Monthly Archives: July 2016

Paintings in Indian art : art from Ajanta caves

In a serene valley and a vibrant natural atmosphere in the district of Aurangabad, in present day Maharashtra, near a village called Ajanta, are present 29 rock cut Buddhist shrines and monasteries. These are the famous Ajanta caves which is a UNESCO world heritage site.

The shrines were built over 700 years, maybe the earliest around 2000 years ago. They were forgotten and happened to be discovered by officers of the Madras Army in 1819. The temples which are rock-cut have been laboriously cut and chiselled from the crust of the steep rocks over centuries by the Buddhist monks. The art is in various states of preservation at Ajanta. Accounts of the caves have been given by  Sir James Fergusson, Lady Herringham, Ghulam Yazdani, Burgess et al.image001

Panoramic view of Ajanta caves

By Freakyyash – photo taken by Freakyyash, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The caves of the Ajanta are associated with the Vakataka dynasty, allies of the Gupta dynasty (320 A.D. to approximately 495 A. D.) Art and sculpture flourished under the Gupta dynasty in the fifth century. The Ajanta paintings were made between 2nd century and end of sixth century A.D. Cave no. IX,X,XII and XIII are the earliest caves. The caves are of two types; Vihara, monastery for living, which are four sided having acentral hall with cells along three sides with stone bed.The other type is the Chaitya, which were the assembly caves,having a rectangular portico and side aisles, in the form of an apse at the end.


An early chaitya, Ajanta caves

By Shaikh Munir – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

As per art scholars the art of Ajanta was thousand years ahead of its time. The artistic expression combined with technical excellence and choice of subjects, perfection of lines, forms, colours is an inspiration for all artists and art lovers. The figures and scenes in the various caves of Ajanta is a living world of human beings, foliage and flowers, birds and animals and refelct the very essence and soul of the period they were painted in.


Scenes from everyday life, Ajanta painting

By Woudloper – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

“……the appeal of Ajanta is not merely to the artist or the expert but to every sensitive human being………’’   said India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

The theme of Ajanta paintings revolves around the jataka stories, the legends of Buddha’s reincarnations. Various facets of human life happiness, love, yearning, suffering are beautifully captured. Buddhas and bodhisattvas, palace scenes, plants, flowers animals are all seen.


A king with his queen, Ajanta caves

By Vu2sga – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The colours used include terra verde, red and yellow ochre,lamp black and lapis lazuli. The surfaces were prepared with a base layer of clay mixed with rice husk and gum, upon which a coat of lime was applied.

Women are portrayed in the Ajanta paintings in different moods and roles. She is a queen, attendant, apsara (celestial nymph), dancing girl, maid etc. Women are seen wearing  jewellery and have elaborate hairstyles. Her feminine features have been reproduced very lovingly by the artists. The slanting eyes, gestures of hands, roundness of breasts, curves of her hips,turn of her head etc.The central character is usually semi-nude, while others are fully clothed. Many women are dark complexioned.image014

Dancing girl along with musicians, Ajanta painting

From a poster


Apsara, Ajanta painting

From a poster


Attendants, Ajanta paintings

From a poster

File:Ajanta Entrance cave 17.jpg

Entrance of cave 17,part of the ceiling before entrance, Ajanta.

By Londenp (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Scene from a Jataka tale, Ajanta painting

By Meister des Mahâjanaka Jâtaka – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,


References :

Guide to Ajanta frescoes, Hyderabad : Government of Hyderabad, 1953

Ajanta paintings, New Delhi : Lalit Kala Akademi,1956


Posted by : Soma Ghosh


Bygone splendour : a history of the Qutub Shahi dynasty

The Qutub Shahi dynasty of the Deccan is remembered for many contributions. The Golconda Fort,Charminar, various monuments and founding of the city of Hyderabad in the Deccan region of India.

The Bahmani kingdom ruled the Deccan between 1347-1525 from Gulbarga initially and then from Bidar. However it disintegrated and five independent kingdoms evolved . The Qutub Shahis with capital at Golconda, the Imad Shahis with capital at Ellichpur, the Adil Shahis with capital at Bijapur, the Nizam Shahis with capital at Ahmednagar, The Barid Shahis with capital at Bidar.

The founder of the Qutb Shahi kingdom was Sultan Quli, an immigrant whose paternal home was in Hamadan, Iran. The Bahamani empire had many afaqis or immigrants from Iran,Iraq,Turkistan, Arabia,Africa,etc. These afaqis gradually dominated society and occupied important posts. The society of Deccan was a cultural synthesis and included people of different ethnic origin,races,religion and culture etc. This lead to evolution of “Deccan culture” and later “Hyderabadi culture”which continues to this day.

Sultan Quli came along with his uncle Allah Quli to Deccan and Bahmani ruler Sultan Mahmud Shah Bahmani received them well and appointed  Sultan Quli as one of his courtiers.He was given  horses, a jagir of Kurangal. He earned the title Qutb-ul-mulk beacause of his military and literary talent.He was appointed tarafdar(governor) of Telangana in 1495. and the fort at Golconda hill was added to his existing jagir. From this jagir evolved the Golconda fort-city and the capital which got densely populated with time.

Sultan Quli rebuilt the mud fort which was originally built by the Kakatiyas and called Mankal. He renamed it as Muhammadnagar. In 1518, he declared independence and made Golconda his capital. He strengthened the defences of the hill and built strong ramparts. The fort-city included public buildings, mosques, offices, palaces, rest-rooms,gardens, baths etc.



Fort view; pic by Isha Vatsa


Fort view; pic by Isha Vatsa


Fort view; pic by Isha Vatsa


Fort views; pics by Isha Vatsa




Cannon balls at fort; pic by Isha Vatsa

Sultan Quli ruled for 50 years, 24 as governor and 26 as ruler before his assassination in 1542. The Golconda kingdom extended from Warangal to the Masulipatnam(now Machilipatnam) coast. His son Jamsheed Quli succeeded him who ruled for seven years.

After him Sultan Ibrahim Qutb Shah,sixth son of Sultan Quli ruled after brief rule of few months of rule by Subhan Quli; for  30 years ie. 1550-80. Along with other Sultans of the Deccan subdued Vijayanagara, issued coins and patronised Telugu literature. He also had a great fondness for Persian and was responsible for the rise of Dakhni, precursor to Urdu.

He built the bridge over the Musi river in 1578 in order to expand his capital. His son-in-law Hussain Shah Wali built the Hussain Sagar Lake. A new town Ibrahimpatnam was named after him.He was succeeded by his son, Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah who was only fifteen and the administration was handed over to Rai Rao and Mir Momin Astrabadi.


 Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah

By Muhammad ‘Alî – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

Since Golconda was large, prosperous and densely populated, its fame of diamonds and printed cloth attracted traders from Europe and Asia, the need for a new city was submitted via a petition to the Sultan by the nobility. This was accepted and the plan for construction of a new city was prepared by Mir Momin Astrabadi. The Sultan laid the foundation in 1591 and named it Hyderabad, after Hyder, the title of the fourth caliph of Islam. Since the city had many gardens it has also been referred to as Baghnagar by historians and travellers. Hyderabad was built on the gridiron system in the form of a large double cross. The Charminar stands at the city centre, completed in 1592 and four roads extend from its portals. The city was divided into 12,000 muhallas(precincts). The city’s main roads were lined with shops, buildings, mosques etc. The Charminar is the most famous Qutb Shahi monument.The Sultan built many public buildings and beautiful gardens. The Charminar is flanked by four arches, the Charkaman at a distance of 375 feet from the centre. The gates are called Sher-e-ali kaman or Sher-e-batil , Kali kaman, Machli kaman, Charminar ki kaman.


Charminar, Hyderabad

By Ramnath Bhat from PUNE, India – Charminar, Hyderabad.(_MG_8622), CC BY 2.0,

The Qutub Shahis built many palaces like Khudadad mahal, Chandan Mahal,Sajan Mahal, Lal Mahal, Nadi Mahal and pavillions like Naubat Pahad and Koh-i-tur etc. Muhammad Quli Qutab Shah built the Badshahi Ashura Khana in 1595, where alams similar to the ones carried by Imam Hussain are kept. He also built commercial complexes around the Charminar including the Lad Bazaar. After Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, his nephew Mohammad Qutub Shah, son of Mohammad Amin, succeeded him  in 1612 since he had no male heir. He ruled for 14 years. He laid out a few more gardens and continued work on the Mecca Masjid after getting sand from Mecca in Arabia. The mosque has huge dimensions with a prayer hall of 225 feet length and is 75 feet in height.Sultan Mohammad maintained a  fleet of ships and Golconda had good trade with Europe.He was succeeded by his eldest son Abdullah who supported trade with the British. The Golconda kingdom produced a variety of products and Masulipatnam was an important port city in its territory.


Sultan Abdullah Qutub Shah

By Unknown (production) –, Public Domain,

Abdullah Qutub Shah had no male heir and his son-in-law Abul Hasan Tana Shah was made Sultan in 1672. Golconda fell to the Mughals after along seige in 1687 and along with the plunder of Hyderabad, the Mughals took away the accumulated wealth of Sultan Abul Hasan who spent his remaining life at Daulatabad.


Sultan Abul Hasan Tana Shah

By Minuchihr –, Public Domain,


Golconda was famous for its diamonds and there were many mining sites within the kingdom. The Kohinoor, Hope Diamond, Pitt-regent, Idol’s eye,Dariya-e-noor, Noor-al-ayn are a few famous diamonds.

The Qutub Shahi architecture was unique and included arches,pillars, arches, domes and minarets. The rulers originally came from Persia or Iran and were patrons of art and learning. They invited scholars, artists and craftsmen to their courts. Their architecture was originally a mix of Persian and Deccan styles. Later Turkish influences were seen. Their architectural structures include the fort,mosques,palaces, tombs and public utility buildings.  A very important building was the Darushifa which was  a general hospital and  attached to it was a college for Unani medicine. Qutub Shahis had their own coinage, patronised learning and the languages Persian and Dakhni. Many books were written in Persian in various subjects with their support. Sultan Muhammad Quli himself composed 15,000 couplets in Urdu.

The fort stands on a hill, 400 feet above the plains around and is a large Deccani fort. Sultan Quli replaced the original mud fort and built a new stone structure with large gates. Many structures were built within and it became a fort with three fortifications. There were palace, gardens and mosques. The fort complex is in the shape of an irregular rhombus having a crenallated granite wall, a moat and a citadel called Bala Hissar. The Fateh Darwaza is the outermost gate. The other gates include Bala Hissar Darwaza, Banjari Darwaza, Jamali Darwaza, Naya Qila Darwaza and Moti Darwaza. Bahmani, Badhi, Mecca and Patancheru are the other gates. The fort has 87 bastions and 52 posterns. The Petla Burj, Musa Burj and Madina Burj are well known bastions. A cannon Fateh Rahbar is kept on Petla Burj. Structures inside the fort include Shamshir Kotha, Telka kotha,Dhan ka kotha,Jabbar Kotha, Jami Masjid, Ashur khana,Guard rooms, Hathirath mahal, Katora hauz,, Aslah khana,Ambar khana, Bahmani mosque. a Hindu temple, a throne for the Sultan ascended by ten steps. Palaces of Tarmati and Pemamati , ladies from the royal harem, were also built.

Mushk Mahal was a palace built in 1673 by Miyan Mishk. Toli Masjid was built by Musa Khan, a mahaldar of Abdullah Qutub Shah in 1671. Mosques at Saidabad and Mirpet, which has calligraphy by Hussain b.Mahmud Shirazi were  built by Mohd Quli Qutb Shah. Mosques exist at Khairatabad, Musheerabad and near Puranapul at Hyderabad from the time of the Qutub Shahis.

To the north west of the fort are situated the Qutub Shahi tombs in a garden ambience built in their typical architectural style.


Qutub Shahi tombs, view from the fort.

By Unknown –, Public Domain,

Deccani qalam is the style of painting which evolved under the Qutub Shahis. The kalamkari techniques of Pallakolu. Masulipatnam, Kalahasti flourished in their reign. Picchwais were also produced during the Qutb Shahi rule, expressing themes from Lord Krishna’s life.


Miniature painting during Qutub Shahi rule

By (Deccan, Golconda), –, Public Domain,


Ragamala painting, Golconda school

By Deccan School –, Public Domain,

References :

H.K. Sherwani/History of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, New Delhi ; Munshilal Manoharlal,1974
H.K. Sherwani/Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah founder of Haidarabad, New Delhi : Asia Publishing House,1967.
M.A.Nayeem/The heritage of the Qutb Shahis of Golconda and Hyderabad,Hyderabad: Hyderabad Publishers,2006
M.A.Nayeem/The splendour of Hyderabad, Hyderabad Publishers: Hyderabad,2002.



Posted by: Soma Ghosh


Decorative in Indian art : jewellery in ancient India

Jewellery has always occupied an important place in the social and cultural life of India. Initially men and women used natural material for beautification of the body like leaves  and flowers followed by beads using other type of material. In course of time, metals like gold  was  used to make ornaments which continues to this day.

The figure of the bronze dancing girl found at Mohenjodaro, one of the Indus valley sites depicts her wearing necklaces and a number of bangles. Gold, silver and ivory, copper, bone, shell and terracotta have all been used to make ornaments. Excavations at Harappa and Mohenjodaro yielded variety of beads  which were strung together and worn as armlets, bracelets, necklaces and girdles.image001.jpg

Dancing girl, Mohenjodaro, Indus valley civilisation

By Joe Ravi, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Vedic texts make enough references to jewellery and its use to decorate the body. The Ramayana and Mahabharata, India’s great epics describe jewellery elaborately. When Sita daughter of King Janaka gets married to Lord Rama, she is bedecked with ear ornaments, nose ornament, chandrahaar , bracelets, anklets with bells etc. her head ornament the chudamani is believed to have been given to her father by Kubera, the God of wealth himself. Lord Rama wears pearls on his crown, and as ear-rings and around his neck. Yudhistira loses a rare pearl during his gambling game with the Kauravas in the Mahabharata.

Buddhist and Jaina literature mention ornaments. The Jataka tales mention jewellery including those worn by elephants and horses. The Kalpasutras, Jaina texts describe different ornaments.

In ancient India, following the Indus valley times and the Vedic era, the ascendancy of the Mauryan dynasty unified the Indian subcontinent. Trade routes opened and rare and new gems came to India. The Arthshastra written in 3rd century B.C by Kautilya describes jewellery types. Jewellery was worn both by men and women. The yakshi from Didargunj, Patna wears a headband, a pendant, girdle on her waist and anklets. Terracotta figures from this age also depict jewellery. Bharhut, Sanchi, Bodhgaya and Amaravati are attributed to the Sunga and Satavahana phase of Indian history. Their art reveals a variety of ornaments used on head,ears,neck,arms,waist and feet. Motifs were drawn from nature or religion. Short necklaces were called Kanthi and in case it had a large pearl as  a centre-piece it was called sirshak. A necklace having alternate gold and pearl beads was called Apavartika. Ratnavali was a necklace having many gems, pearls and gold beads. Shankhavalayas were made of conch, ratnavalayas set with precious stones, jalavalayas were bracelets with perforations. Mekhala,Kanchi,rasana and sarasana were different type of girdles. Various names have been assigned to anklets such as manjira tulakoti, nupura, padangada,hamsaka and palipada and kinkini for the ones with bells. Trade was prevalent between South India and Rome at the beginning of Christian era and the gold which came in was converted into jewellery. Jewellery of Satavahanas is described in Gathasaptasati written in Prakrit by a ruler. A circular jewel was placed in the centre of the usnisha(turban), kirita(a crown with jewels) was worn too. Women wore the chudamani and the makarika(crocodile shaped jewel) was also very popular. Ear kundalas were in vogue. The phalakahara consisting of gold slabs as very popular among necklaces.

29 Didarganj Yakshi 3bc Patna, at the Patna Museum, Bihar

Yakshi from Didarganj, 3rd century B.C.,Patna, Bihar

By Anandajoti – Own work, CC BY 3.0,


Royal family, Sunga art, 1st century B.C.,West Bengal

By Uploadalt – Own work, photographed at the MET, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The jewellery of Taxila and adjoining townships of Sirkap and Sirsukh have revealed a blend of Indian, Greek, Persian and Greco-Roman in design and form. This is because the city was built and destroyed many times between 500 BC to 500 A.D. by invaders like the Greeks, Mauryas of Magadha, the Bactrian Greeks, the Sakas, the Parthians, the Kushanas and the Huns.

The Sungas replaced the Mauryan dynasty. Bharhut sculptures are seen wearing a variety of ornaments. Ear-rings were termed Karnika or kundala if they were ring shaped. A single string of beads was called ekavali. Armlets were very much in use. Bracelets were also worn, girdles were worn by women. Hair ornaments kept hair in place. Sakas, Parthian and later the Kushanas followed the Sunga rule. This had an impact on the society of ancient India as they came from central Asia and influenced indigenous art and craft of India.


Sunga empire, fertility goddess

By No machine-readable author provided. World Imaging assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Kanishka , a Kushana ruler patronised art and his rule was from Bactria to Magadha and Kashmir to Saurastra. Gandhara was an important centre with Roman influence and the other was Mathura which was purely Indian. Jewellery has been excavated  from Taxila which include gold, copper, bronze pendants, bracelets, bangles and armlets. Kushan  jewellery is evident in the Gandhara and Mathura sculptures. The railing pillars at Mathura depict Yakshi with nupura(anklets), mekhala(girdles), hara(necklace), valaya(bracelets), bangles, ear-rings and finger-rings.


Yakshi from Mathura, Uttar Pradesh

By [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The Gupta empire rose to power in the fourth century which was founded by Chandragupata I with his capital at Pataliputra in 320 A. D. Jewellery ws profusely used. The king wore a kirita or crown. Women wore chudamani and makarika. The Chudamani was a lotus shaped jewel of pearls and precious stones. The makarika was  a fish-crocodile jewel. The poet Kalidasa refers to Ratnajala and Muktajala as hair ornaments. Kundalas of various types including makarakundalas and manikundalas. The ear ornaments were called the karna bhushanas. Patra-kundala was an ear ornament in the shape of tinted cones of coconut or palm leaves.Ekavali, induchhanda,vijayachhanda,devachhanda, guccha were all stringed necklaces. Girdles were called hema. Bangles and bracelets were called valaya, angada and keyura. Nupura and maninupura were anklets. Angulika and manibandhana(ring with jewels were finger ornaments. After 470 A.D. the Gupta power declined. Kumaragupta’s pillar inscription mentions the jewellery worn by women. Gupta coins depict the monarch’s head ornaments. The chandrahara was a lunette shaped flat necklet. Vanamala or vaijayantika was a big garland which was also worn during this period.

     King Harsha came to power in Thanesar in 606 A. D. after the Gupta empire collapsed and gave rise to many local kingdoms. Harsha Charita and Kadambini composed by Banabhatta mentions jewellery which existed at that time.. The king wore a crest jewel and ear-ornament studded with precious stones. Sometimes asymmetrical ear ornaments were worn. The hara or necklace was very popular, usually made of pearls. Necklaces made of gold were inlaid with valuable jewels or tiger claws. The use of Keyura(armlets) was prevalent. Crescent shaped necklaces and long ones knotted in the centre was common. Valaya(bracelets)  were worn on the wrist, also called kankana. Rings were worn on fingers.  Jewel studded girdles were worn on hips and waist.

The Ajanta caves in Aurangabad in Maharashtra date between 2nd century B.C and 7th century A.D. They were Buddhist centres of learning and probably made under the Satavahanas and later the Vakataka dynasty. The paintings reflect the jewellery of the period. Head ornaments, necklaces, armlets,bangles are clearly seen.


 Fresco,  Ajanta caves, Aurangabad, Maharashtra

By Unknown – Unknown, Public Domain,

Chandella period sculptures also depict various ornaments. Women wore a stud of gold or silver in the parting of the hair called bor borla. Sisaphala or rakhdi was shaped like a lotus flower and was used on forehead. Men and women wore ear ornaments like kundalas, balas, phulajhumka and karnaphula. The karnaphulas were star or floral shaped. Necklaces were common with leaf shaped or square pendants held together by a string. Women wore longer necklaces. Kantha and hansuli were other type of necklaces. Among bangles and bracelets heavy cylindrical armlets with beaded borders were used. Kanganas were popular with round beads. Finger rings were worn on thumb and index finger. Mekhala(girdle) was of a single string of beads or made up of a decorative belt with a central clasp worn around the waist. Anklets were made up of beaded strings in single or multiple rows. The courtesans wore kinkinis. Toe rings were worn by both men and women.


Sculpture from Chandella period, Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh

By Rajenver – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

 The south of India had its own skilled jewellers and ornaments are mentioned in Tamil literature, worn from head to foot. The Pallavas ruled for 300 years and the kings and queens wore crowns, armlets, kundalas etc. Necklaces were inlaid with precious stones. Cholas ruled during 10th to 12th century A.D. and their inscriptions mention jewels gifted to temples in minute detail. The sculptures produced depict ear rings,armlets,waistbands and foot ornaments. Bangles were called gajulu, khadi. Valayas were used on upper arms by men. Bracelets svechitika or barjura were worn. Women wore agrapatta with a circular floral ornament on the forehead called simanta. Hoysala sculptures were ornate and depict different types of ornaments. The Hoysalas ruled from 11th to 14th centuries and built many temples. Vijayanagara kingdom was founded in 1336 by two brothers Harihara and Bukka with capital at Vijaynagar on the southern bank of Tungabhadra river. Travellers’ accounts give descriptions of the jewellery worn by people in the kingdom and mention caps, neck collars,shoulder 8belts,bracelets,armlets,girdles,anklets all set with precious stones. The wealth  of Vijayanagara is legendary and precious stones, gold and diamonds existed in plenty. The kingdom came to an end in 1526 A.D after the battle of Talikota when king Rama Raya lost to the sultans of the Deccan. The court dancers of the period wore hordes of jewellery. Ear ornaments included the kundala, muktodakas made of pearls. Royal women wore Vajragarbha, ear-rings with diamonds in the centre. The head and hair ornaments include baitale bottu, ragate (used on the back of the head) , jadde boovu on the plait,jadde bangara, gold on the plait, nagara, a gold ornament with tiny gold beads, kuchchu, a tassel at the end of plait.Keyura and bhujabhushana were used on arms and shoulders. Necklaces were called hara, ekavali,trivali,chavali,saptavali. Thanaharas covered the entire chest. Navaratna finger-rings were in vogue. Wristlets included kadaga and kankana.Girdles were called katisutras, kanchidhama and vodayana. Chalukyans wore a special ear ornament called sopan krama vinyasta kundala, which covered the whole ear and set with precious stones.

Hoysala period showed gorgeous ,ornate jewellery on the sculptures produced during this period.

 The Kakatiya period sculptures depict head ornaments like the cherrubottu, jalli and bottubilla. Kundalas were big in size. Ekavalis, Sirsaka and Panchaphalakas were necklaces. Keyuras or dandakadiyas were the armlets. Skandamala was shoulder ornament. Women wore heavy anklets and toe rings called mattiyalu.


Chola sculpture, South India

By Thiago Santos – Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi as the Goddess Parvati, CC BY-SA 2.0,


Madanika from bracket at  a Kakatiya temple, Telangana

By Varshabhargavi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Hoysala sculpture, Belur, Karnataka

By Nithin bolar k – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


References :

  • H.Clifford Smith/The art of Jewellery; New Delhi :Bharatiya Kala Prakashan,
  • M.L.Nigam/Indian jewellery;New Delhi : Roli Books, 1999.
  • Jamila Brijbhushan/Masterpieces of Indian jewellery; Bombay : D. B Taraporewala and Sons,1983.


Posted by : Soma Ghosh

Decorative in Indian art : musical instruments in sculpture

The music of India is highly developed and a sophisticated product of an ancient culture. Lord Shiva’s mystic dance symbolises the rhythmic motion in the universe. Music is sound in rhythm. Goddess Saraswati is represented as the goddess of art and learning and is seen sitting on a white lotus with a veena in one hand and playing it with another, a book in the third hand and a necklace of pearls in the fourth hand. Sage Bharata is believed to have taught the arts to apsaras, the heavenly dancers. Narada muni who wanders both on earth and heaven playing his veena taught the art to men. In Indra’s heaven, Gandharvas are the singers , apsaras are the dancers, and the centaur-like beings the Kinnaras play musical instruments. Gandharva veda means the art of music.

A very wide variety of musical instruments were used in Vedic times, both percussion and stringed. The ordinary drum was the dundhubi. Adambara, bhumi dundhubi were others. Aghati was a cymbal which accompanied dancing. The kandaveena was a kind of lute, karkari, another kind of lute, vana , a lute of 100 strings and the veena. The veena is suitable to all types of Indian music.

Wind instruments included tunava, a wooden flute, the nadi a reed flute etc. Music was vocal during Rigvedic times and the hymns were words set to music according to rules. Instruments have been mentioned in the Upanishads. Panini mentions two persons named Silalin and Krisasvin as authors of two sutras on dancing. Palipitaka of 300 B.C mentions two disciples of Gautama Buddha having attended a musical performance.

Musical theory is mentioned in the Rikpratisakhya (400 B.C). The Ramayana (400 B C -200 A.D)  mentions singing of ballads. The Mahabharata (500 B.C. – 200 A.D.)mentions seven swaras. The oldest detailed exposition of Indian musical theory is Natyasastra composed by Sage Bharata (6th century). One chapter is completely devoted to music. As mentioned already musical instruments of India are various and interesting. Early instruments are still in use. Arabian and Persian instruments have been adopted after invasions.

Sculptures of many musical instruments exist on old cave temples and Buddhist stupas. Amaravati  and Sanchi depict many such sculptures.

Indian stringed instruments include the veena, an instrument which consists of a large bowl, hollowed out of one piece of wood. The flat top of this bowl is one foot in diameter. A bridge is placed on the bowl and near it are anumber of small sound holes. The veena is played using finger nails or using a plectrum. Sitar, dilruba,esraj,ektara are other stringed instruments. Sarangi,surbahar are also stringed instruments. Kinnari is a primitive Indian instrument supposed to have been invented by Kinnara , one of the musicians in Indra’s heaven. It has representation in sculpture and paintings. It has 2-3 strings, sound is not very strong.

The tanpura is another important instrument  also called tambur, which accompanies most Indian classical music.The number of strings are four or five. It is made out of aged wood and a carved gourd. Tanpuras provide the drone in the background.


Goddess Saraswati with veena at Wargal, Medak District, Telangana

By Gopaloza – Own work, Public Domain,

Wind instruments include the horn called sringa also called komiki or kombu in South India. The conch shell or sankhu is an ancient wind instrument.  The reed flute or Bansuri is the commonest wind instrument. Also called Murali, it is associated with Lord Krishna. Other instruments include nagasara, ninkairna, pongi,sruti upanga,tombi or punji and nallatarang. Trumpets include Kuma, turahi,Sanai, Karana, nafari etc.


Krishna playing flute, Belur, Karnataka

By Santhoshbapu (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Percussions instruments include drum which has many types. The Mridanga is the most ancient of Indian drums which is about two feet long. As per legend Brahma invented it to accompany Lord Shiva’s cosmic dance and Ganesha is said to be the first to play on it.


Woman playing tabla, Bhaja caves, near Lonavla, Maharashtra 

By Sagarborkar – Own work, CC BY 3.0,


The tabla is also an important percussion instrument especially in North and Central India. It is not a drum with two heads but two drums, the two heads being one on each of the two, each slightly smaller in size than the mridanga. The pakhawaj  is a drum larger than a mridanga used in north India. The nagara is a large kettle-drum used during war or for religious ceremonies. It is called dundhubi in ancient literature. The dhol is the wedding drum, twenty inches long and twelve inches in diameter, made of wood bored out of a single piece. Initially the mridanga used to be made of clay but later was made of wood, the two heads are covered with parchment. The tabla is usually  made of wood, sometimes one is in copper and the other drum is in wood.  Damaru is another instrument shaped like an hour-glass, believed to have been used by Lord Shiva.

Some other percussion instruments include Nahabet, Karadsamila,edaka,udupa, Karadivadya etc.

Cymbals are also used called Kaitala or Manjiva, made of brass,copper or bronze. Jharigha are the larger cymbals. Chintla is another cymbal used in Bundelkhand region of India.


Playing drums, shalabhanjikas at Belur, Karnataka

By Push203 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Column , Natya mandapa at Sun temple Konark, Odisha showing female musicians under tree canopies with musical instruments.

By G41rn8 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

References :

References :

  • The music of India/H.A. Popley and A. Coomaraswamy,New Delhi : Award Publishing House,1986.
  • The music and musical instruments of Southern India and the Deccan/C. R. Day,B R. Publishing Corporation,1974.
  • Musical Instruments in Hoysala Sculpture (Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries)/ Deloche, Jean  Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient  Année 1988  Volume 77  Numéro 1  pp. 57-68


Posted by : Soma Ghosh