deities are named Puranas, the god Shiva, the god Vishnu, and the goddess Shakti (literally, “Power”); generally, Hindus address their worship to one or another of the three. Relief carvings from the myths of the enshrined deity played an important role in glorifying the god; moreover, sculptors carved a variety of auspicious motifs that included overflowing foliage, figures of women, and images of embracing couples, all of which suggested growth, abundance, and prosperity. A rich body of secular literature, including poems and dramas, fables and epics, was written first in Sanskrit. Music and dance played an important part in the religious and secular life of the subcontinent.

India Ellora Caves Maharashtra
Ellora Entrance

The Ellora Caves is a series of 34 magnificent rock-cut temples in northwest-central Maharashtra state, western India. They are located near the village of Ellora, 19 miles (30 km) northwest of Aurangabad and 50 miles (80 km) southwest of the Ajanta Caves. Spread over a distance of 1.2 miles (2 km), the temples were cut from basaltic cliffs and have elaborate facades and interior walls. The 12 Buddhist caves (in the south) date from about 200BCE to 600 CE, the 17 Hindu temples (in the center) date from about 500 to 900 CE, and the 5 Jain temples (in the north) date from about 800 to 1000. The Hindu caves are the most dramatic in design, and the Buddhist caves contain the simplest ornamentation.

Indian Temple Structure and Components

Architecture and sculpture are inextricably linked in India. In the Hindu temple, large niches in the three exterior walls include sculpted images that portray various aspects of the deity. The sanctum image expresses the essence of the deity. For instance, the niches of a temple dedicated to a Vishnu may portray his incarnations; those of a temple to Shiva, his various combative feats; and those of a temple to the Great Goddess, her battles with various demons. The exterior of the halls and porch are also covered with figural sculpture. A series of niches highlight events from the mythology of the enshrined deity, and frequently a place is set aside for a variety of other gods. In addition, temple walls feature repeated banks of scroll-like foliage, images of women, and loving couples known as mithunas. Signifying growth, abundance, and prosperity, they were considered auspicious motifs. The needs of the god would, additionally, be supervised by a dedicated body of priests (pujaris) who attended the temple; however, they need not attend regular services, but an occasional walk around the temple interior (circumambulation), known as pradaksina and done in a clockwise direction, was considered auspicious. Further, they could say prayers, look at the god’s representation (asdarsan) and leave offerings of food and flowers (puja). Temples were the center of a community and their upkeep was guaranteed by land grants and endowments from the ruling class, as indicated by inscriptions on many temples.

The Kailasa Temple (cave 16), named from the mountain where Shiva resides, measures 50 meters long, 33 meters wide, and 30 meters high and was excavated downward from a basaltic slope. Its construction began in the 8th century and involved the removal of 150,000 to 200,000 tons of rock. It contains elaborately carved monoliths and halls with stairs, doorways, windows, and numerous fixed sculptures. One of its better-known decorations is a scene of Vishnu transformed into a man-lion and battling a demon. Just beyond the entrance, in the main courtyard, is a monument to Shiva’s bull Nandi. Along the walls of the temple are life-size sculptures of elephants and other animals. Erotic and voluptuous representations of Hindu divinities and mythological figures also grace the temple.

Paintings from Ellora are considered not very significant in their iconographic and style; they depict both religious and secular images. Important among these is an early painting of Vishnu and Lakshmi being borne out of a cloud by a Garuda. However, I have found them extremely interesting.

In the 6th century BCE, the religious reformers Vardhaman Mahavira (549-477 BCE) and Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE) create their own religions of Jainism and Buddhism as part of a wider pattern of social and cultural upheaval which resulted in the formation of city states and the rise of powerful kingdoms. Buddhism, is a faith propounded by Prince Siddhartha. The Buddha’s path to nirvana (Buddhist salvation) was a path of moderation that was open to all. It denied the caste system of the Hindus. In early times, his mortal remains (in the form of ashes following cremation) were interred within relic mounds known as stupas. Relief sculptures narrating the life of the Buddha were used to decorate such stupa mounds. The range of auspicious motifs used in a Hindu context—foliage, women, couples—also formed part of the decorative scheme of the stupa. The other major religion was Jainism, from  Jina, or “Victor”, placing greater emphasis on austerity and asceticism, which are upheld as ideals. Jain temples are similar in many ways to those built to honor Hindu gods; only the narrative themes and the identity of the sacred images are different. the most beautiful example is the Temple of Palitana which I was able to visit but not to photograph because of religious issues. You may check here.

Ellora’s Buddhist caves are amongst the largest excavated anywhere and were carved later than the Hindu ones, probably between the 7th and 8th centuries CE. Their layouts are more complex and the capitals in the colonnades are either the vase and foliage or chamfered cushions type. The interior decoration of these caves displays figures of Buddha in his various guises and many Bodhisattvas, some being the earliest instances, for example of Tara. Visvakarma cave (no. 10) was probably cut in c. 650 CE and, after a large open court space, presents a hugely impressive facade on two levels. The ground floor has a four-column facade while above is a veranda with a large central caitya window. On either side of this window, which leads to an interior barrel-vaulted gallery, is a deep and richly carved niche and relief panels.

Increased urbanization and wealth attracted the attention of Cyrus, ruler of the Persian Empire, who invaded India in 530 BCE and initiated a campaign of conquest in the region.  Possibly, the assimilation of Persian and Indian religious beliefs may suggest the reason for further religious and cultural reforms. In the earliest Buddhist art of India, the Buddha was not represented in human form. His presence was indicated instead by a sign, such as a pair of footprints, an empty seat, or an empty space beneath a parasol. Moreover, foreign influences give rise to the Greco-Buddhist culture which impacted all areas of culture in northern India from art to religion to dress. Statues and reliefs from this period depict Buddha, and other figures, as distinctly Hellenic in dress and pose (known as the Gandhara School of Art).

Following Alexander’s departure from India, the country splintered into many small kingdoms and empires (such as the Kushan Empire) in what has come to be called the Middle Period. This was a time of individual and cultural development in the various kingdoms which finally flourished in what is considered the Golden Age of India under the reign of the Gupta Empire (320-550 CE). The Gupta Empire is thought to have been founded by one Sri (Lord) Gupta between 240-280 CE, as a Vaishya (merchant) member, his rise to power in defiance of the caste system is unprecedented. He laid the foundation for the government which would so stabilize India that virtually flourished in every aspect of culture, resulting in some of the greatest of human achievements. During the Gupta period, an “ideal image” of the Buddha has been created by combining selected traits from the Gandharan region (characterized by Hellenic traits) with the sensuous form created by Mathura artists (the body expanded by the sacred breath and the right shoulder bare). The Puranas of Vyasa were compiled during this period and the famous caves of Ajanta and Ellora, with their elaborate carvings and vaulted rooms, were also begun.

Approximately 67 miles (107 km) to the north of Aurangabad in the Indhyadri range of Western Ghats lie the caves of Ajanta. The 30 caves, famous for their early Buddhist temple architecture and many delicately drawn murals, are located in a 76 m high, horseshoe-shaped escarpment overlooking the Waghora (tiger) River. The excavation and creation of the caves seem to have been a more community effort in the earlier phase. Group efforts contributed to the building of various parts of the caves, from the façades to single cells. Later, however, was marked by sponsorship from influential patrons and local feudatories. Much of the process involved hundreds of cheap and unskilled workers for rock removal, but also skilled artists and artisans.  The caves also lay close to the ancient trade routes and capital of the Satavahana Empire: commerce flourished and the cities prospered. Buddhism was already popular and Buddhist bhikshu (monks) traveled across the Deccan plateau. The caves of Ajanta were not excavated in isolation, but a range of similar activities resulted in a number of cave complexes across the Western Ghats.

India Ajanta Caves Maharashtra
Approximate Timeline of Ajanta Caves

The cave complex in Ajanta comprises 30 caves. Of these, five (9, 10, 19, 26, and 29) are chaitya (prayer hall with a stupa at the far end) and the rest are vihara (monastery). The architecture of the cave complex is unique because it reflects the ever-improving proficiency of the craftsmen, educated in an architectural style already highly developed but unfamiliar with the rock-cut medium. 

India Ajanta Caves Maharashtra
Cave 26

Sculptures in Ajanta were both plastered and painted though any trace of the latter is invisible to the naked eye today. The garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) of each vihara contains almost invariably in seated posture the figure of Buddha in dharma chakra pravartana mudra (Buddha in preaching attitude delivering his discourse).

India Ajanta Caves Maharashtra
Reclining or Resting Buddha, Caves 26

The Ajanta murals have suffered considerable damage. The rugged surface of the cave walls was made further uneven to provide a firm grip to the covering plaster made of ground ferruginous earth, rock grit, sand, and other materials of organic origin. The second layer of mud, ferruginous earth mixed with pulverized rock powder or sand helped to cover the whole interior of the cave. The surface was then treated with a thin coat of lime wash over which pigments were applied. Painting proceeded at a surprising speed, faster than Michelangelo’s four years to paint the 586 square meters of the Sistine ceilings. In general, the site is considered the first example of Buddhist art; however, its development is mainly experimental because the stylistic and iconographic evolution involves more differences than real developments.

The Gupta Empire was then replaced by the rule of Harshavardhan (590-647) who ruled the region for 42 years. A literary man of considerable accomplishments (he authored three plays in addition to other works) Harshavardhan was a patron of the arts and a devout Buddhist; with the fall of his kingdom, India fell into chaos and fragmented into small kingdoms lacking the unity necessary to fight invading forces. The Muslim invasion saw an end to the indigenous empires of India and, from then on, independent city-states or communities under the control of a city would be the standard model of government. The Islamic Sultanates rose in the region of modern-day Pakistan and spread north-west. The disparate world views of the religions which now contested each other for acceptance in the region and the diversity of languages spoken, made the unity and cultural advances, such as were seen in the time of the Guptas, difficult to reproduce. Consequently, the region was easily conquered by the Islamic Mughal Empire. India would then remain subject to various foreign influences and powers (among them the Portuguese, the French, and the British) until finally winning its independence in 1947 CE.

The greater proportion of the art in stone that has survived was used to decorate sacred structures. Secular monuments certainly existed, and monarchs and nobles built themselves imposing palaces and mansions. It would appear, however, that such structures were made in the perishable medium of brick and wood and decorated with terracotta and wood sculptures.

India is an ancient country, it has witnessed and received several waves of immigrants such as Aryans, Muslims, etc. These people brought with themselves their own ethnic varieties and cultures and contributed to India’s diversity, richness, and vitality. Therefore, Indian society is a complex mix of diverse cultures, people, beliefs, and languages. This complexity and richness give Indian society a unique appearance of a very vibrant and colorful cultural country.

But the very same complexity brings with itself the complex nature of social problems and issues. Indian society is very rooted in religious beliefs; there are people of different religious beliefs such as Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis, etc. India’s social problems are also rooted in the religious practices and beliefs of its people. Almost all forms of social issues and problems find their origin in the religious and cultural practices of the people of India. These social problems are developed in a long period of times and are still continuing in one form or other.


THE SPLENDOURS OF INDRA’S CROWN: A STUDY OF MAHĀYĀNA DEVELOPMENTS AT AJANTĀ. Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 122, No. 5219 (OCTOBER 1974), pp. 743- 767

Ajanta. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Ajanta/

Ancient India. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/india/

South Asian Art and Culture. Retrieved from https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/sasa/hd_sasa.htm

Palitana: the Jain Temple Town. Retrieved from https://www.livehistoryindia.com/tales-and-trails/2018/06/09/tales-trails-heritage-matters

Ellora Caves. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/article/874/ellora-caves/

Hinduism and Hindu Art. Retrieved from https://www.metmuseum.org/TOAH/HD/hind/hd_hind.htm

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