Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 346

Published in 2011 by Britannica Educational Publishing

(a trademark of Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.)

in association with Rosen Educational Services, LLC
29 East 21st Street, New York, NY 10010.

Copyright © 2011 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica,

and the Thistle logo are registered trademarks of Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. All
rights reserved.

Rosen Educational Services materials copyright © 2011 Rosen Educational Services, LLC.
All rights reserved.

Distributed exclusively by Rosen Educational Services.

For a listing of additional Britannica Educational Publishing titles, call toll free (800) 237-9932.

First Edition

Britannica Educational Publishing

Michael I. Levy: Executive Editor
J.E. Luebering: Senior Manager
Marilyn L. Barton: Senior Coordinator, Production Control
Steven Bosco: Director, Editorial Technologies
Lisa S. Braucher: Senior Producer and Data Editor
Yvette Charboneau: Senior Copy Editor
Kathy Nakamura: Manager, Media Acquisition
Kathleen Kuiper: Manager, Arts and Culture

Rosen Educational Services

Alexandra Hanson-Harding: Editor
Nelson Sá: Art Director
Cindy Reiman: Photography Manager
Matthew Cauli: Cover Design, Designer
Introduction by Smriti Jacobs

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

The culture of India / edited by Kathleen Kuiper.—1st ed.

p. cm.—(Understanding India)
“In association with Britannica Educational Publishing, Rosen Educational Services.”
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-61530-203-1 (eBook)
1. India—Civilization. I. Kuiper, Kathleen.
DS423.C875 2011

On the cover: A young woman shows her henna-decorated hands as she prepares for her
wedding. © www.istockphoto.com/Mihir Panchal

On the back cover: The Temple at Khajuharo, India, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
© www.istockphoto.com/Keith Molloy

On pages 21, 53, 85, 122, 184, 240, 267, 296, 329, 331, 333, 335: Indian youth perform a
Punjabi traditional folk dance, the Giddha, during Republic Day celebrations at the Guru
Nanak Stadium in Amritsar on January 26, 2010. NarinderNanu/AFP/Getty Images
Introduction 14

Chapter 1: The Peoples of India

and the Caste System 21
Selected Groups 22
Andamanese 24
Badaga 24
Bhil 24
Bhutia 25
Bodo 25
Bohras 26
Bundela 27
Gond 27
Ho 29 28
Kadar 29
Kharia 29
Khasi 30
Khoja 30
Khond 31
Koli 31
Korku 32
Kota 32
Kuki 32
Lepcha 33
Magar 33
Maratha 34
Meithei 34
Mina 36
Mizo 36
Munda 36
Naga 37
Oraon 37
Pahari 38 41
Sansi 39
Santhal 39
Savara 39
Tamil 40
Toda 41
Caste 42
Varnas 42
Jatis 44
Cultural Milieu 45
Family and Kinship 46

Festivals and Holidays 48

Cuisine 48
Clothing 49
Sports and Recreation 51
Media and Publishing 51

Chapter 2: Indian Languages

and Writing Systems 53
Indian Languages 54
Indo-Aryan (Indic) 54
General Characteristics 54
Hindi 56
Asamiya (Assamese) 60
Bangla (Bengali) 60 56
Dogri 62
Gujarati 63
Kashmiri 63
Konkani 63
Maithili 64
Marathi 64
Nepali 64
Oriya 65
Punjabi 66
Sanskrit 67
Sindhi 69
Urdu 70
Dravidian 71
The History of the Dravidian
Languages 72
Dravidian Studies 72
Kannada 73
Malayalam 74 61
Tamil 75
Telugu 76
Other Languages and Lingua Francas 76
Munda 76
Tibeto-Burman 77
Indian English 79
Hindustani 80
Indic Writing Systems 82
Kharosthi 82
Brahmi 82

Gupta Scripts 82
Grantha Alphabet 83
Devanagari 83

Chapter 3: Hinduism 85
The Term Hinduism 85
General Nature of Hinduism 86
The Five Tensile Strands 87
Doctrine 87
Practice 88
Society 89
Story 90
Devotion 90
Central Conceptions 91
Veda, Brahmans, and Issues
of Religious Authority 91
Doctrine of Atman-Brahman 92
Karma, Samsara, and Moksha 92
Dharma and the Three Paths 93
Ashramas: The Four Stages of Life 94
Practical Hinduism 95
Devotion 97
Deities 97
Worship 99
Divination, Spirit Possession,
and Healing 101
Women’s Religious Practices 102
Pilgrimage 103
Rituals, Social Practices, and Institutions 104
Temple Worship 104
Shaiva Rites 106
Vaishnava Rites 107 114
Sacred Times and Festivals 107
Diwali 109
Cultural Expressions: Visual Arts,
Theatre, and Dance 110
Types of Symbols 110
The Arts 112
Hinduism and the World Beyond 117
Hinduism and Islam 117
Hinduism and Christianity 118
Diasporic Hinduism 119

Chapter 4: Other Indigenous Indian

Religions and Indian Philosophy 122
Religions 123
Sikhism 123
History and Doctrine 124
The 10 Gurus 124
The 18th and 19th Centuries 133
The 20th Century to the Early
21st Century 137
Sikh Practice 138
The Worship Service 139
The Rejection of Caste 139
Rites and Festivals 139
Sects and Other Groups 141 154
Sects 141
Other Groups 142
Conclusion 143
Jainism 143
History 144
Early History (7th Century BC–
c. 5th Century AD) 144
Early Medieval Developments
(500–1100) 145
Late Medieval–Early Modern
Developments (1100–1800) 147
Later Jain History 148
Important Figures of Jain Legend 149
Doctrines of Jainism 149
Time and the Universe 149
Jiva and Ajiva 150
Karman 151
Theories of Knowledge as Applied to 163
Liberation 151
Jain Ethics 152
Ritual Practices and Religious Institutions 153
Monks, Nuns, and Their Practices 153
Religious Activity of the Laity 155
Image Worship 157
Jainism and Other Religions 159
Buddhism 160
Buddha 161
The Buddha’s Message 162

Suffering, Impermanence, and No-Self 164

Karma 164
The Four Noble Truths 165
The Law of Dependent Origination 165
The Eightfold Path 165
Nirvana 166
Expansion of Buddhism 166
Buddhism Under the Guptas and Palas 169
The Demise of Buddhism in India 170
Contemporary Revival 171
Indian Philosophy 174
Significance of Indian Philosophies
in the History of Philosophy 174
General Characteristics of Indian
Philosophy 175
Common Concerns 176
Forms of Argument and Presentation 177
Roles of Sacred Texts, Mythology,
and Theism 178
A General History of Development
and Cultural Background 179
The Prelogical Period 179
The Logical Period 181
The Ultralogical Period 182

Chapter 5: Indian Visual Arts 184

General Characteristics of Indian Art 187
The Unity of Indian Art 187
The Materials of Indian Art 188
Indian and Foreign Art 188
Indian Art and Religion 188
The Artist and Patron 189 199
The Appreciation of Indian Art 189
Indian Sculpture 190
Indus Valley Civilization (c. 2500–1800 BC) 191
Maurya Period (c. 3rd Century BC) 193
Second and First Centuries BC 196
Relief Sculpture of Northern
and Central India 196
Relief Sculpture of Andhradesha 201
Relief Sculpture of Western India 201
Relief Sculpture of Orissa 203

Sculpture in the Round and

Terra-Cotta 203
In the First to Fourth Centuries AD 206
Mathura 207
Gandhara 210
Andhradesha 211
Terra-Cotta 213
Gupta Period (c. 4th–6th Centuries AD) 213
Mathura 213
Sarnath 214
Central India 214
Maharashtra 215
Other Regions 216
Terra-Cotta 216 221
Medieval Indian Sculpture 216
North India 217
Southern India 219
Maharashtra and Karnataka 221
Indian Painting 222
Prehistoric and Protohistoric Periods 222
Ancient Wall Painting 223
Eastern Indian Style 223
Western Indian Style 224
Transition to the Mughal and
Rajasthani Styles 225
Akbar Period (1556–1605) 226
Jahāngīr Period (1605–27) 228
Shāh Jahān Period (1628–58) 229
Aurangzeb and the Later Mughals
(1659–1806) 230
Company School 230
Deccani Style 230 233
Rajasthani Style 231
Pahari Style 235
Modern Period 236
Indian Decorative Arts 236
Pre-Islamic Period 237
Islamic Period 238

Chapter 6: Indian Music 240

Folk, Classical, and Popular Music 240
Rural Areas 241

Classical Music 242

Nonclassical Music of the Cities 244
Antiquity 245
Vedic Chant 246
Compilation of Hymns 246
Chant Intonation 247
The Classical Period 248
Qualities of the Scales 249
Mode, or Jati 251
Medieval Period 252
Precursors of the Medieval System 252
Further Development of the Grama-Ragas 252
The Islamic Period 253
Impact on Musical Genres and Aesthetics 254
Theoretical Developments 255
The Modern Period 256
Rhythmic Organization 258
South India 258
North India 258
Musical Forms and Instruments 259
South India 259
North India 261
Tabla 264
Interaction with Western Music 265

Chapter 7: Indian Performing Arts 267

Indian Dance 270
Classical Dance 271
The Dance-Drama 271
Techniques and Types of
Classical Dance 272
The Bharata Natyam School 273 280
The Kathakali School 274
The Kathak School 276
The Manipuri School 277
The Kuchipudi School 277
The Odissi Tradition 278
Other Classical Dance Forms 278
Folk Dance 279
Bhangra 282
Modern Indian Dance 284
Dance-Training Centres 285

Indian Theatre 285

Classical Theatre 285
Folk Theatre 287
Modern Theatre 291
Dance and Theatre in Kashmir 294

Chapter 8: Indian Architecture 296

Indus Valley Civilization (c. 2500–1800 BC) 297
The Maurya Period (c. 321–185 BC) 297
Early Indian Architecture (2nd Century BC–
3rd Century AD) 298
The Gupta Period (4th–6th Centuries AD) 300
Medieval Temple Architecture 303
North Indian Style 303 309
Orissa 306
Central India 307
Ellora Caves 311
Rajasthan 312
Gujarat 313
Karnataka 314
Kashmir 314
South Indian Style 314
Tamil Nadu (7th–18th Century) 315
Karnataka 317
Maharashtra, Andhradesha,
and Kerala 318
Islamic Architecture of the Delhi
and Provincial Sultanates 319
Islamic Architecture of the Mughal Style 322
European Traditions and the
Modern Period 327
Conclusion 329
Glossary 331
For Further Reading 333
Index 335
Introduction | 15

I n the Indian language of Hindi, the

word rasa means flavour. A piece of
art is considered to have different fla-
some groups can be found in the sophis-
ticated city states such as Harappa and
Mohenjo-daro that thrived in the north-
vours, and savouring each distinct taste ern Indus River valley from 2500 BC,
is considered part of the whole aesthetic but the Dravidian people who founded
experience. As readers page through them were later pushed south by the
this volume and learn about the peoples, incoming Aryans of Central Asian ori-
languages, religions, arts, music, and gin. Waves of invasions by Persians,
architecture of India, they will begin to Scythians, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, and
gain a sense of the multi-faceted rasa Afghans since that time have brought
of India. They will sense it as they learn later contributions to the mix. Features
about India’s vastly diverse peoples, from of North Indians echo that later heri-
its modern city-dwellers to remote tribes tage, while ethnic groups such as the
that practice group marriage. They will Nagas and Khasis in northeastern
learn about its richly spiced cuisine, its India resemble Tibetans and Southeast
faiths, and its cultural traditions. As they Asians. The population of South India is
read on, they will understand more about mainly of Dravidian origins.
India’s arts. From ancient sculptures to Over the millennia, invasions, migra-
lovely Mughal miniature paintings, India tion, marriage, and intermarriage have
has excelled in the visual arts. India has a produced a vast population that exceeds
rich tradition of dance, such as its gentle a billion people.
manipuri and fierce kathikali dance. They India has a caste system that contin-
will they contemplate massive rock-cut ues to be largely honoured today. The
temples, such as the Ellora caves. Packing social stratification is made up of five lev-
more than 4,500 years of India’s cultural els broadly based on occupation. At the
history into a single book is a difficult top of the hierarchy are the Brahmans,
venture. Even this extensive volume can the priests; the Kshatriya, or the war-
be nothing more than an introduction rior class, are followed by the Vaishyas,
to the flavour one of the world’s most mainly merchants. The Shudras—artisans
extraordinary and influential lands. and labourers—and the Scheduled castes
Readers will first be introduced to (once known as the Untouchables, or
some of the many ethnic groups that Dalit) complete the system. Each of these
make up India’s population. The roots of divisions contains numerous subcastes.

The rock-cut Kailasa temple, part of the Ellora Caves in Maharashtra, India, was built in the 8th
century AD. It is more than 100 feet (30 metres) high. Abraham Nowitz/National Geographic/
Getty Images
16 | The Culture of India

In line with its diverse ethnicities, classical language Sanskrit. Varieties of

India’s languages include members of the the Grantha alphabet are used to write
Indo-European, Dravidian, Austroasiatic, a number of the Dravidian languages of
and Sino-Tibetan families. Hindi, which South India.
is an Indo-Aryan language (a subdivi- India’s people have shared respect
sion of Indo-European languages) and for religion. This is the birthplace of
English, a Germanic language (also of two major world religions, Hinduism
the Indo European family) are the official and Buddhism, in addition to smaller
languages of the nation. The states that ones such as Sikhism and Jainism. Most
make up the Hindi belt lie in the northern Indians are Hindu, but minorities are
part of the country—although even in this present in nearly every state.
region there are wide variations in dia- Hinduism evolved from the Vedic
lect. The other official language, English, religion of early India. It is often described
is a remnant of British rule. Its use makes as a “way of life,” since there is no central
India one of the largest English-speaking authority or organization. Hindus believe
countries in the world. From the English- in one God, but with many manifesta-
language press to film and television, tions, the primary three being Brahma
English is a major lingua franca. It links the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and
the central government with non-Hindi Shiva the destroyer. With hundreds of
speaking states. other minor deities, Hindus typically
In southern India, most states have worship as they do in accordance with
their own languages. These include caste, subcaste, and other factors.
Telugu in Andhra Pradesh, Mayalayam in One of the core beliefs of Hinduism,
Kerala, and Tamil in Tamil Nadu. These the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth,
Dravidian languages are quite distinct is shared by Buddhism. The Buddha’s
from Hindi. Though only 22 regional lan- enlightenment is seen as a triumph over
guages are listed in the constitution of this chain of reincarnation, brought
India, there are hundreds of others. For about after several years of meditation.
example, those who live in the northeast- Though it originated in India, Buddhism
ern state of Assam converse in Assamese is not a major religion of modern India.
while those living on the western coast In fact, there are far more Muslims than
of Konkan speak Konkani. Many are flu- Buddhists, a result of the proselytization
ent in more than one language, including of Muslim invaders from the 9th century
their “mother tongue” and one or more AD on.
of the common Indian languages. When Jainism, which employs concepts
it comes to writing these languages, from Hinduism and Buddhism, advo-
Indic writing systems include Hindi’s cates a path to enlightenment through a
script, Devanagari, which stems from the disciplined life based upon the tenet of
Introduction | 17

non-violence to all living creatures. The Mahatma Gandhi was another promi-
fundamental ethical virtue of Jainism is nent figure who put the Vedic doctrine
ahimsa (“noninjury”), the standard by of ahimsa into practice in the fight for
which all actions are judged. The name India’s independence from the British.
Jainism comes from the Sanskrit verb The art of India art dates back to lime-
meaning “to conquer.” Jain monks and stone statuettes and bronze artifacts from
nuns believe they must fight against the craft workshops of Mohenjo-daro and
passions and bodily senses to gain omni- Harappa, two of the outstanding cities of
science and purity of soul. the Indus Valley civilization.
Sikhism, which originated in the In northern India, the Mauryan
northern state of Punjab, combines ele- empire, which ruled from 321 to 185 BC,
ments of Hinduism and Islam and today ushered in new styles in art, shown by
is one of the largest minority religions. examples such as highly polished stone
The Parsis, Zoroastrians from Persia, add pillars with beautifully modeled lions
to the mix, having migrated to western roaring from them. Between the first
India when Islam spread through their and third centuries AD, a distinctive
homeland in present-day Iran. style of relief carving developed in such
Christianity, thought to have first places as Mathura, in which stories
been brought by St. Thomas, the only were told in rows of intricately detailed
apostle to travel eastward, was later figures. Mathura was also noted for its
spread through colonizing efforts by sculptures of Buddha. The golden age
Europeans such as the Portuguese and of sculpture in North India was over
the British. Today, the largest population by the 12th century, when Muslim rul-
of Christians in India is Roman Catholic. ers, who decried representational art,
There also are numerous tribal groups in had taken over most of the region. Yet,
India who live in remote areas and typi- despite the traditional Islamic prohi-
cally follow animistic religions. bitions against painting pictures of
Religion in India historically has been people, the Islamic Mughal dynasty,
closely related to Indian philosophy, par- which ruled from the mid-16th century,
ticularly with respect to Hinduism and ushered in new styles of painting, such
Buddhism. The concepts of samsara— as tiny miniatures showing scenes from
the cycle of life, death, and rebirth—and stories, portraits, and other features.
moksha, the release from this cycle, are South India, which mostly maintained
central to Indian philosophy. Various itself as a Hindu stronghold, had its
forms of meditation, including Yoga, are own artistic standards. Some of the
considered methods by which to break most memorable artistic achievements
this cycle. This thread of Vedic philoso- of South Indian art are the elegant
phy runs from ancient times until today. bronze statues of Shaiva and Vaishnava
18 | The Culture of India

gods that were created during the early that is far removed from the village ori-
(9th-century) rule of the Chola dynasty. gins of these dances. Musicians are now
Chola bronzes have a technical sophis- creating bhangra songs that speak about
tication and beauty that impress even contemporary concerns, such as AIDS
today. and prejudice. Festivals in just about all
Indian music plays an integral role the religious traditions will include some
in Indian life. These old traditions span form of the many folk dances of India.
everything from the folk music of tribal Classical dance meanwhile is still
groups to well-established classical performed in India. Some of these dance-
Indian music systems. The instruments drama styles are the sensuous bharata
range from simple flutes to multi-string natyam and manipuri, danced by women;
sitars. Musical forms include songs sung the fierce kathakali, danced by men;
together in groups and long, instru- and the kathak, danced by both. These
mental and vocal expositions on exotic classical forms are often used by danc-
scales known as ragas. A raga, meaning ers to enact stories from ancient Hindu
“to colour,” serves as a basis for compo- text such as the Mahabharata and the
sition and improvisation. So does the Ramayana.
second element of Indian music, tala, a Texts such as these, with their narra-
time measure. tives of mythological heroes, romances,
The Hindustani classical music tra- and social and political events are also
dition, found mainly in North India, is brought to life by actors in rural settings
based on the sitar and the tabla drums. in folk theatre. These productions often
Ragas are based on seasons, times of use dance, exaggerated makeup, masks
day, and various moods. The Karnatic and music to dramatize tales, but differ-
tradition of South India features another ent forms of folk theatre sport their own
lute-like instrument, the vina, in place conventions. In the ramlila, for instance,
of the sitar, and the double-ended mri- characters playing the gods Krishna
dangam drum instead of the tablas. The and Rama are always young boys, while
rhythms of the two regions differ, as do some characters can remove their masks
the musical scales. and remain on stage. In the jatra, only
In addition to its classical music, one character, the vivek, or “conscience,”
modern India is awash in the trendy sings as he comments on the action.
music of Bollywood films. Bollywood is India’s architecture is also world
India’s version of Hollywood, only it is famous. From the centres of the Indus
much bigger in terms of film output and valley civilization is evident an early ele-
audience. ment of urban planning—city streets on
Folk dances such as the bhangra and a grid pattern. And at Mohenjo-daro, for
the dandiya raas are exceedingly popular instance, visitors can see the remains of
with the younger, more urban generation craft workshops, a granary, and the ruins
Introduction | 19

of the massive Great Bath, which is 897 Emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of
sq. feet (83 sq. metres) large. his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
The temples at Ellora and Ajanta, The British also contributed a number
in the western state of Maharashtra, are of fine buildings to India. One example
huge monoliths painstakingly hewn is Mumbai’s arresting Victoria Terminus
from rock. These temples are rich in stat- railway station, now called the Chhatrapati
ues carved by monks paying homage Shivaji Terminus, which displays a spec-
to Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. tacular Victorian Gothic Revival style.
Religion has played an important role in Like the geography of the Indian
many of India’s most impressive archi- subcontinent itself, which ranges from
tectural achievements, from towering the Himalayan highlands of Ladakh in
Hindu temples, their roofs garnished with the extreme north to the tropical nature
carvings of gods and goddesses, to mag- reserves of Kerala in the south, India’s
nificent Persian-influenced mosques built culture incorporates a wide range of
during the Mughal dynasty, such as the styles and substance while projecting
Jāmi‘ Masjid (Great Mosque) in the city of a commonality that is immediately and
Fatehpur Sikri. The most famous Mughal distinctly Indian. This volume will offer
building, however, is the Taj Mahal, a an insight into the many fascinating, rich,
monument rich in inlaid marble built by and colourful layers of Indian culture.
The Peoples of
India and the
Caste System

I ndia is a diverse, multiethnic country that is home to thou-

sands of small ethnic and tribal groups. This complexity
developed from a lengthy and involved process of migration
and intermarriage. The great urban culture of the vast Indus
civilization, a society of the Indus River valley that is thought
to have been Dravidian-speaking, thrived from roughly 2500
to 1700 BC. An early Indo-European civilization—dominated
by peoples with linguistic affinities to peoples in Iran and
Europe—came to occupy northwestern and then north-
central India over the period from roughly 2000 to 1500
BC and subsequently spread southwestward and eastward
at the expense of other indigenous groups. Despite the
emergence of caste restrictions, this process was attended
by intermarriage between groups that probably has con-
tinued to the present day, despite considerable opposition
from peoples whose own distinctive civilizations had also
evolved in early historical times. Among the documented
invasions that added significantly to the Indian ethnic mix
are those of Persians, Scythians, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, and
Afghans. The last and politically most successful of the great
invasions—namely, that from Europe—vastly altered Indian
culture but had relatively little impact on India’s ethnic
22 | The Culture of India

Ghat (stepped bathing place) on the Yamuna River at Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, India. Globe

SELECTED gROuPS Tibetans and Burmans. Many aboriginal

(“tribal”) peoples in the Chota Nagpur
Broadly speaking, the peoples of north- Plateau (northeastern peninsular India)
central and northwestern India tend to have affinities to such groups as the
have ethnic affinities with European Mon, who have long been established
and Indo-European peoples from south- in mainland Southeast Asia. Much less
ern Europe, the Caucasus region, and numerous are southern groups who
Southwest and Central Asia. In north- appear to be descended, at least in part,
eastern India—West Bengal (to a lesser either from peoples of East African ori-
degree), the higher reaches of the west- gin (some of whom settled in historical
ern Himalayan region, and Ladakh (in times on India’s western coast) or from
Jammu and Kashmir state)—much of a population commonly designated as
the population more closely resembles Negrito, now represented by numerous
peoples to the north and east, notably small and widely dispersed peoples from
The Peoples of India and the Caste System | 23
24 | The Culture of India

the Andaman Islands, the Philippines, in southern India, the Badaga have
New Guinea, and other areas. increased very rapidly, from fewer than
20,000 in 1871 to about 140,000 in the late
Andamanese 20th century. Their language is closely
akin to Kannada as spoken in Karnataka
The Andamanese, united by use of a state to the north of the Nilgiris. The
common language, constitute the main name Badaga means “northerner,” and
aboriginal group of the Andaman Islands it is clear that the Badaga came into
in the Bay of Bengal. Most have been the Nilgiris from the north, perhaps
absorbed into modern Indian life, but impelled by economic or political pres-
traditional culture survives among such sures. The time of their migration has
groups as the Jarawa and Onge of the been dated sometime after the found-
lesser islands. Late 20th-century estimates ing of the Lingayat Hindu sect in the
indicated approximately 50 speakers of 12th century and before 1602, when their
Andamanese languages and perhaps 550 settlement in the area was noted by
ethnic Andamanese. Roman Catholic priests.
Until the mid-19th century, the The Badaga were divided into six
remoteness of these peoples and their main endogamous groups that were
strong territorial defenses helped them ranked in ritual order. The two highest
to avoid outside influences. Some of the castes were priests and vegetarians; the
Andamanese continue to live by hunt- lowest caste worked as servants for the
ing and collecting. The bow, once the other five. Traditional Badaga religion
only indigenous weapon, was used both and economy also relied on goods and
for fishing and for hunting wild pigs; the services supplied by the other Nilgiri
Andamanese had no traps or fishhooks. peoples—Kota, Toda, and Kurumba.
Turtle, dugong, and fish are caught with The Badaga generally are agricul-
nets and harpoons; the latter are used turists, but many are engaged in other
from single-outrigger canoes. Pottery professions. In addition to grain, Badaga
is made, and iron, obtained from ship- farmers grow large crops of potatoes and
wrecks, has been used for arrowheads, vegetables. Many have altered their tra-
knives, and adzes from at least the 18th ditional practices. Improved agriculture,
century. It is shaped by breaking and local and national policies, and high-caste
grinding, a technique derived from the Hindu tradition are the major concerns of
working of shell. the contemporary Badaga.

Badaga Bhil

The largest tribal group living in The Bhil of western India are an ethnic
the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu state group of nearly 2.5 million people. Many
The Peoples of India and the Caste System | 25

are tribal, and they have been known for India, particularly in the Indian state of
rugged independence, sometimes associ- Sikkim. They speak various languages of
ated with banditry. the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-
They are distributed widely in upland Tibetan language family.
areas from Ajmer in Rajasthan on the The Bhutia are mountain dwell-
north to Thana in Maharashtra on the ers, living in small villages and isolated
south, and eastward as far as Indore in homesteads separated by almost impass-
Madhya Pradesh. Nearly all of them able terrain. They practice a terraced
engage in agriculture, some of them using agriculture on the mountain slopes, their
the slash-and-burn (jhum) method—in main crops being rice, corn (maize), and
which secondary jungle is burnt and a potatoes. Some of them are animal breed-
crop is raised for one or two years in the ers, known for their cattle and yaks.
ash—but most employing the plow. The Their religion is Tibetan Buddhism,
highland Bhil generally live in scattered with an admixture of the pre-Buddhist
houses made of wattle and thatch. shamanism known as Bon. They recog-
The relationship between the Bhil nize the Dalai Lama as their spiritual
and neighbouring peoples is not clear. leader. Their traditional society was
The Bhil follow Rajasthani kinship usages feudal, with most of the population work-
in Rajasthan and Maharashtrian usages ing as tenants of a landowning nobility,
in Maharashtra, but with easier marriage although there were few marked differ-
and divorce procedures. Most Bhil wor- ences in ways of life between landowners
ship local deities in varied pantheons and tenants. There were also slaves, most
only slightly touching the practices of of them descended from captives taken
higher Hinduism; a few aristocratic seg- in raids on Indian territory. In the 1960s
ments such as the Bhilala and some plains the Bhutanese government formally
groups employ Brahman priests; others abolished slavery and sought to break up
are converts to Islam. Their dialects are the large estates; the nobility were also
akin to Gujarati or to other Indo-Aryan deprived of their hereditary titles.
languages rather than to the Munda or The Bhutia trace their descent
Dravidian tongues of most tribal peoples. patrilineally. They are predominantly
monogamous, but polygamy is still prac-
Bhutia ticed in some areas.

The Bhutia (Bhotia, Bhote, Bhutanese) Bodo

are a Himalayan people who are believed
to have emigrated southward from Tibet The Bodo live in the northeastern Indian
in the 9th century or later. They con- states of Assam and Meghalaya (as well
stitute a majority of the population of as in Bangladesh) and speak Tibeto-
Bhutan and form minorities in Nepal and Burman languages. They numbered about
26 | The Culture of India

1.5 million in the early 21st century. house for bachelors and many features
Dominant in Assam until about 1825, of their religion link them with the Naga
they are now the largest minority group and other hill tribes of Assam, but the
in that state. They are concentrated in the growing influence of Hindu ideas and
northern areas of the Brahmaputra River customs works toward assimilation into
valley. Most of them are settled farmers, the caste society of the Assam plains.
though they formerly practiced shifting Among the Garo, the village headman
cultivation. The Bodo consist of a large is usually the husband of the heiress, the
number of tribes. Their western tribes senior woman of the landowning lineage.
include the Cutiya, Plains Kachari, Rabha, He transmits his headman’s office to his
Garo, Mech, Koch, Dhimal, and Jaijong; sister’s son, who marries the headman’s
the eastern tribes include the Dimasa (or daughter (the next heiress). The lineages
Hill Kachari), Galong (or Gallong), Hojai, of the male headmen and the female
Lalung, Tippera, and Moran. heiresses are thus in perpetual alliance.
The Bodo tribes are not culturally Political title and land title are both
uniform. The social system of some, transmitted matrilineally, one through
such as the Garo, is matrilineal (descent one lineage, the other through the other.
traced through the maternal line), while There are a dozen subtribes, with varying
other tribes are patrilineal. Several of the customs and dialects, but all are divided
Bodo tribes were so influenced by Hindu into matrilineal clans. Marriages involve
social and religious concepts that in members of different clans. Polygamy is
modern times they have regarded them- practiced. A man must marry his wife’s
selves as Hindu castes. Thus the Koch, father’s widow, who is in such cases the
for example, lay claim to the high Hindu husband’s father’s sister, actual or clas-
status of Kshatriya (the warrior and rul- sificatory. Such a wife takes precedence
ing class); their claim is not generally over her daughter, to whom the husband
admitted, however, and many of the sub- is already married. A man’s sister’s son,
divisions of the Koch rank very low in the called his nokrom, stands therefore in inti-
caste hierarchy. mate relationship to him, as the husband
The Kachari tribe is divided into of one of his daughters and ultimately of
clans named after aspects of nature (e.g., his widow and the vehicle through which
heaven, earth, rivers, animals, and plants). his family’s interest in the property of his
Descent and succession to property are wife is secured for the next generation,
in the male line. They have a tribal reli- for no male can inherit property.
gion, with an extensive pantheon of
village and household gods. Marriage Bohras
is usually arranged by the parents and
involves the payment of a bride-price. The name Bohra (Bohora) is applied in
Such institutions as the community general to any Shī‘ī Isma‘īlī Muslim of the
The Peoples of India and the Caste System | 27

Musta‘lī group living in western India. The The Bundela territories were impor-
name is a corruption of a Gujarati word, tant because through them ran the route
vahaurau, meaning “to trade.” The Bohras from the Deccan to the Ganges-Yamuna
include, in addition to this Shī‘ī majority, Doab (river basin). But they were hilly,
often of the merchant class, a Sunnī minor- remote, and difficult to control. The
ity who are usually peasant farmers. The Mughals suppressed many insurrections
Musta‘lī group, which originated in Egypt until the Bundelas called in the Marathas
and later moved its religious centre to (1729). After many vicissitudes the tract
Yemen, gained a foothold in India through passed under British control in the early
missionaries of the 11th century. After 19th century. The fortress of Kalinjar was
1539, by which time the Indian commu- taken in 1812.
nity had grown quite large, the seat of the
group was moved from Yemen to Sidhpur, Gond
India. A split resulted in 1588 in the Bohra
community between followers of Dā’ūd The Gond are aboriginal peoples of cen-
ibn Qut·b Shāh and Sulaymān, who both tral India, numbering about 2 million.
claimed leadership of the community. The They live in the states of Madhya Pradesh,
followers of Dā’ūd and Sulaymān have Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, and
since remained the two major groups Orissa. The majority speak various and,
within the Bohras, with no significant dog- in part, mutually unintelligible dialects
matic differences, the dā‘ī, or leader, of the of Gondi, an unwritten language of the
Dā’ūdīs residing in Mumbai, the leader of Dravidian family. Some Gond have lost
the Sulaymānī in Yemen. their own language and speak Hindi,
Marathi, or Telugu, whichever language
Bundela is dominant in their area.
There is no cultural uniformity
The Bundelas are a Rajput clan for whom among the Gond. The most devel-
the region of Bundelkhand in north- oped are the Raj Gond, who once had
central India is named. The Bundelas, an elaborate feudal order. Local rajas,
whose origins are obscure, emerged in linked by ties of blood or marriage to
the 14th century. They won prominence a royal house, exercised authority over
when they resisted the Afghan emperor, groups of villages. Aside from the forti-
Shēr Shah of Sūr, who was killed while fied seats of the rajas, settlements were
besieging their fortress of Kalinjar in formerly of little permanence; cultiva-
1545. The Bundela Bir Singh of Orchha, in tion, even though practiced with plows
collusion with Akbar’s son, Prince Salim and oxen, involved frequent shifting
(later Jahāngīr), ambushed and killed the of fields and clearing of new tracts of
Mughal emperor’s confidant, Abu al-Fad· l forest land. The Raj Gond continue to
‘Allāmī, in 1602. stand outside the Hindu caste system,
28 | The Culture of India

neither acknowledging the superiority of moved, and the commonly owned land of
Brahmans nor feeling bound by Hindu each clan contains several village sites
rules such as the ban on killing cows. occupied in rotation over the years.
The highlands of Bastar in Madhya Bisonhorn Maria, so called after their
Pradesh are the home of three important dance headdresses, live in less hilly coun-
Gond tribes: the Muria, the Bisonhorn try and have more permanent fields that
Maria, and the Hill Maria. The last, who they cultivate with plows and bullocks.
inhabit the rugged Abujhmar Hills, are The Muria are known for their youth
the least developed. Their traditional type dormitories, or ghotul, in the framework
of agriculture is slash-and-burn (jhum) of which the unmarried of both sexes
cultivation on hill slopes. Hoes and dig- lead a highly organized social life; they
ging sticks are still used more often receive training in civic duties and in
than plows. The villages are periodically sexual practices.

Indian women of the Muria Gond tribe in Chhattisgarh state collect drinking water. Noah
Seelam/AFP/Getty Images
The Peoples of India and the Caste System | 29

The religion of all Gonds centres in Kadar

the cult of clan and village deities, together
with ancestor worship. A small tribe of southern India, the
  Kadar reside along the hilly border
Ho between Kochi in the state of Kerala and
Coimbatore in the state of Tamil Nadu.
The Ho, also called Larka Kol, are a tribal They speak Tamil and Kannada, both
people of the state of Bihar in India, Dravidian languages.
concentrated in the area of Kolhan on They live in the forests and do not
the lower Chota Nagpur Plateau. They practice agriculture, building shelters
numbered about 1,150,000 in the late thatched with leaves and shifting loca-
20th century, mostly in Bihar and Orissa tion as their employment requires.
states of northeastern India. They speak They prefer to eat rice obtained in trade
a language of the Munda family (of or as wages rather than to subsist on
Austroasiatic stock) and appear to have food of their own gathering. They have
moved gradually into their territory from long served as specialized collectors of
farther north. Their traditional social honey, wax, sago, cardamom, ginger, and
organization includes features common umbrella sticks for trade with merchants
to those of other Munda-speaking tribes, from the plains. Many Kadar men work as
including the institution of girls’ and boys’ labourers.
dormitories, an elaborate system of vil- The Kadar population was estimated
lage offices, and a territorial organization at approximately 2,000 individuals in the
into quasi-military confederations. They early 21st century. They worship jungle
trace their descent through the paternal spirits and their own kindly creator
line, and young people are expected to couple as well as local forms of the Hindu
marry outside the paternal clan, but there deities. Marriage with cross-cousins (that
is a prevalent custom of marrying one’s is, the child of one’s mother’s brother or
cousin on the maternal side. Marriage one’s father’s sister) is permitted.
by elopement and by abduction are
also traditionally common. The Ho wor- Kharia
ship spirits, some of which they believe
to cause disease. They approach them The name Kharia refers to any of several
through divination and witchcraft. groups of hill people living in the Chota
The traditional economy of the Ho Nagpur area of Orissa and Bihar states,
was hunting and a shifting agriculture. northeastern India, and numbering more
These pursuits have declined in favour of than 280,000 in the late 20th century.
settled agriculture and livestock raising. Most of the Kharia speak a South Munda
Many of the men also work as labourers language of the Munda family, itself a
in mines and factories. part of the Austroasiatic stock. They are
30 | The Culture of India

of uncertain ethnic origin. The Kharia are The Khasi have a distinctive culture. Both
usually subdivided into three groups: Hill inheritance of property and succession to
Kharia, Dhelki, and Dudh. All are patri- tribal office run through the female line,
lineal, with the family as the basic unit, passing from the mother to the youngest
and are led by a tribal government con- daughter. Office and the management
sisting of a priest, a headman, and village of property, however, are in the hands of
leaders. The Hill Kharia speak an Indo- men identified by these women and not
Iranian language and seem otherwise to in the hands of women themselves. This
be a totally separate group. The Dhelki system has been modified by the conver-
and the Dudh, both of whom speak the sion of many Khasi to Christianity, by the
Kharia language, recognize each other— consequent conflict of ritual obligations
but not the Hill Kharia—as Kharia. under the tribal religion and the demands
The Dudh are the most numerous of the new religion, and by the right of the
and progressive branch; they live along people to make wills in respect of self-
the Sankh and South Koel rivers. The acquired property.
Dhelki are concentrated near Gangpur. The Khasi speak a Mon-Khmer lan-
Both live in settled villages, and intervil- guage of the Austroasiatic stock. They
lage federations enforce the feeling of are divided into several clans. Wet rice
social solidarity. They traditionally build (paddy) provides the main subsistence;
separate large dormitories for unmar- it is cultivated in the valley bottoms and
ried men and women, but this practice in terrace gardens built on the hillsides.
has been abandoned by Christian Kharia. Many of the farmers still cultivate only
The Kharia’s traditional religion includes by the slash-and-burn method, in which
a form of sun worship, in which each fam- secondary jungle is burnt over and a crop
ily head makes five sacrifices to Bero, the raised for one or two years in the ash.
sun god, to protect his generation. Under the system of administration
The Hill Kharia live in small groups set up in the district in the 1950s, the
in remote areas of the Simlipal Range Khasi’s elected councils enjoy a measure
in Orissa state. They depend on shift- of political autonomy under the guidance
ing agriculture, growing rice and millet, of a deputy commissioner. In addition,
but constantly face the problem of land seats in the state assembly and in the
scarcity. They also collect silk cocoons, national parliament are reserved for rep-
honey, and beeswax for trade. resentatives of the tribal people.

Khasi Khoja

The Khasi live in the Khasi and Jaintia The Khoja (Persian: Khvajeh) are a caste
hills of the state of Meghalaya in India. of Indian Muslims who were converted
The Peoples of India and the Caste System | 31

from Hinduism to Islam in the 14th cen- neighbours to the west, north, and east
tury by the Persian pīr (religious leader, and with Telugu-speaking groups to
or teacher) Sad· r-ul-Dīn and adopted as the south. By degrees they have taken
members of the Nizārī Ismā‘īlī sect of the on the language and customs of their
Shī‘ites. Forced to feign either Hinduism, neighbours. In the Baudh Plains there
Sunni Islam, or Ithna ‘Ashariyah in order are Khond who speak only Oriya; farther
to preserve themselves from persecution, into the hills the Khond are bilingual;
some Khojas, in time, became followers in the remoter jungles Kui alone is spo-
of those faiths. ken. There is an analogous gradation in
The term Khoja is not a religious the practice of Hindu customs concern-
designation but a purely caste distinc- ing caste and untouchability and in the
tion that was carried over from the Hindu knowledge of Hindu deities. The process
background of the group. Thus, there of acculturation progressed rapidly in the
are both Sunni and Shī‘ite Khojas. Other late 20th century.
Nizārī Ismā‘īlīs share the same beliefs,
practices, and even language with the Koli
Khojas; however, one cannot enter the
caste except by birth. The Koli constitute a large caste living in
Khojas live primarily in India and the central and western mountain area of
East Africa. Every province with large India, and they numbered about 650,000
numbers of them has an Ismā‘īlī council, in the late 20th century. The largest group
the decisions of which are recognized of Koli live in Maharashtra and Gujarat
as legal by the state. As Nizārī Ismā‘īlīs, states. Although identified as cultivators
Khojas are followers of the Aga Khan. and labourers, many Koli survive only
by gathering firewood and hiring out as
Khond labourers, subsisting on berries and man-
goes in summer when food is scarce. The
The Khond (Kond, Kandh, Kondh) people, coastal Koli fish, and a few literate Koli
whose numbers are estimated to exceed are employed in Mumbai schools or local
800,000, live in the hills and jungles of government.
Orissa state, India. Most Khond speak Kui The Koli are organized into several
and its southern dialect, Kuwi, belonging clans and are largely Hinduized but
to the Dravidian language family. Most retain some of their former animism.
are now rice cultivators, but there are still They believe sickness is caused by an
groups, such as the Kuttia Khond, who angry spirit or deity and that a second
practice slash-and-burn agriculture. marriage may awaken the spirit of the
The Khond have been in contact first spouse. Traditionally classified as
for many centuries with Oriya-speaking a tribe, they were redesignated as a low
32 | The Culture of India

Hindu caste, containing the subcastes A village has two or three streets, each
Agri and Ahir. inhabited by the members of a single
patrilineal clan. Most adult Kota also
Korku speak Tamil, another Dravidian tongue.
They were traditionally artisans and
The tribal Korku people of central musicians. Each Kota family was associ-
India are concentrated in the states of ated with a number of Badaga and Toda
Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. At families for whom they provided metal
the end of the 20th century, they num- tools, wooden implements, and pots.
bered about 560,000. However, poverty They also furnished the music necessary
and restricted use of ancestral land due for the ceremonies of their neighbours.
to government attempts to save the From its associated families the Kota
Bengal tiger have led to malnutrition and family received a share of grain from the
even starvation among the Korku. Most Badaga harvest and some dairy products
are settled agriculturalists, and many from the Toda. The Kota also cooperated
have substantial farms; others shifted with the jungle-dwelling Kurumbas, who
as recently as the late 19th century from provided forest products and magical
slash-and-burn jungle cultivation (jhum) protection. Because the Kota handled
to forestry and field labour. The Korku animal carcasses and had other menial
live in villages of thatched houses. They occupations, their neighbours consid-
have hereditary headmen and trace ered them to be of inferior caste.
their descent along paternal lines. They Aboriginal Kota religion entails a
speak a language of the Munda family family trinity of two brother deities and
(Austroasiatic). the goddess-wife of the elder. Each deity
In religion the Korku are Hindus. has a priest and a diviner in every vil-
Their ceremonies resemble those of lage. The diviner becomes possessed on
the low castes in that they employ their appropriate occasions and speaks with
own priests and mediums instead of the voice of god.
Brahmans. After 1930 the traditional interde-
pendence among the Nilgiri groups was
Kota abandoned, and only a few Kota families
continue to supply tools and music. Kota
The Kota are a group of indigenous, livelihood depends mainly upon the cul-
Dravidian-speaking peoples of the Nilgiri tivation of grain and potatoes.
Hills in the south of India. They lived
in seven villages totalling about 2,300 Kuki
inhabitants during the 1970s; these were
interspersed among settlements of the The Kuki are a Southeast Asian people liv-
other Nilgiri peoples, Badaga and Toda. ing in the Mizo (formerly Lushai) Hills on
The Peoples of India and the Caste System | 33

the border between India and Myanmar Sikkim since the 18th century and in the
(Burma) and numbering about 12,000 in late 20th century comprised about two-
the 1970s. They have been largely assimi- thirds of the population.
lated by the more populous Mizo and have The Lepcha are primarily monoga-
adopted Mizo customs and language. mous, although a married man may
Traditionally the Kuki lived in small invite a younger unmarried brother to
settlements in the jungles, each ruled by live with him and share his fields and his
its own chief. The youngest son of the wife. Occasionally, also, a man may have
chief inherited his father’s property, while more than one wife. The Lepcha trace
the other sons were provided with wives their descent through the paternal line
from the village and sent out to found and have large patrilineal clans.
villages of their own. The Kuki live an They were converted to Tibetan
isolated existence in the bamboo forests, Buddhism by the Bhutia, but still retain
which provide them with their building their earlier pantheon of spirits and their
and handicraft materials. They grow rice, shamans, who cure illnesses, intercede
first burning off the jungle to clear the with the gods, and preside over the rites
ground. They hunt wild animals and keep accompanying birth, marriage, and death.
dogs, pigs, buffalo, goats, and poultry. Traditionally hunters and gatherers,
the Lepcha now also engage in farming
Lepcha and cattle breeding.

The Lepcha (Rong) live in Sikkim state Magar

and the Darjeeling district of West Bengal
in India, as well as in eastern Nepal and The Magar (Mangar) people of Nepal
western Bhutan. They number about and Sikkim state, India, live mainly on
36,000 in India. They are thought to be the western and southern flanks of the
the earliest inhabitants of Sikkim, but Dhaulagiri mountain massif. They num-
they have adopted many elements of the ber about 390,000. The Magar speak
culture of the Bhutia people, who entered a language of the Tibeto-Burman fam-
the region from Tibet in the 14th century ily. The northern Magar are Lamaist
and afterward. The Bhutia are mainly Buddhists in religion, while those farther
pastoralists in the high mountains; the south have come under strong Hindu
Lepcha usually live in the remotest val- influence. Most of them draw their sub-
leys. While some intermarriage has sistence from agriculture. Others are
occurred between the two groups, they pastoralists, craftsmen, or day labourers.
tend to stay apart and to speak their own Along with the Gurung, Rai, and other
languages, which are dialects of Tibetan. Nepalese ethnic groups, they have won
Neither group has much to do with the fame as the Gurkha soldiers of the British
Hindu Nepalese settlers, who entered and Indian armies.
34 | The Culture of India

Maratha groupings of coast, western hills, and

Deccan Plains, among which there is
A major people of India, the Maratha little intermarriage. Within each subre-
(Mahratta, Mahratti) are famed in gion, clans of these castes are classed in
history as yeoman warriors and cham- social circles of decreasing rank. A maxi-
pions of Hinduism. Their homeland is mal circle of 96 clans is said to include
the present state of Maharashtra, the all true Maratha, but the lists of these 96
Marathi-speaking region that extends clans are highly varied and disputed.
from Mumbai to Goa along the west
coast of India and inland about 100 miles Meithei
(160 km) east of Nagpur.
The term Maratha is used in three The dominant population of Manipur in
overlapping senses: within the Marathi- northeastern India is Meithei, also called
speaking region it refers to the single Manipuri. The area was once inhabited
dominant Maratha caste or to the group entirely by peoples resembling such
of Maratha and Kunbi (descendants hill tribes as the Naga and the Mizo.
of settlers who came from the north Intermarriage and the political domi-
about the beginning of the 1st cen- nance of the strongest tribes led to a
tury AD) castes; outside Maharashtra, gradual merging of ethnic groups and
the term often loosely designates the the formation finally of the Meithei, num-
entire regional population speaking the bering about 1,200,000 in the late 20th
Marathi language, numbering some 80 century. They are divided into clans, the
million; and, used historically, the term members of which do not intermarry.
denotes the regional kingdom founded Although they speak a Tibeto-Burman
by the Maratha leader Shivaji in the 17th language, they differ culturally from
century and expanded by his successors the surrounding hill tribes by following
in the 18th century. Hindu customs. Before their conversion
The Maratha group of castes is a to Hinduism they ate meat, sacrificed
largely rural class of peasant cultivators, cattle, and practiced headhunting, but
landowners, and soldiers. Some Maratha now they abstain from meat (though they
and Kunbi have at times claimed eat fish), do not drink alcohol, observe
Kshatriya (the warrior and ruling class) rigid rules against ritual pollution, and
standing and supported their claims to revere the cow. They claim high-caste
this rank by reference to clan names and status. The worship of Hindu gods, with
genealogies linking themselves with epic especial devotion to Krishna, has not
heroes, Rajput clans of the north, or his- precluded the cult’s worship of many pre-
torical dynasties of the early medieval Hindu indigenous deities and spirits.
period. The Maratha and Kunbi group Rice cultivation on irrigated fields is
of castes is divided into subregional the basis of their economy. They are keen
The Peoples of India and the Caste System | 35

Boat on a canal south of Logtak Lake, near Imphal, Manipur, India. Most of Manipur’s popu-
lation is made up of Meithei people. Gerald Cubitt
36 | The Culture of India

horse breeders, and polo is a national a man to exchange a sister or close female
game. Hockey, boat races, theatrical per- relative for his bride. Following Hindu tra-
formances, and dancing (well known dition, the Mina cremate their dead while
throughout India as the Manipuri style) the Meo observe burial rites.
are other pastimes.
The Mizo, also called Lushai (Lushei), are
The Mina (Meo, Mewati) are a tribe and a Tibeto-Burman-speaking people who
caste inhabiting Rajasthan and Punjab numbered about 540,000 in the late 20th
states in northern India, as well as Punjab century. They inhabit the mountainous
province, Pakistan. They speak Hindi and tract on the India-Myanmar (Burma) bor-
claim descent from the Rajputs. The Mina der known as the Mizo (formerly Lushai)
may have originated in Inner Asia, and Hills, in the Indian state of Mizoram. Like
tradition suggests that they migrated to the Kuki tribes, with which they have
India in the 7th century with the Rajputs, affinities, the Mizo traditionally prac-
but no other link between the two has been ticed shifting slash-and-burn cultivation,
substantiated. In the 11th century, the Meo moving their villages frequently. Their
branch of the Mina tribe converted from migratory habits facilitated rapid expan-
Hinduism to Islam, but they retained sion in the 18th and 19th centuries at the
Hindu dress. Although the Mina and Meo expense of weaker Kuki clans.
are regarded as variants, some Meo claim Mizo villages traditionally were situ-
that their ancestral home is Jaipur. ated on the crests of hills or spurs and,
Originally a nomadic, warlike people until the pacification of the country
practicing animal breeding and known for under British rule, were fortified by stock-
lawlessness, today most Mina and Meo are ades. Every village, though comprising
farmers with respected social positions. In members of several distinct clans, was
the late 20th century the Mina in India an independent political unit ruled by
numbered more than 1,100,000, and the a hereditary chief. The stratified Mizo
Meo, concentrated in northeastern Punjab, society consisted originally of chiefs,
Pakistan, numbered more than 300,000. commoners, serfs, and slaves (war cap-
Both are divided into 12 exogamous clans, tives). The British suppressed feuding
led by a headman (muqaddam) and a and headhunting but administered the
council (panch) of tribe members. They area through the indigenous chiefs.
trace descent patrilineally (through the
male line) and divide themselves into three Munda
classes: landlords, farmers, and watchmen.
Both the Mina and Meo permit widow The name Munda refers to any of sev-
divorce and remarriage, and the Meo allow eral more or less distinct tribal groups
The Peoples of India and the Caste System | 37

inhabiting a broad belt in central and Sino-Tibetan languages. Almost every vil-
eastern India and speaking various lage has its own dialect; to communicate
Munda languages of the Austroasiatic with other Naga groups they typically use
stock. They numbered approximately broken Assamese (Nagamese), English, or
9 million in the early 21st century. In Hindi. The largest tribes are the Konyaks,
the Chota Nagpur Plateau in southern Aos, Tangkhuls, Semas, and Angamis.
Bihar, adjacent parts of West Bengal and Most Nagas live in small villages
Madhya Pradesh, and the hill districts of strategically placed on hillsides and
Orissa, they form a numerically impor- located near water. Shifting cultivation
tant part of the population. (jhum) is commonly practiced, although
Munda history and origins are mat- some tribes practice terracing. Rice and
ters of conjecture. The territory they now millet are staples. Manufactures and
occupy was until recently difficult to reach arts include weaving (on simple tension
and remote from the great centres of looms) and wood carving. Naga fisher-
Indian civilization; it is hilly, forested, and men are noted for the use of intoxicants
relatively poor for agriculture. It is believed to kill or incapacitate fish.
that the Munda were once more widely Tribal organization has ranged from
distributed but retreated to their present autocracy to democracy, and power may
homelands with the advance and spread of reside in a council of elders or tribal
other peoples. Nevertheless, they have not council. Descent is traced through the
lived in complete isolation and share (with paternal line; clan and kindred are funda-
some tribal variation) many culture traits mental to social organization.
with other Indian peoples. Most Munda As a result of missionary efforts dat-
peoples are agriculturists. Along with ing to the 19th-century British occupation
their languages, the Munda have tended of the area, a sizable majority of Nagas
to preserve their own culture, although are Christians.
the government of India encourages their In response to nationalist political
assimilation to the larger Indian society. sentiment among the Nagas, the gov-
ernment of India created the state of
Naga Nagaland in 1961.

Nagas constitute a group of tribes inhab- Oraon

iting the Naga Hills of Nagaland state in
northeastern India. They include more The Oraon are an aboriginal people of the
than 20 tribes of mixed origin, vary- Chota Nagpur region in the state of Bihar,
ing cultures, and very different physical India. They call themselves Kurukh and
appearance. The numerous Naga lan- speak a Dravidian language akin to Gondi
guages (sometimes classified as dialects) and other tribal languages of central India.
belong to the Tibeto-Burman group of the They once lived farther to the southwest
38 | The Culture of India

on the Rohtas Plateau, but they were dis- They speak languages belonging to the
lodged by other populations and migrated Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European
to Chota Nagpur, where they settled in the family and are also called Parbate, Khasa,
vicinity of Munda-speaking tribes. or Chetri. The people are historically
Speakers of Oraon number about ancient, having been mentioned by the
1,900,000, but in urban areas, and par- authors Pliny and Herodotus and figuring
ticularly among Christians, many Oraon in India’s epic poem, the Mahabharata.
speak Hindi as their mother tongue. The Their numbers were estimated to be
tribe is divided into numerous clans asso- about 20 million in the early 21st century.
ciated with animal, plant, and mineral The great majority of the Pahari are
totems. Every village has a headman and a Hindus, but their caste structure is less
hereditary priest; a number of neighbour- orthodox and less complex than that of the
ing villages constitute a confederation, plains to the south. Usually they are divided
the affairs of which are conducted by a into the high “clean” or “twice-born” castes
representative council. (Khasia, or Ka) and the low “unclean” or
An important feature of the social life “polluting” castes (Dom). Most of the high-
of a village is the bachelors’ dormitory caste Pahari are farmers; the Dom work in
for unmarried males. The bachelors sleep a variety of occupations and may be gold-
together in the dormitory, which is usu- smiths, leather workers, tailors, musicians,
ally on the outskirts of the village. There drummers, and sweepers.
is a separate house for the females. The The Pahari have historically practiced
dormitory institution serves in the social- a wide variety of marriage arrangements,
izing and training of the young. including polyandry (several brothers
The traditional religion of the Oraon sharing one or more wives), polygyny
comprises the cult of a supreme god, (several wives sharing a husband), group
Dharmes, the worship of ancestors, and marriages (with an equal number of hus-
the propitiation of numerous tutelary bands and wives), and monogamy. Girls
deities and spirits. Hinduism has influ- may be married before age 10, though
enced the ritual and certain beliefs. Many they do not cohabit with their husbands
Oraon, including the majority of the edu- until they are mature.
cated, have become Christians. The Pahari are an agricultural
people, cultivating terraces on the hill-
Pahari sides. Their chief crops are potatoes and
rice. Other crops include wheat, barley,
The Pahari people of India form a major- onions, tomatoes, tobacco, and various
ity of the population of Himalayan India vegetables. Sheep, goats, and cattle are
(in Himachal Pradesh and northern kept. The spinning of wool is done by
Uttar Pradesh), as well as three-fifths of everyone, while weaving is carried on by
the population of neighbouring Nepal. members of a lower caste.
The Peoples of India and the Caste System | 39

Sansi numbers live in Bangladesh and Nepal.

Their language is Santhali, a dialect of
The Sansi are a nomadic criminal tribe Kherwari, a Munda language.
originally located in the Rajputana area Many Santhal are employed in the
of northwestern India but expelled in the coal mines near Asansol or the steel fac-
13th century by Muslim invaders and now tories in Jamshedpur, while others work
living in Rajasthan state as well as scat- during part of the year as paid agricultural
tered throughout all of India. The Sansi labourers. In the villages, where tribal life
claim Rajput descent, but, according to continues, the most important economic
legend, their ancestors are the Beriya, activity is the cultivation of rice. Each
another criminal caste. Relying on cattle village is led by a hereditary headman
thievery and petty crime for survival, the assisted by a council of elders; he also has
Sansi were named in the Criminal Tribes some religious and ceremonial functions.
Acts of 1871, 1911, and 1924, which outlawed Groups of villages are linked together in
their nomadic lifestyle. Reform, initiated a larger territorial unit termed a pargana,
by the Indian government, has been dif- which also has a hereditary headman.
ficult because they are a Scheduled Caste The Santhal have 12 clans, each
and sell or barter any land or cattle given divided into a number of subdivisions
to them. also based on descent, which is patrilin-
Numbering some 60,000 in the early eal (through the male line). Members of
21st century, the Sansi speak Hindi and the same clan do not marry each other.
divide themselves into two classes, the Membership in the clan and subclan car-
khare (people of pure Sansi ancestry) ries certain injunctions and prohibitions
and the malla (people of mixed ances- with regard to style of ornament, food,
try). Some are cultivators and labourers, housing, and religious ritual. Marriage is
although many are still nomadic. They generally monogamous; polygyny (hav-
trace their descent patrilineally and also ing more than one wife at a time), though
serve as the traditional family genealo- permitted, is rare. The traditional religion
gists of the Jat, a peasant caste. Their centres on the worship of spirits, and
religion is simple Hinduism, but a few the ancestral spirits of the headmen are
have converted to Islam. objects of an important cult.

Santhal Savara

The tribal Santhal (Manjhi) people of The Savara (Saora, Sora, Saura) of eastern
eastern India, numbered about more than India are distributed mainly in the states of
5 million in the late 20th century. Their Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh,
greatest concentration is in the states of and Bihar, with total numbers of about
Bihar, West Bengal, and Orissa. Smaller 310,000, most of whom are in Orissa.
40 | The Culture of India

Most Savara have become Hinduized Muslims, and Jains among them. In the
and generally speak the Oriya language. recent past, the Tamil area was also the
Their traditional form of Munda dia- home of the movement that calls for the
lect is preserved among those living desanskritization and debrahmanization
in the hills, however. The Savara of the of Tamil culture, language, and literature.
hill country are divided into subtribes The Tamil have a long history of
mainly on the basis of occupation: the achievement; sea travel, city life, and
Jati Savara are cultivators; the Arsi, commerce seem to have developed
weavers of cloth; the Muli, workers in early among them. Tamil trade with the
iron; the Kindal, basket makers; and the ancient Greeks and Romans is verified
Kumbi, potters. The traditional social by literary, linguistic, and archaeologi-
unit is the extended family, including cal evidence. The Tamil have the oldest
both males and females descended from cultivated Dravidian language, and their
a common male ancestor. rich literary tradition extends back to the
early Christian era. The Chera, Chola,
Tamil Pandya, and Pallava dynasties ruled over
the Tamil area before the Vijayanagar
The Tamil people, originally of southern empire extended its hegemony in the 14th
India, make up the majority of the popula- century, and these earlier dynasties pro-
tion of Tamil Nadu state and also inhabit duced many great kingdoms. Under them
parts of Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra the Tamil people built great temples, irri-
Pradesh states, all situated in the south- gation tanks, dams, and roads, and they
ernmost third of India. Their language, played an important role in the transmis-
also called Tamil, is one of the princi- sion of Indian culture to Southeast Asia.
pal languages of the Dravidian family. The Chola, for example, were known for
Altogether they numbered about 57 mil- their naval power and brought the Malay
lion in the late 20th century. kingdom of Sri Vijaya under their suzer-
The Tamil area in India is a centre ainty in AD 1025. Though the Tamil area
of traditional Hinduism. Tamil schools was integrated culturally with the rest of
of personal religious devotion (bhakti) India for a long time, politically it was for
have long been important in Hinduism, most of the time a separate entity until
being enshrined in a literature dating the advent of British rule in India.
back to the 6th century AD. Buddhism The Tamil in Sri Lanka today are of
and Jainism were widespread among various groups and castes, though they
the Tamil in the early Christian era, are all Hindus. The so-called Ceylon
and these religions’ literatures predate Tamil, constituting approximately half
the early bhakti literature in the Tamil of them, are concentrated in the northern
area. Although the present-day Tamil part of the island. They are relatively well-
are mostly Hindus, there are Christians, educated, and many of them hold clerical
The Peoples of India and the Caste System | 41

Interior of the Mahishasuramardini cave temple, Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India.

Frederick M. Asher

and professional positions. The so-called government in hopes of creating a sepa-

Indian Tamil of Sri Lanka were brought rate Tamil state for themselves in the
there by the British in the 19th and 20th north and northeast. The Tamil reb-
centuries as workers on the tea estates, els’ organization, the Liberation Tigers
and they have been regarded as for- of Tamil Eelam (popularly, the “Tamil
eigners by the other ethnic groups. The Tigers”), continued their insurgency until
Ceylon and Indian Tamil are organized they were defeated by the Sri Lankan gov-
under different caste systems and have ernment in May 2009.
little social intercourse with each other.
In the 1980s, growing tensions Toda
between the Ceylon Tamil and the
Sinhalese Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka The Toda are a pastoral tribe of the Nilgiri
prompted Tamil militants to under- Hills of southern India. Numbering
take a guerrilla war against the central only about 800 in the early 1960s, they
42 | The Culture of India

had almost doubled in numbers by and much of it has been reforested. This
the mid-2000s because of improved threatens to undermine Toda culture by
health facilities. The Toda language is greatly diminishing the buffalo herds.
Dravidian but is the most aberrant of
that linguistic stock. Caste
Toda settlements contain from three
to seven small thatched houses scattered A unique development of Hindu soci-
over the pasture slopes. Built on a wooden eties, castes are the ranked, hereditary
framework, the typical house has an social groups, often linked with occupa-
arched roof in the shape of a half barrel. tion and marriage within their own group,
The Toda traditionally trade dairy prod- that together constitute traditional soci-
ucts, as well as cane and bamboo articles, eties in South Asia, particularly among
with the other Nilgiri peoples, receiv- Hindus in India.
ing Badaga grain and cloth and Kota Use of the term caste to character-
tools and pottery in exchange. Kurumba ize social organization in South Asia,
people play music for Toda funerals and particularly among the Hindus, dates
supply various forest products. to the middle of the 16th century. Casta
Toda religion centres on the all- (from Latin castus, “chaste”) in the
important buffalo. Ritual must be sense of purity of breed was employed
performed for almost every dairy activ- by Portuguese observers to describe the
ity, from milking and giving the herds division of Hindu society in western and
salt to churning butter and shifting pas- southwestern India into socially ranked
tures seasonally. There are ceremonies occupational categories. In an effort to
for the ordination of dairymen-priests, for maintain vertical social distance, these
rebuilding dairies, and for rethatching groups practiced mutual exclusion in mat-
funerary temples. These rites and the ters relating to eating and, presumably,
complex funeral rituals are the major marrying. Subsequently, cast, or caste,
occasions of social intercourse, when became established in English and major
intricate poetic songs alluding to the European languages (notably Dutch and
buffalo cult are composed and chanted. French) in the same specific sense. Caste
Polyandry is fairly common; several is generally believed to be an ancient,
men, usually brothers, may share one wife. abiding, and unique Indian institution
When a Toda woman becomes pregnant upheld by a complex cultural ideology.
one of her husbands ceremonially pres-
ents her with a toy bow and arrow, thus Varnas
proclaiming himself the social father of
her children. It is essential to distinguish between
Some Toda pasture land has come large-scale and small-scale views of caste
under recent cultivation by other peoples society, which may respectively be said
The Peoples of India and the Caste System | 43

to represent theory and practice, or ide- have been based mainly on personal skills
ology and the existing social reality. On rather than birth, status, or wealth. By the
the large scale, contemporary students of end of the Rigvedic period, however, the
Hindu society recall an ancient four-fold hereditary principle of social rank had
arrangement of socioeconomic catego- taken root. Thus the Purusha (Universal
ries called the varnas, which is traced Man) hymn of the Rigveda (probably a
back to an oral tradition preserved in late addition to the text) describes the cre-
the Rigveda (dating from perhaps 1000 ation of humanity in the form of varnas
BC). The Sanskrit word varna has many from a self-sacrificial rite: Brahmans were
connotations including description, selec- the mouth of Purusha, from his arms were
tion, classification, and colour. Of these, it made the Rajanyas, from his two thighs, the
is colour that appears to have been the Vaishyas, and the Sudras were born from
intended meaning of the word as used by his feet. The extent to which the ideology’s
the authors of the Rigveda. The “Aryans” hierarchical ordering of the four groups
(arya, “noble,” “distinguished”) were the mirrored the social reality is unknown.
branch of Indo-European peoples that The highest ranked among the var-
migrated about 1500 BC to northwestern nas, the Brahmans, were priests and the
India (the Indus Valley and the Punjab masters and teachers of sacred knowledge
Plain), where they encountered the local, (veda). Next in rank but hardly socially
dark-skinned people they called the daha inferior was the ruling class of Rajanya
(enemies) or the dasyus (servants). It is (kinsmen of the king), later renamed
also likely that the daha included earlier Kshatriya, those endowed with sover-
immigrants from Iran. The tendency of eignty and, as warriors, responsible for
some 20th-century writers to reduce the the protection of the dominion (kshatra).
ancient bipolar classification to racial A complex, mutually reinforcing relation-
differences on the basis of skin colour is ship of sacerdotal authority and temporal
misleading and rightly no longer in vogue. power was obviously shaped over a long
The Indo-Europeans and the dasyus period of time.
may have been antagonistic ethnic groups Clearly ranked below the two top
divided by physical features, culture, and categories were the Vaishyas (from
language. Whatever their relations, it is vish, “those settled on soils”), compris-
likely that they gradually became inte- ing agriculturists and merchants. These
grated into an internally plural social three varnas together were deemed to be
order significantly influenced by the prior “twice-born” (dvija), as the male mem-
social organization of the Indo-Europeans. bers were entitled to go through a rite of
A threefold division of society into priests, initiation during childhood. This second
warriors, and commoners was a part of birth entitled them to participate in spec-
the Indo-European heritage. In an early ified sacraments and gave them access
period, membership in a varna appears to to sacred knowledge. They were also
44 | The Culture of India

entitled alongside their social superiors (broadly, “form of existence fixed by

to demand and receive menial services birth”), it is jati—the small-scale per-
from the Sudras, the fourth and lowest spective represented by local village
ranked varna. Certain degrading occupa- societies—that most scholars have in mind
tions, such as disposal of dead animals, when they write about the caste system
excluded some Sudras from any physi- of India. Jatis and relations among them
cal contact with the “twice-born” varnas. have been accessible to observers from
As a Scheduled Caste, they were simply ancient times to the present. (Hereafter
dubbed “the fifth” (panchama) category. jati and caste will be used synonymously.)
In the varna framework, the Empirically, the caste system is one
Brahmans have everything, directly or of regional or local jatis, each with a his-
indirectly: “noble” identity, “twice-born” tory of its own, whether this be Kashmir
status, sacerdotal authority, and domin- or Tamil Nadu, Bengal or Gujarat. History
ion over the Vaishyas and the Sudras, may differ, but the form of social organi-
who accounted for the great majority of zation does not. Everywhere castes have
the people. This is not surprising, for the traditionally been endogamous; each jati
ancient Brahmans were the authors of the was associated with one or more heredi-
ideology. The four varnas, together with tary occupations, but certain occupations
the notional division of the individual (for example, agriculture or nontradi-
life cycle into four stages, or ashramas tional civil service) were caste-neutral;
(brahmacharya, or the years of learning and there were jati-specific restrictions
and extreme discipline; garhasthya, or on what and with whom one could eat
householdership; vanaprastha, or retire- and drink. And, everywhere castes were
ment; and sannyasa, or renunciation of ranked vertically, with the Brahmans at
all worldly bonds) may at best be con- the top by virtue of their inherent condi-
sidered an archetypical blueprint for the tion of ritual purity, and the Sudras at the
good, moral life. Indeed, the Hindu way bottom. Those among the Sudras who
of life is traditionally called the varnash- disposed of impure substances (body
rama dharma (duties of the stages of life emissions, dead animals, etc.) were the
for one’s varna). The varna order remains “untouchables.” Between the top and bot-
relevant to the understanding of the sys- tom rungs there was considerable fluidity.
tem of jatis, as it provides the ideological It is reasonable to assume that the
setting for the patterns of interaction that caste system, contrary to the popular
are continuously under negotiation. images of its changelessness, has always
been characterized by the efforts of vari-
Jatis ous jatis to raise themselves in the social
order. Such efforts have been more suc-
Although the term caste has been used cessful in the case of low but ritually
loosely to stand for both varna and jati pure castes than in the case of those
The Peoples of India and the Caste System | 45

living below the line of pollution. As for is the dissociation of ritual status from
“untouchability,” this was declared unlaw- secular economic and political power.
ful in the Indian constitution framed after Although a great many spheres of life
independence and adopted in 1949–50. in modern India are little influenced by
Two routes have been available to caste, most marriages are nevertheless
castes seeking upward mobility. The tra- arranged within the caste. This is in part
ditional route consists of the adoption of because most people live in rural com-
certain critical elements of the way of life munities and because the arrangement
of clean (upper) castes, such as the ritual of marriages is a family activity carried
of initiation into the status of a clean out through existing networks of kinship
jati, wearing of the sacred thread (a loop and caste.
of thread worn next to the skin over the
left shoulder and across the right hip) Cultural Milieu
symbolic of such status, vegetarianism,
teetotalism, abstention from work that is The tempo of life in this large and diverse
considered polluting or demeaning, and polyglot nation varies from region to
prohibition of the remarriage of widows. region and from community to commu-
The process is gradual and not always nity. By the early 21st century the lifestyle
successful. The critical test of success lies of middle-class and affluent urban fami-
in the willingness, first, of higher castes lies differed little from that of urbanites
to accept cooked food from members of in Europe, East Asia, or the Americas.
the upwardly mobile jati and, second, of For the most part, however, the flow of
equivalent-status castes to provide them rural life continued much as it always
services that are deemed demeaning. had. Many small villages remained iso-
Within the framework of traditional lated from most forms of media and
values, socially ambitious castes have communications, and work was largely
also been known, when possible, to sup- done by hand or by the use of animal
plement the criterion of ritual purity by power. Traditional forms of work and
the secular criteria of numerical strength, recreation only slowly have given way to
economic well-being (notably in the habits and pastimes imported from the
form of land ownership), and the ability outside world. The pace of globalization
to mobilize physical force to emerge as was slow in much of rural India, and even
the wielders of power in village affairs in urban areas Western tastes in food,
and in local politics. Such a jati is usu- dress, and entertainment were adopted
ally referred to as the “dominant caste.” with discrimination. Indian fashions
It is important to distinguish between have remained the norm; Indians have
status and dominance, although in histor- continued to prefer traditional cuisine to
ical practice they usually coincided. An Western fare; and, though Indian youths
important aspect of social change today are as obsessed as those in the West with
46 | The Culture of India

pop culture, Indians produce their own based on gender, age, and, in the case
films and music (albeit, strongly influ- of a woman, the number of her male
enced by Western styles), which have children. The senior male of the house-
been extremely popular domestically and hold—whether father, grandfather, or
have been successfully marketed abroad. uncle—typically is the recognized fam-
Throughout India, custom and reli- ily head, and his wife is the person who
gious ritual are still widely observed and regulates the tasks assigned to female
practiced. Among Hindus, religious and family members. Males enjoy higher
social custom follows the samskara, a status than females; boys are often pam-
series of personal sacraments and rites pered while girls are relatively neglected.
conducted at various stages throughout This is reflected in significantly differ-
life. Observant members of other con- ent rates of mortality and morbidity
fessional communities follow their own between the sexes, allegedly (though reli-
rites and rituals. Among all groups, caste able statistics are lacking) in occasional
protocols have continued to play a role female infanticide, and increasingly in
in enforcing norms and values, despite the abortion of female fetuses following
decades of state legislation to alleviate prenatal gender testing. This pattern of
caste bias. preference is largely connected to the
institution of dowry, since the family’s
Family and Kinship obligation to provide a suitable dowry to
the bride’s new family represents a major
For almost all Indians the family is the financial liability. Traditionally, women
most important social unit. There is a were expected to treat their husbands
strong preference for extended families, as if they were gods, and obedience of
consisting of two or more married couples wives to husbands has remained a strong
(often of more than a single genera- social norm. This expectation of devo-
tion), who share finances and a common tion may follow a husband to the grave;
kitchen. Marriage is virtually universal, within some caste groups, widows are
divorce rare, and virtually every marriage not allowed to remarry even if they are
produces children. Almost all marriages bereaved at a young age.
are arranged by family elders on the Hindu marriage has traditionally
basis of caste, degree of consanguinity, been viewed as the “gift of a maiden”
economic status, education (if any), and (kanyadan) from the bride’s father to the
astrology. A bride traditionally moves to household of the groom. This gift is also
her husband’s house. However, nonar- accompanied by a dowry, which generally
ranged “love marriages” are increasingly consists of items suitable to start a young
common in cities. couple in married life. In some cases,
Within families, there is a clear however, dowries demanded by grooms
order of social precedence and influence and their families have become quite
The Peoples of India and the Caste System | 47

The Chariot Festival of the Jagannatha temple, Puri, Orissa, India. © Dinodia/Dinodia
Photo Library

extravagant, and some families appear promises a mahr, a commitment to pro-

to regard them as means of enrichment. vide his bride with wealth in her lifetime.
There are instances, a few of which have Beyond the family the most impor-
been highly publicized, wherein young tant unit is the caste. Within a village
brides have been treated abusively—even all members of a single caste recognize
tortured and murdered—in an effort to a fictive kinship relation and a sense of
extract more wealth from the bride’s father. mutual obligation, but ideas of fictive
The “dowry deaths” of such young women kinship extend also to the village as a
have contributed to a reaction against the whole. Thus, for example, a woman who
dowry in some modern urban families. marries and goes to another village never
A Muslim marriage is considered to ceases to be regarded as a daughter of her
be a contractual relationship—contracted village. If she is badly treated in her hus-
by the bride’s father or guardian—and, band’s village, it may become a matter of
though there are often dowries, there is collective concern for her natal village,
formal reciprocity, in which the groom not merely for those of her own caste.
48 | The Culture of India

Festivals and Holidays (called dal), a few vegetables, and, for

those who can afford it, a small bowl of
Virtually all regions of India have their yogurt. Chilies and other spices add zest
distinctive places of pilgrimage, local to this simple fare.
saints and folk heroes, religious festi- Spices are a distinctive feature of the
vals, and associated fairs. There are also cooking of India and Indonesia. In India,
innumerable festivals associated with every good cook prepares a curry—a mix-
individual villages or temples or with ture of such fragrant powdered spices
specific castes and cults. The most popular as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin,
of the religious festivals celebrated over the nutmeg, and turmeric. The spice blend is
greater part of India are Vasantpanchami kept in a jar in the kitchen and is used to
(generally in February, the exact date season all sorts of foods.
determined by the Hindu lunar calendar), The Hindus of India have developed
in honour of Sarasvati, the goddess of what is perhaps the world’s greatest veg-
learning; Holi (February–March), a time etarian cuisine. They use cereals, pulses
when traditional hierarchical relation- (lentils, peas, and beans), and rice with
ships are forgotten and celebrants throw great imagination to produce a widely
coloured water and powder at one another; varied but generally meatless cuisine.
Dussehra (September–October), when Indian cooks prepare delicious chut-
the story of the Ramayana is reenacted; neys, highly seasoned vegetables and
and Diwali, a time for lighting lamps and fruits used as side dishes that must be
exchanging gifts. The major secular holi- fresh to be fully appreciated. They also
days are Independence Day (August 15) make little delicacies such as idlis, cakes
and Republic Day (January 26). of rice and lentils that are cooked by
steaming; pakoras, vegetables fried in
Cuisine chickpea batter; and jalebis, pretzel-like
tidbits made by soaking a deep-fried
Although there is considerable regional batter of wheat and chickpea flour in a
variation in Indian cuisine, the day-to- sweet syrup. Raitas, yogurt with fruits or
day diet of most Indians lacks variety. vegetables, are another favourite. Other
Depending on income, two or three meals specialties include biryani, a family of
generally are consumed. The bulk of complicated rice dishes cooked with
almost all meals is whatever the regional meats or shrimp; samosa, a flaky, stuffed,
staple might be: rice throughout most deep-fried pastry; korma, lamb curry
of the east and south, flat wheat bread made with a thick sauce using crushed
(chapati) in the north and northwest, and nuts and yogurt; masala, the dry or wet
bread made from pearl millet (bajra) in base for curry; and a great variety of
Maharashtra. This is usually supple- breads and hot wafers, including naan,
mented with the puree of a legume pappadam, parathas, and chapatis.
The Peoples of India and the Caste System | 49

In southern India and especially in roasted, barbecued dishes, also kabobs

the historical region of Telingana, or and the so-called dry curries, versus the
Andhra, the food is seasoned with fresh stew-type cooking of the south.
chili peppers and can be fiery hot. Lamb is Fish, fresh milk, and fruits and
the most important meat served in north- vegetables, however, are more widely
ern India. It is prepared in hundreds of consumed, subject to regional and sea-
different ways as kabobs, curries, roasts, sonal availability. In general, tea is the
and in rice dishes. In pre-independence preferred beverage in northern and east-
days the Mughal cuisine there ranked ern India, while coffee is more common
among the most lavish in the world. in the south.
The Mughal cuisine developed during
the Muslim empire of the great Mughal CLOTHINg
kingdom. It is based, mostly because of
religious and geographic limitations, Clothing for most Indians is also quite
on lamb. The preparations are mostly simple and typically untailored. Men

Indian men wearing dhotis, from a 19th-century painting. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert
Museum, London
50 | The Culture of India

(especially in rural areas) frequently wear worn, or in hot weather, when the head
little more than a broadcloth dhoti, worn may be protected by a turban. The more-
as a loose skirtlike loincloth, or, in parts affluent and higher-caste men are likely
of the south and east, the tighter wrap- to wear a tailored shirt, increasingly of
around lungi. In both cases the body Western style. Muslims, Sikhs, and urban
remains bare above the waist, except in dwellers generally are more inclined to
cooler weather, when a shawl also may be wear tailored clothing, including various
types of trousers, jackets, and vests.
Although throughout most of India
women wear saris and short blouses,
the way in which a sari is wrapped var-
ies greatly from one region to another.
In Punjab, as well as among older female
students and many city dwellers, the char-
acteristic dress is the shalwar-kamiz, a

Detail of a patola sari from Gujarat,

late 18th century; in the Prince of Wales
Indian woman wearing a sari, detail of a Museum of Western India, Mumbai.
gouache painting on mica from Tiruchchi- Gujarat is famous for its skilled craft-
rappalli, India, c. 1850. Courtesy of the work, including the making of silk patola
Victoria and Albert Museum, London fabric. P. Chandra
The Peoples of India and the Caste System | 51

combination of pajama-like trousers and Indians are passionate about cricket,

a long-tailed shirt (saris being reserved which probably appeared on the sub-
for special occasions). Billowing ankle- continent in the early 18th century. The
length skirts and blouses are the typical country competed in its first official test
female dress of Rajasthan and parts of in 1932 and in 1983—led by captain Kapil
Gujarat. Most rural Indians, especially Dev, one of the most successful cricket-
females, do not wear shoes and, when ers in history—won the World Cup. Golf
footwear is necessary, prefer sandals. is also played throughout India. The
The modes of dress of tribal Indians Royal Calcutta Golf Club, established in
are exceedingly varied and can be, as Kolkata in 1829, is the oldest golf club in
among certain Naga groups, quite ornate. India and the first outside Great Britain.
Throughout India, however, Western India made its Olympic Games debut
dress is increasingly in vogue, especially at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, though it
among urban and educated males, and did not form an Olympic association until
Western-style school uniforms are worn 1927. The following year, in Amsterdam,
by both sexes in many schools, even in India competed in field hockey for the
rural India. first time. The national team’s victory that
year was the first of six consecutive gold
Sports and Recreation medals in the event between 1928 and
1956; they won again in 1964 and 1980.
The history of sports in India dates to
thousands of years ago, and numerous Media and Publishing
games, including chess, wrestling, and
archery, are thought to have originated Several thousand daily newspapers are
there. Contemporary Indian sport is a published in India. Although English-
diverse mix, with traditional games, such language dailies and journals remain
as kabaddi and kho-kho, and those intro- highly influential, the role of the ver-
duced by the British, especially cricket, nacular press is increasing steadily
football (soccer), and field hockey, enjoy- in absolute and relative importance.
ing great popularity. Among the largest-circulating dailies
Kabaddi, primarily an Indian game, are The Times of India and Hindustan
is believed to be some 4,000 years old. Times (both in English), the Hindustan
Combining elements of wrestling and and the Navbharat Times (Hindi), and
rugby, the team sport has been a regu- the Anandabazar Patrika (Bangla).
lar part of the Asian Games since 1990. Book publishing is a thriving industry.
Kho-kho, a form of tag, ranks as one of the Academic titles account for a large por-
most popular traditional sports in India, tion of all works published, but there is
and its first national championship was also a considerable market for literature.
held in the early 1960s.  On the whole, the press functions with
52 | The Culture of India

little government censorship, and seri- name Doordarshan, later changed to

ous controls have been imposed only in Doordarshan India (“Television India”).
matters of national security, in times of Television and educational programming
emergency, or when it is deemed neces- are transmitted via the Indian National
sary to avoid inflaming passions (e.g., Satellite (INSAT) system. The country’s
after communal riots or comparable dis- first Hindi-language cable channel, Zee
turbances). The country’s largest news TV, was established in 1992, and this
agency, the Press Trust of India, was was followed by other cable and satellite
founded in 1947. The United News of services.
India was founded in 1961. There is relatively dense telephone
Radio broadcasting began privately service in most urban areas, but many
in 1927 but became a monopoly of the rural areas remain isolated. The same
colonial government in 1930. In 1936 is true of cellular telephones, which are
it was given its current name, All India common in major cities. Internet cafés
Radio, and since 1957 it also has been can be found in many affluent areas, and
known as Akashvani. The union govern- millions of Indian households are con-
ment provides radio service throughout nected to the Internet via telephone and
the country via hundreds of transmitters. cable connections. There are numerous
Television was introduced experimen- high-technology centres in the country,
tally by Akashvani in 1959, and regular and India is connected to the outside
broadcasting commenced in 1965. In 1976 world via international cables and across
it was made a separate service under the satellite networks.
Indian Languages
and Writing

T here are probably hundreds of major and minor lan-

guages and many hundreds of recognized dialects
in India. There are also several isolate languages, such as
Nahali, which is spoken in a small area of Madhya Pradesh
state. The overwhelming majority of Indians speak Indo-
Aryan or Dravidian languages.
The difference between language and dialect in India
is often arbitrary, however, and official designations vary
notably from one census to another. This is complicated by
the fact that, owing to their long-standing contact with one
another, India’s languages have come to converge and to form
an amalgamated linguistic area—a Sprachbund—comparable,
for example, to that found in the Balkans. Languages within
India have adopted words and grammatical forms from one
another, and vernacular dialects within languages often
diverge widely. Over much of India, and especially the Indo-
Gangetic Plain, there are no clear boundaries between one
vernacular and another (although ordinary villagers are
sensitive to nuances of dialect that differentiate nearby local-
ities). In the mountain fringes of the country, especially in
the northeast, spoken dialects are often sufficiently different
from one valley to the next to merit classifying each as a truly
distinct language. There were at one time, for example, no
fewer than 25 languages classified within the Naga group, not
54 | The Culture of India

one of which was spoken by more than languages. For example, the Hindi census
60,000 people. category includes not only Hindi proper
Lending order to this linguistic mix (about 422,050,000 speakers in 2001) but
are a number of written, or literary, lan- also such languages as Bhojpuri (about
guages used on the subcontinent, each of 33,100,000), Magahi (about 13,975,000),
which often differs markedly from the ver- and Maithili (more than 12,175,000).
nacular with which it is associated. Many Other Indo-Aryan languages that
people are bilingual or multilingual, have been officially recognized in the con-
knowing their local vernacular dialect stitution are as follows (the approximate
(“mother tongue”), its associated written numbers of speakers for each are drawn
variant, and, perhaps, one or more other from the census report of 2001): Asamiya
languages. (Assamese, about 13,175,000 speakers),
Bangla (Bengali, 83,875,000), Gujarati
Indian Languages (46,100,000), Kashmiri (5,525,000),
Konkani (2,500,000), Marathi (71,950,000),
The languages spoken in India are classi- Nepali (2,875,000), Oriya (33,025,000),
fied as belonging to the following families: Punjabi (29,100,000), Sindhi (2,550,000),
Indo-European (the Indo-Aryan branch and Urdu (51,550,000).
in particular), Dravidian, Austroasiatic
(Munda in particular), and Sino-Tibetan General Characteristics
(Tibeto-Burman in particular).
Linguists generally recognize three
Indo-Aryan (Indic) major divisions of Indo-Aryan languages:
Old, Middle, and New (or Modern) Indo-
In the early 21st century, Indo-Aryan Aryan. These divisions are primarily
languages were spoken by more than linguistic and are named in the order in
800 million people, primarily in India, which they initially appeared, with later
Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri divisions coexisting with rather than
Lanka. According to the 2001 census of completely replacing earlier ones.
India, Indo-Aryan languages accounted Old Indo-Aryan includes different
for more than 790,625,000 speakers, dialects and linguistic states that are
or more than 75 percent of the popula- referred to in common as Sanskrit. The
tion. By 2003 the constitution of India most archaic Old Indo-Aryan is found
included 22 officially recognized, or in Hindu sacred texts called the Vedas,
Scheduled, languages. However, this which date to approximately 1500 BC.
number does not distinguish among There is a clear-cut difference between
many speech communities that could Vedic and post-Vedic Sanskrit in that the
legitimately be considered distinct former has certain formations that the
Indian Languages and Writing Systems | 55

latter has eliminated. The grammarian Ganges–Yamuna Doab) of Uttar Pradesh.

Panini (c. 5th–6th century BC) appro- The structure of Proto-Indo-Aryan must
priately distinguishes between usage have been similar to that of early Vedic,
proper to the language of sacred texts— albeit with dialect variations.
that is, Vedic usage—and what occurs in Some of the Indo-Aryan languages
the spoken language of his time. Other are used by relatively few speakers; oth-
distinctions are also made within the ers are used as the media of education
language, so scholars speak of Classical and of official transactions. Hindi writ-
Sanskrit and Epic Sanskrit. Despite dif- ten in the Devanagari script is one of two
ferences in genre, however, the Sanskrit official languages of the Republic of India
found in such works generally agrees (the other is English). It is widely used
with the language Panini describes. as a lingua franca throughout northern
So-called un-Paninian forms not only India, including Haryana and Madhya
reflect the influence of vernaculars but Pradesh, and in parts of the South.
also continue a freedom of usage already Asamiya, Bangla, Oriya, Punjabi, Gujarati,
to be seen in aspects of the living spoken and Marathi are the state languages of
language Panini described. Assam, West Bengal, Orissa, Punjab,
Middle Indo-Aryan includes the dia- Gujarat, and Maharashtra, respectively.
lects of inscriptions from the 3rd century There are other Modern Indo-Aryan lan-
BC to the 4th century AD as well as various guages with large numbers of speakers in
literary languages. Apabhramsha dialects India, though they lack official recogni-
represent the latest stage of Middle Indo- tion; examples include various languages
Aryan development. Though all Middle spoken in Rajasthan (e.g., Marwari,
Indo-Aryan languages are included under Mewari); several Pahari languages, spo-
the name Prakrit, it is customary to speak ken in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand,
of the Prakrits as excluding Apabhramsha. and Sindhi, spoken by Sindhis in various
Uncertainties regarding the course parts of India. Each of the major state lan-
of Indo-Aryan migration make it difficult guages has several dialects in addition to
to determine the domain of Proto-Indo- the standard dialect adopted for official
Aryan, the ancestral language of all the purposes, and Hindi has not only dialects
known Indo-Aryan tongues, if indeed but also several varieties according to the
there was any such single region. All mother tongue of the area; e.g., Bombay
that can be said with certainty is that Hindi and Calcutta Hindi.
the Indo-Aryan speakers on the Indian Many New Indo-Aryan languages
subcontinent first occupied the area also have official status outside India.
comprising most of present-day Punjab Urdu written in Perso-Arabic script is
state (India), Punjab province (Pakistan), the official language of Pakistan, where
Haryana, and the Upper Doab (of the it is spoken by most of the population
56 | The Culture of India

The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda at Vadodara, Gujarat, India. Gujarati is the
official language of Gujarat, used for educational and government purposes. Vidyavrata

as either a first or a second language. Hindi

Structurally and historically, Hindi and
Urdu are one, although they are now Hindi is the preferred official language
official languages of different coun- of India, although much national busi-
tries, are written in different alphabets, ness is also done in English and the
and have been developing in divergent other languages recognized in the Indian
manners. The term hindī (also hindvī) is constitution. In India, Hindi is spoken
known from as early as the 13th century as a first language by nearly 425 mil-
AD. The term zabān-e-urdū ‘language of lion people and as a second language by
the imperial camp’ came into use about some 120 million more. Significant Hindi
the 17th century. In the south, Urdu speech communities are also found in
was used by Muslim conquerors of the South Africa, Mauritius, Bangladesh,
14th century. Yemen, and Uganda.
Indian Languages and Writing Systems | 57

Literary Hindi, written in the educated villagers throughout the zone

Devanagari script, has been strongly claim to be speakers of Hindi because
influenced by Sanskrit. Its standard the use of these regional languages or
form is based on the Khari Boli dialect, dialects in public venues—that is, outside
found to the north and east of Delhi. Braj the circle of family and close friends—is
Bhasha, which was an important literary perceived as a sign of inadequate educa-
medium from the 15th to the 19th century, tion. In other words, speaking standard
is often treated as a dialect of Hindi, as Hindi gives as much status to people in
are Awadhi, Bagheli, Bhojpuri, Bundeli, this region as speaking English gives in
Chhattisgarhi, Garhwali, Haryanawi, the south of India; both are treated as lan-
Kanauji, Kumayuni, Magahi, and Marwari. guages of upward social mobility. Thus,
However, these so-called dialects of people in search of new jobs, marriages,
Hindi are more accurately described as and the like must use standard Hindi in
regional languages of the “Hindi zone” everyday communication. In many cases,
or “belt,” an area that approximates the young people now have only a passive
region of northern India, south through knowledge of the regional languages.
the state of Madhya Pradesh. Particularly since the 1950s, the preva-
Within this zone, the degree to which lence of mass media (radio, television,
regional languages resemble standard and films) and growing literacy have led
Hindi varies considerably. Maithili—the to an increase in the number of native
easternmost regional language of the speakers of standard Hindi.
Hindi belt—bears more historical resem- Occasionally there are demands
blance to Bangla than to standard Hindi. for the formation of separate states for
Likewise, Rajasthani, the westernmost the speakers of one or another regional
language of the belt, in some respects language. Such demands are generally
resembles Gujarati more than stan- neutralized by counterdemands for the
dard Hindi. Nevertheless, the majority recognition of that regional language’s
of speakers of these regional languages many dialects. For instance, when the
consider themselves to be speaking a demand for the formation of a separate
Hindi dialect. Among other reasons, they state of Maithili speakers was raised in
note that these languages were grouped Bihar in the 1960s and ’70s, there was
with Hindi by the British in an attempt a counterdemand for the recognition
to classify languages in the early days of of Angika in eastern Bihar and Bajjika
British rule. Furthermore, Hindi (rather in northwestern Bihar. The success-
than one of the regional languages) was ful demands for forming the new states
chosen as the medium of instruction of Chhattisgarh (from territory once in
at the elementary-school level. In large Madhya Pradesh) and Uttaranchal (from
part as a result of this colonial policy, territory in Uttar Pradesh) was more
members of the urban middle class and sociopolitical than linguistic.
58 | The Culture of India

Modern standard Hindi evolved the sounds /g/ and /x/ were replaced by
from the interaction of early speakers of /k/ and /kh/, respectively. Contact with
Khari Boli with Muslim invaders from the English language has also enriched
Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Central Asia, Hindi. Many English words, such as but-
and elsewhere. As the new immigrants ton, pencil, petrol, and college are fully
settled and began to adjust to the Indian assimilated in the Hindi lexicon.
social environment, their languages— Hindi has borrowed a number of
which were ultimately lost—enriched prefixes and suffixes from Persian that,
Khari Boli. when combined with indigenous roots,
Most of the Persian words that were have created new words. Similarly, the
assimilated with Hindi concerned admin- process of hybridization with English
istration, such as bahi ‘account book,’ has produced a large number of derived
faujdari ‘criminal (case),’ vazir ‘minister,’ nominals, such as kaungresi (congress
and musahib ‘courtier.’ Words such as + i), Ameriki (America + i), and vais-
dalil ‘argument,’ faisla ‘judgment,’ and cansalari (vice-chancellor + i), in which
gavahi ‘witness’ have been completely the base word is English and the suffix is
assimilated and are usually not recog- typically Hindi. Nouns that mix contribu-
nized as loanwords. Persian names for tions from English and Persian, such as
items of dress and bedding (e.g., pajama, table-kursi ‘tables and chairs’ and school-
chador), cuisine (e.g., korma, kabab), cos- imarat ‘school building,’ are also found.
metics (e.g., sabun ‘soap,’ hina ‘henna’), In spoken Hindi, English-based complex
furniture (e.g., kursi ‘chair,’ mez ‘table’), verbs are used as well. For instance, one
construction (e.g., divar ‘wall,’ kursi can say either aram karna or rest karna
‘plinth’), a large number of adjectives ‘to rest,’ parhai karna or study karna ‘to
and their nominal derivatives (e.g., abad study,’ and bahas karna or plead karna
‘inhabited’ and abadi ‘population’), and a ‘to plead.’
wide range of other items and concepts In earlier Hindi the relative clause
are so much a part of the Hindi language was placed either at the beginning or at
that purists of the postindependence the end of the main clause. For instance,
period have been unsuccessful in purg- one could render ‘the boy who came here
ing them. yesterday is my friend’ in several ways: wo
While borrowing Persian and Arabic larka mera dosht hai jo kal yaha aya tha,
words, Hindi also borrowed phonemes, literally ‘that boy my friend is who yester-
such as /f/ and /z/, though these were day came here’; jo larka kal yaha aya tha,
sometimes replaced by /ph/ and /j/. wo mera dosht hai, literally ‘which boy
For instance, Hindi renders the word for yesterday here came, he my friend is’; or
‘force’ as either zor or jor and the word for wo larka jo kal yaha aya tha, mera dosht
‘sight’ as nazar or najar. In most cases hai, literally ‘that boy who yesterday here
Indian Languages and Writing Systems | 59

came, my friend is.’ After colonization, Hindi originated in just such a multi-
Hindi syntax was influenced by English, lingual situation centuries ago, so may
though in a limited way. For instance, urbanism instigate the development of
until the mid-19th century, Hindi had no an even richer lexicon and even more
form for indirect narration—one could flexible syntactic devices.
formerly say Ram ne kaha, mein nahi Pressure on standard Hindi is felt not
aaoonga ‘Ram said, “I won’t come,”’ and only from non-Hindi speakers but also
now one can also say Ram ne kaha ki wo from the many Hindi speakers who have
nahi ayega ‘Ram said that he won’t come.’ recently switched over from their dialects
From the mid-20th century, the use to standard Hindi without having entirely
of Hindi on national television increased eliminated the influences of those regional
the use of a linguistic device called code languages. In such cases, sound systems
switching, in which the speaker creates often retain a regional touch; for instance,
sentences by combining a Hindi phrase Biharis use /s/ in place of /sh/, and the
with another in English, as in I told him hill peoples (the so-called Scheduled
that mai bimar hu ‘I told him that I am Tribes) of Uttar Pradesh use /sh/ for /s/.
sick.’ This device differs from code mix- The syntax of such speakers may also
ing, in which words of different origins have recognizable variants; for example,
are mixed: usne sick leave ki application instead of the standard Hindi form mujhey
de hai ‘he has applied for sick leave.’ jana hai ‘I have to go,’ Punjabis and
In 1931 linguist Sumit Kumar Delhites say maine jana hae, Hindi speak-
Chatterjee conducted a study in Calcutta ers of Teangana say maiku jana hai, and
(now Kolkata) detailing the use of a people of western Madhya Pradesh and
lingua franca that he called Bazaar Maharashtra say apanko jana hai.
Hindustani. It had minimal grammatical The Central Hindi Directorate, a
forms and a simplified basic vocabulary government agency with the mission of
used by both Europeans and Indians standardizing and modernizing Hindi, is
who spoke such languages as Asamiya, moving the language closer to Sanskrit.
Bangla, Oriya, Tamil, and Hindi. In Non-Hindi speakers, however, are pull-
the early 21st century, what came to be ing the language in another direction
known simply as Hindustani—a collo- by using increasing numbers of English
quial spoken language that, depending words and phrases and by simplifying
on geographic location, draws exten- the complex rules of subject-verb agree-
sively from Hindi and Sanskrit or from ment found in standard Hindi. Notably,
Urdu and Persian—continued to be the both groups are motivated by the same
lingua franca of Kolkata and other cos- goal—to widen the scope of Hindi by
mopolitan and industrial cities that had making it more comprehensible to non-
drawn people from all parts of India. As Hindi speakers.
60 | The Culture of India

Asamiya (Assamese) The Bengali scholar Muhammad

Shahidullah and his followers offered a
The only indigenous Indo-Aryan lan- competing theory, suggesting that the
guage of the Assam valley, Asamiya has language began in the 7th century AD
been affected in vocabulary, phonetics, and developed from spoken and written
and structure by its close association with Gauda (also, respectively, a Prakrit and
Tibeto-Burman dialects in the region. Its an Apabhramsha).
grammar is noted for its highly inflected Although Bangla is an Indo-European
forms, and there are also different pro- language, it has been influenced by
nouns and noun plural markers for use other language families prevalent in
in honorific and nonhonorific construc- South Asia, notably the Dravidian, the
tions. Asamiya is also closely related to Austroasiatic, and the Tibeto-Burman
Bangla; like Bangla and Oriya, Asamiya families, all of which contributed to
has no grammatical gender distinctions. Bangla vocabulary and provided the
Asamiya literary tradition dates to language with some structural forms. In
the 13th century. Prose texts, notably the 1960s and ’70s, Chatterji examined
buranjis (historical works), began to dictionaries from the early 20th century
appear in the 16th century. and attributed slightly more than half of
the Bangla vocabulary to native words
Bangla (Bengali) (i.e., naturally modified Sanskrit words,
corrupted forms of Sanskrit words, and
Bangla is spoken in India primarily in loanwords from non-Indo-European lan-
the states of West Bengal, Assam, and guages), about 45 percent to unmodified
Tripura. Sanskrit words, and the remainder to for-
There is general agreement that in eign words. Dominant in the last group
the distant past Oriya, Asamiya, and was Persian, which was also the source
Bangla formed a single branch, from of some grammatical forms. More recent
which Oriya split off first and Asamiya studies suggest that the use of native
later. This is one reason that the earliest and foreign words has been increas-
specimens of Bangla language and litera- ing, mainly because of the preference of
ture, the Charyapadas (Buddhist mystic Bangla speakers for the colloquial style.
songs), are also claimed by speakers of There are two standard styles in
Oriya and Asamiya as their own. Bangla: the Sadhubhasa (elegant or gen-
The Bangla linguists Suniti Kumar teel speech) and the Chaltibhasa (current
Chatterji and Sukumar Sen suggested or colloquial speech). The former was
that Bangla had its origin in the 10th cen- largely shaped by the language of early
tury AD, deriving from Magahi Prakrit Bangla poetical works. In the 19th century
(a spoken language) through Magahi it became standardized as the literary lan-
Apabhramsha (its written counterpart). guage and also as the appropriate vehicle
Indian Languages and Writing Systems | 61

for business and personal exchanges. contracted in Chaltibhasa. There is also a

Although it was at times used for ora- marked difference in vocabulary.
tion, Sadhubhasa was not the language of Although distinctions in the use of
daily communication. Bangla are associated with social class,
Chaltibhasa is based on the cultivated educational level, and religion, the great-
form of the dialects of Kolkata (Calcutta) est differences are regional. The four
and its neighbouring small towns on the main dialects roughly approximate the
Bhagirathi River. It has come into liter- ancient political divisions of the Bangla-
ary use since the early 20th century, and speaking world, known as Radha (West
by the early 21st century it had become Bengal proper); Pundra, or Varendra
the dominant literary language as well (the northern parts of West Bengal and
as the standard colloquial form of speech Bangladesh); Kamrupa (northeastern
among the educated. The pronouns Bangladesh); and Bangla (the dialects
and verb forms of the Sadhubhasa are of the rest of Bangladesh. In addition,

Indian women in Kolkata celebrate Vasantotsav, the Bengali festival of spring on February 28,
2010. Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP/Getty Images
62 | The Culture of India

two cities, Sylhet and Chittagong, have some newspapers and publishers have
developed dialects with lexical and pho- their own house styles. Not surprisingly,
nological characteristics that are mostly these independent efforts to standardize
unintelligible to other speakers of Bangla. Bangla orthography have helped to cre-
The Bangla script is derived from ate a degree of confusion.
Brahmi, one of the two ancient Indian
scripts, and particularly from the eastern Dogri
variety of Brahmi. Bangla script followed
a different line of development from that Dogri is spoken in the Indian state of
of Devanagari and Oriyan scripts, but the Jammu and Kashmir. The earliest writ-
characters of Bangla and Asamiya scripts ten reference to it (using the paleonym
generally coincided. By the 12th cen- [ancient name] Duggar) is found in the
tury AD the Bangla alphabet was nearly Nuh sipihr (“The Nine Heavens”), written
complete, although natural changes by the poet Amīr Khosrow in AD 1317.
continued to take place until the 16th Dogri is descended from Classical
century. Some conscious alterations were Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas
also made in the 19th century. (1500–1200 BC). The development of
Bangla is written from left to right. Dogri from the Vedic period to its present
There are no capital letters. The script form has been traced through changes in
is characterized by many conjuncts, phonology. For example, the word son
upstrokes, downstrokes, and other fea- is rendered as putra in Old Indo-Aryan
tures that hang from a horizontal line. (perhaps 1200–250 BC), putta in Middle
The punctuation marks, save one, are all Indo-Aryan (approximately 400 BC–AD
taken from 19th-century English. 1100), and putter in Dogri (since perhaps
Bangla spelling was more or less AD 1100). Documented phonological
standardized through a set of reforms changes include nasalization, metathesis
that were initiated by the University of (the transposition of phonemes within a
Calcutta in 1936. However, the standard- word), and shifts in voice and aspiration.
ization process continued throughout the Dogri uses length, nasalization, juncture,
20th and into the early 21st century. For stress, and three tones (level, falling,
instance, the Bangla Academy in Dhaka and rising) to differentiate between its
prefers a set of alternatives offered by the 10 vowel phonemes and 28 consonant
1936 reforms, while the Bangla Academy phonemes.
in West Bengal has proposed new Dogri vocabulary (but not gram-
reforms. Visva-Bharati, the university matical structure) has been influenced
founded by the Bengali poet and Nobelist by other languages, notably Persian and
Rabindranath Tagore, has also effected English. Within the language, variety is
several spelling variations. Finally, for the most part geographically based.
Indian Languages and Writing Systems | 63

Dogri was once written in Dogra between speakers who are Parsi and
or Dogra Akkhar, the official script of those who are Bohra.
Jammu and Kashmir state during the
reign of Ranbir Singh (1857–85). However, Kashmiri
Dogra was for the most part replaced by
Devanagari script during the 20th century. Kashmiri is spoken in the Vale of
Kashmir and the surrounding hills. By
Gujarati origin it is a Dardic language, but it has
become predominantly Indo-Aryan in
Most of the 46 million people who speak character. Reflecting the history of the
Gujarati reside in the Indian state of area, the Kashmiri vocabulary is mixed,
Gujarat, though there are significant containing Dardic, Sanskrit, Punjabi, and
diaspora communities around the world, Persian elements. Religious differences
especially in the United Kingdom and are evident in vocabulary and choice of
the United States. alphabet. Muslims employ Persian and
The development of the language can Arabic words freely; they also use the
traced to approximately the 12th century Persian form of the alphabet to write
AD. Gujarati inflection is fairly complex, Kashmiri, although the Persian alphabet
marking three genders (masculine, femi- is not truly suited to the task, because
nine, and neuter), two numbers (singular it lacks symbols for the many Kashmiri
and plural), and three cases (nominative, vowel sounds. Kashmiri Hindus favour
oblique, and agentive-locative) for nouns. words derived from Sanskrit and write
It is usually written with a cursive form of Kashmiri in the Sarada alphabet, a script
Devanagari script. of Indian origin. In printed books, the
Differences in religion, caste, ethnic- Devanagari character is used. There is
ity, profession, and education overlap a small amount of Kashmiri literature.
with regional distinctions to create a The only important spoken dialects are
complex system of language varieties in Kishtwari, Poguli, and Rambani.
which sharp dialect boundaries cannot
be drawn. Linguists have discerned two Konkani
general pairs of dialect groups, however.
The first is based on differing phonology: Konkani, the language of some 2.5 mil-
some groups use a “tight” phonation, lion people, is spoken on the central west
spoken with a raised larynx; others use a coast of India, where it is the official lan-
“murmured” phonation, spoken with the guage of Goa state. It is also associated
intermittent lowering of the larynx. The particularly with the city of Mangalore
second dialect pair is based on ethnic- (Mangaluru) in southwestern Karnataka
ity, as there are recognizable distinctions and is spoken especially along the west
64 | The Culture of India

coast of Maharashtra state. Because of the Marathi. Like Hindi, Marathi has lost
language’s proximity to Marathi, it bears most of its inflectional system to indicate
some resemblance to that language, but case, using instead postpositions (like
it precedes Marathi in date of origina- prepositions, only following the word)
tion. The first known Konkani inscription with an oblique “case” to serve the func-
dates to 1187. tion originally filled by inflection.

Maithili Nepali

With Magadhi (Magahi) and Bhojpuri, Nepali (also called Gurkha, Gorkhali,
Maithili is one of the major languages of Gurkhali, or Khaskura) is spoken by
Bihar state. Maithili is the language of old more than 17 million people, more than
Mithila (the area of ancient Videha, now 2.8 million of whom live in parts of India
Tirhut), which is dominated by ortho- bordering on Nepal.
doxy and the Maithil Brahman way of life. Patterns of phonological change
Maithili is the only Bihari language with suggest that Nepali is related to the
a script of its own, called Tirhuta, and a languages of northwestern India, and
strong literary history; one of the earliest particularly to Sindhi, Lahnda, and
and most celebrated writers in Maithili Punjabi. Comparative reconstructions of
was Vidyapati (Bidpai; 15th century), vocabulary have supported this appraisal,
noted for his lyrics of love and devotion. relating Nepali to proto-Dardic, Pahari,
Sindhi, Lahnda, and Punjabi.
Marathi Investigations of archaeology and
history indicate that modern Nepali
Marathi is spoken in western and central is a descendant of the language spo-
India. Its range extends from north of ken by the ancient Khasha people. The
Mumbai down the western coast past Goa word Khasha appears in Sanskrit legal,
and eastward across the Deccan; in 1966 it historical, and literary texts such as the
became the official language of the state Manu-smriti (1st century BC), Kalhana’s
of Maharashtra. The standard form of Rajatarangini (AD 1148), and the
speech is that of the city of Pune (Poona). Puranas (AD 350–1500). The Khashas
Descended from the Maharashtri ruled over a vast territory comprising
Prakrit, Marathi has a significant litera- what are now western Nepal, parts of
ture. Books are printed in Devanagari Garhwal and Kumaon (India), and parts
script, which is also used for handwriting, of southwestern Tibet. Ashoka Challa
although for handwriting there is also (AD 1255–78) called himself khasha-
an alternate cursive form of Devanagari rajadhiraja (“emperor of the Khashas”)
called Modi. Eastern Hindi is the Indo- in a copperplate inscription found in
Aryan language most closely related to Bodh Gaya. His descendants used old
Indian Languages and Writing Systems | 65

Nepali to inscribe numerous copper- influenced by Sanskrit and recorded with

plates during the 14th century. the Devanagari script.
After the Muslim conquest, the As a medium of law and administra-
Rajputs of Chittaurgarh, the Brahmans tion, the register of legal Nepali has been
of Kannauj, and many others fled to developed and enriched with Persian
the foothills of the Himalayas for shel- and Arabic words. Technical terms for
ter. The pressure of the migrants and the various administrative branches
the rising ambition of the local powers of government have been devised and
caused the Khasha kingdom to fissure borrowed from Sanskrit and English as
into smaller principalities. Some Khasha needed. Modern spoken Nepali has bor-
moved to the eastern parts of present- rowed vocabulary from Hindi, Sanskrit,
day Nepal, where their language became and English.
a common method of communication
for the region’s linguistically diverse Oriya
ethnic groups.
Eventually Prithvi Narayan Shah Oriya is the main official language of the
(1723?–75) unified the smaller principali- Indian state of Orissa. The language has
ties. During and after unification, the several dialects; Mughalbandi (Coastal
Nepalese were identified as Gurkhas Oriya) is the standard dialect and the lan-
or Ghurkhalis, while their language guage of education.
was referred to by the singular forms Oldest of the eastern group of the
of those names. With the growth of lin- Indo-Aryan family, Oriya is derived
guistic nationalism, the name Nepali from Ardhamagadhi Prakrit. Oriya argu-
became increasingly popular among the ably dates back to the 10th century AD,
Nepalese living in Nepal and India. though it was almost indistinguish-
Nepali includes three regional dia- able from Bangla until the 11th century.
lect groups: the western, the central, and The first poetic classic was composed in
the eastern. There is also a distinct dia- the 15th century, and literary prose began
lect used by the members of the royal to take shape in the 18th century.
family and the upper classes. This dialect Oriya has been heavily influenced by
has a special lexicon and a four-level hon- the Dravidian languages as well as Arabic,
orific system, and it is increasingly being Persian, and English. Its lexicon has been
adopted by the educated middle class enriched by borrowings from these lan-
and the newly wealthy. guages as well as from Tamil, Telugu,
Nepali has a rich heritage of oral Marathi, Turkish, French, Portuguese, and
literature as well as a body of written lit- Sanskrit. Words borrowed from Sanskrit
erature that has been developed during occur in two forms: tatsama (close to
last two and half centuries. The vocab- the original form) and tadbhava (remote
ulary and style of written Nepali are from the original form).
66 | The Culture of India

Oriya allows compounding, but unlike in Punjab, a territory that was divided
Sanskrit it does not allow elision (the between India and Pakistan during parti-
slurring or omission of a final unstressed tion; the former territory now comprises
vowel). The use of compounds is more a both Punjab state in India and Punjab
feature of written than of spoken Oriya. province in Pakistan. Smaller speech
Oriya has 6 pure vowels, 9 diphthongs, 28 communities exist in Canada, Malaysia,
consonants (3 of them retroflex—i.e., pro- South Africa, the United Arab Emirates,
duced with the tip of the tongue curled the United Kingdom, the United States,
back toward the hard palate), 4 semivow- and elsewhere.
els, and no consonant-ending words. There are two major varieties of
Oriya grammar distinguishes between Punjabi. The western variety is known
singular and plural number; first, second, as Lahnda, while the eastern variety is
and third person; and masculine and femi- known as Gurmukhi. Punjabi is gener-
nine gender. It is an inflectionally rich ally written with either Perso-Arabic
language. Nominals carry number and script or the Gurmukhi alphabet, which
case inflections, while adjectives carry was devised by the Sikh Guru Angad
inflections indicating degree and, for the (ruled 1539–52) for scriptural use; it is
tatsama adjectives, gender. now employed for general purposes as
In Oriya inscriptions from between well. Occasionally, Punjabi is written with
the 12th and the 14th century, word Devanagari script.
order is relatively free, and verb–object The Punjabi language evolved from
sequence (with the subject before or Shauraseni Apabhramsha. Traces of
after) is not infrequent. Other historical earlier Prakrits, especially Pali, and of
changes include the loss of some plural proto-Indo-Aryan and pre-Indo-Aryan
markers and some postpositions. The languages also appear in Punjabi phonol-
indirect speech, relative clauses, and ogy and morphology.
passive constructions found in English The most distinctive feature of modern
have emerged in Oriya, although these Punjabi is its use of tones to differentiate
are considered nonstandard forms. New words that are otherwise identical. The
discursive forms such as the essay and language uses three contour tones (tones
news reporting and analysis have also that change over the course of a word).
come to Oriya from English. Scholarly These are realized over two successive syl-
speech and writing still remain fairly lables and are expressed phonetically as
Sanskritized, however. high rising-falling, mid rising-falling, and
very low rising.
Punjabi Punjabi does not have the voiced
aspirates of other Indo-Aryan languages.
The Punjabi (Panjabi) language is spo- Generally, the consonant /h/ corre-
ken by more than 100 million people sponds to high tone. Through analogic
Indian Languages and Writing Systems | 67

development, tones have also evolved in northwest of the subcontinent—was

places and positions where one does not elegantly described in one of the finest
expect aspirates or /h/. Another signifi- grammars ever produced, the Astadhyayi
cant feature of Punjabi is a large number (“Eight Chapters”) composed by Panini
of words—especially ancient place-names, (c. 6th–5th century BC). The Astadhyayi
and nouns and adjectives evolved from in turn was the object of a rich commen-
them—that have retroflex sounds. The tatorial literature, documents of which
majority of such words are from the west- are known from the time of Katyayana
ern pre-Indo-European civilizations. (4th–3rd century BC) onward. In the
The earliest Punjabi literature has same Paninian tradition there was a
been traced to the Natha era (9th to 14th long history of work on semantics and
century AD), when Punjab was the main the philosophy of language, the pin-
centre of socioreligious movements. nacle of which is represented by the
The language of these compositions is Vakyapadiya (“Treatise on Sentence
morphologically closer to Shauraseni and Words”) of Bhartrhari (late 6th–7th
Apabhramsha, but the vocabulary and century AD).
rhythm reflect colloquial speech forms. Over its long history, Sanskrit has
been written both in Devanagari script
Sanskrit and in various regional scripts, such as
  Sharada from the north (Kashmir), Bangla
The word Sanskrit comes from a Sanskrit in the east, Gujarati in the west, and various
word (sam · skr·ta) meaning “adorned, cul- southern scripts, including the Grantha
tivated, purified.” It is an Old Indo-Aryan alphabet, which was especially devised for
language in which the most ancient Sanskrit texts. Sanskrit texts continue to
documents are the Vedas, composed in be published in regional scripts, although
what is called Vedic Sanskrit. Although in fairly recent times Devanagari has
Vedic documents represent the dialects become more generally used.
then found in the northern midlands of There is a large corpus of literature
the Indian subcontinent and areas imme- in Sanskrit covering a wide range of
diately east thereof, the very earliest subjects. The earliest compositions are
texts—including the Rigveda (“The Veda the Vedic texts. There are also major
Composed in Verses”), which scholars works of drama and poetry, although
generally ascribe to approximately 1500 the exact dates of many of these works
BC—stem from the northwestern part of and their creators have not been defini-
the subcontinent, the area of the ancient tively established. Important authors
seven rivers (sapta sindhavah·). and works include Bhasa (for example,
What is generally called Classical his Svapnavasvavadatta [“Vasavadatta
Sanskrit—but is actually a language in a Dream”]), who is assigned widely
close to late Vedic as then used in the varying dates but definitely worked
68 | The Culture of India

prior to Kalidasa, who mentions him; and the Mountain Man”),  from approxi-
Kalidasa, dated anywhere from the mately the 7th century; Magha, whose
1st century BC to the 4th century AD, Shishupalavadha (“The Slaying of
whose works include Shakuntala (more Shishupala”) dates to the late 7th cen-
fully, Abhijnanashakuntala; “Shakuntala tury; and from about the early 8th century
Recalled Through Recognition” or Bhavabhuti, who wrote Mahaviracarita
“The Recognition of Shakuntala”), (“Deeds of the Great Hero”),
Vikramorvashiya (“Urvashi Won Through Malatimadhava (“Malati and Madhava”),
Valour”), Kumarasambhava (“The Birth and Uttararamacarita (“The Last Deed of
of Kumara”), and Raghuvamsha (“The Rama”). The two epics Ramayana (“Life
Lineage of Raghu”); Shudraka and his of Rama”) and Mahabharata (“Great Tale
Mrcchakatika (“Little Clay Cart”), pos- of the Bharatas”) were also composed in
sibly dating to the 3rd century AD; Sanskrit, and the former is esteemed as
Bharavi and his Kiratarjuniya (“Arjuna the first poetic work (adikavya) of India.

This illuminated Sikh manuscript shows Devanagari script. Réunion des Musées Nationaux/
Art Resource, NY
Indian Languages and Writing Systems | 69

The Panchatantra (“Treatise in Five The origin of the Sindhi language

Chapters”) and Hitopadesha (“Beneficial can be traced to an Old Indo-Aryan dia-
Instruction”) are major representatives lect, or primary Prakrit, that was spoken
of didactic literature. Sanskrit was also in the region of Sindh at the time of com-
used as the medium for composing trea- pilation of the Vedas (1500–1200 BC)
tises of various philosophical schools, as or perhaps some centuries before that.
well as works on logic, astronomy, and Glimpses of that dialect can be seen to
mathematics. some extent in the literary language of
Sanskrit is not restricted to Hindu the hymns of the Rigveda.
compositions. It has also been used by Like other languages of this fam-
Jaina and Buddhist scholars, the latter ily, Sindhi has passed through Old
primarily Mahayana Buddhists. Further, Indo-Aryan (Sanskrit) and Middle Indo-
Sanskrit is recognized in the constitution Aryan (Pali, secondary Prakrits, and
of India as both a classical language and Apabhramsha) stages of growth, and it
an official language and continues to be entered the New Indo-Aryan stage around
used in scholarly, literary, and technical the 10th century AD.
media, as well as in periodicals, radio, The language has several salient
television, and film. linguistic features. The most important
In its grammatical structure, Sanskrit phonological features are the four voiced
is similar to other early Indo-European implosive phonemes, or sounds pro-
languages such as Greek and Latin. It duced by suddenly drawing air into the
is an inflected language. For instance, mouth (/b/, /d/, /g/, and /j/). In terms of
the Sanskrit nominal system—including morphology, Sindhi is known for the use
nouns, pronouns, and adjectives—has of passive and impersonal verb stems, as
three genders (masculine, feminine, and with likh-ij-e ‘may be written.’ It also uses
neuter), three numbers (singular, dual, suffixal pronouns with nouns, postposi-
and plural), and seven syntactic cases tions, and verbs, as with pina-si ‘his/her
(nominative, accusative, instrumental, father’ (literally ‘father [of] his/hers’),
dative, ablative, genitive, and locative), in khe-si ‘to him/her,’ and likhya-in-si ‘he
addition to a vocative. wrote him/her.’
Sindhi has preserved many archaic
Sindhi words and grammatical forms from
Sanskrit and the Prakrits. Examples
The Sindhi language is spoken by some include Sindhi jhuru ‘old’ from Vedic
2.5 million people in India and tens Sanskrit juryah, jui ‘place’ from Vedic
of millions more in Pakistan. Smaller Sanskrit yuti, and vuttho ‘rained’ from
speech communities exist in the United Prakrit vuttha. Sindhi has also inherited
Kingdom, the United States, Oman, the an abundance of vowel-ending words,
Philippines, and Singapore. most ending in -u and -o, from the Prakrits.
70 | The Culture of India

Historically, the Sindh region suffered collected and compiled from oral tra-
frequent invasions. It was conquered by dition and published in more than 40
the forces of Islam in AD 712 and remained volumes by the Sindhi Adabi Board, a gov-
under Muslim rule until the British con- ernment institution that was established
quest in 1843. Hence, the Sindhi language in 1955 for the promotion of the language.
borrowed many Arabic and Persian words. Written Sindhi literature is first attested
In spite of this, the basic vocabulary and in the 8th century AD, when references
grammatical structure of Sindhi has to an independent, Sindhi version of the
remained mostly unchanged. Mahabharata appear. However, the earli-
Sindhi has been one of the major est well-attested written records in Sindhi
literary languages of the Indo-Pakistan belong to the 15th century AD.
subcontinent, though its literary promi- Medieval Sindhi devotional litera-
nence is being surpassed in some areas ture (1500–1843) comprises Sufi poetry
by Urdu. Sindhi is written mainly in and Advaita Vedanta poetry. Sindhi
two scripts. The first is a modified and literature has flourished during the mod-
enlarged form of the Arabic alphabet that ern period (since 1843), although the
was standardized by the British govern- language and literary style of contem-
ment in 1852 and consists of 52 characters; porary Sindhi writings in Pakistan and
it is known as the Arabic-Sindhi script. India had noticeably diverged by the
The second is the Devanagari-Sindhi late 20th century; authors from the for-
script, comprising Devanagari and an mer country were borrowing extensively
additional four letters used to express from Persian and Arabic vocabulary,
the special implosive sounds of Sindhi. while those from the latter were highly
Use of the Devanagari-Sindhi script has influenced by Hindi.
helped to preserve and promote the lit-
erary and cultural heritage of the region Urdu
and its language.
In addition, Sindhi can be written Urdu is spoken by more than 50 million
with an indigenous script (also called people in India and by millions more in
Sindhi) that derives from proto-Devana- Pakistan. Significant speech communi-
gari, Brahmi, and Indus valley scripts. A ties exist in the United Arab Emirates,
small number of traders use it for com- the United Kingdom, and the United
mercial correspondence, and it is the States as well. Notably, Urdu and Hindi
script of choice for the religious texts of are mutually intelligible.
Isma‘ili Khoja Muslims. Sindhi can be Urdu developed in the 12th century
written with the Gurmukhi alphabet and AD from the regional Apabhramsha
Gujarati characters as well. of northwestern India, serving as a lin-
The folk literature of Sindhi is as guistic modus vivendi after the Muslim
old as the language itself. It has been conquest. Its first major poet was Amīr
Indian Languages and Writing Systems | 71

Khosrow (1253–1325), who composed consonants, despite its heavy borrowing

dohas (couplets), folksongs, and riddles from that tradition. The largest number
in the newly formed speech, then called of sounds retained is among the spirants,
Hindvi. This mixed speech was variously a group of sounds uttered with a friction
called Hindvi, Zaban-e-Hind, Hindi, of breath against some part of the oral
Zaban-e-Delhi, Rekhta, Gujari, Dakkhani, passage, in this case /f/, /z/, /zh/, /x/, and
Zaban-e-Urdu-e-Mualla, Zaban-e-Urdu, /g/. One sound in the stops category, the
or just Urdu, literally ‘the language of glottal /q/, has also been retained from
the camp.’ Major Urdu writers contin- Perso-Arabic.
ued to refer to it as Hindi or Hindvi From the grammatical point of view,
until the beginning of the 19th century, there is not much difference between
although there is evidence that it was Hindi and Urdu. One distinction is that
called Hindustani in the late 17th Urdu uses more Perso-Arabic prefixes and
century (Hindustani now refers to a sim- suffixes than Hindi; examples include the
plified speech form that is India’s largest prefixes dar- ‘in,’ ba-/baa- ‘with,’ be-/bila-/
lingua franca). la- ‘without,’ and bad- ‘ill, miss’ and the
Urdu is closely related to Hindi, a suffixes -dar ‘holder,’ -saz ‘maker’ (as in
language that originated and developed zinsaz ‘harness maker’), -khor ‘eater’ (as
in the Indian subcontinent. They share in muftkhor ‘free eater’), and -posh ‘cover’
the same Indic base and are so similar in (as in mez posh ‘table cover’).
phonology and grammar that they appear
to be one language. In terms of lexicon, Dravidian
however, they have borrowed extensively
from different sources—Urdu from Arabic The Dravidian language family consists
and Persian, Hindi from Sanskrit—so they of some 70 languages spoken primar-
are usually treated as independent lan- ily in South Asia. They are spoken by
guages. Their distinction is most marked more than 215 million people in India,
in terms of writing systems: Urdu uses Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Dravidian lan-
a modified form of Perso-Arabic script, guages are spoken by about one-fourth of
while Hindi uses Devanagari. all Indians, overwhelmingly in southern
Phonologically, the Urdu sounds India. Dravidian speakers among tribal
are the same as those of Hindi except peoples (e.g., Gonds) in central India, in
for slight variations in short vowel allo- eastern Bihar, and in the Brahui-speaking
phones. Urdu also retains a complete set of region of the distant Pakistani province
aspirated stops (sounds pronounced with of Balochistan suggest a much wider dis-
a sudden release with an audible breath), tribution in ancient times.
a characteristic of Indo-Aryan, as well The Dravidian languages are divided
as retroflex stops. Urdu does not retain into South, South-Central, Central, and
the complete range of Perso-Arabic North groups; these groups are further
72 | The Culture of India

organized into 24 subgroups. The four Indo-Gangetic Plain, while independent

major literary languages—Telugu, Tamil, communities of Dravidian speakers
Malayalam, and Kannada—are recognized had moved to the periphery of the Indo-
by the constitution of India. They are Aryan area (Brahui in the northwest,
also the official languages of the states of Kurukh-Malto in the east, and Gondi-Kui
Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and in the east and central India). Notably,
Karnataka (formerly Mysore), respectively. the most ancient forms of the Dravidian
languages are found in southern India,
The History of the which was not exposed to Sanskrit until
Dravidian Languages the 5th century BC. This suggests that
the south was populated by the speakers
There is considerable literature on the of the Dravidian languages even before
theory that India is a linguistic area the entry of Indo-Europeans into India.
where different language families have The word drāvid·a/drāmid·a and
developed convergent structures through its adjectival forms occur in Classical
extensive regional and societal bilingual- Sanskrit literature from the 3rd cen-
ism. It is now well established that the tury BC as the name of a country and
Indo-Aryan and Dravidian language fam- its people. Drāvid·a as the name of a
ilies developed convergent structures in language occurs in Kumarila-Bhatta’s
sound system (phonology) and grammar Tantravartika (“Exposition on the Sacred
owing to contact going back to the 2nd Sciences”) of approximately the 7th cen-
millennium BC. The earliest varieties of tury AD. In these and almost all similar
Indo-Aryan are forms of Sanskrit. More cases, there is reason to believe that
than a dozen Dravidian loanwords can the name referred to the Tamil coun-
be detected in the Sanskrit text of the try, Tamil people, and Tamil language.
Rigveda (1500 BC), including ulūkhala- Robert Caldwell, the Scottish missionary
‘mortar,’ kun·d·a ‘pit,’ khála- ‘threshing and bishop who wrote the first compara-
floor,’ kān·á- ‘one-eyed,’ and mayūra tive grammar of the Dravidian languages
‘peacock.’ The introduction of retro- (1856), argued that the term sometimes
flex consonants (those produced by the referred ambiguously to South Indian
tongue tip raised against the middle of people and their languages; he adopted
the hard palate) has also been credited to it as a generic name for the whole fam-
contact between speakers of Sanskrit and ily since Tamil (tamiz·) was already the
those of the Dravidian languages. established name of a specific language.
The presence of Dravidian loanwords
in the Rigveda implies that speakers of Dravidian Studies
Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages
were, by the time of its composition, fused In 1816, Englishman Francis Whyte Ellis
into one speech community in the great of the Indian Civil Service (at the time a
Indian Languages and Writing Systems | 73

division of the East India Company) intro- parent language called Proto-Dravidian.
duced the notion of a Dravidian family. The second area of investigation focused
His Dissertation of the Telugu Language on the study of the various inscriptions,
was initially published as “Note to the literary texts, and regional dialects of the
Introduction” of British linguist A.D. four literary languages, which allowed
Campbell’s A Grammar of the Teloogoo scholars to identify the historical evolu-
Language. Ellis’s monograph provided tion of those languages. A third area of
lexical and grammatical evidence to sup- interest involved the discovery and lin-
port the hypothesis that Tamil, Telugu, guistic description of new languages
Kannada, Malayalam, Tulu, Kodagu, and within the family.
Malto were members of “the family of Several new languages were added
languages which may be appropriately to the Dravidian family in the 20th cen-
called the dialects of Southern India.” tury, including Kota, Kolami, Parji, Pengo,
The next major publication on Ollari, Konda/Kubi, Kondekor Gadaba,
the Dravidian languages was Robert Irula, and Toda. Progress was also made in
Caldwell’s A Comparative Grammar of describing nonliterary languages, notably
the Dravidian or South Indian Family Brahui, Kurukh, Malto, Kui, Kuvi, Gondi
of Languages (1856). A missionary who (various dialects), Kodagu, and Tulu.
left his native Scotland for a lifetime of The most significant and monu-
work in India, he demonstrated that the mental work of the 20th century was
Dravidian languages were not geneti- A Dravidian Etymological Dictionary
cally related to Sanskrit, thus disproving ([DED] 1961; revised 1984) by British
a view that had been held by Indian schol- linguist Thomas Burrow and Canadian
ars for more than two millennia. Caldwell linguist Murray B. Emeneau. Much that
identified 12 Dravidian languages; to the has been accomplished in compara-
7 already noted by Ellis, he added Toda tive phonology and reconstruction is
and Kota of South Dravidian, Gondi and indebted to this work. The early 21st
Kui-Kuvi of South-Central Dravidian, and century saw a continuation of studies in
Kurukh of North Dravidian. He also dis- comparative morphology, though much
cussed Brahui. work on the comparative syntax of the
The 20th century was marked by con- family remains to be done.
siderable research and publication on the
Dravidian language family and its mem- Kannada
bers, particularly in three realms of study.
The first was the collection of cognates Kannada, also called Kanarese or
(related words) and the discovery of Kannana, is the official language of the
sound correspondences (related sounds) state of Karnataka in southern India. It
among the different languages; these led is also spoken in the states that border
to the reconstruction of the hypothetical Karnataka. Early 21st-century census data
74 | The Culture of India

indicated that some 38 million individu- with Hubli-Dharwad, and the coastal
als spoke Kannada as their first language; with Mangalore. The prestige variet-
another 9 to 10 million were thought to ies are based on the Mysore-Bangalore
speak it as a secondary language. In variety. Social varieties are currently
2008 the government of India granted characterized by education and class or
Kannada classical-language status. caste, resulting in at least three distinct
Kannada is the second oldest of the social dialects: Brahman, non-Brahman,
four major Dravidian languages with a and Scheduled Caste (Dalit; formerly
literary tradition. The oldest Kannada untouchable). A diglossia or dichotomy
inscription was discovered at the small also exists between formal literary variet-
community of Halmidi and dates to about ies and spoken varieties.
AD 450. The Kannada script evolved Kannada literature began with the
from southern varieties of the Ashokan Kavirajamarga of Nripatunga (9th century
Brahmi script. The Kannada script is AD) and was followed by Pampa’s Bharata
closely related to the Telugu script; (AD 941). The earliest extant grammar
both emerged from an Old Kannarese is by Nagavarma and dates to the early
(Karnataka) script. Three historical 12th century; the grammar of Keshiraja
stages are recognized: Old Kannada (AD 1260) is still respected. Kannada lit-
(450–1200), Middle Kannada (1200–1700), erature was influenced by the Lingayat
and Modern Kannada (1700–present). (Virasaiva) and the Haridasa movements.
The word order is subject–object– In the 16th century the Haridasa move-
verb, as in the other Dravidian languages. ment of vernacular devotional song
Verbs are marked for person, number, reached its zenith with Purandaradasa
and gender. The case-marking pattern is and Kanakadasa, the former considered
nominative-accusative, with experiencer the father of Karnatak music, the classi-
subjects taking the dative inflection. Most cal music of southern India.
inflection is rendered through affixation,
especially of suffixes. The language uses Malayalam
typical Dravidian retroflex consonants
(sounds pronounced with the tip of the Malayalam is spoken mainly in India,
tongue curled back against the roof of where it is the official language of the
the mouth), such as /d· /, /n·/, and /t· /, as state of Kerala and the union territory of
well as a series of voiced and voiceless Lakshadweep. It is also spoken by bilin-
aspirates borrowed from the Indo-Aryan gual communities in contiguous parts of
language family. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In the early
Three regional varieties of Kannada 21st century, Malayalam was spoken by
are identifiable. The southern vari- more than 35 million people.
ety is associated with the cities of Malayalam has three important
Mysore and Bangalore, the northern regional dialects and a number of smaller
Indian Languages and Writing Systems | 75

ones. There is some difference in dialect Tamil

along social, particularly caste, lines. As
a result of these factors, the Malayalam Tamil is the official language of the
language has developed diglossia, a Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the union
distinction between the formal, literary territory of Puducherry (Pondicherry). It
language and colloquial forms of speech. is also an official language in Sri Lanka
Malayalam evolved either from a and Singapore and has significant num-
western dialect of Tamil or from the bers of speakers in Malaysia, Mauritius,
branch of Proto-Dravidian from which Fiji, and South Africa. In the early 21st
modern Tamil also evolved. The earliest century more than 66 million people
record of the language is an inscription were Tamil speakers.
dated to approximately AD 830. An early The earliest Tamil writing is attested
and extensive influx of Sanskrit words in inscriptions and potsherds from the
influenced the Malayalam script. Known 5th century BC. Three periods have
as Koleluttu (“Rod Script”), it is derived been distinguished through analyses of
from the Grantha script, which in turn grammatical and lexical changes: Old
is derived from Brahmi. Koleluttu has Tamil (from about 450 BC to AD 700),
letters to represent the entire corpus of Middle Tamil (700–1600), and Modern
sounds from both Dravidian and Sanskrit. Tamil (from 1600). The Tamil writing
Like the Dravidian languages gener- system evolved from the Brahmi script.
ally, Malayalam has a series of retroflex The shape of the letters changed enor-
consonants (/d· /, /n· /, and /t· /) made mously over time, eventually stabilizing
by curling the tip of the tongue back when printing was introduced in the
to the roof of the mouth. It uses sub- 16th century AD. The major addition to
ject–object–verb word order and has a the alphabet was the incorporation of
nominative-accusative case-marking pat- Grantha letters to write unassimilated
tern. Its pronominal system has “natural” Sanskrit words, although a few letters
gender, a form that marks the gender of with irregular shapes were standard-
humans masculine or feminine while des- ized during the modern period. A script
ignating all nonhuman nouns as neuter. known as Vatteluttu (“Round Script”) is
The earliest extant literary work in also in common use.
Malayalam is Ramacharitam, an epic Spoken Tamil has changed substan-
poem written in the late 12th or early tially over time, including changes in the
13th century. In the subsequent centu- phonological structure of words. This
ries, besides a popular pattu (“song”) has created diglossia—a system in which
literature, there flourished a literature of there are distinct differences between
mainly erotic poetry composed in the colloquial forms of a language and those
manipravalam (“ruby coral”) style, an that are used in formal and written con-
admixture of Malayalam and Sanskrit. texts. The major regional variation is
76 | The Culture of India

between the form spoken in India and spoken dialects—a situation known as
that spoken in Jaffna (Sri Lanka), capi- diglossia.
tal of a former Tamil city-state, and its Like the other Dravidian languages,
surrounds. Within Tamil Nadu there are Telugu has a series of retroflex conso-
phonological differences between the nants (/d· /, /n· /, and /t· /) pronounced with
northern, western, and southern speech. the tip of the tongue curled back against
Regional varieties of the language inter- the roof of the mouth. Grammatical cat-
sect with varieties that are based on egories such as case, number, person,
social class or caste. and tense are denoted with suffixes.
Like the other Dravidian languages, Reduplication, the repetition of words
Tamil is characterized by a series of retro- or syllables to create new or emphatic
flex consonants (/d· /, /n· /, and /t· /) made meanings, is common (e.g., pakapaka
by curling the tip of the tongue back to ‘suddenly bursting out laughing,’ garag-
the roof of the mouth. Structurally, Tamil ara ‘clean, neat, nice’).
is a verb-final language that allows flex-
ibility regarding the order of the subject Other Languages and
and the object in a sentence. Lingua Francas

Telugu Manipuri and Bodo, both Sino-Tibetan

languages and official languages of
The largest member of the Dravidian lan- India, and other Sino-Tibetan languages
guage family, Telugu is primarily spoken are spoken by small numbers of people
in southeastern India. It is the official lan- in northeastern India. So, too, Santhali, a
guage of the state of Andhra Pradesh. In Munda (Austroasiatic) language, has offi-
the early 21st century Telugu had more cial status.
than 75 million speakers. When a language is used as a means
The first written materials in the of communication between populations
language date from AD 575. The Telugu speaking vernaculars that are not mutu-
script is derived from that of the 6th-cen- ally intelligible, it is known as a lingua
tury Chalukya dynasty and is related to franca. The two major lingua francas in
that of the Kannada language. Telugu lit- India are Hindustani and English.
erature begins in the 11th century with a
version of the Hindu epic Mahabharata Munda
by the writer Nannaya.
There are four distinct regional dia- Some 9 million people (the Munda) in
lects in Telugu, as well as three social northern and central India speak Munda
dialects that have developed around languages. Some scholars divide these
education, class, and caste. The formal, into two subfamilies: the North Munda
literary language is distinct from the (spoken in the Chota Nagpur Plateau
Indian Languages and Writing Systems | 77

of Bihar, Bengal, and Orissa) including

Korku, Santhali, Mundari, Bhumij, and
Ho; and the South Munda (spoken in cen-
tral Orissa and along the border between
Andhra Pradesh and Orissa). The lat-
ter family is further split into Central
Munda, including Kharia and Juang,
and Koraput Munda, including Gutob,
Remo, Sora (Savara), Juray, and Gorum.
The classification of these languages is
North Munda (of which Santhali is
the chief language) is the more impor-
tant of the two groups; its languages are
spoken by about nine-tenths of Munda
speakers. After Santhali, the Mundari
and Ho languages rank next in num-
ber of speakers, followed by Korku and
Sora. The remaining Munda languages
are spoken by small, isolated groups of
people and are little known.
Characteristics of the Munda lan-
guages include three numbers (singular, These flags, carried by proponents of the
dual, and plural), two gender classes Telugu Dasam political party in Andhra
(animate and inanimate) for nouns, and Pradesh, show Grantha script. Noah
the use of either suffixes or auxiliaries Seelam/AFP/Getty Images
for indicating the tenses of verb forms.
In Munda sound systems, consonant
sequences are infrequent, except in the in Jharkhand, nearly 2 million in West
middle of a word. Except in Korku, where Bengal, several hundred thousand in
syllables show a distinction between high Orissa, and about 100,000 in Assam.
and low tone, accent is predictable in the
Munda languages. Tibeto-burman
Santhali is spoken primarily in the
east-central Indian states of West Bengal, At the end of the 20th century, India
Jharkhand, and Orissa. At the turn of the had some 5.5 million speakers of Tibeto-
21st century there were approximately 4.8 Burman (TB) languages. The great
million speakers of Santhali in India. Of Sino-Tibetan (ST) language family, com-
these, more than 2 million Santhals lived prising Chinese on the one hand and
78 | The Culture of India

Tibeto-Burman on the other, is compa- referred to as the Conspectus) in the

rable in time-depth and internal diversity early 1940s. In that work he adopted a
to the Indo-European language family more modest approach to supergrouping
and is equally important in the context of and subgrouping, stressing that many
world civilization. TB languages had so far resisted pre-
After the existence of the Tibeto- cise classification. Benedict’s structural
Burman family was posited in the insight enabled him to formulate sound
mid-19th century, British scholars, mis- correspondences (regular phonologi-
sionaries, and colonial administrators in cal similarities between languages) with
India and Burma (now Myanmar) began greater precision and thereby to identify
to study some of the dozens of little- exceptional phonological developments.
known “tribal” languages of the region A revised and heavily annotated ver-
that seemed to be genetically related to sion of the Conspectus was published
the two major literary languages, Tibetan in 1972, ushering in the modern era
and Burmese. This early work was col- of Sino-Tibetan historical/comparative
lected by Sir George Abraham Grierson linguistics.
in the Linguistic Survey of India (1903– In part because the Tibeto-Burman
28), three sections of which (vol. 3, parts family extends over such an enormous
1, 2, and 3) are devoted to word lists and geographic range, it is characterized by
brief texts from TB languages. great typological diversity. Influences
Further progress in TB studies had from Chinese on the one hand and Indo-
to wait until the late 1930s, when Robert Aryan languages on the other have
Shafer headed a project called Sino- contributed significantly to the diver-
Tibetan Linguistics at the University sity of the TB family. It is convenient to
of California, Berkeley. This project refer to the Chinese and Indian spheres
assembled all the lexical material then of cultural influence as the Sinosphere
available on TB languages, enabling and the Indosphere. Some languages and
Shafer to venture a detailed subgrouping cultures are firmly in one or the other:
of the family at different taxonomic levels, the TB languages of Nepal and much
called (from higher to lower) divisions, of the Kamarupan branch of TB are
sections, branches, units, languages, and Indospheric, as are the Munda and Khasi
dialects. This work was finally published branches of Austroasiatic.
in a two-volume, five-part opus called Any given language of TB is likely to
Introduction to Sino-Tibetan (vol. 1, 1966– be known by several names, including its
67; vol. 2, 1974). autonym (what its speakers call it), one
Basing his own work on the same body or more exonyms (what other groups call
of material, Paul K. Benedict produced it), paleonyms (old names, some of which
an unpublished manuscript titled “Sino- are now thought to be pejorative), and
Tibetan: A Conspectus”: (henceforth neonyms (new names) that have often
Indian Languages and Writing Systems | 79

replaced the old. To take a relatively in its own subdivision of the so-called
simple case, the Lotha Naga of India are a Kamarupan group—a geographic (or
Scheduled (officially recognized) Tribe of areal) rather than a genetic designa-
fewer than 100,000 people, yet the people tion but one that must suffice until more
and their language are called by at least definitive information becomes available.
three exonyms—Chizima, Choimi, and
Miklai, by the neighbouring Angami, Bodo
Sema, and Assamese peoples, respec-
tively. The paleonyms Lolo, Lushai, Abor, The Bodo language, which has several
Dafla, and Mikir have for the most part dialects, belongs to the Tibeto-Burman
been replaced by Yi, Mizo, Adi, Nyishi, branch of Sino-Tibetan languages. It is
and Karbi, respectively. spoken in the northeastern Indian states of
Assam and Meghalaya and in Bangladesh.
Manipuri It is related to Dimasa, Tripura, and
Lalunga languages, and it is written in
Also called Meithei (Manipuri: Meiteilon), Latin, Devanagari, and Bengali scripts.
Manipuri is spoken predominantly in
Manipur, a northeastern state of India. Indian English
Smaller speech communities exist in
the Indian states of Assam, Mizoram, English, which is an official language
and Tripura, and it is also spoken in of India, is its most widely used lin-
Bangladesh and Myanmar. There are gua franca. The great size of India’s
approximately 1.9 million speakers of population makes it one of the largest
Manipuri, which is used as a lingua franca English-speaking communities in the
among the 29 different ethnic groups of world, although English is claimed as the
Manipur. In 1992 it became the first TB mother tongue by only a small number
language to receive recognition as an of Indians and is spoken fluently by less
official, or “Scheduled,” language of India. than 5 percent of the population. English
Manipuri has its own script, locally serves as the language linking the central
known as Meitei Mayek. Manipur state government with the states, especially
and its surroundings are the locus from with those in which Hindi is not widely
which the Tibeto-Burman family spread understood. English is also the princi-
and diversified, making the genetic pal language of commerce, the language
assignment of the region’s languages of instruction in almost all of the coun-
very difficult. During the 19th and 20th try’s prestigious universities and private
centuries, different linguists conjectured schools, and the language of scientific
that Manipuri belonged to one of several research. The English-language press
TB subdivisions. In the early 21st cen- remains highly influential; scholarly
tury, the consensus view placed Manipuri publication is predominantly in English
80 | The Culture of India

(almost exclusively so in science); and renders it difficult to measure precisely

many Indians are devotees of literature its number of speakers.
in English (much of it written by Indians), Hindustani was initially used to facil-
as well as of English-language film, radio, itate interaction between the speakers of
television, popular music, and theatre. Khari Boli (a regional dialect that devel-
In 1950, when India became a fed- oped out of Shauraseni Apabhramsha
eral republic within the Commonwealth and is now considered a variety of Hindi)
of Nations, Hindi was declared the and the speakers of Persian, Turkish, and
first national language. English, it was Arabic who migrated to North India after
stated, would “continue to be used for the establishment of Muslim hegemony
all official purposes until 1965.” In 1967, in the early 13th century AD.
however, by the terms of the English Hindustani’s popularity increased as
Language Amendment Bill, English was a result of its use by poets such as Amīr
proclaimed “an alternative official or Khosrow (1253–1325), Kabir (1440–1518),
associate language with Hindi until such Dadu (1544–1603), and Rahim (1556–
time as all non-Hindi states had agreed 1627), the court poet of Akbar. Its use by
to its being dropped.” Sufi saints such as Baba Farid (flourished
English was thereby acknowl- late 12th century) and various poets of
edged to be indispensable. It is the only the Natha tradition (which combined
practicable means of day-to-day commu- practices from Buddhism, Shaivism, and
nication between the central government Hatha Yoga in an effort to reach immor-
at New Delhi and states with non-Hindi tality) also increased its popularity.
speaking populations, especially with the Though Khari Boli supplied its basic
Deccan, or “South,” where millions speak vocabulary and grammar, Hindustani also
Dravidian languages. borrowed freely from Persian. Among the
Persian words that became common are
Hindustani many concerning administration (e.g.,
adalat ‘court,’ daftar ‘office,’ vakil ‘pleader,’
Hindustani began to develop during the sipahi ‘soldier,’ shahar ‘city,’ kasba ‘small
13th century AD in and around the Indian town,’ zila ‘district’), dress (e.g., kamiz ‘shirt,’
cities of Delhi and Meerut in response to shal ‘shawl’), cosmetics (e.g., itra ‘perfume,’
the increasing linguistic diversity that sabun ‘soap’), furniture (e.g., kursi ‘chair,’
resulted from Muslim hegemony. In the mez ‘table,’ takht ‘dais’), and professions
19th century its use was widely promoted (e.g., bajaj ‘draper,’ chaprasi ‘peon,’ dukan-
by the British, who initiated an effort at dar ‘shopkeeper,’ haqim ‘physician,’ dalal
standardization. Hindustani is widely ‘broker,’ halvai ‘confectioner’).
recognized as India’s most common lin- Hindustani also borrowed Persian
gua franca, but its status as a vernacular prefixes to create new words. Persian
Indian Languages and Writing Systems | 81

affixes became so assimilated that they divisive. He emphasized the importance

were used with original Khari Boli words of keeping Hindustani as colloquial as
as well. The process of hybridization also possible and of avoiding the addition of
led to the formation of words in which the unfamiliar Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic
first element of the compound was from words. He also pleaded for the use of both
Khari Boli and the second from Persian, Devanagari and Persian Arabic script
such as rajmahal ‘palace’ (raja ‘noble, for writing Hindustani. However, the
prince’ + mahal ‘house, place’) and rang- religious difference proved intractable,
mahal ‘fashion house’ (rangi ‘colouring, and with partition Hindustani was split
dyeing’ + mahal ‘house, place’). into two distinct (if closely related) offi-
As Muslim rule expanded, cial languages, Hindi in India and Urdu
Hindustani speakers traveled to distant in Pakistan. Despite this division, many
parts of India as administrators, soldiers, basic terms, such as the names of the
merchants, and artisans. As it reached parts of the human body and of relatives,
new areas, Hindustani further hybrid- pronouns, numerals, postpositions, and
ized with local languages. In the Deccan, verbs, are the same in both Sanskritized
for instance, Hindustani blended with Hindi and Persianized Urdu.
Telugu and came to be called Dakhani. In a study of Calcutta (now Kolkata),
In Dakhani, aspirated consonants were the Indian linguist Sumit Kumar
replaced with their unaspirated coun- Chatterjee in 1931 detailed the use of
terparts; for instance, dekh ‘see’ became a lingua franca that he named Bazaar
dek, ghula ‘dissolved’ became gula, kuch Hindustani. He noted that the language
‘some’ became kuc, and samajh ‘under- was greatly simplified, with minimal
stand’ became samaj. grammatical forms, vocabulary, idioms,
When the British colonized India, and expressions, and that it was used by
they chose to instruct their officers in Indians and Europeans who spoke lan-
Hindustani. Colonization intensified guage as diverse as Asamiya, Bangla,
existing conflicts between the Hindu Oriya, and Tamil.
population and the Muslim popula- In the 21st century, this simplified ver-
tion even as it motivated efforts toward sion of Hindustani continues to be used
linguistic standardization. During the as a lingua franca not only in Kolkata but
process of creating a literary, standard in all of the cities of India, especially in
form of Hindustani, Hindus introduced non-Hindi-speaking areas. More than 100
increasing numbers of Sanskrit words, million individuals, including more than
and Muslims introduced increasing num- 50 million people in India, speak Urdu;
bers of Persian and Arabic words. many of these individuals may actually
Mahatma Gandhi realized that the use Hindustani for ordinary communica-
standardization process was dangerously tion. Approximately 550 million people
82 | The Culture of India

speak Hindi, and sizable portions of this somewhat by Brahmi, which eventually
group, especially those who live in cities, superseded it.
are known to use Hindustani rather than
Sanskritized Hindi in ordinary speech. Brahmi
Thus, while Hindustani may not survive
as a literary language, it continues to Of Aramaic derivation or inspiration,
thrive as a vernacular. the Brahmi script can be traced to the
8th or 7th century BC, when it may have
Indic Writing Systems been introduced to Indian merchants by
people of Semitic origin. Brahmi is semi-
Two scripts are attested in ancient India: alphabetic, each consonant having either
the syllabic Kharosthi and semialpha- an inherent a sound pronounced after it
betic Brahmi scripts of ancient India. No or a diacritic mark to show another vowel;
systems of writing subsequently devel- initial vowels have separate characters. In
oped from the Kharosthi script. Brahmi, most cases Brahmi and its derivatives are
however, is thought to be the forerunner written from left to right, but a coin of the
of all of the scripts used for writing the 4th century BC, discovered in Madhya
languages of India, Tibet, Southeast Asia, Pradesh, is inscribed with Brahmi char-
and Indonesia (exceptions include those acters running from right to left. Among
areas in which native writing systems the many descendants of Brahmi are
have been replaced by the Latin or Arabic Devanagari (used for Sanskrit, Hindi,
alphabet or by Chinese). and other Indian languages), the Bangla
and Gujarati scripts, and those of the
Kharosthi Dravidian languages.

The earliest extant inscription in Gupta Scripts

Kharosthi dates from 251 BC, and the latest
from the 4th–5th century AD. The sys- The Gupta scripts are a group of alpha-
tem probably derived from the Aramaic betic writing systems (sometimes
alphabet while northwestern India was modified to represent syllables instead
under Persian rule in the 5th century BC. of single sounds). They derived from a
Aramaic, however, is a Semitic alphabet northern Indian alphabet of the 4th–6th
of 22 consonantal letters, while Kharosthi century AD. The ruling Gupta state at
is syllabic and has 252 separate signs for that time gave the script its name. It was
consonant and vowel combinations. A developed out of Brahmi and was spread
cursive script written from right to left, with the Gupta empire over large areas of
Kharosthi was used for commercial and conquered territory, with the result that
calligraphic purposes. It was influenced the Gupta alphabet was the ancestor (for
Indian Languages and Writing Systems | 83

the most part via Devanagari) of most “round.” The Tulu-Malayalam script is a
later Indian scripts. variety of Grantha dating from the 8th or
The original Gupta alphabet had 9th century AD. The modern Tamil script
37 letters, including 5 vowels, and was may also be derived from Grantha, but
written from left to right. Four main this is not certain.
subtypes of Gupta script developed Originally used for writing Sanskrit
from the original alphabet: eastern, only, Grantha in its later varieties is also
western, southern, and Central Asian. used to write a number of the Dravidian
The Central Asian Gupta can be fur- languages indigenous to southern India.
ther divided into Central Asian Slanting The script has 35 letters, five of them
Gupta and its Agnean and Kuchean vari- vowels, and is written from left to right.
ants and Central Asian Cursive Gupta,
or Khotanese. A western branch of east- Devanagari
ern Gupta gave rise to the Siddhamatrka
script (c. AD 500), which, in turn, evolved The Devanagari script is used to write
into the Devanagari alphabet (c. AD the Sanskrit, Prakrit, Hindi, Marathi, and
700), the most widespread of the modern Nepali languages, developed from the
Indian scripts. North Indian monumental script known
as Gupta and ultimately from the Brahmi
Grantha Alphabet alphabet, from which all modern Indian
writing systems are derived. In use from
The earliest inscriptions in Grantha, the 7th century AD and occurring in
dating from the 5th–6th century AD, its mature form from the 11th century
are on copper plates from the kingdom onward, Devanagari is characterized by
of the Pallavas (near modern Chennai long, horizontal strokes at the tops of the
[Madras]). The form of the alphabet letters, usually joined in modern usage
used in these inscriptions, classified as to form a continuous horizontal line
Early Grantha, is seen primarily on cop- through the script when written.
per plates and stone monuments. Middle The word Devanagari is from the
Grantha, the form of the script used Sanskrit words deva, meaning “god,” and
from the mid-7th to the end of the 8th nāgarī (lipi), meaning “[script] of the
century, is also known from inscriptions city.” The script is also called Nagari.
on copper and stone. The script used The Devanagari writing system is a
from the 9th to the 14th century is called combination of syllabary and alphabet.
Transitional Grantha; from approxi- One of its more notable characteristics
mately 1300 on, the modern script has is the convention that a consonantal
been in use. Currently two varieties are symbol lacking diacritics is read as the
used: Brahmanic, or “square,” and Jain, or consonant followed by the letter a—that
84 | The Culture of India

is, the a is implied rather than written as are pronounced by stopping and then
a separate character. releasing the airflow, such as k, c, t· , t, p),
Another notable characteristic is semivowels (y, r, l, v), and spirants (ś, s·, s,
that the most common traditional list- h; h comes last because it has no unique
ing of Devanagari symbols follows a place of articulation).
phonetic order in which the vowels are The name of each vowel is desig-
recited before the consonants; in con- nated by its sound plus the suffix -kāra;
trast, most alphabets follow an order that thus, akāra is the name for a and ākāra
mixes vowels and consonants together for ā. A consonant is usually referred to
(e.g., A, B, C). Furthermore, Devanagari by its sound plus the default vowel a and
arranges the vowels and consonants the suffix -kāra: kakāra is the name for k,
in an order that starts with sounds pro- khakāra for kh, gakāra for g, ghakāra for
nounced at the back of the oral cavity gh, n· akāra for n· , yakāra for y, śakāra for
and proceeds to sounds produced at the ś, hakāra for h, and so on. The names of
front of the mouth. a few letters are irregular, notably repha
The Devanagari consonants are (for r), anusvāra (for m · ), and those of ˘hk,
divided into classes of stops (sounds that hp, and h·, as noted earlier.

H induism is a major world religion originating on the

Indian subcontinent and comprising several and varied
systems of philosophy, belief, and ritual. Although the name
Hinduism is relatively new, having been coined by British
writers in the first decades of the 19th century, it refers to
a rich cumulative tradition of texts and practices, some of
which date to the 2nd millennium BC or possibly earlier. If
the Indus valley civilization (3rd–2nd millennium BC) was
the earliest source of these traditions, as some scholars hold,
then Hinduism is the oldest living religion on Earth. Its many
sacred texts in Sanskrit and vernacular languages served as a
vehicle for spreading the religion to other parts of the world,
though ritual and the visual and performing arts also played
a significant role in its transmission. In the early 21st century
Hinduism had nearly one billion adherents worldwide and
was the religion of about 80 percent of India’s population.
Despite its global presence, however, it is best understood
through its many distinctive regional manifestations.


The term Hinduism became familiar as a designator of

religious ideas and practices distinctive to India with
the publication of books such as Hinduism (1877) by Sir
Monier Monier-Williams, the notable Oxford scholar and
86 | The Culture of India

author of an influential Sanskrit diction- set Hinduism on a par with other religious
ary. Initially it was an outsiders’ term, traditions and to teach it systematically to
building on centuries-old usages of Hindu youths. They add a new layer to an
the word Hindu. Early travelers to the elaborate tradition of explaining practice
Indus valley, beginning with the Greeks and doctrine that dates to the 1st millen-
and Persians, spoke of its inhabitants nium BC. The roots of this tradition can
as “Hindu” (Greek: ‘indoi), and, in the be traced back much farther—textually,
16th century, residents of India them- to the schools of commentary and debate
selves began very slowly to employ the preserved in epic and Vedic writings
term to distinguish themselves from the from the 2nd millennium BC; and visu-
Turks. Gradually the distinction became ally, through artistic representations of
primarily religious rather than ethnic, yakshas (luminous spirits associated with
geographic, or cultural. specific locales and natural phenomena)
Since the late 19th century, Hindus and nagas (cobralike divinities), which
have reacted to the term Hinduism in were worshipped from about 400 BC. The
several ways. Some have rejected it in roots of the tradition are also sometimes
favour of indigenous formulations. Those traced back to the female terra-cotta figu-
preferring Veda or Vedic religion want rines found ubiquitously in excavations
to embrace an ancient textual core and of sites associated with the Indus valley
the tradition of Brahman learning that civilization (3rd–2nd millennium BC)
preserved and interpreted it. Those pre- and sometimes interpreted as goddesses.
ferring sanatana dharma (“eternal law”) In recognition of this ancient tradition
emphasize a broader tradition of belief of self-explanation, present-day Hindus
and practice (such as worship through often assert that theirs is the world’s old-
images, dietary codes, and the venera- est religion.
tion of the cow) that is not necessarily
mediated by Brahmans (members of General Nature
the highest social class who are usually of Hinduism
priests). Still others, perhaps the majority,
have simply accepted the term Hinduism More strikingly than any other major
or its analogues, especially hindu dharma religious community, Hindus accept—
(Hindu moral and religious law), in vari- and indeed celebrate—the organic,
ous Indic languages. multileveled, and sometimes internally
Since the early 20th century, text- inconsistent nature of their tradition.
books on Hinduism have been written This expansiveness is made possible by
by Hindus themselves, often under the the widely shared Hindu view that truth
rubric of sanatana dharma. These efforts or reality cannot be encapsulated in
at self-explanation have been intended to any creedal formulation, a perspective
Hinduism | 87

expressed in the Hindu prayer “May The Five Tensile Strands

good thoughts come to us from all sides.”
Thus, Hinduism maintains that truth Across the sweep of Indian religious his-
must be sought in multiple sources, not tory, at least five elements have given
dogmatically proclaimed. shape to the Hindu religious tradition:
Anyone’s view of the truth—even that doctrine, practice, society, story, and
of a guru regarded as possessing superior devotion. These five elements, to adopt a
authority—is fundamentally conditioned typical Hindu metaphor, are understood
by the specifics of time, age, gender, state as relating to one another as strands in
of consciousness, social and geographic an elaborate braid. Moreover, each strand
location, and stage of attainment. These develops out of a history of conversa-
multiple perspectives enhance a broad tion, elaboration, and challenge. Hence,
view of religious truth rather than dimin- in looking for what makes the tradition
ish it; hence, there is a strong tendency cohere, it is sometimes better to locate
for contemporary Hindus to affirm that central points of tension than to expect
tolerance is the foremost religious virtue. clear agreements on Hindu thought and
On the other hand, even cosmopolitan practice.
Hindus living in a global environment
recognize and value the fact that their Doctrine
religion has developed in the specific
context of the Indian subcontinent. Such The first of the five strands of Hinduism
a tension between universalist and par- is doctrine, as expressed in a vast tex-
ticularist impulses has long animated tual tradition anchored to the Veda
the Hindu tradition. When Hindus speak (“Knowledge”), the oldest core of Hindu
of their religious identity as sanatana religious utterance, and organized
dharma, a formulation made popular through the centuries primarily by mem-
late in the 19th century, they emphasize bers of the learned Brahman class. Here
its continuous, seemingly eternal (san- several characteristic tensions appear.
atana) existence and the fact that it One concerns the status of the One in
describes a web of customs, obliga- relation to the Many—issues of belief in
tions, traditions, and ideals (dharma) several deities, monotheism, and monism.
that far exceeds the Western tendency Another tension concerns the disparity
to think of religion primarily as a sys- between the world-preserving ideal of
tem of beliefs. A common way in which dharma and that of moksha (release from
English-speaking Hindus often distance an inherently flawed world). A third ten-
themselves from that frame of mind is to sion exists between individual destiny, as
insist that Hinduism is not a religion but shaped by karma (the influence of one’s
a way of life. actions on one’s present and future lives),
88 | The Culture of India

and the individual’s deep bonds to family, much more influential commonalities
society, and the divinities associated with appear in the worship of icons or images
these concepts. (pratima, murti, or arca). Broadly, this
is called puja (“honouring [the deity]”),
Practice or archana if performed in a temple by
a priest. It echoes conventions of hos-
The second strand in the fabric of pitality that might be performed for an
Hinduism is practice. Many Hindus, in honoured guest, especially the giving
fact, would place this first. Despite India’s and sharing of food. Such food is called
enormous diversity, a common gram- prasada (Hindi, prasad: “grace”), reflect-
mar of ritual behaviour connects various ing the recognition that when human
places, strata, and periods of Hindu life. beings make offerings to deities, the
While it is true that various elements of initiative is not really theirs. They are
Vedic ritual survive in modern practice actually responding to the generosity
and thereby serve a unifying function, that bore them into a world fecund with

A Hindu worship service in Pune (Poona), India, following an ancient ritual. C.M. Natu
Hinduism | 89

life and possibility. The divine personal- with an understanding of truth or reality
ity installed as a home or temple image as being similarly plural and multilay-
receives prasada, tasting it (Hindus dif- ered—though it is not clear whether the
fer as to whether this is a real or symbolic influence has proceeded chiefly from
act, gross or subtle) and offering the religious doctrine to society or vice
remains to worshipers. Consuming these versa. Seeking its own answer to this
leftovers, worshipers accept their status conundrum, a well-known Vedic hymn
as beings inferior to and dependent upon (Rigveda 10.90) describes how, at the
the divine. An element of tension arises beginning of time, a primordial person
because the logic of puja and prasada underwent a process of sacrifice that pro-
seems to accord all humans an equal sta- duced a four-part cosmos and its human
tus with respect to God, yet exclusionary counterpart, a four-part social order com-
rules have often been sanctified rather prising Brahmans (priests), Kshatriyas
than challenged by prasada-based ritual. (nobles), Vaishyas (commoners), and
Specifically, lower-caste people and those Sudras (servants).
perceived as outsiders or carriers of pol- The social domain, like the realms
lution have historically been forbidden to of religious practice and doctrine, is
enter certain Hindu temples, a practice marked by a characteristic tension. There
that continues even today. is the view that each person or group
approaches truth in a way that is necessar-
Society ily distinct, reflecting its own perspective.
Only by allowing each to speak and act
The third strand that has served to orga- in such terms can a society constitute
nize Hindu life is society. Early visitors itself as a proper representation of truth
to India from Greece and China and, or reality. Yet this context-sensitive habit
later, others such as the Persian scholar of thought can too easily be used to legit-
and scientist al-Bīrūnī, who traveled imate social systems based on privilege
to India in the early 11th century, were and prejudice. If it is believed that no
struck by the highly stratified (if locally standards apply universally, one group
variant) social structure that has come can too easily justify its dominance over
to be called familiarly the caste sys- another. Historically, therefore, certain
tem. While it is true that there is a vast Hindus, while espousing tolerance at
disparity between the ancient vision of the level of doctrine, have maintained
society as divided into four ideal classes caste distinction in the social realm.
(varnas) and the contemporary reality of Responding to such oppression, espe-
thousands of endogamous birth-groups cially when justified by allegedly Hindu
(jatis, literally “births”), few would deny norms, lower-caste groups have some-
that Indian society is notably plural and times insisted, “We are not Hindus!” Yet
hierarchical. This fact has much to do their own communities may enact similar
90 | The Culture of India

inequities, and their religious practices

and beliefs often continue to tie them to
the greater Hindu fold.


Another dimension drawing Hindus into

a single community of discourse is narra-
tive. For at least two millennia, people in
almost all corners of India—and now well
beyond—have responded to stories of
divine play and of interactions between
gods and humans. These stories concern
major figures in the Hindu pantheon:
Krishna and his lover Radha, Rama and
his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana,
Shiva and his consort Parvati (or, in a dif- Ravana, the 10-headed demon king, detail
ferent birth, Sati), and the Great Goddess from a Guler painting of the Ramayana, c.
Durga, or Devi as a slayer of the buffalo 1720. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum
demon Mahisasura. Often such narra- of Art, Ohio, gift of George P. Bickford
tives illustrate the interpenetration of the
divine and human spheres, with dei-
ties such as Krishna and Rama entering virtues of Rama’s enemy Ravana as equal
entirely into the human drama. Many to or even surpassing those of Rama
tales focus in different degrees on gene- himself. And in North India lower-caste
alogies of human experience, forms of musicians present religious epics such
love, and the struggle between order and as Alha or Dhola in terms that reflect
chaos or between duty and play. In gener- their own experience of the world rather
ating, performing, and listening to these than the upper-caste milieu of the great
stories, Hindus have often experienced Sanskrit religious epic the Mahabharata,
themselves as members of a single imag- which these epics nonetheless echo. To
ined family. the broadly known pan-Hindu, male-cen-
Yet, simultaneously, these narratives tred narrative traditions, these variants
serve to articulate tensions. Thus, the provide both resonance and challenge.
Ramayana, traditionally a testament of
Rama’s righteous victories, is sometimes Devotion
told by women performers as the story
of Sita’s travails at Rama’s hands. South There is a fifth strand that contributes to
Indian performances may emphasize the the unity of Hindu experience through
Hinduism | 91

time: bhakti (“sharing” or “devotion”), a tradition. This approach has its costs, for
broad tradition of a loving God that is it may seem to give priority to aspects
especially associated with the lives and of the tradition that appear in its earli-
words of vernacular poet-saints through- est extant texts. These texts owe their
out India. Devotional poems attributed preservation mainly to the labours of
to these inspired figures, who represent upper-caste men, especially Brahmans,
both genders and all social classes, have and often reveal far too little about the
elaborated a store of images and moods perspectives of others. They should be
to which access can be had in a score of read, therefore, both with and against the
languages; bhakti verse first appeared grain, with due attention paid to silences
in Tamil in South India and moved and absent rebuttals on behalf of women,
northward into other regions with dif- regional communities, and people of low
ferent languages. Individual poems are status—all of whom nowadays call them-
sometimes strikingly similar from one selves Hindus or identify with groups
language or century to another, with- that can sensibly be placed within the
out there being any trace of mediation broad Hindu span.
through the pan-Indian, distinctly upper-
caste language Sanskrit. Often, individual Veda, Brahmans, and Issues
motifs in the lives of bhakti poet-saints of Religious Authority
also bear strong family resemblances.
With its central affirmation that religious For members of the upper castes, a
enthusiasm is more fundamental than principal characteristic of Hinduism
rigidities of practice or doctrine, bhakti has traditionally been a recognition
provides a common challenge to other of the Veda, the most ancient body of
aspects of Hindu life. At the same time, Indian religious literature, as an abso-
it contributes to a common Hindu heri- lute authority revealing fundamental
tage—even a common heritage of protest. and unassailable truth. The Veda is also
Yet certain expressions of bhakti are far regarded as the basis of all the later shas-
more confrontational than others in their tra texts, which stressed the religious
criticism of caste, image worship, and the merits of the Brahmans—including, for
performance of vows, pilgrimages, and example, the medical corpus known
acts of self-mortification. as the Ayur Veda. Parts of the Veda are
quoted in essential Hindu rituals (such
Central Conceptions as the wedding ceremony), and it is
the source of many enduring patterns
In the following sections, various aspects of Hindu thought, yet its contents are
of this complex whole will be addressed, practically unknown to most Hindus.
relying primarily on a historical perspec- Still, most Hindus venerate it from a dis-
tive of the development of the Hindu tance, and groups who reject its authority
92 | The Culture of India

outright (such as Buddhists and Jains) appearance of the universe. Brahman is

are regarded by Hindus as deviating in all things and is the self (atman) of
from their common tradition. all living beings. Brahman is the creator,
Another characteristic of much preserver, or transformer and reabsorber
Hindu thought is its special regard for of everything. Hindus differ, however,
Brahmans as a priestly class possessing as to whether this ultimate reality is
spiritual supremacy by birth. As spe- best conceived as lacking attributes and
cial manifestations of religious power qualities—the impersonal brahman—or
and as bearers and teachers of the Veda, as a personal God, especially Vishnu,
Brahmans have often been thought to Shiva, or Shakti (these being the prefer-
represent an ideal of ritual purity and ences of adherents called Vaishnavas,
social prestige. Yet this has also been Shaivas, and Shaktas, respectively). Belief
challenged, either by competing claims in the importance of the search for a One
to religious authority—especially from that is the All has been a characteristic
kings and other rulers—or by the view feature of India’s spiritual life for more
that Brahmanhood is a status attained than 3,000 years.
by depth of learning, not birth. Evidence
of both these challenges can be found Karma, Samsara, and Moksha
in Vedic literature itself, especially the
Upanishads (speculative religious texts Hindus generally accept the doctrine
that provide commentary on the Vedas), of transmigration and rebirth and the
and bhakti literature is full of vignettes in complementary belief in karma. The
which the small-mindedness of Brahmans whole process of rebirth, called samsara,
is contrasted with true depth of religious is cyclic, with no clear beginning or end,
experience, as exemplified by poet-saints and encompasses lives of perpetual,
such as Kabir and Ravidas. serial attachments. Actions generated by
desire and appetite bind one’s spirit (jiva)
Doctrine of Atman-Brahman to an endless series of births and deaths.
Desire motivates any social interaction
Most Hindus believe in brahman, an (particularly when involving sex or food),
uncreated, eternal, infinite, transcendent, resulting in the mutual exchange of good
and all-embracing principle. Brahman and bad karma. In one prevalent view,
contains in itself both being and non- the very meaning of salvation is eman-
being, and it is the sole reality—the cipation (moksha) from this morass, an
ultimate cause, foundation, source, and escape from the impermanence that is an
goal of all existence. As the All, brah- inherent feature of mundane existence.
man either causes the universe and all In this view the only goal is the one per-
beings to emanate from itself, transforms manent and eternal principle: the One,
itself into the universe, or assumes the God, brahman, which is totally opposite
Hinduism | 93

to phenomenal existence. People who of withdrawing from the world at the

have not fully realized that their being is conclusion of one’s life, many Hindus
identical with brahman are thus seen as ignore such practices. The Bhagavadgita
deluded. Fortunately, the very structure of states that because action is inescapable,
human experience teaches the ultimate the three paths are better thought of as
identity between brahman and atman. simultaneously achieving the goals of
One may learn this lesson by different world maintenance (dharma) and world
means: by realizing one’s essential same- release (moksha). Through the suspen-
ness with all living beings, by responding sion of desire and ambition and through
in love to a personal expression of the a taste for the fruits (phala) of one’s
divine, or by coming to appreciate that the actions, one is enabled to float free of
competing attentions and moods of one’s life while engaging it fully. This matches
waking consciousness are grounded in a the actual goals of most Hindus, which
transcendental unity—one has a taste of include executing properly one’s social
this unity in the daily experience of deep, and ritual duties; supporting one’s caste,
dreamless sleep. family, and profession; and working to
achieve a broader stability in the cosmos,
Dharma and the Three Paths nature, and society. The designation of
Hinduism as sanatana dharma empha-
Hindus disagree about the best way sizes this goal of maintaining personal
(marga) to attain such release. The and universal equilibrium, while at the
Bhagavadgita (“Song of the Lord”; c. AD same time calling attention to the impor-
100), an extremely influential Hindu text, tant role played by the performance of
presents three paths to salvation: the karma- traditional religious practices in achiev-
marga (“path of duties”), the disinterested ing that goal. Because no one person can
discharge of ritual and social obligations; occupy all the social, occupational, and
the jnana-marga (“path of knowledge”), age-defined roles that are requisite to
the use of meditative concentration pre- maintaining the health of the life-organ-
ceded by long and systematic ethical and ism as a whole, universal maxims (e.g.,
contemplative training (Yoga) to gain a ahimsa, the desire not to harm) are quali-
supraintellectual insight into one’s iden- fied by the more-particular dharmas that
tity with brahman; and the bhakti-marga are appropriate to each of the four major
(“path of devotion”), love for a personal varnas: Brahmans (priests), Kshatriyas
God. These ways are regarded as suited to (warriors and kings), Vaishyas (the com-
various types of people, but they are inter- mon people), and Sudras (servants).
active and potentially available to all. These four categories are superseded
Although the pursuit of mok- by the more practically applicable dhar-
sha is institutionalized in Hindu life mas appropriate to each of the thousands
through ascetic practice and the ideal of particular castes (jatis). And these,
94 | The Culture of India

in turn, are crosscut by the obligations classes should first become a chaste
appropriate to one’s gender and stage of student (brahmacharin); then become
life (ashrama). In principle then, Hindu a married householder (grihastha), dis-
ethics is exquisitely context-sensitive, charging his debts to his ancestors by
and Hindus expect and celebrate a wide begetting sons and to the gods by sac-
variety of individual behaviours. rificing; then retire (as a vanaprastha),
with or without his wife, to the forest to
Ashramas: The Four Stages devote himself to spiritual contempla-
of Life tion; and finally, but not mandatorily,
become a homeless wandering ascetic
European and American scholars have (sannyasin). The situation of the forest
often overemphasized the so-called “life- dweller was always a delicate compro-
negating” aspects of Hinduism—the mise that remained problematic on the
rigorous disciplines of Yoga, for example. mythological level and was often omitted
The polarity of asceticism and sensual- or rejected in practical life.
ity, which assumes the form of a conflict Although the householder was often
between the aspiration for liberation extolled—some authorities, regarding
and the heartfelt desire to have descen- studentship a mere preparation for this
dants and continue earthly life, manifests ashrama, went so far as to brand all other
itself in Hindu social life as the tension stages inferior—there were always people
between the different goals and stages who became wandering ascetics imme-
of life. For many centuries the relative diately after studentship. Theorists were
value of an active life and the perfor- inclined to reconcile the divergent views
mance of meritorious works (pravritti), and practices by allowing the ascetic way
as opposed to the renunciation of all of life to those who were entirely free
worldly interests and activity (nivriti), has from worldly desire (owing to the effects
been a much-debated issue. While philo- of restrained conduct in former lives),
sophical works such as the Upanishads even if they had not gone through the tra-
emphasized renunciation, the dharma ditional prior stages.
texts argued that the householder who The texts describing such life stages
maintains his sacred fire, begets chil- were written by men for men; they paid
dren, and performs his ritual duties well scant attention to stages appropriate for
also earns religious merit. Nearly 2,000 women. The Manu-smriti (200 BC–AD
years ago these dharma texts elaborated 300; Laws of Manu), for example, was
the social doctrine of the four ashramas content to regard marriage as the female
(“abodes”). This concept was an attempt equivalent of initiation into the life of a
to harmonize the conflicting tendencies student, thereby effectively denying the
of Hinduism into one system. It held that student stage of life to girls. Furthermore,
a male member of any of the three higher in the householder stage, a woman’s
Hinduism | 95

purpose was summarized under the The presumption that assigns “practi-
heading of service to her husband. What cal” Hinduism to peasants, labourers, or
we know of actual practice, however, tribal peoples—while assuming that the
challenges the idea that these patriarchal high-born, wealthy, and educated would
norms were ever perfectly enacted or be concerned with spiritual enlighten-
that women entirely accepted the values ment and Hinduism’s ultimate aim of
they presupposed. While some women liberation (moksha)—is false. Hindu farm-
became ascetics, many more focused ers care about their souls at least as much
their religious lives on realizing a state as do Hindu business or professional
of blessedness that was understood to men and women (if less single-mindedly
be at once this-worldly and expressive than world renouncers, who come from
of a larger cosmic well-being. Women all ranks of life). Farmers’ uncertain live-
have often directed the cultivation of the lihoods, however, may influence them to
auspicious life-giving force (shakti) they dedicate more time and energy to ritu-
possess to the benefit of their husbands als designed to obtain prosperity or to
and families, but, as an ideal, this force remove troubles, to bring rain to parched
has independent status. fields or to prevent damaging hail, to
advance their children’s education and
Practical Hinduism careers, or to protect their families from
ill health. Although rural Hindus may
Practical Hinduism is both a quest to have little time for meditative practices,
achieve well-being and a set of strate- they are fully aware of ultimate truths
gies for locating sources of affliction transcending the everyday. By the same
and removing or appeasing them. token, the pious urban elite, if more likely
Characterized in this way, it has much to pursue spiritual disciplines, frequently
in common with the popular beliefs sponsor worship in temples or homes to
and practices of many other religions. ensure worldly success. At all levels of the
For example, Roman Catholicism as social hierarchy, Hinduism lives through
practiced in many parts of Europe or artistic performances: dance and dance-
Mahayana Buddhism in Korea and drama, representational arts, poetry,
Taiwan involve, as does Hinduism, peti- music, and song serve not only to please
tions and offerings to enshrined divine deities but to transmit the religion’s
powers in order to engage their help meaningful narratives and vital truths.
with all manner of problems and desires. Both adherents of the faith and those
Thus, religions which could hardly differ who study it describe Hinduism as a
more vastly in their understanding of the way of life. Thus, they implicitly contrast
nature of divinity, reality, and causality Hinduism to religions that appear to be
may nonetheless converge at the level of primarily located in spaces and times set
popular piety. apart from the everyday—such as “church
96 | The Culture of India

on Sunday.” Although Hindus have mag- each one first to test its sweetness before
nificent sacred architecture and a vital giving it to her lord, and in so doing she
tradition of calendrical festivals, the “way contaminates the berries with saliva, a
of life” description means that religious major source of pollution. Although the
attitudes and acts permeate ordinary berries are highly unacceptable accord-
places, times, and activities. For example, ing to the standards of ritual purity,
bathing, dressing, cooking, eating, dispos- Rama accepts them and eats them bliss-
ing of leftovers, and washing the dishes fully. The message is that the polluted
may all be subject to ritual prescriptions offerings of a lowborn person given to
in Hindu households. Motivations for God with a heart full of love are far more
such ritualized actions are ascribed to pleasing than any ritually pure gift from
considerations of purity—an interest that a less-devout being. Purity of heart, there-
is often linked to maintaining status in a fore, is more important than bodily purity.
hierarchical social system. The capacity to see both sides of
When Hindus interact with deities, most matters—cognitive flexibility rather
considerations of purity may or may not than dogmatic fixity—is one of the
be important. In some Vaishnava tradi- most important characteristics of prac-
tions, for example, one must remain in a tical Hinduism, which lacks dogma
relatively pure state in order to be fit to altogether. In this regard, persistent con-
worship. A Brahman priest of a Krishna tinuities with Hinduism’s ancient roots
temple in the Vallabha sect might refuse in Vedic traditions can be discerned.
food and water from the hands of non- The elaborate sacrificial rituals of Vedic
Brahmans, not to show he is better than religion have often been described as
they are but because his work in the being focused on obtaining the goods
temple demands that he maintain such of life—neatly summarized as prosper-
boundaries. Should he inadvertently ity, health, and progeny—from divine
lower his own ritual purity, he might dis- powers through exacting ritual behav-
please or offend the deity with whom he is iours. However, in the Upanishads, the
in regular contact, which could threaten last of the Vedic texts, voices emerge
human well-being in general. that care for neither the rituals nor their
Vaishnava traditions, however, promised fruits but are concerned above
include an alternative perspective that all with learning the nature of ultimate
is conveyed in a well-known tale about reality and how the human soul may
Rama. This tale, frequently portrayed in recognize that indescribable essence
poetry and art, tells of an outcaste tribal in itself. One quest never supplants the
woman named Shabari who meets Rama other. In Hinduism today there remains
in the forest. Her simple-hearted love for a vital creative tension between, on the
him is so great that she offers him wild one hand, faith in the efficacy of ritual
berries, which are all she has. She bites and desire for its worldly fruits and,
Hinduism | 97

on the other, disregard for all external in prayers uttered before a shrine, or in
practices and material results. Farmers the lighting of incense.
consistently deride the notion that sins
are washed away in the waters of sacred Deities
rivers, yet they spend small fortunes to
travel to and bathe in them. As one Hindu author Sitansu Chakravarti
helpfully explains in Hinduism: A Way of
Devotion Life (1991),

Devotion (bhakti) effectively spans and Hinduism is a monotheistic reli-

reconciles the seemingly disparate aims gion which believes that God
of obtaining aid in solving worldly prob- manifests Himself or Herself in
lems and locating one’s soul in relation to several forms. One is supposed
divinity. It is the prime religious attitude to worship the form that is most
in much of Hindu life. The term bhakti is appealing to the individual with-
derived from a root that literally means out being disrespectful to other
“having a share”; devotion unites without forms of worship.
totally merging the identities of worship-
ers and deities. While some traditions Although the specific details of ritual
of bhakti radically speak out against rit- action and the names and appearances
ual, devotion in ordinary life is usually of deities vary vastly across the subcon-
embedded in worship, vows, and pil- tinent, commonalities in ritual structure
grimages—three major elements within and attitude override the great diver-
practical Hinduism. sity of ritual practices and associated
Theistic devotion presents itself as an mythic tales. Whether offering soaked
easy path, obliterating the need for expen- raw chickpeas to Shiva’s agent Bhairuji
sive sacrificial rituals, difficult ascetic in Rajasthan or a buffalo to Draupadi in
practices, and scriptural knowledge. All Tamil Nadu or water to Krishna’s devoted
of these are understood as restricted to basil plant in Bengal, Hindus approach
high-caste males, and in practice specifi- deities through similarly structured
cally to the rich, the spiritually gifted, or actions. These are just as pan-Hindu as
the learned. But bhakti is for all human the eternal Vedas or the three important
beings, regardless of their rank, gender, deities—Shiva, Vishnu, and the Devi,
or talent. Any person’s chosen deity may whose forms and names vary widely but
help him obtain life’s rewards or avoid are nonetheless recognizable to Hindus
its disasters. At the same time, such a throughout the world.
chosen deity may be the subject of pure, Ethnographies of rural Hindu prac-
unmotivated devotional love, recollected tices reveal a wide variety of human
in a few moments of morning meditation, relationships with multiple divine
98 | The Culture of India

beings. These relationships are based is ultimately singular and to be found

not only on family and community nowhere on the face of the earth but
affiliations but also on individual life rather in one’s own body and heart. An
experiences, so that individuals and everyday Hinduism embedded in mate-
families often develop idiosyncratic reli- riality motivates the distinction between
giosities while remaining well within the Banjari and Puvali, while a Hinduism that
range of normative patterns. A house- dissolves differences and seeks transcen-
hold of Gujars (a community associated dent unity denies it. Most persons live
with herding, dairy production, and their lives holding and moving between
agriculture) in a Rajasthani village pres- both these orientations.
ents one representative example. This Sundar Mata has only one place,
family is particularly devoted to two dei- on the edge of the Gujar family’s home
ties from whom they believe they have village. She has helped them with vari-
received special blessings: Dev Narayan, ous problems over the years. In times of
a regional hero considered to be an ava- trouble, devotees sometimes make inner
tar or incarnation of Vishnu, and Sundar vows to Sundar Mata (or any deity), no
Mata (“Beautiful Mother”), a local god- matter where they are. But to fulfill that
dess, or village mother. vow, thankful persons must present
Dev Narayan is worshipped at themselves and their offerings in her
multiple sites throughout Rajasthan. particular place. Sundar Mata’s shrine,
However, each of his shrines—in Puvali, like most Hindu places of worship,
in Banjari, and so forth—has its own iden- accumulates gifts dedicated by grate-
tity. This particular family lives a short ful worshipers. For example, the largest
walk from Puvali’s Dev Narayan, but they iron trident at Sundar Mata’s shrine was
believe that the more remote Banjari’s offered by a migrant labourer who lost
Dev Narayan—located near their ances- his suitcase on the train back from Delhi.
tral home—has blessed two generations He vowed to give his village goddess a
with long-awaited sons. They go weekly huge trident if he got the bag back, which
for darshan (divine vision of a deity’s he miraculously did.
image) to Puvali’s Dev Narayan, as it is Although a local deity, Sundar Mata
convenient. But when the time comes to is related to pan-Hindu goddesses such
hold a major feast of thanksgiving to the as Lakshmi, Parvati, or Durga. They are
deity who granted their prayers, they go all thought to be manifestations of a
to a great deal of extra trouble and added single goddess; name and form are ulti-
expense to hold this feast at the more mately not significant. Yet again it should
remote place of Banjari. If questioned, the be noted that human worshipers attach
adults in this family would state conclu- themselves to certain images and locali-
sively that there is no difference between ties, and, for those devoted to Sundar
the two places and moreover that God Mata, not any goddess will do.
Hinduism | 99

Durga killing the buffalo demon Mahisasura, Rajasthani miniature of the Mewar school, mid-
17th century, in a private collection. Pramod Chandra

This family that honours Dev Narayan or the central icons from the temple
and Sundar Mata also worships lineage of Puri in Orissa—are placed in their
deities at home. Ritual attention to the home shrine. Home shrines in general
spirits of deceased uncles and infants accumulate sacred objects and images
ensures their household’s well-being, and eclectically. Images are treasured and are
each domestic group takes similar care of believed to manifest miraculous powers,
loved ones who have died. Several mem- but images are also understood to be life-
bers of the Gujar family portrayed here less and dispensable—another reflection
have taken a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrim- of the Hindu genius for seeing both sides.
age as far as Haridwar in Uttar Pradesh,
Gaya in south-central Bihar, and Puri Worship
in eastern Orissa. Mementos of these
journeys—such as framed images of the Worship, or puja, is the central action of
sacred Ganges River’s descent to earth practical Hinduism. Scholars describe
100 | The Culture of India

Hindu worship as a preeminently trans- the returned portion of a worshiper’s or

actional event; through worship, humans pilgrim’s offering, which is understood as
approach deities by respectful interac- having value added by the intangible pro-
tions with their powers. At every level, cess of a deity’s consumption. Prasad to
from elaborate temple rituals to simple be used for offerings is hawked by ven-
home practice, worship consists of dors on the road to a temple, but this food
offerings made and blessings received; does not truly become graced until it has
reverence is rendered and grace pours been given as an offering and received
down. The purpose of many rituals is to back. Many foodstuffs are used as prasad;
promote auspiciousness (kalyana, man- bananas or other raw fruits and coconuts
gala, shri)—a pervasive Hindu concept are particularly common, as are various
indicating all kinds of good fortune or candies and milk products. Fresh flowers
well-being. are often included on an offering tray and
Ritual manuals in vernacular lan- may also be returned as prasad. Other
guages offer explicit instructions on substances commonly distributed at tem-
exactly what should be offered and ples include the water in which icons have
declare what benefits may be obtained been ritually bathed, called charanamrit
through specific acts of worship. Benefits (“foot nectar”), and the ash from burnt
may be as general as health and pros- offerings. What all these have in common
perity or as specific as the removal of a is contact with the deity’s power in the
particular illness. They also convention- process of worship and service.
ally include rewards after death—thus Another important element of temple
uniting this-worldly and other-worldly worship is seeing the deity: darshan.
blessings. Devotional songs and state- Here again, a two-way but fundamen-
ments, however, persistently deny all tally unequal flow takes place. An image
mechanical views of divine exchanges, is always enlivened and given eyes; the
insisting that humans have nothing to worshiper’s delighted gaze at the deity
give, that everything belongs to God, engages the deity’s awareness of the wor-
and that no truly religious action should shiper, and a channel of grace is formed.
ever be performed instrumentally. Thus, Sound and scent also alert deities to
the key tension between external ritual humans in their presence. Ringing bells,
and internal realization that originated blowing conch shells, singing or playing
in Vedic times and was perpetuated in instrumental music, burning incense, and
devotional teachings is sustained in pop- pouring clarified butter onto smoldering
ular present-day ritual action. coals are among the activities intended to
One key element in all worship is alert the deity of the devotee’s presence.
prasad, translated simply as “blessing” Worshipers commonly prostrate them-
or “grace” and sometimes more literally selves, symbolically offering respect and
as “blessed leftovers.” This term refers to their own bodies. A circumambulation of
Hinduism | 101

the deity’s altar is another physical mode wants to know: Will my wish be fulfilled?
of engagement with divine power. Hindu Will my prayer be granted? The answers
worship is accurately described as involv- to such yes-no questions may be revealed
ing all the senses. by any of a number of practices. Plucking
Worship is by no means confined to grains between thumb and finger from a
temples. It may be performed at a home pile and counting them to see if they add
altar, a wayside shrine, or anywhere a dev- up to an auspicious number, pressing
otee decides to mark off a sacred space. flowers to the wall and waiting for them to
Actions at home may be far less elaborate fall, and pouring clarified butter on coals
than those at temples, more routinized as and seeing if a flame rises up are common
part of daily household life, and are per- practices in more than one region of India.
formed without priestly expertise. South A more elaborate mode of com-
Indian housewives traditionally turn municating with divine power is spirit
their thresholds into auspicious altars for possession, in which a human being,
the goddess each morning as they draw male or female, is thought to act as a
ritual designs, which are almost instantly vehicle for a deity’s mind and voice.
trampled back into dust. This practice is also found in every
Conceptually distinct from worship geographic region where Hinduism
yet often conflated with it is seva, or flourishes. Although more common to
service. This refers to regular, respect- rural areas, it is not absent from urban
ful attentions to the needs of enshrined religion. A possessed priest or priestess
deities, or icons (murti). Service in many is able to provide answers more complex
temples is twice daily or more often. At than “yes” or “no.” A medium possessed
shrines it may involve bathing an icon, by a deity may identify certain spirits of
changing its ornaments, ringing bells, the dead who are troubling someone with
and waving lights before it (arati). In symptoms of physical and mental illness.
temples the person who does seva is nor- Usually these spirits are understood to
mally a ritual expert, regularly present. cause trouble because they are not satis-
Although seva is never done with an aim fied with the attention they are getting.
in mind, it is understood to keep the gods The medium will prescribe ritual actions
beneficently inclined, and flawed seva designed to transform the spirit from
may cause trouble. Performing seva is a source of affliction to a benevolent or
good for the soul of the server. neutral power or to send the spirit away.
Purely malevolent beings, including jeal-
Divination, Spirit Possession, ous “witches” or nameless wandering
and Healing ghosts, are cajoled, bullied, or even fright-
ened into departure.
Simple practices of divination are com- Practical Hinduism is greatly con-
mon to practical Hinduism. Everyone cerned with maintaining mental and
102 | The Culture of India

physical health. Although a possessed describing the origins of the ritual. The
priest occasionally forbids resort to doc- event may conclude with the consump-
tors and their remedies, in the majority tion of special food to break the fast.
of cases healing rituals operate in con- Vows are often associated with calendri-
junction with medicines, injections, and cal cycles, whether solar, lunar, or both.
operations. Familial problems are often For example, each day of the week is
untangled with the help of a possessed identified with a particular deity: Monday
priest in consultations sometimes lik- with Shiva, Tuesday with Hanuman,
ened by observers to group therapy. Wednesday with Ganesha, and so forth. If
a woman undertakes a Monday vrata, she
Women’s Religious Practices will fast and worship Shiva and tell his
story every Monday. Or, a person may do
Women’s rituals comprise an important an eleventh vrata, a vow for the eleventh
part of practical Hinduism. Some male- day of the lunar calendar, which would
authored Hindu scriptures limit women’s come twice a month in the waxing and
religious roles, consider women more waning halves of the moon. Some vows
subject than men to bodily impurities, are undertaken for the occasional potent
and subordinate them to their fathers and convergence of both calendrical systems,
husbands. Priests in temples and other such as somavati amavasa, a Monday
public spaces are predominantly—though dark moon.
not exclusively—male. Most domestic Women’s ritually performed stories
Hindu rituals, however, lie in the hands feature heroines who may be devotees
and hearts of women. Women perform of the deity being honoured, daughters
their own seva and puja at permanent or of female devotees, or persons ignorant
temporary domestic shrines, are the chief of that particular deity who then learn
ritual experts at many calendrical festi- about its power and blessings in the
vals, and are responsible for many ritual course of severe tribulations. Notably,
aspects of weddings and other life-cycle the heroines of women’s devotional
celebrations. Women more frequently stories exemplify moral virtues, ritual
than men undertake personal vows knowledge, devotional fervour, and
(vrata)—individually or collectively—to transformative agency. The power accu-
ensure the well-being of their families. mulated by women through their ritual
The elements of a vrata usually actions should never be used exclusively
include a partial fast, simple worship in for their own well-being. Selflessness is a
a domestic space temporarily purified very important virtue that is exemplified
for this purpose, and often the retelling by self-denial in fasting. Nonetheless,
of one or more stories honouring the because women’s well-being is connected
deities and exemplifying the rewards or to familial well-being, women see their
Hinduism | 103

rituals as productive of better circum- solidarity and self-worth that women’s

stances for themselves and their loved rituals produce.
ones. For women, practical Hinduism is
a space where they express their com- Pilgrimage
petence, self-respect, and power and see
themselves as protectors of husbands, Pilgrimage in Hinduism, as in other reli-
brothers, and sons. Even while critiquing gions, is the practice of journeying to
the ways in which some Hindu traditions sites where religious powers, knowledge,
disadvantage women, Indian feminists or experience are deemed especially
have located important resources for accessible. Hindu pilgrimage is rooted in
women in goddess worship, in vrata ancient scriptures. According to textual
narratives, and in the sense of gender scholars, the earliest reference to Hindu

Pilgrims bathing in the Ganges River at Haridwar, India. Paul Popper Ltd.
104 | The Culture of India

pilgrimage is in the Rigveda (c. 1500 because stories and tales of effective and
BC), in which the “wanderer” is praised. attractive ritual acts circulate along with
Numerous later texts, including the epic pilgrims.
Mahabharata (c. 300 BC–AD 300) and Pilgrimage sites are often located
several of the mythological Puranas (c. in spots of great natural beauty thought
AD 300–750), elaborate on the capaci- to be pleasing to deities as well as
ties of particular sacred sites to grant humans. Environmental activists draw
boons, such as health, wealth, progeny, on the mythology of the sacred land-
and deliverance after death. Texts enjoin scapes to inspire Hindu populations to
Hindu pilgrims to perform rites on behalf adopt sustainable environmental prac-
of ancestors and recently deceased kin. tices. The Sanskrit and Hindi word for
Sanskrit sources as well as devotional lit- pilgrimage centre is tirtha, literally a
erature in regional vernacular languages river ford or crossing place. The concept
praise certain places and their miracu- of a ford is associated with pilgrimage
lous capacities. centres not simply because many are on
Pilgrimage has been increasingly riverbanks but because they are meta-
popular since the 20th century, facili- phorically places for transition, either to
tated by ever-improving transportation. the other side of particular worldly trou-
Movement over actual distance is criti- bles or beyond the endless cycle of birth
cal to pilgrimage, for what is important is and death.
not just visiting a sacred space but leav-
ing home. Most pilgrimage centres hold Rituals, Social Practices,
periodic religious fairs called melas to and Institutions
mark auspicious astrological moments
or important anniversaries. In 2001, for A number of rituals, social practices, and
example, the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad institutions are associated with Hinduism.
was attended during a six-week period by These vary considerably according to
tens of millions of pilgrims. beliefs and doctrines.
Because of shared elements in rituals,
a pilgrim from western Rajasthan does Temple Worship
not feel alienated in the eastern pilgrim-
age town of Puri, even though the spoken Image worship in sectarian Hinduism
language, the landscape and climate, the takes place both in small household
deities’ names and appearances, and the shrines and in the temple. Many Hindu
food offerings are markedly different authorities claim that regular temple
from those the pilgrim knows at home. worship to one of the deities of the devo-
Moreover, pilgrimage works to propa- tional cults procures the same results for
gate practices among diverse regions the worshiper as did the performance
Hinduism | 105

Shiva temple, Bhumara. Frederick M. Asher

of one of the great Vedic sacrifices, and village shrines with simple statuettes
one who provides the patronage for the to great temple-cities whose bound-
construction of a temple is called a “sac- ary walls, pierced by monumental gates
rificer” (yajamana). (gopura), enclose various buildings,
Building a temple, which belongs to courtyards, pools for ceremonial bathing,
whoever paid for it or to the community and sometimes even schools, hospitals,
that occupies it, is believed to be a meri- and monasteries.
torious deed recommended to anyone Temple services, which may be held
desirous of heavenly reward. The choice by any qualified member of the commu-
of a site, which should be serene and nity, are neither collective nor carried out
lovely, is determined by astrology and at fixed times. Those present experience,
divination as well as by its proximity to as spectators, the fortifying and benefi-
human dwellings. The size and artistic cial influence radiating from the sacred
value of temples range widely, from small acts. Sometimes worshipers assemble to
106 | The Culture of India

meditate, to take part in chanting, or to lis- on every member of the community. The
ten to an exposition of doctrine. The puja spiritual power of the guru is bestowed
(worship) performed in public “for the upon the newborn and converts, who
well-being of the world” is, though some- receive the eightfold shield (which pro-
times more elaborate, largely identical tects devotees from ignorance of the
with that executed for personal interest. supremacy of God and guides them to
There are, however, many regional dif- final beatitude) and the lingam. The min-
ferences and even significant variations iature lingam, the centre and basis of all
within the same community. their religious practices and observances,
which they always bear on their body, is
Shaiva Rites held to be God himself concretely repre-
sented. Worship is due it twice or three
Ascetic tendencies were much in evi- times a day. When a Lingayat “is absorbed
dence among the Pashupatas, the oldest into the lingam” (i.e., dies), his body is not
Shaiva tradition in northern India. Their cremated, as is customary in Hinduism,
Yoga, consisting of a constant meditative but is interred, like ascetics of other
contact with God in solitude, required groups. Lingayats who have reached a
that they frequent places for cremating certain level of holiness are believed to
bodies. One group that emerged out die in the state of emancipation.
of the Pashupata sect carried human Shaivism, though inclined in doctri-
skulls (hence the name Kapalikas, from nal matters to inclusiveness, inculcates
kapala, “skull”). The Kapalikas used the some fundamental lines of conduct: one
skulls as bowls for liquor into which should worship one’s spiritual preceptor
they projected and worshipped Shiva as (guru) as God himself, follow his path,
Kapalika, the “Skull Bearer,” or Bhairava, consider him to be present in oneself,
the “Frightful One,” and then drank to and dissociate oneself from all opinions
become intoxicated. Their belief was that and practices that are incompatible with
an ostentatious indifference to anything the Shaiva creed. Yet some of Shiva’s dev-
worldly was the best method of severing otees also worship other gods, and the
the ties of samsara. “Shaivization” of various ancient tradi-
The view and way of life peculiar to tions is sometimes rather superficial.
the Virashaivas, or Lingayats (Lingam- Like many other Indian religions,
Bearers), in southwestern India is the Shaiva-siddhanta has developed an
characterized by a deviation from com- elaborate system of ethical philosophy,
mon Hindu traditions and institutions primarily with a view to preparing the
such as sacrificial rites, temple wor- way for those who aspire to liberation.
ship, pilgrimages, child marriages, and Because dharma leads to happiness, there
inequality of the sexes. Initiation (diksa) is no distinction between sacred and sec-
is, on the other hand, an obligation laid ular duties. All deeds are performed as
Hinduism | 107

services to God and with the conviction

that all life is sacred and God-centred. A
devout way of living and a nonemotional
mysticism are thus much recommended.
Kashmir Shaivism developed the prac-
tice of a simple method of salvation: by
the recognition (pratyabhijna)—direct,
spontaneous, technique-free, but full of
bhakti—of one’s identity with God.

Vaishnava Rites

The faithful Shrivaishnava Brahman

arranges his day around five pursuits:
purificatory rites, collecting the requi-
sites for worship, acts of worship, study
and contemplation of the meaning of
the sacred books, and meditative con-
centration on the Lord’s image. Lifelong
obligations include the performance of
sacrifices and other rites, restraint of the Ramanuja, bronze sculpture, 12th cen-
senses, fasting and soberness, worship, tury; from a Vishnu temple in Thanjavur
recitation of the scriptures, and visits (Tanjore) district, India. Courtesy of the
to sacred places. Ramanuja, the great Institut Français d’Indologie, Pondicherry
theologian and philosopher of the 12th
century, recommended, in addition to and commemoration of his deeds as a
these practices, concentration on God, a means of self-realization and of unifica-
virtuous way of living, and insensibility tion with his essence. Special stress is
to luck and misfortune. laid on ahimsa (“noninjury”), the practice
According to Madhva (c. 1199–c. of not killing or not causing injury to liv-
1278), faithful observance of all regula- ing creatures.
tions of daily conduct—including bathing,
breath control, etc.—will contribute to Sacred Times and Festivals
eventual success in the quest for lib-
eration. Devout Vaishnavas emphasize Hindu festivals are combinations of reli-
God’s omnipotence and the far-reaching gious ceremonies, semi-ritual spectacles,
effects of his grace. They attach much worship, prayer, lustrations, processions,
value to the repetition of his name or of music, dances, magical acts—participants
sacred formulas (japa) and to the praise throw fertilizing water or, during the
108 | The Culture of India

Holi festival, coloured powder at each people who live along the west coast of
other—eating, drinking, lovemaking, India from Mumbai to Goa, the descen-
licentiousness, feeding the poor, and dants of heroes who died on the battlefield
other activities of a religious or traditional perform a dance, sword in hand, in hon-
character. The original purpose of these our of their ancestors until they believe
activities was to purify, avert malicious themselves possessed by the spirits of
influences, renew society, bridge over the heroes. In Bengal swings are made for
critical moments, and stimulate or resus- Krishna; in other regions a bonfire is also
citate the vital powers of nature (hence essential. The tradition that accounts for
the term utsava, meaning both the gen- the festival of Holi describes how young
eration of power and a festival). Because Prahlada, in spite of his demonic father’s
Hindu festivals relate to the cyclical life opposition, worshipped Vishnu and was
of nature, they are supposed to prevent it carried into the fire by the female demon
from stagnating. These cyclic festivals— Holika, the embodiment of evil, who was
which may last for many days—continue believed to be immune to the ravages
to be celebrated throughout India. of fire. Through Vishnu’s intervention,
Such festivals refresh the mood of the Prahlada emerged unharmed, while
participants, further the consciousness of Holika was burned to ashes. The bonfires
their own power, and help to compensate are intended to commemorate this event
for their sensations of fear and inferior- or rather to reiterate the triumph of vir-
ity concerning the forces of nature. Such tue and religion over evil and sacrilege.
mixtures of worship and pleasure require This explains why objects representing
the participation of the entire community the sickness and impurities of the past
and create harmony among its members, year—the new year begins immediately
even if not all contemporary participants after Holi—are thrown into the bonfire,
are aware of the festival’s original charac- and it is considered inauspicious not to
ter. There are also innumerable festivities look at it. Moreover, people pay or for-
in honour of specific gods, celebrated by give debts, reconcile quarrels, and try to
individual temples, villages, and reli- rid themselves of the evils, conflicts, and
gious communities. impurities they have accumulated during
An important festival, formerly cel- the preceding months, translating the
ebrating Kama, the god of sexual desire, central conception of the festival into a
survives in the Holi, a saturnalia con- justification for dealing anew with con-
nected with the spring equinox and in tinuing situations in their lives.
western India with the wheat harvest. Hindus celebrate a number of other
Although commemorated throughout important festivals, including Diwali, in
India, the rituals associated with Holi which all classes of society participate,
vary regionally. Among the Marathas, a though it is believed to have been given
Hinduism | 109

One of the major religious festivals in Hinduism,
Diwali (Divali) lasts for five days from the 13th day
of the dark half of the lunar month Ashvina to the
second day of the light half of Karttika. (The corre-
sponding dates in the Gregorian calendar usually
fall in late October and November.) The name is
derived from the Sanskrit term dipavali meaning
“row of lights,” which are lit on the new-moon night
to bid the presence of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.
In Bengal, however, the goddess Kali is worshiped,
and in north India the festival also celebrates the
return of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, and Hanuman to
the city of Ayodhya, where Rama’s rule of righteous-
ness would commence.
During the festival, small earthenware lamps
filled with oil are lighted and placed in rows along
the parapets of temples and houses and set adrift
on rivers and streams. The fourth day—the main
Diwali festival day and the beginning of the lunar
month of Karttika—marks the beginning of the new
Krishna and Radha, detail of a
year according to the Vikrama calendar. Merchants
Kishangarh painting, mid-18th
perform religious ceremonies and open new account
century; in a private collection.
books. It is generally a time for visiting, exchanging
P. Chandra
gifts, cleaning and decorating houses, feasting, set-
ting off fireworks displays, and wearing new clothes.
Gambling is encouraged during this season as a way of ensuring good luck for the coming
year and in remembrance of the games of dice played by the Lord Shiva and Parvati on Mount
Kailasa or similar contests between Radha and Krishna. Ritually, in honour of Lakshmi, the
female player always wins.
Diwali is also an important festival in Jainism. For the Jain community, many of whose
members belong to the merchant class, the day commemorates the passing into nirvana of
Mahavira, the most recent of the Jain Tirthankaras. The lighting of the lamps is explained as a
material substitute for the light of holy knowledge that was extinguished with Mahavira’s pass-
ing. Since the 18th century Diwali has been celebrated in Sikhism as the time Guru Hargobind
returned to Amritsar from a supposed captivity in Gwalior—apparently an echo of Rama’s
return to Ayodhya. Residents of Amritsar are said to have lighted lamps throughout the city to
celebrate the occasion.
110 | The Culture of India

by Vishnu to the Vaishyas (traders, et al.). transformation, the artisan is believed to

It takes place in October and features transform the material used to create the
worship and ceremonial lights in honour image into a receptacle of divine power.
of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and Like the artisan, the worshiper (sadhaka,
good fortune; fireworks to chase away “the one who wishes to attain the goal”),
the spirits of the deceased; and gambling, must grasp the esoteric meaning of a
an old ritual custom intended to secure statue, picture, or pot and identify his or
luck for the coming year. The nine-day her self with the power residing in it. The
Durga festival, or Navaratri, is, especially usual offering, a handful of flowers, is the
in Bengal, splendid homage to Shakti; in means to convey the worshiper’s “life-
South India it is a celebration of Rama’s breath” into the image.
victory over Ravana.
Types of Symbols
Cultural Expressions: Visual
Arts, Theatre, and Dance If they know how to handle the symbols,
the worshipers have at their disposal an
The structure of Indian temples, the instrument for utilizing the possibilities
outward form of images, and indeed lying in the depths of their own subcon-
the very character of Indian art are scious as well as a key to the mysteries of
largely determined by the religion and the forces dominating the world.
unique worldview of India, which pen-
etrated the other provinces of culture Yantra and Mandala
and welded them into a homogeneous
whole. Moreover, the art that emerged is The general term for an “instrument [for
highly symbolic. The much-developed controlling]” is yantra, which is especially
ritual-religious symbolism presupposes applied to ritual diagrams but can also
the existence of a spiritual reality that be applied to cult images, pictures, and
may make its presence and influence other such aids to worship. Any yantra
felt in the material world and can also be represents some aspect of the divine and
approached through its representative enables devotees to worship it immedi-
symbols. ately within their hearts while identifying
The production of objects of sym- themselves with it. Except in its greater
bolic value is therefore more than a complexity, a mandala does not differ
technique. The artisan can begin work from a yantra, and both are drawn during
only after entering into a state of supra- a highly complex ritual in a purified and
normal consciousness and must model ritually consecrated place. The mean-
a cult image after the ideal prototype. ing and the use of both are similar, and
After undergoing a process of spiritual they may be permanent or provisional.
Hinduism | 111

A mandala, delineating a consecrated rite is a reenactment of a variant of the

place and protecting it against disinte- myth of Purusha, an immortal primeval
grating forces represented in demoniac being who obstructed both worlds until
cycles, is the geometric projection of he was subdued by the gods; the parts of
the universe, spatially and temporally his body became the spirits of the site.
reduced to its essential plan. It represents
in a schematic form the whole drama of Lingam and Yoni
disintegration and reintegration, and
the adept can use it to identify with the One of the most common objects of
forces governing these. As in temple worship, whether in temples or in the
ritual, a vase is employed to receive the household cult, is the lingam. Often
divine power so that it can be projected much stylized and representing the cos-
into the drawing and then into the person mic pillar, it emanates its all-producing
of the adept. Thus, the mandala becomes energy to the four quarters of the uni-
a support for meditation, an instrument verse. As the symbol of male creative
to provoke visions of the unseen. energy it is frequently combined with
A good example of a mandala is its female counterpart (yoni), the latter
the shrichakra, the “Wheel of Shri” (i.e., forming the base from which the lingam
of God’s shakti), which is composed of rises. Although the lingam originally
four isosceles triangles with the apices may have had no relation to Shiva, it
upward, symbolizing Shiva, and five isos- has from ancient times been regarded
celes triangles with the apices downward, as symbolizing Shiva’s creative energy
symbolizing Shakti. The nine triangles and is widely worshipped as his funda-
are of various sizes and intersect with mental form.
one another. In the middle is the power
point (bindu), visualizing the highest, the Visual Theology in Icons
invisible, elusive centre from which the
entire figure and the cosmos expand. The The beauty of cult objects is believed
triangles are enclosed by two rows of (8 to contribute to their power as sacred
and 16) petals, representing the lotus of instruments, and their ornamentation
creation and reproductive vital force. The is held to facilitate the process of invit-
broken lines of the outer frame denote ing the divine power into them. Statues
the figure to be a sanctuary with four of gods are not intended to imitate ideal
openings to the regions of the universe. human forms but to express the super-
A “spiritual” foundation is provided by a natural. A divine figure is a “likeness”
yantra, called the mandala of the Purusha (pratima), a temporary benevolent or
(spirit) of the site, that is also drawn on terrifying expression of some aspect of
the site on which a temple is built. This a god’s nature. Iconographic handbooks
112 | The Culture of India

“fear-not” gesture (abhaya-mudra),

bestows protection. Every iconographic
detail has its own symbolic value, help-
ing devotees to direct their energy to
a deeper understanding of the various
aspects of the divine and to proceed
from external to internal worship. For
many Indians, a consecrated image is a
container of concentrated divine energy,
and Hindu theists maintain that it is an
instrument for ennobling the worshiper
who realizes God’s presence in it.

The Arts

Like literature and the performing arts,

the visual arts contributed to the per-
petuation of myths. Images sustain the
presence of the god: when Devi is shown
seated on her lion, advancing against
the buffalo demon, she represents the
affirmative forces of the universe and the
Vishnu on the serpent Shesha, Badami,
triumph of divine power over wickedness.
India. Frederick M. Asher
Male and female figures in uninterrupted
embrace, as in Shaiva iconography,
attach great importance to the ideology signify the union of opposites and the
behind images and reveal, for example, eternal process of generation.
that Vishnu’s eight arms stand for the
four cardinal and intermediate points of Religious Principles in
the compass and that his four faces, illus- Sculpture and Painting
trating the concept of God’s fourfoldness,
typify his strength, knowledge, lordship, In Hindu sculpture the tendency is
and potency. The emblems express the toward hieratic poses of a god in a partic-
qualities of their bearers—e.g., a deadly ular conventional stance (murti; image),
weapon symbolizes destructive force, which, once fixed, perpetuates itself.
many-headedness omniscience. Much An icon is a frozen incident of a myth.
use is made of gestures (mudras); for For example, one murti of Shiva is the
example, the raised right hand, in the “destruction of the elephant,” in which
Hinduism | 113

Shiva appears dancing before and below

a bloody elephant skin that he holds up
before the image of his horrified con-
sort; the stance is the summary of his
triumph over the elephant demon. A god
may also appear in a characteristic pose
while holding in his multitudinous hands
his various emblems, on each of which
hangs a story. Lovers sculpted on tem-
ples are auspicious symbols on a par with
foliage, water jars, and other representa-
tives of fertility. Carvings, such as those
that appear on temple chariots, tend to
be more narrative; even more so are the
miniature paintings of the Middle Ages.
A favourite theme in the latter is the
myth of the cowherd god Krishna and his
love of the female cowherders (gopis).

Religious Organization
of Sacred Architecture
Temples must be erected on sites that
are shubha—i.e., suitable, beautiful, aus-
picious, and near water—because it is
thought that the gods will not come to
other places. However, temples are not
necessarily designed to be congenial to
their surroundings, because a manifesta-
tion of the sacred is an irruption, a break
in phenomenal continuity. Temples are
understood to be visible representa-
tions of a cosmic pillar, and their sites
are said to be navels of the world and are
Agni with characteristic symbol of
believed to ensure communication with
the ram, wood carving; in the Guimet
the gods. Their outward appearance must
Museum, Paris. Giraudon/Art Resource,
New York raise the expectation of meeting with
God. Their erection is a reconstruction
114 | The Culture of India
Hinduism | 115

and reintegration of Purusha-Prajapati, the Shilpa-shastras (craft textbooks), and

enabling him to continue his creative every aspect of the design was believed
activity, and the finished monuments to offer the symbolic representation of
are symbols of the universe that is the some feature of the cosmos. The idea
unfolded One. The owner of the temple of microcosmic symbolism is strong in
(i.e., the individual or community that Hinduism and comes from Vedic times;
paid for its construction)—also called the Brahmanas are replete with similar
the sacrificer—participates in the pro- cosmic interpretations of the many fea-
cess of reintegration and experiences his tures of the sacrifice. The Vedic idea of
spiritual rebirth in the small cella, aptly the correspondence (bandhu) between
called the “womb room” (garbhagriha), microcosm and macrocosm was applied
by meditating on the God’s presence, to the medieval temple, which was laid
symbolized or actualized in his conse- out geometrically to mirror the structure
crated image. The cella is in the centre of the universe, with its four geometric
of the temple above the navel—i.e., the quarters and a celestial roof. The temple
foundation stone—and it may contain a also represents the mountain at the navel
jar filled with the creative power (shakti) of the world and often somewhat resem-
that is identified with the goddess Earth bles a mountain. On the periphery were
(who bears and protects the monument), carved the most worldly and diverse
three lotus flowers, and three tortoises images, including battles, hunts, circuses,
(of stone, silver, and gold) that represent animals, birds, and gods.
earth, atmosphere, and heaven. The tor- The erotic scenes carved at Khajuraho
toise is a manifestation of Vishnu bearing in Madhya Pradesh and Konarak in
the cosmic pillar; the lotus is the symbol Orissa express a general exuberance that
of the expansion of generative possibili- may be an offering of thanksgiving to
ties. The vertical axis or tube, coinciding the gods who created all. However, that
with the cosmic pillar, connects all parts same swarming luxuriance of life may
of the building and is continued in the also reflect the concern that one must set
finial on the top; it corresponds to the aside worldly temptations before enter-
mystical vertical vein in the body of the ing the sacred space of the temple, for the
worshiper through which his soul rises to carvings decorate only the outside of the
unite itself with the Highest. temple; at the centre, the sanctum sancto-
The designing of Hindu temples, like rum, there is little if any ornamentation,
that of religious images, was codified in except for a stark symbol of the god or

Detail of a wall of the Lakshmana temple at Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India, c. 941.
P. Chandra
116 | The Culture of India

goddess. Thus, these carvings simultane- five activities: he unfolds the universe out
ously express a celebration of samsara of the drum held in one of his right hands;
and a movement toward moksha. he preserves it by uplifting his other
right hand in abhaya-mudra; he reab-
Theatre and Dance sorbs it with his upper left hand, which
bears a tongue of flame; his transcenden-
Theatrical performances are events that tal essence is hidden behind the garb
can be used to secure blessings and of apparitions, and grace is bestowed
happiness; the element of recreation is and release made visible by the foot
indissolubly blended with edification that is held aloft and to which the hands
and spiritual elevation. The structure and are made to point; and the other foot,
character of classical Indian drama reveal planted on the ground, gives an abode
its origin and function: it developed from to the tired souls struggling in samsara.
a magico-religious ceremony, which sur- Another dance pose adopted by Shiva is
vives as a ritual introduction, and begins the doomsday tandava, executed in his
and closes with benedictions. Drama destructive Bhairava manifestation, usu-
is produced for festive occasions with a ally with 10 arms and accompanied by
view to spiritual and religious success Devi and demons. The related myth is
(siddhi), which must also be prompted that Shiva conquered a mighty elephant
by appropriate behaviour from the demon whom he forced to dance until he
spectators; there must be a happy end- fell dead; then, wrapped in the blood-drip-
ing; the themes are borrowed from epic ping skin of his victim, the god executed
and legendary history; the development a horrendous dance of victory.
and unraveling of the plot are retarded; There are halls for sacred dances
and the envy of malign influences is annexed to some temples because of this
averted by the almost obligatory buf- association with the divine. The rhyth-
foon (vidusaka, “the spoiler”). There are mic movement has a compelling force,
also, in addition to films, which often use generating and concentrating power or
the same religious and mythic themes, releasing superfluous energy. It induces
yatras, a combination of stage play and the experience of the divine and trans-
various festivities that have contributed forms the dancer into whatever he or she
much to the spread of the Puranic view impersonates. Thus, many tribal dances
of life. consist of symbolic enactments of events
Dancing is not only an aesthetic (harvest, battles) in the hope that they will
pursuit but also a divine service. The be accomplished successfully. Musicians
dance executed by Shiva as king of danc- and dancers accompany processions to
ers (Nataraja), the visible symbol of the expel the demons of cholera or cattle
rhythm of the universe, represents God’s plague. Even today, religious themes and
Hinduism | 117

the various relations between humans population), with large concentrations

and God are danced and made visual by in many areas of the country, includ-
the codified symbolic meanings of ges- ing Jammu and Kashmir, western Uttar
tures and movements. Pradesh, West Bengal, Kerala, and many
cities. India’s Muslim population is
Hinduism and the greater than that found in any country of
World Beyond the Middle East and is only exceeded by
that of Indonesia and, slightly, by that of
Because religion forms a crucial aspect of Pakistan or Bangladesh.
identity for most Indians, much of India’s
history can be understood through the Hinduism and Islam
interplay among its diverse religious
groups. Hindus are in the majority in every Hindu relations with Islam and
Indian state except Jammu and Kashmir Christianity are in some ways quite dif-
(where Muslims form roughly two-thirds ferent from the ties and tensions that
of the population); Punjab (roughly bind together religions of Indian origin.
three-fifths Sikh); Meghalaya, Mizoram, Hindus live with a legacy of domina-
and Nagaland (mainly Christian); and tion by Muslim and Christian rulers that
Arunachal Pradesh (predominantly ani- stretches back many centuries—in North
mist). Hindus also form the majority in India, to the Delhi Sultanate established
every union territory except Lakshadweep at the beginning of the 13th century. It
(more than nine-tenths Muslim). Almost is hardly the case that Muslim rule was
everywhere, however, significant local generally loathsome to Hindus. Direct
minorities are present. Only in the states of and indirect patronage from the Mughal
Orissa and Himachal Pradesh do Hindus emperors Akbar and Jahāngīr (1569–
constitute virtually the entire population.  1627), whose chief generals were Hindu
In 1947, with the partition of the sub- Rajputs, laid the basis for the great burst
continent and loss of Pakistan’s largely of Krishnaite temple and institution
Muslim population, India became even building that transformed the Braj region
more predominantly Hindu. The concom- beginning in the 16th century. Moreover,
itant emigration of perhaps 10 million close proximity and daily interaction
Muslims to Pakistan and the immigration throughout the centuries has led to
of nearly as many Hindus and Sikhs from efforts to accommodate the existence of
Pakistan further emphasized this change. the two religions. One manifestation of
Hindus now make up about three-fourths such syncretism occurred among mysti-
of India’s population. Muslims, how- cally inclined groups who believed that
ever, are still the largest single minority one God, or the “universal principle,”
faith (more than one-ninth of the total was the same regardless of whether it
118 | The Culture of India

was called Allah or brahman. Various

syntheses between the two religions that
emphasize nonsectarianism have arisen
in northern India.
Yet there were periods when the
political ambitions of Islamic rulers
took strength from iconoclastic aspects
of Muslim teaching and led to the dev-
astation of many major Hindu temple
complexes, from Mathura and Varanasi
in the north to Chidambaram and
Madurai in the far south; other temples
were converted to mosques. Episodically,
since the 14th century, this history has
provided rhetorical fuel for Hindu war-
riors eager to assert themselves against
Muslim rivals. The bloody partition of the
South Asian subcontinent into India and Rama and Lakshmana attended by
Hanuman in the forest, detail of relief
Pakistan in 1947 added a new dimension.
inspired by the Ramayana, from Nacna
Mobilizing Hindu sensibilities about
Kuthara, Madhya Pradesh, 5th century
the sacredness of the land as a whole, AD. P. Chandra
extremists have sometimes depicted
the creation of Pakistan as a rape of the
body of India, in the process demonizing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP; “Indian
Muslims who remain within India’s polit- People’s Party”), destroyed the mosque in
ical boundaries. an effort to “liberate” Rama and establish
These strands converged at the end a huge “Rama’s Birthplace Temple” on the
of the 20th century in a campaign to spot. In the aftermath, several thousand
destroy the mosque built in 1528 by a people—mostly Muslims—were killed in
lieutenant of the Mughal emperor Babur riots that spread across North India.
in Ayodhya, a city that has traditionally
been identified as the place where Rama Hinduism and Christianity
was born and ruled. In 1992 Hindu mili-
tants from all over India, who had been Relations between Hinduism and
organized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad Christianity have also been shaped by
(VHP; “World Hindu Council”), the unequal balances of political power and
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS; cultural influence. Although communi-
“National Volunteer Alliance”), and the ties of Christians have lived in South
Hinduism | 119

India since the middle of the 1st mil- century, when Hindu activists attacked
lennium, the great expansion of Indian Dalit Christians and their churches in
Christianity followed the efforts of mis- various parts of India, especially Orissa
sionaries working under the protection of and Gujarat. A far more typical senti-
British colonial rule. Their denigration of ment is expressed in the eagerness of
selected features of Hindu practice—most Hindus of all social stations, especially
notably image worship, suttee, and child the middle class, to send their children
marriage (the first two were also criti- to high-quality (often English-language)
cized by Muslims)—was shared by certain schools established and maintained by
Hindus. Beginning in the 19th century Christian organizations. No great fear
and continuing into the 21st, a move- exists that the religious element in the
ment that might be called neo-Vedanta curriculum will cause Hindu children to
has emphasized the monism of certain abandon their parents’ faith.
Upanishads, decried “popular” Hindu
“degenerations” such as the worship of Diasporic Hinduism
idols, acted as an agent of social reform,
and championed dialogue between other Since the appearance of Swami
religious communities. Vivekananda at the World’s Parliament
Many Hindus are ready to accept the of Religions in Chicago in 1893 and the
ethical teachings of the Gospels, particu- subsequent establishment of the Vedanta
larly the Sermon on the Mount (whose Society in various American and British
influence on Gandhi is well known), cities, Hinduism has had a growing
but reject the theological superstruc- missionary profile outside the Indian
ture. They regard Christian conceptions subcontinent. Conversion as understood
about love and its social consequences by Christians or Muslims is usually not
as a kind of bhakti and tend to vener- the aim. As seen in the Vedanta Society,
ate Jesus as a saint, yet many resent the Hindu perspectives are held to be suffi-
organization, the reliance on authorities, ciently capacious that they do not require
and the exclusiveness of Christianity, new adherents to abandon traditions
considering these as obstacles to har- of worship with which they are familiar,
monious cooperation. They subscribe merely to see them as part of a greater
to Gandhi’s opinion that missionar- whole. The Vedic formula “Truth is one,
ies should confine their activities to but scholars speak of it in many ways”
humanitarian service and look askance (“Akam sat vipra bahudhe vadanti”)
at conversion, finding also in Hinduism is much quoted. Many transnational
what might be attractive in Christianity. Hindu communities—including Radha
Such sentiments took an unusually Soami Satsang Beas, Transcendental
extreme form at the end of the 20th Meditation, the self-realization fellowship
120 | The Culture of India

Siddha Yoga, the Sathya Sai Baba Satsang, immigration laws in 1965, once abroad
and the International Society for Krishna they are more apt to embrace the reform-
Consciousness (ISKCON, popularly ist guru-centred Swaminarayan faith than
called Hare Krishna)—have focused on they would be in their native Gujarat,
specific gurus, particularly in their stages though this is by no means universal.
of most rapid growth. They frequently Professional-class emigrants from
emphasize techniques of spiritual dis- South India have spearheaded the
cipline more than doctrine. Of these construction of a series of impressive
groups, only ISKCON has a deeply Shrivaishnava-style temples throughout
exclusivist cast—which makes it, in fact, the United States, sometimes receiving
generally more doctrinaire than the financial and technical assistance from
Gaudiya Vaishnava lineages out of which the great Vaishnava temple institutions
its founding guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta, at Tirupati. The placement of some of
emerged. these temples, such as the Penn Hills
At least as important as these guru- temple near Pittsburgh, Pa., reveals the
centred communities in the increasingly desire to evoke Tirupati’s natural envi-
international texture of Hindu life are ronment on American soil. Similarly,
communities of Hindus who have emi- Telugu-speaking priests from the
grated from South Asia to other parts of Tirupati region have been imported to
the world. Their character differs mark- serve at temples such as the historically
edly according to region, class, and important Ganesha temple, constructed
the time at which emigration occurred. from a preexisting church in Queens,
Tamils in Malaysia celebrate a festival New York, in 1975–77. Yet the popula-
to the god Murukan (Thaipusam) that tion worshipping at these temples is
accommodates body-piercing vows far more mixed than that in India. This
long outlawed in India itself. Formerly produces on the one hand sectarian and
indentured labourers who settled on the regional eclecticism and on the other
Caribbean island of Trinidad in the mid- hand a vigorous attempt to establish
19th century have consolidated doctrine doctrinal common ground. As Hindu
and practice from various locales in scholar Vasudha Narayanan observed,
Gangetic India, with the result that Rama educational materials produced at such
and Shita have a heightened profile. temples typically hold that Hinduism
Many migrants from rural western India, is not a religion but a way of life, that
especially Gujarat, became urbanized in it insists in principle on religious toler-
East Africa in the late 19th century and ance, that its Godhead is functionally
resettled in Britain. Like those Gujaratis trinitarian (the male trimurti of Brahma,
who came directly to the United States Vishnu, and Shiva is meant, although
from India since the liberalization of U.S. temple worship is often very active at
Hinduism | 121

goddesses’ shrines), and that Hindu prestige and enable them to communi-
rituals have inner meanings consonant cate constantly with Hindus living in
with scientific principles and are condu- South Asia, and because their experience
cive to good health. as minorities tends to set them apart from
Pacific and ecumenical as this their families in India itself, their contri-
sounds, members of such temples are bution to the evolution of Hinduism has
also important contributors to the VHP, been a very interesting one.
whose efforts since 1964 to find common “Hinduism” was originally an outsid-
ground among disparate Hindu groups er’s word, and it designates a multitude
have sometimes also contributed to dis- of realities defined by period, time, sect,
plays of Hindu nationalism such as were class, and caste. Yet the veins and bones
seen at Ayodhya in 1992. As the 21st cen- that hold this complex organism together
tury opened, there was a vivid struggle are not just chimeras of external percep-
between “left” and “right” within the tion. Hindus themselves—particularly
Hindu fold, with diasporic groups playing diasporic Hindus—affirm them, continu-
a more important role than ever before. ing and even accelerating a process of
Because of their wealth and education, self-definition that has been going on
because globalizing processes lend them for millennia.
Other Indigenous
Indian Religions
and Indian
H induism, Buddhism, and Jainism originated in the same
milieu: the circles of world renouncers of the 6th century
BC. All share certain non-Vedic practices (such as renuncia-
tion itself and various Yogic meditational techniques) and
doctrines (such as the belief in rebirth and the goal of lib-
eration from perpetual transmigration), but Buddhists and
Jains do not accept the authority of the Vedic tradition and
therefore are regarded as less than orthodox by Hindus. From
the 6th to the 11th century there was strong and sometimes
bloody competition for royal patronage between the three
communities—with Brahmans representing Hindu values—
as well as between Vaishnavas and Shaivas. In general, the
Brahman groups prevailed. In a typically absorptive gesture,
Hindus in time recognized the Buddha as an incarnation of
Vishnu, usually the ninth; it was often held, however, that
Vishnu assumed this form to mislead and destroy the enemies
of the Veda. Hence, the Buddha avatar is rarely worshipped
by Hindus, though it is often highly respected by them. At
an institutional level, certain Buddhist shrines, such as the
one marking the Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, have
remained partly under the supervision of Hindu ascetics and
are visited by Hindu pilgrims.
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 123

Buddhists living near the Chinese faith, formerly too few to be treated by
(Tibetan) border generally follow the census, have dramatically increased
Tibetan Buddhism, sometimes desig- in number as a result of active proselyti-
nated as Vajrayana (Sanskrit: “Vehicle zation. There are also some Zoroastrians
of the Thunderbolt”), while those living (the Parsis), largely concentrated in
near the border with Myanmar adhere to Mumbai and in coastal Gujarat, who
the Theravada (Pali: “Way of the Elders”). wield influence out of all proportion to
Neo-Buddhists in Maharashtra do not their small numbers because of their
have a clear sectarian affiliation. prominence during the colonial period.
Hinduism has much in common with Several tiny but sociologically interest-
Jainism, which until the 20th century ing communities of Jews are located
remained an Indian religion, especially in along the western coast. India’s tribal
social institutions and ritual life; for this peoples live mostly in the northeast; they
reason, many Hindus still consider it a practice various forms of animism, which
Hindu sect. The points of difference—e.g., is perhaps the country’s oldest religious
a stricter practice of ahimsa (“nonin- tradition.
jury”) and the absence of sacrifices for
the deceased in Jainism—do not give SIKHISM
offense to orthodox Hindus. Moreover,
many Jain laypeople worship images as The practitioners of Sikhism are known
Hindus do, though with a different ratio- as Sikhs. They call their faith Gurmat
nale. There are even places outside India (Punjabi: “the Way of the Guru”).
where Hindus and Jains have joined to According to Sikh tradition, Sikhism was
build a single temple, sharing the wor- established by Guru Nanak (1469–1539)
ship space. and subsequently led by a succession of
nine other Gurus. All 10 human Gurus,
RELIgIONS Sikhs believe, were inhabited by a single
spirit. Upon the death of the 10th, Guru
Other important religious minorities in Gobind Singh (1666–1708), the spirit
India include Christians, most heavily of the eternal Guru transferred itself to
concentrated in the northeast, Mumbai, the sacred scripture of Sikhism, Guru
and the far south; and Sikhs, mostly Granth Sahib (“The Granth as the Guru”),
in Punjab and some adjacent areas. also known as the Adi Granth (“First
Buddhists live mostly in Maharashtra, Volume”), which thereafter was regarded
Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, and Jammu as the sole Guru. In the early 21st century
and Kashmir; and Jains are most prom- there were nearly 25 million Sikhs world-
inent in Maharashtra, Gujarat, and wide, the great majority of them living in
Rajasthan. Those practicing the Bahā’ī the Indian state of Punjab.
124 | The Culture of India

History and Doctrine meditation techniques, they accepted the

Naths’ concept of spiritual ascent to ulti-
Sikh in Punjabi means “learner,” and mate bliss. Some scholars have argued
those who joined the Sikh community, or that the Sants were influenced by Islam
Panth (“Path”), were people who sought through their contact with the Mughal
spiritual guidance. In its earliest stage rulers of India from the early 16th cen-
Sikhism was clearly a movement within tury, but there is in fact little indication of
the Hindu tradition; Nanak was raised a this, though Sufism (Islamic mysticism)
Hindu and eventually belonged to the may have had a marginal effect.
Sant tradition of northern India, a move-
ment associated with the great poet and The 10 Gurus
mystic Kabir (1440–1518). The Sants,
most of whom were poor, dispossessed, The following discussion of the lives of
and illiterate, composed hymns of great the 10 Gurus relies on the traditional
beauty expressing their experience of the Sikh account, most elements of which are
divine, which they saw in all things. Their derived from hagiographic legend and
tradition drew heavily on the Vaishnava lore and cannot be verified historically.
bhakti (the devotional movement within
the Hindu tradition that worships the Guru Nanak
god Vishnu), though there were impor-
tant differences between the two. Like the A member of the Khatri (trading) caste
followers of bhakti, the Sants believed and far from illiterate, Nanak was not a
that devotion to God is essential to lib- typical Sant, yet he experienced the same
eration from the cycle of rebirth in which spirit of God in everything outside him
all human beings are trapped; unlike the and everything within him as did oth-
followers of bhakti, however, the Sants ers in the movement he founded. He was
maintained that God is nirgun (“without born in the Punjab, which has been the
form”) and not sagun (“with form”). For home of the Sikh faith ever since.
the Sants, God can be neither incarnated Nanak composed many hymns,
nor represented in concrete terms. which were collected in the Adi Granth
Certain lesser influences also oper- by Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru,
ated on the Sant movement. Chief among in 1604. Nanak’s authorship of these
them was the Nath tradition, which com- works is beyond doubt, and it is also
prised a cluster of sects, all claiming certain that he visited pilgrimage sites
descent from the semilegendary teacher throughout India. Beyond this very little
Gorakhnath and all promoting Hatha is known. The story of his life has been
Yoga as the means of spiritual liberation. the imagined product of the legendary
Although the Sants rejected the physi- janam-sakhis (“life stories”), which were
cal aspects of Hatha Yoga in favour of composed between 50 and 80 years after
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 125

the Guru’s death in 1539, though only the Ravi River in the Punjab. After visit-
a tiny fraction of the material found in ing southern Punjab, he died in Kartarpur,
them can be affirmed as factual. having appointed a loyal disciple as his
The first janam-sakhis were attrib- successor.
uted to the lifelong companion of Nanak, The hagiographic character of the
Bhai Bala (1466–1544), who composed Puratan tradition is well illustrated by the
an account of the Guru’s life that was story of Nanak’s visit to Mecca. Having
filled with miracles and wonder sto- entered the city, Nanak lay down with his
ries. By the end of the 19th century, the feet pointing at the mihrab (the niche in
Bala version had begun to create seri- a mosque indicating the direction of the
ous unease among Sikh scholars, who Ka‘bah). An outraged qāz·ī ( judge) found
were greatly relieved when a more ratio- him there and demanded an explana-
nal version, since known as the Puratan tion. In reply Nanak asked him to drag
(“Ancient”) tradition, was discovered in his feet away from the mihrab. This the
London, where it had arrived as a gift for qāz·ī did, only to discover that, wherever
the library of the East India Company. he placed Nanak’s feet, there the mihrab
Although it too contained fantastic ele- moved. The lesson of the story is that
ments, it had far fewer miracle stories God is everywhere, not in any particular
than the Bala version, and it presented a direction.
more plausible account of the course of Another popular Puratan story con-
Guru Nanak’s journeys. When supple- cerns Nanak’s visit to the “Land Ruled
mented by references from a discourse by Women” in eastern India. Mardana,
by the poet Bhai Gurdas (1551–1637), the Nanak’s faithful minstrel and travel com-
Puratan seems to provide a satisfactory panion, went ahead to beg for food but
description of the life of Guru Nanak. was turned into a sheep by one of the
According to this version, Nanak women. When Nanak arrived, he caused
made five trips, one in each of the four a pot to adhere to the woman’s head and
directions of the cardinal points of the restored Mardana to his original form
compass, followed by one within the after instructing him to say “Vahi Guru”
Punjab. He traveled first to the east and (“Praise to the Guru”). The women then
then to the south, reaching Sri Lanka. tried all manner of fearsome magic on
He then journeyed to the north, deep in the pair, without success. After the queen
the Himalayas, where he debated with of the Land Ruled by Women, Nur Shah,
Nath masters known as Siddhs, who failed in her attempt to seduce Nanak,
were believed to have attained immor- the women finally submitted.
tality through the practice of Yoga. His Nanak was certainly no admirer of
trip to the west took him to Baghdad, the Naths, who apparently competed with
Mecca, and Medina. He then settled in him for converts. (The janam-sakhi anec-
Kartarpur, a village on the right bank of dotes give considerable prominence to
126 | The Culture of India

debates between Nanak and the Siddhs, Gobind Singh, it was enshrined in the
in which Nanak invariably gets the bet- holy scripture of the Sikhs, the Guru
ter of his opponents.) By contrast, he Granth Sahib.
accepted the message of the Sants, giv- The fourth Guru, Ram Das, intro-
ing it expression in hymns of the most duced two significant changes: he
compelling beauty. He taught that all introduced the appointment of masands
people are subject to the transmigration (vicars), charged with the care of defined
of souls and that the sole and sufficient congregations (sangats), and he founded
means of liberation from the cycle of the important centre of Amritsar. The
rebirth is meditation on the divine nam chief contribution of Arjan, the fifth Guru,
(Persian: “name”). According to Nanak, was the compilation of the Sikhs’ sacred
the nam encompasses the whole of cre- scripture, using the Goindval Pothis,
ation—everything outside the believer which had been prepared at the instruc-
and everything within him. Having heard tions of Guru Amar Das. All of the Gurus
the divine word (shabad) through a grace continued the teaching of Nanak con-
bestowed by God, or Akal Purakh (one cerning liberation through meditation
of Nanak’s names for God), and having on the divine name. The first five Gurus
chosen to accept the word, the believer were, therefore, one as far as the central
undertakes nam simaran, or meditation belief was concerned.
on the name. Through this discipline, Under the sixth Guru, however, the
he gradually begins to perceive mani- doctrine of miri/piri emerged. Like his
fold signs of the nam, and the means of predecessors, the Guru still engaged in
liberation are progressively revealed. piri, spiritual leadership, but to it he now
Ascending to ever-higher levels of mys- added miri, the rule of a worldly leader.
tical experience, the believer is blessed The Panth was thus no longer an exclu-
with a mounting sense of peace and joy. sively religious community but was
Eventually the sach khand (“abode of also a military one that was commonly
truth”) is reached, and the believer passes involved in open warfare. All Sikhs were
into a condition of perfect and absolute expected to accept the new dual author-
union with Akal Purakh. ity of the Gurus.
Sikhs believe that the “voice” with The final contribution of the Gurus
which the word is uttered within the came with Gobind Singh. As before, there
believer’s being is that of the spirit of the was no weakening of the doctrine affirm-
eternal Guru. Because Nanak performed ing meditation on the divine name. Guru
the discipline of nam simaran, the eter- Gobind Singh, however, believed that
nal Guru took flesh and dwelt within him. the forces of good and evil fell out of bal-
Upon Nanak’s death the eternal Guru ance on occasion, and at times the latter
was embodied, in turn, in each of Nanak’s increased enormously. Akal Purakh then
successors until, with the death of Guru intervened in human history to correct
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 127

the balance, choosing as his agents par- spent his life looking for a Guru. While
ticular individuals who fought the forces on a trip to the Ganges River, he decided
of evil that had acquired excessive power. to become a Sikh when he overheard the
Gobind Singh believed that the Mughals, daughter of Angad singing a hymn by
through Emperor Aurangzeb, had tipped Nanak. Amar Das, who was 73 years old
the scale too far toward evil and that he when he became Guru, assumed respon-
had been divinely appointed to restore sibility for the Panth at a time when it
the balance between good and evil. He was settling down after the first flush of
also believed that drawing the sword was its early years. Many Sikhs had been born
justified to rein in evil. into the Panth, and the enthusiasm and
excitement that characterized the religion
Guru Angad under Nanak had dissipated. Believing
that rituals were necessary to confirm the
In 1539 Nanak died, having first appointed Sikhs in their faith, Amar Das ordered the
Guru Angad (1504–52) as his successor. digging of a sacred well (baoli), which
Originally known as Lahina, Angad had he designated as a pilgrimage site; cre-
been a worshipper of the Hindu goddess ated three festival days (Baisakhi, Maghi,
Durga. While leading a party to the holy and Diwali); and compiled a scripture
site of Javalamukhi (a temple in a town of sacred hymns, the so-called Goindval
of the same name in Himachal Pradesh Pothis. In addition, because the Sikhs had
state, India), he passed by Kartarpur and spread throughout the Punjab, he estab-
was instantly won over by the beauty of lished manjis (dioceses) to help spread
Nanak’s hymns. Thereafter the future the faith and better organize its adher-
Guru was completely loyal to his new ents. Despite these changes, there was no
master, and his behaviour persuaded weakening of the obligation to meditate
Nanak that he would be a more suit- on the nam.
able successor than either of the Guru’s
two sons. A thoroughly obedient disciple, Guru Ram Das
Angad made no innovations in Nanak’s
teachings, and the period of his leader- Guru Ram Das (1534–81), the fourth Guru,
ship was uneventful. was the son-in-law of Guru Amar Das. He
is perhaps best known as the founder of
Guru Amar Das the town of Amritsar (“Pool of Nectar”),
which became the capital of the Sikh reli-
When Angad died, the title of Guru was gion and the location of the Harimandir
passed to Amar Das (1479–1574), who (later known as the Golden Temple), the
was distinguished by his total loyalty chief house of worship in Sikhism. He
to the second Guru. According to tradi- also replaced the manjis with masands
tion, Amar Das was a Vaishnava who had (vicars), who were charged with the care
128 | The Culture of India

of defined sangats (congregations) and support for Jahāngīr’s rebellious son

who at least once a year presented the Khusro. Guru Arjan was arrested and
Guru with reports on and gifts from the tortured to death by the Mughals. Before
Sikh community. Particularly skilled in he died, however, he urged his son—
hymn singing, Guru Ram Das stressed Hargobind, the sixth Guru—always to
the importance of this practice, which carry arms.
remains an important part of Sikh wor-
ship. A member of the Khatri caste and Guru Hargobind:
the Sodhi family, Ram Das appointed his A New Direction for the Panth
son Arjan as his successor, and all subse-
quent Gurus were his direct descendants. The appointment of the sixth Guru, Guru
Hargobind (1595–1644), marks a transition
Guru Arjan from a strictly religious Panth to one that
was both religious and temporal. Arjan’s
Prithi Chand, the oldest brother of Guru command to his son was later termed
Arjan (1563–1606), took a distinctly hos- miri/piri (“temporal authority”/“spiritual
tile view of his brother’s appointment authority”). Hargobind was still the Guru,
and in retaliation attempted to poi- and as such he continued the pattern
son Hargobind, Arjan’s only son. Prithi established by his five predecessors. He
Chand and his followers also circulated was, in other words, a pir, or spiritual
hymns that they alleged were written by leader, but he was also a mir, or chieftain
the earlier Gurus. This prompted Arjan of his people, responsible for protect-
to compile an authentic version of the ing them against tyranny with force of
hymns, which he did using Bhai Gurdas arms. The new status of the Guru and
as his scribe and the Goindval Pothis as the Panth was confirmed by the actions
a guide. The resulting Adi Granth, in a of Hargobind and came to be reflected
supplemented version, became the Guru in the architecture of Amritsar. Opposite
Granth Sahib. It remains the essential the Harimandir, the symbol of piri, there
scripture of the faith, and Sikhs always is a building known as Akal Takht, the
show it profound respect and turn to it symbol of miri. Thus, when Hargobind
whenever they need guidance, comfort, stood between the Harimandir and the
or peace. Akal Takht and buckled on two swords,
During Arjan’s lifetime the Panth the message was clear: he possessed both
steadily won converts, particularly among spiritual and temporal authority.
members of the Jat agrarian caste. The Hargobind fought intermittently with
Mughal governor of the Punjab was con- Mughal forces in the Punjab. Following
cerned about the growth of the religion, four such skirmishes, he withdrew from
and Emperor Jahāngīr was influenced Amritsar and occupied Kiratpur in the
by rumours concerning Arjan’s alleged foothills of the Shiwalik Hills. This was
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 129

a much more suitable position because news about the Sikhs and offerings of
it was outside the territory directly con- money to pay the expenses of the Panth.
trolled by the Mughal administration. The period of peace did not last,
There he remained until his death in 1644. however. Guru Har Rai faced the same
Before he died, the question of who problems with the Mughals as Guru Arjan
should succeed him emerged. Although had. Aurangzeb, the successful contender
it was certain that the successor should for the Mughal throne, defeated his elder
be a descendant of his, it was far from brother Dara Shikoh and established him-
clear which of his children or grandchil- self in Delhi. He then sent a message to
dren should take his place. Hargobind Har Rai requiring him to deliver his son
had three wives who bore him six chil- Ram Rai as a hostage for Har Rai’s reputed
dren. The eldest son, Gurditta, who was support of Dara Shikoh. Aurangzeb evi-
evidently his favourite for the position, dently wished to educate the future Guru
had predeceased him, and none of the in Mughal ways and to convert him into
remaining five seemed suitable for the a supporter of the Mughal throne. In an
position. The older son of Gurditta, Dhir episode that illustrated the success of
Mal, was rejected because, from his seat this quest, Aurangzeb once asked Ram
in Jalandhar district, he had formed an Rai to explain an apparently demeaning
alliance with Emperor Shāh Jahān. This line in the Adi Granth, which claimed that
meant that the younger son of Gurditta, earthenware pots were mitti musalaman
Har Rai, would become the seventh Guru. ki, or formed from deceased Muslim bod-
But Dhir Mal continued to make trouble for ies. Ram Rai replied that the words had
the orthodox Panth and attracted many been miscopied. The original text should
Sikhs as his followers. He also claimed have been mitti beiman ki, the dust that
to possess the sacred scripture prepared is formed from the bodies of faithless
by Guru Arjan and used it to buttress his people. When this answer was reported
claims to be the only legitimate Guru. to Har Rai, he declared his intention
never to see Ram Rai again. Because he
Guru Har Rai had committed the serious crime of alter-
ing the words of Guru Nanak, Ram Rai
The period of Guru Har Rai (1630–61) could never be the Guru, and the position
was a relatively peaceful one. He with- passed instead to his younger brother,
drew from Kiratpur and moved farther Hari Krishen, who inherited the title
back into the Shiwalik Hills, settling with when he was only five years old.
a small retinue at Sirmur. From there he
occasionally emerged onto the plains Guru Hari Krishen
of the Punjab to visit and preach to the
Sikhs. In this regard he was well served Aurangzeb summoned Guru Hari Krishen
by several masands, who brought him (1656–64) to Delhi from the Shiwalik Hills.
130 | The Culture of India

While in Delhi, Hari Krishen contracted made by Guru Arjan; the canon was then
smallpox, which proved fatal. Before he closed, and the Adi Granth has remained
died, he uttered the words “Baba Bakale,” inviolable ever since. The second con-
which indicated to his followers the iden- cerns the manner of Tegh Bahadur’s
tity of his successor, the baba (“old man”) death. Sikh tradition maintains that he
who is in the village of Bakala. Hari was arrested by Mughal authorities for
Krishen meant to identify Tegh Bahadur, having aided Kashmiri Brahmans against
who dwelt in Bakala and was the son of Mughal attempts to convert them to
Guru Hargobind by his second wife and Islam. Offered the choice of conversion
the half brother of Guru Hari Krishen’s or death, he chose the latter and was
grandfather. immediately beheaded.
A Sikh who witnessed the execution
Guru Tegh Bahadur spirited away Tegh Bahadur’s headless
body and lodged it in his house outside
As soon as these words became known, Delhi. To cremate the body without rais-
many hopeful persons rushed to Bakala ing suspicion, he burned the whole house.
to claim the title. Sikh tradition records Meanwhile, three outcaste Sikhs secured
that Makhan Shah, a trader, had been the head of the Guru and carried it in
caught by a violent storm at sea and in secret up to Anandpur, a service which
his distress vowed to give the Sikh Guru earned them and all their successors the
501 gold mohurs (coins) if he should be right to be called Ranghreta Sikhs, an
spared. After the storm abated, the survi- honoured group of outcaste followers
vor traveled to the Punjab, and, learning of the Guru. Arriving in Anandpur, they
that the Guru resided in Bakala, he pro- produced the severed head amidst cries
ceeded there. He discovered that several of great lamentation.
people claimed the title following the
death of Guru Hari Krishen. He decided Guru Gobind Singh and
to test them all, laying before each claim- the Founding of the Khalsa
ant two gold mohurs. Finally he reached
Tegh Bahadur, who asked him for the Following the death of Tegh Bahadur,
remainder of what he had promised. Guru Gobind Singh (1666–1708), the most
Rushing up to the rooftop, Makhan Shah important of all the Gurus with the excep-
proclaimed that he had indeed found the tion of Guru Nanak, assumed leadership
true Guru. of the Sikhs. Gobind Rai, whose name
The period of Guru Tegh Bahadur was altered to Gobind Singh possibly at
(1621–75) is important for two reasons. the time of the creation of the Khalsa,
The first is that several hymns that Tegh was born in Patna, the only child of Guru
Bahadur wrote were added by Guru Tegh Bahadur. At the age of five he was
Gobind Singh to the collection originally brought to Anandpur and educated in
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 131

Sanskrit and Persian and in the arts of Guru Gobind Singh explained that
poetry and warfare. His father’s execu- he desired the Panj Piare to be the begin-
tion in Delhi by Aurangzeb must have ning of a new order, the Khalsa (“the
made a deep impression on the child. Pure,” from the Persian khalisah, also
For several years after his succession as meaning “pure”). The masands (many of
Guru, he continued his education in the whom had become quarrelsome or cor-
Shiwalik Hills. He grew to manhood as rupt) would be eliminated, and all Sikhs,
the ruler of a small Shiwalik state, par- through their initiation into the Khalsa,
ticipating in various wars against other would owe allegiance directly to the
Shiwalik chieftains and demonstrating a Guru. Gobind Singh then commenced
particular delight in the sport of hunting. the amrit sanskar (“nectar ceremony”),
According to Sikh tradition, on the service of initiation for the Panj Piare.
Baisakhi Day (the Indian New Year) late When the rite was concluded, the Guru
in the 17th century (the exact year is uncer- himself was initiated by the Panj Piare.
tain, though it was probably 1699), a fair The order was then opened to anyone
was held at Anandpur, and all Sikhs were wishing to join, and Sikh tradition reports
ordered to attend. The Guru remained that enormous crowds responded.
concealed until the celebrations were at It should be noted that, contrary to
their height, when he suddenly appeared the belief of many Sikhs, some central
from a tent carrying a drawn sword and features of the present-day Khalsa did
demanding the head of one of his loyal fol- not exist in Gobind Singh’s time. For
lowers. At once the crowd became silent, example, although the Guru required that
wondering what had happened. The those initiated into the Khalsa carry arms
Guru repeated the command, and even- and never cut their hair (so that at least
tually Daya Singh volunteered and was the men would never be able to deny
taken behind a screen to be dispatched. their identity as Khalsa Sikhs), the wear-
Gobind Singh then reappeared, his sword ing of the “Five Ks”—kes or kesh (uncut
dripping blood, and demanded a second hair), kangha (comb), kachha (short trou-
victim. He too was escorted behind the sers), kara (steel bracelet), and kirpan
screen, and again the sound of the sword (ceremonial sword)—did not become an
could be heard. In this manner five loyal obligation of all Sikhs until the establish-
Sikhs agreed to die for their master. ment of the Singh Sabha, a religious and
When he had apparently dispatched the educational reform movement of the late
fifth, the screen was removed, and all five 19th and the early 20th century. The Sikh
were seen to be very much alive. At their wedding ceremony, in which the bride
feet lay five slaughtered goats. The five and groom walk around the Guru Granth
volunteers became the Panj Piare, the Sahib, is also a modern development, hav-
“Cherished Five,” who had proved that ing replaced the essentially Hindu rite, in
their loyalty was beyond question. which the bride and groom walk around
132 | The Culture of India
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 133

a sacred fire, by the Anand Marriage Act governor of Sirhind, who cruelly executed
of 1909. The names Singh (“Lion”) for them by bricking them up alive. The fate
Sikh males and Kaur (“Princess”) for Sikh of these two children has remained an
females, formerly adopted upon initia- agonizing tale for Sikhs ever since.
tion into the Khalsa, are now bestowed to From Anandpur Gobind Singh
all Sikhs in a birth and naming ceremony. escaped to southern Punjab, where he
All of these changes have been incor- inflicted a defeat on his pursuers at
porated into the Rahit, the Sikh code of Muktsar. He then moved on to Damdama,
belief and conduct, which reached nearly remaining there until 1706 and, accord-
its final form in the early 20th century. ing to tradition, occupying himself with
Guru Gobind Singh believed that the the final revision of the Adi Granth. When
forces of good and evil in the world some- Aurangzeb died in 1707, Gobind Singh
times fall out of balance. When the forces agreed to accompany Aurangzeb’s suc-
of evil become too great, Akal Purakh cessor, Bahādur Shāh, to southern India.
intervenes in human history to correct Arriving at Nanded on the banks of the
the balance, using particular human indi- Godavari River in 1708, he was assassi-
viduals as his agents. In Gobind Singh’s nated by agents of the governor of Sirhind.
time the forces of evil, represented by the Guru Gobind Singh is without doubt
Mughals under Aurangzeb, had gained the beau ideal of the Sikhs. Illustrations
the ascendance, and it was Gobind of him and of Guru Nanak are commonly
Singh’s task, he believed, to right the bal- found in Sikh homes. He is regarded as
ance. In the service of this mission, the the supreme exemplar of all that a Sikh
Sikhs were justified in drawing the sword. of the Khalsa (a Gursikh) should be. His
He expressed this conviction in Zafar- bravery is admired, his nobility esteemed,
nama (“Epistle of Victory”), a letter that his goodness profoundly revered. The
he addressed late in life to Aurangzeb. duty of every Khalsa member, therefore,
Soon after the creation of the Khalsa, is to follow his path and to perform works
the Guru was attacked by other Shiwalik that would be worthy of him.
chieftains in league with the Mughal gov-
ernor of the town of Sirhind. In 1704 he was The 18th and 19th Centuries
compelled to withdraw from Anandpur,
losing two of his four sons in the battle The most significant figure in Sikh his-
that followed. The two remaining sons tory of the 18th century is Lacchman
were taken prisoner and delivered to the Dev, who was probably born in Punch in

This Indian Sikh man, wearing his traditional turban and sword, takes a ritual bath at the
Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab province, on the eve of the 540th birthday of Guru Nanak
on November 2, 2009. Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images
134 | The Culture of India

Kashmir and had become a Vaishnava put to the sword. Thereafter much of the
ascetic known as Madho Das. He jour- Punjab was plunged into turmoil, though
neyed to the south and was in the vicinity Banda’s army clearly was the dominant
of Nanded at the time of Guru Gobind force in the early years of the rebellion.
Singh’s arrival. The two met shortly Many of the peasants had rallied to
before the Guru’s death, and Madho Banda, and the Mughals were exceed-
Das was instantly converted to the Sikh ingly hard-pressed to maintain control.
faith and renamed Banda (“the Slave”). Finally, after six years of fighting, Banda
The Guru also conferred on him the title was cornered in the village of Gurdas
of Bahadur (“the Brave”); he has been Nangal, where he chose to construct a
known as Banda Bahadur ever since. defense by flooding a surrounding canal.
According to tradition, Banda This proved to be a mistake, since the
Bahadur was commissioned by Gobind Mughals only had to wait until hunger
Singh to mount a campaign in the Punjab drove Banda’s army to surrender. Banda
against the governor of Sirhind. A hukam- was put in chains and carried to Delhi in
nama, or letter of command, from the a cage, and in June 1716 he was tortured
Guru was entrusted to him certifying that and barbarously executed.
he was the Guru’s servant and encourag- Although Banda is greatly admired
ing all Sikhs to join him. Arriving in the by Sikhs for his bravery and his loyalty to
Punjab with a group of 25 Sikhs, Banda the 10th Guru, he has never commanded
issued a call to join him, and, partly the complete approval of the Panth. This
because the peasants were struggling is presumably because he introduced
against the excessive land tax of the changes to the Khalsa, including a new
Mughals, he had considerable success. greeting, “Fateh darshan” (“Facing vic-
The fact that he had been commissioned tory!”), in place of the traditional “Fateh
by the 10th Guru also counted for much. Vahi Guruji” (“Victory to the Guru!”). He
The process evidently took some time, also required his followers to be vegetar-
and it was not until late 1709 that Banda ians and to wear red garments instead of
and his army of peasants were able to the traditional blue. Those who accepted
mount an attack, sacking the towns of these changes were called Bandai Sikhs,
Samana and Sadhaura. while those opposed to them—led by
Banda then turned his attention to the Mata Sundari, one of Guru Gobind
town of Sirhind and its governor, who had Singh’s widows—called themselves the
bricked up the two younger sons of Guru Tat Khalsa (the “True” Khalsa or “Pure”
Gobind Singh. For this and many other Khalsa), which should not be confused
crimes, the Sikhs believed that he mer- with the Tat Khalsa segment of the Singh
ited death. Banda’s army, fighting with Sabha, discussed below.
great determination, attacked and over- After the execution of Banda, the Sikhs
whelmed Sirhind, and the governor was endured several decades of persecution
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 135

by the Mughals, though there were occa- fought its way to the outskirts of Amritsar
sional periods of peace. Only the Sikhs and then hurled the head toward the
of the Khalsa—whose identity could be Harimandir, the head landing very close
easily recognized by their uncut hair to the shrine; the place where the head is
and flowing beards—were persecuted; believed to have landed is marked by a
other Sikhs were seldom affected. This hexagonal stone.
period, nonetheless, is remembered by By the end of Ah·mad Shāh’s inva-
Sikhs as one of great suffering, accom- sions in 1769, the Punjab was largely in
panied by acts of great bravery by many the hands of 12 misls, and, with the exter-
Khalsa Sikhs in their struggle against the nal threat removed, the misls turned to
Mughal authorities in Lahore. fighting between themselves. Eventually,
Beginning in 1747, the ruler of one misldar (commander), Ranjit Singh,
Afghanistan, Ah·mad Shāh Durrānī, led the leader of the Sukerchakia misl
a series of nine invasions of the Punjab (named after the town of Sukkarchak in
that eventually brought Mughal power in what is now northeastern Punjab prov-
the region to an end. In rural areas, the ince, Pakistan), which included territories
Sikhs took advantage of the weakening north and west of Lahore, won almost
of Mughal control to form several groups complete control of the Punjab. The
later known as misls or misals. Beginning lone exception was the Phulkian misl (so
as warrior bands, the emergent misls called after its founder, Phul, the disciple
and their sardars (chieftains) gradually of Guru Har Rai) on the southeastern
established their authority over quite border of the Punjab, which survived
extensive areas. because the English East India Company
As Mughal power declined, the misls had reached the Sutlej River and Ranjit
eventually faced the Afghan army of Singh recognized that he was not yet
Ah·mad Shāh, with whom an important ready to fight the British army. For their
Sikh tradition is associated. After the part, the British recognized that Ranjit
Afghans occupied the Harimandir in Singh was in the process of establishing
1757, Dip Singh, a member of the Shahid a strong kingdom, and, for as long as it
misl, pledged to free the shrine or die survived, they were content to have it as a
in the attempt. His small army was met buffer state between their territories and
by a much larger one several kilometres their ultimate objective, Afghanistan.
from Amritsar, and in the ensuing battle Sikhs remember Ranjit Singh with
Dip Singh’s head was cut off. According respect and affection as their greatest
to one version of events, the body of Dip leader after the Gurus. He succeeded as
Singh, holding the head in one hand, Sukerchakia misldar when his father died
continued fighting, eventually dropping in 1792. By 1799 he had entered Lahore,
dead in the precincts of the Harimandir. and in 1801 he proclaimed himself maha-
Another account reports that the body raja of the Punjab. He sheathed the two
136 | The Culture of India

upper stories of the Harimandir in gold with grants of land and other privileges.
leaf, thereby converting it into what Peace and prosperity within the Punjab
became known as the Golden Temple. made possible the founding of the first
Within the kingdom that replaced the Singh Sabha, a religious and educational
misl system, Sikhs of the Khalsa received reform movement, in Amritsar in 1873.
special consideration, but places were Its purpose was to demonstrate that
also found for Hindus and Muslims. Sikhs were not involved in the Indian
The army was Ranjit Singh’s particular Mutiny and to respond to signs of decay
interest. His objective was to create an within the Panth, such as haircutting and
entirely new army on a Western model, tobacco smoking. Because the men who
and for this purpose he employed numer- gathered in Amritsar were, for the most
ous Europeans, only the British being part, large landowners and persons of
excepted. When his new army was ready high status, the positions they adopted
to do battle, the city of Multan, the Vale were generally conservative. In response
of Kashmir, and the citadel of Peshawar a more radical branch of the Singh
were all added to the kingdom of the Sabha was established in Lahore in 1879.
Punjab. The Amritsar group came to be known
Notwithstanding his many accom- as the Sanatan (“Traditional”) Sikhs,
plishments, Ranjit Singh failed to provide whereas the radical Lahore branch was
a firm financial footing for his govern- known as the Tat Khalsa.
ment, nor was he interested in training The differences between the two
a successor. When he died in 1839, he groups were considerable. The Sanatan
was succeeded by his eldest son, Kharak Sikhs regarded themselves as part of
Singh, though effective authority was the wider Hindu community (then the
exercised by Kharak Singh’s son Nau dominant view within the Panth), and
Nihal Singh. Kharak Singh died in 1840 they tolerated such things as idols in the
as a result of excessive opium consump- Golden Temple. The Tat Khalsa, on the
tion, and Nau Nihal Singh was killed by other hand, insisted that Sikhism was a
a falling arch on the day of his father’s distinct and independent faith. The pam-
funeral. The Punjab quickly descended phlet Ham Hindu Nahin (1898; “We Are
into chaos, and, following two wars with Not Hindus”), by the Tat Khalsa writer
the British, the state was annexed in 1849 Kahn Singh Nabha, provided an effective
to become a part of British India. After slogan for the movement. Other radical
annexation, the British favoured the Sikhs adherents, influenced by Western stan-
for recruitment as soldiers, and many dards of scholarship, set out to revise
Sikhs made the British army their career. and rationalize the rahit-namas (the
For their loyalty to the British admin- manuals containing the Rahit), removing
istration during the unsuccessful Indian parts that were erroneous, inconsistent,
Mutiny of 1857–58, the Sikhs were rewarded or antiquated. Many prohibitions were
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 137

eliminated, though tobacco and halal by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak

meat (flesh of an animal killed accord- Committee, an elected body that is
ing to Muslim ritual) continued to be regarded by many Sikhs as the supreme
enjoined. Their work eventually resulted authority within the Panth.
in a clear statement of the Five Ks, which
has since been adopted by all ortho- The Punjabi Suba
dox Sikhs. Marriage was also reformed
according to Tat Khalsa views. During India’s struggle for indepen-
The controversy between the Sanatan dence, the Sikhs were on both sides of
Sikhs and the Tat Khalsa Sikhs continued the conflict, many continuing to serve in
for some time, as other factions within the British military and others opposing
the Singh Sabha lent their support to one the colonial government. The partition
group or the other. Most factions, how- between India and Pakistan in 1947 pro-
ever, supported the radical group, and, duced deep dissatisfaction among the
by the beginning of the 20th century, Sikhs, who saw the Punjab divided
the dominance of the Tat Khalsa move- between the two new states. Almost all
ment had become apparent. Eventually Sikhs in the western Punjab migrated
its victory was total, and, during the to the portion retained by India. Having
early decades of the 20th century, it con- settled there, however, they soon felt that
verted the Panth to its distinctive way of the government of the Indian National
thinking, so much so that the accepted Congress lacked sympathy for them, a
contemporary understanding of the Sikh situation that was put right by the cre-
faith is the Tat Khalsa interpretation. ation in 1966 of the Punjabi suba, or the
Punjabi state, within the union of India.
The 20th Century to the Because the boundaries of the Punjab
Early 21st Century were redrawn to embrace those whose
first language was Punjabi, the Sikhs con-
During the early 1920s the Akali move- stituted a majority in the new state.
ment, a semimilitary corps of volunteers For four decades following par-
raised to oppose the British government, tition, the Sikhs enjoyed growing
disputed with the British over control of prosperity, including greater educational
the larger gurdwaras (Punjabi: “doorways opportunities. Tat Khalsa Sikhs had long
to the Guru”), the Sikh houses of worship, emphasized female education at the pri-
in the Punjab. This conflict led eventually mary and secondary levels; now stress
to the adoption by the Legislative Council was laid upon tertiary education for both
of the Punjab of the Sikh Gurdwaras Act sexes. Punjabi University in Patiala was
of 1925, whereby the principal gurdwaras opened in 1962 with strong Sikh support,
were entrusted to Sikh control. The gur- followed by Guru Nanak University (now
dwaras have been governed ever since Guru Nanak Dev University) in Amritsar
138 | The Culture of India

in 1969, founded to honour the quin- The Sikh Diaspora

centenary of the birth of Guru Nanak.
(Another reason for the establishment of Until well into the modern era, most
Guru Nanak University was that Punjabi migrant Sikhs were traders who settled
University tended to favour the trading in India outside the Punjab or in neigh-
castes; Guru Nanak University, by con- bouring lands to the west. In the late 19th
trast, favoured the Jats.) century, the posting of Sikh soldiers in
The growth of the Punjab was inter- the British army to stations in Malaya
rupted in the mid-1980s by conflict and Hong Kong prompted Sikh emigra-
between the central government and Sikh tion to those territories, which eventually
fundamentalists, who were demanding a became jumping-off points for further
separate Sikh nation-state. In an effort migration to Australia, New Zealand, and
to reign in the principal Sikh political Fiji, especially for those seeking tempo-
party, the Shiromani Akali Dal (“Leading rary employment as unskilled labourers.
Akali Party”), the government unwisely Others Sikhs discovered opportunities
enlisted the support of a young Sikh fun- along the west coast of North America,
damentalist, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. the first emigrants evidently arriving
In 1984 Bhindranwale and his armed fol- in 1903. Semiskilled artisans were also
lowers occupied the Akal Takht in the transported from the Punjab to British
Golden Temple complex in Amritsar. In East Africa to help in the building of
response, Indian Prime Minister Indira railways. After World War II, Sikhs emi-
Gandhi ordered a military assault on the grated from both India and Pakistan,
complex, which proved much more dif- most going to the United Kingdom but
ficult than had been anticipated and led many also headed for North America.
to severe damage to some of the temple Some of the Sikhs who had settled in
buildings. Later in the year, Gandhi was eastern Africa were expelled by Ugandan
assassinated by two of her Sikh body- dictator Idi Amin in 1972; most of them
guards in retaliation for the assault. This moved to the United Kingdom. In the
in turn prompted a pogrom against the early 21st century the Sikh population
Sikhs, particularly in the Delhi area, and in that country was more than 300,000,
led to guerrilla warfare against the cen- and there are communities of 180,000
tral government in the Punjab that lasted to 200,000 members each in the United
until 1992. At the start of the 21st century, States and Canada.
the demands of the fundamentalists still
had not been met, but at least the Punjab Sikh Practice
was quiet. Meanwhile, the appointment
of Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, as prime A Sikh gurdwara includes both the house
minister in 2004 was the source of great of worship proper and its associated
pride in the Sikh community. langar, or communal refectory. The Adi
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 139

Granth must be present at the gurdwara, everyone must sit in a straight line, nei-
and all attending must enter with heads ther ahead to lay claim to higher status
covered and feet bare. nor behind to denote inferiority. Indeed,
the distinctive Sikh langar originated
The Worship Service as a protest against the caste system.
Another signal of the Sikhs’ rejection
Sikhs show their reverence by bowing of caste is the distribution of the karah
their foreheads to the floor before the prasad, which is prepared or donated by
sacred scripture. Worship consists largely people of all castes.
of singing hymns from the scripture, and In two areas of Sikh society, however,
every service concludes with Ardas, a set caste is still observed. Sikhs are normally
prayer that is divided into three parts. expected to marry within their caste: Jat
The first part consists of a declaration of marries Jat, Khatri marries Khatri, and
the virtues of all the Gurus, and the last Dalit marries Dalit. In addition, Sikhs of
part is a brief salutation to the divine some castes tend to establish gurdwaras
name; neither part can be changed. The intended for their caste only. Members of
middle part of the Ardas is a list, in a the Ramgarhia caste, for example, identify
generally agreed form, of the trials and their gurdwaras in this way (particularly
the triumphs of the Khalsa, which are those established in the United Kingdom),
recited in clusters by a prayer leader. The as do members of the Dalit caste.
congregation responds to each cluster More than 60 percent of Sikhs belong
with a fervent “Vahiguru,” which origi- to the Jat caste, which is a rural caste.
nally meant “Praise to the Guru” but is The Khatri and Arora castes, both mer-
now accepted as the most common word cantile castes, form a very small minority,
for God. The conclusion of the service though they are influential within the
is followed by the distribution of karah Sikh community. Other castes repre-
prasad, a sacramental food that consists sented among the Sikhs, in addition to
of equal parts of coarsely refined wheat the distinctive Sikh caste of Ramgarhias
flour, clarified butter, and raw sugar. (artisans), are the Ahluwalias (formerly
Kalals [brewers] who have raised their
The Rejection of Caste status considerably) and the two Dalit
castes, known in Sikh terminology as
The Adi Granth contains a forthright the Mazhabis (the Chuhras) and the
condemnation of caste, and conse- Ramdasias (the Chamars).
quently there is no toleration of caste in
its presence (normally in a gurdwara). Rites and Festivals
The Gurus denounced caste as holding
no importance whatsoever for access Sikh Rahit Marayada, the manual that
to liberation. In the langar, therefore, specifies the duties of Sikhs, names four
140 | The Culture of India

rituals that qualify as rites of passage. ka Khalsa, Vahi Guruji ki fateh” (“Praise
The first is a birth and naming ceremony, to the Guru’s Khalsa! Praise to the Guru’s
held in a gurdwara when the mother is victory!”). Amrit is sprinkled over the ini-
able to rise and bathe after giving birth. tiates’ hair and eyes five times, and they
A hymn is selected at random from the drink the remainder of the amrit from
Guru Granth Sahib, and a name begin- the same bowl. They repeat five times
ning with the first letter of the hymn is the Mul Mantra (the superscription at
chosen. Singh is added to the names of the beginning of the Guru Granth Sahib),
males and Kaur to females. A second rite after which the Rahit is expounded to
is the anand karaj (“blissful union”), or them by one of the five Sikhs. They are
marriage ceremony, which clearly dis- required to wear the Five Ks and to avoid
tinguishes Sikhs from Hindus. The bride four particular sins: cutting one’s hair, eat-
and groom are required to proceed four ing halal meat, having sexual intercourse
times around the Guru Granth Sahib with anyone other than one’s spouse, and
to the singing of Guru Ram Das’s Suhi using tobacco. The Sikh who commits
Chhant 2, which differs from the Hindu any of these cardinal sins must publicly
custom of circling a sacred fire. The third confess and be reinitiated. Anyone who
rite—regarded as the most important—is violates the Rahit and does not confess is
the amrit sanskar, the ceremony for ini- branded a patit (apostate). If a candidate
tiation into the Khalsa. The fourth rite has not received a name from the Guru
is the funeral ceremony. In all cases the Granth Sahib, one is conferred. Finally,
distinction between Sikhs and Hindus is karah prasad is distributed, all taking it
emphasized. from the same dish.
The initiation rite, as set down in Sikh Sikhism observes eight major fes-
Rahit Marayada, is conducted by six ini- tivals, as well as several others of lesser
tiated Sikhs, five of whom conduct the importance. Four of the main festivals
actual rite while the sixth sits in atten- are gurpurabs, or events commemorat-
dance on the Guru Granth Sahib, which ing important incidents in the lives of the
must be present on such occasions. The Gurus, such as the birthdays of Nanak
ritual involves pouring water into a large and Gobind Singh and the martyrdoms
iron bowl and adding soluble sweets. of Arjan and Tegh Bahadur. The remain-
This represents the amrit (“nectar”), ing four are the installation of the Guru
which is stirred with a double-edged Granth Sahib, the New Year festival
sword by one of the five Sikhs. After the of Baisakhi, Diwali, and Hola Mahalla.
recitation of certain works of the Gurus, Festivals are marked by processions in
which is followed by Ardas, the candi- the streets and visits to gurdwaras, par-
dates for initiation drink five handfuls ticularly to those associated with one of
of amrit offered to them. Each time, the the Gurus or with some historical event.
Sikh giving it to them cries, “Vahi Guruji Speeches are commonly made to crowds
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 141

of worshipers. Diwali, the Festival of doctrine of nam simaran. With the advent
Light, is observed by both Hindus and of the Tat Khalsa this goal was largely
Sikhs; the Sikh celebration centres on the achieved, and today the Nirankaris differ
Golden Temple, which is illuminated for from orthodox Sikhs only in their recog-
the occasion. For Sikhs, Diwali commemo- nition of a continuing line of Gurus. The
rates the release of Guru Hargobind from Nam-Dharis also recognize a continuing
imprisonment by the Mughal emperor line, believing that Guru Gobind Singh
Jahāngīr in Gwalior. Hola Mahalla, which did not die in Nander but lived in secret
is held the day after the Hindu festival of until he passed the title to Balak Singh.
Holi, was established by Gobind Singh Under the second Nam-Dhari Guru, Ram
as an alternative to the Hindu holiday. Singh, the movement’s centre moved to
It was originally observed with displays Bhaini Sahib, where trouble with British
of martial skills and mock battles and is authorities led to Ram Singh’s impris-
now celebrated with military parades. onment in Rangoon, Burma (Yangon,
Myanmar). Almost all Nam-Dharis are
Sects and Other Groups from the carpenter caste, and most adult
male Nam-Dharis are easily recognized
In addition to the orthodox, there are by their white homespun turbans, which
several Sikh sects. Four of these are par- they tie horizontally across the forehead.
ticularly important. Sikhs can be grouped The third sect, the Akhand Kirtani
not only by their sect but also by their Jatha, emerged during the early 20th
style of dress and by the strictness with century. The members of this group are
which they observe the Rahit. Contrary to distinguished by their divergent inter-
common belief, not all Sikhs wear uncut pretation of one of the Five Ks. Instead
hair and turbans—two groups do, and two of accepting the kes, or uncut hair, they
do not. Of these four groups, three have maintain that the command really stands
names to distinguish them; the fourth, for keski, which means a small turban that
though unnamed, is numerous and is normally worn under the main turban.
includes many Sikhs of the diaspora. In this group, men and women must wear
this variety of turban. The group is strict
Sects in its beliefs, attaching great importance
to kirtan, or the singing of hymns, and
Of the four significant sects, the frequently devoting the whole night to
Nirankaris and the Nam-Dharis, or Kuka the exercise. Leadership of the sect is now
Sikhs, emerged in northwestern Punjab largely in the hands of the trading castes,
during the latter part of Ranjit Singh’s though it originally comprised followers
reign. The Nirankaris were members of Randhir Singh, who was a Jat.
of trading castes and followers of Baba Another group that requires women
Dayal, who had preached a return to the to wear turbans is the Sikh Dharma of
142 | The Culture of India

the Western Hemisphere, founded in the name Kaur, and all accept the Rahit to a
United States in 1971 by Harbhajan Singh, greater or lesser degree. Many are punc-
who was always known as Yogi Bhajan. It is tilious in their acceptance of it, obeying
commonly known as the 3HO movement all the regulations laid down in Sikh Rahit
(Healthy Happy Holy Organization), Marayada. Others are rather less obser-
though this is, strictly speaking, the name vant, though they are usually careful not
only of its educational branch. Most of its to violate the Rahit while they are in the
followers are white Americans who lay public gaze.
considerable emphasis on the discipline The Kes-Dhari Sikhs constitute a very
of meditation and who practice what they substantial part of the Panth, especially
call kundalini Yoga. The Sikh Dharma’s in the Punjab, though their exact num-
relations with the orthodox Khalsa are bers there and in the rest of the world are
distinctly mixed, with many other Sikhs impossible to determine. Although the
questioning both its teachings and its vast majority of Kes-Dharis have not been
economic activities. The group’s obser- initiated into the Khalsa, in practice they
vance of the Rahit is, however, generally are regarded (and regard themselves) as
acknowledged to be of a very high order. Khalsa Sikhs.
A second group comprises those who
Other Groups have undertaken initiation. Because this
involves amrit (“nectar”), these Sikhs
As mentioned above, style of dress and are known as Amrit-Dhari Sikhs. They are
strictness of observance are other ways also, of course, Kes-Dharis. Thus, all Amrit-
of distinguishing among Sikhs. The Kes- Dharis are Kes-Dharis, though not all
Dhari, for example, is composed of Sikhs Kes-Dharis are Amrit-Dharis. Here too any
who wear the kes, uncut hair, required as estimate of numbers must rely on guess-
one of the Five Ks, and includes all those work, but it is likely that Amrit-Dharis
whom the popular view regards as Sikhs. account for 15 to 18 percent of all Sikhs.
Not all Kes-Dharis wear all of the Five Ks, The Sahaj-Dharis are one of two
but they will at least wear the wrist ring groups of Sikhs that do not wear uncut
(the kara), and the men will have beards hair. They also reject other injunctions of
and wear the Sikh turban. In some cases, the Rahit, and they do not adopt typical
beards may be surreptitiously trimmed, Sikh personal names. Tat Khalsa schol-
and, instead of wearing a standard kir- ars once believed that sahaj-dhari meant
pan (ceremonial sword), members may “slow-adopter” and was used to designate
carry a tiny replica measuring barely one Sikhs who were on the path to full Khalsa
centimetre in length, which is fastened membership. It is more probable, how-
to the comb (kangha) that holds the ever, that the term is derived from Guru
hair in place under the turban. All males Nanak’s use of the word sahaj, meaning
bear the name Singh and all females the the ineffable bliss of the soul’s liberation.
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 143

Sahaj-Dhari Sikhism is based partly third was Guru Gobind Singh’s founding
on caste, attracting many members of of the Khalsa, its distinctive code to be
relatively high castes who do not observe observed by all who were initiated. At his
the Rahit for fear of losing their high- death came the fourth event, the passing
caste status. Thus, the group includes of the mystical Guru from its 10 human
many members of the trading castes bearers to the Guru Granth Sahib. The
but very few Jats, the agrarian caste that final event took place early in the 20th
constitutes more than 60 percent of the century, when Sikhism underwent a pro-
Panth. It is impossible to determine the found reformation at the hands of the Tat
exact number of Sahaj-Dharis, partly Khalsa. Sikhs are universally proud of the
because many families of the trading distinct faith thus created.
castes have only the eldest son initiated
and leave the remainder of the family free Jainism
to call themselves Sikh or Hindu.
The fourth category of Sikhs consists Jainism teaches a path to spiritual purity
of those who have a traditional Kes- and enlightenment through a disci-
Dhari background but who cut their hair plined mode of life founded upon the
and wear distinctive turbans only when tradition of ahimsa, nonviolence to all
they attend a service in their gurdwaras. living creatures. Beginning in the 7th–5th
Although they do not always use their century BC, Jainism evolved into a cul-
formal Khalsa names, they do use Singh tural system that has made significant
or Kaur. This variety of Sikh is particu- contributions to Indian philosophy and
larly common in countries outside India. logic, art and architecture, mathematics,
There is still no widely accepted term for astronomy and astrology, and literature.
them, though they are frequently called Along with Hinduism and Buddhism, it is
Mona Sikhs, mona meaning “shaven.” one of the three most ancient Indian reli-
This term, however, is unsuitable because gious traditions still in existence.
it does not clearly distinguish this group While often employing concepts
of Sikhs from the Sahaj-Dharis and shared with Hinduism and Buddhism,
because it has pejorative overtones. the result of a common cultural and lin-
guistic background, the Jain tradition
Conclusion must be regarded as an independent phe-
nomenon. It is an integral part of South
The Sikhs understand their religion as Asian religious belief and practice, but it
the product of five pivotal events. The first is not a Hindu sect or Buddhist heresy, as
was the teaching of Guru Nanak: his mes- earlier scholars believed.
sage of liberation through meditation on The name Jainism derives from the
the divine name. The second was the arm- Sanskrit verb ji, “to conquer.” It refers to
ing of the Sikhs by Guru Hargobind. The the ascetic battle that it is believed Jain
144 | The Culture of India

renunciants (monks and nuns) must fight gnosis (illumination) in an attempt to

against the passions and bodily senses to win, through one’s own efforts, freedom
gain omniscience and purity of soul or from repeated rebirth.
enlightenment. The most illustrious of
those few individuals who have achieved Early History (7th Century BC–
enlightenment are called Jina (literally, c. 5th Century AD)
“Conqueror”), and the tradition’s monas-
tic and lay adherents are called Jain The first Jain figure for whom there
(“Follower of the Conquerors”), or Jaina. is reasonable historical evidence is
This term came to replace a more ancient Parshvanatha (or Parshva), a renun-
designation, Nirgrantha (“Bondless”), ciant teacher who may have lived in the
originally applied to renunciants only. 7th century BC and founded a commu-
Jainism has been confined largely to nity based upon the abandonment of
India, although the recent migration of worldly concerns. Jain tradition regards
Indians to other, predominantly English- him as the 23rd Tirthankara (literally,
speaking countries has spread its “Ford-maker,” i.e., one who leads the
practice to many Commonwealth nations way across the stream of rebirths to sal-
and to the United States. Precise statis- vation) of the current age (kalpa). The
tics are not available, but it is estimated 24th and last Tirthankara of this age
that there are roughly four million Jains was Vardhamana, who is known by the
in India and 100,000 elsewhere. epithet Mahavira (“Great Hero”) and is
believed to have been the last teacher
History of “right” knowledge, faith, and practice.
Although traditionally dated to 599–527
Jainism originated in the 7th–5th cen- BC, Mahavira must be regarded as a
tury BC in the Ganges basin of eastern close contemporary of the Buddha (tradi-
India. This area was then the scene of tionally believed to have lived in 563–483
intense religious speculation and activ- BC but who probably flourished about a
ity. Buddhism also appeared in this century later). The legendary accounts
region, as did other belief systems that of Mahavira’s life preserved by the Jain
renounced the world and opposed the scriptures provides the basis for his biog-
ritualistic Brahmanic schools whose raphy and enable some conclusions to be
prestige derived from their claim of formulated about the nature of the early
purity and their ability to perform the community he founded.
traditional rituals and sacrifices and to Mahavira, like the Buddha, was the
interpret their meaning. These new reli- son of a chieftain of the Kshatriya (war-
gious perspectives promoted asceticism, rior) class. At age 30 he renounced his
the abandonment of ritual, domestic princely status to take up the ascetic life.
and social action, and the attainment of Although he was accompanied for a time
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 145

by the eventual founder of the Ajivika and denigrate the other. These accounts
sect, Goshala Maskariputra, Mahavira were written centuries after the fact
spent the next 12½ years following a and are valueless as genuine histori-
path of solitary and intense asceticism. cal testimony. The consolidation of the
He then converted 11 disciples (called Shvetambara-Digambara division was
ganadharas), all of whom were origi- probably the result of a series of coun-
nally Brahmans. Two of these disciples, cils held to codify and preserve the Jain
Indrabhuti Gautama and Sudharman, scriptures, which had existed as oral tra-
both of whom survived Mahavira, are dition long after Mahavira’s death. Of
regarded as the founders of the historical the councils recorded in Jain history, the
Jain monastic community, and a third, last one, held at Valabhi in Saurashtra (in
Jambu, is believed to be the last person modern Gujarat) in either AD 453 or 456,
of the current age to gain enlightenment. without Digambara participation, codi-
Mahavira is believed to have died at fied the Shvetambara canon that is still
Pavapuri, near modern Patna. in use. The Digambara monastic com-
The community appears to have munity denounced the codification, and
grown quickly. According to Jain tra- the schism between the two communities
dition, it numbered 14,000 monks and became irrevocable.
36,000 nuns at the time of Mahavira’s During this period, Jainism spread
death. From the beginning the community westward to Ujjain, where it apparently
was subject to schisms over technicalities enjoyed royal patronage. Later, in the
of doctrine, however, these were easily 1st century BC, according to tradition,
resolved. The only schism to have a last- a monk named Kalakacarya apparently
ing effect concerned a dispute over proper overthrew King Gardabhilla of Ujjain
monastic practice, with the Shvetambara and orchestrated his replacement with
(“White-robed”) sect arguing that monks the Shahi kings (who were probably of
and nuns should wear white robes and the Scythian or Persian origin). During the
Digambaras (“Sky-clad,” i.e., naked) claim- reign of the Gupta dynasty (AD 320–c.
ing that a true monk (but not a nun) should 600), a time of Hindu self-assertion, the
be naked. This controversy gave rise to a bulk of the Jain community migrated
further dispute as to whether or not a soul to central and western India, becoming
can attain liberation from a female body stronger there than it had been in its orig-
(a possibility the Digambaras deny). inal home in the Ganges basin.
This sectarian division, still existent
today, probably took time to assume Early Medieval Developments
formal shape. Its exact origins remain (500–1100)
unclear, in part because the stories
describing the origins of the schism were There is archaeological evidence of the
designed to justify each sect’s authority presence of Jain monks in southern
146 | The Culture of India

India from before the Common era, and During this period Digambara writ-
the Digambara sect has had a signifi- ers produced numerous philosophical
cant presence in what is now the state treatises, commentaries, and poems,
of Karnataka for almost 2,000 years. which were written in Prakrit, Kannada,
The early medieval period was the time and Sanskrit. A number of kings pro-
of Digambara Jainism’s greatest flow- vided patronage for this literary activity,
ering. Enjoying success in modern-day and some wrote various works of litera-
Karnataka and in neighbouring Tamil ture themselves. The monk Jinasena, for
Nadu state, the Digambaras gained the example, wrote Sanskrit philosophical
patronage of prominent monarchs of treatises and poetry with the support of
three major dynasties in the early medi- the Rashtrakuta king Amoghavarsha
eval period—the Gangas in Karnataka I. An author in Kannada and Sanskrit,
(3rd–11th century); the Rashtrakutas, Amoghavarsha apparently renounced his
whose kingdom was just north of the throne and became a disciple of Jinasena
Ganga realm (8th–12th century); and the in the early 9th century.
Hoysalas in Karnataka (11th–14th cen- The Shvetambaras in the north were
tury). Digambara monks are reputed to less prominently embroiled in dynastic
have engineered the succession of the politics than their southern counterparts,
Ganga and the Hoysala dynasties, thus though there is evidence of such activity
stabilizing uncertain political situations in Gujarat and Rajasthan. They supported
and guaranteeing Jain political protec- the accession of kings such as Vanaraja
tion and support. in the 8th century and Kumarapala,
The Digambaras’ involvement in whose accession was masterminded by
politics allowed Jainism to prosper in Hemacandra, the great Shvetambara
Karnataka and the Deccan. Many politi- scholar and minister of state, in the 12th
cal and aristocratic figures had Jain century. The Shvetambaras were no less
monks as spiritual teachers and advis- productive than their Digambara con-
ers. Epigraphical evidence reveals an temporaries in the amount and variety
elaborate patronage system through of literature they produced during this
which kings, queens, state ministers, period.
and military generals endowed the Jain While Mahavira had rejected the
community with tax revenues and with claims of the caste system that privi-
direct grants for the construction and leged Brahman authority on the basis
upkeep of temples. Most famously, in of innate purity, a formalized caste sys-
the 10th century the Ganga general tem nonetheless gradually appeared
Chamundaraya oversaw the creation of a among the Digambara laity in the south.
colossal statue of Bahubali (locally called This hierarchy was depicted and sanc-
Gommateshvara; son of Rishabhanatha, tioned by Jinasena in his Adipurana, a
the first Tirthankara) at Shravana Belgola. legendary biography of the Tirthankara
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 147

Rishabhanatha and his two sons Bahubali Jain community perhaps suffered most
and Bharata. The hierarchy differed from from the sudden shift of political control
the Hindu system in that the Kshatriyas from indigenous to foreign hands and the
were assigned a place of prominence over loss of direct access to sources of power.
the Brahmans and in its connection of While some Jain laymen and monks
purity, at least theoretically, with a moral served Muslim rulers as political advisers
rather than a ritual source. In addition, or teachers—including Hiravijaya, who
Jinasena did not see the caste system as taught the Moghul emperor Akbar—the
an inherent part of the universe, as did Shvetambara community was gradually
Hindu theologians and lawgivers. compelled to redefine itself and today
thrives as a mercantile group.
Late Medieval–Early Modern At roughly the same time, various
Developments (1100–1800) Shvetambara monastic subsects (gac-
cha) appeared, forming on the basis of
In the period of their greatest influence both regional and teacher associations.
(6th–late 12th century), Jain monks of Some of the most important of these
both sects, perhaps influenced by intense subsects still exist, such as the Kharatara
lay patronage, turned from living as wan- Gaccha (founded 11th century) and the
dering ascetics to permanent residence Tapa Gaccha (founded 13th century). The
in temples or monasteries. A legacy of gacchas included lay followers, often dif-
this transformation is the contemporary fered markedly from one another over
Digambara practice of the bhattaraka, issues of lineage, ritual, and the sacred
through which a cleric takes monastic calendar, and claimed to represent the
initiation but, rather than assuming a life true Jainism. According to tradition,
of naked ascetic wandering, becomes an their leading teachers sought to reform
orange-robed administrator and guard- lax monastic practice and participated in
ian of holy places and temples. Some the conversion of Hindu Rajput clans in
medieval Jain writers saw this compro- western India that subsequently became
mise with ancient scriptural requirements Shvetambara Jain caste groups.
as both a cause of and evidence for the Although most gacchas accepted the
religion’s inexorable decline. However, practice of image worship, the Lumpaka,
Jainism’s marginalization in India can or Lonka Gaccha, did not. Founded by the
best be ascribed to sociopolitical factors. mid-15th-century layman Lonka Shah, the
The Shvetambara Jain community’s Lonka Gaccha denied the scriptural war-
eclipse was greatly accelerated by the suc- ranty of image worship and in the 17th
cessful invasion of western and northern century emerged as the non-image-wor-
India by Muslim forces in the 12th cen- shiping Sthanakavasi sect. At the end of the
tury. Although it faced persecution and 18th century, the Sthanakavasi underwent
the destruction of important shrines, the a schism when Acarya Bhikshu founded
148 | The Culture of India

the Terapanthi (“Following the 13 Tenets”) virtually disappeared, and control of

sect, which claims to have avoided heresy temples and ritual passed into the hands
and laxity throughout its history by invest- of quasi-monastic clerics known as yati.
ing authority in a single teacher. Monastic life, however, experienced a
In the south, Digambara Jainism, for revival under the auspices of charismatic
all its prominence in aristocratic circles, monks such as Atmaramji (1837–96),
was attacked by Hindu devotional move- and the number of Shvetambara image-
ments that arose in Tamil Nadu as early worshiping renunciants grew to
as the 6th century. One of the most vigor- approximately 1,500 monks and 4,500
ous of these Hindu movements was that nuns in the 20th century. The Tapa
of the Lingayats, or Virashaivas, which Gaccha is the largest subsect; the non-
appeared in full force in the 12th cen- image-worshiping Shvetambara sects
tury in northern Karnataka, a stronghold (the Sthanakavasis and Terapanthis)
of Digambara Jainism. The Lingayats are smaller in number. The Digambara
gained royal support, and many Jains monastic community also experienced
themselves converted to the Lingayat a revival of its ideals in the early 20th
religion in the ensuing centuries. With century with the ascendence of the great
the advent of the Vijayanagar empire in monk Acarya Shantisagar, from whom
the 14th century, the Digambara Jains virtually all the 120 or so contemporary
lost much of their royal support and Digambara monks claim lineal descent.
survived only in peripheral areas of the In modern times the Shvetambara
southwest and in pockets of the north. and Digambara communities in India
As with the Shvetambaras, the have devoted much energy to preserving
Digambara laity were among the most temples and publishing their religious
strident critics of their community’s dete- texts. The Jains also have been involved
riorating situation. The most significant in general welfare work, such as drought
Digambara reform movement occurred relief in Gujarat in the 1980s, support for
in the early 17th century, led by the Jain widows and the poor, and, as part of
layman and poet Banarsidas. This move- their philosophy of nonviolence and veg-
ment stressed the mystical elements of etarianism, maintaining shelters to save
the Jain path and attacked what it saw as old animals from slaughter.
the emptiness of Digambara temple rit- During the 20th century, Jainism
ual and the profligacy of the community’s evolved into a worldwide faith. As a result
clerical leaders. of age-old trading links, many Jains
from western India settled in eastern
Later Jain History African countries, most notably Kenya
and Uganda. Political unrest in the 1960s
By the middle of the 19th century, image- compelled many of them to relocate to
worshiping Shvetambara monks had the United Kingdom, where the first Jain
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 149

temple outside India was consecrated in Doctrines of Jainism

Leicester, and then increasingly to the
United States and Canada, where they Even though Jain doctrine holds that no
successfully assumed their traditional one can achieve liberation in this corrupt
mercantile and professional occupa- time, the Jain religious goal is the com-
tions. A desire to preserve their religious plete perfection and purification of the
identity has led expatriate Jains to form soul. This, they believe, occurs only when
trans-sectarian organizations such as the the soul is in a state of eternal liberation
Jain Samaj, founded in Europe in 1970, from corporeal bodies. Liberation of the
and the Federation of Jain Associations soul is impeded by the accumulation of
in North America, founded in 1981. karmans, bits of material, generated by a
English-language publications such as person’s actions, that attach themselves
Jain Digest and Jain Spirit have pre- to the soul and consequently bind it to
sented Jain ideals, such as nonviolence, physical bodies through many births.
vegetarianism, and, most recently, envi- This has the effect of thwarting the full
ronmentalism, to members of the Jain self-realization and freedom of the soul.
diaspora and the wider world. As a result, Jain renunciants do not
seek immediate enlightenment; instead,
Important Figures through disciplined and meritorious
of Jain Legend practice of nonviolence, they pursue
a human rebirth that will bring them
The Jains developed their own legend- nearer to that state. To understand how
ary history, the Deeds of the 63 Illustrious the Jains address this problem, it is first
Men, which Western scholars call the necessary to consider the Jain concep-
Universal History. The most impor- tion of reality.
tant figures in this history are the 24
Tirthankaras, perfected human beings Time and the Universe
who appear from time to time to preach
and embody the faith. Other impor- Time, according to the Jains, is eternal
tant figures in the history are from the and formless. It is understood as a wheel
Hindu tradition, most notably Krishna— with 12 spokes (ara), the equivalent of
regarded by the Jains as a cousin of the ages, six of which form an ascending arc
22nd Tirthankara, Arishtanemi—and the and six a descending one. In the ascend-
hero Rama, who is treated as a pious, ing arc (utsarpini), humans progress in
nonviolent Jain. By incorporating yet knowledge, age, stature, and happiness,
redefining such important Hindu figures, while in the descending arc (avasarpini)
the Jains were able to both remain part they deteriorate. The two cycles joined
of and separate from the surrounding together make one rotation of the wheel
Hindu world. of time, which is called a kalpa. These
150 | The Culture of India

kalpas repeat themselves without begin- ekendriyas, single-sense organisms that

ning or end. permeate the occupied universe.
The Jain world is eternal and uncre-
ated. Its constituent elements, the five Jiva and Ajiva
basics of reality (astikayas), are soul, mat-
ter, space, the principles of motion, and Jain reality comprises two components,
the arrest of motion; for the Digambaras jiva (“soul,” or “living substance”) and
there is a sixth substance, time. These ajiva (“nonsoul,” or “inanimate sub-
elements are eternal and indestructible, stance”). Ajiva is further divided into two
but their conditions change constantly, categories: nonsentient material entities
manifesting three characteristics: arising, and nonsentient nonmaterial entities.
stability, and falling away. On this basis, The essential characteristics of jiva
Jainism claims to provide a more realistic are consciousness (cetana), bliss (sukha),
analysis of the world and its complexities and energy (virya). In its pure state, jiva
than Hinduism or Buddhism. possesses these qualities limitlessly.
Jains divide the inhabited uni- The souls, infinite in number, are divis-
verse into five parts. The lower world ible in their embodied state into two main
(adholoka) is subdivided into seven tiers classes, immobile and mobile, according
of hells, each one darker and more painful to the number of sense organs possessed
than the one above it. The middle world by the body they inhabit. The first group
(madhyaloka) comprises a vast num- consists of souls inhabiting immeasur-
ber of concentric continents separated ably small particles of earth, water, fire,
by seas. At the centre is the continent and air, along with the vegetable king-
of Jambudvipa. Human beings occupy dom, which possess only the sense of
Jambudvipa, the second continent touch. The second group comprises souls
contiguous to it, and half of the third. that inhabit bodies that have between
The focus of Jain activity, however, is two and five sense organs. Moreover, the
Jambudvipa, the only continent on which universe is populated with an infinite
it is possible for the soul to achieve lib- number of minute beings, nigodas, some
eration. The celestial world (urdhvaloka) of which are slowly evolving while the
consists of two categories of heaven: rest have no chance of emerging from
one for the souls of those who may or their hapless state.
may not have entered the Jain path and Formless and genderless, jiva can-
another for those who are far along on not be directly perceived by the senses.
the path, close to their emancipation. At Like the universe, it is without a point
the apex of the occupied universe is the of ultimate origin or end. While not
siddhashila, the crescent-shaped abode all-pervasive, it can, by contraction or
of liberated souls (siddhas). Finally, expansion, occupy various amounts of
there are some areas inhabited solely by space. Like the light of a lamp in a small
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 151

or a large room, jiva can fill both the stop the influx of new karmans and elimi-
smaller and the larger bodies it occupies. nate the acquired ones.
The soul assumes the exact dimensions Karmic particles are acquired as the
of the body it occupies, but it is not iden- result of intentional “passionate” action,
tical with that body. On death it assumes though the very earliest Jain teachings
the shape of the last physical body that on this subject claimed that any action,
housed it. even if unintentional, attracted karman.
Matter (pudgala) has the character- Acquired karmans can be annihilated
istics of touch, taste, smell, and colour; through a process called nirjara (“wearing
however, its essential characteristic is lack away”), which includes fasting, restrict-
of consciousness. The smallest unit of ing diet, controlling taste, retreating to
matter is the atom (paramanu). Heat, light, lonely places, along with mortifications
and shade are all forms of fine matter. of the body, atonement and expiation for
The nonsentient nonmaterial sub- sins, modesty, service, study, meditation,
stances are space, time, and the principles and renunciation of the ego. Nirjara is,
of motion and its arrest. They are always thus, the calculated cessation of passion-
pure and are not subject to defilement. ate action.
The principles of motion and its arrest Because of karman a soul is impris-
permeate the universe; they do not exist oned in a succession of bodies and
independently but rather form a necessary passes through various stages of spiri-
precondition for any object’s movement or tual development before becoming free
coming to rest. from all karmic bondage. These stages
of development (gunasthanas) involve
Karman progressive manifestations of the innate
faculties of knowledge and power and are
The fundamental tenet of Jain doctrine accompanied by decreasing sinfulness
is that all phenomena are linked in a uni- and increasing purity.
versal chain of cause and effect. Every
event has a definite cause. By nature Theories of Knowledge
each soul is pure, possessing infinite as Applied to Liberation
knowledge, bliss, and power; however,
these faculties are restricted throughout In Jain thought, four stages of percep-
time by the soul’s contact with matter. tion—observation, will to recognize,
This matter, which produces the chain determination, and impression—lead to
of cause and effect, of birth and death, is subjective cognition (matijnana), the
karman (anglicized as karma), an atomic first of five kinds of knowledge (jnana).
substance and not a process, as it is in The second kind, shrutajnana, derives
Hinduism and Buddhism. To be free from from the scriptures and general infor-
the shackles of karman, a person must mation. Both are mediated cognition,
152 | The Culture of India

based on external conditions perceived Jewels (ratnatraya) of right knowledge,

by the senses. In addition there are three right faith, and right practice (respec-
kinds of immediate knowledge—avadhi tively, samyagjnana, samyagdarshana,
(supersensory perception), manahpary- and samyakcaritra).
aya (reading the thoughts of others), and
kevala (omniscience). Kevala is necessar- Jain Ethics
ily accompanied by freedom from karmic
obstruction and by direct experience of the The Three Jewels constitute the basis
soul’s pure form unblemished by attach- of the Jain doctrinal and ethical stance.
ment to matter. Omniscience, the foremost Right knowledge, faith, and practice must
attribute of a liberated jiva, is the emblem be cultivated together because none of
of its purity; thus, a liberated soul, such them can be achieved in the absence of
as a Tirthankara, is called a kevalin (“pos- the others. Right faith leads to calmness
sessor of omniscience”). However, not all or tranquillity, detachment, kindness, and
kevalins are Tirthankaras: becoming a the renunciation of pride of birth, beauty
Tirthankara requires the development of of form, wealth, scholarship, prowess, and
a particular type of karmic destiny. fame. Right faith leads to perfection only
For the Jains all knowledge short of when followed by right practice. Yet, there
omniscience is flawed. Because reality can be no virtuous conduct without right
is characterized by arising, change, and knowledge, the clear distinction between
decay, as opposed to simple permanence the self and the nonself. Knowledge with-
(for the Hindus) and impermanence out faith and conduct is futile. Without
(for the Buddhists), the Jains developed purification of mind, all austerities are
an epistemological system based on mere bodily torture. Right practice is
seven perspectives (naya). This system, thus spontaneous, not a forced mechani-
anekanta-vada, “the many-pointed doc- cal quality. Attainment of right practice
trine,” takes into account the provisional is a gradual process, and a layperson can
nature of mundane knowledge. To gain observe only partial self-control; a renun-
some approximation to reality, a judg- ciant, however, is able to observe more
ment must ideally be framed in accord comprehensive rules of conduct.
with all seven perspectives. Two separate courses of conduct are
According to Jainism, Yoga, the laid down for the ascetics and the laity. In
ascetic physical and meditative discipline both cases the code of morals is based on
of the monk, is the means to attain omni- the doctrine of ahimsa, or nonviolence.
science and thus moksha, or liberation. Because thought gives rise to action, vio-
Yoga is the cultivation of true knowl- lence in thought merely precedes violent
edge of reality, faith in the teachings of behaviour.
the Tirthankaras, and pure conduct; it is Violence in thought, then, is the
thus intimately connected to the Three greater and subtler form of violence
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 153

because it arises from ideas of attachment Sthanakavasis and the Terapanthis, the
and aversion, grounded in passionate mukhavastrika must be worn at all times.
states, which result from negligence or After initiation a monk must adhere to
lack of care in behaviour. Jainism enjoins the “great vows” (mahavratas) to avoid
avoidance of all forms of injury—whether injuring any life-form, lying, stealing,
committed by body, mind, or speech— having sexual intercourse, or accepting
and subscribes emphatically to the personal possessions. To help him keep
teaching that “nonviolence is the highest his vows, a monk’s life is carefully regu-
form of religious practice.” For Jains, this lated in all details by specific ordinances
principle, which manifests itself most and by the oversight of his superiors. For
obviously in the form of vegetarianism, is example, to help him observe the vow
the single most important component of of nonviolence, a monk may not take
their tradition’s message. Notable in this his simple, vegetarian meals after dark,
connection is the friendship between the because to do so would increase the pos-
Jain layman Raychandrabhai Mehta and sibility of harming insects that might be
Mohandas (later Mahatma) Gandhi, who attracted to the food. In addition, drink-
considered his interactions with Mehta ing water must first be boiled to ensure
to have been important in formulating that there are no life-forms in it. Monks
his own ideas on the use of nonviolence are expected to suffer with equanim-
as a political tactic. ity hardships imposed by the weather,
geographic terrain, travel, or physical
Ritual Practices and abuse; however, exceptions are allowed
Religious Institutions in emergencies, since a monk who sur-
vives a calamity can purify himself by
Along with Buddhism, Jainism is the confession and by practicing even more
only surviving religion to have begun as rigorous austerities.
a purely monastic religion. The rules for Digambara monks take the same
the laity are derived from monastic rules. “great vows” as do the Shvetambara, but
in acknowledgement of a much more
Monks, Nuns, and Their Practices intense interpretation of the vow of
nonpossession, full-fledged Digambara
Shvetambara monks are allowed to monks remain naked, while lower-grade
retain a few possessions such as a robe, Digambara monks wear a loincloth and
an alms bowl, a whisk broom, and a keep with them one piece of cloth not
mukhavastrika (a piece of cloth held more than 1.5 yards (1.4 metres) long.
over the mouth to protect against the Digambara monks use a peacock-feather
ingestion of small insects), which are duster to sweep the ground where they
presented by a senior monk at the time of walk to avoid injuring any life-forms
initiation. For the non-image-worshiping and drink water from a gourd. They beg
154 | The Culture of India

for their only meal of the day using the ritual calendar: equanimity (samayika, a
cupped palms of their hand as an alms form of contemplative activity, which, in
bowl. They regard their interpretation of theory operates throughout the monk’s
the Jain monastic vocation as more in entire career); praise of the Tirthankaras;
accord with the ancient model than that obeisance to the Tirthankaras, teachers,
followed by the Shvetambaras. and scriptures; confession; resolution
All Jain renunciants must exercise to avoid sinful activities; and “abandon-
the three guptis (care in thought, speech, ment of the body” (standing or sitting in
and action) and the five samitis (types a meditative posture).
of vigilance over conduct). Essential The type of austerities in which a
to regular monastic ritual are the six monk engages, the length of time he
“obligatory actions” (avashyaka), prac- practices them, and their severity are
ticed daily and at important times of the carefully regulated by his preceptor, who

Two Indian Jain monks walk barefoot in Mumbai, India. Jain monks spread word of the
Jain religion and preach the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence. Sebastian D’Souza/AFP/
Getty Images
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 155

takes into account the monk’s spiritual community of renunciants. The medieval
development, his capacity to withstand period was a time of particularly intense
the austerities, and his ability to under- reflection by both Shvetambara and
stand how they help further his spiritual Digambara monks on the role of the laity.
progress. The theoretical culmination Many treatises discussing the layman’s
of a monk’s ascetic rigours is the act of religious behaviour and vows were pro-
sallekhana, in which he lies on one side on duced between the 5th and 17th century.
a bed of thorny grass and ceases to move According to these writings, lay behaviour
or eat. This act of ritual starvation is the should mirror the ascetic “great vows.”
monk’s ultimate act of nonattendance, by Jain doctrine, however, holds that while
which he lets go of the body for the sake the ascetic path can lead to the destruc-
of his soul. Jain ideology views this as the tion (nirjara) of karman, the lay path
ultimate act of self-control and triumph allows only for the warding off (samvara)
over the passions, rather than simply as of new karman and thus does not radi-
suicide. While widely followed in ancient cally alter an individual’s karmic status.
and medieval times, sallekhana is much The layman (Jainism’s focus is invari-
less common today. ably upon the male) is enjoined to observe
Both the Shvetambaras and eight basic rules of behaviour, which vary
Digambaras allow the initiation of nuns, but usually include the avoidance of night
and among the Shvetambaras, nuns eating, as well as a diet that excludes meat,
outnumber monks by a ratio of approxi- wine, honey, and types of fruits and roots
mately 3 to 1. Nevertheless, the status of deemed to harbour life-forms. There are
Jain nuns is less prestigious than that of also 12 vows to be taken: five anuvratas
monks, to whom they are obliged by con- (“little vows”), three gunavratas, and four
vention and textual stipulation to defer, shikshavratas. The anuvratas are vows
despite the fact that these nuns are often to abstain from violence, falsehood, and
women of great learning and spiritual stealing; to be content with one’s own
attainment. In Digambara Jainism, nuns, wife; and to limit one’s possessions. The
who wear robes, accept the necessity of other vows are supplementary and meant
being reborn as men before they can to strengthen and protect the anuvratas.
advance significantly on the ascetic path. They involve avoidance of unnecessary
travel, of harmful activities, and of the
Religious Activity of the Laity pursuit of pleasure; fasting and control of
diet; offering gifts and service to monks,
While Jain literature from earliest times the poor, and fellow believers; and volun-
emphasizes the place of the monk and tary death if the observance of the major
his concerns, it is clear that almost from vows proves impossible.
the religion’s outset the majority of Jains Lay people are further enjoined to
have been laypersons who support the perform the six “obligatory actions”
156 | The Culture of India

at regular intervals, especially the Medieval writers conceived pratima as a

samayika, a meditative and renuncia- ladder leading to higher stages of spiri-
tory ritual of limited duration. This ritual tual development. The last two stages
is intended to strengthen the resolve to lead logically to renunciation of the world
pursue the spiritual discipline of Jain and assumption of the ascetic life.
dharma (moral virtue) and is thought to It was natural for monastic legisla-
bring the lay votary close to the demands tors to portray the careers of idealized
required of an ascetic. It may be per- lay people as a preparatory stage to the
formed at home, in a temple, in a fasting rigours of ascetic life, but for Jain lay life
hall, or before a monk. to have meaning it need not necessarily
Dating from early in the history culminate in initiation as a monk. With
of Jainism are 11 stages of a layman’s its careful rules about food, its regular cer-
spiritual progress, or pratima (“statue”). emonies and cultural traditions, Jainism

Jain worshipers offer prayers at Hutheesing Jain Temple in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, in 2009,
during the first day of the holiday of Holy Parushan Parva. Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 157

provides the laity a rounded social world. been uncovered in excavations of a Jain
Typically, Jain lay life is characterized by stupa, or funerary monument, at Mathura
strict vegetarianism, disciplined business in Uttar Pradesh. The earliest images
or professional activity, and respon- of Tirthankaras are all nude and distin-
sible conduct of family affairs with a view guished by carved inscriptions of their
to establishing a sound social reputation. names on the pedestals. By the 5th cen-
Lay Jains believe that pious activity— tury, symbols specific to each Tirthankara
including fasting and almsgiving, and (e.g., a lion for Mahavira) began to appear.
especially the practice of nonviolence— The practice of associating one of the 24
enables an individual not only to advance shasanadevatas (“doctrine goddesses”)
a little further along the path to final liber- with images of individual Tirthankaras
ation but to improve his current material began in the 9th century. Some of these
situation. As a result, there is a stark con- goddesses, such as Ambika (“Little
trast between the great prosperity of the Mother”), who is associated with the
Jain lay community and the austere self- Tirthankara Arishtanemi, continue to
denial of the monks and nuns it supports. have great importance for the Jain devo-
Until very recently Jainism had tee. The images are generally located
not developed any distinctive life-cycle near the entrance to Jain temples and can
rituals for events such as birth and mar- be propitiated for aid in worldly matters.
riage, although in the 9th century the Closely associated with the obliga-
Digambara monk Jinasena attempted to tory rites of the laity, worship (puja) can
legislate in this area. In general, practice be made to all liberated souls, to monks,
has tended to conform to prevailing local and to the scriptures. The focus for most
custom, provided this does not infringe image-worshiping Jains (murtipujaka) is
on basic Jain principles. the icon of the Tirthankara located in the
central shrine room of the temple or, alter-
Image Worship natively, in a domestic shrine. Temples
also house subsidiary Tirthankara
Temple worship is mentioned in early images. Although Tirthankaras remain
texts that describe gods paying homage unaffected by offerings and worship
to images and relics of Tirthankaras in and cannot, as individuals who are lib-
heavenly eternal shrines. While Mahavira erated from rebirth, respond in any way,
himself appears to have made no state- such devotional actions serve as a form
ment regarding image worship, it quickly of meditative discipline. Daily worship
became a vital part of the Jain tradition. includes hymns of praise and prayers,
Numerous images of Tirthankaras in the recitation of sacred formulas and
the sitting and standing postures dat- the names of the Tirthankaras, and idol
ing from the early Common era have worship—bathing the image and making
158 | The Culture of India

offerings to it of flowers, fruit, and rice. the one hand, pacification by forgiving
Shvetambaras also decorate images with and service with wholehearted effort and
clothing and ornaments. A long-standing devotion and, on the other, staying at one
debate within both Jain communities place for the monsoon season. The festi-
concerns the relative value of external val is characterized by fasting, preaching,
acts of worship and internalized acts of and scriptural recitation. On its last day,
mental discipline and meditation. Monks Samvatsari (“Annual”), alms are dis-
and nuns of all sects are prohibited from tributed to the poor, and a Jina image
displays of physical worship. is ceremonially paraded through the
streets. A communal confession is per-
Festivals formed by the laity, and letters are sent
asking for forgiveness and the removal of
Important days in the Jain calendar are all ill feelings about conscious or uncon-
called parvan, and on these days religious scious misdeeds during the past year. The
observances, such as structured periods equivalent Digambara festival is called
of fasting and festivals, take place. The Dashalakshanaparvan (“Observance Day
principal Jain festivals can generally be of the 10 Religious Qualities”) and cen-
connected with the five major events in tres on the public display of an important
the life of each Tirthankara: descent into text, the Tattvartha-sutra.
his mother’s womb, birth, renunciation, On the full-moon day of the month
attainment of omniscience, and final of Karttika (October–November), at the
emancipation. same time that Hindus celebrate Diwali
The Jain calendar includes many fes- (the festival of lights), Jains commemo-
tivals. Among them is the Shvetambara rate the nirvana (final liberation) of
fasting ceremony, oli, which is celebrated Mahavira by lighting lamps. Another
for nine days twice a year (in March–April important Shvetambara ceremony,
and September–October) and which Jnanapancami (literally “Knowledge
corresponds to the mythical celestial wor- Fifth,” where “Fifth” signifies a date),
ship of the images of the Tirthankaras. occurs five days later and is celebrated
The most significant time of the Jain with temple worship and with rever-
ritual year, however, is the four-month ence of the scriptures. The equivalent
period, generally running from late July Digambara festival takes place in May–
to early November, when monks and June. Mahavira Jayanti, the birthday of
nuns abandon the wandering life and Mahavira, is celebrated by both sects in
live in the midst of lay communities. For early April with public processions.
Shvetambaras, the single most impor- The most famous of all Jain festivals,
tant festival, Paryushana, occurs in the Mastakabhisheka (“Head Anointment”),
month of Bhadrapada (August–September). is performed every 12 years at the
Paryushana (“Abiding”) designates, on Digambara sacred complex at Shravana
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 159

Belgola (“White Lake of the Ascetics”) Sanskrit language and dialects that have
in Karnataka state. In this ceremony, enabled them to hone their religious
the 57-foot- (17-metre-) high statue of debates. For example, all three traditions
Bahubali is anointed from above with a share a notion of karman as the actions
variety of substances (water, milk, flow- of individuals that determine their future
ers, etc.) in the presence of an audience births; yet each has attached unique con-
that can approach one million. notations to the concept. This is also true
with terms such as dharma (often trans-
Pilgrimage lated “duty,” “righteousness,” or “religious
path”), yoga (“ascetic discipline”), and
Pilgrimage, viewed as a particularly yajna (“sacrifice,” or “worship”). This
meritorious activity, is popular among Sanskritic discourse has shaped the reli-
renunciants and laity alike. Places of gious and philosophical speculations,
pilgrimage were created during the medi- as well as the polemics, of each of these
eval period at sites marking the principal traditions.
events in the lives of Tirthankaras, some The same circumstance occurs in the
of which were destroyed during the ritual and literature of each religion. In the
Muslim invasions, which started in ritual sphere, for example, the abhiseka,
the eighth century. Parasnath Hill and or head-anointing ritual, has had great
Rajgir in Bihar state and Shatrunjaya and significance in all three religions. The
Girnar hills on the Kathiawar Peninsula best-known example of this ritual is the
are among such important ancient pil- one performed every 12 to 14 years on the
grimage sites. Other shrines that have statue of Bahubali at the Jain pilgrimage
become pilgrimage destinations are site at Shravana Belgola. The structure
Shravana Belgola in Karnataka state, of this ritual is similar in each religious
Mounts Abu and Kesariaji in Rajasthan context, but it has a unique meaning in
state, and Antariksha Parshvanatha in each tradition. In the literary sphere, each
Akola district of Maharashtra. For those tradition developed an extensive corpus
unable to go on pilgrimage to the most of canonical and commentarial litera-
famous sites, it is possible to worship ture, and each has developed a body of
their depictions in local temples. Small narrative literature. For example, so great
regional networks of shrines are also was the influence of the story of Rama in
regarded as simulacra of the great pil- the classical Hindu Ramayana that the
grimage sites. Buddhists and Jains felt obliged to retell
the story in their own terms. Jain litera-
Jainism and Other Religions ture includes 16 different versions of this
story in Sanskrit and Prakrit.
Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism share Muslim influence on Jainism can
many key concepts derived from the be seen in a number of areas. It has
160 | The Culture of India

been suggested that the concept of birth and death. Many modern scholars
ashatanas—activities that are unsuit- believe that the historical Buddha lived
able or indecent in a temple—reveals a from about 563 to about 483 BC. Many oth-
notion of the sanctity of the temple that ers believe that he lived about 100 years
recalls Muslim barakah (“holiness”) later (from about 448 to 368 BC). At this
more than any traditional Jain attitude. time in India, there was much discontent
The most obvious Islamic influence is in with Brahmanic (Hindu high-caste) sac-
the repudiation of image worship by the rifice and ritual. In northwestern India
Shvetambara Lonkasaha sect. there were ascetics who tried to create
Jain influence at the Mughal court of a more personal and spiritual religious
Akbar is a bright chapter in Jain history. experience than that found in the Vedas
Akbar honoured Hiravijaya Suri, then the (Hindu sacred scriptures). In the litera-
leader of the Shvetambara Tapa Gaccha. ture that grew out of this movement, the
His disciples and other monks gained the Upanishads, a new emphasis on renuncia-
respect of the Mughal emperors Jahangir tion and transcendental knowledge can be
and Shah Jahan and even the Muslim found. Northeastern India, which was less
chauvinist Aurangzeb. Moreover, Akbar influenced by those who had developed
prohibited animal slaughter near impor- the main tenets and practices of the Vedic
tant Jain sites during the Paryushana Hindu faith, became the breeding ground
festival. Jahangir also issued decrees of many new sects. Society in this area
for the protection of Shatrunjaya, and was troubled by the breakdown of tribal
Aurangzeb recognized Jain proprietary unity and the expansion of several petty
rights over Mount Shatrunjaya. Mughal kingdoms. Religiously, this was a time of
painting, influential in different schools doubt, turmoil, and experimentation.
of Indian painting, also influenced Jain A proto-Samkhya group (i.e.,
miniature painting. In this way these one based on the Samkhya school of
ancient religions demonstrated respect Hinduism founded by Kapila) was
for other traditions, which is one of the already well established in the area. New
great strengths of Indian civilization. sects abounded, including various skep-
tics (e.g., Sanjaya Belatthiputta), atomists
Buddhism (e.g., Pakudha Kaccayana), materialists
(e.g., Ajita Kesakambali), and antinomi-
Buddhism arose in northeastern India ans (i.e., those against rules or laws—e.g.,
sometime between the late 6th century Purana Kassapa). The most important
and the early 4th century BC, a period of sects to arise at the time of the Buddha,
great social change and intense religious however, were the Ajivikas (Ajivakas),
activity. There is disagreement among who emphasized the rule of fate (niyati),
scholars about the dates of the Buddha’s and the Jains, who stressed the need to
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 161

free the soul from matter. Although the involved the practice of Yoga. According
Jains, like the Buddhists, have often been to tradition, the Buddha himself was a
regarded as atheists, their beliefs are yogi—that is, a miracle-working ascetic.
actually more complicated. Unlike early Buddhism, like many of the sects that
Buddhists, both the Ajivikas and the developed in northeastern India at the
Jains believed in the permanence of the time, was constituted by the presence of a
elements that constitute the universe, as charismatic teacher, by the teachings this
well as in the existence of the soul. leader promulgated, and by a community
Despite the bewildering variety of of adherents that was often made up of
religious communities, many shared the renunciant members and lay supporters.
same vocabulary—nirvana (transcendent In the case of Buddhism, this pattern is
freedom), atman (“self” or “soul”), yoga reflected in the Triratna—i.e., the “Three
(“union”), karma (“causality”), Tathagata Jewels” of Buddha (the teacher),
(“one who has come” or “one who has thus dharma (the teaching), and sangha (the
gone”), buddha (“enlightened one”), sam- community).
sara (“eternal recurrence” or “becoming”), In the centuries following the found-
and dhamma (“rule” or “law”)—and most er’s death, Buddhism developed in two

(fl. c. 6th–4th century BC, Lumbini, near Kapilavastu, Shakya republic, Kosala kingdom [now
in Nepal]—d. Kusinara, Malla republic, Magadha kingdom [now Kasia, India])

Born Siddhartha Gautama, Buddha became the spiritual leader and founder of Buddhism. The
term buddha (Sanskrit: “awakened one”) is a title rather than a name, and Buddhists believe
that there are an infinite number of past and future buddhas. The historical Buddha, referred
to as the Buddha Gautama or simply as the Buddha, was born a prince of the Shakyas, on the
India-Nepal border. He is said to have lived a sheltered life of luxury that was interrupted
when he left the palace and encountered an old man, a sick man, and a corpse. Renouncing
his princely life, he spent six years seeking out teachers and trying various ascetic prac-
tices, including fasting, to gain enlightenment. Unsatisfied with the results, he meditated
beneath the bodhi tree, where, after temptations by Mara, he realized the Four Noble Truths
and achieved enlightenment. At Sarnath he preached his first sermon to his companions,
outlining the Eightfold Path, which offered a middle way between self-indulgence and self-
mortification and led to the liberation of nirvana. The five ascetics who heard this sermon
became not only his first disciples but also arhats who would enter nirvana upon death. His
mission fulfilled, the Buddha died after eating a meal that may accidentally have contained
spoiled pork and escaped the cycle of rebirth; his body was cremated, and stupas were built
over his relics.
162 | The Culture of India

directions represented by two different Despite these vicissitudes, Buddhism

groups. One was called the Hinayana did not abandon its basic principles.
(Sanskrit: “Lesser Vehicle”), a term given Instead, they were reinterpreted,
to it by its Buddhist opponents. This rethought, and reformulated in a process
more conservative group, which included that led to the creation of a great body of
what is now called the Theravada (Pali: literature. This literature includes the Pali
“Way of the Elders”) community, com- Tipitaka (“Three Baskets”)—the Sutta
piled versions of the Buddha’s teachings Pitaka (“Basket of Discourse”), which
that had been preserved in collections contains the Buddha’s sermons; the
called the Sutta Pitaka and the Vinaya Vinaya Pitaka (“Basket of Discipline”),
Pitaka and retained them as norma- which contains the rule governing the
tive. The other major group, which calls monastic order; and the Abhidhamma
itself the Mahayana (Sanskrit: “Greater Pitaka (“Basket of Special [Further]
Vehicle”), recognized the authority of Doctrine”), which contains doctrinal sys-
other teachings that, from the group’s tematizations and summaries. These Pali
point of view, made salvation available to texts have served as the basis for a long
a greater number of people. These sup- and very rich tradition of commentaries
posedly more advanced teachings were that were written and preserved by adher-
expressed in sutras that the Buddha pur- ents of the Theravada community. The
portedly made available only to his more Mahayana and Vajrayana/Esoteric tra-
advanced disciples. ditions have accepted as Buddhavacana
As Buddhism spread, it encountered (“the word of the Buddha”) many other
new currents of thought and religion. sutras and tantras, along with exten-
In some Mahayana communities, for sive treatises and commentaries based
example, the strict law of karma (the belief on these texts. Consequently, from the
that virtuous actions create pleasure in first sermon of the Buddha at Sarnath
the future and nonvirtuous actions cre- to the most recent derivations, there is
ate pain) was modified to accommodate an indisputable continuity—a develop-
new emphases on the efficacy of ritual ment or metamorphosis around a central
actions and devotional practices. During nucleus—by virtue of which Buddhism is
the second half of the 1st millennium differentiated from other religions.
AD, a third major Buddhist move-
ment, Vajrayana (Sanskrit: “Diamond The Buddha’s Message
Vehicle”), or Esoteric Buddhism, devel-
oped in India. This movement was The teaching attributed to the Buddha
influenced by gnostic and magical cur- was transmitted orally by his disciples,
rents pervasive at that time, and its aim prefaced by the phrase “evam me sutam”
was to obtain spiritual liberation and (“thus have I heard”); therefore, it is dif-
purity more speedily. ficult to say whether or to what extent
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 163

This 2nd-century BC stone statue of Buddha begging for alms is located in the Ajanta caves
in Maharashtra, India. Dinodia Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
164 | The Culture of India

his discourses have been preserved as dhammas (these “components” of real-

they were spoken. They usually allude to ity are not to be confused with dhamma
the place and time they were preached meaning “law” or “teaching”). The Buddha
and to the audience to which they were departed from traditional Indian thought
addressed. Buddhist councils in the in not asserting an essential or ultimate
first centuries after the Buddha’s death reality in things. Moreover, he rejected
attempted to specify which teachings the existence of the soul as a metaphysi-
attributed to the Buddha could be consid- cal substance, though he recognized the
ered authentic. existence of the self as the subject of
action in a practical and moral sense. Life
Suffering, Impermanence, is a stream of becoming, a series of mani-
and No-Self festations and extinctions. The concept of
the individual ego is a popular delusion;
The Buddha based his entire teaching on the objects with which people identify
the fact of human suffering and the ulti- themselves—fortune, social position, fam-
mately dissatisfying character of human ily, body, and even mind—are not their
life. Existence is painful. The conditions true selves. There is nothing permanent,
that make an individual are precisely and, if only the permanent deserved to
those that also give rise to dissatisfaction be called the self, or atman, then nothing
and suffering. Individuality implies limi- is self.
tation; limitation gives rise to desire; and, To make clear the concept of no-
inevitably, desire causes suffering, since self (anatman), Buddhists set forth the
what is desired is transitory. theory of the five aggregates or constitu-
Living amid the impermanence of ents (khandhas) of human existence: (1)
everything and being themselves imper- corporeality or physical forms (rupa),
manent, human beings search for the (2) feelings or sensations (vedana), (3)
way of deliverance, for that which shines ideations (sanna), (4) mental formations
beyond the transitoriness of human or dispositions (sankhara), and (5) con-
existence—in short, for enlightenment. sciousness (vinnana). Human existence
The Buddha’s doctrine offered a way to is only a composite of the five aggregates,
avoid despair. By following the “path” none of which is the self or soul. A person
taught by the Buddha, the individual can is in a process of continuous change, and
dispel the “ignorance” that perpetuates there is no fixed underlying entity.
this suffering.
According to the Buddha of the early Karma
texts, reality, whether of external things
or the psychophysical totality of human The belief in rebirth, or samsara, as a
individuals, consists of a succession and potentially endless series of worldly exis-
concatenation of microelements called tences in which every being is caught up
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 165

was already associated with the doctrine and for being or nonbeing (samudaya),
of karma (Sanskrit: karman; literally “act” the truth that this craving can be elimi-
or “deed”) in pre-Buddhist India, and it nated (nirodhu), and the truth that this
was accepted by virtually all Buddhist tra- elimination is the result of following a
ditions. According to the doctrine, good methodical way or path (magga).
conduct brings a pleasant and happy
result and creates a tendency toward sim- The Law of Dependent Origination
ilar good acts, while bad conduct brings
an evil result and creates a tendency The Buddha, according to the early
toward similar evil acts. Some karmic acts texts, also discovered the law of depen-
bear fruit in the same life in which they dent origination (paticca-samuppada),
are committed, others in the immediately whereby one condition arises out of
succeeding one, and others in future lives another, which in turn arises out of prior
that are more remote. This furnishes the conditions. Every mode of being presup-
basic context for the moral life. poses another immediately preceding
The acceptance by Buddhists of the mode from which the subsequent mode
teachings of karma and rebirth and the derives, in a chain of causes. According to
concept of the no-self gives rise to a the classical rendering, the 12 links in the
difficult problem: how can rebirth take chain are: ignorance (avijja), karmic pre-
place without a permanent subject to be dispositions (sankharas), consciousness
reborn? Indian non-Buddhist philoso- (vinnana), form and body (nama-rupa),
phers attacked this point in Buddhist the five sense organs and the mind
thought, and many modern scholars (salayatana), contact (phassa), feeling-
have also considered it to be an insol- response (vedana), craving (tanha),
uble problem. The relation between grasping for an object (upadana), action
existences in rebirth has been explained toward life (bhava), birth (jati), and old
by the analogy of fire, which maintains age and death (jaramarana). According
itself unchanged in appearance and to this law, the misery that is bound with
yet is different in every moment—what sensate existence is accounted for by a
may be called the continuity of an ever- methodical chain of causation. Despite
changing identity. a diversity of interpretations, the law of
dependent origination of the various
The Four Noble Truths aspects of becoming remains fundamen-
tally the same in all schools of Buddhism.
Awareness of these fundamental reali-
ties led the Buddha to formulate the Four The Eightfold Path
Noble Truths: the truth of misery (duk-
kha), the truth that misery originates The law of dependent origination, how-
within us from the craving for pleasure ever, raises the question of how one may
166 | The Culture of India

escape the continually renewed cycle heart of the fierce fires of lust, anger, and
of birth, suffering, and death. It is not delusion. But nirvana is not extinction,
enough to know that misery pervades all and indeed the craving for annihilation
existence and to know the way in which or nonexistence was expressly repudi-
life evolves; there must also be a means to ated by the Buddha. Buddhists search for
overcome this process. The means to this salvation, not just nonbeing. Although
end is found in the Eightfold Path, which nirvana is often presented negatively as
is constituted by right views, right aspi- “release from suffering,” it is more accu-
rations, right speech, right conduct, right rate to describe it in a more positive
livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, fashion: as an ultimate goal to be sought
and right meditational attainment. and cherished.
In some early texts the Buddha left
Nirvana unanswered certain questions regarding
the destiny of persons who have reached
The aim of Buddhist practice is to be rid of this ultimate goal. He even refused to
the delusion of ego and thus free oneself speculate as to whether fully purified
from the fetters of this mundane world. saints, after death, continued to exist or
One who is successful in doing so is said ceased to exist. Such questions, he main-
to have overcome the round of rebirths tained, were not relevant to the practice
and to have achieved enlightenment. of the path and could not in any event
This is the final goal in most Buddhist be answered from within the confines
traditions, though in some cases (par- of ordinary human existence. Indeed, he
ticularly though not exclusively in some asserted that any discussion of the nature
Pure Land schools in China and Japan) of nirvana would only distort or misrep-
the attainment of an ultimate paradise resent it. But he also asserted with even
or a heavenly abode is not clearly distin- more insistence that nirvana can be expe-
guished from the attainment of release. rienced—and experienced in the present
The living process is again likened to existence—by those who, knowing the
a fire. Its remedy is the extinction of the Buddhist truth, practice the Buddhist
fire of illusion, passions, and cravings. The path.
Buddha, the Enlightened One, is one who
is no longer kindled or inflamed. Many Expansion of Buddhism
poetic terms are used to describe the
state of the enlightened human being— The Buddha was a charismatic leader
the harbour of refuge, the cool cave, the who founded a distinctive religious com-
place of bliss, the farther shore. The term munity based on his unique teachings.
that has become famous in the West is Some of the members of that community
nirvana, translated as passing away or were, like the Buddha himself, wander-
dying out—that is, the dying out in the ing ascetics. Others were laypersons who
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 167

venerated the Buddha, followed certain Chandragupta (c. 321–c. 297 BC), patron-
aspects of his teachings, and provided ized Jainism and, according to some
the wandering ascetics with the material traditions, finally became a Jain monk.
support that they required. His grandson, Ashoka, who ruled over
In the centuries following the the greater part of the subcontinent from
Buddha’s death, the story of his life was about 268 to 232 BC, traditionally played
remembered and embellished, his teach- an important role in Buddhist history
ings were preserved and developed, and because of his support of Buddhism dur-
the community that he had established ing his lifetime. He exerted even more
became a significant religious force. Many influence posthumously, through stories
of the wandering ascetics who followed that depicted him as a chakravartin (“a
the Buddha settled in permanent monastic great wheel-rolling monarch”). He is por-
establishments and developed monastic trayed as a paragon of Buddhist kingship
rules. At the same time, the Buddhist laity who accomplished many fabulous feats
came to include important members of of piety and devotion. It is therefore very
the economic and political elite. difficult to distinguish the Ashoka of his-
During its first century of existence, tory from the Ashoka of Buddhist legend
Buddhism spread from its place of ori- and myth.
gin in Magadha and Kosala throughout The first actual Buddhist “texts” that
much of northern India, including the are still extant are inscriptions (including
areas of Mathura and Ujjayani in the west. a number of well-known Ashokan pillars)
According to Buddhist tradition, invita- that Ashoka had written and displayed in
tions to the Council of Vesali (Sanskrit: various places throughout his vast king-
Vaishali), held just over a century after dom. According to these inscriptions,
the Buddha’s death, were sent to monks Ashoka attempted to establish in his realm
living throughout northern and central a “true dhamma” based on the virtues of
India. By the middle of the 3rd century self-control, impartiality, cheerfulness,
BC, Buddhism had gained the favour of truthfulness, and goodness. Although he
a Mauryan king, Ashoka, who had estab- promoted Buddhism, he did not found a
lished an empire that extended from the state church, and he was known for his
Himalayas in the north to almost as far as respect for other religious traditions. He
Sri Lanka in the south. sought to maintain unity in the Buddhist
To the rulers of the republics and monastic community, however, and he
kingdoms arising in northeastern India, promoted an ethic that focused on the lay-
the patronage of newly emerging sects man’s obligations in this world. His aim,
such as Buddhism was one way of as articulated in his edicts, was to create
counterbalancing the political power a religious and social milieu that would
exercised by Brahmans (high-caste enable all “children of the king” to live hap-
Hindus). The first Mauryan emperor, pily in this life and to attain heaven in the
168 | The Culture of India

next. Thus, he set up medical assistance

for human beings and beasts, maintained
reservoirs and canals, and promoted trade.
He established a system of dhamma offi-
cers (dhamma-mahamattas) in order to
help govern the empire. And he sent dip-
lomatic emissaries to areas beyond his
direct political control.
Ashoka’s empire began to
crumble soon after his death, and the
Mauryan dynasty was finally overthrown
in the early decades of the 2nd century
BC. There is some evidence to suggest
that Buddhism in India suffered perse-
cution during the Shunga-Kanva period
(185–28 BC). Despite occasional set- The south gateway (torana) and the
backs, however, Buddhists persevered; Great Stupa (Stupa 1), Sanchi, Madhya
Pradesh, India. Milt and Joan Mann/
and before the emergence of the Gupta
CameraMann International
dynasty, which created the next great
pan-Indian empire in the 4th century AD,
Buddhism had become a leading if not monuments such as the great stupas at
dominant religious tradition in India. Bharhut and Sanchi were built. During
During the approximately five cen- the early centuries of the 1st millennium
turies between the fall of the Mauryan AD, similar monuments were established
dynasty and the rise of the Gupta virtually throughout the subcontinent.
dynasty, major developments occurred Numerous monasteries emerged too,
in all aspects of Buddhist belief and prac- some in close association with the
tice. Well before the beginning of the great monuments and pilgrimage sites.
Common Era, stories about the Buddha’s Considerable evidence, including
many previous lives, accounts of impor- inscriptional evidence, points to exten-
tant events in his life as Gautama, stories sive support from local rulers, including
of his “extended life” in his relics, and the women of the various royal courts.
other aspects of his sacred biography During this period Buddhist monastic
were elaborated on. In the centuries that centres proliferated, and there developed
followed, groups of these stories were col- diverse schools of interpretation con-
lected and compiled in various styles and cerning matters of doctrine and monastic
combinations. discipline. Within the Hinayana tradition
Beginning in the 3rd century BC, and there emerged many different schools,
possibly earlier, magnificent Buddhist most of which preserved a variant of
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 169

the Tipitaka (which had taken the form Buddhism Under the Guptas
of written scriptures by the early centu- and Palas
ries of the Common Era), held distinctive
doctrinal positions, and practiced unique By the time of the Gupta dynasty (c. AD
forms of monastic discipline. The tradi- 320–c. 600), Buddhism in India was being
tional number of schools is 18, but the influenced by the revival of Brahmanic
situation was very complicated, and exact religion and the rising tide of bhakti
identifications are hard to make. (a devotional movement that empha-
About the beginning of the sized the intense love of a devotee for a
Common Era, distinctively Mahayana personal god). During this period, for
tendencies began to take shape. It example, some Hindus practiced devo-
should be emphasized, however, that tion to the Buddha, whom they regarded
many Hinayana and Mahayana adher- as an avatar (incarnation) of the Hindu
ents continued to live together in the deity Vishnu, and some Buddhists vener-
same monastic institutions. In the 2nd ated Hindu deities who were an integral
or 3rd century, the Madhyamika school, part of the wider religious context in
which has remained one of the major which they lived.
schools of Mahayana philosophy, was Throughout the Gupta and Pala
established, and many other expres- periods, Hinayana Buddhists remained
sions of Mahayana belief, practice, and a major segment of the Indian Buddhist
communal life appeared. By the begin- community. Their continued cultivation
ning of the Gupta era, the Mahayana had of various aspects of Buddhist teaching
become the most dynamic and creative led to the emergence of the Yogacara
Buddhist tradition in India. school, the second great tradition of
At this time Buddhism also expanded Mahayana philosophy. A third major
beyond the Indian subcontinent. It is Buddhist tradition, the Vajrayana or
most likely that Ashoka sent a diplomatic Esoteric tradition, developed out of the
mission to Sri Lanka and that Buddhism Mahayana school and became a pow-
was established there during his reign. erful and dynamic religious force. The
By the beginning of the Common Era, new form of text associated with this
Buddhism, which had become very strong tradition, the tantras, appeared during
in northwestern India, had followed the the Gupta period, and there are indica-
great trade routes into Central Asia and tions that distinctively Tantric rituals
China. According to later tradition, this began to be employed at this time as
expansion was greatly facilitated by well. It was during the Pala period
Kanishka, a great Kushana king of the (8th–12th centuries), however, that the
1st or 2nd century AD, who ruled over an Vajrayana/Esoteric tradition emerged
area that included portions of northern as the most dynamic component of
India and Central Asia. Indian Buddhist life.
170 | The Culture of India

Also during the Gupta period, there Asian people. In the northeast Xuanzang
emerged a new Buddhist institution, the visited various holy places and studied
Mahavihara (“Great Monastery”), which Yogacara philosophy at Nalanda. After
often functioned as a university. This visiting Assam and southern India, he
institution enjoyed great success dur- returned to China, carrying with him cop-
ing the reign of the Pala kings. The most ies of more than 600 sutras.
famous of these Mahaviharas, located at After the destruction of numerous
Nalanda, became a major centre for the Buddhist monasteries in the 6th cen-
study of Buddhist texts and the refine- tury AD by the Huns, Buddhism revived,
ment of Buddhist thought, particularly especially in the northeast, where it flour-
Mahayana and Vajrayana thought. The ished for many more centuries under
monks at Nalanda also developed a the kings of the Pala dynasty. The kings
curriculum that went far beyond tradi- protected the Mahaviharas, built new
tional Buddhism and included much centres at Odantapuri, near Nalanda, and
Indian scientific and cultural knowledge. established a system of supervision for
In subsequent years other important all such institutions. Under the Palas the
Mahaviharas were established, each with Vajrayana/Esoteric form of Buddhism
its own distinctive emphases and charac- became a major intellectual and religious
teristics. These great Buddhist monastic force. Its adherents introduced important
research and educational institutions innovations into Buddhist doctrine and
exerted a profound religious and cultural symbolism. They also advocated the prac-
influence not only in India but through- tice of new Tantric forms of ritual practice
out many other parts of Asia as well. that were designed both to generate mag-
Although Buddhist institutions ical power and to facilitate more rapid
seemed to be faring well under the Guptas, progress along the path to enlighten-
Chinese pilgrims visiting India between ment. During the reigns of the later Pala
AD 400 and 700 discerned a decline in the kings, contacts with China decreased as
Buddhist community and the beginning Indian Buddhists turned their attention
of the absorption of Indian Buddhism by toward Tibet and Southeast Asia.
Hinduism. Among these pilgrims was
Faxian, who left China in 399, crossed the The Demise of Buddhism
Gobi Desert, visited various holy places in in India
India, and returned to China with numer-
ous Buddhist scriptures and statues. The With the collapse of the Pala dynasty in
most famous of the Chinese travelers, how- the 12th century, Indian Buddhism suf-
ever, was the 7th-century monk Xuanzang. fered yet another setback, from which it
When he arrived in northwestern India, he did not recover. Although small pockets
found “millions of monasteries” reduced of influence remained, the Buddhist pres-
to ruins by the Huns, a nomadic Central ence in India became negligible.
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 171

Scholars do not know all the factors monasteries had become very wealthy, so
that contributed to Buddhism’s demise in much so that they were able to employ
its homeland. Some have maintained that indentured slaves and paid labourers to
it was so tolerant of other faiths that it was care for the monks and to tend the lands
simply reabsorbed by a revitalized Hindu they owned. Thus, after the Muslim invad-
tradition. This did occur, though Indian ers sacked the Indian monasteries in the
Mahayanists were occasionally hostile 12th and 13th centuries, the Buddhist laity
toward bhakti and toward Hinduism in showed little interest in a resurgence.
general. Another factor, however, was
probably much more important. Indian Contemporary Revival
Buddhism, having become primarily
a monastic movement, seems to have In the 19th century Buddhism was virtu-
lost touch with its lay supporters. Many ally extinct in India. In far eastern Bengal

Prayer flags and pilgrim under the Bo tree at Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India. Milt and Joan Mann/
CameraMann International
172 | The Culture of India

and Assam, a few Buddhists preserved a refugee community, both in India and
tradition that dated back to pre-Muslim around the world, was established in
times, and some of them experienced a Dharmsala, but many Tibetan refugees
Theravada-oriented reform that was ini- settled in other areas of the subcontinent
tiated by a Burmese monk who visited as well. Another very small factor was the
the area in the mid-19th century. By the incorporation of Sikkim—a region with a
end of that century, a very small num- predominantly Buddhist population now
ber of Indian intellectuals had become in the northeastern part of India—into the
interested in Buddhism through Western Republic of India in 1975.
scholarship or through the activities of The most important cause of the
the Theosophical Society, one of whose contemporary revival of Buddhism in
leaders was the American Henry Olcott. India was the mass conversion, in 1956, of
The Sinhalese reformer Anagarika hundreds of thousands of Hindus living
Dharmapala also exerted some influence, primarily in Maharashtra state who had
particularly through his work as one of previously been members of the so-called
the founders of the Mahabodhi Society, Scheduled castes (Dalits; formerly called
which focused its initial efforts on restor- untouchables). This conversion was ini-
ing Buddhist control of the pilgrimage tiated by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a
site at Bodh Gaya, the presumed site of leader of the Scheduled castes who was
the Buddha’s enlightenment. also a major figure in the Indian inde-
Beginning in the early 20th cen- pendence movement, a critic of the caste
tury, a few Indian intellectuals became policies of Mahatma Gandhi, a framer
increasingly interested in Buddhism as of India’s constitution, and a member of
a more rational and egalitarian alterna- India’s first independent government. As
tive to Hinduism. Although this interest early as 1935 Ambedkar decided to lead
remained limited to a very tiny segment his people away from Hinduism in favour
of the intellectual elite, a small Buddhist of a religion that did not recognize caste
movement with a broader constituency distinctions. After a delay of more than 20
developed in South India. Even as late years, he determined that Buddhism was
as 1950, however, an official government the appropriate choice. He also decided
census identified fewer than 200,000 that 1956—the year in which Theravada
Buddhists in the country, most of them Buddhists were celebrating the 2,500th
residing in east Bengal and Assam. year of the death of the Buddha—was the
Since 1950 the number of Buddhists appropriate time. A dramatic conversion
in India has increased dramatically. One ceremony, held in Nagpur, was attended
very small factor in this increase was the by hundreds of thousands of people.
flood of Buddhist refugees from Tibet Since 1956 more than three million per-
following the Chinese invasion of that sons (a very conservative estimate) have
country in 1959. The centre of the Tibetan joined the new Buddhist community.
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 173

Young Indian Buddhist monks play at the main entrance of the Tawang Monastery in
Arunachal Pradesh state in India. Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images

The Buddhism of Ambedkar’s com- character of the Mahar (the largest of the
munity is based on the teachings found Scheduled castes); and its recognition of
in the ancient Pali texts and has much in Ambedkar himself as a saviour figure who
common with the Theravada Buddhist is often considered to be a bodhisattva
communities of Sri Lanka and Southeast (future buddha). Another distinguishing
Asia. There are important differences characteristic of the Mahar Buddhists
that distinguish the new group, how- is the absence of a strong monastic
ever. They include the community’s community, which has allowed layper-
reliance on Ambedkar’s own interpreta- sons to assume the primary leadership
tions, which are presented in his book roles. During the last several decades,
The Buddha and His Dhamma; the the group has produced its own corpus
community’s emphasis on a mythology of Buddhist songs and many vernacu-
concerning the Buddhist and aristocratic lar books and pamphlets that deal with
174 | The Culture of India

various aspects of Buddhist doctrine, various philosophical problems, signifi-

practice, and community life. cant among them the nature of the world
(cosmology), the nature of reality (meta-
INDIAN PHILOSOPHy physics), logic, the nature of knowledge
(epistemology), ethics, and religion.
The systems of thought and reflection
that were developed by the civiliza- Significance of Indian
tions of the Indian subcontinent include Philosophies in the History
both orthodox (astika) systems, namely, of Philosophy
the Nyaya, Vaishesika, Samkhya, Yoga,
Purva-mimamsa, and Vedanta schools In relation to Western philosophical
of philosophy, and unorthodox (nastika) thought, Indian philosophy offers both
systems, such as Buddhism and Jainism. surprising points of affinity and illuminat-
Indian thought has been concerned with ing differences. The differences highlight

The Hindu deity Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, mounted on a horse pulling Arjuna, hero of the
epic poem Mahabharata; 17th-century illustration. Photos.com/Jupiterimages
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 175

certain fundamentally new questions to profound cosmological concepts. The

that the Indian philosophers asked. The Upanishads (Hindu philosophical trea-
similarities reveal that, even when phi- tises) contain one of the first conceptions
losophers in India and the West were of a universal, all-pervading, spiritual
grappling with the same problems and reality leading to a radical monism (abso-
sometimes even suggesting similar the- lute nondualism, or the essential unity of
ories, Indian thinkers were advancing matter and spirit). The Upanishads also
novel formulations and argumentations. contain early speculations by Indian phi-
Problems that the Indian philosophers losophers about nature, life, mind, and
raised for consideration, but that their the human body, not to speak of ethics
Western counterparts never did, include and social philosophy. The classical, or
such matters as the origin (utpatti) and orthodox, systems (darshanas) debate,
apprehension (jnapti) of truth (pramanya). sometimes with penetrating insight and
Problems that the Indian philosophers often with a degree of repetition that
for the most part ignored but that helped can become tiresome to some, such mat-
shape Western philosophy include the ters as the status of the finite individual;
question of whether knowledge arises the distinction as well as the relation
from experience or from reason and dis- between the body, mind, and the self;
tinctions such as that between analytic the nature of knowledge and the types of
and synthetic judgments or between valid knowledge; the nature and origin
contingent and necessary truths. Indian of truth; the types of entities that may be
thought, therefore, provides the histo- said to exist; the relation of realism to ide-
rian of Western philosophy with a point alism; the problem of whether universals
of view that may supplement that gained or relations are basic; and the very impor-
from Western thought. A study of Indian tant problem of moksha, or salvation—its
thought, then, reveals certain inadequa- nature and the paths leading up to it.
cies of Western philosophical thought
and makes clear that some concepts and General Characteristics
distinctions may not be as inevitable as of Indian Philosophy
they may otherwise seem. In a similar
manner, knowledge of Western thought The various Indian philosophies contain
gained by Indian philosophers has also such a diversity of views, theories, and
been advantageous to them. systems that it is almost impossible to
Vedic hymns, Hindu scriptures dat- single out characteristics that are com-
ing from the 2nd millennium BC, are mon to all of them. Acceptance of the
the oldest extant record from India of authority of the Vedas characterizes
the process by which the human mind all the orthodox (astika) systems, but
makes its gods and of the deep psycho- not the unorthodox (nastika) systems,
logical processes of mythmaking leading such as Carvaka (radical materialism),
176 | The Culture of India

Buddhism, and Jainism. Moreover, even the Arthashastra (“Treatise on Material

when philosophers professed allegiance Gain”), recognized the same ideal and
to the Vedas, their allegiance did little professed their efficacy for achieving it.
to fetter the freedom of their speculative When Indian philosophers speak of
ventures. On the contrary, the acceptance intuitive knowledge, they are concerned
of the authority of the Vedas was a con- with making room for it and demon-
venient way for a philosopher’s views to strating its possibility, with the help of
become acceptable to the orthodox, even logic—and there, as far as they are con-
if a thinker introduced a wholly new idea. cerned, the task of philosophy ends.
Thus, the Vedas could be cited to cor- Indian philosophers do not seek to justify
roborate a wide diversity of views; they religious faith; philosophic wisdom itself
were used by the Vaishesika thinkers (i.e., is accorded the dignity of religious truth.
those who believe in ultimate particulars, Theory is not subordinated to practice,
both individual souls and atoms) as much but theory itself, as theory, is regarded as
as by the Advaita (monist) philosophers. being supremely worthy and efficacious.
Three basic concepts form the cor-
Common Concerns nerstone of Indian philosophical thought:
the self, or soul (atman), works (karma, or
In most Indian philosophical systems, karman), and salvation (moksha). Leaving
the acceptance of the ideal of moksha, the Carvakas aside, all Indian philoso-
like allegiance to the authority of the phies concern themselves with these
scriptures, was only remotely connected three concepts and their interrelations,
with the systematic doctrines that were though this is not to say that they accept
being propounded. Many epistemo- the objective validity of these concepts
logical, logical, and even metaphysical in precisely the same manner. Of these,
doctrines were debated and decided on the concept of karma, signifying moral
purely rational grounds that did not efficacy of human actions, seems to be
directly bear upon the ideal of moksha. the most typically Indian. The concept of
Only the Vedanta (“end of the Vedas”) atman, not altogether absent in Western
philosophy and the Samkhya (a system thought, corresponds, in a certain sense,
that accepts a real matter and a plural- to the Western concept of a transcen-
ity of the individual souls) philosophy dental or absolute spirit self—important
may be said to have a close relation- differences notwithstanding. The con-
ship to the ideal of moksha. The logical cept of moksha as the concept of the
systems—Nyaya, Vaishesika, and Purva- highest ideal has likewise been one of the
mimamsa—are only very remotely related. concerns of Western thought, especially
Also, both the philosophies and other during the Christian Era, though it proba-
scientific treatises, including even the bly has never been as important as for the
Kama-sutra (“Aphorisms on Love”) and Hindu mind. Most Indian philosophies
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 177

assume that moksha is possible, and the presented as well as in the mode in which
“impossibility of moksha” (anirmoksha) it historically develops. Out of the presys-
is regarded as a material fallacy likely to tematic age of the Vedic hymns and the
vitiate a philosophical theory. Upanishads and many diverse philosoph-
In addition to karma, the lack of ical ideas current in the pre-Buddhistic
two other concerns further differenti- era, there emerged with the rise of the
ates Indian philosophical thought from age of the sutras (aphoristic summaries
Western thought in general. Since the of the main points of a system) a neat
time of the Greeks, Western thought has classification of systems (darshanas), a
been concerned with mathematics, and, classification that was never to be contra-
in the Christian Era, with history. Neither dicted and to which no further systems
mathematics nor history has ever raised are added. No new school was founded,
philosophical problems for the Indian. In no new darshana came into existence.
the lists of pramanas, or ways of knowing But this conformism, like conformism
accepted by the different schools, there is to the Vedas, did not check the rise of
none that includes mathematical knowl- independent thinking, new innovations,
edge or historical knowledge. Possibly or original insights. There is, apparently,
connected with their indifference toward an underlying assumption in the Indian
mathematics is the significant fact that tradition that no individual can claim to
Indian philosophers have not developed have seen the truth for the first time and,
formal logic. The theory of the syllogism therefore, that an individual can only
(a valid deductive argument having two explicate, state, and defend in a new form
premises and a conclusion) is, however, a truth that had been seen, stated, and
developed, and much sophistication has defended by countless others before him:
been achieved in logical theory. Indian hence the tradition of expounding one’s
logic offers an instructive example of a thoughts by affiliating oneself to one of
logic of cognitions (jnanani) rather than the darshanas.
of abstract propositions—a logic not sun- If one is to be counted as a great
dered and kept isolated from psychology master (acarya), one has to write a
and epistemology, because it is meant to commentary (bhasya) on the sutras of
be the logic of man’s actual striving to thesutra darshana concerned, or one
know what is true of the world. must comment on one of the bhasyas and
write a tika (subcommentary). The usual
Forms of Argument and order is sutra–bhasya–varttika (collec-
Presentation tion of critical notes)–tika. At any stage,
a person may introduce a new and origi-
There is, in relation to Western thought, nal point of view, but at no stage can he
a striking difference in the manner in claim originality for himself. Not even an
which Indian philosophical thinking is author of the sutras could do that, for he
178 | The Culture of India

was only systematizing the thoughts and the rise of the systems. The myths of
insights of countless predecessors. The creation and dissolution of the universe
development of Indian philosophical persisted in the theistic systems but were
thought has thus been able to combine, transformed into metaphors and models.
in an almost unique manner, conformity With the Nyaya (problem of knowledge)–
to tradition and adventure in thinking. Vaishesika (analysis of nature) systems,
for example, the model of a potter mak-
Roles of Sacred Texts, ing pots determined much philosophical
Mythology, and Theism thinking, as did that of a magician conjur-
ing up tricks in the Advaita (nondualist)
The role of the sacred texts in the growth Vedanta. The nirukta (etymology) of
of Indian philosophy is different in each Yaska, a 5th-century-BC Sanskrit scholar,
of the different systems. In those systems tells of various attempts to interpret diffi-
that may be called adhyatmavidya, or cult Vedic mythologies: the adhidaivata
sciences of spirituality, the sacred texts (pertaining to the deities), the aitihasika
play a much greater role than they do (pertaining to the tradition), the adhi-
in the logical systems (anviksikividya). yajna (pertaining to the sacrifices), and
In the case of the former, Shankara, a the adhyamika (pertaining to the spirit).
leading Advaita Vedanta philosopher Such interpretations apparently pre-
(c. 788–820), perhaps best laid down the vailed in the Upanishads; the myths were
principles: reasoning should be allowed turned into symbols, though some of
freedom only as long as it does not them persisted as models and metaphors.
conflict with the scriptures. In matters The issue of theism vis-à-vis athe-
regarding supersensible reality, reason- ism, in the ordinary senses of the English
ing left to itself cannot deliver certainty, words, played an important role in Indian
for, according to Shankara, every thesis thought. The ancient Indian tradition,
established by reasoning may be coun- however, classified the classical systems
tered by an opposite thesis supported by (darshanas) into orthodox (astika) and
equally strong, if not stronger, reasoning. unorthodox (nastika). Astika does not
The sacred scriptures, embodying as they mean “theistic,” nor does nastika mean
do the results of intuitive experiences of “atheistic.” Panini, a 5th-century-BC
seers, therefore, should be accepted as grammarian, stated that the former is
authoritative, and reasoning should be one who believes in a transcendent world
made subordinate to them. (asti paralokah) and the latter is one who
Whereas the sacred texts thus con- does not believe in it (nasti paralokah).
tinued to exercise some influence on Astika may also mean one who accepts
philosophical thinking, the influence of the authority of the Vedas; nastika then
mythology declined considerably with means one who does not accept that
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 179

authority. Not all among the astika phi- A General History of

losophers, however, were theists, and even Development and Cultural
if they were, they did not all accord the Background
same importance to the concept of God in
their systems. The Samkhya system did S.N. Dasgupta, a 20th-century Indian phi-
not involve belief in the existence of God, losopher, divided the history of Indian
without ceasing to be astika, and Yoga (a philosophy into three periods: the prelog-
mental–psychological–physical medita- ical (up to the beginning of the Common
tion system) made room for God not on Era), the logical (from the beginning
theoretical grounds but only on practical of the Common Era up to the 11th cen-
considerations. The Purva-Mimamsa of tury AD), and the ultralogical (from the
Jaimini, the greatest philosopher of the 11th century to the 18th century). What
Mimamsa school, posits various deities Dasgupta calls the prelogical stage cov-
to account for the significance of Vedic ers the pre-Mauryan and the Mauryan
rituals but ignores, without denying, the periods (c. 321–185 BC) in Indian history.
question of the existence of God. The The logical period begins roughly with
Advaita Vedanta of Shankara rejects the Kushanas (1st–2nd centuries AD) and
atheism in order to prove that the world finds its highest development during the
had its origin in a conscious, spiritual Gupta era (3rd–5th centuries AD) and the
being called Ishvara, or God, but in the age of imperial Kanauj (7th century AD).
long run regards the concept of Ishvara
as a concept of lower order that becomes The Prelogical Period
negated by a metaphysical knowledge of
Brahman, the absolute, nondual reality. In its early prelogical phase, Indian
Only the non-Advaita schools of Vedanta thought, freshly developing in the
and the Nyaya-Vaishesika remain zeal- Indian subcontinent, actively confronted
ous theists, and of these schools, the and assimilated the diverse currents of
god of the Nyaya-Vaishesika school does pre-Indo-European and non-Indo-Euro-
not create the eternal atoms, universals, pean elements in the native culture that
or individual souls. For a truly theistic the Indo-Europeans sought to conquer
conception of God, one has to look to and appropriate. The marks of this con-
the non-Advaita schools of Vedanta, the frontation are to be noted in every facet of
Vaishnava, and the Shaiva philosophi- Indian religion and thought: in the Vedic
cal systems. Whereas Hindu religious hymns in the form of conflicts, with vary-
life continues to be dominated by these ing fortunes, between the Indo-Europeans
last-mentioned theistic systems, the and the non-Indo-Europeans; in the con-
philosophies went their own ways, far flict between a positive attitude toward
removed from that religious demand. life that is interested in making life fuller
180 | The Culture of India

and richer and a negative attitude empha- possibility of knowledge. There were also
sizing asceticism and renunciation; in materialists, the chief of which were the
the great variety of skeptics, naturalists, Ajivikas (deterministic ascetics) and the
determinists, indeterminists, accidental- Lokayatas (the name by which Carvaka
ists, and no-soul theorists that filled the doctrines—denying the authority of
Ganges Plain; in the rise of the hereti- the Vedas and the soul—are generally
cal, unorthodox schools of Jainism and known). Furthermore, there existed the
Buddhism protesting against the Vedic two unorthodox schools of yadrchha-
religion and the Upanis·adic theory of vada (accidentalists) and svabhavavaha
atman; and in the continuing confronta- (naturalists), who rejected the supernatu-
tion, mutually enriching and nourishing, ral. Kapila, the legendary founder of the
that occurred between the Brahmanic Samkhya school, supposedly flourished
(Hindu priestly) and Buddhist logicians, during the 7th century BC. Pre-Mahavira
epistemologists, and dialecticians. The Jaina ideas were already in existence
Indo-Europeans, however, were soon when Mahavira (flourished 6th century
followed by a host of foreign invaders, BC), the founder of Jainism, initiated
Greeks, Shakas and Hunas from Central his reform. Gautama the Buddha (flour-
Asia, Pashtuns, Mongols, and Mughals ished 6th–5th centuries BC) apparently
(Muslims). Both religious thought and was familiar with all of these intellectual
philosophical discussion received con- ideas and was as dissatisfied with them
tinuous challenges and confrontations. as with the Vedic orthodoxy. He sought
The resulting responses have a dialecti- to forge a new path—though not new in
cal character: sometimes new ideas have all respects—that was to assure blessed-
been absorbed and orthodoxy has been ness to man. Orthodoxy, however, sought
modified; sometimes orthodoxy has been to preserve itself in a vast Kalpa- (ritual)
strengthened and codified in order to sutra literature—with three parts: the
be preserved in the face of the dangers Shrauta-, based on shruti (revelation); the
of such confrontation; sometimes, as in Grhya-, based on smrti (tradition); and
the religious life of the Christian Middle the Dharma-, or rules of religious law,
Ages, bold attempts at synthesis of ideas sutras—whereas the philosophers tried to
have been made. Nevertheless, through codify their doctrines in systematic form,
all the vicissitudes of social and cul- leading to the rise of the philosophical
tural life, Brahmanical thought has been sutras. Though the writing of the sutras
able to maintain a fairly strong current of continued over a long period, the sutras of
continuity. most of the various darshanas probably
In the chaotic intellectual climate of were completed between the 6th and 3rd
the pre-Mauryan era, there were skep- centuries BC. Two of the sutras appear to
tics (ajnanikah) who questioned the have been composed in the pre-Maurya
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 181

period, but after the rise of Buddhism; of yajna (“sacrifice”). Already in the pre-
these works are the Mimamsa-sutras of Christian era, Buddhism had split up
Jaimini (c. 400 BC) and the Vedanta- into several major sects, and the founda-
sutras of Badarayana (c. 500–200 BC). tions for the rise of Mahayana (“Greater
The Maurya period brought, for the Vehicle”) Buddhism had been laid.
first time, a strong centralized state. The
Greeks had been ousted, and a new self- The Logical Period
confidence characterized the beginning
of the period. This seems to have been the The logical period of Indian thought
period in which the epics Mahabharata began with the Kusanas (1st–2nd
and Ramayana were initiated, though centuries). Gautama (author of the
their composition went on through several Nyaya-sutras; probably flourished at the
centuries before they took the forms they beginning of the Christian Era) and his
now have. Manu, a legendary lawgiver, 5th-century commentator Vatsyayana
codified the Dharma-shastra; Kautilya, a established the foundations of the Nyaya
minister of King Chandragupta Maurya, as a school almost exclusively preoccu-
systematized the science of political pied with logical and epistemological
economy (Artha-shastra); and Patanjali, issues. The Madhyamika (“Middle Way”)
an ancient author or authors, composed school of Buddhism—also known as
the Yoga-sutras. Brahmanism tried to the Shunyavada (“Way of Emptiness”)
adjust itself to the new communities school—arose, and the analytical investi-
and cultures that were admitted into its gations of Nagarjuna (c. 200), the great
fold: new gods—or rather, old Vedic gods propounder of Shunyavada (dialectical
that had been rejuvenated—were wor- thinking), reached great heights. Though
shipped; the Hindu trinity of Brahma Buddhist logic in the strict sense of the
(the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and term had not yet come into being, an
Shiva (the destroyer) came into being; increasingly rigorous logical style of
and the Pashupata (Shaivite), Bhagavata philosophizing developed among the
(Vaishnavite), and the Tantra (esoteric proponents of these schools of thought.
meditative) systems were initiated. The During the reign of the Guptas, there
Bhagavadgita—the most famous work of was a revival of Brahmanism of a gentler
this period—symbolized the spirit of the and more refined form. Vaishnavism of
creative synthesis of the age. A new ideal the Vasudeva cult, centring on the prince-
of karma as opposed to the more ancient god Krishna and advocating renunciation
one of renunciation was emphasized. by action, and Shaivism prospered, along
Orthodox notions were reinterpreted and with Buddhism and Jainism. Both the
given a new symbolic meaning, as, for Mahayana and the Hinayana (“Lesser
example, the Gita does with the notion Vehicle”), or Theravada (“Way of the
182 | The Culture of India

Elders”), schools flourished. The most Buddhism, for all practical purposes, had
notable feature, however, was the rise disappeared from the country. Hinduism
of the Buddhist Yogacara school, of had absorbed Buddhist ideas and prac-
which Asanga (4th century AD) and his tices and reasserted itself, with the
brother Vasubandhu were the great pio- Buddha appearing in Hindu writings as
neers. Toward the end of the 5th century, an incarnation of Vishnu. The Muslim
Dignaga, a Buddhist logician, wrote the conquest created a need for orthodoxy
Pramanasamuccaya (“Compendium of to readjust itself to a new situation. In
the Means of True Knowledge”), a work this period the great works on Hindu law
that laid the foundations of Buddhist logic. were written. Jainism, of all the “unorth-
The greatest names of Indian phi- odox” schools, retained its purity, and
losophy belong to the post-Gupta period great Jaina works, such as Devasuri’s
from the 7th to the 10th century. At that Pramananayatattvalokalamkara (“The
time Buddhism was on the decline and Ornament of the Light of Truth of the
the Tantric cults were rising, a situation Different Points of View Regarding
that led to the development of the tantric the Means of True Knowledge,” 12th
forms of Buddhism. Shaivism was thriving century AD) and Prabhachandra’s
in Kashmir, and Vaishnavism in the south- Prameyakamalamartanda (“The Sun
ern part of India. The great philosophers of the Lotus of the Objects of True
Mimamshakas Kumarila (7th century), Knowledge,” 11th century AD), were
Prabhakara (7th–8th centuries), Mandana written during this period. Under the
Mishra (8th century), Shalikanatha (9th Chola kings (c. 850–1279) and later in the
century), and Parthasarathi Mishra (10th Vijayanagara kingdom (which, along with
century) belong to this age. The greatest Mithilā in the north, remained strong-
Indian philosopher of the period, however, holds of Hinduism until the middle of the
was Shankara. All of these men defended 16th century), Vais·n·avism flourished. The
Brahmanism against the “unorthodox” philosopher Yamunacarya (flourished
schools, especially against the criti- AD 1050) taught the path of prapatti, or
cisms of Buddhism. The debate between complete surrender to God. The philoso-
Brahmanism and Buddhism was contin- phers Ramanuja (11th century), Madhva,
ued, on a logical level, by philosophers of and Nimbarka (c. 12th century) developed
the Nyaya school—Uddyotakara, Vacaspati theistic systems of Vedanta and severely
Mishra, and Udayana (Udayanacarya). criticized Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta.
Toward the end of the 12th century,
The Ultralogical Period creative work of the highest order began
to take place in the fields of logic and
Muslim rule in India had consolidated epistemology in Mithila and Bengal. The
itself by the 11th century, by which time 12th–13th-century philosopher Gangesa’s
Other Indigenous Indian Religions and Indian Philosophy | 183

Tattvacintaman·i (“The Jewel of Thought included both love of God and love of
on the Nature of Things”) laid the foun- humanity.
dations of the school of Navya-Nyaya The British period in Indian history
(“New-Nyaya”). Four great members of was primarily a period of discovery of
this school were Pakshadhara Mishra the ancient tradition (e.g., the two his-
of Mithila, Vasudeva Sarvabhauma tories by Radhakrishnan, scholar and
(16th century), his disciple Raghunatha president of India from 1962 to 1967,
Shiromani (both of Bengal), and and S.N. Dasgupta) and of comparison
Gadadhara Bhattacaryya. and synthesis of Indian philosophy with
Religious life was marked by the rise the philosophical ideas from the West.
of great mystic saints, chief of which Among modern creative thinkers have
are Ramananda, Kabir, Caitanya, and been Mahatma Gandhi, who espoused
Guru Nanak, who emphasized the path new ideas in the fields of social, politi-
of bhakti, or devotion, a wide sense of cal, and educational philosophy; Sri
humanity, freedom of thought, and a Aurobindo, an exponent of a new school
sense of unity of all religions. Somewhat of Vedanta that he calls Integral Advaita;
earlier than these were the great Muslim and K.C. Bhattacharyya, who developed
Sufi (mystic) saints, including Khwāja a phenomenologically oriented philoso-
Mu’in-ud-Din H·asan, who emphasized phy of subjectivity that is conceived as
asceticism and taught a philosophy that freedom from object.
Indian Visual Arts

D espite a history of ethnic, linguistic, and political fragmen-

tation, the people of the Indian subcontinent are unified
by a common cultural and ethical outlook; a wealth of ancient
textual literature in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and regional languages
is a major unifying factor. Music and dance, ritual customs,
modes of worship, and literary ideals are similar throughout
the subcontinent, even though the region has been divided
into kaleidoscopic political patterns through the centuries.
The close interrelationship of the various peoples of
South Asia may be traced in their epics, as in the Ramayana
and the Mahabharata. Kinship between the gods and heroes
of regions far distant from each other is evident, and the place-
names themselves often evoke common sources. Moreover,
there have been continual attempts to impose a political
unity over the region. In the 3rd century BC, for example, the
emperor Ashoka had almost all of this region under his sway;
in the 11th century AD, Rajendra I Chola conquered almost
the whole of India and a good portion of Southeast Asia;
and the great Mughal Akbar again achieved this in the 16th
century. Though the expansion and attenuation of bound-
ary lines, the bringing together or pulling apart politically of
whole regions, have characterized all of South Asian history,
the culture has remained essentially one.
The geography of the region encouraged a common ado-
ration of mountains and rivers. The great Himalayas, which
Indian Visual Arts | 185

form the northern boundary, are the lofti- rhetoric is believed to be necessary; the
est of mountains and are conceived to be flavour (rasa) to be expressed in music,
the embodiment of nobility, the abode of dance, sculpture, or painting requires a
immaculate snow, and the symbol of a literary background. Thus all the arts are
cultural ideal. Similarly, the great rivers closely linked together.
such as the Brahmaputra and the Indus The arts were cultivated in South
are regarded as the mothers of their Asia not only as a noble pastime but also
respective regions, assuring prosperity in a spirit of dedication, as an offering to a
through their perennial supply of water. god. Passages in literature refer to princes
The association of lakes and springs studying works of art for possible defects.
with water sprites and sylvan fairies, One inscription that mentions the name
called nagas and yakshas, is common of the sutra-dhara (“architect”) of the
throughout the region. Karkota, the name 8th-century Mallikārjuna temple at
of an early dynasty, itself signifies naga Pattadakal epitomizes the accomplish-
worship in Kashmir. Sculptures of nagas ments and ideals, in both theory and
and yakshas found in widespread sites practice, of the artist.
suggest a common spirit of adoration, Artists traditionally have enjoyed
as do sculptures, paintings, temples, and a high position in South Asian societ-
religious texts that for centuries were pre- ies. Poets, musicians, and dancers held
served within an oral tradition without honoured seats in the royal court. An
losing their immaculate intonation. The inscription mentions the appreciation
same classical dance is seen in sculpture bestowed by Rajendra Chola on a talented
in Gandhara in Pakistan, in Bharhut in dancer, and the architect of the temple at
the north, and in Amaravati in the south. Tiruvorriyur, who was also patronized by
The relation of the various arts to Rajendra, was eulogized for his encyclo-
each other is very close in South Asia, paedic knowledge of architecture and art.
where proficiency in several arts is neces- Nonetheless, the folk arts were closely
sary for specialization in any one. Thus, linked with the elite arts. Tribal group
it is believed that without a good knowl- dances, for example, shared common
edge of dance there can be no proficiency elements with classical art, dance, and
in sculpture, for dance, like painting or music. Among the artistic traditions of
sculpture, is a depiction of all the world. the Indian subcontinent, sculpture in the
For its rhythmic movements and expo- round (citra) is considered the highest
sition of emotion, dance also requires artistic expression of form, and sculpture
musical accompaniments; hence, knowl- in relief (ardhacitra) is next in impor-
edge of musical rhythm is essential. For tance. Painting (citrabhasa, literally “the
the stirring of emotion either in music semblance of sculpture”) ranks third.
or in dance, knowledge of literature and Feeling for volume was so great that the
186 | The Culture of India

effect of chiaroscuro (i.e., use of light influences, it has always incorporated

and shade to indicate modelling) was them into native forms, resulting not
considered very important in painting; in imitation but in a new synthesis.
a passage from a drama of the 5th-cen- This may be seen even in the art of the
tury poet Kalidasa describes how the eye Gandhara region of Pakistan, which in
tumbles over the heights and depths sug- the 4th century BC was immersed in
gested in the modelling of a painting. A Greco-Roman tradition. In the sculpture
classical text on art, Citrasutra enumer- of this period Indian themes and modes
ates noteworthy factors in paintings: the have softened the Western style. Foreign
line sketch, firmly and gracefully drawn, influence is evident after the invasion
is considered the highest element by the of the Kushans in the 1st century AD,
masters; shading and depiction of model- but the native element predominated
ling are valued by others; the decorative and overwhelmed the foreign influence.
element appeals to feminine taste; and During the Mughal period, from the 16th
the splendour of colour appeals to com- century, when Muslims from Central
mon taste. The use of a minimum of Asia reigned in South Asia, the blend of
drawing to produce the maximum effect Iranian and Indian elements produced a
in suggesting form is considered most predominantly Indian school that spread
admirable. throughout the region, making it a uni-
Portraits play an important role in the fied cultural area under imperial rule. The
visual arts of South Asia, and there are influence of Islamic art was enhanced by
many literary references to the effective the second Mughal emperor, Humayun,
depiction of portraits both in painting who imported painters from the court
and in sculpture. A 6th-century text, the of the shah of Persia and began a tradi-
Vishnudharmottara, classifies portrai- tion that blended Indian and Persian
ture into natural, lyrical, sophisticated, elements to produce an efflorescence of
and mixed, and men and women are clas- painting and architecture.
sified into types by varieties of hair—long Art in all these regions reflects a sys-
and fine, curling to right, wavy, straight tem of government, a set of moral and
and flowing, curled and abundant; simi- ethical attitudes, and social patterns. The
larly, eyes may be bow-shaped, of the hue desire of kings to serve the people and
of the blue lotus, fishlike, lotus-petal-like, to take care of them almost as offspring
or globular. Artistic stances are enumer- is evident as early as the 3rd century BC.
ated, and principles of foreshortening are The ideal of the king as the unrivalled
explained. Paintings or sculptures were bowman, the unifier, the tall and stately
believed to take after their creators, even noble spirit, the sacrificer for the wel-
as a poem reflects the poet. fare of the subjects, and the hero of his
Although South Asia has continu- people (who conceive of him on a stately
ally been subjected to strong outside elephant) is comprehensively illustrated
Indian Visual Arts | 187

in a magnificent series of coins from the but it nevertheless shows a remark-

Gupta empire of North India of the 4th–6th able unity and consistency. Works
centuries. The concepts of righteous con- produced in the several geographical
quest and righteous warfare are illustrated and cultural regions possess decidedly
in sculpture. The long series of sculptures individual characteristics but at the same
illustrating the history of the South Indian time have sufficient elements in common
Pallava dynasty of the 4th–9th centuries to justify their being considered manifes-
gives an excellent picture of the various tations of a general style. The existence of
activities of government—such as war this style is evidence of the essential cul-
and conquests, symbolic horse sacrifices, tural unity of the subcontinent and to the
the king’s council, diplomatic recep- uninterrupted contact between the vari-
tions, peace negotiations, the building ous geographical units, at least from the
of temples, appreciation of the fine arts historical period onward. Developments
(including dance and music), and the coro- in one area have been quickly reflected in
nation of kings—all clearly demonstrating the others. The regional idioms have con-
what an orderly government meant to tributed to the richness of Indian art, and
the people. Similarly, moral attitudes are the mutual influences exercised by them
illustrated in sculptures that lay stress on have been responsible for the multi-fac-
dharma—customs or laws governing duty. eted development of that art throughout
The doctrine of ahimsa, or noninjury to the course of its long life.
others, is often conceived symbolically as
a deer, and the ideal of a holy place is rep- The Unity of Indian Art
resented as a place where the deer roams
freely. The joy in giving and renuncia- The style of Indian art is largely deter-
tion is clearly indicated in art. Sculptures mined not by a dynasty but by conditions
illustrate simple and effective stories, as of time and space. It has, essentially,
from the Pancha-tantra, one of the oldest a geographical rather than a dynastic
books of fables in the world. The spirit of basis, which is to say that the evolution
devotion, faith, and respect for moral stan- of regional schools appears to have been
dards that has throughout the centuries largely independent of any particular
pervaded the subcontinent’s social struc- dynasty that happened to rule over a spe-
ture is continuously represented in South cific region. The style does not change
Asian painting and sculpture. because of the conquest of one area by
another dynasty; rather the influences
General Characteristics exercised by one area on another are usu-
of Indian Art ally through the agency of factors other
than conquest. Instances in which dynas-
Indian art is spread over a subcontinent tic patronage changed the nature of a
and has a long, very productive history; style are very few and confined mostly
188 | The Culture of India

to the Islamic period. The political his- At the same time, Indian art stresses the
tory of India is itself quite vague, and plasticity of forms; sculpture is generally
the areas in possession of a dynasty at characterized by emphatic mass and vol-
various points in its history are even less ume; architecture is often sculpture on a
susceptible to precise definition. For all colossal scale; and the elements of paint-
these reasons, the classification of Indian ing, particularly of the early period, are
art adopted here is not based on dynas- modelled by line and colour.
ties, for such a division has little meaning.
Nevertheless, names of certain dynasties Indian and Foreign Art
are used, for these have passed into com-
mon usage. When this is done, however, Thanks to its geographical situation, the
the name must be understood as little Indian subcontinent has been constantly
more than a convenient way of labelling fed by artistic traditions emanating from
a particular period. West and Central Asia. The Indian art-
ist has shown a remarkable capacity for
The Materials of Indian Art accepting these foreign influences natu-
rally and assimilating and transforming
Indian art employs various materials, them to accord with the nature of his own
such as wood, brick, clay, stone, and style. The process occurred frequently:
metal. Most wooden monuments of the in the Maurya period; in the first two
early period have perished but have centuries AD, when the Kushan dynasty
been imitated in stone. Clay and brick attained imperial supremacy in the north;
were also abundantly used; but, particu- and at a much later period, in the 16th
larly in later times, the favoured material century, when the Mughals patronized a
seems to have been stone, in the dress- new school of architecture and painting.
ing (facing and smoothing) and carving
of which the Indian artist attained great Indian Art and Religion
excellence. The material may have influ-
enced the form somewhat, but essentially Indian art is religious inasmuch as it is
Indian art tends to impose the form on largely dedicated to the service of one of
the material. Thus, materials are gener- several great religions. It may be didactic
ally regarded as interchangeable: wooden or edificatory as is the relief sculpture of
and clay forms are imitated in stone, the last two centuries BC through the first
and stone is imitated in bronze, and in two centuries AD; or, by representing the
turn stone sculpture assumes qualities divinity in symbolic form (whether archi-
appropriate to metal. It is as though the tectural or figural), its purpose may be to
nature of the material presented a chal- induce contemplation and thereby put
lenge that had to be met and overcome. the worshipper in communication with
Indian Visual Arts | 189

the divine. Not all Indian art, however, The Artist and Patron
is purely religious, and some of it is only
nominally so. There were periods when Works of art in India were produced by art-
humanistic currents flowed strongly ists at the behest of a patron, who might
under the guise of edificatory or contem- commission an object to worship for spiri-
plative imagery, the art inspired by and tual or material ends, in fulfillment of a vow,
delighting in the life of this world. for the discharge of virtues enjoined by
Although Indian art is religious, scripture, or even for personal glory. Once
there is no such thing as a sectarian the artist received his commission, he fash-
Hindu or Buddhist art, for style is a func- ioned the work of art according to his skill,
tion of time and place and not of religion. gained by apprenticeship, and the written
Thus it is not strictly correct to speak canons of his art, which possessed a holy
of Hindu or Buddhist art, but, rather, of character. There were prescribed rules for
Indian art that happens to render Hindu proportionate measurement, iconography,
or Buddhist themes. For example, an and the like, often with a symbolic signifi-
image of Vishnu and an image of Buddha cance. This is not to say that the individual
of the same period are stylistically the artist was invariably aware of the symbolic
same, religion having little to do with the meaning of the prescribed standards,
mode of artistic expression. Nor should based as these were on complex meta-
this be surprising in view of the fact that physical and theological considerations;
the artists belonged to nondenomina- but the symbolism nevertheless formed
tional guilds, ready to lend their services part of the fabric of his work, ready to add
to any patron, whether Hindu, Buddhist, an extra dimension of meaning to the ini-
or Jaina. tiated and knowledgeable spectator.
The religious nature of Indian art In these conditions it is not surpris-
accounts to some extent for its essentially ing that the artist as a person is for the
symbolic and abstract nature. It scrupu- most part anonymous, very few names
lously avoids illusionistic effects, evoked of artists having survived. It was the skill
by imitation of the physical and ephem- with which the work of art was made to
eral world of the senses; instead, objects conform to established ideals, rather than
are made in imitation of ideal, divine pro- the artist who possessed the skill, that
totypes, whose source is the inner world held the place of first importance.
of the mind. This attitude may account
for the relative absence of portraiture The Appreciation
and for the fact that, even when it is of Indian Art
attempted, the emphasis is on the ideal
person behind the human lineaments According to Indian aesthetic theory, a
rather than on the physical likeness. work of art possesses distinct “flavours”
190 | The Culture of India

(rasa), the “tasting” of which consti- the 10th century onward, thus cannot be
tutes the aesthetic experience. Because studied in isolation but must be consid-
the work of art operates at various lev- ered as part of a larger entity to the total
els, granting to the spectator what he is effect of which it contributes and from
capable of receiving by virtue of his intel- which it in turn gains meaning.
lectual and emotional preparation, the The subject matter of Indian sculpture
appreciation of the beauty of form and is almost invariably religious. This does
line is considered an appropriate activity not mean that it cannot be understood
of the educated and cultured man. The as a work of art apart from its religious
supreme aesthetic experience, however, significance; but, at the same time, an
is believed to be much deeper and cog- understanding of its motivation and
nate to the experience of the Godhead. intent enriches one’s appreciation. Much
From this point of view, the work of art of what is represented is the recounting
is in a sense irrelevant and unnecessary of legend and myth, particularly in the
for a person at a high level of spiritual two centuries BC, when narrative relief
progress; and for the devout layman its was much in vogue. The work at this
excellence is measured by its efficacy in time, didactic and edificatory in intent,
promoting spiritual development. generally expresses itself in forms that
are surprisingly earthy and sensuous.
Indian Sculpture The anthropomorphic representation of
the Buddha is avoided, and the subsid-
On the Indian subcontinent, sculpture iary gods and goddesses are very much
seems to have been the favoured medium creatures of this earth. The Buddha image
of artistic expression. Even architecture formulated around the 1st century AD is
and the little painting that has survived not what one would expect of the medita-
from the early periods partake of the tive, compassionate, Master of the Law; he
nature of sculpture. Particularly is this is presented rather as an energetic, earthy
true of rock-cut architecture, which is being radiating strength and power.
often little more than sculpture on a The foundations of traditional Hindu
colossal scale. Structural buildings are imagery were also laid about the same
also profusely adorned with sculpture time that the Buddha image was first
that is often inseparable from it. The close formulated: images with several arms,
relationship between architecture and and sometimes heads, representing the
sculpture has to be taken into account Indian mind’s attempt to define visually
when considering individual works that, the infiniteness of divinity. In subsequent
even if complete in themselves, are also periods the image with many arms became
fragments belonging to a larger con- a commonplace in Hindu, Buddhist, and
text. Indian sculpture, particularly from Jaina iconography. Although the various
Indian Visual Arts | 191

pantheons expanded, they continued to years, but it is nevertheless clear that the
share features of common derivation, distinguishing quality of Indian sculp-
expressing the belief that beyond the ture is its emphatic plasticity so obvious
phenomenal multiplicity of forms lay the in Sanchi I and Mathura sculpture from
unity of the Godhead. the 1st–3rd century AD. Forms are seen
In addition to the major religions, as swelling from within in response to the
there has always existed in India a power of an inner life, the sculptor’s func-
substratum of folk beliefs and cults tion being to make these more manifest.
dedicated to the worship of powers that At the same time a vision of form that
preside over the operation of the life pro- is carved from without rather than mod-
cesses of nature. These fertility cults, best elled from within is also present, as for
expressed in the worship of the male and example at Bharhut. The history of much
female divinities yakshas and yakshis, of Indian sculpture, marked by periods
played an important part in the develop- of high achievement bursting with cre-
ment of Indian art. Among the perennial ativity followed by periods in which the
motifs that spring from the cults, those potentialities so postulated are gradually
expressing life and abundance—such as worked out, is essentially the interaction
the lotus, the pot overflowing with veg- of these two dominant tendencies.
etation, water, or the like, the tree, the
amorous couple, and above all the yak- Indus Valley Civilization
shas and yakshis themselves—are most (c. 2500–1800 BC)
significant. The images of these divini-  
ties, in particular, are the source of a Sculpture found in excavated cities
great deal of artistic imagery and played consists of small pieces, generally terra-
a leading part in the development of cotta objects, soapstone, or steatite, seals
iconographic types such as the images of carved for the most part with animals,
the Buddha, the goddess Shri, and other and a few statuettes of stone and bronze.
divinities. The maternal as the ideal of The terra-cotta figurines are summarily
female beauty, which is manifested artis- modelled and provided with elaborate
tically in the emphasis on full breasts jewelry, which was fashioned separately
and wide hips, can be traced to the same and applied to the surface of the piece.
beliefs. The very richness and exuber- Most of the work is simple, but a small
ance of much Indian art is an expression group of human heads with horns are
of the view of life that equates beauty very sensitively modelled. Animal figures
with abundance. are common, particularly bulls, which are
It is difficult to generalize about often carved with a sure understanding
the style of a sculptural tradition that of their bulky, massive form. This plas-
extended over a period of almost 5,000 tic quality is also found in the humped
192 | The Culture of India
Indian Visual Arts | 193

bulls engraved on steatite seals, where composed of trefoil motifs. The tight,
the modelling is more refined and sensi- compressed shape of the body and the
tive. A humpless beast, generally called expansive modelling of the head dem-
a “unicorn,” is another favourite animal, onstrate that the two aspects of form
but it is frequently quite stylized. In addi- revealed in Indus Valley art were not
tion to bisons, elephants, rhinoceroses, compartmentalized but interacted with
and tigers, seals are carved with images each other. This can also be seen in the
of apparent religious significance, often interplay of modelled form and textured
strongly pictographic. surface frequently found in works pro-
The terra-cotta sculpture and the duced by this civilization.
seals both show two clear and distinct
stylistic trends, one plastic and sensu- Maurya Period
ous, the other linear and abstract. These (c. 3rd Century BC)
appear during the same period and are
also seen in the small group of stone and Little is known of Indian art in the period
bronze sculptures that date from this between the Indus Valley civilization and
period (National Museum, New Delhi). the reign of the Maurya emperor Ashoka.
Of extraordinarily full and refined model- When sculpture again began to be found,
ling is a fragmentary torso from Harappa, it was remarkable for its maturity, seem-
barely four inches (10 centimetres) high ingly fully formed at birth. The most
but of imposing monumentality; the famous examples are great circular stone
same feeling for massive form is pres- pillars, products of Ashoka’s imperial
ent in a lesser known bronze buffalo. A workshop, found over an area stretching
jaunty bronze dancing girl with head from the neighbourhood of Delhi to Bihar.
tilted upward (about 4½ inches [11 cen- Made of fine-grained sandstone quarried
timetres] high), from Mohenjo-daro, and at Chunar near Varanasi (Benares), the
a headless figure of a male dancer from monolithic shafts taper gently toward the
Harappa, shoulders twisted in a circu- top. They are without a base and, in the
lar movement, clearly demonstrate, in better preserved examples, are capped
the attenuated and wiry tension of their by campaniform lotus capitals support-
forms, the second component of Indus ing an animal emblem. The entire pillar
Valley art. Of great interest is a famous was carefully burnished to a bright lustre
bearded figure from Mohenjo-daro wear- commonly called the “Maurya polish.”
ing a robe decorated with a pattern The most famous of these monuments

This terra-cotta figurine found at an Indus Valley excavation, shows jewelry that was made
separately and attached to the sculpture, a typical feature of Indus Valley civilization art.
Larry Burrows/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
194 | The Culture of India

is the lion capital at Sarnath, consisting

of the front half of four identical animals
joined back to back. There is a naturalis-
tic emphasis on build and musculature,
and the modelling is hard, vigorous, and
energetic, stressing physical strength
and power.
Very similar, if not at the same level
of achievement, is the quadruple lion
capital at Sanchi. Single lions are found at
Vaishali (Bakhra), Rampurva, and Lauriya
Nandangarh. The Vaishali pillar is heavy
and squat, and the animal lacks the verve
of the other animals—features, according
to some, designating it as an early work,
executed before the Maurya style attained
its maturity. By contrast, the Rampurva
lion, finished with painstaking and con-
cise artistry, represents the style at its best.
His smooth, muscled contours, wiry sin-
ews, rippling, flamboyant mane, and alert
stance reveal the work of a superior art-
ist. An example at Lauriya Nandangarh is
interesting because the pillar and the lion
are both complete and in their original
place, giving a clear idea of the column as
it appeared to its contemporaries.
The lion was the animal most often
represented, but figures of elephants and
bulls are also known. At Dhauli in Orissa,
the fore part of an elephant is carved out
of rock on a terrace above a boulder that
carries several of Ashoka’s edicts. The
modelling here is soft and gentle, and
Lion capital from Sarnath, Chunar
the plump, fleshy qualities of the young
sandstone, mid-3rd century BC; in the
animal’s body, seen as emerging from
Sarnath Museum, Uttar Pradesh, India.
P. Chandr the rock, are suffused with warmth and
natural vitality. Since the contrast with
Indian Visual Arts | 195

the rather formal, heraldic lions could Patna (ancient Pataliputra, the Maurya
not be more complete, the sculpture capital), two of which are representations
clearly testifies to the simultaneous exis- of yakshas, the popular male divinities
tence of a style different from that of the associated with cults of fertility, and the
lion capitals. The style might very well third, found at Didarganj (a section of
represent the indigenous tradition of Patna), a representation of a yakshi, or
plastic form that appears consistently female divinity. Stylistically the images
in later art and also in some of the ani- are very similar. The standing yakshas
mal capitals made in the imperial atelier, (Indian Museum, Kolkata) are powerful
notably the damaged elephant that once creatures; the ponderous weight of their
crowned the pillar at Sankisa and, above bodies, together with a certain refined
all, the splendid bull from Rampurva. appreciation of the soft flesh, is admi-
In this great work of art, the two oppos- rably rendered. The Didarganj yakshi
ing concepts of form merge in a work of (Patna Museum), a masterpiece, displays
harmonious power. The pronounced nat- the Indian ideal of female beauty, the
uralism comes from the same source as heavy hips and full breasts strongly
do the lions, but the tense line and hard emphasizing the maternal aspect. In a
modelling yield to a form that wells from nude torso discovered at Lopanipur, the
within and at the same time is given sta- sophisticated and sensitive treatment
bility and strength by a vision imposed of the surfaces and the gentle blending
from without. planes that avoid all harsh accents pro-
The sudden appearance of Maurya art duce a work of much refinement.
with seemingly no tradition behind it has Small stone discs (also called ring
led to speculation that it was the creation stones because several of them are per-
of foreign artists, either Achaemenian or forated in the centre), found from Taxila
Hellenistic. Persian influence, particu- to Patna, are clearly connected with the
larly in the lotus capitals and the figures cult of a nude mother goddess. They
of lions can hardly be denied, but what is represent Maurya sculpture on a smaller
remarkable is the drastic reinterpretation and more intimate scale but character-
of alien forms by Indian artists. This is a ized by the same refined and exquisite
process that is repeatedly seen in the his- workmanship. They are executed in bas-
tory of Indian art. relief, which became the favourite form of
Besides the animal sculpture, some sculpture in the subsequent period.
human figures, more or less life size, can The terra-cotta art of the Maurya
also be assigned to the Maurya period, period is best represented by a substan-
though scholarly opinion is by no means tial group of figurines, modelled for the
unanimous on the point. Among the most most part, the clay sculptor performing
important are three images discovered at work in his medium at the same level
196 | The Culture of India

as the artist working in stone. Patna has those of Bhaja, Pitalkhora, and Karli. In
yielded a large number of such works, the southeast, the important school of
but examples are found throughout the Andhradesha flourished in the Krishna
Gangetic Plain. The clothing and jewelry River Valley at Amaravati, Jaggayyapeta,
on the figurines are heavy and elaborate, and associated sites; and in eastern India,
the modelling, particularly of the head, is what is now the modern state of Orissa,
sensitive, and the expression is often one made its contribution in the rock-cut
of great charm and refinement. There sculptures at Udayagiri-Khandagiri. The
are also more archaic examples, distin- distinctive schools, though spread over a
guished by flat bodies, enormous hips, subcontinent, were not isolated from each
and modelled heads and breasts. other. The contacts fostered by a flourish-
ing trade and by the constant movement
Second and First of pilgrims were always very close, and it
Centuries BC was never long before developments in
one part of India were echoed in another.
The Maurya empire collapsed in the Judging from extant remains, artists
early years of the 2nd century BC, and of the earlier period (c. 3rd century BC)
with it passed the art with which it was preferred figures carved in the round,
intimately related. The sculpture that is relief sculpture being quantitatively
found throughout India from the middle quite insignificant. By contrast, it was
of the 2nd century BC is startlingly differ- sculpture in low relief that was favoured
ent, but the process by which this change in the first two centuries BC; the earlier
took place in a relatively short period tradition was not quite forgotten, but fig-
of time is not fully understood. Several ures carved in the round are relatively
schools, sharing common features but few. Although there is no stylistic differ-
nevertheless possessing distinct indi- ence, relief sculpture is here considered
vidual characteristics, are known to first according to the various regional
have existed. The history of the schools schools, and sculpture in the round is
of northern India is somewhat obscure, treated separately.
largely due to the great destruction
wrought in the Gangetic heartland; but Relief Sculpture of Northern
there appears to have flourished there and Central India
and in adjacent areas a school of great
importance represented by the remains Among the most important, and perhaps
discovered at Bharhut, Sanchi, Mathura, the earliest, remains in northern India are
and Bodh Gaya. Western India had its reliefs from the great stupa at Bharhut,
own school, as revealed in the sculptures dating approximately to the middle of the
decorating the cave temples, notably 2nd century BC. The work, suggesting a
Indian Visual Arts | 197

style imitating wooden sculpture, is char- confined within its own space. The faces
acterized by essentially cubical forms, are masklike, without trace of emotion,
flat planes that meet at sharp angles, and lending a solemn and hieratic quality to
very elaborate and precisely detailed their expression. Trapped between the
ornamentation of surfaces. Most of the background and a frontal plane beyond
sculpture was confined to the railing of which they are not allowed to project, the
the stupa. Some of the supporting posts figures are in a sense strictly two-dimen-
bear large image of yakshas and yakshis of sional, more so than in any other style of
popular religion, now clearly pressed into Indian sculpture. Often, however—par-
the service of Buddhism, while most of ticularly in the treatment of animals—the
the others are decorated with medallions artist is more relaxed, giving glimpses of
in the centre and crescent-shaped motifs, intimate observation and a natural ren-
or lunates, at the top and bottom, all filled dering that anticipates the direction of
with lotus motifs. Some medallions con- future development. Like the posts, the
tain amorous couples, the overflowing top part, or coping, of the stone rail is also
pot, the goddess Śrī standing on lotuses carved on both faces; on one of them is a
while being ceremonially bathed by ele- continuous creeper bearing lotus flowers,
phants and other symbols of abundance; leaves, and buds; on the other, again the
still others contain the earliest illustra- winding stem of a creeper, but bearing
tions of events in the Buddha’s life and of other good things of life—such as clothes,
narratives of his former incarnations as jewelry, and fruits—and also scenes illus-
related in the Jataka tales (a collection of trating Jataka stories.
tales about the Buddha). Although com- Bharhut is an extremely important
positions are crowded, great economy of monument inasmuch as it seems to mark
expression is evident because the artist a new beginning after the refined and
confines himself to the representation naturalistic art of the Maurya empire.
of essentials. Figures are often carved in The sophistication, in spite of the archaic,
horizontal rows, sometimes asymmetri- hieratic manner, would indicate that a
cally, adapting themselves awkwardly considerable body of sculptural tradition,
to the circular space of the medallion. particularly in wood, preceded it; but of
Continuous narrative, in which events this no traces have survived. Be that as it
succeeding in time are shown in the same may, Bharhut states for the first time, and
space, is often resorted to—the first occur- at some length, themes and motifs that
rence of what was to become a favourite would henceforth remain a part of Indian
narrative technique. There is no attempt sculpture.
at establishing any interrelationship, psy- Stray finds of sculpture at Mathura
chological or compositional, between the and other sites in modern Uttar Pradesh
various figures, each of which is strictly indicate that the Bharhut style was
198 | The Culture of India

spread over a large part of northern India, movement, and a keen appreciation for
particularly the region roughly between the forms of nature, all of which endow
that city and Varanasi and Bodh Gaya the sculpture with a naïve and sensuous
in the east. A closely related style is also beauty unparalleled in Indian art.
found at Sanchi in eastern Malava, where Departures from the Bharhut style
a representative example is the sculp- are particularly striking in the narra-
ture of the railing of Stupa II. Although tive reliefs. Their greater depth, taken
the themes and motifs found at Bharhut together with their crowded composi-
occur here, narrative representations are tion, results in the background, visible at
all but absent. The style is almost identi- Bharhut, being submerged in shadow.
cal; the stiff and rigid contours are a little The figures, in all their richness and
softer, but both the scale and richness of abundance, flow out from the dark
Bharhut are missing. ground, secured in place by the frame
It is the sculpture of the four gate- of the panels. The Bharhut angular sil-
ways (toranas) of the Great Stupa (Stupa houette and the rigid, severe outline of
I) at Sanchi, however, that is the principal the body yields at Sanchi to a gently
glory of that site, carrying the promise of swelling plasticity, animated by a soft,
the Bharhut style to its fulfillment. The breathing quality that molds the con-
toranas, four in number, were attached tours without strain or tension. There is
to the plain railing around the middle a pronounced concern with the organi-
of the 1st century BC. They consist of zation of composition, and the narration
square posts with capitals supporting a is often leisurely and discursive; the art-
triple architrave, or molded band, with ist does not just tell the basic story but
voluted (turned in the shape of a spiral, also lingers over the details, amplifying
scroll-shaped ornament) ends and a top them to give a vivid picture of everyday
crowned with Buddhist symbols. Bracket life. The emotional monotone of Bharhut
figures, in the form of yakshis, serve as survives in some Sanchi sculptures,
additional supports. All parts of these but in others it is superseded by joy-
gates, strongly reminiscent of wooden ous faces and the emotional impact of
construction, are covered from top to bot- vivid gesture and movement. Dejection
tom with the most exquisite sculpture. is written large on the faces of the sol-
Subjects and motifs found at Bharhut are diers of Māra’s army, who had tried to
also found here, the same profusely flow- disturb the Buddha’s meditation, as they
ering lotus stem and associated motifs, stagger away from the scene of defeat,
the same compositions with figures basi- and the sensuousness of the amorous
cally arranged in horizontal rows, the scenes is successfully evoked by the ten-
same love for clear detail; but to all of der and intimate gestures of the couples.
these are added a truly voluminous sense No longer transfixed in their own space,
of form, a smoother and more energetic they turn to look at each other lovingly,
Indian Visual Arts | 199

This detail shows a yakshi (a benevolent female spirit) on the East Gate to the Great Stupa in
Sanchi, India. Eliot Elisofon/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
200 | The Culture of India

responding to each other with a deeply cling, but the style is remarkably differ-
felt understanding. ent. The modelling shows a concern for
Long and elaborate bas-reliefs carved the charms of the body, stressing the tac-
on the architraves of the toranas are tile nature of its flesh. The heavy jewelry
the summit of the Sanchi sculptor’s art. and clothing that conceal the body are
Among the finest are representations drastically reduced, revealing its nudity.
of the wars for the relics, the defeat of The soft, melting sensuousness of the
Mara, the Vishvantara Jataka, and the female form is so greatly emphasized that
Shaddanta Jataka. The compositions the belly and the folds of flesh at the waist
are rich and crowded with figures, and are almost flabby, redeemed only by the
are arranged with great skill. Particularly smooth, firm breasts and the tender arms
striking is the masterly handling of ani- and limbs.
mals, notably the elephant, whose fleshy By comparison, reliefs adorning the
body and graceful movement are cap- railing around the Mahabodhi temple at
tured unerringly. Deer, water buffaloes, Bodh Gaya (of about the same date or a
bulls, monkeys—all of the beasts and little earlier) are in a somewhat impover-
birds of the forests—are rendered with a ished idiom, lacking the rich proliferation
sense of intimacy indicating the artist’s both of Bharhut and Sanchi. The posts
sense of the fellowship of man and animal have the usual medallions, lunates filled
in the world of nature. The lush Indian with lotuses, and reliefs depicting the
landscape is often carved with ornamen- familiar scenes of Buddhist myth and
tal trees, waterfalls, pools, mountains, and legend. The artistry of Bodh Gaya, how-
rivers. The Sanchi sculptor also shows ever, is of a lower level of achievement
a marked preference for architectural than that at either Bharhut or Sanchi: the
settings, filling his compositions with relief is deeper than that at Bharhut but
numerous buildings that often provide shallower than that at the Great Stupa of
the spatial context for the action. Entire Sanchi; and crowded compositions are
cities, with surrounding walls, elaborate lacking, as are the clear and precise orna-
gate houses, and palatial mansions, are ment and the rich floral motifs. The Bodh
depicted. Depth is achieved by rendering Gaya sculptor, however, though abbre-
side views, and multiple perspective con- viating even further the iconography of
tinues to be the rule. Bharhut, breaks up, as does the Sanchi
The several large images of yakshis sculptor, the spatial isolation that so
serving as brackets supporting the low- uncompromisingly separated each indi-
ermost architraves of the toranas are vidual figure at that site.
unique achievements. Like the same The great school of Mathura, also,
goddesses at Bharhut, they are shown seems to have come into existence about
in association with a tree to which they the 2nd century BC, though its period
Indian Visual Arts | 201

of greatest activity falls in the first two marble rather than the sandstone invari-
centuries AD. The city was repeatedly ably used in the north.
sacked in the course of the centuries, The style of the Andhradesha school
which may account for the paucity of developed in a manner consistent with
materials, but enough has been dis- other regions of India, becoming more
covered to reveal that the style, in its voluminous and shedding the early rigid-
early stages, was very similar to that ity fairly rapidly. A group of sculptures at
of Bharhut, characterized by flat two- Amaravati are characterized by the same
dimensional sculpture decorated with qualities that distinguish the work at the
abundant and precise ornament. Several Great Stupa of Sanchi: full and lissome
fragments discovered at the site show forms, modelling that emphasizes mass
the gradual stages by which this style and weight, and sensuously rendered
evolved, leading to the sculpture of the surfaces.
Great Stupa at Sanchi on the one hand
and to Bodh Gaya on the other. Relief Sculpture of Western India

Relief Sculpture of Andhradesha The numerous rock-cut cave temples in

the Western Ghats are, comparatively
Besides the schools of northern India, a speaking, much less profusely adorned
very accomplished style also existed in with sculpture than remains from other
southeast India; the most important sites parts of India. The earliest works are
are Jaggayyapeta and Amaravati, activity undoubtedly the bas-reliefs on a side
at the latter site extending well into the wall of the porch of a small monastery at
2nd century AD. The early remains are Bhaja. They are commonly interpreted as
strikingly similar to those at Bharhut, the depicting the god Indra on his elephant
relief generally even shallower and the and the sun god Surya on his chariot
modelling comparatively flat. In contrast but are more probably illustrations of
to those found in northern India, the pro- the adventures of the mythical universal
portions of the human body are elongated; emperor Mandhata. What is immediately
but in its flat, cubical modelling, angular, evident is that these sculptures are not
halting contours, and precise, detailed imitations of wooden prototypes, like
ornamentation, the style is essentially those at Bharhut, but, rather, reflect a tra-
similar to contemporary work elsewhere, dition of terra-cotta sculpture, abundant
right down to the same conventional examples of which are found in northern
clothing and jewelry. The nervous, fluid India and Bengal, where this medium
treatment of surfaces, so characteristic of was very popular because of the easy
subsequent Andhra sculpture, is already availability of fine clay. The terra-cotta
present here. The preferred material is tradition is reflected in the amorphous,
202 | The Culture of India

spreading forms of Bhaja and in the fine well as the figure of a lover blissfully
striations used in depicting ornaments drunk on wine offered to him by his
and pleated cloth, techniques natural and beloved. These features are also found in
appropriate to the fashioning of wet clay. the later sculpture of the Great Stupa at
The fact that there are some similarities Sanchi and, to a more pronounced extent,
to the Bharhut style—the stilted postures in the sculpture of the Mathura school of
of the figures and the flat contours of the the 1st centuries AD—for example, in the
body, for example—indicates that the happily smiling yakshis from Bhutesar.
beginnings of the western Indian school The cave temple at Kondane has,
would also have to be placed about the above the entrance hall, four beautiful
middle of the 2nd century BC. panels depicting pairs of dancers. The
The next major group of sculptures forms retain the robust and full model-
in western India have been found at ling of the more developed sculpture at
Pitalkhora. The colossal plinth of a mon- Pitalkhora, but to this is added an ease
astery decorated with a row of elephants, of movement and considerable rhythmic
the large figures of the door guardians, grace. Traces of the terra-cotta tradition
and several fragments recovered during are now totally absent; nor do they occur
the course of excavations are among the in the next phase, best represented by a
more important remains. A great propor- group of sculptures found in the rock-
tion of the work represents an advance cut temples and monasteries at Bedsa
over the style of Bhaja, though features and Nasik and in the caitya, or temple
derived from terra-cotta sculpture con- proper, at Karli. Sculpture at all these
tinue to be found: the figures are carved sites shows many affinities to the Great
in greater depth and volume, but the tex- Stupa at Sanchi and should be approxi-
ture of the drapery, the soft contours of mately contemporary or a little earlier.
the body, and the high relief of the jewelry, Easily the most outstanding achieve-
which sometimes gives the impression ments of this region and period, and for
of having been fashioned separately that matter one of the greatest achieve-
and then applied, testify to the continu- ments of the Indian sculptor, are the
ing strength of the terra-cotta tradition. large panels, depicting amorous couples,
Although the hard line and sharp cutting located in the entrance porch of the Karli
of some sculpture is reminiscent of the caitya. Here the promise of early work
earlier, wood-carving tradition as seen achieves its fulfillment, the full weighty
at Bharhut, the forms are more appropri- forms imbued with a warm, joyous life
ate to the stone medium. Moreover, the and a free, assured movement. The
expression is more explicit; and for the resemblance to work at the Great Stupa
first time, both gently smiling and boldly of Sanchi is obvious, though these figures
laughing figures of yakshas appear, as at Karli are on a much larger scale and
Indian Visual Arts | 203

possess a massiveness and monumental- and crowded compositions. At the same

ity that is a characteristic of the distinct time there is a nervous agitation, a fluid,
western Indian idiom. agile movement together with a decided
preference for tall, slender human fig-
Relief Sculpture of Orissa ures. The reliefs on the guard rooms of
Rani Gumpha are also quite remark-
Sculpture decorating the monasteries able, depicting forested landscapes filled
cut into the twin hills of Udayagiri and with rocks from which waterfalls flow
Khandagiri in Orissa represents yet into lakes that are the sporting grounds
another early Indian local idiom. The of wild elephants. The fine work of this
work is not of one period but extends cave strikes a romantic and lyrical note
over the first two centuries BC; the seldom found in Indian art.
stages of development roughly paral-
lel the styles observed at Sanchi Stupa Sculpture in the Round and
No. II, Bodh Gaya, and the Great Stupa Terra-Cotta
at Sanchi, but they possess, like other
regional schools, fairly distinct and The most important sculpture in the
individual features. The earliest sculp- round are the life-size or colossal images
tures are the few simple reliefs found in of yakshas and yakshis, which rein-
the Alakapuri cave, humble works that terpret forms established by the two
recall the bas-reliefs of Sanchi Stupa II. Patna yakshas and the Didarganj yak-
The Mancapuri, Tatoka Gumpha, and shi of the Maurya period—very much as
Ananta cave sculptures—particularly a few animal capitals, particularly the
the image of Surya riding a chariot— makaras (a crocodile-like creature) from
are more advanced and resemble work Kaushambi and Vidisha (Besnagar),
at Bodh Gaya. The forms are heavy and echo the tradition of the superb Maurya
solid and lack the accomplished move- animal capitals. It is the yaksha figures,
ment of the later cave sculpture adorning however, that deserve special atten-
the Rani Gumpha monastery. These, like tion, for they played a significant part in
other sculptures here, are in a poor state the iconographic developments of the
of preservation, but they represent the 1st century AD and later and contrib-
finest achievements at the site. Most uted substantially to the imagery of the
remarkable is a long frieze, stretching anthropomorphic Buddha icon.
between the arched doorways of the top The most famous of the yaksha
story, representing a series of incidents images is a colossal figure recovered from
that have not yet been identified. The the village of Parkham, near Mathura
work parallels that of the Great Stupa at (Archaeological Museum). It is about 8 ⅔
Sanchi, with the same supple modelling feet (2.6 metres) in height, and, though
204 | The Culture of India
Indian Visual Arts | 205

the two hands are broken and the head is The widespread nature of the cult is
considerably damaged, it is an image of evidenced by the occurrence of yaksha
great strength. Its squat neck, its head set images throughout India. Fragments in
close to the body, which tends toward cor- the round (not to speak of the relief rep-
pulence, its swelling belly restrained by a resentations in a Buddhist context) of the
flat band, and a broad chest adorned with 2nd to 1st centuries BC have been found
necklaces—all of these features contrib- from Madhyadesha, Orissa, Rajasthan,
ute to an image turgid with earthy power. Andhradesha, and Maharashtra. At
The back is flat and cursively finished, so Pitalkhora there is an exceptionally fine
that the figure has the appearance more image of a yaksha conceived as a pot-
of a bifacial relief than of an image carved bellied dwarf carrying a shallow bowl
in the round. Although the forms retain on his head; the features, with a gently
some of the cubical modelling of Bharhut, laughing mouth, are suffused with good
the swelling limbs and torso have a mas- humour. Similar yakshas, employed as
sive weightiness that makes the image an atlantes (male figures used as supporting
appropriate representation of a divinity elements), are also found on the western
that presides over the productive pro- gateway of the Great Stupa at Sanchi and
cesses of nature and endows plenty and at other sites, notably Sarnath.
abundance on his worshippers. The latest in the series of cult images
The Mathura region seems to have is the image of the Yaksha Manibhadra,
been an important centre of yaksha wor- from Pawaya (Gwalior Museum). The
ship, for several images, most of them sculpture is at present headless, but the
fragmentary, have been discovered there. rest of the body is well preserved. The
Some images have also been found from right hand holds a fly whisk that flares
the ancient city of Vidisha (Vidisha over the shoulder; the modelling of the
Museum), one of which is even larger legs and torso is sensitive, and the folds
than the Parkham example and is in a bet- of the garment wrapped around the body
ter state of preservation. The god holds a are full and voluminous, recalling the
bag in one hand (the other was held below style of sculpture at Sanchi.
the chest), and the hair is tied in a large The terra-cotta sculpture of the
top knot over the forehead. The image is period consists mainly of relief plaques
accompanied by a female consort (yak- made from molds found at numerous
shi), wide-hipped and full-breasted, who sites in northern India. These generally
also emphasizes and personifies the pow- depict popular divinities; a richly dressed
ers of fertility. female figure loaded with profuse

Bust of a goddess, c. 9th century, from the fort at Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, India. P. Chandra
206 | The Culture of India

jewelry, obviously a mother goddess, is most alluring attitudes and gestures.

the favoured subject. Scenes from daily Their enticing bodies are now presented
life also abound—as well as what appear to as unified organic entities, lacking all
be illustrations of current myths and sto- traces of the stiff, puppet-like aspect that
ries. Superb examples have been found had not been entirely overcome even at
from Mathura, Ahichhatra, Kaushambi, the Great Stupa of Sanchi. During this
Tamluk, and Chandraketugarh. The work- period, also, a fresh incursion of foreign
manship is often of the most exquisite influence by way of western Asia was
clarity and delicacy, the style paralleling received, quickly assimilated, and trans-
that of contemporary stone sculpture. formed in the characteristic manner of
Indian art.
In the First to Fourth The school of Gandhara, with Taxila
Centuries AD in Pakistan as its centre and stretch-
ing into eastern Afghanistan, flourished
This period is characterized by the dom- alongside the Kushan school of Mathura.
inance in northern India of the ancient It is of a startlingly different aspect,
school of Mathura. Other schools, such stressing a relatively naturalistic render-
as those that flourished at Sarnath and ing of form, ultimately of Greco-Roman
Sanchi in the first two centuries BC, for origin. The school evolved a distinct
example, were markedly restricted in type of Buddha image and was also rich
their artistic output. Much of their sculp- in relief sculptures depicting Buddhist
ture was imported from Mathura, and myth and legend. Drawing largely on
the few images they produced locally Indian traditions of composition, it nev-
were strongly influenced by Mathura ertheless reinterpreted them in its own
work. The narrative bas-relief tradition, manner. The schools of Mathura and
consisting of elaborate compositions of Gandhara were in close proximity and
edificatory character, was on the wane, undoubtedly influenced each other, but
and the emphasis was on carving individ- essentially each adheres to its own con-
ual figures, either in high relief or in the cept of style.
round. For the first time, images appear The ancient Indian relief style found
of the Buddha, bodhisattvas, and various its fullest expression and development
other divinities including specifically at neither Mathura nor Gandhara but
Hindu images representing the gods in Andhradesha, notably at the great
Vishnu, Shiva, Varaha, and Devi slaying sites of Amaravati and Nagarjunikonda.
the buffalo demon; some of these figures Railing pillars and other parts of stupas
begin to feature several arms, a charac- decorated with Jataka tales and scenes
teristic of later iconography. There are from the Buddha’s life are found in great
also many images of yakshis, often in number and are of the most exquisite
Indian Visual Arts | 207

quality. Free-standing images of the body, its affirmative, outgoing movement,

Buddha, on the other hand, are relatively is more appropriate to the personality of
rare, being found only toward the close a yaksha than to that of the Buddha. This
of the period. standing Buddha image, as seen in the
Bala statue, is the standard Mathura type,
Mathura several examples of which are known.
Along with this one, a similar, seated type
One of the most important contributions developed, of which the best example is
of the school of Mathura was the devel- the splendid image known as the Katra
opment of the cult image of the Buddha, Buddha (Archaeological Museum). The
who had been previously represented modelling of the body is refined, the
by aniconic (not made as a likeness) breasts characteristically heavy and
symbols. There is a certain amount of prominent, and the flesh of the torso, with
controversy about whether Mathura or its subtle modulations, as convincingly
Gandhara originated the Buddha image, rendered as the Bala image.
which appears to be insoluble in view of The new trends formulated early
the circumstantial nature of the evidence. by the Mathura school do not indicate
It is possible that the two schools inde- a sharp break from the traditions of the
pendently developed their own separate earlier schools. This is clear in a series
types of images; but, at least as far as the of magnificent ayagapatas, or stone tab-
Mathura image is concerned, it is clear lets originally set up outside stupas to
that it is a natural development from the receive worship and offerings. They are
tradition of large yaksha sculptures found usually square or rectangular and richly
in this region. The development can decorated with auspicious and religious
easily be seen in a famous image (discov- symbols as well as angelic and mythi-
ered at Sarnath and now in the Sarnath cal beings. The extremely decorative,
Museum) of Mathura manufactured and lavish surface treatment gives the imme-
dedicated by the monk Bala. Carved in diate impression of a great profusion
the round, the image is shown in a pose of multiple forms, akin in feeling to the
of strict frontality, the left hand held at sculpture of the Great Stupa of Sanchi.
the waist and the right arm, now dam- The organization of these forms, however,
aged, originally raised to the shoulder—a has none of the easy freedom of Sanchi.
posture immediately recalling that of the The figures, for example, are often cast
yaksha images. The jewelry, however, is in a regular, winding shape imitating
appropriately omitted, and the body is the movement of the undulating lotus
clothed in simple monastic garments. creeper. The same movement is seen in
The modelling throughout is strong and rows of animals depicted with haunches
sensuous, and the radiant energy of the raised and chests touching the ground,
208 | The Culture of India
Indian Visual Arts | 209

features seen in earlier art but now much striving for diverse and varied effects of
more emphatically stylized. The bodies of posture, movement, expression, and even
the animals also begin to be overpowered dress and ornament that brings about
by vegetal forms, the tails, for example, vital changes in the nature of Indian
terminating in foliate tips; in a later age, sculpture. A remarkable group of rail-
this tendency results in the almost total ing posts decorated with yakshi images,
disintegration of animal shapes under which were recovered from Bhutesar near
the pressure of the floral. Mathura (Archaeological Museum), rep-
It is not to these bas-reliefs, however, resent an even more refined achievement
that one turns for the most delightful cre- than the Kankali Tila figures. The heavy
ations of the Mathura school (for they are proportions, in spite of the full breasts
in fact the last vestiges of a style rapidly and the wide hips, have been overcome;
passing out of favour) but to the large the happy faces express carefree joy, and
number of railing pillars usually carved the postures of the body are so alive with
with representation of yakshis engaged rhythm as to give the impression of a
in playful and enticing activities such as dancing figure.
plucking blossoms from trees or leaning Mathura, during this period, was
on its branches, dancing, bathing under ruled by the Kushan dynasty. A group
a waterfall, and adorning themselves. of portrait sculptures of these rulers
Among the most beautiful of these is a (Archaeological Museum), recovered
group that was recovered from Kankali from a village called Māt in the environs
Tila and now in the State Museum at of Mathura, gives an interesting glimpse
Lucknow. The modelling of the figures is of the foreign influences entering India
generally heavy, the soft, plump bodies at the time. One of them (unfortunately
suffused with a slow, languorous move- lacking the head) represents the emperor
ment. What is important, however, is the Kaniska wearing heavy boots, a tunic,
emotion, which is no longer expressed and a coat, and leaning on a mace. The
in the face alone but in the whole atti- image is quite different not only in dress
tude of the body. The pensive mood of but also in style from other contemporary
a woman holding a lamp, for instance, works, being essentially linear, with the
is evoked not only by the serene fea- forms entirely set into the surface. The
tures of the face but by the gentle sway surfaces have little ornamentation and
of the relaxed body. Present throughout are marked by extreme simplicity; they
is a fresh movement of life, a marked are also uncompromisingly stiff and rigid.

Mathura is famed for its Buddhist-influenced art. This bas-relief detail comes from a temple
in Mathura. Brand X Pictures/Dinodia Photos/Getty Images
210 | The Culture of India

It is possible that these images represent Gandhara

attempts by a Mathura artist to imitate a
style preferred by his imperial masters; Contemporary with the school of Mathura,
but it was not long before the foreign ele- and extending almost into the 6th cen-
ments were assimilated into the Mathura tury, is the Gandhara school, whose style
style proper, for later images of Kushan is unlike anything else in Indian art. It
chiefs have the same expanding and flourished in a region known in ancient
voluminous form that characterizes other times as Gandhara, with its capital at
sculptures of this school. A large number Taxila in the Punjab, and in adjacent areas
of ornamental motifs that now appear in including the Swat Valley and eastern
India for the first time undergo a similar Afghanistan. The output of the school
process of transformation. was very large; numerous images, mostly
The extent of Mathura influence on of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and nar-
Indian art of this period can be gauged rative reliefs illustrating scenes from
by the sculpture of the school found at the Buddha’s life and legends have been
several sites in different parts of northern found. The favoured material is gray slate
India, notably Ahichhatra, Kaushambi, or blue schist and, particularly during the
Sarnath, and Sanchi. Most of these sites later phases, stucco. Except for objects
had been flourishing centres earlier, but excavated at a few well-known sites (such
only a very limited amount of sculpture as Taxila, Peshawar, and the Swat Valley,
was produced during the ascendancy of in Pakistan, and Jalalabad, Hadda, and
the Mathura school; and whatever local Bamiyan, in Afghanistan), most of the
sculpture was produced at this time was finds have been the result of casual dis-
heavily influenced by the Mathura style. covery or clandestine treasure hunts and
At Sarnath, for example, both the Bala plunder, so their correct provenance is not
Buddha imported from Mathura and its known. If to this are added the large vari-
local imitations have been found. ety of idioms that appear to have existed
Ivory plaques discovered at Bagram simultaneously and the total absence of
in Afghanistan are closely related to the securely dated images, the wide diver-
school of Mathura. These are of great gence of scholarly opinion with regard to
importance; for, though ivory must have the schools’ evolution can be understood.
been a favourite medium of sculpture, In the present day, there is general agree-
little has been preserved of the early ment, however, that its most flourishing
work. Most of it is in very low engraved period probably coincided with Kushan
relief, with fluent, sweeping outlines. The rule, particularly the reigns of the emperor
figures are depicted in easy and elegant Kaniska and his successors, and that the
postures, and the workmanship often school did not long outlast the growth of
attains considerable virtuosity. the Gupta school in the 5th century.
Indian Visual Arts | 211

The origins of the Gandhara style are compositions range from simple hori-
ultimately Greco-Roman, though, recently, zontal placement of figures to rich and
emphasis has been placed on Roman art complex arrangements, which often
as the more immediate source. It has also attempt to render space illusionistically.
been suggested that the school was cre- In the course of time, Indian influ-
ated by foreign craftsmen imported into ence was increasingly felt in the art of
India and by their Indian pupils. Gandhara, and an abstract vision began
The Gandhara school is also cred- to obscure the Greco-Roman naturalism
ited by some scholars with the invention of the earlier forms. In spite of the new
of the anthropomorphic Buddha image. influence (and the many graceful but
Whether this is correct or not, the cloying stucco sculptures that are rep-
Gandhara image is quite different from resentative of this late phase) the style
that of Mathura and illustrates the differ- shows no signs of vital change. This con-
ence between the two schools. Instead of servatism, together with the large artistic
the powerful images directly descended production, gives an overall impression of
from yaksha prototypes, the Gandhara considerable monotony. Without any real
version is an adaptation of an Apollo roots in India and with marked foreign
figure, with rather sweet and sentimen- features, the avenues of natural develop-
tal features. The definite volume and ment seem to have been closed to the
substance given to the pleated folds of school, which thus finally disappeared.
the monastic robes make this image Nevertheless it made vital contributions
more naturalistic than anything found in to the art of Central and eastern Asia, and
Indian art. At the same time, the icono- several features, drastically transformed,
graphical features are of Indian origin. were incorporated in Gupta art.
Large numbers of bodhisattva images
conceived in the image of royalty, some Andhradesha
with strongly individualized facial fea-
tures, have also been found. Besides the schools of Mathura and
In contrast to Mathura, narrative relief Gandhara, a most accomplished school
sculpture was very popular in Gandhara of sculpture flourished in Andhradesha
art. Again, in composition and iconogra- during the three centuries AD, the most
phy these reliefs are largely dependent important centres being Amaravati and
on the earlier Indian schools, but the Nagarjunakonda. The remains consist
style is quite distinct. Instead of contin- mainly of carved railings and rectangular
uous narrative, incidents separated in slabs that decorated the great Buddhist
time are separately represented, though stupas, which have largely disappeared.
often arranged in sequence. Violent The finds are thus fragmentary and
emotions are realistically rendered. The belong to several phases of construction
212 | The Culture of India

or to separate monuments spanning the which the figures are carved, while the
1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries AD. figures themselves flow out in an endless
Unlike the school of Mathura, which movement from the ground. The setting
concentrates on the carving of single is dramatic in the extreme. The loving
figures, the Amaravati school carried to workmanship, reminiscent of ivory carv-
the fullest limit of its development the ing, and the superb technical proficiency
ancient tradition of relief sculpture, which mark the Amaravati reliefs as the culmi-
flourished in the two centuries BC at sites nating point of the entire relief style.
such as Bharhut, Sanchi, and Amaravati The figures, of both men and women,
itself. The marble railing posts are deco- are of unprecedented suppleness and
rated with central medallions and lunates plasticity, the forms rendered in every
at the top and bottom, all filled with lotus variety of torsion and flexion. A fluent,
flowers of a very rich design. Often the gliding line, often more appropriate to
medallions also contain reliefs illustrat- painting than to sculpture, encloses the
ing scenes from the Buddha’s life and figures, and pervading the whole is a
from the Jataka stories, and these are the subtle voluptuousness. The reliefs are
principal glory of the site. often only nominally religious, a pretext
Two broad phases in the devel- for the sculptor’s pleasure in represent-
opment of narrative relief can be ing the leisured and sophisticated life of
distinguished. In the first, the artist the time.
builds on the achievements of early relief Nagarjunakonda sculpture marks the
sculpture as seen on the Great Stupa of last phase of the relief style. The figures
Sanchi. The forms are still comparatively become stiffer and puppet-like, the pat-
heavy, the figures increasingly soft and terns of movement frozen and mechanical
fleshy, the movement freer but still per- but still possessing the energy and rich-
vaded by a sense of calm repose. This ness that always characterize this style.
type of work, represented by relatively The Buddha is represented in
few examples, is followed by a phase Andhradesha by both symbolic and
in which the compositions achieve an anthropomorphic forms. The icono-
extraordinary elaboration and complex- graphic formula developed shows him
ity. Most striking is the restless, energetic clad in a rather thick garment with styl-
movement, often nervous and flurried, ized folds, and the postures are not as
that possesses the participants in any formal and hieratic as the Mathura.
given scene. Complex relationships This type of Buddha exercised consider-
and patterns are established between able influence in the development of the
the figures; and space is so articulated Buddha image in Sri Lanka. In several
that the eye participates in the swirl- other features as well, the Andhra style
ing inner movement of the composition also contributed to the development of
that effectually dissolves the ground on early sculpture in Southeast Asia.
Indian Visual Arts | 213

Terra-Cotta are pronouncedly meditative; and the

repose and calm that settles on the
The quality of terra-cotta figurines of images of the Buddha, the master of the
this period is generally inferior to work inner contemplative life, is also seen on
produced in the first two centuries BC. images of other divinities. Decorative
Many heads of crude workmanship, with ornament is in perfect harmony with the
protruding eyes, apparently representing volumes it adorns, each emphasizing the
foreigners, were found at sites such as other, so that in every respect this classic
Mathura, Ahichhatra, and Kaushambi. At style of the Gupta period is one of great
the same time, there are some well-mod- composure and perfect balance.
elled heads that imitate the style of stone
sculpture and are equally expressive. Mathura

Gupta Period (c. 4th–6th The impetus for the new schools seems to
Centuries AD) have come from Mathura, which is hardly
surprising in view of the preponderant
During the 4th and the 5th centuries, role played by the city in the preceding
when much of northern India was ruled period. The transformation into the new
by the Gupta dynasty, Indian sculpture idiom is best illustrated by a splendid
entered what has been called its classic image of the Buddha which is dated AD
phase. The promise of the earlier schools 384 (Indian Museum, Kolkata [Calcutta]).
was now fully realized, and at the same Memories of the rather massive and
time new forms and artistic ideals were ponderous weight of the earlier style
formulated that served as the source for are present, but the calm face no longer
development in succeeding centuries. looks out at the world; rather, the vision
The more or less sensuous and earthy is turned within, the mood being one of
rendering of form was drastically trans- serene contemplation. The style, which
formed, so that artistic expression closely consistently uses the local red sandstone,
conformed to the religious vision. The undergoes further refinement, seen in a
forms are refined and treated with sure series of magnificent life-size Buddha
and unsurpassed elegance. The volumes, images of the 5th century (now scattered
impelled by an inner life, still swell from in museums throughout the world). The
within but are restrained and controlled, more delicate face radiates a feeling of
made to flow in smooth and abstract calm inner bliss, and the body is most
rhythms in an organic and unified con- subtly modelled by smoothly flowing
cept in which the sensual and the spiritual planes that both suggest the swelling
are inextricably blended. The edificatory, force of life and subordinate it to the spir-
didactic intent of early relief sculpture is itual vision of the whole. Mathura images
abandoned; instead, the works produced generally show the Buddha wearing a
214 | The Culture of India

diaphanous robe, the folds of which are does not quite possess the static, stead-
rendered by stringlike ridges in a rein- fast quality of Mathura. The robes are no
terpretation of a Gandhara convention. longer ridged with folds but are plain,
The gestures of the hand are delicate and and the surface of the stone is even more
varied. The hair is usually rendered by abstractly handled than is the Mathura.
rows of small curls that conceal the coni- The faces are heart-shaped, the transi-
cal protuberance. These Mathura images tions from one part of the body to another
established an iconographical type that smoother, so that the images have great
became the norm for the Buddha image. refinement even if they do not possess
In addition to the Buddha figure, the strength of Mathura. The character-
Mathura has yielded large numbers of istic Sarnath style, the preferred material
images of the various Hindu divinities, of which is the local buff Chunar sand-
particularly Vishnu-Krishna. This is in stone, seems to have developed in the
keeping with the increasing strength of late 5th century, the few earlier works
the various Hindu cults and the intimate being closer to the Mathura school. The
association of Mathura with the god most famous image from the site and
Krishna. The famous image of Vishnu one of the masterpieces of Indian art
from Katra Keshavadeva in Mathura is is that of the seated Buddha preaching
one of the finest (National Museum, New (Sarnath Museum). It is exceptionally
Delhi). The god is conceived as a royal well preserved and delicately carved. The
figure, wearing a crown and appropriate face, with serene features and a gentle
jewelry, his features imbued with a digni- smile playing on the lips, suggests the
fied calm that is suitable to his function joy of supreme spiritual achievement.
as the preserver and is also characteristic The halo behind the Buddha is also very
of most Gupta art. beautifully carved, with exquisite floral
patterns. Large numbers of Buddha and
Sarnath bodhisattva images have been excavated
at Sarnath and are to be found in the
This famous centre of Indian art devel- museum at the site and in major collec-
oped a sweeter and more elegant version tions throughout the world.
of the Buddha image than Mathura’s.
Instead of the rather strict frontal pos- Central India
ture, the weight of the body is thrown
more on one leg, resulting in a very In addition to the major schools of Sarnath
subtle contrapposto position, in which and Mathura, important sculpture of the
the hips, shoulders, and head are turned 5th and 6th centuries is found at several
in different directions. This lends a cer- sites in central India. The sculptures
tain movement to the figure, so that it here are often in their original locations,
Indian Visual Arts | 215

surviving not as isolated images torn the carving and decoration, sumptuous,
from their architectural context but in the sturdy forms recalling Mathura rather
association with the temples of which than the attenuated grace of Sarnath. The
they formed a part. At Udayagiri, near door frame of the sanctum of this temple
Vidisha, are a series of simple rock-cut is an especially fine example of architec-
caves of the opening years of the 5th cen- tural decoration popular in this period.
tury. The sculpture, made of soft stone, Bands of floral scrolls, amorous couples,
has suffered greatly, but whatever has sur- and flying angels of great elegance are
vived reveals a style that stresses strength carved around the entrance. Particularly
and power. Perhaps the most magnificent impressive are groups of worshippers at
work is a great relief panel depicting the the base, their swaying bodies related to
boar incarnation of Vishnu lifting the each other with an easy rhythm.
earth goddess from the watery deeps into
which she had been dragged by a demon. Maharashtra
The massive figure of the god, with the
body of a man and the head of a boar, is A great revival of artistic activity seems to
carved in a surging movement across the have taken place in this region during the
face of the rock, the goddess resting eas- reign of the Vakataka dynasty and its suc-
ily on his shoulder, while a host of beings, cessors, best expressed in the splendid
human and divine, celebrate this great sculpture decorating the cave temples of
triumph. Ajanta and Elephanta. The idioms estab-
The Shiva temple at Bhumara has lished in the North were adapted here to
also yielded some sculpture of fine the needs of a style that conceived figures
quality. The stone is carved with great on a massive scale, as determined by the
precision and skill, nowhere more evi- demands of the great expanses of rock out
dent than in the handling of exuberant of which they were carved. Although the
floral ornament. Little in Indian decora- sculpture at Ajanta (mostly of the late 5th
tive sculpture can match the brilliance of century) combines the old weightiness
the large panels filled with lotus stems with the new restraint and elegance, the
and floriated scrolls discovered at this style finds its supreme expression in the
site and at Nachna Kuthara. magnificent cave temple at Elephanta.
Some of the finest Gupta sculpture The central image of this great temple
adorns the walls of the Vishnu temple at is of immense size and in deep relief. It
Deogarh. Particularly striking are three represents Shiva in his cosmic aspect,
large relief panels depicting Vishnu lying the central head clam, introspective,
on the serpent Shsa, the elephant’s res- self-sufficient, and transcending time,
cue, and the penance of Nara-Narayana. the heads to the sides, in their sensuous
The compositions tend to be dramatic; beauty and awesome terror, reflecting the
216 | The Culture of India

creative and the destructive aspects of Bhitargaon, and Shravasti are works
the supreme divinity. on a more popular level, possessing an
earthy ponderousness. A large number
Other Regions of figurines, particularly fragments of
heads with elaborate coiffures and deli-
The impact of the Gupta style of the 5th cate, smiling features, have been found
and 6th centuries was felt in many parts at Rajghat in Varanasi (Benares) and at
of India, though actual remains thus far other sites.
discovered are more abundant in some
parts than in others. There appears to Medieval Indian Sculpture
have been, in Bihar, a distinct school
characterized by rather heavy, com- Indian sculpture from the 7th century
pact forms; and Gujarat and southern onward developed, broadly speaking,
Rajasthan developed an individual style into two styles that flourished in north-
of considerable voluptuousness and ern and southern India, respectively. In
plasticity. Among the notable sculpture each of these regions there also devel-
of the Idar region are groups of mother oped additional local idioms, so that
goddesses whose massive forms are ren- there was a wide variety of schools. All,
dered with an easy grace and intimacy. however, evolved in a consistent manner,
In the Karnataka country, to the south, the earlier phase marked by relatively
the cave temples of Badami reveal yet plastic forms, the later phase by a style
another distinct idiom, somewhat direct that emphasizes a more linear rendering.
and elemental but nevertheless belong- The sculpture was used mainly as a part
ing to the same general style, with local of the architectural decor, and the quan-
variations, that prevailed over the greater tity required was vast. This often entailed
part of India. a mechanical production, with the result
that works of quality are few in propor-
Terra-Cotta tion to the numbers.
Besides the two main idioms, the local
Terra-cotta sculpture, like art in other schools of Maharashtra and Karnataka
mediums, was greatly developed. Fairly are of particular interest because they
large and elaborate plaques were used to possess considerable individuality and
adorn brick stupas and Hindu temples often show both northern and southern
from Sind to Bengal. The polychrome features.
relief images of the Buddha from Mirpur Sculpture in bronze was also produced
Khas are delicate and slender, with traces in fairly large quantities in this period.
of Gandhara feeling. Representations Again, several local schools can be distin-
of divinities and mythological scenes guished, the most important of which are
from temples in Bikaner, Ahichhatra, those of eastern and southern India.
Indian Visual Arts | 217

North India of the style can be formed from an impor-

tant group of sculptures at Abaneri, the
The history of North Indian sculpture Shiva temple at Indore, and the Teli-ka-
from the 7th to the 9th centuries is one Mandir temple at Gwalior, as well as from
of the more obscure periods in Indian individual works in various North Indian
art. Two trends, however, are clear: one museums.
exhibits the decline and disintegration With the 10th century, the conven-
of classical forms established during the tions of North Indian sculpture became
5th and 6th centuries; and the other, the fairly well established. The style is
evolution of new styles that began to pos- represented by examples from such
sess overall unity and stability only in the monuments as the Lakshmana temple
10th century. at Khajuraho (dated 941), the Harasnath
A breakdown of the Gupta formula is temple at Mt. Harsha (c. mid-10th cen-
observable from at least the 7th century tury), in Rajasthan, and numerous other
onward, if not a little earlier: harmoni- sites scattered all over northern India.
ous proportion, graceful movement, These works are executed in a style that
and supple modelling begin to yield to has become harder and more angular,
squat proportions, a halting movement, the figures covered with a profusion of
and a more congealed form. Toward the jewelry that tends to obscure the forms
8th century, signs of a new movement it decorates. These features are further
become evident in a group of sculptures accentuated in the 11th century, when
that departs from the progressively life- many temples of great size, adorned with
less working out of the Gupta idiom. prodigious amounts of sculpture, were
The modelling emphasizes breadth but erected all over northern India. There
with a pronounced feeling for rhythm, is a decline in the general level of work-
and the delineation of decorative detail manship: the carving is often entirely
is fairly restrained. In the 9th century, conventional and lifeless, the features
particularly during the second half, a dis- rigid and masklike, and the contours stiff
tinct change came over the styles of all of and unyielding. The ornamentation, con-
northern India. A new elegance, a richer sisting of a profusion of beaded jewelry,
decorativeness, and a staccato rhythm is for the most part as dull, repetitive, and
so characteristic of the medieval styles lifeless as the rest of the sculpture. This
of the 10th and 11th centuries begin to phase of artistic activity is represented at
be clearly seen and felt. Sculpture of this important centres from Gujarat to Orissa;
period reaches a standard of elegance one of them is Khajuraho, with a vast
never surpassed in the medieval period: amount of sculpture, all in a good state of
the grace and voluminousness of earlier preservation but conceived and executed
work are modified but not lost; the harsh as perfunctory architectural ornamen-
angularity of later work, avoided. An idea tation. Not all sculpture, however, is
218 | The Culture of India

Atrium of the Great Sas-Bahu Temple at Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, India. Milt and Joan
Mann/CameraMann International

of inferior quality; the hard, metallic A brief revival took place in parts of
carving and angular, stylized line some- Gujarat and Rajasthan in the 15th cen-
times result in works possessing a cold tury, but the sculpture merely imitated
brilliance. the work of the late medieval phase. The
The 12th century marks the end of pure geometry of their forms, however,
traditional sculpture all over northern sometimes results in works possessing a
India, except for a few pockets not yet curious archaistic power.
penetrated by the Islamic invasions. A Sculpture in eastern India (consist-
rigid line imposed itself on the forms, ing of Bangladesh and the modern Indian
which in turn became desiccated and states of Bihar, West Bengal, and Orissa),
hard, so that whatever unity of surface though sharing in the broad pattern of
may have existed was entirely shattered. development of the rest of northern India,
Indian Visual Arts | 219

nevertheless represents a distinct idiom. have been found from Avantipura. A

The flatness of planes and angularity of flourishing school of bronze sculpture
contours are less pronounced, the figures also existed, numerous examples hav-
retaining a sense of mass and weight for ing come to light in recent years. One
a greater period of time and to a greater of the finest, discovered at Devsar (Sir
degree. This can be clearly seen in sculp- Pratap Singh Museum, Srinagar), is a
ture from Konarak, in Orissa. Dating large 9th-century ornamental frame, 6 ½
to the 13th century, the style retains a feet (two metres) high, decorated with
considerable semblance of plasticity at various incarnations of Vishnu, all filled
a period when sculpture in other parts with great energy and movement. A
of northern India had assumed a very good number of ivory images of Kashmir
wooden appearance. In Bihar and Bengal workmanship have also been preserved.
a flourishing school of bronze sculp- These are generally of miniature size,
ture also developed, as evidenced by polychromed, and of extremely fine and
the large number of finds, notably from delicate workmanship. Influences of the
the sites of Nalanda and Kurkihar. The Kashmir style of sculpture were strongly
style generally parallels works in stone, felt in the neighbouring Himalayan
emphasizing plastic values to a great region, including both Tibet and Nepal.
degree. The most flourishing period was
the 9th century, when a series of mag- Southern India
nificent images representing the gods
and goddesses of the Buddhist pantheon The medieval phase in southern India
were made at Kurkihar and Nalanda. The opened with elegant 7th-century sculp-
work of the 10th and 11th centuries is tures at Mahabalipuram, by far the most
more decorative and often very skillfully impressive of which is a large relief depict-
and elaborately cast. Of relatively small ing the penance of Arjuna (previously
size and therefore easily transportable, identified as an illustration of the mythi-
bronze sculpture from this area played an cal descent of the Ganges). It is carved on
important part in the diffusion of Indian the face of a granite boulder with a deep
influence in Southeast Asia. cleft in the centre, representing a river,
Kashmir sculpture tends to be weight- down which water actually flowed from
ier and more massive than works in other a reservoir situated above. On both sides
parts of India. Some Gandhara memories are carved numerous figures of divini-
survive, particularly in the fleshy render- ties, human beings, and animals that
ing of the body and the drapery, but the crowd the hermitage where Arjuna, prac-
sculpture is very much a part of the sty- ticing penance, is visited by Shiva. The
listic developments in northern India. tall, slender figures, with supple tubular
Representative examples of the style, limbs, remotely recall the proportions of
dating to around the mid-9th century, Amaravati, now greatly transformed; and
220 | The Culture of India

the numerous animals, including the ele- Madura and the masses of stucco sculp-
phant herd with its young, show the same ture adorning the immense entrances,
intimate feeling for animal life that char- or gopuras, testifying to the prodigious
acterizes all Indian sculpture, but in a output and the undistinguished quality
manner that has seldom been surpassed. of the work produced.
The light, aerial forms gained stabil- South Indian bronze sculpture has a
ity and strength in subsequent centuries, special place in the history of Indian art.
culminating in superb sculptures adorn- A large number of images were made
ing small, elegant shrines built during the (some of them still in worship in the mid-
late 9th century when the Chola dynasty 20th century and others unearthed from
was consolidating its power. The temples the ground by chance), but examples
at Tiruvalishvaram, Kodumbalur, Kilaiyur, before the 8th century are quite rare. In
Shrinivasanalur, Kumbakonam, and a bronze, as in stone, the 9th and 10th cen-
host of other sites of this period are only turies were periods of high achievement,
sparingly adorned with sculpture, but it is and many images of excellent quality
of superb quality. With the 10th and 11th have survived. They are all cast by the
centuries, South Indian sculpture, like lost-wax, or cire perdue, process (in which
its counterpart in the north though to a a wax model is used) and technically are
lesser degree, was carved in flatter planes very accomplished. In the early stages
and more angular forms, and the fresh, the forms were smooth and flowing, with
blooming life of earlier work is gradu- a fine balance maintained between the
ally lost. This can be seen, for example, in body and the complex jewelry, the lines
the sculpture of the numerous temples of of which follow and reinforce every move-
Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram. ment of the plastic surface. The bronzes
The subsequent phase, extending up of the later period lose this cohesiveness,
to the 13th century, is represented by the ornament, by virtue of its hardness,
work at Darasuram and Tribhuvanam; tending to divide and fragment the body
although the forms become increasingly it covers. The modelling also became
congealed, brittle works of fine quality— flatter and sharper, though not quite as
often capturing outer movement with rapidly in bronze sculpture as in stone.
great skill—continue to be produced. Ancient traditions of workmanship sur-
Sculpture in southern India continued vive to the present day, and a few guilds
when artistic activity was interrupted in of craftsmen continue to make compe-
the north by the Islamic invasions but, tent if somewhat lifeless images.
in spite of technical virtuosity, became Most South Indian bronze images
progressively lifeless. Artistic activity are representations of Hindu divinities,
continued in the south into the 17th cen- notably Vishnu and Shiva. One particular
tury, the elaborately sculptured halls at form deserves special notice as a striking
Indian Visual Arts | 221

This 11th-century statue of Shiva as Nataraja (Lord of the Dance) is an elegant example of
one of the bronze sculptures of the Chola dynasty of southern India. Shaun Curry/AFP/
Getty Images

southern contribution to Indian iconog- are symbolized by the dwarf demon

raphy. It is that of a four-armed Shiva crushed beneath the other foot. Several
as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja), shown splendid images are known, the finest
within a flaming halo, or aureole, one being, perhaps, the great image still wor-
hand holding the doubleheaded drum shipped in the Brhadishvara temple at
symbolizing sound, or creation, and the Thanjavur.
other holding the fire that puts an end to
all that is created. The palm of the third Maharashtra and Karnataka
hand faces the devotee, assuring him of
freedom from fear, while the fourth hand The Karnataka country possessed a flour-
points to the raised foot, the place of ref- ishing school of sculpture in the 7th and
uge from ignorance and delusion, which 8th centuries, as seen in examples from
222 | The Culture of India

Aihole, Pattadkal, and Alampur. As in a preference for intricate and elaborate

architecture, influences from the north ornament at all stages of its history.
are discernible, but the style is basically
southern, emphasizing rugged strength Indian Painting
and power compared to the more elegant
and delicate forms of the Tamil country. Literary works testify to the eminence of
In Maharashtra, cave temples at Ellora painting as an art form in India, particu-
carry the most important examples of larly in the decoration of walls, but climate
this phase of sculpture. Here the tradition has taken a devastating toll, leaving
is continued of images of great size that, behind only a few tantalizing examples.
in their primitive strength, partake of the By far the bulk of the preserved material
nature of the rock out of which they are consists of miniature painting, initially
carved. A series of large, splendid pan- done on palm leaf but later on paper. The
els (6th century AD) depicting incidents subject matter is generally religious (illus-
from Hindu mythology in high relief trating divinities, myths, and legends) and
are to be found in the Ramesvara cave; literary (illustrating poetry and romances,
notable among them is a fearsome repre- for example), though the Mughal school
sentation of the dancing Kali, goddess of was also concerned with historical and
death. The Kailasa temple (c. 757–783) has secular themes. The styles were rich and
a remarkable group of elephants strug- varied, often closely connected with one
gling with lions all around the plinth. Of another and sometimes developing and
the several large reliefs, also at Kailasa, changing rapidly, particularly from the
the depiction of Ravana shaking Kailasa 16th century onward. The work also shows
is a composition of considerable grace a surprising vitality under strained cir-
and charm. cumstances, surviving up to the very eve
Toward the 13th and 14th centuries, of the modern period when the other arts
a very distinctive style developed in had deteriorated greatly.
the Karnataka country, which was then
largely ruled by kings of the Hoysala Prehistoric and
dynasty. The materials employed are Protohistoric Periods
varieties of stone that are soft when
freshly quarried but harden on expo- Painting in India should have a history
sure, which may account partially for the stretching as far back as any of the other
extreme richness of the work. The sculp- arts but, because of its perishable nature,
ture is in very high relief, often undercut little has survived. None of the examples
and literally covered with the most elabo- found in rock shelters over almost all of
rate ornaments and jewelry from top to India, and chiefly representing scenes of
toe. This unrestrained extravaganza is hunting and war, appears to be earlier than
unique even for Indian art, which shows the 8th century BC, and all may be as late
Indian Visual Arts | 223

as the 10th century AD. A faint idea of the are a natural outgrowth of the long tra-
painter’s art in the Indus Valley civilization ditions of relief sculpture and reflect the
can be had from the pottery, elaborately splendour and maturity of contempo-
decorated with leaf designs and geometri- rary sculpture. The large images of the
cal patterns. bodhisattvas in Cave 1, combining rich
elegance with spiritual serenity, reflect
Ancient Wall Painting a vision that sees the shifting world of
matter and the transcendental calm of
The earliest substantial remains are those Nirvana as essentially one.
found in rock-cut cave temples at Ajanta, Except for a large and magnifi-
in western India. They belong to the 2nd cent painting of a dance scene found at
or 1st century BC and are in a style remi- the rock-cut cave at Bagh—a painting
niscent of the relief sculpture at Sanchi. executed in a style closely resembling
Also found at Ajanta are the most substan- Ajanta—hardly any other work of this
tial remains of Indian painting of about great period survives. Cave temples at
the 5th century AD and a little later, when Badami, in the Karnataka country, and
ancient Indian civilization was in full Sittanavasal, in Tamil Nadu, probably
flower. The paintings, the work of several of the late 6th and 7th centuries AD are
ateliers, decorate the walls and ceilings of already but echoes of the style of the 5th
the numerous cave temples and monas- century, which appears to have died out
teries at the site. They are executed in the around this time.
tempera technique on smooth surfaces,
prepared by application of plaster. The Eastern Indian Style
themes, nominally Buddhist, illustrate
the major events of the Buddha’s life, the Small illustrations on palm leaf, chiefly
Jataka tales, and the various divinities painted at the great Buddhist establish-
of the expanding Buddhist pantheon. ments of eastern India, appear to have
The ceilings are covered with rich motifs, conserved some elements of this ancient
based generally upon the lotus stem and style; but they have lost its dramatic
the world of animals and birds. The style impact, which is replaced by a studied
is unlike anything seen in later Indian art, preciosity and an inhibited meticulous-
expansive, free, and dynamic. The grace- ness. The surviving paintings date from
ful figures are painted by a sweeping and the 11th and 12th centuries and are con-
accomplished brush; and they are given ventional icons of the numerous Buddhist
body and substance by modelling in gods and goddesses, narrative represen-
colour and by a schematic distribution of tations having largely disappeared. With
light and shade that has little to do with the destruction of these Buddhist centres
scientific chiaroscuro. The narrative com- by the Islamic invader, the east Indian
positions, handled with utmost dexterity, style seems to have come to an end.
224 | The Culture of India

Western Indian Style the western Indian style is the eye pro-
jecting beyond the face shown in profile,
The style of Ajanta is succeeded in meant to represent the second eye, which
western India by what has been appro- would not be visible in this posture. The
priately named the western Indian style. colours are few and pure: yellow, green,
Among the earliest examples are a few blue, black, and red, which was preferred
surviving wall paintings of the Kailasa for the background. In the beginning, the
temple (mid-8th century) at Ellora and illustrations are simple icons in small
the Jaina temples, built at the same site panels; but gradually they become more
a hundred years later. The plastic sense elaborate, with scenes from the lives of
of form, so evident at Ajanta, is emphati- the various Jaina saviours as told in the
cally replaced by a style that even at this Kalpa-sutra and from the adventures
early stage is heavily dependent on line. of the monk Kalaka as related in the
The contours of the figures are sharp and Kalakaharyakatha the most favoured.
angular, the forms dry and abstract; and Even greater elaboration was pos-
the fluent, stately rhythms of Ajanta have sible with the increasing availability of
become laboured and halting. paper from the late 14th century; with
The most copious examples of this larger surfaces to paint on, by the middle
style, however, have survived not on the of the 15th century artists were produc-
walls of temples but in the large number ing opulent manuscripts, such as the
of illustrated manuscripts commissioned Kalpa-sutra in the Devasanopada library,
by members of the Jaina community. Ahmadabad. The text is written in gold on
The earliest of these are contemporary coloured ground, the margins gorgeously
with eastern Indian manuscripts and are illuminated with richest decorative and
also painted on palm leaf; but the style, figural patterns, and the main paintings
instead of attempting to cling to ancient often occupying the entire page. Blue
traditions, moves steadily in the direction and gold, in addition to red, are used with
already established at Ellora. It is a perfect increasing lavishness, testifying to the
counterpart of contemporary sculpture prosperity of the patron. The use of such
in western India, relying for its effect costly materials, however, did not neces-
on line, which progressively becomes sarily produce works of quality, and one
more angular and wiry until all natural- is often left with the impression of cur-
ism has been deliberately erased. The sive and hasty workmanship. With some
figures are almost always shown in pro- variations—but hardly any substantial
file, the full-face view generally reserved departures from the bounds that it had
for representations of the tirthankaras, set for itself—the style endured through-
or the Jaina saviours. A convention that out the 16th century and even extended
appears unfailingly for the duration of into the 17th. The political subjugation
Indian Visual Arts | 225

of the country by the forces of Islam handily transported, must have been eas-
may have contributed to the conserva- ily available. As a result there appears to
tism of the style but did not result in its have developed what can only be called
total elimination, as seems to have been an Indo-Persian style, based essentially
the case in eastern India. Indeed, in the on the schools of Iran but affected to
course of its long life, the western Indian a greater or lesser extent by the indi-
school became a national style, painting vidual tastes of the Indian rulers and
at other centres in India interpreting and by the local styles. The earliest known
elaborating its forms in their own indi- examples are paintings dating from the
vidual manner. In the province of Orissa, 15th century onward. The most impor-
painting on palm leaf and in a manner tant are the Khamseh (“Quintet”) of Amīr
entirely dependent on the western Indian Khosrow of Delhi (Freer Gallery of Art,
style has continued up to the present day. Washington, D.C.), a Bostān painted in
Mandu (National Museum, New Delhi),
Transition to the Mughal and, most interesting of all, a manu-
and Rajasthani Styles script of the Ne‘mat-nāmeh (India Office
Library, London) painted for a sultan of
The belief held earlier by scholars that Malwa in the opening years of the 16th
the new Islamic rulers of India did not century. Its illustrations are derived from
patronize any painting until the rise of the Turkmen style of Shīrāz but show
the Mughal dynasty in the 16th century is clear Indian features adapted from the
being abandoned in the face of the literary local version of the western Indian style.
testimony and the discovery or recogni- Though the western Indian style
tion of illustrated manuscripts that were was essentially conservative, it was not
painted at Indian courts. Nor should unfailingly so. It began to show signs
this be surprising, as the Muslim kings of an inner change most notably in two
of India had before them the example manuscripts from Mandu, a Kalpa-sutra
of other rulers of the Islamic world who and a Kalakaharyakatha of about 1439,
were great patrons of painting in spite of and a Kalpa-sutra painted at Jaunpur
the injunctions of orthodox Islam against in 1465. These works were done in the
the portrayal of living beings. The taste opulent manner of the 15th century, but
of these Indian rulers, however, did not for the first time the quality of the line
turn to the western Indian style but to the is different, and the uncompromisingly
flourishing traditions of Islamic paint- abstract expression begins to make way
ing abroad, notably neighbouring Iran. for a more human and emotional mood.
As many painters as architects had in By the opening years of the 16th century,
all probability been invited from foreign a new and vigorous style had come into
countries; and illustrated manuscripts, being. Although derived from the western
226 | The Culture of India

Indian style, it is clearly independent, full Persian master, Mīr Sayyid ‘Alī; but the
of the most vital energy, deeply felt, and distinctive style that evolved here owed
profoundly moving. The earliest dated not a little to the highly individual tastes
example is an Aranyaka Parva of the of Akbar himself, who took an interest
Mahabharata (1516; The Asiatic Society in the work, inspecting the atelier fre-
of Mumbai), and among the finest are quently and rewarding painters whose
series illustrating the Bhagavata-Purana work was pleasing.
and the Caurapancashika of Bilhana, The work of the Mughal atelier in
scattered in collections all over the world. this early formative stage was largely
A technically more refined variant of this confined to the illustration of books
style, preferring the pale, cool colours on a wide variety of subjects: histories,
of Persian derivation, a fine line, and romances, poetic works, myths, legends,
meticulous ornamentation, exists con- and fables, of both Indian and Persian
temporaneously and is best illustrated by origin. The manuscripts were first written
a manuscript of the ballad Candamyana by calligraphers, with blank spaces left
by Mullā Dāūd (c. first half of the 16th for the illustrations. These were executed
century; Prince of Wales Museum of largely by groups of painters, including
Western India, Mumbai). The early 16th a colourist, who did most of the actual
century thus appears to have been a painting, and specialists in portraiture
period of inventiveness and set the stage and in the mixing of colours. Chief of
for the development of the Mughal and the group was the designer, generally an
Rajput schools, which thrived from the artist of top quality, who formulated the
16th to the 19th century. composition and sketched in the rough
outline. A thin wash of white, through
Akbar Period (1556–1605) which the initial drawing was visible, was
then applied and the colours filled in. The
Although the Mughal dynasty came to colourist’s work proceeded slowly, the
power in India with the great victory colour being applied in several thin lay-
won by Babar at the Battle of Panipat in ers and frequently rubbed down with an
1526, the Mughal style was almost exclu- agate burnisher, a process that resulted
sively the creation of Akbar. Trained in the glowing, enamel-like finish. The
in painting at an early age by a Persian colours used were mostly mineral but
master, Khwāja ‘Abd-ul-S·amad, who was sometimes consisted of vegetable dyes;
employed by his father, Humāyūn, Akbar and the brushes, many of them exceed-
created a large atelier, which he staffed ingly fine, were made from squirrel’s tail
with artists recruited from all parts of or camel hair.
India. The atelier, at least in the initial The earliest paintings (c. 1560–70)
stages, was under the superintendence of the school of Akbar are illustrations
of Akbar’s teacher and another great of T·ūt· ī-nāmeh (“Parrot Book”; Cleveland
Indian Visual Arts | 227

Museum of Art) and the stupendous illus- hundred illustrations, the prolific out-
trations of the Dāstān-e Amīr H · amzeh put of the atelier made possible by the
(“Stories of Amīr H · amzeh”; Museum of division of labour that was in effect.
Applied Arts, Vienna), which originally Historical events are recreated with
consisted of 1,400 paintings of an unusu- remarkable inventiveness, though the
ally large size (approximately 25 inches explosive and almost frantic energy of
by 16 inches [65 by 40 centimetres]), of the Dāstān-e Amīr-H · amzeh has begun to
which only about 200 have survived. The subside. The scale was smaller and the
T·ūt· ī-nāmeh shows the Mughal style in work began to acquire a studied richness.
the process of formation: the hand of art- The narrative method employed by these
ists belonging to the various non-Mughal Mughal paintings, like that of traditional
traditions is clearly recognizable, but the literature, is infinitely discursive; and the
style also reveals an intense effort to cope painter did not hesitate to provide a fairly
with the demands of a new patron. The detailed picture of contemporary life—
transition is achieved in the Dāstān-e Amīr both of the people and of the court—and
H· amzeh, in which the uncertainties are of the rich fauna and flora of India. Like
overcome in a homogeneous style, quite Indian artists of all periods, the Mughal
unlike Persian work in its leaning toward painter showed a remarkable empa-
naturalism and filled with swift, vigorous thy for animals, for through them flows
movement and bold colour. The forms are the same life that flows through human
individually modelled, except for the geo- beings. This sense of kinship allowed
metrical ornament used as architectural him to achieve unqualified success in the
decor; the figures are superbly interre- illustration of animal fables such as the
lated in closely unified compositions, in Anwār-e Suhaylī (“Lights of Caropus”),
which depth is indicated by a preference of which several copies were painted, the
for diagonals; and much attention is paid earliest dated 1570 (School of Oriental
to the expression of emotion. One of the and African Studies, London). It was in
last manifestations of this bold and vigor- the illustrations to Persian translations of
ous early manner is the Dārāb-nameh (c. the Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and
1580) in the British Museum. the Ramayana, that the Mughal painter
Immediately following were some revealed to the full the richness of his
very important historical manuscripts, imagination and his unending resource-
including the Tārīkh-e Khāndān-e fulness. With little precedent to rely on,
Tīmūrīyeh (“History of the House of he was nevertheless seldom dismayed by
Timur,” c. 1580–85; Khuda Baksh Library, the subject and created a whole series of
Patna) and other works concerned with convincing compositions. Because most
the affairs of the Timurid dynasty, to of the painters of the atelier were Hindus,
which the Mughals belonged. Each of the subjects must have been close to their
these manuscripts contains several hearts; and, given the opportunity by a
228 | The Culture of India

tolerant and sympathetic patron, they rose Also prepared in the late 1590s were
to great heights. It is no wonder, there- magnificent copies of the Akbar-nāmeh
fore, that the Razm-nāmeh (City Palace (“History of Akbar”; Victoria and Albert
Museum, Jaipur), as the Mahabharata is Museum, London) and the Kitāb-e
known in Persian, is one of the outstand- Changīz-nāmeh (“History of Genghis
ing masterpieces of the age. Khan”; Gulistan Library, Tehran). These
In addition to large books contain- copiously illustrated volumes were pro-
ing numerous illustrations, which were duced by artists working jointly, but the
the products of the combined efforts of quality of refinement is similar to that of
many artists, the imperial atelier also the poetic manuscripts.
cultivated a more intimate manner that Of the large number of painters who
specialized in the illustration of books, worked in the imperial atelier, the most
generally poetic works, with a smaller outstanding were Dasvant and Basavan.
number of illustrations. The paintings The former played the leading part in the
were done by a single master artist who, illustration of the Razm-nāmeh. Basavan,
working alone, had ample scope to dis- who is preferred by some to Dasvant,
play his virtuosity. In style the works painted in a very distinctive style, which
tend to be finely detailed and exquisitely delighted in the tactile and the plastic,
coloured. A Dīvān (“Anthology”) of and with an unerring grasp of psycho-
Anwarī (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, logical relationships.
Massachusetts), dated 1589, is a rela-
tively early example of this manner. The Jahāngīr Period (1605–27)
paintings are very small, none larger
than five inches by 2 ½ inches (12 by 6 The emperor Jahāngīr, even as a prince,
centimetres) and most delicately exe- showed a keen interest in painting and
cuted. Very similar in size and quality maintained an atelier of his own. His
are the miniatures illustrating the Dīvān tastes, however, were not the same as
of H· āfez· (Reza Library, Rāmpur). On a those of his father, and this is reflected in
larger scale but in the same mood are the painting, which underwent a signifi-
the manuscripts that represent the most cant change. The tradition of illustrating
delicate and refined works of the reign books began to die out, though a few
of Akbar: the Bahāristān of Jāmī (1595; manuscripts, in continuation of the old
Bodleian Library, Oxford), a Khamseh style, were produced. For Jahāngīr much
of Nez· āmī (1593; British Museum, preferred portraiture; and this tradition,
London), a Khamseh of Amīr Khosrow also initiated in the reign of his father,
(1598; Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore and was greatly developed. Among the most
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), elaborate works of his reign are the great
and an Anwār-e Suhaylī (1595–96; Bharat court scenes, several of which have sur-
Kala Bhavan, Vārānasī). vived, showing Jahāngīr surrounded by
Indian Visual Arts | 229

his numerous courtiers. These are essen- with a wide range of taste and a curious,
tially large-scale exercises in portraiture, enquiring mind.
the artist taking great pains to reproduce Jahāngīr esteemed the art of painting
the likeness of every figure. and honoured his painters. His favourite
The compositions of these paintings was Abū al-Hasan, who was designated
have lost entirely the bustle and move- Nādir-ul-Zamān (“Wonder of the Age”).
ment so evident in the works of Akbar’s Several pictures by the master are known,
reign. The figures are more formally among them a perceptive study of
ordered, their comportment in keeping Jahāngīr looking at a portrait of his father.
with the strict rules of etiquette enforced Also much admired was Ustād Mans·ūr,
in the Mughal court. The colours are designated Nādir-ul-‘As·r (“Wonder of
subdued and harmonious, the bright the Time”), whose studies of birds and
glowing palette of the Akbarī artist animals are unparalleled. Bishandās was
having been quickly abandoned. The singled out by the emperor as unique in
brushwork is exceedingly fine. Technical the art of portraiture. Manohar, the son
virtuosity, however, is not all that was of Basavan, Govardhan, and Daulat are
attained, for beneath the surface of the other important painters of this reign.
great portraits of the reign there is a
deep and often spiritual understanding Shāh Jahān Period (1628–58)
of the character of the person and the
drama of human life. Under Shāh Jahān, attention seems to
Many of the paintings produced have shifted to architecture, but painting
at the imperial atelier are preserved in in the tradition of Jahāngīr continued.
the albums assembled for Jahāngīr and The style, however, becomes noticeably
his son Shāh Jahān. The Muraqqah-e rigid. The portraits resemble hieratic
Gulshan is the most spectacular. (Most effigies, lacking the breath of life so
surviving folios from this album are in evident in the work of Jahāngīr’s time.
the Gulistan Library in Tehran and the The colouring is jewel-like in its bril-
National Museums of Berlin.) There are liance, and the outward splendour quite
assembled masterpieces from Iran, curi- dazzling. The best work is found in the
osities from Europe, works produced in Shāhjahānnāmeh (“History of Shāh
the reign of Akbar, and many of the finest Jahān”) of the Windsor Castle Library
paintings of Jahāngīr’s master painters, and in several albums assembled for the
all surrounded by the most magnificent emperor. Govardhan and Bichitra, who
borders decorated with a wide variety had begun their careers in the reign of
of floral and geometrical designs. The Jahāngīr, were among the outstand-
album gives a fairly complete idea of ing painters; several works by them are
Jahāngīr as a patron, collector, and con- quite above the general level produced
noisseur of the arts, revealing a person in this reign.
230 | The Culture of India

Aurangzeb and the Later Mughals to copies of old masterpieces still in

(1659–1806) the imperial library. This great library
was dispersed and destroyed during the
From the reign of Aurangzeb (1659–1707), uprising of 1857 against the British.
a few pictures have survived that essen-
tially continue the cold style of Shāh Deccani Style
Jahān; but the rest of the work is nonde-
script, consisting chiefly of an array of In mood and manner, Deccani painting,
lifeless portraits, most of them the output which flourished over much of the Deccan
of workshops other than the imperial ate- Plateau from at least the last quarter of
lier. Genre scenes, showing gatherings of the 16th century, is reminiscent of the
ascetics and holy men, lovers in a garden contemporary Mughal school. Again, a
or on a terrace, musical parties, carousals, homogeneous style evolved from a com-
and the like, which had grown in number bination of foreign (Persian and Turkish)
from the reign of Shāh Jahān, became and Indian elements, but with a distinct
quite abundant. They sometimes show local flavour. Of the early schools, the style
touches of genuine quality, particularly in patronized by the sultans of Bijapur—nota-
the reign of Muh·ammad Shāh (1719–48), bly the tolerant and art-loving Ibrāhīm
who was passionately devoted to the arts. ‘Ādil Shāh II of Bijapur, famous for his
This brief revival, however, was momen- love of music—is particularly distin-
tary, and Mughal painting essentially guished. Some splendid portraits of him,
came to an end during the reign of Shāh more lyrical and poetic in concept than
‘Ālam II (1759–1806). The artists of this contemporary Mughal portraits, are to be
disintegrated court were chiefly occu- found. A wonderful series depicting sym-
pied in reveries of the past, the best work, bolically the musical modes (ragamala)
for whatever it is worth, being confined also survives. Of illustrated manuscripts,

Company School
The style of miniature painting that developed in India in the second half of the 18th century
was known as Company school or Patna painting. It was so called because it developed in
response to the tastes of the British serving with the East India Company. The style first emerged
in Murshidabad, West Bengal, and then spread to other centres of British trade: Benares (now
Varanasi), Delhi, Lucknow, and Patna.
The paintings were executed in watercolours on paper and on mica. Favourite subjects
were scenes of Indian daily life, local rulers, and sets of festivals and ceremonies, in line with
the “cult of the picturesque” then current in British artistic circles. Most successful were the
studies of natural life, but the style was generally of a hybrid and undistinguished quality.
Indian Visual Arts | 231

the most important are the Nujūm-ul- particularly favoured were depictions
‘ulūm (“The Stars of the Sciences,” 1590; of his early life as the cowherd of Vraja,
Chester Beatty Library, Dublin) and the and the mystical love of Vraja’s maidens
Tārīf-e H·useyn-Shāhī (Bharata Itihasa for him, as celebrated in the Bhagavata-
Samshodhaka Mandala, Pune), painted Purana, the Gitagovinda of Jayadeva,
about 1565 in the neighbouring state of and the Braj Bhasha verses written by
Ahmadnagar. The sultanate of Golconda Surdas and other poets. The style of the
also produced work of high quality—for painting, no less than the literature, is a
example, a manuscript of the Dīvān of product of the new religious movements,
Muh·ammad Qulī Qut·b Shāh in the Salar all of which stressed personal devotion to
Jang Library, Hyderabad, and a series of Krishna as the way to salvation. Related
distinguished portraits up to the end of popular themes were pictorial represen-
the 17th century (dispersed in various col- tations of the musical modes (ragamala)
lections). The state of Hyderabad, founded and illustrations of poetical works such
in the early 18th century and headed by as the Rasikapriya of Keshavadasa, which
a grandee of the Mughal empire, was a dealt with the sentiment of love, analyz-
great centre of painting. The work that was ing its varieties and endlessly classifying
produced there reflects both Golconda the types of lovers and beloveds and their
traditions and increasing Mughal and emotions. Portraits, seldom found in the
Rajasthani influences. early phase, became increasingly com-
mon in the 18th century—as did court
Rajasthani Style scenes, scenes of sporting and hunting
events, and other scenes concerned with
This style appears to have come into the courtly life of the great chiefs and feu-
being in the 16th century, about the same dal lords of Rajasthan.
time the Mughal school was evolving The Rajasthani style developed vari-
under the patronage of Akbar; but, rather ous distinct schools, most of them centring
than a sharp break from the indigenous in the several states of Rajasthan, namely
traditions, it represented a direct and Mewar, Bundi, Kotah, Markar, Bikaner,
natural evolution. Throughout the early Kishangarh, and Jaipur (Amber). It also
phase, almost up to the end of the 17th had centres outside the geographical limits
century, it retained its essentially hieratic of present-day Rajasthan, notably Gujarat,
and abstract character, as opposed to the Malwa, and Bundelkhand. The study of
naturalistic tendencies cultivated by the Rajasthani painting is still in its infancy,
Mughal atelier. The subject matter of this for most of the material has been avail-
style is essentially Hindu, devoted mainly able for study only since the mid-1940s.
to the illustration of myths and legends, The Mughal and Rajasthani styles
the epics, and above all the life of Krishna; were always in contact with each other,
232 | The Culture of India

but in general the Rajasthani schools and a wave of Mughal influence began to
were not essentially affected by the affect the school in the opening years of
work produced at the Mughal court dur- the 18th century. Portraits, court scenes,
ing the greater part of the 17th century. and events in the everyday world of the
This became less true in the 18th cen- ruling classes are increasingly found.
tury, when the sharp distinction between Although the emotional fervour of the
the two became progressively obscured, 17th century was never again attained,
though each retained its distinctive fea- this work is often of considerable charm.
tures right up to the end. The 19th century continued to create
work in the tradition of the 18th, one
Mewar of the most important centres being
Nathdwara (Rajasthan), the seat of the
The Mewar school is among the most Vallabha sect. Large numbers of pictures,
important. The earliest dated examples produced here for the pilgrim trade, were
are represented by a ragamala series spread over all parts of Rajasthan, north-
painted at Chawand in 1605 (Gopi ern India, Gujarat, and the Deccan.
Krishna Kanoria Collection, Patna).
These simple paintings, filled with bright Bundi and Kotah
colour, are only a step removed from the
pre-Rajasthani phase. The style became A school as important as that of Mewar
more elaborate in the first quarter of the developed at Bundi and later at Kotah,
17th century when another ragamala, which was formed by a partition of the
painted at Udaipur in 1628 (formerly in parent state and ruled by a junior branch
the Khajanchi Collection, Bikaner; now of the Bundi family. The earliest exam-
dispersed in various collections), showed ples are represented by a ragamala series
some superficial acquaintance with the of extraordinarily rich quality, probably
Mughal manner. This phase, lasting until dating from the end of the 16th century.
about 1660, was one of the most impor- From the very beginning the Bundi style
tant for the development of painting all seemed to have found Mughal painting
over Rajasthan. Ambitious and exten- an inspiring source, but its workmanship
sive illustrations of the Bhagavata, the was as distinctively Rajasthani as the
Ramayana, the poems of Surdas, and work of Mewar. The artists of this school
the Gitagovinda were completed, all full always displayed a pronounced prefer-
of strength and vitality. The name of ence for vivid movement, which is unique
Sāhabadī is intimately connected with in all of Rajasthan. Toward the second half
this phase; another well-known painter of the 17th century, work at Bundi came
is Manohar. The intensity and richness unmistakably under the influence of
associated with their atelier began to Mewar; many miniatures, including sev-
fade toward the close of the 17th century, eral series illustrating the Rasikapriya,
Indian Visual Arts | 233

Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana, Mewar miniature painting, early 18th century; in a pri-
vate collection. P. Chandra
234 | The Culture of India

indicate that this was a period of prolific Marwar

activity. The sister state of Kotah also
appears to have become an important A ragamala series dated 1623 reveals
centre of painting at this time, develop- that painting in this state shared features
ing a great fondness for hunting and common to other schools of Rajasthan.
sport scenes, all filled with great vigour Miniatures of the second half of the
and surging strength. This kind of work 17th century are distinguished by some
continued well into the 19th century, and splendid portraits that owe much to the
if the workmanship is not always of the Mughal school. A very large amount of
highest quality, the style maintained its work was done in the 19th century, all
integrity against the rapidly increasing of which is highly stylized but strong in
Western influence right up to the end. colour and often of great charm.

Malwa Bikaner

It has been suggested but not definitely Of all Rajasthani schools, the Bikaner
determined that the school itself does style, from its very inception in the
not belong to Malwa but to some other mid-17th century, shows the greatest
area, probably Bundelkhand. In contrast indebtedness to the Mughal style. This is
to the Bundi school, miniatures gener- due to the presence in the Bikaneratelier
ally thought to have been painted in of artists who had previously worked in
Malwa are quite archaistic, with man- the Mughal manner at Delhi. They and
nerisms inherited from the 16th century their descendants continued to paint in a
retained until the end of the 17th. The ear- style that could only be classed as a pro-
liest work is an illustrated version of the vincial Mughal manner had it not been for
Rasikapriya (1634), followed by a series the quick absorption of influences from
illustrating a Sanskrit poem called the the Rajasthani environment and a sympa-
Amaru Shataka (1652). There are also thy for the religious and literary themes
illustrations of the musical modes (raga- favoured by the royal Hindu patrons.
mala), the Bhagavata-Purana, and other Delicacy of line and colour are consistent
Hindu devotional and literary works. The characteristics of Bikaner painting even
compositions of all of these pictures is when, toward the end of the 18th century, it
uncompromisingly flat, the space divided assumed stylistic features associated with
into registers and panels, each filled with the more orthodox Rajasthani schools.
a patch of colour and occupied by figures
that convey the action. This conservative Kishangarh
style disappeared after the close of the 17th
century. The course of Malwa painting in The Kishangarh school, which came
the 18th century and later is not known. into being toward the mid-18th century,
Indian Visual Arts | 235

was also indebted to the contemporary the Pahari style, so-named because of its
Mughal style but combined a rich and prevalence in the erstwhile hill states of
refined technique with deeply moving the Himalayas, stretching roughly from
religious fervour. Its inspiring patron in Jammu to Garhwal. It can be divided
the formative phase was Savant Singh, into two main schools, the Basohli and
more of a devotee and a poet than a king. the Kangra, but it must be understood
The style established by him, character- that these schools were not confined to
ized by pronounced mystical leanings the centres after which they are named
and a distinctive facial type, continued to but extended all over the area. Unlike
the middle of the 19th century, though at Rajasthan, the area covered by the Pahari
a clearly lower level of achievement. style is small, and the probability of art-
ists travelling from one area to another
Jaipur (Amber) in search of livelihood was much greater.
Thus, attempts to distinguish regional
The rulers of the state were closely allied schools are fraught with controversy, and
to the Mughal dynasty, but paintings it has been suggested that a classifica-
of the late 16th and early 17th centu- tion based upon ateliers and families is
ries possessed all of the elements of the likely to be more tenable than those pres-
Rajasthani style. Little is known about ently current among scholars. Because
the school until the opening years of the the Basohli and the Kangra schools show
18th century, when stiff, formal examples considerable divergences, scholars have
appear in the reign of Savai Jai Singh. postulated the existence of a transitional
The finest works, dating from the reign phase, named the pre-Kangra style.
of Pratap Singh, are sumptuous in effect
and include some splendid portraits and Basohli School
some large paintings of the sports of
Krishna. Although the entire 19th cen- The origins of this remarkable style are
tury was extremely productive, the work not yet understood, but it is clear that the
was rather undistinguished and increas- style was flourishing toward the close of
ingly affected by Western influences. the 17th century. The earliest dated paint-
Of the Rajasthani styles of this period, ings are illustrations to the Rasamanjari
the Jaipur school was the most popular, of Bhanudatta (a Sanskrit work on poet-
examples having been found all over ics), executed for a ruler of Basohli (1690;
northern India. Boston Museum of Fine Arts). Bold
colour, vigorous drawing, and primitive
Pahari Style intensity of feeling are outstanding quali-
ties in these paintings, quite surpassing
Closely allied to the Rajasthani schools the work of the plains. In addition to other
both in subject matter and technique is Hindu works such as the Gitagovinda
236 | The Culture of India

and the Bhagavata-Purana, a fairly large being replaced by feeble works in a vari-
number of idealized portraits have also ety of idioms, all strongly influenced by
been discovered. the West. A reaction set in during the
early 20th century, symbolized by what
Kangra School is called the Bengal school. The glories
of Indian art were rediscovered, and the
The Basohli style began to fade by school consciously tried to produce what
the mid-18th century, being gradually it considered a truly Indian art inspired
replaced by the Kangra style, named by the creations of the past. Its leading
after the state of Kangra but, like the artist was Abanindranath Tagore and its
Basohli style, of much wider prevalence. theoretician was E.B. Havell, the principal
A curvilinear line, easy flowing rhythms, of the Calcutta School of Art. Nostalgic
calmer colours, and a mood of sweet lyri- in mood, the work was mainly sentimen-
cism easily distinguish the work from tal though often of considerable charm.
that of the Basohli style. The reasons for The Bengal school did a great deal to
this change are to be sought in strong reshape contemporary taste and to make
influences from the plains, notably the Indian artists aware of their own heri-
Mughal styles of Delhi and Lucknow. tage. Amrita Sher-Gil, who was inspired
These influences account for the more by the Postimpressionists, made Indian
refined technique; but whatever was bor- painters aware of new directions. Mid-
rowed was transmuted and given a fresh 20th-century Indian painting is very
and tender aspect. Among the greatest much a part of the international scene,
works are large series illustrating the the artists painting in a variety of idioms,
Bhagavata-Purana (National Museum, often attempting to come to terms with
New Delhi), the Gitagovinda, and the their heritage and with the emergence of
Satsai of Bihari (both in the collection India as a modern culture.
of the maharaja of Tehri-Garhwal), all
painted in 1775–80. The corpus of work Indian Decorative Arts
produced is very large and, although
it seldom fails to please, works of high Fragmentary ivory furniture (c. 1st cen-
achievement are rare. The school flour- tury AD) excavated at Begram is one of
ished from about 1770 to almost the end the few indications of the existence in
of the 19th century, but the finest work ancient India of a secular art concerned
was produced largely from 1775 to 1820. with the production of luxurious and
richly decorated objects meant for daily
Modern Period use. Objects that can be clearly designated
as works of decorative art become much
Toward the late 19th century traditional more extensive for the later periods, dur-
Indian painting was rapidly dying out, ing which Islamic traditions were having
Indian Visual Arts | 237

a profound effect on Indian artistic tradi- that ivory craftsmanship was always
tions. The reign of the Mughal emperors, vital. Ancient traditions, relatively unaf-
in particular, produced works of the most fected by Islamic influence, continued in
elaborate and exquisite craftsmanship; southern India up to modern times. An
the decorative tradition is clearly pre- exquisitely carved box from Vijayanagar
served in architectural ornament, though (16th century; Prince of Wales Museum
surviving decorative objects themselves, of Western India, Mumbai) is representa-
particularly before the 17th century, tive; many other exquisite objects of this
are far fewer than might be expected. period and later are among the treasures
Economic conditions, including competi- of South Indian temples.
tion with machine-made goods imported There is even less evidence of what
from English factories, and a change in the decorative work in metal was like. The
taste from increasing European influence practice of re-using the metal by melting
had disastrous consequences for tradi- unserviceable items may account for the
tional craftsmanship, especially in the paucity of objects, for there is little doubt
late 19th and 20th centuries. that the craft was always flourishing. A
hoard found at Kolhapur, consisting of
Pre-Islamic Period plates, various kinds of vessels, lamps
and objets d’art, including a superb
Of the very few objects surviving from bronze elephant with riders, constitutes
the pre-Islamic period, the most impor- the most important surviving group of
tant are fragments of ivory caskets, metal objects and is datable to about the
chairs, and footstools found at Begram, 2nd century AD. Some fine examples of
in eastern Afghanistan, but obviously of ritual utensils, notably elaborate incense
Indian origin and strongly reminiscent of burners, of the 8th–9th century have been
the school of Mathura in the 1st century excavated at Nālandā; and a large num-
AD. The work is profusely decorated with ber of 14th-century ceremonial vessels of
carved panels and confirms the wide repu- complex design and excellent workman-
tation for superb ivories that India had in ship, and apparently belonging to the
ancient times. Nothing as spectacular has local temple, were discovered at Kollur, in
come down from the succeeding periods, Mysore state.
but stray examples such as the so-called Gold played an extremely important
Charlemagne chessman (c. 8th century; role in the manufacture of jewelry, but
Cabinet des Medailles, Paris) and two once again the finds are hardly com-
magnificent throne legs, of Orissan work- mensurate with tradition. Small amounts
manship, carved in the shape of griffins of gold jewelry have been excavated at
with elephant heads (13th century; Freer Mohenjo-daro and Harappa (3rd millen-
Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., and nium BC); and, in the historical period,
Philadelphia Museum of Art), indicate a very important group, of delicate
238 | The Culture of India

workmanship, has been excavated at tapestries, curtains, draperies, canopies,

Taxila (c. 2nd century AD). and carpets in contemporary architec-
From earliest times, India has been ture were the nomadic tenting traditions
famous for the variety and magnificence of the Mughal rulers.
of its textiles. In this case, however, the The variety of techniques employed
Indian climate has been particularly in the manufacture of textiles was infinite,
destructive; virtually nothing has sur- ranging from printed and painted patterns
vived the heat and moisture. Besides the to the exquisite embroidery decoration
testimony of literature and the evidence of woolen shawls and the costly figured
of figural sculpture, only a few fragments brocading of silk. An important contribu-
of printed textiles are preserved—at tion to carpet weaving was the landscape
Fust·āt· in Egypt, where they had been carpet that reproduced pictorial themes
exported. These date approximately to inspired by miniature painting. Much
the 14th century. of the surviving textile work dates from
the 18th century or later, though the 16th
Islamic Period and 17th centuries produced works of the
most outstanding quality.
Traditions of craftsmanship established In response to growing European
during the Islamic period came to full trade, a considerable amount of furni-
flower during the reign of the Mughal ture (chairs, cabinets, chests of drawers,
dynasty. Surviving works of decorative and the like) was produced, mostly
art are more abundant, though once wood inlaid with ivory. Many of these
again there are hardly as many examples pieces have been preserved in the kinder
as might be expected, particularly from European climate. Although the furni-
the 16th and 17th centuries. According ture made for export gives some idea of
to literary testimony and the few avail- the craft in India, it must be emphasized
able examples, the finest objects were that only the ornamental and figural work
undoubtedly made in the imperial was Indian, while the form was European.
workshops set up in large number at Also in a hybrid Indo-European style
the capital and in the great cities of the were the Christian objects produced by a
empire, where they were nourished by local school of ivory carvers at Goa.
local traditions. Well-organized, these Metal objects of sumptuous qual-
shops specialized in particular items, ity were also made, a unique example of
such as textiles, carpets, jewelry, orna- which is a splendid, elaborately chiselled
mental arms and armour, metalware, and 16th-century cup in the Prince of Wales
jade. Textile manufacture must have been Museum of Western India in Mumbai.
enormous, considering the demands This tradition was continued in the 17th
of court and social etiquette and rit- and particularly the 18th century, when
ual. Contributing to the popularity of vessels made of a variety of metals and
Indian Visual Arts | 239

adorned with engraved, chiselled, inlaid, Architectural decoration provides

and enamelled designs were very popu- a clear idea of the range of ornamental
lar. Arms and armour, in particular, were patterns used by the Mughal artist. They
decorated with the skill of a jeweler. consisted mainly of arabesques (intricate
Particularly striking are the carved hilts, interlaced patterns made up of flower,
often done in animal shapes. foliage, fruit, and sometimes animal and
Jade or jadeite was much fancied figural outlines) and infinitely varied
by the rich and was used together with geometric patterns—motifs shared with
crystal to make precious vessels as well the rest of the Muslim world—together
as sword and dagger hilts. A rather large with floral scrolls and other designs
number of 18th- and 19th-century objects adapted from Indian traditions. As a
have survived, but they are often of non- whole, the Mughal decorative style tends
descript quality. The greatest period for to endow ornamental patterns with a dis-
jade carving seems to have been the tinctive plasticity not seen in the more
17th century; a few outstanding examples truly two-dimensional Iranian and Arab
associated with the emperors Jahāngīr work. From the 17th century, a type of flo-
and Shāh Jahān are of singular delicacy ral spray became the most favoured motif
and perfection. The practice of inlay- and was found on almost every deco-
ing jade, and also stone, with precious rated object. The motif, symmetrical but
or semiprecious stones became more relatively naturalistic at the beginning,
popular with the reign of Shāh Jahān and became progressively stiff and stylized,
increasingly characteristic of Indian jade but never lost its importance in the orna-
craftsmanship from that time on. mental vocabulary.
Indian Music

T raditional Indian music is divided between the Hindustani

(northern) and Karnatak (Carnatic; southern) schools.
(The Hindustani style is influenced by musical traditions of
the Persian-speaking world.) Instrumental and vocal music is
also varied and frequently played or sung in concert (usually by
small ensembles). It is a popular mode of religious expression,
as well as an essential accompaniment to many social festivi-
ties, including dances and the narration of bardic and other folk
narratives. Some virtuosos, most notably Ravi Shankar (com-
poser and sitar player) and Ali Akbar Khan (composer and
sarod player), have gained world renown. The most popular dra-
matic classical performances, sometimes choreographed, relate
to the great Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Regional variations of classical and folk music abound. All of
these genres have remained popular—as has devotional Hindu
music—but interest in Indian popular music has grown rap-
idly since the late 20th century, buoyed by the great success
of motion picture musicals. Western classical music is rep-
resented by such institutions as the Symphony Orchestra of
India, based in Mumbai, and some individuals (notably con-
ductor Zubin Mehta) have achieved international renown.


The wide field of musical phenomena in South Asia ranges

from the relatively straightforward two- or three-tone
Indian Music | 241

melodies of some of the hill tribes in accompany the singers, who often dance
central India to the highly cultivated art while they sing.
music heard in concert halls in the large In each area and even within a single
cities. This variety reflects the heteroge- area, different social groups have their
neous population of the subcontinent in own individual songs whose origins are
terms of ethnic heritage, religion, lan- lost in antiquity. The songs are passed on
guage, and social status. from one generation to another, and in
most cases the composers are unknown.
Rural Areas Apart from folk songs, one also hears
outdoor instrumental music in villages.
In the villages, music is not just a form The music is provided by an ensemble of
of entertainment but is an essential ele- varying size, which consists basically of
ment in many of the activities of daily life an oboe type of instrument (usually a
and plays a prominent part in most ritu- shehnai in North India and nagaswaram
als. These include life-cycle events, such in the south) and a variety of drums.
as birth, initiation, marriage, and death; Sometimes straight, curved, or S-shaped
events of the agricultural cycle, such as horns may be added. These groups play
planting, transplanting, harvesting, and at weddings, funerals, and religious pro-
threshing; and a variety of work songs. cessions. The musicians are professional
Much of this music could be described as or semiprofessional and usually belong
functional, for it serves a utilitarian pur- to a very low caste. Such ensembles are
pose; for instance, a harvest song might found in tribal and other predominantly
well give thanks to God for a bountiful rural societies as well as in villages and
harvest, but underlying this is the idea cities.
that singing this song in its traditional Other professional music is also
manner will help to ensure that the next found in the rural regions. Most areas are
harvest will be equally fruitful. These visited by religious mendicants, many
songs are usually sung by all the mem- of whom travel around the countryside
bers participating in the activity and are singing devotional songs, accompany-
sung not for a human audience but for ing themselves either with a one-, two-,
a spiritual one. They are often sung in or three-stringed lute that generally
the form of leader and chorus, and the provides only a drone or with a frame
musical accompaniment, if any, is gen- (tambourine-like) drum. They carry with
erally provided by drone instruments them a small begging bowl and main-
(those sustaining or reiterating a given tain themselves entirely on what they
note or notes), usually of the lute fam- receive in alms. There are also itinerant
ily, or percussion instruments, such as magicians, snake charmers, acrobats, and
drums, clappers, and pairs of cymbals. storytellers who travel in the rural areas.
Occasionally, a fiddle or flute might also Music is often involved in their acts, and
242 | The Culture of India

the storyteller generally sings his tales, most Indian popular songs—but also
which may be taken from the two epics, contributing to changing musical tastes
the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and aesthetics across the countryside.
or from the Puranas, the legends that Conversely, film music and other popu-
describe the adventures of the incarna- lar genres, such as the now ubiquitous
tions of God as they rid the world of evil. bhangra music, have clearly been inspired
Sometimes the narrative songs are con- by rural traditions. Although many dis-
cerned with historical characters and tinct rural and urban musics continue to
describe the wars and the heroic deeds be practiced in the 21st century, the tradi-
of the regional rulers. Some storytellers tions are increasingly intertwined.
specialize in generally tragic stories of
romance and of lovers. Classical Music
During certain religious festivals,
the villages might be visited by a travel- Many different forms of music can be
ling band of players who enact some of heard in the cities. Of these, best known
the mythological episodes connected in the West are the classical music of
with the festival. Such performances are North India (including Pakistan), also
accompanied by music and may also called Hindustani music, and that of
include dances. During the festivals vil- South India, also called Karnatak music.
lagers may visit neighbourhood shrines Both classical systems are supported by
or temples, there encountering religious an extensive body of literature and elabo-
mendicants singing devotional songs and rate musical theory. Until modern times,
perhaps watching elaborate enactments classical music was patronized by the
of the episodes connected with the festi- princely courts and to some extent also
val. Thus, the villagers become familiar by wealthy noblemen. Since India gained
with the mythological and philosophical independence in 1947, and with the abo-
aspects of their religion, in spite of low lition of the princely kingdoms, the
levels of literacy in many rural areas and emphasis has shifted to the milieu of large
the difficulties of communication via the concert halls. The concertgoer, radio, and
overland infrastructure, which may be the cinema are now the main patrons of
limited to a narrow dirt road traversed by the classical musicians. Meanwhile, the
bullock carts. growth of university music programs,
Especially since the mid-20th century, particularly involving classical music,
there has been considerable interac- has placed greater emphasis on music
tion between rural and urban cultures. history and theory and has provided a
Travelling cinemas, set up quickly and further source of income for musicolo-
easily in tents, have visited the rural areas gists and musicians. The traditional
for many years, not only bringing Western- system of private instruction, however,
influenced film music—the source of still continues to this day.
Indian Music | 243

India’s music, both classical and popular, has drawn more fans in recent years. Here, musi-
cians perform during the Indian musical Bharati at the ICC Center on January 2, 2007, in
Berlin, Germany. Christian Jakubaszek/Getty Images

Classical music is based on two main the music is invariably accompanied

elements, raga and tala. The word raga by a drone that establishes the tonic, or
is derived from a Sanskrit root meaning ground note, of the raga and usually its
“to colour,” the underlying idea being fifth (i.e., five notes above). These are cho-
that certain melodic shapes, involving sen to suit the convenience of the main
specific intervals of the scale, produce performer, as there is no concept of fixed
a continuity of emotional experience pitch. While a raga is primarily a musi-
and “colour” the mind. Since neither the cal concept, specific ragas, particularly in
melodic shapes nor their sequence are North Indian music, possess a number
fixed precisely, a raga serves as a basis for of nonsonic elements in their associa-
composition and improvisation. Indian tion with particular periods of the day,
music has neither modulation (change seasons of the year, colours, deities, and
of key) nor changing harmonies; instead, specific moods.
244 | The Culture of India

The second element of Indian music, its inspiration from a number of sources,
tala, is best described as time measure and both Indian and Western; classical, folk,
has two main constituents; the duration of and devotional music are the main Indian
the time measure in terms of time units sources, while Western influence is seen
that vary according to the tempo chosen; most obviously in the use of large orches-
and the distribution of stress within the tras that employ both Western and Indian
time measure. Tala, like raga, serves as a instruments. The influence of Western
basis for composition and improvisation. popular music, too, is very evident. In
Indian classical music is gener- spite of the eclectic nature of Indian film
ally performed by small ensembles of music, most of the songs maintain an
not more than five or six musicians. Indian feeling that arises largely from the
Improvisation plays a major part in a per- vocal technique of the singers and the
formance, and great emphasis is placed ornamentation of the melody line. This
on the creativity and sensitivity of the music is a continuously developing form,
soloist. A performance of a raga usually and much of it has incorporated har-
goes through well-defined stages, begin- mony, counterpoint, and other features of
ning with an improvised melodic prelude Western music. But the film music differs
that is followed by a composed piece set from typical Western music in that the
in a particular time measure. The compo- melody line is generally not dictated by
sition is generally quite short and serves harmonic progressions and in that the
as a frame of reference to which the soloist harmonies used are incidental additions.
returns at the conclusion of his improvi- Aside from classical and film music,
sation. There is no set duration for the there are several other forms of urban
performance of a raga. A characteristic music, some of which closely resemble the
feature of North Indian classical music is music of the rural areas. In city streets one
the gradual acceleration of tempo, which is likely to encounter an outdoor band of
leads to a final climax. oboes and drums announcing a wedding
or a funeral. Street musicians, religious
Nonclassical Music mendicants, snake charmers, storytellers,
of the Cities and magicians perform at every avail-
able opportunity, and work songs are
Classical music interests only a small sung by construction workers and other
proportion of the peoples of South Asia, labourers. In private homes, still other
even in the cities. Since about the 1930s forms of music are performed, ranging
a new genre, associated with the cinema, from religious chanting to traditional folk
has achieved extraordinary popularity. and devotional songs. In public places of
Most Indian films are very much like entertainment, the listener may encoun-
Western musicals and generally include ter, apart from classical and film music,
six or more songs. Film music derives theatrical music from one of the many
Indian Music | 245

Popular Indian film star Shilpa Shetty performs on stage during a preview of a musical called
Miss Bollywood. Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

forms of regional theatre. In the lowbrow when used, is skeletal and more a tool of
places of entertainment, courtesans still the theorist than of the practicing musi-
sing and dance in traditional fashion. In cian, the music of past generations is
the larger cities there are performances irrevocably lost. References to music in
of Western chamber music and occa- ancient texts, aesthetic formulations, and
sionally symphony concerts, as well as depictions and written discussions of
popular dance music, rock, and jazz in the musical instruments can offer clues. In
night clubs. rare instances an ancient musical style
may be preserved in unbroken oral tradi-
ANTIQuITy tion. For most historical eras and styles,
surviving treatises explaining musical
In a musical tradition in which improvisa- scales and modes—the framework of
tion predominates, and written notation, melody—provide a particularly important
246 | The Culture of India

means of recapturing at least a sugges- new home in northern India until a siz-
tion of the music of former times, and able body of oral religious poetry had
tracing the musical theory of the past been composed.
makes clear the position of the present
musical system. Compilation of Hymns
Little is known of the musical culture
of the Indus valley civilization of the 3rd By about 1000 BC this body of chanted
and 2nd millennia BC. Some musical poetry had apparently grown to unman-
instruments, such as the arched, or bow- ageable proportions, and the best of the
shaped, harp and more than one variety poems were formed into an anthology
of drum, have been identified from the called Rigveda, which was then canon-
small terra-cotta figures and among ized. It was not committed to writing,
the pictographs on the seals that were but text and chanting formula were care-
probably used by merchants. Further, fully handed down by word of mouth
it has been suggested that a bronze from one generation to the next, up to
statuette of a dancing girl represents a the present period.
class of temple dancers similar to those The poems in the Rigveda are
found much later in Hindu culture. It is arranged according to the priestly fami-
known that the Indus civilization had lies who used and, presumably, had
established trade connections with the composed the hymns. Shortly after this
Mesopotamian civilizations, so that it a new Veda, called the Yajurveda, basi-
is possible that the bow harp found in cally a methodical rearrangement of the
Sumeria would also have been known in verses of the Rigveda with certain addi-
the Indus valley. tions in prose, was created to serve as a
kind of manual for the priest officiating
Vedic Chant at the sacrifices. At approximately the
same time, a third Veda, the Samaveda,
It is generally thought among scholars was created for liturgical purposes. The
that the Indus valley civilization was Samaveda was also derived from the
terminated by the arrival of bands of sem- hymns of the Rigveda, but the words
inomadic tribesmen, the Indo-Europeans, were distorted by the repetition of sylla-
who descended into India from the north- bles, pauses, prolongations, and phonetic
west, probably in the first half of the 2nd changes, as well as the insertion of cer-
millennium BC. An important aspect of tain meaningless syllables believed to
Vedic religious life was the bard-priest have magical significance. A fourth Veda,
who composed hymns in praise of gods, the Atharvaveda, was accepted as a Veda
to be sung or chanted at sacrifices. This considerably later and is quite unrelated
tradition was continued in the invaders’ to the other three. It represents the more
Indian Music | 247

popular aspects of the Vedic religion of some of the sacrificial ceremonies.

and consists mostly of magic spells and The bow harp (vina), a stringed instru-
incantations. ment (probably a board zither) with 100
Each of these Vedas has several strings, and the bamboo flute were the
ancillary texts, called the Brahmanas, most prominent melody instruments.
Aranyakas, and Upanishads, which are Little is known of the music, however,
also regarded as part of the Vedas. These apart from the Vedic chanting, which
ancillary texts are concerned primarily can still be heard today.
with mystical speculations, symbolism,
and the cosmological significance of the Chant Intonation
sacrifice. The Vedic literature was oral and
not written down until very much later, The chanting of the Rigveda and
the first reference to a written Vedic text Yajurveda shows, with some exceptions,
being in the 10th century AD. In order to a direct correlation with the grammar
ensure the purity of the Vedas, the slight- of the Vedic language. As in ancient
est change was forbidden, and the priests Greek, the original Vedic language was
devised systems of checks and counter- accented, with the location of the accent
checks so that there has been virtually often having a bearing on the meaning
no change in these texts for about 3,000 of the word. In the development of the
years. Underlying this was the belief that Vedic language to Classical Sanskrit, the
the correct recitation of the Vedas was original accent was replaced by an auto-
“the pivot of the universe” and that the matic stress accent, whose location was
slightest mistake would have disastrous determined by the length of the word
cosmic consequence unless expiated by and had no bearing on its meaning. It
sacrifice and prayer. The Vedas are still was thus imperative that the location
chanted by the Brahmin priests at wed- of the original accent be inviolate if the
dings, initiations, funerals, and the like, Vedic texts were to be preserved accu-
in the daily devotions of the priests, and rately. The original Vedic accent occurs
at the now rarely held so-called public as a three-syllable pattern: the central
sacrifices. syllable, called udatta, receives the main
From the Vedic literature it is appar- accent; the preceding syllable, anudatta,
ent that music played an important is a kind of preparation for the accent;
part in the lives of the Indo-European and the following syllable, svarita, is
peoples, and there are references to a kind of return from accentuation to
stringed instruments, wind instruments, accentlessness. There is some differ-
and several types of drums and cymbals. ence of opinion among scholars as to
Songs, instrumental music, and dance the nature of the original Vedic accent;
are mentioned as being an integral part some have suggested that it was based
248 | The Culture of India

on pitch, others on stress; and one theory suggesting that the Samavedic tones
proposes that it referred to the relative possibly derived from the accents. The
height of the tongue. Samavedic hymns as chanted by the
In the most common style of Tamil Aiyar Brahmins are based on a
Rigvedic and Yajurvedic chanting found mode similar to the D mode (D-d on the
today, that of the Tamil Aiyar Brahmins, white notes of the piano; i.e., the eccle-
it is clear that the accent is differentiated siastical Dorian mode). But the hymns
in terms of pitch. This chanting is based seem to use three different-sized inter-
on three tones; the udatta and the non- vals, in contrast to the two sizes found
accented syllables (called prachaya) are in the Western church modes. They are
recited at a middle tone, the preceding approximately a whole tone, a semitone,
anudatta syllable at a low tone, and the and an intermediate tone. Once again,
following svarita syllable either at the the intervals are not consistent and vary
high tone (when the syllable is short) both from one chanter to another and
or as a combination of middle tone and within the framework of a single chant.
high tone. The intonation of these tones The chants are entirely unaccompanied
is not precise, but the lower interval is by instruments, and this may account
very often about a whole tone, while for some of the extreme variation of
the upper interval tends to be slightly intonation.
smaller than a whole tone but slightly The changes brought by the 20th
larger than a semitone. In this style of century weakened the traditional promi-
chanting the duration of the tones is also nent position of the Vedic chant. The
relative to the length of the syllables, the Atharvaveda is seldom heard in India
short syllables generally being half the now. Samavedic chant, associated pri-
duration of the long. marily with the large public sacrifices,
The more musical chanting of the also appears to be dying out. Even the
Samaveda employs five, six, or seven Rigveda and Yajurveda are virtually
tones and is said to be the source of the extinct in some places, and South India is
later secular and classical music. From now the main stronghold of Vedic chant.
some of the phonetic texts that follow
the Vedic literature, it is apparent that The Classical Period
certain elements of musical theory were
known in Vedic circles, and there are ref- The ritual of the Vedas involves only
erences to three octave registers (sthana), the three upper classes, or castes, of
each containing seven notes (yama). Indo-European society: the Brahman, or
An auxiliary text of the Samaveda, the priestly class; the Kshatriya, or prince-
Naradishiksha, correlates the Vedic warriors; and the Vaishya, or merchants.
tones with the accents described above, The fourth caste, the Sudra, or labourers,
Indian Music | 249

were excluded from Vedic rites. The pri- provided by an orchestra (which included
mary sources of religious education and singers) located offstage, in what was
inspiration for the Sudra were derived very like an orchestra pit. Melodies were
from what is sometimes called the fifth composed on a system of modes, or jatis,
Veda: the epic poems Ramayana and each of which was thought to evoke one
Mahabharata, as well as the collections or more particular sentiments (rasa) by
of legends, called the Puranas, depict- its emphasis on specific notes. The modes
ing the lives of the various incarnations were derived in turn from the 14 murcha-
of the Hindu deities. The Ramayana and nas—seven pairs of ascending seven-note
the Mahabharata were originally secular series beginning on each of the notes of
in character, describing the heroic deeds two closely related heptatonic (seven-
of kings and noblemen, many of whom note) parent scales, called sadjagrama
are not recorded in history. Subsequently, and madhyamagrama. The murchanas
religious matter was added, including were thus more or less analogous to the
the very famous sermon Bhagavadgita European modal scales that begin pro-
(“Song of the Lord”), which has been gressively on D, E, F, G, etc. A third parent
referred to as the most important docu- scale, gandharagrama, was mentioned in
ment of Hinduism; and many of the several texts of the period and some even
heroes of the epics were identified as earlier but is not included in the system
incarnations of the Hindu deities. The laid out in the Natya-shastra.
legends were probably sung and recited
by wandering minstrels and bards even Qualities of the Scales
before the advent of the Christian Era, in
much the same way as they still are. The The two parent scales differed in the
stories were also enacted on the stage, positioning of just one note, which was
particularly at the time of the religious microtonally flatter in one of the scales.
festivals. The earliest extant account of The microtonal difference, referred
drama is to be found in the Natya-shastra to as pramana (“measuring”) shruti,
(“Treatise on the Dramatic Arts”), a text presumably served as a standard of mea-
that has been dated variously from the surement. In terms of this standard, it
2nd century BC to the 5th century AD was determined that the intervals of the
and even later. It is virtually a handbook murchanas were of three different sizes,
for the producer of stage plays and deals consisting of two, three, or four shrutis,
with all aspects of drama, including and that the octave comprised 22 shrutis.
dance and music. An interval of one shruti was not used.
Theatrical music of the period appar- Several modern scholars have suggested
ently included songs sung on stage by that the shrutis were of unequal size;
the actors, as well as background music from the evidence in the Natya-shastra,
250 | The Culture of India

it would appear, however, that they were lacking in the other and vice versa. In
thought to be equal. There has been no each of the parent scales there are two
attempt to determine the exact size of the nonconsonances, one of which is the
shrutis in any of the traditional Indian tritone (interval of three Western whole
musical treatises until relatively modern tones, such as F-B) of 11 shrutis inevi-
times (18th century). table in all diatonic scales (seven-note
The term shruti was also used to define scales of the major scale and murchana
consonance and dissonance, as these type) and which in medieval Europe was
terms were understood in the period. described as diabolus in musica (“the
In this connection, four terms are men- devil in music”).
tioned: vadi, comparable to the Western The second is a microtonal nonconso-
term sonant, meaning “having sound”; nance unique to this ancient Indian system.
samvadi, comparable to the Western con- The nonconsonance arises from
sonant (concordant; reposeful); vivadi, variances of one shruti from the funda-
comparable to dissonant (discordant; mental consonances of the fourth and
lacking repose); and anuvadi, compa- the fifth—a variance of about a quarter
rable to assonant (neither consonant tone. In the sadjagrama scale the inter-
nor dissonant). As in the ancient Greek val ri-pa (E- to A) contains 10 shrutis; i.e.,
Pythagorean system, which influenced one more than the nine of the consonant
Western music, only fourths and fifths fourth. Comparably, in the madhyama-
(intervals of four or five tones in a Western grama scale the interval sa-pa (D to A- )
scale) were considered consonant. In the contains 12 shrutis, or one fewer than the
Indian system of measurement, tones consonant fifth. These variances involve
separated by either nine or 13 shrutis cor- the consonant relationships of two
respond in size to Western fourths and melodically prominent notes, the first
fifths and are described as being conso- and the fifth. In the madhyamagrama
nant to each other. “Dissonant” in this the first note, sa, has no consonant fifth,
system referred only to the minor second, and perhaps for this reason this scale
an interval of two shrutis, and to its inver- is said to begin not on the sa (D) but
sion (complementary interval), the major on its fourth, the note ma (G); hence, it
seventh (20 shrutis). All other tones, resembles the G mode—i.e., the ecclesi-
including the major third, were thought astical Mixolydian mode—whereas the
to be assonant. sadjagrama resembles the D mode, the
The musical difference between the ecclesiastical Dorian.
two parent scales is best seen not in terms There is a striking resemblance of
of the microtonal deviation mentioned the sadjagrama scale to the intervals
earlier but rather in terms of a musically used by the Tamil Aiyar Brahmins in
influential consonance found in one but their chanting of the Samaveda. Not
Indian Music | 251

only are their hymns set in a mode Mode, or Jati

similar to the D mode, but they seem to
use three different-sized intervals, the From each of the two parent scales were
intermediate one corresponding to the derived seven modal sequences (the mur-
three-shruti interval. The Natya-shastra chanas described above), based on each
claims to have derived song (gita) from of the seven notes. The two murchanas
the chanting of the Samaveda, and the of a corresponding pair differed from
resemblances between the two may not each other only in the tuning of the note
be entirely fortuitous. pa (A), the crucial distinction in the tun-
The two parent scales are comple- ings of the two parent scales. One of each
mentary and between them supply all the pair was selected as the basis for a “pure”
consonances found in the ancient Greek mode, or shuddha-jati; in the groups of
Pythagorean scale. Thus, if in a mode seven pure modes, four used the tuning
the consonance ri-pa (E–A) were needed, of the sadjagrama and three that of the
one would tune to the madhyamagrama madhyamagrama. In addition to these
scale. But, if the consonance sa-pa (D–A) seven pure modes, a further 11 “mixed”
were important, it could be obtained with modes, or vikrita-jatis, are also men-
the sadjagrama tuning. There was a fur- tioned in the Natya-shastra. These were
ther development in this system caused derived by a combination of two or more
by the introduction of two additional pure modes, but the text does not explain
notes, called antara ga (F♯) and kakali ni just in what way these derivations were
(C♯), which could be substituted for the accomplished.
usual ga (F) and ni (C). The antara ga The jatis were similar to the modern
eliminates the 11-shruti tritone between concept of raga in that they provided the
ga and dha (F–B), but its use creates a melodic basis for composition and, pre-
further tritone between F♯ and C. The sumably, improvisation. They were not
second additional note, kakali ni (C♯), merely scales, but were also assigned 10
eliminates this tritone but once again cre- melodic characteristics: graha, the initial
ates a new one, this time between C♯ and note; amsha, the predominant note; tara,
G. This process of adding notes, if car- the note that forms the upper limit; man-
ried further, would eventually lead to the dra, the note that forms the lower limit;
circle, or, rather, the spiral, of fourths or nyasa, the final note; apanyasa, the sec-
fifths found in Western music (whereby ondary final note; alpatva, the notes to be
a sequence of fifths, such as C–G, G–D, used infrequently; bahutva, the notes to
D–A, etc., leads eventually back to a be used frequently; shadavita, the note
microtonally out-of-tune C); there is no that must be omitted in order to create
evidence that such a circle or spiral was the hexatonic (six-note) version of the
known in ancient India. mode; and audavita, the two notes that
252 | The Culture of India

must be omitted to create the pentatonic them, sadjagrama-raga and madhyama-

(five-note) version of the mode. grama-raga, are obviously related to the
No written music survives from parent scales of the jati system. The other
this early period. It is not clear from the five seem to be variants of these two
description whether or not the music was grama-ragas in which either or both the
like that of the present period. There is altered forms of the notes ga and ni (F♯
no mention of a drone, nor do the instru- and C♯) are used. In the Natya-shastra
ments of the orchestra—consisting of the reference to the various grama-ragas
the vipanchi and vina, bamboo flute, a is far removed from the main section in
variety of drums, and singers—appear which the jati system is discussed, and
to include any specifically drone instru- there is no obvious connection between
ment, such as the modern tamboura. The the two. Each of the grama-ragas is said
evidence tends rather to suggest, from to be used in one of the seven formal
the emphasis on consonance and some of stages of Sanskrit drama.
the playing techniques, that some form of
organum (two or more parts paralleling Further Development
the same melody at distinct pitch levels) of the Grama-Ragas
and even some type of rudimentary har-
mony may have been characteristic. In the next significant text on Indian
music, the Brihaddeshi, written by the
Medieval Period theorist Matanga about the 10th century
AD, the grama-ragas are said to derive
It is not clear just when the jati system from the jatis. In some respects at least,
fell into disuse. Later writers refer to jatis the grama-ragas resemble not the jatis
merely out of reverence for Bharata, the but their parent scales. The author of
author of the Natya-shastra. the Brihaddeshi claims to be the first to
discuss the term raga in any detail. It is
Precursors of the clear that raga was only one of several
Medieval System kinds of musical entities in this period
and is described as having “varied and
Later developments are based on musi- graceful ornaments, with emphasis on
cal entities called grama-ragas, of which clear, even, and deep tones and having
seven are mentioned in the 7th-century a charming elegance.” The ragas of this
Kutimiyamalai rock inscription in Tamil period seem to have been named after
Nadu state. Although the word grama- the different peoples living in the various
raga does not occur in the Natya-shastra, parts of the country, suggesting that their
the names applied to the individual origin might lie in folk music. Matanga
grama-ragas are all mentioned. Two of appears to contrast the two terms marga
Indian Music | 253

and deshi. The term marga (literally “the each of the ragas. In the ancient system,
path”) apparently refers to the ancient tra- the jatis were something like the ancient
ditional musical material, whereas deshi Greek and medieval church modes in
(literally “the vulgar dialect spoken in the that each was derived from a parent
provinces”) designates the musical prac- scale by altering the ground note and
tice that was evolving in the provinces, the tessitura (range). In modern Indian
which may have had a more secular basis. music, however, the ragas are all trans-
Although the title Brihaddeshi (“The posed to a common ground note. This
Great Deshi”) suggests that the latter change may well be connected with the
music might have been the focus of the introduction of the drone and the evo-
treatise and that the grama-ragas were lution of the long-necked-lute family
possibly out of date by the time it was on which the drone is usually played.
written, the surviving portion of the text In the old system, with the changing
does not support such a theory. ground note, it would have been neces-
The mammoth 13th-century text sary to retune drone instruments from
Sangitaratnakara (“Ocean of Music one raga to another, which would have
and Dance”), composed by the theorist been a cumbersome and impractical
Sharngadeva, is often said to be one of operation to carry out during a recital. It
the most important landmarks in Indian may have been this factor that provided
music history. It was composed in the the impetus for the change to the stan-
Deccan (south-central India) shortly dard ground-note system. There is no
before the conquest of this region by conclusive evidence to show just when
the Muslim invaders and thus gives an this change might have taken place, and
account of Indian music before the full it is not clear whether the Brihaddeshi
impact of Muslim influence. A large and the Sangitaratnakara are using the
part of this work is devoted to marga— old ground-note system or one similar to
that is, the ancient music that includes that used in modern times.
the system of jatis and grama-ragas—
but Sharngadeva mentions a total of The Islamic Period
264 ragas. Despite the use in both the
Brihaddeshi and the Sangitaratnakara The Muslim conquest of India can be
of a notation equivalent to the Western said to have begun in the 12th century,
tonic sol–fa (i.e., with syllables, as do– although Sindh (now in Pakistan) had
re–mi…) to illustrate the ragas, modern been conquered by the Arabs as early
scholars have not yet been able to recon- as the 8th century. Muslim writers such
struct them with assurance. as al-Jāh·iz· and al-Mas‘ūdī had already
The basic difficulty scholars face commented favourably on Indian music
lies in determining the intervals used in in the 9th and 10th centuries, and the
254 | The Culture of India

Muslims in India seem to have been very The Muslim patronage of music was
much attracted by it. largely effective in the north of India and
has had a profound influence on North
Impact on Musical Genres Indian music. Perhaps the main result of
and Aesthetics this influence was to de-emphasize the
importance of the words of the songs,
In the beginning of the 14th century, which were mostly based on Hindu devo-
the great poet Amīr Khosrow, who was tional themes. In addition, the songs had
considered to be extremely proficient in been generally composed in Sanskrit, a
both Persian and Indian music, wrote language that had ceased to be a medium
that Indian music was superior to the of communication except among scholars
music of any other country. Further, it is and priests. Sanskrit songs were gradually
stated that, after the Muslim conquest of replaced by compositions in the various
the Deccan under Malik Kāfūr (c. 1310), dialects of Hindi, Braj Bhasha, Bhojpuri,
a large number of Hindu musicians were and Dakhani, as well as in Urdu and Persian.
taken with the royal armies and settled Nevertheless, the problems of communica-
in the north. Although orthodox Islam tion, in terms of both language and subject
considered music illegal, the acceptance matter, were not easily reconciled.
of the Sufi doctrines, in which music was A new approach to religion was,
an accepted means to the realization of in any case, sweeping through India
God, enabled Muslim rulers and noble- at about this time. This emphasized
men to extend their patronage to this devotion (bhakti) as a primary means
art. At the courts of the Mughal emper- to achieving union with God, bypass-
ors Akbar, Jahāngīr, and Shah Jahān, ing the traditional Hindu beliefs of the
music flourished on a grand scale. Apart transmigration of the soul from body to
from Indian musicians, there were also body in the lengthy process of purifica-
musicians from Persia, Afghanistan, tion before it could achieve the Godhead.
and Kashmir in the employ of these rul- The Islamic Sufi movement was based on
ers; nevertheless, it appears that it was an approach similar to that of the bhakti
Indian music that was most favoured. movements and also gained many con-
Famous Indian musicians, such as Svami verts in India. A manifestation of these
Haridas and Tansen, are legendary per- devotional cults was the growth of a new
formers and innovators of this period. form of mystic-devotional poetry com-
After the example set by Amīr Khosrow, posed by wandering mendicants who
Muslim musicians took an active inter- had dedicated their lives to the realiza-
est in the performance of Indian music tion of God. Many of these mendicants
and added to the repertoire by inventing have been sanctified and are referred to
new ragas, talas, and musical forms, as as poet-saints or singer-saints, since their
well as new instruments. poems were invariably set to music. A
Indian Music | 255

number of devotional sects sprang up all Theoretical Developments

over the country—some Muslim, some
Hindu, and others merging elements From the middle of the 16th century, a new
from both. These sects emphasized the method of describing ragas is found in
individual’s personal relationship with musical literature. It was also at about this
God. In their poetry, human love for God time that the distinction between North
was often represented as a woman’s love and South Indian music became clearly evi-
for a man and, specifically, the love of the dent. In the literature, ragas are described
milkmaid Radha for Krishna, a popular in terms of scales having a common ground
incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. In note. These scales were called mela in the
the environment of the royal courts, there South and mela or thata in the North.
was a less idealistic interpretation of the It was in the South that a complete
word “love,” and much of the poetry, as theoretical system of melas was intro-
well as the miniature painting, of the duced, in the Caturdandiprakashika
period depicts the states of experience of (“The Illuminator of the Four Pillars of
the lover and the beloved. Music”), a text written in the middle of
This attitude is also reflected in the the 17th century. This system was based
musical literature of the period. From early on the permutations of the tones and
times, both jatis and ragas in their con- semitones, which had by this time been
nection with dramatic performance were reduced to a basic 12 in the octave. The
described as evoking specific sentiments octave was divided into two tetrachords,
(rasa) and being suitable for accompa- or four-note sequences, C–F and G–c,
nying particular dramatic events. It was and six possible tetrachord species were
this connotational aspect, rather than the arranged in an order showing their rela-
technical one, that gained precedence in tionship with each other. It will be noted
this period. The most popular method of in the sequence of tetrachords shown
classification was in terms of ragas (mas- below that each lower tetrachord has an
culine) and their wives, called raginis, analogous upper tetrachord and that the
which was extended to include putras, outer notes of each are constant, whereas
their sons, and bharyas, the wives of the the inner notes change their pitch.
sons. The ragas were personified and
associated with particular scenes, some
of which were taken from Hindu mythol-
ogy, while others represented aspects of
the relationship between two lovers. The
climax of this personification is found
in the ragamala paintings, usually in a
series of 36, which depict the ragas and
raginis in their emotive settings.
256 | The Culture of India

The list could have extended further, River of Raga”), probably of the 16th cen-
except that apparently no pitch distinc- tury, 12 melas are mentioned:
tion was made between the enharmonic
pairs D–E♭♭, D♯–E♭, A–B♭♭, and A♯–
B♭. (Enharmonic notes have different
pitch names but sound either the same
pitch or, in some tuning systems, have
very slight differences in pitch.)
By utilizing all possible combina-
tions of a lower with an upper tetrachord,
36 melas, or raga scales, were derived; a
further 36 were formed by using F♯ in
place of the F in the lower tetrachord.
The melas were named in such a way
that the first two syllables of the name,
when applied in a code, gave the num- Although it appears from the descrip-
ber of that mela in the sequence. The tion of saranga and megha melas that
musician, given the number, could eas- enharmonic intervals were used, there is
ily reconstruct the scale of the mela. The good reason to believe that the E♯ and
names of the melas were often derived A♯ in the two melas really represent their
from prominent ragas in those melas, chromatic counterparts, F and B♭, and that
with a two-syllable prefix that supplied F and F♯ (and B and B♭) do not appear in
the code numbers; for instance, the name sequence. The A+ in the mela purava is said
of the mela Dhira-shankarabharana is to be raised by one shruti. The description
derived from the raga Shankarabharana, of the ragas in these melas shows that the
the two syllables dhira giving the code North Indian system was by this time also
number 29, which indicates a scale based on 12 semitones.
similar to the Western major scale, or
C mode. The Caturdandiprakashika The Modern Period
acknowledges the theoretical nature
of its analytical system and mentions With the collapse of the Mughal empire
clearly that only 19 of the possible 72 in the 18th century and the emergence of
melas were in use at the time that the the British as a dominant power in India,
text was written. the subcontinent was divided into many
Although North Indian texts also princely states. Music continued to be
describe ragas in terms of melas or thatas, patronized by the rulers, although the
there is no attempt to arrange them sys- courts were never again to achieve their
tematically. In the Ragatarangini (“The former opulence.
Indian Music | 257

Musically, there has been a continu- the South Indian melas shown above in
ous evolution from the Islamic period to Theoretical developments):
the present, and both North and South
Indian classical music have continued to
expand. South Indian music has clearly
been influenced more by theory than has
that of the North. The 72-mela system
continues to be the basis of classifying
the ragas in South India, but it has had
more than a classificatory significance.
Many new ragas have been composed
in the past few centuries, some of them
inspired by the theoretical scales of the The thatas do not cover all the ragas
mela system. As a result, there are now used in North Indian music, but there is
ragas in all of the 72 melas. reason to believe that most of the ragas
In North Indian music, theory has had having scales other than the above are
little influence on performance practice. relatively modern innovations. New ragas
This can be ascribed to the language prob- are constantly being created, and some
lem, an especially significant influence North Indian musicians are using the
on the many Muslim musicians in North vast potential of the South Indian mela
India, who were not able to cope with the system as their source of inspiration.
Sanskrit musical literature. Thus, there Mela and thata are theoretical devices
had been no attempt to systematize the for the classification of ragas. Ragas have
music, and there was a considerable gap scalar elements, such as specified ascend-
between performance and theory until ing and descending movements, that
the present century. Vishnu Narayana might or might not employ adjacent steps.
Bhatkande, one of the leading Indian They may also employ oblique or zigzag
musicologists of this century, contributed movements. Ragas can be heptatonic,
a great deal toward diminishing the gap. hexatonic, or pentatonic and may also have
Being both a scholar and a performer, accidentals (sharpened or flattened notes)
he devoted much effort to collecting that occur only in specific melodic con-
and notating representative versions texts. A further distinction between scale
of a number of ragas from musicians and raga is found in the varying emphasis
belonging to different family traditions, placed on different notes in a raga. Ragas,
or gharanas. Based on this collection, he furthermore, also have melodic elements,
concluded that most of the ragas of North such as certain recurrent nuclear motives
Indian music can be grouped into the (brief melodic fragments) that enable the
following scales, called thatas (compare raga to be identified more easily. One scale
258 | The Culture of India

type can be the basis for perhaps 20 or 30 variable long; thus, if the long unit is five
ragas, in which case it is the nonscalar times the short, a tala pattern such as
elements that provide the distinguishing dhruva-tala will be 5 + 2 + 5 + 5, or 17 units.
features of each raga in the group. Several of these talas have the same total
duration but are distinguished from each
Rhythmic Organization other by their internal subdivisions. In
the course of a performance, the vocal-
Just as the system of classifying raga is ist as well as the audience may mark the
better organized in South Indian music, time by clapping, hand waving, and fin-
so too is the system of classifying tala, or ger counting.
time measure. In North Indian music the In addition to the suladi-talas, there
talas are fewer and not organized in any are four chapu-talas that are used in
systematic manner. South Indian classical music. Said to
derive from folk music, they consist of
South India two sections of unequal length, 1 + 2, 2 + 3,
3 + 4, and 4 + 5. Of these, the 3 + 4 com-
The main group is composed of 35 talas, bination is the most prominent. On rare
called the suladi-talas. Each tala is com- occasions a performer may use one of the
posed of one, two, or three different units: “classical” talas referred to in Sanskrit
short, medium, and long. The medium texts. These generally involve long time
unit is twice the duration of the short; the cycles composed of as many as 100 short
long unit is, however, a variable and may units. The most frequently heard time
be three, four, five, seven, or nine times measures, however, are adi-tala, a modi-
the duration of the short. There are seven fied eight-beat version of triputa-tala
basic tala patterns, and, because the long (4 + 2 + 2); mishra-chapu-tala (3 + 4); and
unit of these talas can be of five different rupaka-tala (4 + 2). The difficult and long
durations, the total number of talas in this talas are used primarily as a tour de force.
system is 35. The basic tala patterns are: Each tala may be performed in either
slow, medium, or quick tempo. There
is no gradual acceleration as in North
Indian music.

North India

As in South Indian music, the two main

factors are the duration of the time cycle
The total duration of each pat- and the subdivisions within the cycle.
tern is controlled by the duration of the Each of these subdivisions is marked by
Indian Music | 259

a clap or a wave, with the greatest empha- begins with an improvised section, called
sis falling on beat 1 of the cycle, which alapa, played in free time without accom-
is called sam. North Indian talas have paniment of drums. It may have various
a further feature, the khali (“empty”), a sections and might on occasion last half
conscious negation of stress occurring an hour or longer. It is followed by a com-
at one or more points in each tala where posed piece in the same raga, set in a
one would expect a beat. It often falls at particular tala.
the halfway point in the time cycle and
is marked by a wave of the hand. There South India
is nothing comparable to the khali in
the South Indian system. A further dis- In South Indian music all composed
tinguishing feature found only in North pieces are primarily for the voice and
Indian talas is the emphasis placed on have lyrics. In North India, however,
the characteristic drum pattern of each there are also some purely instrumen-
tala, called theka. Two talas might have tal compositions, called gat and dhun.
the same duration and subdivisions but The emphasis on the composition var-
might, nevertheless, be differentiated ies in the different forms of song and,
from each other by different characteris- to some extent, in the interpretation of
tic drum patterns. In addition, the talas the performer. In South Indian music
are also associated with different forms the composed piece is generally empha-
of song and even particular tempi. The sized more than in the North. Much of
usual North Indian talas range from six the South Indian repertoire of compo-
to 16 time units in duration. The most sitions stems from three composers,
popular are tin-tala (4 + 4 + 4 + 4), eka-tala Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, and
(2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2), jhap-tala (2 + 3 + 2 + Syama Sastri, contemporaries who lived
3), kaharava (4 + 4), rupaka-tala (3 + 2 + 2), in the second half of the 18th and the
and dadra (3 + 3). Tin-tala should not be beginning of the 19th centuries. The
confused with Western 4/4, or common devotional songs that they composed,
time, for the time cycle repeats only after called kriti, are a delicate blend of text,
16 units and is more like four bars of com- melody, and rhythm and are the most
mon time. popular items of a South Indian con-
cert. The composed elements in these
Musical Forms and songs sometimes include sections such
Instruments as niraval, melodic variations with the
same text, and svara-kalpana, pas-
Both raga and tala provide bases for com- sages using the Indian equivalent of
position and improvisation in Indian the sol–fa syllables, which are otherwise
classical music. A performance usually improvised.
260 | The Culture of India

The longest item in the South Indian Pada and javali are two kinds of love
concert, called ragam-tanam-pallavi, is, songs using the poetic imagery char-
on the other hand, mostly improvised. It acteristic of the romantic-devotional
begins with a long alapa, called ragam movement mentioned earlier. Tillana has
in this context, presumably because this a text composed mostly of meaningless
elaborate, gradually developing alapa syllables, which may include the ono-
is intended to display the raga being matopoeic syllables used to represent
performed in as complete a manner as the different drum sounds. This is a very
possible, without the limitations imposed rhythmic piece and is usually sung in fast
by a fixed time measure. This is followed tempo.
by another improvised section, tanam, in The ensemble used in present-day
which the singer uses meaningless words South Indian classical music consists of
to produce more or less regular rhythms, a singer or a main melody instrument,
but still without reference to time mea- a secondary melody instrument, one or
sure. This section, too, is without drum more rhythmic percussion instruments,
accompaniment. The final section, pal- and one or more drone instruments. The
lavi, is a composition of words and most commonly heard main melody
melody set in a particular tala, usually instruments are the vina, a long-necked,
a long or complex one. The pallavi may fretted, plucked lute with seven strings;
have been composed by the performer the venu, a side-blown bamboo flute; the
himself and be unfamiliar to his accom- nagaswaram, a long, oboe-like, double-
panists, usually a violinist who echoes reed instrument with finger holes; the
the singer’s phrases and a drummer who violin, imported from the West in the 18th
plays the mridangam, a double-ended century, played while seated on the floor
drum. The statement of the composition with the scroll resting on the player’s
is followed by elaborate rhythmic and left foot; and the gottuvadyam, a long-
melodic variations that the accompanists necked lute without frets, played like the
are expected to follow. It is customary to Hawaiian guitar, with a sliding stop in the
have a drum solo at the end of the pal- left hand.
lavi, and the performance concludes with The violin is by far the most com-
a brief restatement of the pallavi. mon secondary melody instrument in
Other forms used in South Indian South India. It plays in unison where
classical music derive largely from the the passage is composed but imitates
musical repertoire of bharata natyam, the voice or main melody instrument in
the classical South Indian dance. The the improvised passages. Of the rhythm
varnam, a completely composed piece, instruments, the mridangam, a double-
serves mainly as a warming up and is conical, two-headed drum, is the most
performed at the beginning of a concert. common. Others include the kanjira, a
Indian Music | 261

tambourine; the ghatam, an earthenware sargam tanas, passages using the Indian
pot without skin covering; the morsing, a equivalent of the sol–fa syllables, and the
metallic jew’s harp; and the tavil, a slightly a-kar tanas, which are rapid runs sung
barrel-shaped, double-ended drum, which to the syllable aah. The second type of
accompanies the nagaswaram. The most khayal, which may be as much as eight
prominent drone instrument is the four- times faster than the slow and is generally
stringed tamboura, a long-necked lute set in a different tala, follows the slow. Its
without frets. It accompanies the voice composed portion is usually quite short,
and all melody instruments, except the and the main features of the improvisa-
nagaswaram, which is usually accompa- tion are the a-kar tanas. Occasionally, a
nied by the ottu, a longer version of the composition called tarana, made up of
nagaswaram but without finger holes. A meaningless syllables, may replace the
hand-pumped harmonium drone, called fast-tempo khayal.
shruti or shruti box, sometimes replaces The thumri is another North Indian
the ottu or the tamboura. vocal form and is based on the roman-
tic-devotional literature inspired by the
North India bhakti movement. The text is usually
derived from the Radha-Krishna theme
The most common vocal form in North and is of primary importance. The words
Indian classical music at the present time are strictly adhered to, and the singer
is the khayal, a Muslim word meaning attempts to interpret them with his
“imagination.” The khayal is contrasted melodic improvisations. It is quite usual
to the dhruvapada (now known as dhru- for a singer to deviate momentarily from
pad), which means “fixed words.” The the raga in which the composition is set,
two forms existed side by side in the by using accidentals and evoking other
Islamic period, and it is only since the ragas that might be suggested by the
19th century that the khayal has been words, but he always returns to the origi-
predominant. There are two types of nal raga.
khayal. The first is sung in extremely Some of the North Indian musical
slow tempo, with each syllable of the text forms are very like the South Indian.
having extensive melisma (prolongation The vocal forms dhrupad and dhamar
of a syllable over many notes), so that the resemble the ragam-tanam-pallavi. They
words are virtually unrecognizable. It is begin with an elaborate alapa followed
not usually preceded by a lengthy alapa; by the more rhythmic but unmeasured
instead, alapa-like phrases are generally non-tom using meaningless syllables
sung against the very slow time mea- such as te, re, na, nom, and tom. Then
sure to the accompaniment of the drums. follow the four composed sections of
Also characteristic of the khayal are the the dhrupad or dhamar, the latter being
262 | The Culture of India

named after dhamar-tala of 14 units (5 (literally, “a garland of ragas”), in which

+ 5 + 4) in which it is composed, the for- the musician modulates from one raga to
mer name derived from dhruvapada. The another, finally concluding with a return
song, usually in slow or medium tempo, to the original raga.
is first sung as composed. Then the per- The most prominent melody instru-
former introduces variations, the words ments used in North Indian classical
often being distorted and serving merely music are the sitar, a long-necked fret-
as a vehicle for the melodic and rhythmic ted lute; surbahar, a larger version of the
improvisations. sitar; the sarod, a plucked lute without
Instrumental music has gained con- frets and with a shorter neck than that
siderable prominence in North India in of the sitar; the sarangi, a short-necked
recent times. The most common instru- bowed lute; the bansuri, a side-blown
mental form is the gat, which seems to bamboo flute with six or seven finger
have derived its elements from both dhru- holes; the shehnai, a double-reed wind
pad and khayal. It is usually preceded by instrument similar to the oboe, but
alapa and jor, which resemble the alapa without keys; and the violin, played
and non-tom sections of the dhrupad. On in the same manner as in South India.
plucked stringed instruments these two Secondary melody instruments are used
movements are often followed by jhala, only in vocal music, the two most com-
a fast section in which the rhythmic mon being the sarangi and the keyboard
plucking of the drone strings is used to harmonium, an import from the West.
achieve a climax. The performer usually The violin and the surmandal, a plucked
pauses before the composed gat is intro- board zither, are also used in this context.
duced. Like the khayal, the gat can be in Since the mid-20th century, instrumental
slow or fast tempo. The composition is duets, in which the musicians improvise
generally short, and the emphasis is on alternately, have grown in popularity. In
the improvisations of the melody instru- these duets the musicians may imitate
mentalist and the drummer, who for the each other’s phrases, temporarily creat-
most part alternate in their extemporiz- ing something of the effect of a secondary
ing. The final climax may once again be melody instrument.
achieved by a jhala section, in which the   As with South Indian music, the
tempo is accelerated quite considerably. drone is usually provided by a tamboura
Other forms played on instruments are (Bangla tanpura) or a hand-pumped reed
the thumri, basically an instrumental ren- drone similar to the harmonium but with-
dering of a vocal thumri, and dhun, which out a keyboard, called sur-peti in North
is derived from a folk tune and does not India. The shehnai is usually accom-
usually follow a conventional raga. One panied by one or more drone shehnais,
may also hear a piece called raga-mala called sur.
Indian Music | 263

A group of Indian musicians, the two in the foreground playing the tabla (left) and sitar. Bert
Hardy/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The rhythmic accompaniment is a double-conical drum, similar to the

usually provided on the tabla, a pair of South Indian mridangam, is generally
small drums played with the fingers. used. The shehnai in classical music is
As accompaniment to the somewhat usually accompanied by a small pair of
archaic dhrupad, however, the pakhavaj, kettledrums, called dukar-tikar.
264 | The Culture of India

The pair of small unmatched drums that
is fundamental (since the 18th century)
to Hindustani music of northern India,
Pakistan, and Bangladesh is the tabla. The
higher-pitched of the two drums, which is
played with the right hand, is also referred
to individually as the tabla or as the daya
(dahina or dayan, meaning “right”). It is a
single-headed drum usually of wood and hav-
ing the profile of two truncated cones bulging
at the centre, the lower portion shorter. It is
about 25 cm (10 inches) in height and 15 cm
(6 inches) across. Skin tension is maintained
by thong lacings and wooden dowels that are
tapped with a hammer in retuning. It is usu-
ally tuned to the tonic, or ground note, of the
raga (melodic pattern).
The baya (bahina or bayan, meaning
“left”), played with the left hand, is a deep
kettledrum measuring about 25 cm (10
inches) in height, and the drum face is about
20 cm (8 inches) in diameter. It is usually
made of copper but may also be made of
An Indian worker repairs a tabla, a tra-
clay or wood, with a hoop and thong lacings
ditional Indian two-headed drum. Noah
to maintain skin tension. Pressure from the
Seelam/AFP/Getty Images
heel of the player’s hand changes the tone
colour and pitch. The tuning of the baya
varies, but it may be a fifth or an octave below the daya. A disk of black tuning paste placed
on the skin of each drum affects pitch and also generates overtones characteristic of the
drums’ sound. The musician plays the tabla while seated, with the baya to the left of the daya.
Sound is produced on the drums through a variety of different finger and hand strokes. Each
drum stroke can be expressed by a corresponding vocable, used for both teaching and per-
formance purposes. The intricate music of the drums reflects the rhythmic pattern (tala) of
the piece.
Tabla can be documented in India from the late 18th century. Originally associated with
courtesan dance traditions, tabla now are used in a variety of genres and styles of Hindustani
music. Distinguished players of the tabla include Alla Rakha and his son Zakir Hussain.
Indian Music | 265

Interaction with But the evidence is not conclusive, and

Western Music it could equally be argued that these are
natural developments within the system.
It is in the sphere of musical instruments Advancements in technology have,
that the influence of Western music is of course, had a profound influence
most obvious. In addition to the violin on Indian music. Sound-amplification
and the harmonium, many other Western devices have made concerts avail-
instruments are used in Indian classical able to large audiences, and the intimate
and popular music. Of the melodic instru- atmosphere in which the music was
ments, these include, most notably, the traditionally performed is now seldom
clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, guitar, man- encountered. The Indian musician has
dolin, and organ. Scholars have criticized been obliged to adapt his music, once
the use of some of these instruments on played before a select and musically
the ground that their tuning, being based educated group of listeners, to new cir-
on the Western tempered scale (having cumstances involving a mass of people,
12 equal semitones), is not suitable for many of whom are unfamiliar with the
the performance of Indian music, and finer points of the music. The use of
All-India Radio forbade the use of the microphones during concerts has had a
harmonium in its programs for a number marked effect on voice production, and,
of years in the late 20th century. Most of since the voice no longer needs to project
the leading North Indian singers, how- over distances, many singers now per-
ever, have been using the harmonium as form with a relaxed throat and produce a
a secondary melody instrument for many more mellow tone.
years and have continued to do so in con- Since the mid-1950s, Indian clas-
certs and on recordings. sical music has been performed fairly
Apart from the area of musical instru- regularly in the West. Initially, the audi-
ments, Indian classical music appears ences were composed mainly of South
to have absorbed very little of Western Asians, but now a large and increasing
music. It is possible, however, that some number of Westerners attend the con-
developments in the tradition might certs. Perhaps the music would not have
have been inspired by Western music. reached beyond a very limited audience
These include the slightly increased use were it not for the interest shown by the
of chromaticism (using a succession of American violinist Yehudi Menuhin,
semitones) and some of the new drone who sponsored a number of collabora-
tunings in which the major third is added tive programs in the West in the 1960s,
(making for example, the drone on the and the British popular-music group
first, third, and fifth notes of the scale, the Beatles, who pioneered the incorpo-
rather than on the first and fifth only). ration of the sitar and other elements
266 | The Culture of India

of Indian culture into the world of assimilation of Indian music elements.

Western popular music. At the same Meanwhile, British-Indian world-music
time, several North Indian instrumen- artist Sheila Chandra has blended the
talists, such as Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar aesthetics of Western popular music with
Khan, Vilayat Khan, Imrat Khan, and the ragas and drones of Indian music
Nikhil Banerjee, were received with and the vocal techniques of Indian, Arab,
overwhelming enthusiasm by Western Irish, and Scottish traditions to create a
audiences. By about 1970 the sitar and unique Asian fusion sound. Within the
tabla were heard frequently in Western purview of classical music, Ravi Shankar
pop music, jazz, cinema, and television composed and recorded a number of suc-
programs, as well as in radio and televi- cessful works for sitar and orchestra. Both
sion advertisements. he and his daughter, sitarist Anoushka
Since the late 20th century the inter- Shankar, performed these compositions
action between the musics of India, the to wide international acclaim in the early
West, and the world at large has become 21st century. Anoushka, moreover, worked
both more intense and more diverse. In the to strengthen the bridge between the
realm of popular music, jazz-rock (fusion) classical and popular traditions of India
artists such as British guitarist John and the West through touring and per-
McLaughlin have gained international rec- forming with such bands as the art rock
ognition with their energetic and eclectic group Jethro Tull.
Performing Arts
T he royal courts and temples of India traditionally
have been the chief centres of the performing arts. In
ancient times, Sanskrit dramas were staged at seasonal
festivals or to celebrate special events. Some kings were
themselves playwrights; the most notable of the playwright-
kings was Shudraka, the supposed 4th-century author of
Mrichchakatika (“The Little Clay Cart”). Other well-known
royal dramatists include Harsha, who wrote Ratnavali in the
7th century; Mahendravikramavarman, author of the 7th-cen-
tury play Bhagavad-Ajjukiya; and Vishakhadatta, creator of
the 9th-century drama Mudrarakshasa.
In the 4th century BC, Kautilya, the chief minister of
Emperor Chandragupta, referred in his book on the art of
government, the Artha-shastra, to the low morals of players
and advised the municipal authorities not to build houses
in the midst of their villages for actors, acrobats, and mum-
mers. But, in the glorious era of the Hindu kings during
the first eight centuries AD, actors and dancers were given
special places of distinction. This tradition continued in the
princely courts of India even under British rule. Kathakali
dance-drama, for instance, was created by the raja of
Kottarakkara, ruler of one of the states of South India in the
17th century. The powerful peshwas (chief ministers) of the
Maratha kingdom in the 18th century patronized the tama-
sha folk theatre. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (flourished mid-19th
268 | The Culture of India

century) was an expert kathak dancer to celebrate the glory of their particular
and producer of Krishnalore plays in deities. During the Dashahara festival
which his palace maids danced as the every village in North India enacts for
gopis (milkmaids who were devotees of a fortnight the story of Rama’s life, with
Krishna). Maharajas of Travancore and songs, dances, and pageants. The jatra
Mysore competed with each other for the in West Bengal is a year-round dramatic
excellence of their dance troupes. In the activity, but the number of troupes swells
20th century the maharaja of Varanasi to many thousands in Kolkata during the
carried on this tradition by being patron Puja festival. The hill and tribal people
and producer of the spectacular ramlila, dance all night to celebrate their commu-
a 31-day cycle play on Rama’s life that he nity festivals and weddings rich in masks,
witnessed every night while sitting on pageants, and carnivals. In more-remote
his royal elephant. On special nights the areas of South Asia, people may not have
spectators numbered more than 30,000. seen a drama, but there will be hardly a
Dance is a part of all Hindu rituals. person who has not witnessed or taken
Farmers dance for a plentiful harvest, part in a community dance.
hunters for a rich bag, fishermen for a In folk theatre, traditional dance,
good catch. Seasonal festivals, religious classical music, and poetical symposia,
fairs, marriages, and births are celebrated performances are held in the open air or
by community dancing. A warrior dances in a well-lit canopied courtyard so that
before the image of his goddess and the players can see the spectators and be
receives her blessings before he leaves motivated by their reactions.
for battle. A temple girl dances to please For the usually all-night folk dramas,
her god. The gods dance in joy, in anger, people come with their children, straw
in triumph. The world itself was created mats, and snacks, making themselves
by the Cosmic Dance of Lord Shiva, who at home. At these performances there is
is called Nataraja, the king of dancers, a constant inflow and outflow of spec-
and worshipped by actors and dancers as tators. Some go to sleep, asking their
their patron. neighbours to awaken them for favourite
Religious festivals are still the most scenes. Stalls selling betel leaves, pea-
important occasions for dance and nuts, and spicy fried things, adorned with
theatrical activity. The ramlila krish- flowers and incense and lighted by oil
nalala and raslila in North India (Uttar lamps, surround the open-air arena.
Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana, and The clown, an essential character in
Punjab), the chhau masked dance-drama every folk play, comments on the audi-
in Saraikela region in Jharkhand, and ence and contemporary events. Zealous
the bhagavatha mela in Melatur village spectators offer donations and gifts in
in Tamil Nadu are performed annually appreciation of their favourite actor or
Indian Performing Arts | 269

Cluster of betel nuts, seeds of the betel palm (Areca catechu). Betel nuts are traditionally
sold at folk plays. Wayne Lukas–Group IV—The National Audubon Society Collection/Photo

dancer, who receives them in the middle response. During a kathak dance, the
of the performance and thanks the donor drummer, in order to test the perfection
by singing or dancing a particular piece of the dancer, disguises the main beat of
of his choice. The audience thus con- his drum by slurs and offbeats, a secret he
stantly throws sparks to the performer, shares with the audience and announces
who throws them back. People laugh, by a loud thump that is synchronized
weep, sigh, or suddenly fall silent during with the dancer’s stamping of the foot.
a moving scene. At this point in the dance, the spectators
In both folk and classical forms of shout, swaying their heads in admira-
drama, the performer may lengthen or tion. They show their approval and
shorten his piece according to audience disapproval through delighted groans
270 | The Culture of India

or sullen headshakes as the performance takes the form of dance when the rhythm
goes on. In the raslila, the audience joins becomes fast.
in singing the refrain and marks the beat In folk theatre this relationship
by hand clapping. At a climactic point is even more apparent. Raslila dance
the people rock and sway, rhythmically sequences are interspersed with the
clapping and singing. These practices singing as a decorative frill, to accen-
bind the performers, chanters, and spec- tuate emotional appeal, or to mark the
tators together in a sense of aesthetic climax of a song. The yakshagana hero
pleasure. gives a brisk dance number to announce
Instrumental music and singing are his entry. In many folk forms of opera
integral parts of Indian dance and theatre. (bhavai, terukkuttu, and nautanki), the
Musicians, chanters, and drummers sit characters sing and dance at the same
on the stage in view, a tradition observed time or alternate. Ballad singers from
throughout almost all of Asia. They watch the states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh
the dancer and play on their instruments dramatize their singing by strong facial
following his movements, whereas in the gestures and rhythmic ankle bells and
West the movements of a ballerina are execute dance phrases between the nar-
timed and controlled by the already writ- rative singing. On the other hand, no one
ten music. An Indian dancer is constantly can imagine a dancer who is not at the
reacting to the accompanying musician, same time a musician. This double aes-
and vice versa. He may signal the chant- thetic discipline enriches both of these
ers and drummers and even instruct them arts, and the Indian audience is condi-
during the performance without spoiling tioned to this tradition.
its aesthetic effect.
In some classical dance forms, such Indian Dance
as kuchipudi, the dancer sings in voice-
less whispers as she dances. In bharata Dance in India can be organized into
natyam the dance movements are like three categories: classical, folk, and mod-
sculpted music in space, and the accom- ern. Classical dance forms are among
panying musician is invariably a dance the best-preserved and oldest practiced
guru (teacher). In kathak the rhythmic in the 21st century. The royal courts, the
syllables beaten out by the dancer with temples, and the guru to pupil teach-
her feet are vocalized by the singer and ing tradition have kept this art alive and
then chirped out by the drummer. No stable. Folk dancing has remained in
folk dancing is complete without the use rural areas as an expression of the daily
of drum and vocal singing. Women’s folk work and rituals of village communities.
singing such as the giddha in the Punjab Modern Indian dance, a product of the
and the men’s kirtan in West Bengal 20th century, is a creative mixture of the
Indian Performing Arts | 271

first two forms, with freely improvised Classical Dance

movements and rhythms to express the
new themes and impulses of contempo- Through its classical and folk traditions,
rary India. India has developed a type of dance
The popularity of dance in contempo- drama that is a form of total theatre. The
rary India can be judged from the fact that actor dances out the story through a com-
there is hardly any Indian motion picture plex gesture language, a form that, in its
that does not have half a dozen dances universal appeal, cuts across the multi-
in it. In the typical “boy meets girl” film language barrier of the subcontinent.
the heroine dances everywhere and any-
where. A film company may not have a The Dance-Drama
script writer (in some cases the financier
writes the story himself), but it must have Some of the classical dance-drama
a dance director. To provide ample dance forms (e.g., kathakali, kuchipudi, bhaga-
opportunities, motion pictures have been vatha mela) enact well-known stories
made on the lives of poets, courtesans, derived from Hindu mythology. In the
and temple dancers and on mythological 20th century, dancers Uday Shankar
themes. For these the services of expert and Shanti Bardhan created ballets that
dancers are sought. were inspired by such traditional dance-
In the 20th century, classical dance dramas. Contemporary Indian directors
left the temples and royal courts and came and writers are re-examining traditional
to be presented regularly on the stage in dance forms and are using these in their
large cities. Rich industrialists, interna- current works for greater psychologi-
tional hotels, and the wealthy families of cal appeal and deeper artistic impact.
the upper class are the chief patrons. It is Millions in villages are still entertained
not uncommon to have a classical dance by dance-dramas. In spite of the popular-
recital by a major performer at a business ity of straight prose plays in the cities, the
dinner or for the annual function of a club. appeal of dance-drama is unquestionably
Some universities have dance as a regular deeper and more satisfying to the rural
subject in their curricula. Women learn it Indian, whose aesthetics are still rooted
as a social grace, and young girls learn a in tradition.
few classical dances for greater eligibil- The chief source of classical dance
ity in marriage. Folk dancing has also is Bharata Muni’s Natya-shastra (1st
become more common as a contemporary century BC to 3rd century AD), a com-
cultural event in the cities. Most colleges prehensive treatise on the origin and
have their folk-dance troupes, and even function of natya (dramatic art that
the police of the Punjab have their folk- is also dance), on types of plays, ges-
dance groups to perform the bhangra. ture language, acting, miming, theatre
272 | The Culture of India

architecture, production, makeup, cos- hand, for example, in which all the fingers
tumes, masks, and various bhavas are extended and held close together
(“emotions”) and rasas (“sentiments”). with the thumb bent, can represent heat,
No other book of ancient times contains rain, a crowd of men, the night, a forest,
such an exhaustive study of dramaturgy. a horse, or a flight of birds. The pataka
hand with the third finger bent (tripa-
Techniques and Types taka) can mean a crown, a tree, marriage,
of Classical Dance fire, a door, or a king. In karkata (“crab”),
one of the combined hand gestures, the
According to the Natya-shastra, the fingers of the hands are interlocked, and
dancer-actor communicates the meaning this may indicate a honeycomb, yawning
of a play through four kinds of abhinaya after sleep, or a conch shell. Of course,
(histrionic representations): angika, for each of these different meanings, a
transmitting emotion through the styl- hasta is given a different body posture or
ized movements of parts of the body; action.
vachika, speech, song, pitch of vowels, The male or female classical dancer
and intonation; aharya, costumes and portraying a story in a solo performance
makeup; and sattvika, the entire psycho- simultaneously plays two or three prin-
logical resources of the dancer-actor. cipal characters by alternating facial
The actor is equipped with a com- expressions, gestures, and moods.
plicated repertoire of stylized gestures. Krishna, his jealous wife Satyabhama,
Conventionalized movements are pre- and his gentle wife Rukmini, for example,
scribed for every part of the body, the may be played by one person.
eyes and hands being the most impor- The aesthetic pleasure of Hindu
tant. There are 13 movements of the head, dance and theatre is determined by how
seven of the eyebrows, six for the nose, six successful the artist is in expressing a par-
for the cheek, seven for the chin, nine for ticular emotion (bhava) and evoking the
the neck, five for the breasts, and 36 for rasa. Literally, rasa means “taste” or “fla-
the eyes. There are 32 movements of feet, vour.” The rasa is that exalted sentiment
16 on the ground and 16 in the air. Various or mood that the spectator experiences
positions of the feet (strutting, minc- after witnessing a performance. The crit-
ing, tromping, splaying, beating, etc.) are ics do not generally concern themselves
carefully worked out. There are 24 single- so much about plot construction or tech-
hand gestures (asamyuta-hasta) and 13 nical perfection of a poem or play as
for combined hands (samyuta-hasta). about the rasa of a particular work. There
One gesture (hasta) may mean more are nine rasas: erotic, comic, pathetic,
than 30 different things quite unrelated furious, heroic, terrible, odious, marvel-
to each other. The pataka gesture of the ous, and spiritually peaceful. There are
Indian Performing Arts | 273

nine corresponding bhavas: love, laugh- devadasis, temple dancing girls who
ter, pathos, anger, energy, fear, disgust, devoted their lives to their gods through
wonder, and quietude. this medium. Muslim invasions from
Four distinct schools of classi- the north destroyed the powerful Hindu
cal Indian dance—bharata natyam, kingdoms in the south but could not
kathakali, kathak, and manipuri—exist in disrupt their arts, which took shelter in
the 21st century, along with two types of the temples. After the 16th century the
temperament—tandava, representing the Muslims overpowered the south com-
fearful male energy of Shiva, and lasya, pletely until the British came, thus giving
representing the lyrical grace of Shiva’s a setback to Hindu dance. Slowly the
wife Parvati. Bharata natyam, which takes institution of devadasi fell into disre-
its name from Bharata’s Natya-shastra, pute, and temple dancing girls became
has the lasya character, and its home is synonymous with prostitutes. In the lat-
Tamil Nadu, in South India. Kathakali, a ter half of the 19th century in Tanjore
pantomimic dance-drama in the tandava (Thanjavur), four talented dancers who
mood with towering headgear and elabo- were brothers—Chinniyah, Punniah,
rate facial makeup, originated in Kerala. Vadivelu, and Shivanandam—revived the
Kathak is a mixture of lasya and tandava original purity of dasi attam by study-
characterized by intricate footwork and ing and following the ancient texts and
mathematical precision of rhythmic pat- temple friezes, with missing links sup-
terns; it flourishes in the north. Manipuri, plied by the socially spurned devadasis.
with its swaying and gliding movements, Their popularized form of dasi attam was
is lasya, and it has been preserved in called bharata natyam.
Manipur state in the Assam Hills. In 1958 A performance of bharata natyam
the Sangeet Natak Akademi (National lasts for about two hours and consists
Academy of Music, Dance, and Drama) in of six parts, beginning with allarippu
New Delhi bestowed classical status on (Telegu language, “to decorate with flow-
two other schools of dance—kuchipudi, ers”), a devotional prologue that shows off
from Andhra Pradesh, and orissi, from the elegance and grace of the dancer. The
Orissa. These two styles overlap the second part is jatisvaram, a brilliant blaze
bharata natyam school and therefore of jatis (“dance phrases”) with svaras
are not as distinctly different in tempera- (“musical sounds”). This is followed by
ment and style as other forms. shabdam, the singing words that prepare
the dancer to interpret through abhinaya
The Bharata Natyam School (gesture language) interspersed with
pure dance. The fourth part is varnam,
Bharata natyam (also called dasi attam) a combination of expressive and pure
has survived to the present through the dance. Then follow the padams, songs in
274 | The Culture of India

Telegu, Tamil, or Kannada that the dancer who injected vigour into bharata natyam
dramatizes by facial expressions and by his choreography, and his son-in-law,
hand gestures. The accompanying singer Chokkalingam Pillai.
chants the line again and again, and the
dancer enacts the clashing and contrast- The Kathakali School
ing meanings. Her virtuosity consists of
exhausting all possible shades of sugges- Kathakali (katha, “story”; kali, “perfor-
tion. The performance ends with tillana, a mance”) originated in the 17th century in
pure dance accompanied by meaningless Kerala, the lush tropical coastal strip of
musical syllables chanted to punctuate South India washed by the Arabian Sea.
the rhythm. The dancer explodes into It was devised by the raja of Kottarakkara,
leaps and jumps forward and backward, who, angry over the refusal of a neigh-
from right and left, in a state of ecstasy. bouring prince to allow his dancers to
Tillana ends with three clangs of the perform a Sanskrit dance-drama in his
cymbals while the dancer executes a court, decided to create his own dance
triple blaze of jatis, thumping her feet troupe using Malayalam, the spoken
with a jingling flourish of ankle bells. language of the people. This school has
Bharata natyam has attained world its own hastas, based on a regional text
recognition as one of the most exquisite influenced by the Natya-shastra and
forms of classical dance. Its aspirants later treatises. It also has marked ele-
go to Tamil Nadu to learn from gurus ments of energetic ritualistic dances. The
who still live in villages. Because of its makeup has its roots in the grotesque
lasya character, performing artists have pre-Hindu demon masks. Themes are
always been women. But their teachers taken mainly from the Ramayana, the
have invariably been old men who chant Shiva-purana, the Bhagavata-purana, the
the lines to tiny cymbals, controlling Mahabharata, and other religious texts.
the complex rhythm without dancing The superhuman characters represent
themselves. primal forces of good and evil at war.
The major performers associ- Because of its terrifying vigour, men play
ated with the bharata natyam school all the roles.
of dance in the 20th century were T. Most kathakali characters (except
Balasaraswathi, especially known for her those of women, Brahmans, and sages)
abhinaya (expressive interpretation) of wear towering headgear and billowing
padams; Rukmini Devi, who popularized skirts and have their fingers fitted with
bharata natyam among the upper classes long silver nails to accentuate hand
in the 1930s; Yamini Krishnamurthi; and gestures. The principal characters are
Shanta Rao. Two of the most important classified into seven types. (1) Pachcha
gurus were Minakshisundaram Pillai, (“green”) is the noble hero whose face
Indian Performing Arts | 275

is painted bright green and framed in be disgusting and gruesome. Witches

a white bow-shaped sweep from ears to and ogresses, who fall into this category,
chin. Heroes such as Rama, Lakshmana, have black faces marked with queer pat-
Krishna, Arjuna, and Yudhishthira fall terns in white and huge, bulging breasts.
into this category. (2) Katti (“knife”), (7) Minnukku (“softly shaded”) represents
haughty and arrogant but learned and sages, Brahmans, and women. The men
of exalted character, has a fiery upcurled wear white or orange dhotis (loincloths).
moustache with silver piping and a Women have their faces painted light
white mushroom knob at the tip of his yellow and sprinkled with mica, and their
nose. Two walrus tusks protrude from heads are covered by saris.
the corners of his mouth, his headgear is Under a flower-decked canopy on
opulent, and his skirt is full. Duryodhana, a square ground-level stage, a tall brass
Ravana, and Kichaka belong to this worship lamp brimming with coconut
type. (3) Chokannatadi (“red beard”), oil burns brightly. The musicians and
power-drunk and vicious, is painted jet dancers bow before it before they start
black from the nostrils upward. On both performing. Drummers standing in one
cheeks semicircular strips of white paper corner pound the cenda, a barrel-shaped
run from the upper lip to the eyes. He drum with a piercing, clattering sound
has black lips, white warts on nose and suited for battle scenes, and continue
forehead, two long curved teeth, spiky throughout the performance, almost
silver claws, and a blood-red beard. (4) without respite. Two men hold a 12-by-
Velupputadi (“white beard”) represents 6-foot (4-by-2-metre) embroidered hand
Hanuman, son of the wind god. The curtain from behind which the principal
upper half of his face is black and the characters make their entrances. They
lower red, marked by a tracery of curling dance, grab the trembling curtain, and
white lines. The lips are black, the nose give vivid facial expressions with fearful
is green, black squares frame the eyes, glances and grunts. This “peering over
and two red spots decorate the forehead. the curtain,” called tiranokku, is a close-up
A feathery gray beard, a large furry coat, that offers an actor full scope to display
and bell-shaped headgear give the illu- his art. At a climactic moment the curtain
sion of a monkey. (5) Karupputadi (“black is whisked away, and the character enters
beard”) is a hunter or forest dweller. His in full splendour. The performance lasts
face is coal black with crisscross lines all night, the singers singing the text that
drawn around the eyes. A white flower the dancers act out in an elaborate ges-
sits on his nose, and peacock feathers ture language.
closely woven into a cylinder rise above Well-known performers of kathakali
his head. He carries a bow, quiver, and include Guru Chandu Panikkar, Guru
sword. (6) Kari (“black”) is intended to Kunju Kurup, Ramunni Nair, and
276 | The Culture of India

Kalamandalam Krishna Nair. The danc- them, and adds complex rhythmic pat-
ers Guru Gopi Nath and Krishnan Kutty terns. The mathematical precision in
have both emphasized simplification of doubling and quadrupling the beat with
the use of towering headgear and thick- quick transfers and shifts makes the
crusted, elaborate makeup, so that the art onlookers dizzy.
may be more commonly understood. A female kathak dancer generally
wears a brocade blouse, a long, wide,
The Kathak School shimmering silk skirt, a transparent tis-
sue scarf of gold threads, and a heavy
Kathak, born of the marriage of Hindu cluster of ankle bells. A musician, gener-
and Muslim cultures, flourished in North ally the guru, sits beside the drummer on
India under Mughal influence. Kathak the floor and vocalizes the complicated
dancers retain their 17th-century cos- syllables of the drum that the dancer
tumes but are steeped in Radha and beats out with her feet. Kathak’s basic
Krishna love lore. Krishna, playing his dance posture and some of the steps can
flute in the Vrindavana woods on the bank be traced to the rasilla of Braj Bhoomi.
of the Yamuna River, is surrounded by the The musical refrain, which is called
gopis (“milkmaids”). Their play is the eter- lehra, provides the base on which the
nal game of the god and his devotees, the drummer and the dancer execute a rich
hide-and-seek of man and woman. This tapestry of rhythmic patterns. Beats are
spiritual relationship is deeply passion- called matras and the footwork tatkar.
ate, with erotic love-play. Slowly the dance Important elements of the dance are
degenerated and found shelter in bawdy chakkars, torahs, and tihais. Chakkar
houses, where professional dancing girls denotes whirling with great speed and
practiced the art to make themselves stopping for a fraction of time after each
more tantalizing. In the beginning of the whirl within the prescribed beat while at
20th century it was reclaimed and revived, the same time maintaining the beauty
however, mainly through the efforts of the form. Torah is a composition con-
of Kalkaprasad Maharaj, whose three sisting of rhythmic syllables. Tihai is the
sons—Achchan, Lachchu, and Shambhu— repetition of a phrase of rhythmic syl-
perfected the art. lables used to adorn the concluding part
Because of its mixed lasya and tan- of a torah. There are two styles of kathak:
dava temperament, kathak is popular Jaipur gharana and Lucknow gharana.
with both females and males. In bharata While the Lucknow gharana excels in
natyam, footwork is synchronized with bhava, the Jaipur gharana specializes in
hand gestures and eye movements, but brilliance of footwork.
kathak has no such rigid technique. It In the 20th century the major per-
takes its movements from life, stylizes formers of kathak included Shambhu
Indian Performing Arts | 277

Maharaj, who specialized in bhavapra- in sharp contrast with the other three
darshan (“display of emotion”), and schools of dance, in which the face and
Sunder Prasad, who concentrated on the eyes are a major source of expression.
tala and layakari aspects of the dance. The manipuri drummer, his bare
Birju Maharaj, Gopi Krishan, Sitara Devi, torso in a white dhoti with a red bor-
and Damayanti Joshi all have important der tucked up above his knees, dances
reputations in India as well as abroad. while he plays on the drum. He slaps and
thumps; the drum rumbles and howls
The Manipuri School and chuckles. Drunk with its rhythm,
the drummer dances in wild, frenzied
Manipuri has survived in the sheltered leaps. His energetic and electric move-
valley of Manipur in the Assam Hills. ments are a masculine counterpart to
It remained aloof not only from foreign the slow, undulating patterns woven by
influences but also from the main Indian the female dancer.
trends. Its isolation was broken only in Chief 20th-century exponents of
the 1920s, when Rabindranath Tagore manipuri included Atomba Singh, who
visited the valley and invited a leading preserved the tradition of ras dancing,
guru of the area, Atomba Singh, to teach and Amubi Singh.
at his school in Santiniketan. The supple
movements of manipuri dance were suit- The Kuchipudi School
able for Tagore’s lyrical dramas, and he
therefore employed them in his plays and Kuchipudi dance-dramas owe their ori-
introduced the dance as a part of the cur- gin to the small village of Kuchipudi
riculum at his institution. (Kuchelapuram) in Andhra Pradesh.
The manipuri dancer wears a large, Their form was originated in the 17th
stiff skirt that is glittering with round century by Sidhyendra Yogi, creator
mirror pieces and a shimmering gauze of the superb dance-drama Bhama
veil. Her hair is done up in a high rolled Kalapam, which is the story of charm-
crown that is adorned with chains of ing Satyabhama, jealous wife of Lord
white blossoms, and her luminous cheeks Krishna. Sidhyendra Yogi taught the
and forehead are decorated with dots of art to Brahman boys of Kuchipudi and
sandalwood paste. gave a performance with them in 1675
Known for its femininity, manipuri for the nawab of Golconda, who was so
is marked by a slow, swooning rhythm. pleased that he granted Kuchipudi to
The dancer, with her hips thrust back and the Brahman Bhavathas for the pres-
head tilted on one side, turns and sways ervation of this art. Even into the 20th
and glides as if in a dream. The immo- century, every Brahman of Kuchipudi
bility of her face, like that of a mask, is was expected to perform at least once in
278 | The Culture of India

his life the role of Satyabhama as an offer- Krishnamurthi, Vedantam Satyanarayana,

ing to Lord Krishna. and Yamini Krishnamurthi.
The kuchipudi dance begins with wor-
ship rituals. A male dancer moves about The Odissi Tradition
sprinkling holy water, and then incense
is burned. Indra-dhvaja (the flagstaff of Odissi, practiced in Orissa, claims to be
the god Indra) is planted on the stage to over 2,000 years old and the true inheri-
guard the performance against outside tor of the Natya-shastra tradition. It
interference. Women sing and dance with originated and was initially developed
worship lamps, followed by the worship in the temples and later flourished in
of Ganesha, the elephant god, who is tra- the courts as well. Many of the 108 basic
ditionally petitioned for success before dance units (karanas) mentioned in
all enterprises. The bhagavatha (stage the Natya-shastra can be found only in
manager-singer) sings invocations to the odissi, and many of its dance poses are
goddesses Sarasvati (Learning), Lakshmi sculpted on the exterior of the temples
(Wealth), and Parashakti (Parent Energy), of Bhubaneswar, Konarak, and Puri. Kelu
in between chanting drum syllables. Charan Mahapatra and Indrani Rehman
Two men hold up the traditional were the principal 20th-century figures
coloured curtain. A long gold-embroidered associated with odissi.
braid is hung on the curtain as a chal-
lenge to anyone among the spectators Other Classical Dance Forms
who dares to act and dance. If anyone
should take up this braid, the hero play- Among other classical or semiclassi-
ing the female character Satyabhama will cal dance forms are bhagavatha mela,
cut off “her” hair. The principal characters mohini attam, and kuravanchi. Performed
are introduced from behind the curtain at the annual Narasimha Jayanti festival
after each one has done a brisk dance, in Melatur village in Tamil Nadu, the
and at that time the bhagavatha sings out bhagavatha mela uses classical gesture
the background and function of each. All language with densely textured Karnatak
roles are traditionally played by men (but (South Indian classical) music. Its reper-
since the mid-20th century by women toire was enriched by the musician-poet
also), and all the four elements of abhi- Venkatarama Sastri (1759–1847), who
naya are used—dance, song, costume, and composed important dance-dramas in the
psychological resources. Thus, kuchipudi Telugu language. Mohini attam is based
differs from other classical dances in on the legend of the Hindu mythological
which the performers do not sing. seductress Mohini, who tempted Shiva.
Among the major kuchipudi dancers It is patterned on bharata natyam with
of the 20th century were Guru Chinta elements of kathakali. It uses Malayalam
Indian Performing Arts | 279

songs with Karnatak music. Kuravanchi Konkan coast of west-central India, the
is a dance-drama of lyrical beauty prev- kolyacha is an enactment of the rowing
alent in Tamil Nadu. It is performed by of a boat. Women wave handkerchiefs to
four to eight women, with a gypsy for- their male partners, who move with slid-
tune-teller as initiator of the story of a ing steps. For wedding parties, young
lady pining for her lover. Formally, it is a Kolis dance in the streets carrying house-
mixture of the folk and classical types of hold utensils for the newlywed couple,
Indian dance. who join the dance at its climax.
The national social folk dance of
Folk Dance Rajasthan is the ghoomar, danced by
women in long full skirts and colour-
Indian folk dances have an inexhaust- ful chuneris (squares of cloth draping
ible variety of forms and rhythms. They head and shoulders and tucked in front
differ according to region, occupation, at the waist). Especially spectacular are
and caste. The Adivasis (aboriginal tribes) the kachchi ghori dancers of this region.
of central and eastern India (Murias, Equipped with shields and long swords,
Bhils, Gonds, Juangs, and Santals) are the upper part of their bodies each
the most uninhibited in their dancing. arrayed in the traditional attire of a bride-
There is hardly a national fair or festival groom and the lower part concealed by
where these dances are not performed. a brilliant-coloured papier-mâché horse
The most impressive occasion occurs built up on a bamboo frame, they enact
every January 26 on Republic Day, when jousting contests at marriages and festi-
dancers from all parts of India come to vals. Bawaris generally are expert in this
New Delhi to dance in the vast arena of form of folk dance.
the National Stadium and along a five- In the Punjab region, which spans
mile parade route. parts of India and Pakistan, the most
It is difficult to categorize Indian dynamic social folk dance is the male har-
folk dances, but generally they fall into vest dance, bhangra. This dance is always
four groups: social (concerned with such punctuated by a song. At the end of every
labours as tilling, sowing, fishing, and line the drum thunders. The last line is
hunting); religious (in praise of deities or taken up by all the dancers in a chorus.
in celebration of spiritual fulfillment); rit- In ecstasy they spring, bellow, shout, and
ualistic (to propitiate a deity with magical gallop in a circle, madly wiggling their
rites); and masked (a type that appears in shoulders and hips. Any man of any age
all the above categories). can join.
The kolyacha is among the better- The Lambadi women of Andhra
known examples of social folk dance. Pradesh wear mirror-speckled head-
A fisherman’s dance indigenous to the dresses and skirts and cover their arms
280 | The Culture of India

This young dancer from Rajasthan performs a traditional ghoomar dance during celebrations
for the 14th National Youth Festival in Amritsar in 2009. Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images

with broad, white bone bracelets. They The women, their heads surmounted
dance in slow, swaying movements, with by broad, solid-brass chaplets and their
men acting as singers and drummers. breasts covered with heavy metal neck-
Their social dance is imbued with impas- laces, carry sticks in their right hands
sioned grace and lyricism. like drum majorettes. Fifty to 100 men
The bison-horn dance of the Muria and women dance at a time. The male
tribe in Madhya Pradesh is performed by “bison” attack and fight each other,
both men and women, who traditionally spearing up leaves with their horns and
have lived on equal terms. The men wear chasing the female dancers, while imi-
a horned headdress with a tall tuft of tating various movements of a bison.
feathers and a fringe of cowry shells dan- The Juang tribe in Orissa performs
gling over their faces. A drum shaped bird and animal dances with vivid mim-
like a log is slung around their necks. ing and powerful muscular agility.
Indian Performing Arts | 281

Some major examples of religious pot of uncooked rice surmounted by a tall

folk dances are the dindi and kala dances bamboo frame. People ascribe this feat to
of Maharashtra, which are expressions of the spirit of the deity, which, it is believed,
religious ecstasy. The dancers revolve in enters his body. The Therayattam festival
a circle, beating short sticks (dindis) to in Kerala is held to propitiate the gods
keep time with the chorus leader and a and demons recognized by the pantheon
drummer in the middle. As the rhythm of the Malayalis. The dancers, arrayed in
accelerates, the dancers form into two awe-inspiring costumes and frightening
rows, stamp their right feet, bow, and masks, enact colourful rituals before the
advance with their left feet, making village shrine. A devotee makes an offer-
geometric formations. The kala dance ing of a cock. The dancer grabs it, chops
features a pot symbolizing fecundity. A off its head in one stroke, gives a blessing,
group of dancers forms a double-tiered and hands it back to the devotee. This
circle with other dancers on their shoul- ceremony is punctuated by a prolonged
ders. On top of this tier a man breaks the and ponderous dance.
pot and splashes curds over the torsos of The greatest number of masked folk
the dancers. After this ceremonial open- dances are found in Arunachal Pradesh,
ing, the dancers twirl sticks and swords in where the influence of Tibetan dance may
a feverish battle dance. be seen. The yak dance is performed in
Garaba, meaning a votive pot, is the the Ladakh section of Kashmir and in the
best-known religious dance of Gujarat. It southern fringes of the Himalayas near
is danced by a group of 50 to 100 women Assam. The dancer impersonating a yak
every year for nine nights in honour dances with a man mounted on his back.
of the goddess Amba Mata, known in In sada topo tsen men wear gorgeous
other parts of India as Durga or Kali. The silks, brocades, and long tunics with wide
women move in a circle, bending, turn- flapping sleeves. Skulls arranged as a
ing, clapping their hands, and sometimes diadem are a prominent feature of their
snapping their fingers. Songs in praise of grotesquely grinning wooden masks rep-
the goddess accompany this dance. resenting spirits of the other world. The
Of the endless variety of ritualistic dancers rely on powerful, rather slow,
folk dances, many have magical signifi- twirling movements with hops.
cance and are connected with ancient The chhau, a unique form of masked
cults. The karakam dance of Tamil dance, is preserved by the royal family of
Nadu state, mainly performed on the the former state of Saraikela in Jharkhand.
annual festival in front of the image of The dancer impersonates a god, animal,
Mariyammai (goddess of pestilence), bird, hunter, rainbow, night, or flower. He
is to deter her from unleashing an epi- acts out a short theme and performs a
demic. Tumbling and leaping, the dancer series of vignettes at the annual Chaitra
retains on his head without touching it a Parva festival in April. Chhau masks have
282 | The Culture of India

Bhangra is a folk dance and a music of the Punjab (northwestern India and northeastern
Pakistan) and the popular music genre that emerged from it in the mid-to-late 20th cen-
tury. Cultivated in two separate but interactive styles—one centred in South Asia, the other
within the South Asian community of the United Kingdom—the newer bhangra blends various
Western popular musics with the original Punjabi tradition. It enjoys an immense following in
South Asia and within the South Asian diaspora.
The term bhangra originally designated a particular dance performed by Sikh and
Muslim men in the farming districts of the Punjab region of South Asia. The dance was
associated primarily with the spring harvest festival Baisakhi, and it is from one of the
major products of the harvest—bhang (hemp)—that bhangra drew its name. In a typical

These Indian young people perform bhangra, a traditional Punjabi folk dance, during
Republic Day in Amritsar, India, on January 26, 2010. Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images
Indian Performing Arts | 283

performance, several dancers executed vigorous kicks, leaps, and bends of the body to the
accompaniment of short songs called boliyan and, most significantly, to the beat of a dhol
(double-headed drum). Struck with a heavy beater on one end and with a lighter stick on the
other, the dhol imbued the music with a syncopated (accents on the weak beats), swinging
rhythmic character that has generally remained the hallmark of any music that has come to
bear the bhangra name.
In the mid-20th century the bhangra dance began to gain popularity beyond the Punjab,
and, as it did so, it became divorced from the agricultural cycle, emerging as a regular feature
of wedding festivities, birthday parties, local fairs, and other celebrations. With the change in
context came changes in other aspects of tradition. The term bhangra expanded to encompass
not only the dance but also the instrumental and vocal music that was associated with it; the
large dhol was replaced by the similar yet smaller dholak, played with the hands; various local
instruments—such as the flute, zither, fiddle, harmonium (a portable, hand-pumped organ),
and tabla—were added to the accompaniment; and the topics of the song texts broadened from
agricultural themes to include literary, romantic, and subtly comic material. In the later 20th
century, guitar, mandolin, saxophone, synthesizer, drum set, and other Western instruments
were added to the ensemble.
Bit by bit, bhangra began to amass an audience that extended beyond the boundaries of
South Asia to Britain. There the music gained momentum as a positive emblem of South Asian
identity, particularly in Southall, the predominantly South Asian suburb of London’s West End. 
Aside from matters of musical style, British bhangra differed from South Asian bhangra in
other significant ways.  These events provided a venue for men and women to dance together as
couples to the sound of South Asian music. The new bhangra eventually seeped into the night-
club scene.
In the mid-1990s, however, British musicians, began to use their music as a vehicle for
poignant social commentary. Not only did these and other artists address such issues as
racial conflict and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but they tapped stylistic features of reggae, rap,
and other African American and Afro-Caribbean popular music genres. Alongside these top-
ical changes, the song texts shifted increasingly from Punjabi to English or to a mixture of
the two. Meanwhile, bhangra in South Asia experienced similar changes, although its style
generally retained a clearer link to its rural folk roots. Gurdas Maan is largely credited for
elevating Punjabi music from a regional tradition to one that draws audiences throughout
South Asia. Expanding the music’s listenership was indeed one of Maan’s priorities; to that
end, he sang in a simplified Punjabi for Hindi-speaking audiences and also composed songs
in Urdu, a language closely related to Hindi and spoken in northern India and Pakistan.
Both bhangras have continued to develop—albeit along somewhat different trajectories—in
the 21st century. The South Asian style enjoys a tremendous following, particularly within South
Asia. The British style, by contrast, has a strong listenership not only in the United Kingdom but
also within South Asian communities of Canada and the United States.
284 | The Culture of India

predominantly human features slightly be her partner in the ballet Radha and
modified to suggest what they are por- Krishna. Young Shankar returned to India
traying. With serene expressions painted fired with enthusiasm. After studying the
in simple, flat colours, they differ radi- essentials of the four major styles of clas-
cally from the elaborate facial makeup sical dance, he created new ballets with
of kathakali or the exaggerated ghoul- complex choreography and music, mix-
ishness of the Kandyan masks. His face ing the sounds from wooden clappers and
being expressionless, the chhau dancer’s metal cymbals with those of traditional
body communicates the total emotional instruments. He used classical and folk
and psychological tensions of a charac- rhythms. Employing Western stage tech-
ter. His feet have a gesture language; his niques, he presented his ballets with a skill
toes are agile, functional, and expressive. and style previously unknown to Indian
The dancer is mute; no song is sung. Only audiences. These ballets included Shiva-
instrumental music accompanies him. In Parvati and Lanka Dahan (“The Burning
another form of chhau, practiced in the of Lanka”), in which he used wooden
Mayurbhanj district of Orissa, the actors masks from Sri Lanka. In Rhythm of Life
do not wear masks, but through deliber- (1938) and in Labour and Machinery
ately stiff and immobile faces they give (1939), he employed contemporary politi-
the illusion of a mask. The style of their cal and social themes. He established
dance is vigorous and acrobatic. a culture centre at Almora in 1939 and
during its four years’ existence created a
Modern Indian Dance whole generation of modern dancers.
Shanti Bardhan, a junior colleague
While in the West the theatrical ele- of Uday Shankar, produced some of
ments of spoken words, music, and dance the most imaginative dance-dramas of
developed independently and evolved the 20th century. After founding the
in the forms of drama, opera, and ballet, Little Ballet Troupe in Andheri, now in
Indian theatrical tradition continued to Mumbai, in 1952 he produced Ramayana,
combine the three in its dramas. Indian in which the actors moved and danced
films still follow this rule (the heroine like puppets. His posthumous production
suddenly bursts into a song or dances Panchatantra (The Winning of Friends) is
for the hero). Since the mid-20th century, based on an ancient fable of four friends
dance in the form of ballet with choreog- (Mouse, Turtle, Deer, and Crow), in which
raphy in the Western sense has emerged he used masks and the mimed move-
as a distinct form. ments of animals and birds.
Modern Indian ballet started with Narendra Sharma and Sachin
Uday Shankar, who went to England to Shankar, both pupils of Uday Shankar,
study the plastic arts and was chosen by continued his tradition. Other impor-
the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova to tant figures who have shaped modern
Indian Performing Arts | 285

Indian dance include Menaka, Ram companies, and academies are found in
Gopal, and Mrinalini Sarabhai, who has Kautilya’s book on statesmanship, the
experimented with conveying modern Artha-shastra (4th century BC).
themes through the bharata natyam and
kathakali styles. Classical Theatre

Dance-Training Centres The structure, form, and style of acting

and production with aesthetic rules, how-
Dance training in small academies and ever, were not consolidated until Bharata
local kala kendras (“art centres”) is avail- Muni wrote his treatise on dramaturgy,
able all over contemporary India. Most Natya-shastra. Bharata defines drama as a
universities have introduced dance as a
subject in their curricula. The gurus still mimicry of the actions and con-
impart specialized training to pupils who duct of people, rich in various
go to live with them in villages and learn emotions, depicting different situ-
the art over a number of years. But there ations. This relates to actions of
are many state-run or public-financed men good, bad and indifferent and
training centres, most organized in the gives courage, amusement, happi-
20th century, that attract students from ness, and advice to all of them.
all over the world. Among the most impor-
tant of these are Kerala Kalamandalam Bharata classified drama into 10
(Kerala Institute of Arts), near Shoranur; types. The two most important are
Kalakshetra at Adyar, Tamil Nadu; nataka (“heroic”), which deals with
Kathak Kendra, a dance branch of the the exalted themes of gods and kings
Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra in New and draws from history or mythology
Delhi; Triveni Kala Sangam (Centre of (Kalidasa’s Shakuntala and Bhavabhuti’s
Music, Dance, and Painting), at New Uttararamacharita fall into this cate-
Delhi; Darpana Academy in Ahmadabad, gory), and prakarana (“social”), in which
Gujarat; Visva-Bharati (founded by the dramatist invents a plot dealing with
Rabindranath Tagore), at Santiniketan, ordinary human beings, such as a courte-
West Bengal; and the Jawaharlal Nehru san or a woman of low morals (Shudraka’s
Manipuri Dance Academy, at Imphal. Mrichchakatika, “The Little Clay Cart,”
belongs to this type). Plays range from 1
Indian Theatre to 10 acts. There are many types of one-act
plays, including bhana (“monologue”),
Aphorisms on acting appear in the writ- in which a single character carries on a
ings of Panini, the Sanskrit grammarian dialogue with an invisible one, and pra-
of the 5th century BC, and references hasana (“farce”), which is classified into
to actors, dancers, mummers, theatrical two categories—superior and inferior,
286 | The Culture of India

both dealing with courtesans and crooks. Aristotle’s theory of catharsis bears no
King Mahendravikramavarman’s 7th- resemblance to Bharata’s theory of rasa.
century-AD Bhagavad-Ajjukiya (“The The Greek conception of tragedy is
Harlot and the Monk”) and Mattavilasa totally absent in Sanskrit dramas, as is
(“Drunken Revelry”) are examples of the aesthetic principle that prohibits any
prahasana. death or defeat of the hero on stage.
There are three structural types of There were two types of Hindu pro-
classical theatre: oblong, square, and tri- ductions: the lokadharmi, or realistic
angular, each further divided into large, theatre, with natural presentation of
medium, and small sizes. According to the human behaviour and properties catering
Natya-shastra, the playhouse was “like a to the popular taste, and the natyadharmi,
mountain cave” with two floors at differ- or stylized drama, which, using gesture
ent levels, small windows so that outside language and symbols, was considered
noise and wind would not interfere with more artistic. In Shakuntala the king
the acoustics, and a backstage for actors enters riding an imaginary chariot, and
to do makeup, costumes, and offstage Shakuntala plucks flowers that are not
noise effects. Bharata disapproved of a there; in “The Little Clay Cart” the thief
large playhouse and recommended the breaks through a nonexistent wall, and
medium-size structure meant for court Maitreya passes through Vasantasena’s
productions. seven courtyards by miming.
The ancient Hindus insisted on a A classical play traditionally opened
small playhouse, because dramas were with the nandi, a benediction of eight
acted in a highly stylized gesture lan- to 12 lines of verse in praise of the gods,
guage with subtle movements of eyes after which the sutra-dhara (stage man-
and hands. Hindu theatre differed from ager) entered with his wife and described
its Greek counterpart in temperament the place and occasion of the action. The
and method of production. The three last sentence of his prologue served as a
unities rigidly followed by the Greeks bridge leading to the action of the play.
were totally unknown to Sanskrit dra- In Shakuntala he refers to the bewitch-
matists. Less time was consumed by a ing song of his wife, which has made him
Greek program of three tragedies and forget his surroundings as the pursuit
a farce than by a single Sanskrit drama, of a deer has made the king forget his
with its subsidiary plots and wide vari- state affairs. At this point the king enters,
ety of characters and moods. The Greeks riding his hunting chariot, and the spec-
laid emphasis on plot and speech, the tators are plunged into action of the play.
Hindus on the four types of acting and The vidushaka (clown) is a noble,
visual demonstration. People were audi- good-hearted, blundering fool, the
ences to the Greeks and spectators to the trusted friend of the hero. A bald-headed
Hindus. The aesthetic rules also differed. glutton, comic in speech and manners, he
Indian Performing Arts | 287

is the darling of the spectators. With the an insignificant homely incident—the

decline of Sanskrit drama the folk theatre hero’s son playing with a toy cart—and
in various regional languages inherited elevated this to the title.
the conventions of the opening prayer “The Little Clay Cart” has a wide
song, the sutra-dhara, and the vidushaka. range of characters. The plot does not
The only surviving Sanskrit drama progress in a straight line but zigzags
is kudiyattam, still performed by the along a winding path. During its 10 acts
Chakkayars of Kerala. Some principles the hero does not appear in four of them,
of the Natya-shastra are evident in their the heroine is absent from three, and the
presentations. lustful villain disappears after the first
The earliest available classical dra- act until the eighth. Each act is an almost
mas are 13 plays edited in 1912 by Pandit independent play. The device used to link
Ganapati Sastri, who dug out their man- the acts is that of ending them with sub-
uscripts in Trivandrum, the capital of titles that sum up their particular themes
Kerala state. These, ascribed to Bhasa or plots.
(1st century BC–1st century AD), include “The Little Clay Cart” has been suc-
the one-act Urubhanga (“The Broken cessful in the West, whereas Indian
Thigh”), a tragedy that is a departure audiences, still fed on poetic-flavoured
from Sanskrit convention, and the six- characters and romances of an ethereal
act Svapnavasavadatta (“The Dream of type, have favoured Shakuntala. Western
Vasavadatta”). audiences find “The Little Clay Cart” more
The most acclaimed dramatist is in their own tradition of realism and indi-
Kalidasa. Other important playwrights vidualized characterization. Its “lisping
succeeding him include Harsha, villain,” gamblers, and rogues have some-
Mahendravikramavarman, Bhavabhuti, thing in common with Shakespeare’s
and Vishakhadatta. An exception is King comic characters and Molière’s crooks.
Shudraka, whose work is perhaps the most “The Little Clay Cart” is better theatre,
theatrical in the entire Sanskrit range. whereas Shakuntala is better poetry.
The title of “The Little Clay Cart”
represents a departure from Sanskrit Folk Theatre
tradition, in which a prakarana was
generally named after its hero and hero- After the decline of Sanskrit drama, folk
ine. Malavikagnimitra, for example, is theatre developed in various regional
the love story of Princess Malavika and languages from the 14th through the 19th
King Agnimitra, Vikramorvashi is the century. Some conventions and stock
tale of King Pururavas and the heavenly characters of classical drama (stage pre-
nymph Urvashi, and Malati-Madhava is liminaries, the opening prayer song, the
the love drama of Malati and Madhava. sutra-dhara, and the vidushaka) were
Shudraka, as if to mock tradition, chose adopted into folk theatre, which lavishly
288 | The Culture of India

employs music, dance, drumming, exag- In most folk forms the art of the actor
gerated makeup, masks, and a singing is hereditary. He learns by watching his
chorus. Thematically, it deals with myth- elders throughout childhood. He starts
ological heroes, medieval romances, and with drumming, then dancing, plays
social and political events, and it is a rich female roles, and then major roles.
store of customs, beliefs, legends, and rit- All roles are played by men except
uals. It is a “total theatre,” invading all the that of the tamasha woman, who is always
senses of the spectators. a dancer-singer-actress. Since the mid-
The most crystalized forms are the 20th century, women have increasingly
jatra of Bengal, the nautanki, ramlila, played female roles in the jatra, but they
and raslila of North India, the bhavai of have yet to achieve the artistic stature of
Gujarat, the tamasha of Maharashtra, the their professional male counterparts.
terukkuttu of Tamil Nadu, and the yak- In the ramlila and raslila the princi-
shagana of Karnataka. pal characters—Rama and Krishna—are
Folk theatre is performed in the always played by boys under age 14,
open on a variety of arena stages; round, because tradition decreed they must
square, rectangular, multiple-set. The be pure and innocent. They are consid-
bhavai, enacted on a ground-level circle, ered representatives of the gods and are
and the jatra, on a 16-foot (5-metre) worshipped on these occasions. In the
square platform, have gangways that run ramlila the vyas (“director”), present on
through the surrounding audience and the stage throughout the performance,
connect the stage to the dressing room. prompts and directs the characters loudly
Actors enter and exit through these enough for the audience to hear. This is
gangways, which serve a function similar not regarded as disturbing, because it is
to the hanamichi of the Japanese Kabuki an accepted part of the tradition. Adult
theatre. In the ramlila the action some- roles such as Ravana and Hanuman are
times occurs simultaneously at various sometimes played by the same individual
levels on a multiple set. Actors in nau- throughout his life.
tanki and bhavai sit on the stage in full Of the nonreligious forms, the jatra
view instead of exiting and sing or play and the tamasha are most important. The
an instrument as a part of the chorus. jatra, also popular in Orissa and eastern
In the ramlila the actor playing Ravana Bihar, originated in Bengal in the 15th
removes his 10-headed mask when he is century as a result of the bhakti move-
not acting and continues sitting on his ment, in which devotees of Krishna went
throne, but for the spectators he is the- singing and dancing in processions and
atrically absent. Asides, soliloquies, and in their frenzied singing sometimes went
monologues abound. Scenes melt into into acting trances. This singing with
one another, and the action continues in dramatic elements gradually came to be
spite of change of locale. known as jatra, which means “to go in a
Indian Performing Arts | 289

This young actor is dressed in jewels and makeup to perform in the Ramlila, the stage play of
the great Hindu epic the Ramayana, in Varanasi (Benares), Uttar Pradesh, India. John Henry
Claude Wilson/Robert Harding World Imagery/Getty Images

procession.” In the 19th century the jatra warns of impending dangers, and plays
became secularized when the repertoire the double of everybody. Through his
swelled with love stories and social and songs he externalizes the inner feelings
political themes. Until the beginning of of the characters and reveals the inner
the 20th century, the dialogue was pri- meaning of their outer actions.
marily sung. The length has been cut The tamasha (a Persian word mean-
from all night to four hours. The jatra ing “fun,” “play,” or “spectacle”) originated
performance consists of action-packed at the beginning of the 18th century in
dialogue with only about six songs. The Maharashtra as an entertainment for the
singing chorus is represented by a single camping Mughal armies. This theatrical
character, the vivek (“conscience”), who form was created by singing girls and
can appear at any moment in the play. He dancers imported from North India and
comments on the action, philosophizes, the local acrobats and tumblers of the
290 | The Culture of India

lower-caste Dombari and Kolhati com- and princesses of the Mughal period.
munities with their traditional manner Generally, the puppeteer and his nephew
of singing. It flourished in the courts of or son operate the strings from behind,
Maratha rulers of the 18th and 19th cen- while the puppeteer’s wife sits on her
turies and attained its artistic apogee haunches in front of the miniature stage
during the reign of Baji Rao II (1796–1818). playing the drums and commenting on
Its uninhibited lavani-style singing and the action. The puppeteer chirps, whim-
powerful drumming and dancing give it pers, and squeals in animal–bird voices
an erotic flavor. The most famous tama- and creates battles and tragic moments,
sha poet and performer was Ram Joshi expresses pathos, anger, and laughter.
(1762–1812) of Sholapur, an upper-class In Andhra Pradesh the puppets, called
Brahman who married the courtesan tholu bommalata (“the dance of leather
Bayabai. Another famous singer-poet was dolls”), are fashioned of translucent,
Patthe Bapu Rao (1868–1941), a Brahman coloured leather. These are projected on
who married a beautiful low-caste dancer, a small screen, like colour photographic
Pawala. They were the biggest tamasha transparencies. Animals, birds, gods, and
stars during the first quarter of the 20th demons dominate the screen. The puppe-
century. The tamasha actress, commonly teer manipulates them from behind with
called the nautchi (meaning “nautch girl,” two sticks. Strong lamps are arranged
or “prostitute”) is the life and soul of the so that the size, position, and angle of
performance. Because of their bawdy ele- the puppets change with the distance of
ments, women never see tamasha plays, the light. They are similar to the wayang
nor do respectable men. kulit puppets of Indonesia but are much
In the 20th century, jatra and tama- smaller and quicker-moving.
sha both became highly organized and In the absence of a powerful Indian
commercially run. Troupes are now in city theatre (with the exception of a few
heavy demand and work for nine months. in Kolkata, Mumbai, and Tamil Nadu),
Hundreds of tamasha troupes with many folk theatre has kept the rural audiences
dancer-actresses tour the rural areas, ulti- entertained for centuries and has played
mately providing a living for thousands an important part in the growth of mod-
of people. The jatra is the most success- ern theatres in different languages. The
ful commercially. Its star actors draw 19th-century dramatist Bharatendu
more than any other professional actor in Harishchandra, who was responsible for
the theatrical centre of Kolkata. the birth of Hindi drama, used folk con-
Popular in North India are the put- ventions—the opening prayer song,
liwalas (“puppeteers”) of Rajasthan, tableaux, comic interludes, duets, styl-
who operate marionettes made of wood ized speech—and combined these with
and bright-coloured cloth. The puppet Western theatrical forms in vogue at
plays deal with kings, lovers, bandits, that time. Parsi companies adapted the
Indian Performing Arts | 291

In Rajasthan, performances with ornately decorated and clothed traditional string puppets
such as these are a popular form of entertainment. Christopher and Sally Gable/Dorling
Kindersley/Getty Images

popular folk techniques for their extrava- Modern Theatre

ganzas and were a major influence until
the 1930s. Rabindranath Tagore, rejecting Modern Indian theatre first developed in
the heavy sets and realistic decor of the Bengal at the end of the 18th century as
commercial companies, created a lyrical a result of Western influence. The other
theatre of the imagination. Much influ- regional theatres more or less followed
enced by the baul singers and folk actors Bengal’s pattern, and within the next
of Bengal, he introduced the Singing 100 years they took the same meander-
Bairagi and the Wandering Poet (similar ing path, though they never achieved the
to the vivek of the jatra) in his dramas. In same robust growth.
the late 20th century, folk theatre came to The British conquered Bengal in
be viewed as a form that can add colour 1757 and influenced local arts by their
and vitality to contemporary theatre. educational and political systems. Their
292 | The Culture of India

clubs performed Shakespeare, Molière, and villains of these plays came to rep-
and Restoration comedies, introduc- resent the Indian freedom fighter against
ing Western dramatic structure and the the British oppressor. Girish’s historical
proscenium stage to the Indian intel- tragedies Mir Qasim (1906), Chhatrapati
ligentsia. With the help of Golak Nath (1907), and Sirajuddaulah (1909) bring
Dass, a local linguist, Gerasim Lebedev, out the tragic grandeur of heroes who
a Russian bandmaster in a British mili- fail because of some inner weakness or
tary unit, produced the first Bangla play, betrayal of their colleagues. D.L. Roy
Chhadmabes (“The Disguise”), in 1795 on emphasized the same aspect of national-
a Western-style stage with Bengali play- ism in his historical dramas Mebarapatan
ers of both sexes. Subsequently, Bengali (The Fall of Mebar), Shahjahan (1910),
playwrights began synthesizing Western and Chandragupta (1911).
styles with their own folk and Sanskrit Girish introduced professional effi-
heritage. With growing national con- ciency and showmanship. His style of
sciousness, theatre became a platform acting was flamboyant, with fiery grace.
for social reform and propaganda against Actors such as Amar Datta and Dani
British rule. Among the most important Babu carried his style into the early 1920s.
playwrights were Michael Madhu Sudan The acting and production methods of
(1824–73), Dina Bandhu Mitra (1843–87), the Star, the Minerva, and the Manmohan
Girish Chandra Ghosh (1844–1912), and Theatres (all professional) were modelled
D.L. Roy (1863–1913). on Girish’s pioneer work.
The success of Dina Bandhu Mitra’s The first elements of realism
Nildarpan (“Mirror of the Indigo”), deal- were introduced in the 1920s by Sisir
ing with the tyranny of the British indigo Kumar Bhaduri, Naresh Mitra, Ahindra
planters over the rural Bengali farm Chowdhuri, and Durga Das Banerji,
labourers, paved the way for professional together with the actresses Probha Devi
theatre. The actor-director-writer Girish and Kanka Vati. In his Srirangam Theatre
Chandra Ghosh founded in 1872 the (closed in 1954), Sisir performed two
National Theatre, the first Bangla profes- most memorable roles: the again Mughal
sional company, and took Nildarpan on emperor Aurangzeb and the shrewd
tour, giving performances in the North Hindu philosopher-politician Chanakya.
Indian cities of Delhi and Lucknow. The Sisir’s style was refined by actor-director
instigatory speeches and lurid scenes of Sombhu Mitra and his actress wife Tripti,
British brutality resulted in the banning who worked in the Left-wing People’s
of this production. To overcome censor- Theatre movement in the 1940s. With
ship difficulties, playwrights turned to other actors they founded the Bahurupee
historical and mythological themes with group in 1949 and produced many Tagore
veiled symbolism that was clearly under- plays including Rakta Karabi (“Red
stood by Indian audiences. The heroes Oleanders”) and Bisarjan (“Sacrifice”).
Indian Performing Arts | 293

Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), who emphasized Maratha nationalism.

steeped in Hindu classics and indigenous The acting style in Maharashtrian theatre
folk forms but responsive to European remained melodramatic, passionately
techniques of production, evolved a dra- arousing audiences to laughter or tears.
matic form quite different from those In the south the popularity of dance-
of his contemporaries. He directed and dramas has limited the growth of theatrical
acted in his plays along with his cousins, realism. Tamil commercial companies
nephews, and students. These produc- with their song and dance extravaganzas
tions were staged mostly at his school, have dominated Andhra Pradesh, Kerala,
Santiniketan, in Bengal as a nonprofes- and Mysore. One of the most outstanding
sional and experimental theatre. The Tamil companies in the second half of the
elite of Calcutta and foreign visitors were 20th century was the T.K.S. Brothers of
attracted to these performances. Madras (Chennai), famous for trick scenes
A painter, musician, actor, and poet, and gorgeous settings. Also a pioneer of
Tagore combined these talents in his realistic Tamil theatre was the actor-pro-
productions. He used music and dance ducer-proprietor Nawab Rajamanickam
as essential elements in his latter years Pillai, who specialized in mythological
and created the novel opera-dance form plays with an all-male cast, using horses,
in which a chorus sat on the stage and chariots, processions, replicas of temples,
sang while the players acted out their and even elephants.
roles in dance and stylized movements. Urdu and Hindi drama began with
Sometimes Tagore himself sat on a stool the production of Indrasabha by Nawab
acting as the sutra-dhara and chanted to Wajid Ali Shah in 1855 and was devel-
the accompaniment of music and drum oped by the Parsi theatrical companies
as the dancing players became visual until the 1930s.
moving pictures. Parsi theatre was an amalgam of
In northern and western India, theatre European techniques and local classical
developed in the latter half of the 19th cen- forms, folk dramas, farces, and pageants.
tury. The Mumbai Parsi companies, using Mythical titans thundered on the stage.
Hindi and Urdu, toured all over India. Devils soared in the air, daggers flew,
Their spectacular showmanship, based on thrones moved, and heroes jumped from
a dramatic structure of five acts with songs, high palace walls. Vampire pits, the
dances, comic scenes, and declamatory painted back cloth of a generalized scene,
acting, was copied by regional theatres. and mechanical devices to operate flying
The Maharashtrian theatre, founded in figures were direct copies of the 19th-
1843 by Visnudas Bhave, a singer-com- century Lyceum melodramas and Drury
poser-wood-carver in the court of the Raja Lane spectacles in London.
of Sangli, was developed by powerful dra- The star film actor Prithvi Raj Kapoor
matists such as Khadilkar and Gadkari, founded Prithvi Theatres in Mumbai in
294 | The Culture of India

Dance and Theatre in Kashmir

The Vale of Kashmir, predominantly populated by Muslims, has remained aloof from the main
cultural currents of India. The ancient caves and temples of Kashmir, however, reveal a strong
link with Indian culture at the beginning of the Common Era. At one time the classical dances of
the south are believed to have been practiced. When Islam was introduced, in the 14th century,
dancing and theatrical arts were suppressed, being contrary to a strict interpretation of the
Qur’ān. These arts survived only in folk forms and were performed principally at marriage cer-
emonies. The popular hafiza dance performed by Kashmiri women at weddings and festivals to
the accompaniment of sufiana kalam (devotional music of the Muslim mystics known as Sufis)
was banned in the 1920s by the ruling maharaja, who felt this dance was becoming too sensual.
It was replaced by the bacha nagma, performed by young boys dressed like women. A popular
entertainment at parties and festivals, it is also customarily included in modern stage plays.
Theatrical productions in Kashmir are generally offered irregularly by amateur troupes.
There is, however, the bhand jashna (“festival of clowns”), a centuries-old genre of folk theatre.
Performed in village squares, it satirizes social situations through dance, music, and clowning.
The Kashmiri-language theatre was founded in 1947, when a new national conscious-
ness, the aftermath of the independence of the Indian subcontinent from Britain, inspired
playwrights and folk actors to dramatize topical events and create a “visual newspaper” for
the people. Some theatrical presentations carried a political agenda, such as the left-wing
propaganda plays Zamin Sanz (“Who Owns the Land?”) and Jangbaaz (“The Warmonger”).
Especially notable among those who have written for the stage has been the poet Nadim, author
of two operas, Bambur-yambarzal (The Bumblebee) and Himal Nagraj (The Beautiful Woman
and the Snake Prince).
Since the 1960s the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture, and Languages has pro-
moted theatre in the Kashmiri and Dogri languages, with an emphasis on literary dramas and
folk-dance festivals of regional appeal.

1944 and brought robust realism to Hindi who had tremendous emotional depth
drama, then closed down in 1960 with a and range, rare in actresses on the Hindi
sense of completion after many tours stage. Out of Prithvi’s eight productions,
throughout India. Prithvi’s sons, nephews, in which he always played the lead, the
and old associates worked in his large most successful was Pathan (1946), which
company, which became a training centre ran for 558 nights. It deals with the friend-
for many actors who later joined the films. ship between a tribal Muslim leader and
Among these was the outstanding stage a Hindu administrator and is set in the
actress Zohra Sehgal, a former dance rugged frontier from which Prithvi came.
partner of Uday Shankar in the 1930s This tragedy of two archetypes in which
Indian Performing Arts | 295

the tribal leader sacrifices his son to save E. Alkazi, and Utpal Dutt all had their
the life of his friend’s son had intensity of earlier training in English productions.
action, smoldering passion, and unity of Norah Richards, an Irish-born actress
mood and achieved the highest quality of who came to the Punjab in 1911, produced
realism on the Hindi stage to this day. in 1914 the first Punjabi play, Dulhan
Among the actors who molded (“The Bride”), written by her pupil I.C.
regional-language theatres are Shri Nanda. For 50 years she promoted rural
Narayan Rao Rajhans (popularly known drama and inspired actors and produc-
as the Bala Gandharva of the Maharashtra ers, including Prithvi Raj Kapoor.
stage), Jayashankar Bhojak Sundari of India’s genius still lies in its dance-
Gujarat, and Sthanam Narasimhrao of dramas, which have a unique form based
Andhra. All three specialized in female on centuries of unbroken tradition. There
roles and were star attractions during the are very few professional theatre compa-
first quarter of the 20th century. nies in the whole of India, but thousands
In the second half of the 20th cen- of amateur productions are staged every
tury, two outstanding actor-directors year by organized groups. Out of this
were Ebrahim Alkazi, director of the intense experimental activity, the Indians
National School of Drama in New Delhi, have aimed to create a national theatre
and Utpal Dutt, who founded the Calcutta that incorporates contemporary, inter-
Little Theatre Group in 1947, which origi- nationally recognized techniques but
nally performed plays in English and in retains a distinctly Indian flavour.
1954 changed to productions in Bangla. Many centres for theatrical training
Dutt was an actor fully committed to the that were established in the mid-20th
revolutionary ideology of the Chinese century have continued to operate in the
communist leader Mao Zedong. He 21st century, despite some name changes
acted on open-air stages in rural areas of and mergers with other institutions.
Bengal, where he exerted a strong artistic Among the most important of these are
and political influence. the National School of Drama in New
Since Lebedev in 1795 there has been Delhi, Sangeet Natak Akademi (National
a continuous stream of Western-trained Academy of Music, Dance, and Drama) in
actors and producers who have been New Delhi, and the National Institute for
revitalizing regional-language theatri- the Performing Arts in Mumbai. Bharatiya
cal groups. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah had Natya Sangh, the union of all Indian the-
visiting French opera composers in his atre groups, was founded in 1949 and is
mid-19th-century court. Tagore did his centered in New Delhi. Affiliated with
first opera, Valmiki Pratibha (“The Genius UNESCO’s branch of the International
of Valmiki”), in 1881, after returning from Theatre Institute, it organizes drama fes-
England, where he became familiar with tivals and seminars, as well as serving as
Western harmonies. Prithvi Raj Kapoor, a centre for information.
T he favoured material of early Indian architecture appears
to have been wood, but little has survived the rigours of
the climate. Wooden forms, however, affected work in other
mediums and were sometimes quite literally copied, as, for
example, in early cave temples of western India. The princi-
ples of wooden construction also played an important part in
determining the shape of Indian architecture and its various
elements and components.
Baked or sun-dried brick has a history as ancient as that
of wood; among the earliest remains are buildings excavated
at sites of the Indus Valley civilization. The use of brick is
once again evident from about the 6th century BC, and its
popularity was undiminished in subsequent centuries. Many
brick monuments have been discovered, particularly in areas
in which good clay was easily available, such as the Gangetic
Basin. Although more durable than wood, few brick buildings
from before the 5th century AD have survived in a good state
of preservation.
Traditions of stone architecture appear to be more
recent than wood or brick, the earliest examples of the use
of dressed stone for building purposes not predating the
6th century BC. The Indian architect, however, soon gained
great proficiency in its use, and, by the 7th century AD, the
use of stone for monumental buildings of considerable size
had become quite popular. The preference for stone can also
Indian Architecture | 297

be seen in Islamic monuments of India, THE MAuRyA PERIOD

which contrast markedly with the brick (C. 321–185 bC)
and tile structures popular in neighbour-
ing West Asia. The state of Indian architecture in the
Most surviving examples of Indian period between the Indus Valley civiliza-
architecture before the Islamic period are tion and the rise of the Maurya empire
of a religious nature, consisting mainly of is largely unknown since most work
Buddhist shrines, or stupas, and temples. was done in such perishable material
Monastic residences give some idea of as wood or brick. Excavations at Rajgir,
civil architecture, but, surprisingly, very Kaushambi, and other sites, however,
few examples of palaces and secular testify to the existence of fortified cities
dwellings have been found. with stupas, monasteries, and temples of
the type found at the later Maurya sites of
INDuS VALLEy Nagari and Vidisha; and there is evidence
CIVILIZATION of the use of dressed stone in a palace
(C. 2500–1800 bC) excavated at Kaushambi. Considering
the power of the Maurya empire and
From excavated remains, it is clear that the extensive territory it controlled, the
the Indus Valley civilization possessed a architectural remains are remarkably
flourishing urban architecture. The major few. The most important are stupas (later
cities associated with the civilization, enlarged) such as a famous example of
notably Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, and Sanchi; the ruins of a hall excavated at
Kalibangan, were laid out on a grid pat- the site of Kumrahar in Patna (ancient
tern and had provisions for an advanced Pataliputra), the capital city; and a series
drainage system. The residential build- of rock-cut caves in the Barabar and
ings, which were serviceable enough, Nagarjuni Hills near Gaya, which are
were mainly brick and consisted of an interesting because they preserve in
open patio flanked by rooms. For monu- the more permanent rock some types of
mental architecture, the evidence is slight, wooden buildings popular at that time.
the most important being a “sacred” tank The stupa, the most typical monu-
(thought to be for ritual ablution) and ment of the Buddhist faith, consists
associated structures. Corbel vaulting essentially of a domical mound in which
(arches supported by brackets project- sacred relics are enshrined. Its origins are
ing from the wall) was known, and, to a traced to mounds, or tumuli, raised over
limited extent, timber was used together the buried remains of the dead that were
with brick; whatever architectural orna- found in India even before the rise of
mentation existed must have been of Buddhism: Stupas appear to have had a
brick or plaster. regular architectural form in the Maurya
298 | The Culture of India

period: the mound was sometimes pro- antechamber, roughly rectangular and
vided with a parasol surrounded by a provided with a barrel vault. Remains
miniature railing on the top, raised on a of structural buildings have been exca-
terrace, and the whole surrounded by a vated at Bairat and Vidisha, where wood
large railing consisting of posts, cross- and brick shrines with timber domes and
bars, and a coping (the capping on the vaults once existed. A temple (No. 40) at
top course), all secured by tenons and Sanchi was apsidal in plan and perhaps
mortices in a technique appropriate to had a barrel-vault roof of timber.
craftsmanship in wood. The essential A hall excavated at Kumrahar in
feature of the stupa, however, always Patna had a high wooden platform of
remained the domical mound, the other most excellent workmanship, on which
elements being optional. stood eight rows of 10 columns each,
Along with stupas were erected roof- which once supported a second story.
less, or hypaethral, shrines enclosing a Only one stone pillar has been recov-
sacred object such as a tree or an altar. ered, and it is circular in shape and made
Temples of brick and timber with vaulted of sandstone that has been polished to a
or domical roofs were also constructed, high lustre. The capitals that topped them
on plans that were generally elliptical, must have been similar to others found
circular, quadrilateral, or apsidal (i.e., hav- in neighbouring Lohanipur and almost
ing an apse, or semicircular plan, at the certainly consisted of one or two pairs
sanctum end). These structures have not of addorsed (set back to back) animals,
survived, but some idea of their shape recalling Persepolitan examples. Indeed,
has been obtained from the excavated there is much about Maurya architecture
foundations and the few examples imitat- and sculpture to suggest Iranian influ-
ing wooden originals that were cut into ence, however substantially transformed
the rock, notably the Sudama and the in the Indian environment.
Lomas Rsi caves in the Nagarjuni and
Barabar hills near Gaya. The latter has an Early Indian Architecture
intersesting entrance showing an edged (2nd Century BC–3rd
barrel-vault roof (an arch shaped like Century AD)
a half cylinder) in profile supported on
raked pillars, the ogee arch (an arch with Except for stupas, architectural remains
curving sides, concave above and con- from the 2nd century BC (downfall of the
vex toward the top) so formed filled with Maurya dynasty) to the 4th century AD
a trellis to let in light and air. The inte- (rise of the Gupta dynasty) continue to be
riors of most caves are highly polished rare, indicating that most of the work was
and consist of two chambers: a shrine, done in brick and timber. Once again,
elliptical or circular in plan with a domed examples cut into the rock and closely
roof (Sudama cave); and an adjacent imitating wooden forms give a fairly
Indian Architecture | 299

accurate idea of at least some types of rest of the building. In the apsidal end
buildings in this period. is placed the object to be worshipped,
The stupas become progressively generally a stupa, the hall being meant
larger and more elaborate. The railings