Mural Paintings & Cave Paintings

A mural is a large picture painted or affixed directly on a wall or ceiling. The existence of mural paintings in India dates back to 2nd century BC to 8-10th century AD. Some of the places where this painting is found include- Ajanta, Bagh, Sittanavasal, Armamalai cave, Ravan Chhaya rock-shelter and Kailashnath temple in Ellora caves. Majority of the themes in these paintings relates to religion- Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism.

The mural and cave paintings found in some of the above places are discussed from the perspective of the UPSC exams below:

Ajanta paintings

  • Ajanta is the only surviving example of painting of the first century BCE and the fifth century CE
  • The subject matter of these paintings is almost exclusively Buddhist, excepting decorative patterns on the ceilings and the pillars.
  • They are mostly associated with the Jataka, collection of stories, recording the previous births of the Lord Buddha.
    • Notable specimens
      • The earliest paintings at Ajanta are in cave No. IX and X of which the only surviving one is a group on the left wall of cave X. This portrays a king with attendants in front of a tree decked with flags. The King has come to the sacred Bodhi tree for fulfilling some vow connected with the prince who is attending close to the king.
      • The painting of Bodhisattva Padmapani from cave I is one of the masterpieces of Ajanta Painting executed in the late 6th century CE. This beautifully ornamented figure is more than life size and is shown stopping slightly and holding in his right hand a lotus flower.

Indian Paintings

Figure: Padmapani painting in Ajanta cave

      • In cave No. XVII painted probably in circa 6th century CE is a painting representing Buddha’s visit to the door of Yashodhara’s abode in the city of Kapilavastu while she herself has come out with her son Rahula to meet the Great King.
      • A beautiful depiction of a feminine beauty is the painting of Maya Devi, the mother of the Buddha.
      • Along-side these Buddhist paintings there are also a few Brahmanical figures of iconographic interest: Indra, a Hindu divinity, is depicted flying amid clouds together with celestial nymphs holding musical instruments.
      • An example of ceiling decoration is from cave No. XVII and belongs to circa 6th century A.D. The pink elephant is from the same decorative painting ‘and can be seen in detail.

Indian Paintings

Figure: Pink elephant painting, Ajanta caves

Bagh and Badami Cave paintings

      • The paintings from Bagh caves in Madhya Pradesh correspond to those paintings of Ajanta in cave No. I and II.
      • Stylistically both belong to the same form, but Bagh figures are more tightly modeled, and are stronger in outline.
      • They are earthlier and human than those at Ajanta.
      • The earliest Brahmanical paintings so far known, are the fragments found in Badami caves, in cave No.III belonging to circa 6th century A.D.
      • The painting of Siva and Parvati is found somewhat well preserved.
      • Though the technique follows that of Ajanta and Bagh, the modeling is much more sensitive in texture and expression and the outline soft and elastic.
      • The paintings of Ajanta, Bagh and Badami represent the classical tradition of the North and the Deccan at its best.
      • Sittanavasal and other centres of paintings show the extent of its penetration in the South.
      • The paintings of Sittanavasal are intimately connected with Jain themes and symbolism, but enjoy the same norm and technique as that of Ajanta.
      • The contours of these paintings are firmly drawn dark on a light red ground.
      • On the ceiling of the Verandah is painted a large decorative scene of great beauty, a lotus pool with birds, elephants, buffaloes and a young man plucking flowers.

Indian Paintings

Figure: Shiva and Parvati painting at Bagh caves


  • A number of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples were excavated from Ellora between the 8th and 10th centuries A.D. from the living rock.
  • Located nearly 100 Kms away from Ajanta caves in the Sahyadri ranges of Maharashtra, it is a group of 34 caves – 17 Brahmanical, 12 Buddhist and 5 Jain.
  • These set of caves were developed during the period between 5th and 11th centuries CE by various guilds from Vidarbha, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
  • The most impressive of these, the Kailashnath Temple is a free standing structure which is in fact a monolith which has several fragments of painting on the ceiling of the different parts of this temple. It was developed under the patronage of Rashtrakuta king Krishna I and is dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Indian Paintings

Figure: Mural painting in cave no 32 at Ellora

Other notable specimens are:

    • Cave No. 10 is a Buddhist Chaitya cave known as Vishwakarma Cave or carpenter’s cave wherein Buddha is seated in Vyakhyana Mudra here and Bodhi tree is carved at his back.
    • Cave No. 14 is themed “Raavankikhai”.
    • Cave No. 15 is Dashavatara Temple.
    • Two famous Jain caves are Indra Sabha (Cave 32) and Jagannath Sabha (Cave 33).

Badami cave paintings

  • Badami was the capital of the early Chalukyan dynasty which ruled the region from 543 to 598 CE.
  • The inscription in Cave No.4 mentions the date 578–579 CE, describes the beauty of the cave and includes the dedication of the image of Vishnu.
  • Paintings in this cave depict palace scenes. One shows Kirtivarman, the son of Pulakesin I and the elder brother of Mangalesha, seated inside the palace with his wife and feudatories watching a dance scene.
  • The paintings found here are stylistically similar to the ones found in Ajanta
  • The sinuously drawn lines, fluid forms and compact composition exemplify the proficiency and maturity the artists had achieved in the sixth century CE.

Indian Paintings

Figure: Painting found in Badami cave


Evolution of mural painting under various empires


Chola Kings

  • The Pallava kings who succeeded the Chalukya kings in parts of South India, were great patrons of arts
  • Mahendravarman I with numerous titles such as Vichitrachitta (curious-minded), Chitrakarapuli (tiger among artists), Chaityakari (temple builder), which show his interest in art activities
  • The paintings in temples were done at his initiative, though only fragments remain.
  • The Panamalai figure of a female divinity is drawn gracefully.
  • Paintings at the Kanchipuram temple were patronized by the Pallava king, Rajasimha.
  • Faces are round and large. Lines are rhythmic with increased ornamentation when compared with the paintings of earlier periods.
  • Depiction of torso still remains like the earlier sculptural tradition but is elongated.
  • When the Pandyas came to power, they too patronized art. Tirumalaipuram caves and Jaina caves at Sittanvasal are some of the surviving examples. Here, on the pillars of the veranda are seen dancing figures of celestial nymphs
  • The contours of figures are firmly drawn and painted in vermilion red on a lighter background. The body is rendered in yellow with subtle modeling. Supple limbs, expression on the faces of dancers, rhythm in their swaying movement, all speak of the artists’ skill in creative imagination in visualizing the forms in the architectural context.
  • The paintings were executed on the walls of the narrow passage surrounding the shrine in Brihadeshwara temple
  • The paintings show narrations and aspects related to Lord Shiva, Shiva in Kailash, Shiva as Tripurantaka, Shiva as Nataraja, a portrait of the patron Rajaraja and his mentor Kuruvar, dancing figures, etc.

Indian Paintings

Vijayanagara Murals

  • The paintings at Tiruparakunram, near Trichy, done in the fourteenth century represent the early phase of the Vijayanagara style.
  • In Hampi, the Virupaksha temple has paintings on the ceiling of its mandapa narrating events from dynastic history and episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
  • Among the important panels are the ones which show Vidyaranya, the spiritual teacher of Bukkaraya Harsha, being carried in a palanquin in a procession and the incarnations of Vishnu.
  • In Lepakshi, near Hindupur, in present Andhra Pradesh, there are examples of Vijayanagara paintings on the walls of the Shiva temple
  • In keeping with the tradition, the Vijayanagara painters evolved a pictorial language wherein the faces are shown in profile and figures and objects two-dimensionally.
  • Lines become still but fluid, compositions appear in rectilinear compartments.

Indian Paintings

Figure: Painting at Lepakshi, AP

  • These stylistic conventions of the preceding centuries were adopted by artists in various centres in South India as can be seen in the paintings of the Nayaka Period.
  • Paintings of the Nayaka dynasty in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are seen in Thiruparakunram, Sreerangam and Tiruvarur in Tamil Nadu. In Thiruparakunram, paintings are found of two different periods—of the fourteenth and the seventeenth century. Early paintings depict scenes from the life of Vardhaman Mahavira
  • The Nayaka paintings depict episodes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and also scenes from Krishna-leela
  • In Chidambaram, there are panels of paintings narrating stories related to Shiva and Vishnu— Shiva as Bhikshatana Murti, Vishnu as Mohini, etc
  • The examples cited above suggest that Nayaka paintings were more or less an extension of the Vijayanagara style with minor regional modifications and incorporations. The painting of Nataraja at Tiruvalanjuli is a good example.

Indian Paintings

Figure: Nayaka painting at Chidambaram temple

Kerala murals

  • Kerala painters (during the period from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century) evolved a pictorial language and technique of their own while discriminately adopting certain stylistic elements from Nayaka and Vijayanagara schools
  • The painters evolved a language taking cues from contemporary traditions, like Kathakali and kalam ezhuthu (ritual floor painting of Kerala), using vibrant and luminous colours, representing human figures in three-dimensionality
  • The artist seems to have also derived sources from oral traditions and local versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata for painted narration.
  • More than sixty sites have been found with mural paintings which include three palaces—Dutch palace in Kochi, Krishnapuram palace in Kayamkulam and Padmanabhapuram palace
  • Among the sites where one can see the mature phase of Kerala’s mural painting tradition are Pundareekapuram Krishna temple, Panayanarkavu, Thirukodithanam, Triprayar Sri Rama temple and Trissur Vadakkunathan temple

Indian Paintings

Figure: An example of Kerala mural painting

Practice questions

  • What are mural paintings? Discuss some of the styles of mural paintings in India
  • Trace the stylistic similarities between the paintings found in various caves of India