The Art of Painting in Ancient India Chitrasutra (1)

sreenivasarao s
sreenivasarao s / 6 yrs ago /

The Art of Painting in Ancient India – Chitrasutra (1)
[I propose to post a series of articles on the art of painting in ancient India with particular reference to the Chitrasutra of Vhishnudharmottara purana.
The current article, by way of introduction, talks about certain concepts concerning the art of painting in ancient India. It also briefly mentions the influence of Chitrasutra on the paintings of Ajanta.
The next set of articles will discuss, briefly, the text of the Chitrasutra.
The articles to follow thereafter will try to cover different aspects of Indian painting such as the preparation of the surface for painting the murals; the costumes of various persons; and more importantly the proportions(tala-mana) to be observed while drawing various figures etc.
I propose to round up with a note about the legacy of Chitrasutra-Ajanta tradition.]

1.1. Indian art has a very long and an illustrious history.Painting as an art form has flourished in India from very early periods as is evident from various epics and other literary sources; and also from the remnants that have somehow survived the test of time, vagaries of nature and vandalism- wanton or otherwise – caused by humans. 

1.2. The main characteristic of Indian art has been its remarkable unity and consistency. Though there were regional variations and individual styles, the works produced in diverse geographical and cultural regions shared certain common values, concepts and techniques. And, all those varied   manifestations were inspired by a common general principle. The regional idioms, nevertheless, contributed to the richness of Indian art, and their mutual influences gave birth to multi-faceted development of Indian art .

1.3.That was true not merely of the classical paintings but also of the art works and paintings created by the village craftsmen and artists. Since there never was a nodal body to preserve and develop art in India, it was the initiative, enterprise and imagination of those dedicated humble artists that kept alive the ancient traditions. Their exquisite themes inspired by life around them, painted in their homemade bright colors employing indigenous styles have enriched the cultural diversity of India.

1.4. Another significant feature of the ancient Indian art was its vision of life and its world view.
That inward vision and a sense of peace and tranquility are its hallmarks. The old paintings serve as a valuable record of the thoughts and aspirations of our ancients. These ancient arts present the world as a great harmony that blends seamlessly into the whole of creation. It recognizes the oneness that exists in all of us, in the animals, the flowers, the trees, the leaves and even in the breeze which moves the leaves. All that is seen as a manifestation of That One. 
2.1. Indian art is often classified as religious art, though not all Indian art is purely religious, and some of it is only nominally so. The impression was perhaps grafted by the contemplative imagery presented by the ancient Indian art. But, the art, in general, was inspired by life, by reflecting upon human concerns and aspirations; and celebrating and delighting in the life of this world.

2.2. Even the religious art is not sectarian. It is at once Hindu, Buddhist and Jain, for its style was a function of time and region and not of religion. Thus, it is not strictly correct to speak of Hindu or Buddhist art, but, rather, of Indian art that happened to render Hindu or Buddhist themes. For example, an image of Vishnu and an image of Buddha of the same period are stylistically the same, religion having little to do with the mode of artistic expression. 

2.3. The Indian art that rendered religious themes shared a common pool of symbols and avoided imitation of the physical and ephemeral world of the senses.For instance ,in all  the Hindu , Jaina and Buddhist themes , alike,   the Chakra - the revolving wheel of time symbolizes the cyclical rhythms of all existence;  the Padma - or the lotus embodies creation - that springs from the bosom of the earth; the Ananta (represented as a snake) symbolizes  water - the most important life-giving force from which all life emerges, evolves  and then resolves; the Swastika – represents  the four-fold aspects of creation ,motion and a sense of stability ; the Purnakalasha the over -flowing pot symbolized creativity and prosperity; the Kalpalata and Kalpavriksha -  the wish-fulfillment creeper symbolize  imagination and creativity; and ,  Mriga - or deer – symbolizes  desire and beauty.

Similarly there were common set of gestures (mudra) by position of  fingers, hands, limbs; and by stance of images in paintings and in sculptures.   These varied mudras made explicit the virtues such as wisdom, strength, generosity, kindness and caring etc.

The objects depicted in Indian art evoked an imagery or represented an idea that sprang from the mind. That might perhaps explain the relative absence of portraiture and even when it was attempted the emphasis was on the ideal person behind the human lineaments rather than on the physical likeness.
Another feature is the absence of the sculptures and other representations of rulers or rich patrons. And, hardly any sculpture or painting bears the signature or the name of its creator. That might again symbolize a move from particular to the universal. But , it surely baffled generations of historians.

3.1. Indian figurative art is therefore not mere portraiture of the specific; but is a symbol pointing to a larger principle. It is akin to the finger pointing to the moon. For instance the image or the painting of the Buddha could be seen as that of the Buddha the historical prince Siddhartha Gotama and Sakyamuni. But, it is more than that. The Buddha –figure is the embodiment of all the compassion, pathos and grace in absolute. Often, certain symbols surrounding the Buddha-image are meant to amplify its message. For instance, the idea of reverence and holiness could be represented sometimes by the surrounding vegetation, flora, fauna, yakshis, gandharvas, and apsaras each playing a specific role in building a totality; or it may be the single austere simple statement of the still centre of peace and enlightenment suggested through the symbols of the Buddha such as the Bodhi tree, seat, umbrella, sandals, footprints etc. 

The Buddha –image is , thus, at once particular and universal. The spirit and soul of the Buddha is contained in the body of the particular but impersonalized form;  the serene mood of compassion it portrays is everlasting and universal.

4.1. The earliest substantial specimens of Indian painting, that have survived, are the murals found in caves of Ajanta and in Kailashnath temple at Ellora. The Cave temples at Badami, in the Karnataka, and Sittanavasal, in Tamil Nadu too contain paintings of similar style. But, the most well –known of them all is the set of murals on the walls in Ajanta caves, probably of the early 6th and 7th centuries. It followed the golden age of the Guptas. They depict the tales of the Buddha in his previous births on his way to enlightenment. Bodhisattva Padmapani, the bearer of the Lotus is painted amidst playful monkeys and joyous musicians. Yet, amid all that activity, the Bodhisattva looks within in tranquil harmony. There is a sense of sublime peace that pervades this figure, which is one of the masterpieces of Indian art. And, on the ceilings of the caves are the illustrations of the teeming life of the world, its flowers and fruit, the animals of the world and mythical creatures. The murals also bring to life an innumerable variety of other persons such as princesses, maids, soldiers, guards, mendicants, merchants etc.

4.2.The artists of Ajanta, who created those valuable treasures of the art world, were the inheritors of an ancient tradition that painted and decorated palaces, temples and caves. The theories, principles and techniques followed by those artists came down to them through oral traditions bequeathed by a long line of artists spread over several generations. The artists of Ajanta   were also inspired and guided by the principles and techniques described in texts such as the Chitrasutra of the Vishnudharmottarra Purana, which attempted to preserve the ancient and pass it on in its purity to the subsequent generations.

5.1.That ancient treatise provided the artists a grammar to articulate their art expressions.Apart from describing the basic tenets of painting, Vishnudharmottara, literally, provided hundreds of details on the art and the techniques of painting. The Chitrasutra gave a framework of instructions and suggestions on the ways to prepare the walls and other surfaces that hold the murals; the preparation of colors and paints; appropriate choice of colors; different ways of shading; proportions and ratios to be maintained while painting different kinds of male and female figures according to their position and standing in the social strata and occupations; and the ingenious ways of introducing symbolism through plants , birds, animals, and other symbols; and so on. 

Main characteristics of the Ajanta paintings are the use of free flowing lines for delineating beautiful figures and their delicate inner feelings; together with use of shading different parts of the body to produce three dimensional effects in the images. The other was use of proper colors at times contrasting and at times matching to create magical effects. These were precisely the principles that Chitrasutra emphasized repeatedly.(explained in the next post)

5.2. Benoy K. Behl an art-historian, filmmaker and photographer who has written extensively on Ajanta art  explains the basic preparation of the surface for painting the mural was guided by the methods recommended in the Chitrasutra. He also explains that “The mural paintings of Ajanta are not frescoes, as they are sometimes mistakenly described, for they were not painted on wet lime plaster. These murals were executed with the use of a binding medium of glue applied to a thin coat of dried lime wash. Below this surface wash were two layers of plaster covering the stone walls. The first was a rough, thick layer of mud, mixed with rock-grit, vegetable fibers, grass and other materials; the second was a finer coat consisting of mud, rock dust or sand and finer vegetable fibers, which provided a smooth surface for the lime wash on which the paintings were made. 

The artist got his colors from the simple materials that were available in these hills. For his yellow and red he used ochre, for black he used lamp soot, for his white he used lime. Only for his blue he used lapis lazuli, which came from Afghanistan. These simple colors were blended to provide the numerous colors and subtle hues, which are seen in the Ajanta paintings. “


The Academy of Archeology & Sciences of Ancient India (A.A.S.A.I) observes “The technique adopted in preparing the ground and pigments were sound and in many places they have stood the test of time. But, in large number of cases, they are fast disappearing not due to the fault of the painter or his technique but due to external conditions like the structural problems, location problems and above all foolish and senseless vandalism.”

6.1. Chitrasutra paid enormous importance to the delicate painting of the soulful and expressive eyes that poured out the essence of the subject. It describes five basic types of eyes. The artist was told that the eyes are the windows to the soul; and it is through their eyes the figures in the painting open up their heart and speak eloquently to the viewer. The painting of the eyes called the “opening of the eyes” was therefore the final and most important detail to be painted. It was usually done in the guiding presence of the Master or was completed by the Master himself. It is not therefore surprising that the expressive set of eyes of the Ajanta tradition continue to influence generations of Indian artists.

7.1.The text clearly mentions that rules do not make the painting; but it is the artist with a soul and vision who creates the art expressions. The Chitrasutra aptly concludes with sagely observation: “In this treatise only the suggestions are given, oh king, for this subject can never be described in detail even in a hundred years. Whatever has not been said here should be inferred by other means...Painting is the best of all arts.”

7.2. The artists appeared to have taken full benefit of the liberty provided by the text. Shakti Maira a noted artist writes “I did not see the figures as having been rendered in a particularly formal way. Their proportions were usually off — head and upper torsos too long for the rest of the body, arms out of proportion with lower limbs, there was hardly any evidence that the strict rules of drawing in the Vishnudharmottara had been followed! What I saw was a powerful freedom and looseness in drawing, what we artists hope to achieve after we have learned all the rules of drawing. These illustrative images were free from formalism, and that is the strength of the expressed emotions and lavanya in this work.

For me, the reason why the Ajanta paintings are so great is that they did not get bogged down in the formalism of art making.

As an artist, I would urge you to experience the mysteries beyond cognitive intellect. Don't just try and understand the work, try also to experience it directly. That is where the real rasa is. “

Shri S Rajam's rendering of  Ramayana theme in Ajanta style

As I mentioned earlier , such  artistic freedom was  encouraged  by Chitrasutra of Vishnudharmottara,  which said, valuable as these various instructions are , they are derived from and  subservient to practice .He(artist) has the freedom to work according to his own intellect.

8. Let’s talk about the Chitrasutra of Vishnudharmottara, in a little more detail, in the next post.
Chitrasutra of Vishnudharmottara

Sources & References
Ajanta, the fountainhead
Ancient Indian Costume
A.A.S.A.I: Paintings Preservation
Ajanta: An artist's perspective






Suresh Rao / / 1 year ago
Suresh Rao

Dear Sreenivasarao

regarding, "I had to , therefore , re-post each of my blogs along with pictures copied from the original post. Do you think the pictures and fonts are clear and readable. Please let me know."

I have no problems in reading the blog or in deciphering the pics. Pics do give that authentic ancient look... so I like them this way!

regading... "BTW, Is this latest format on Rivr or is there a later (current ) one? Shri NK Ravi was mentioning about a new format"... I would not know. I am not part of Sulekha or Rivr Architecture or Management.

I have suggested to Satya in my response to his comment (where he thanks all writers & their cooperation in making Sulekha a success...) in my blog at- ... I responded that it is time he/Sulekha management invited bloggers again to talk about the reason Sulekha brought out Rivr which is very good in my opinion, as it gives space to both commercial and social writings; many youngsters including this Septuagenarian (!) like the 3-column Rivr page for all its portals; it is the latest trend in most online/digital news media today.]

sreenivasarao s / / 1 year ago
sreenivasarao s

Dear Shri Suresh Rao , Thank you for the visit.

As you can see , this was posted initially about five years ago in the then existing format.

Then , with the advent of Rivr , the fonts , sizes , alignment, and pictures of all my blogs went haywire . It became virtually un-readable. And , some of my posts and comments went missing on Rivr.

I had to , therefore , re-post each of my blogs along with pictures copied from the original post. Do you think the pictures and fonts are clear and readable. Please let me know.

( In the mean time , in order to just protect and preserve my blogs from the erratic Rivr, I posted all of them on WordPress . Please check the link : )

BTW, Is this latest format on Rivr or is there a later (current ) one? Shri NK Ravi was mentioning about a new format.

Please check the other articles in the series and kindly let me know. I shall be grateful.



Suresh Rao / / 1 year ago
Suresh Rao


This has come out very well. Were all the pictures posted in digital format before you posted them here? Reason I ask is to know whether some what blurry art is because of antiquity (being ancient source) or whether because of some scan copy and paste.

sreenivasarao s / / 1 year ago
sreenivasarao s

Dear Sheamus , Thank you . You are most welcome.
Please also read the other articles in the series.

sreenivasarao s / / 6 yrs ago
sreenivasarao s

dear riverine, i am delighted you read. i miss you on sulekha. you were my initial guide and advisor; and helped me to navigate around the mysteries of the blog-world. thank you.

the article you just read was by way of introduction to chitrasutra. the second article outlines certain concepts and theories of painting, perhaps, as they existed in around 6-7th century. the other articles deal with specific subjects like the proportions, colors and visualization etc .please check them too.

yes, what you said of the temple at penang is true; it was influenced by thai .the temples at thailand have themselves an interesting history. they were an amalgam of hindu- buddhist influences. and, both traditions followed the same set of texts in chitra, shilpa and natya. (please read my posts on natya-shastra and its commentary abhinavabharathi). another reason is that the hindu and buddhists entered those regions almost at the same time; and their growth too was parallel.

an interesting feature of the architectural development in south east was that while the masters, their theories and practices were indian, a number of artisans were locals trained by indian masters. that is reason, i think, while the themes were from indian mythologies, the treatment of flora, fauna as also the forms and figures of persons remained rooted in the local soil.

the indian influence in thailand  was both direct and indirect. the latter was through khmer empire of cambodia of which thailand was a part. the earlier thai temples (say, at raj-buri, chanta-buri and kedah etc.) followed the gupta and pallava styles of architecture. it was during the 11th century that thai art gained its typical  form for depiction of human and other figures. some of its best portraitures of the buddha and vishnu came about during the late 14th century. this influence spread to sukhothai bronze statues too.

thank you for your patience.


sreenivasarao s / / 6 yrs ago
sreenivasarao s

dear indu, thank you for the visit. i am glad you read. the other five articles are already posted. please check them too. regards

Indu3 / / 6 yrs ago

very delightful and inspirational narration.

i enjoyed the beautiful presentation.

will be looking fw to the other articles.


sreenivasarao s / / 6 yrs ago
sreenivasarao s

dear shri palahali,

thank you for reading. you might find answers to some of your questions as you read along.

as regards the ajanta, all the artists were not monks. the concepts and practices discussed in vishnudharmottara applied to all practitioners of shilpa and chitra. the ajanta art too was guided by chitrasutra; and it is one of the few art works of that age to have survived.

please keep talking.



palahali / / 6 yrs ago


finally managed to read it. as i read along i wondered whether there were rigid rules (like the ones reg plays by bharata , i think) but you answered it in the end. i will go to read the other parts but i would like to know about the interest of common people in this art. kings obviously patronized painters. also ajanta is supposed to have been painted by only monks. is it true ?regards

sreenivasarao s / / 6 yrs ago
sreenivasarao s

dear shri gopal,

i am glad you read; and delighted you liked it.

yes, what you said about guilds in europe is very true. in the indian context there were no organized guilds per se, particularly in the field of crafts. but the art was transmitted from generation to generations in oral traditions. the learners were younger members of the family or disciples. these persuasions were generally caste based; and they were scattered, because a rural community could support only a limited number of them.

i have posted the second one in the series. it discusses the text of the vishnudharmottara; and certain of its concepts and principles. in the articles to follow thereafter, i hope to discuss the particular aspects such as the delineation of the figure, colors, shades, symbolisms etc. it might at times get heavy and technical , i fear.

kindly read the rest and let me know if it made sense.

thank you.


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