Vedic Art: Indian Miniature Painting


Mamaki with Vajra on Lotus
Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Manuscript
Pala School, late 11th c.

Dec 01, 2016 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial presentation of India's artistic legacy in devotional paintings, sculpture and temple architecture.

Today we begin a summary study of the broad landscape of Vedic fine arts, including painting, sculpture and temple architecture. Drawing on various monographs from the Archeological Survey of India and the Indian Government's Ministry of Culture, we will illustrate the series with the finest examples we can find in the Sun archives, in each category of art and architecture.

11th to 12th Centuries

The earliest examples of miniature painting in India exist in the form of illustrations to the religious texts on Buddhism executed under the Palas of Eastern India and the Jain texts executed in Western India during the 11th-12th centuries A.D. The Pala period (750 A.D. to the middle of the 12th century) witnessed the last great phase of Buddhism and of the Buddhist art in India.

The Buddhist monasteries (mahaviharas) of Nalanda, Odantapuri, Vikramsila and Somarupa were great centres of Buddhist learning and art. A large number of manuscripts on palm-leaf relating to the Buddhist themes were written and illustrated with the images of Buddhist deities at these centers, which also had workshops for the casting of bronze images. Students and pilgrims from all over Southeast Asia gathered there for education and religious instruction. They took back to their countries examples of Pala Buddhist art, in the form of bronzes and manuscripts which helped to carry the Pala style to Nepal, Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka and Java, etc. Surviving examples of the Pala illustrated manuscripts mostly belong to the Vajrayana School of Buddhism.

The Pala painting school is characterised by sinuous line and subdued tones of colour. It is a naturalistic style which resembles the ideal forms of contemporary bronze and stone sculpture, and reflects some feeling of the classical art of Ajanta. A fine example of the typical Buddhist palm-leaf manuscript illustrated in the Pala style exists in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, England. It is a manuscript of the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita, or the perfection of Wisdom written in eight thousand lines. It was executed at the monastery of Nalanda in the fifteenth year of the reign of the Pala King, Ramapala, in the last quarter of the eleventh century. The manuscript has illustrations on six pages and also on the insides of both wooden covers.

The Pala art came to a sudden end after the destruction of the Buddhist monasteries at the hands of Muslim invaders in the first half of the 13th century. Some of the monks and artists escaped and fled to Nepal, which helped in reinforcing the existing art traditions there.

Pala Period Manuscript, Rajshai Museum, Bangladesh

In the evolution of Pala painting at least two distinctive stylistic phases can be clearly marked. The first one includes the paintings of the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, as noted in the manuscripts of the reigns of Mahipala I (c 995-1043 AD) and Nayapala (c 1043-1058 AD), while the second phase is represented by those of the reign of Rampala (c 1082-1124 AD) and his successors, that is to say, the late 11th to the end of the 12th centuries. The style of the first phase is found to be closely linked with that of classical Ajanta.

Whether in composition or colour scheme, modelling of forms or rhythmic flowing line, the Pala miniature of this phase emulated the ideals of Ajanta murals, though in slightly diluted form. From the discovery of some fragments of Pala mural paintings in an excavated Buddhist shrine at Nalanda it is now evident that murals were also executed in the period.

In the second phase, two different aesthetic visions appear to have flourished simultaneously. The more dominant of the two was that found in the miniatures associated with Ramapala and Govindapala, one of his successors. The miniatures of this trend show, not unlike contemporary sculpture, voluptuous figures, especially in representing female deities, with colours more saturated in character. These characteristics are also manifested in the paintings of a manuscript of Astasahasrika-Prajnaparamita (pictured above) prepared in the 19th regnal year of the Varman King Harivarmadeva (c 1073-1127 AD) of southeast Bangladesh. This manuscript is now preserved at the Varendra Research Museum at Rajshahi. But the paintings of the Panchavingshatisahasrika-Prajnaparamita, completed in the 8th regnal year of the same king, and now in the collection of Baroda Museum in India, represent quite a different style.

The two-dimensionally conceived figures of the manuscript are delineated in flat colours and delicately nervous lines. They show sensitive fingers, angular limbs, and eyes extended beyond their normal proportions, indicating features of the 'medieval style', which first appeared in the wall paintings of the Elora caves and matured in western India in the Jain manuscript paintings from about the twelfth century. Eastern India witnessed the presence of the style in a few copper plate drawings of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Though some of the Pala miniatures show this medieval trend, it was never a dominant style, as in Western India. But two Buddhist manuscripts, both retrieved from Bihar and of as late a period as the fifteenth century, exhibit paintings of the medieval style albeit in a fragile expression.

Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita Manuscript
Pala School, early 12th c., West Bengal/Bangladesh

Most painted manuscripts of the Pala period are of the authentic Mahayanist Buddhist text, Astasahasrika-Prajnaparamita. The other manuscripts with paintings are of the Vajrayanist cult, namely, Pancharaksa, Karandavyuha, Kalachakrayana-tantra, etc. What is extremely interesting is that there is no thematic connection between the texts and their paintings. The paintings are not the illustrations of the texts of the manuscripts. They are, on the contrary, independent of the content of the texts and, as such, autonomous in the selection of their forms. Irrespective of the texts, the subjects treated in paintings are chiefly from the life of the Gautam Buddha, and depict the events known as his miracles.

The theology preached by the Prajnaparamita text is found to glorify the nature of the perfect knowledge and its proper application for mankind as well as all living beings. For this liberal humanist viewpoint, the Prajnaparamita text was recited in almost all religious functions of Bengali Buddhists. The prestige of the text became so enormous that the votaries of Buddhism worshipped its manuscripts. In fact, many of the Astasahasrika-Prajnaparamita texts bear the marks of sandal paste and incense.

Moreover, in the text it has been repeatedly mentioned that copying of the text is itself a pious act. A terracotta plaque recently discovered from a monastic site at Jagjivanpur (Malda, West Bengal), shows a manuscript, most likely of the Prajnaparamita, placed on a lotus as an object of worship. The representation of Tantric Buddhist deities in miniature in the text is possibly another reason of the paramount position held by it.

Bengal was the most powerful centre of Mahayana Buddhism in India from the 8th to 12th century AD; and from here the faith spread to different countries - Nepal and Tibet in the north and Myanmar and Thailand in the east. Along with the monks the manuscripts also went to these places resulting in the wide dissemination of the Pala style of painting. In the late 12th and early 13th century, many Buddhists migrated to neighbouring countries with manuscripts and small bronze images. In the following centuries the Pala art style further developed in those foreign lands. In fact, to have a total view of the Pala miniature style it is essential to take into consideration the painted manuscripts of Nepal.


Ministry of Culture, Government of India
Sarasikumar Saraswati, Palyuger Chitrakala, Calcutta, 1978
Jeremiah P Losty, The Art of the Book in India, London, 1982
Asok Bhattacharya, Banglar Chitrakala (Bengali), Calcutta, 1994
Claudine Bautze-Picron, 'Buddhist Painting During the Reign of Harivarmadeva in Southeast Bangladesh', Journal of Bengal Art, 1999


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