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Ancient Indian Paintings

Ancient Indian Paintings


Ancient Indian paintings, dating back thousands of years, encapsulate the rich artistic traditions and cultural heritage of the Indian subcontinent. From the vibrant murals of ancient cave dwellings to the intricate miniature paintings adorning royal courts, the evolution of Indian painting reflects the diverse influences, spiritual depth, and artistic mastery that have shaped this extraordinary artistic journey. In exploring ancient Indian paintings, we embark on a visual odyssey that unveils the expressions of creativity, religious devotion, and storytelling that have left an indelible mark on the canvas of India’s artistic legacy.

Evolution of prehistoric paintings

The evolution of prehistoric paintings offers a fascinating glimpse into the early expressions of human creativity and communication. While the earliest forms of prehistoric art date back tens of thousands of years, the primary phases of its evolution include:

Paleolithic Period (Approx. 2.5 million – 10,000 BCE):
  • Rock Art: Predominantly found in caves and rock shelters, Paleolithic art includes intricate paintings, drawings, and engravings depicting animals, handprints, and symbolic motifs.
  • Portable Art: Small sculptures and carvings made from bone, ivory, or stone emerged, reflecting a mobile lifestyle and the use of art for personal adornment or ritualistic purposes.
Mesolithic Period (Approx. 10,000 – 8,000 BCE):
  • Transition to Neolithic: As societies transitioned to settled agricultural lifestyles, art began to incorporate more human figures and scenes reflecting daily life.
  • Increased Symbolism: Abstract and geometric symbols gained significance, possibly indicative of early forms of language or spiritual beliefs.
Neolithic Period (Approx. 8,000 – 2,000 BCE):
  • Agricultural Themes: Art increasingly depicted agricultural activities, domesticated animals, and fertility symbols, reflecting the shift to settled farming communities.
  • Ceramic Art: The development of pottery led to the creation of decorated vessels, often featuring intricate designs and patterns.
Chalcolithic Period (Approx. 3,300 – 1,700 BCE):
  • Metalworking: The advent of metal tools and implements influenced art, with metal objects often featuring symbolic designs.
  • Proto-Writing: Some cultures developed symbols that are considered precursors to writing systems, suggesting a more complex form of communication.
Bronze Age (Approx. 3,300 – 1,200 BCE):
  • Metal Artwork: Bronze tools and sculptures became prominent, showcasing advanced metallurgical techniques.
  • Urbanization and Complex Societies: Art reflected the rise of urban centers, with monumental sculptures and architectural decorations becoming more elaborate.

The evolution of prehistoric paintings mirrors the cultural, social, and technological changes experienced by early human societies. From simple depictions on cave walls to the emergence of more sophisticated forms of art, prehistoric paintings serve as invaluable records of our ancestors’ evolving ways of life, beliefs, and artistic expression.

Mural  & Cave Paintings

Ajanta Cave

  • Location: Ajanta Caves are situated in Maharashtra, India.
  • Time Period: The paintings date back to the 2nd century BCE to the 6th century CE.
  • Subject Matter: Primarily depict scenes from the life of Buddha, Jataka tales, and various celestial beings.
  • Style: Represent a unique blend of Indian and foreign artistic traditions, showcasing exquisite use of color, form, and symbolism.
  • Technique: Executed in the fresco style, with pigments applied to wet plaster, allowing for vibrant and enduring colors.
  • Themes: Religious and secular, including courtly life, nature, and everyday activities.
  • Cave Numbering: Divided into two phases – the early Hinayana phase (Caves 9, 10, 12-26) and the later Mahayana phase (Caves 1-8, 27-29).
  • Discovery: Rediscovered in the 19th century by a British officer, Lieutenant John Smith.
  • UNESCO World Heritage Site: Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural and historical significance.

The Ajanta paintings are celebrated for their contribution to Indian art history and their portrayal of the religious and cultural life of ancient India.

Bagh cave Paintings

  • Location: Bagh Caves are located in the Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh, India.
  • Time Period: Paintings date back to the 5th to 6th centuries CE, belonging to the Gupta period.
  • Subject Matter: Primarily depict scenes from the life of Buddha, Jataka tales, and other Buddhist themes.
  • Style: Follow the tradition of ancient Indian mural paintings, characterized by the use of vibrant colors and attention to detail.
  • Technique: Executed in the fresco style, with pigments applied to wet lime plaster.
  • Cave Numbering: Comprises nine caves, numbered from east to west, with Cave 4 being the most renowned.
  • Discovery: Discovered in 1867 by Captain Dangerfield, a British officer.
  • Themes: Reflect a synthesis of both Hindu and Buddhist artistic traditions, showcasing the cultural amalgamation of the era.
  • Conservation: Efforts have been made to preserve and protect the Bagh Cave Paintings due to their historical and artistic significance.

Ellora Paintings

  • Location: Ellora Caves are situated in Maharashtra, India.
  • Time Period: Paintings span multiple centuries, with the caves dating from the 6th to 9th centuries CE.
  • Subject Matter: Mainly religious themes, depicting scenes from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
  • Style: Varied due to the diverse religious affiliations of the caves; feature elements of classical Indian art.
  • Technique: Executed in the fresco style, with pigments applied to wet plaster, showcasing intricate detailing.
  • Cave Numbering: Consists of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain caves, with notable ones being Kailash, Dashavatara, and Jain Caves.
  • Kailash Temple: Cave 16, known as the Kailash Temple, is a remarkable monolithic structure with intricate carvings and sculptures.
  • Multireligious Site: Represents a unique integration of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religious art in one complex.
  • UNESCO World Heritage Site: Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural and historical significance.
  • Architectural Marvel: Known for its grand architecture, structural innovation, and the combination of rock-cut architecture with paintings and sculptures.

Badami cave paintings

  • Location: Badami Caves are located in the town of Badami in Karnataka, India.
  • Time Period: Paintings belong to the 6th to 7th centuries CE, reflecting the Chalukya dynasty’s reign.
  • Subject Matter: Mainly religious themes, featuring Hindu deities, along with secular scenes.
  • Style: Follows the traditional Indian fresco style, with vivid colors and detailed compositions.
  • Technique: Executed in fresco style, using pigments applied to wet plaster on the cave walls.
  • Cave Numbering: Comprises four main caves, carved out of sandstone cliffs, with Cave 1 dedicated to Lord Shiva, Cave 2 to Lord Vishnu, Cave 3 to Lord Vishnu and Mahavira, and Cave 4 to various forms of Vishnu.
  • Narrative Panels: Showcase mythological stories, including scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
  • Influence: Blend of North Indian and Deccan styles, reflecting the cultural diversity of the region.
  • Rock-cut Architecture: Known for its remarkable rock-cut architecture, combining intricate carvings with paintings.

Sittanavasal Paintings

  • Location: Sittanavasal, located in Tamil Nadu, India.
  • Time Period: Paintings date back to the 7th century CE, belonging to the Pandyan period.
  • Subject Matter: Primarily depict Jaina themes, showcasing Tirthankaras, yakshis, and other Jain deities.
  • Style: Exemplifies the fresco style, characterized by bright colors and detailed execution.
  • Technique: Executed on a rock shelter surface, with pigments applied to the prepared plaster.
  • Cave Numbering: The main cave, known as the Adivaraha Perumal Cave, features the celebrated frescoes.
  • Themes: Illustrate scenes from Jain mythology, daily life, and activities associated with the Jain community.
  • Significance: Considered one of the finest examples of ancient Jain art and a significant archaeological site.
  • Preservation: Efforts have been made to protect and conserve the delicate Sittanavasal Paintings due to their cultural and historical value.
  • Influence: Reflects the artistic and cultural influence of the Jain community in the region during the Pandyan rule.

Nayaka Paintings

  • Time Period: Flourished during the Nayaka rule in South India, mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries.
  • Subject Matter: Predominantly Hindu themes, including depictions of deities, royal courts, and daily life.
  • Style: Characterized by bright colors, intricate details, and a blend of indigenous and Vijayanagara styles.
  • Medium: Employed diverse mediums, including wall murals, manuscript illustrations, and paintings on wooden panels.
  • Influence: Derived from the artistic traditions of the Vijayanagara Empire, with innovations in composition and expression.
  • Patronage: Received patronage from Nayaka rulers, leading to the creation of exquisite murals in temples and palaces.
  • Temple Murals: Adorned the walls of temples in regions like Madurai, depicting episodes from Hindu epics and mythology.
  • Themes: Varied, encompassing religious narratives, courtly scenes, and depictions of social life.
  • Cultural Synthesis: Represented a cultural synthesis of indigenous traditions with the artistic legacy of the Vijayanagara Empire.
  • Legacy: Contributed significantly to the artistic heritage of South India, showcasing a unique blend of regional and imperial influences.

Kerala Murals Paintings

  • Time Period: Flourished in Kerala from the 9th century CE onwards.
  • Subject Matter: Primarily Hindu religious themes, with a focus on episodes from epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
  • Style: Characterized by intricate details, vibrant colors, and a distinctive iconography.
  • Medium: Executed on the walls of temples and palaces, often using natural pigments.
  • Influence: Draws from indigenous Kerala traditions, but also influenced by the broader South Indian artistic styles.
  • Temple Murals: Adorn the interiors of ancient temples in Kerala, such as the Padmanabhapuram Palace and Mattancherry Palace.
  • Themes: Include depictions of gods and goddesses, celestial beings, and scenes from the lives of saints and rulers.
  • Purpose: Served both religious and decorative purposes, enhancing the spiritual atmosphere of the temples.
  • Preservation Challenges: Faced challenges due to factors like climate, humidity, and lack of conservation efforts.
  • Cultural Heritage: Kerala murals contribute significantly to the rich cultural heritage of the region, showcasing a unique artistic tradition.


Ancient Indian paintings, spanning diverse periods and regions, serve as vibrant chronicles of the country’s rich cultural and religious tapestry. From the spiritual depth of Ajanta to the intricate details of Nayaka and Kerala murals, these artworks encapsulate the evolution, diversity, and enduring legacy of India’s artistic heritage.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. Which is the oldest painting style in India?

Ans1. The pre-historic paintings were generally executed on rocks and these rock engravings were called petroglyphs. These paintings generally depict animals like bison, bear, tigers etc. The oldest Indian paintings are rock art in caves which are around 30,000 years old, such as the Bhimbetka cave paintings.

Q2. Which is the golden age of Indian painting?

Ans2. The Gupta age in ancient India has been called the ‘Golden Age of India’ because of the many achievements in the field of arts, science, and literature that Indians made under the Guptas. The prosperity under the Guptas initiated a period of splendid accomplishments in arts and sciences.

Q3. Who are the famous painters of ancient India?

Ans3. Famous Painters of India such as Raja Ravi Varma, Satish Gujaral, Jamini Roy, Nandlal Bose, Abanindranath Tagore and many more have historical and cultural significance in the Art and Culture of India. Their paintings hold an important place in Indian history.

Read Also: Indian Heritage

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