Mural Paintings – UPSC Notes – Art and Culture

Mural paintings are artworks painted on the walls of caves and palaces in India. The exquisite frescoes painted on the caves of Ajanta and Ellora, as well as the Bagh caves and Sittanvasal, are the earliest evidence of murals.

Mural Paintings – Historical Overview

  • Spanning from the 2nd century BC to the 8th-10th century AD, Indian mural painting boasts a rich and extensive history.
  • These murals, showcasing distinct techniques, are scattered across over 20 locations in India, predominantly within natural caves and rock-cut chambers.
  • Each time period has contributed to varied mural painting styles, a focus this page aims to elucidate.

These captivating artworks have been unearthed in numerous locations across India, with notable examples including:

  • Ajanta
  • Armamalai Cave
  • Ravan Chhaya Rock Shelter
  • Bagh caverns
  • Sittanavasal caves
  • Kailasanatha temple in Ellora

The beauty and intricacy of these mural paintings are exemplified in these diverse sites, where the majority of the artworks are housed within natural caves or rock-cut chambers.

Mural Paintings Features

  • Mural paintings stand apart from other graphic art forms due to their unique characteristics.
  • Their sheer enormity sets them apart, being too vast to fit on conventional paper, necessitating the use of large structures like caverns and temples as their canvas.
  • Major themes in Mural Paintings often revolve around Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
  • The intrinsic relationship between murals and architecture, coupled with their broad public importance, distinguishes them from other art forms.
  • Indian murals exhibit expressive practicality, with the use of color, design, and themes capable of significantly influencing the perception of a building’s spatial dimensions.
  • Unlike other art forms, Mural Paintings are inherently three-dimensional, actively altering and sharing space.
  • Ancient Indian mural painters utilized natural resources like terracotta, chalk, red ochre, and yellow ochre mixed with animal fat to create vivid color pigments.
  • Subjects depicted in these murals include human and animal figures, hunting scenes, family life, court scenarios, deities, and stories from the Buddhist ‘Jataka.’
  • Executed by skilled hands and keen eyes, these paintings reflect the artistic prowess of ancient craftsmen.

Mural Paintings Ajanta Cave Paintings

  • The Ajanta caves, housing some of the oldest murals on the Indian subcontinent, were carved out of volcanic rocks in the 4th century AD.
  • Comprising 29 caves arranged in a horseshoe shape, these caves are renowned for their stunning mural paintings.
  • Created over four to five centuries during the rule of the Mauryan Empire, the murals in caves 9 and 10 represent the Sunga period, while the rest signify the Gupta period.
  • The most recent cave paintings can be found in caverns 1 and 2, showcasing murals and frescoes painted on wet plaster in the tempera style.
  • These paintings depict human ideals, social fabric, period styles, clothing, accessories, and emotions conveyed through hand gestures.
  • Each female figure in the paintings is distinguished by a unique hairstyle, while even animals and birds are portrayed with emotions.
  • Themes range from Jataka stories to Buddha’s life and intricate decorative patterns of flora and fauna.
  • The walls of the caves feature graceful human and animal positions, with vegetable and mineral dyes used as the painting medium.

Notable Mural Paintings:

  • Scenes from Jataka stories portraying Buddha’s previous lives as a bodhisattva.
  • Cave No. 16 showcases “The Dying Princess.”
  • The Shibi Jataka depicts King Shibi sacrificing his flesh to save a pigeon.
Mural Paintings - Ajanta Mural Painting

Mural Paintings Ellora Cave Paintings

  • Mural paintings in the Ellora caves are found in five caverns, with the Kailasa temple being the most famous.
  • These murals underwent two phases – the first during the carving of the caverns and the second millennia later.
  • In older artwork, scenes depict Vishnu and Lakshmi being carried into the sky by Garuda, the celestial bird. Subsequent paintings feature a procession of Shaiva holy men in Gujarati style.
  • Artworks at Ellora represent all three religions – Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism.
  • Among the famous Ellora cave paintings are images of Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Vishnu.
  • Other examples include depictions of Lord Shiva surrounded by his devotees and Apsaras.
Mural Paintings - Ellora Cave Painting

Mural PaintingsSittanavasal Cave (Arivar Koil) Paintings

  • The murals at Sittanavasal Cave, also known as Arivar Koil, exhibit a striking resemblance to paintings from Bagh and Ajanta. Notably, the artwork extends beyond the walls to include the ceiling and pillars.
  • Focused on the Jain Samavasarana subject (Preaching hall), these paintings are believed by some academics to date from the Pallava period, attributed to King Mahendravarman I’s excavation. Others contend they may date from the 7th century when the Pandya ruler rebuilt the shrine.
  • Utilizing vegetable and mineral colors on a thin layer of wet lime plaster, prevalent colors include yellow, green, orange, blue, black, and white.
  • The paintings prominently feature a pond with lotuses, serving as the focal point. Monks collecting flowers, accompanied by ducks, swans, fish, and other creatures, depict the scene of Samavasarana, a crucial Jain religious subject.
  • In the Jain tradition, Tirthankaras, after attaining realization, delivered sermons in Samavasarana, a magnificent audience hall known for kevala-jnana (absolute knowledge). The paintings capture a spectacle where bulls, elephants, apsaras, and gods join the audience hall in celebration.
Mural Paintings - Sittanavasal Cave (Arivar Koil) Painting

Mural PaintingsBagh Cave Paintings

  • The Bagh caves in Madhya Pradesh serve as an extension of the Ajanta school, showcasing remarkable work comparable to the design, execution, and ornamentation found in the Ajanta caves.
  • Distinguishing themselves, the figures in Bagh caves are more neatly modeled, possess sharper contours, and exhibit a more terrestrial and human appearance.
  • Noteworthy is Cave No. 4, known as Rang Mahal, which displays exquisite murals on its walls depicting Buddhist and Jataka tales, akin to those found in Ajanta.
  • Despite the current sparse and deteriorated state of these paintings, they reflect religious themes intertwined with the everyday lives of people, contributing to their secular appeal.
Mural Paintings - Bagh Cave Paintings

Mural PaintingsArmamalai Cave Paintings

  • Situated in the Vellore region of Tamil Nadu, the Armamalai natural caves underwent transformation into a Jain temple during the 8th century.
  • Inside the cave, unbaked mud structures served as resting spots for Jain saints, preserving a historical and spiritual atmosphere.
  • The walls and roof of the cave boast stunning and colorful murals depicting tales of the Astathik Palakas (deities defending eight corners) and narratives from the Jainism tradition.
Mural Paintings - Bagh Cave Paintings

Mural Paintings – Ravan Chhaya Rock Shelter

  • Located in the Keonjhar district of Odisha, the Ravan Chhaya Rock Shelter features ancient fresco paintings shaped like a half-opened umbrella.
  • Presumed to have functioned as a royal hunting lodge, the most remarkable painting within the shelter portrays a royal procession, dating back to the 7th century.
  • Notably, the site holds significant relics of Chola-era paintings from the eleventh century, adding to its historical and artistic importance.
Mural Paintings - Ravan Chhaya Rock Shelter Painting

Mural Paintings – Lepakshi Paintings

  • Executed on the walls of the Veerabhadra temple in Lepakshi during the 16th century, these mural paintings are situated in the Anantapur region of Andhra Pradesh.
  • Originating from the Vijayanagara period, these paintings revolve around a religious theme, focusing on narratives from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Vishnu’s incarnations. Notably, primary colors, particularly blue, are conspicuously absent from the artwork.
  • A noticeable decline in painting quality is evident, with black used for outlining forms, figures, and details of costumes, marking a shift in artistic technique.
Mural Paintings - Lepakshi Paintings

Mural Paintings – Jogimara Cave Paintings

  • An artificially created cave situated in Chattisgarh’s Surguja district, dating approximately from 1000-300 BC, preserves a narrative through paintings and inscriptions in the Brahmi script, depicting a love story.
  • Considered an addition to the amphitheater, the cave is adorned with paintings, featuring dancing couples alongside depictions of creatures like elephants and fish.
  • The paintings exhibit a bold red outline, complemented by the use of white, yellow, and black among other colors. Adjacent to the cave is Sitabenga’s rock-cut theatre.
Mural Paintings - Jogimara Cave Paintings

Mural Paintings – Badami Murals

  • Exemplifying a later mural tradition, this site is situated in the capital of the western Chalukyan dynasty, Badami, which governed the region from 543 until 598 CE.
  • The Badami caves were excavated under the patronage of Chalukya king Mangalesha, the younger son of Pulakesi I and the brother of Kirtivarman I.
  • Known as the Vishnu Cave (Cave No. 4) due to the dedication to Vishnu, the cave’s carving is dated to the years 578–579 CE, revealing both the period of carving and the patron’s Vaishnava inclinations.
  • The murals portray palace scenes, featuring Kirtivarman seated in the palace, enjoying a dance scene with his wife and feudatories.
  • These paintings continue the mural painting tradition in south India, extending from Ajanta to Badami. The artistic style echoes Ajanta’s modeling, with characteristics like wide eye sockets, half-closed eyes, and protruding lips.
  • Notably, artists in the 6th century CE achieved volume by contouring different regions of the face, creating projecting structures within the facial features.
Mural Paintings - Badami Murals

Mural Paintings under Pallavas

  • Following the Chalukyas, the Pallavas assumed control further south in Tamil Nadu.
  • Renowned for their generosity as arts patrons, they commissioned the construction of numerous temples under the rule of Mahendravarman I in the 7th century, including those in Panamalai, Mandagapattu, and Kanchipuram.
  • King Mahendravarman I earned various titles, such as Vichitra Chitta (curious-minded), Chattakari (temple-builder), and Chitrakar Puli (tiger among artists), reflecting his keen interest in artistic pursuits, as evidenced in inscriptions at Mandagapattu.
  • Rajasimha, another Pallava ruler, notably supported mural paintings at the temple in Kanchipuram. Only fragments of a painting of Somaskanda remain, featuring a colossal, round face.
  • This phase of Pallava murals exhibits increased decoration compared to the previous period. While the torso is depicted similarly, it appears slightly enlarged.

Mural Paintings under Pandyas

  • The Pandyas were notable patrons of the arts, leaving a rich legacy in Tamil Nadu.
  • Two prominent examples of their artistic support are the Thirumalapuram caverns and Sittanavasal Jaina caves.
  • Paintings grace the shrine’s ceilings, verandas, and brackets, showcasing a vibrant array of artistic expression.
  • Noteworthy elements include depictions of dancing celestial nymphs, with bodies colored in yellow and contours in vermillion red.
  • The dancers portrayed in these murals exhibit expressive faces and supple limbs. A distinctive feature is the elongated eyes that occasionally protrude from their faces, a characteristic element seen in many later Deccan and South Indian paintings.

Mural Paintings under Cholas

  • Dominating the region from the 9th through the 13th century CE, the Cholas held a prominent position in the South Indian cultural landscape.
  • Reaching their pinnacle in the 11th century CE, the Cholas produced remarkable masterpieces during this era.
  • Iconic structures like the Brihadeswara Temple at Thanjavur, Gangaikonda Cholapuram, and Darasuram were erected under the reign of Rajaraja Chola and his son Rajendra Chola.
  • Narthamalai serves as a repository of Chola paintings, with the most significant ones housed in the Brihadeswara Temple.
  • The paintings reveal two visible layers of paint, with the upper layer completed during the Nayaka period in the 16th century.
  • Chola murals depict narratives and various manifestations of Lord Shiva, including representations of Shiva in Kailash, Shiva as Nataraja, and Shiva as Tripurantaka.
  • Notably, there is a painting featuring Rajaraja, his tutor Kuruvar, and other items within this rich artistic tradition.

Vijayanagara Mural Paintings

  • Following the decline of the Cholas, the Vijayanagara Dynasty rose to prominence, securing control from Hampi to Trichy.
  • The capital of this dynasty was situated in Hampi, marking a significant cultural and artistic era.
  • Murals from the 14th century in locations like Thiruparankundram, near Trichy, offer insights into the early stages of the Vijayanagara style.
  • Notably, the Mandapa’s ceilings are adorned with paintings, depicting events from dynastic history and narratives from the Mahabharata and Ramayana.
  • Various scenes, including those depicting Vidyaranya, Bukkaraya Harsha’s spiritual teacher being carried in a palanquin in a parade, and Vishnu incarnations, showcase the diversity of subjects in Vijayanagara murals.
  • These paintings present profiles of people and objects, characterized by large frontal eyes and slender waists. The Shiva Temple in Lepakshi, Andhra Pradesh, also features murals as part of the Vijayanagara artistic legacy.
  • Vijayanagara paintings are known for their combination of still but flexible lines, and faces are often portrayed from a side view, contributing to the distinctive style of this period.

Naayaka Mural Paintings

  • Building upon the Vijayanagara styles, the artistic legacy extended into the Nayaka period.
  • Locations such as Thiruparankundram, Srirangam, and Tiruvarur showcase the continuation of Vijayanagara influence in Nayaka murals.
  • Nayaka paintings depict episodes from renowned epics like the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Krishna Leela, providing a rich narrative visual.
  • Thiruparankundram boasts paintings from the 14th to the 17th centuries, offering a span of artistic expression during the Nayaka era.
  • Scenes from Mahavira’s life find representation in 14th-century Nayaka paintings, adding a dimension of religious diversity.
  • A captivating panel in Tiruvarur narrates the story of Muchukunda, contributing to the variety of themes depicted in Nayaka murals.
  • The Ramayana is vividly portrayed in 60 panels at the Sri Krishna Temple in Chengam, Arcot, showcasing the breadth of storytelling through Nayaka art.
  • Male figures in Nayaka murals are often characterized by thin waists and lighter abdomens, reflecting a distinctive aesthetic choice.
  • An excellent example of Nayaka art is seen in the painting of Nataraja at Thiruvalanjuli, exemplifying the artistic prowess of this period.

Kerala Mural Paintings

  • This distinctive style incorporates elements from both the Nayaka and Vijayanagara traditions.
  • Artists found inspiration in the vibrant Kathakali and Kalam Ezhuthu traditions prevalent in the region.
  • Human figures are skillfully rendered in three dimensions, utilizing a palette of vivid and vibrant colors.
  • These murals adorn the walls of shrines, temple cloisters, and palace walls, showcasing the versatility of this art form.
  • Subjects depicted range from common Hindu mythology to localized interpretations of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as captivating oral tales.
  • Notable locations featuring these mural paintings include the Dutch Palace in Kochi, Krishnapuram Palace in Kayamkulam, and Padmanabhapuram Palace in Padmanabhapuram (Travancore, now in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu).
  • Additional examples can be found in the Panayannarkavu temple in Pundareekapuram, Thrikodithanam Sri Rama temple in Thrikodithanam, and Vadakkunnathan temple in Thrissur, exemplifying the widespread presence of Kerala murals in various cultural and religious settings.

Related Posts:

Chapter 1Indus Civilization Sculpture
Chapter 2Buddhist Sculpture
Chapter 3Gupta Sculpture

Sculpture in India – UPSC

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FAQs on Mural Paintings

  1. What is meant by mural painting?
    • A mural is an ancient form of artwork that involves painting directly onto a wall or ceiling surface. The term can also include paintings on fired tiles but typically excludes mosaic decorations unless they are part of the overall image scheme.
  2. Which is known as mural painting?
    • Indian Mural Paintings refer to artworks created on the walls of caves and palaces. Examples include the frescoes on the caves of Ajanta and Ellora, the Bagh caves, and Sittanvasal cave.
  3. What is the difference between wall painting and mural?
    • The key distinction lies in size and context. A painting is generally an illustration or artwork using various types of paint, while a mural is a large painting, often on a wall. The term “mural” originates from the Latin word “murus,” meaning wall.
  4. What is a mural painting for UPSC?
    • A mural, in the context of UPSC, refers to any piece of artwork painted or applied directly on a wall, ceiling, or other permanent surfaces. Mural painting often incorporates the architectural elements of the given space into the artwork.
  5. In which state is mural painting famous?
    • Mural paintings are notably famous in the state of Odisha. The Osakothi form of mural painting in Odisha showcases rich and meaningful art. Additionally, prehistoric rock cave paintings in states like Mirzapur, Bhimbetka, and Jhiri can be considered the origins of these paintings.
  6. Who created mural art?
    • The term “mural” gained prominence with the Mexican muralism art movement, led by artists such as Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Orozco. One of the earliest 20th-century murals is “El árbol de la vida” by Roberto Montenegro. Mural art has since evolved with various styles and techniques.

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