Ramaya?a and Mahabharata Paintings

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RĀMĀYAṆA AND MAHĀBHĀRATA PAINTINGS Stone and terra-cotta relief sculptures depicting participants and episodes from the two great ancient Indian epics, the Rāmāyaṇa (Adventures of Rama) and the Mahābhārata ([War of the] Great Bharatas), were made as early as the fifth century for use in the iconographic programs of Hindu temples. However, the earliest surviving painted illustrations of the epics (apart perhaps from no longer extant murals) are in a manuscript on paper of the Āraṇyakaparvan (Forest book) of the Mahābhārata, which according to its colophon was created at Kacchauva near Agra in 1516 (VS 1573) during the reign of Sultan Sikandar Lodi (1489–1517). Now in the Asiatic Society, Mumbai (MS.B.245), this profusely illustrated manuscript owes much of its artistic inspiration to slightly earlier Jain illustrated texts, such as the Jaunpur Kalpasūtra (Book of sacred precepts) of 1465, and it shares several stylistic characteristics with the renowned Caurapañchāśikā (Fifty stanzas of secret love) series of paintings dating from 1525–1575, now in the Lalbhai Dalpatbhai Institute of Indology, Ahmedabad. Following the seminal Kacchauva Mahābhārata of 1516, many illustrated manuscripts of the great epics were produced, especially of the Rāmāyaṇa.

Early Mughal

Several important illustrated manuscripts of the great epics were produced under the enlightened patronage of the liberal Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605). In 1582 Akbar commissioned a Persian translation of the Mahābhārata, titled the Razmnāma (Book of wars), which was created in 1584–1586. It was followed by a translation of the Rāmāyaṇa made in 1588–1591. Both of Akbar's imperial presentation copies are now in the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, Jaipur (MS. AG. 1683–1850 and MS. AG. 1851–2026 respectively). Akbar also ordered that his leading Muslim nobles have their own copies made of the two imperial manuscripts in order to promote a greater understanding of Hinduism. The extant copies of the Razmnāma, now dispersed, are dated 1598 and 1616 (another known copy dated 1605 is now missing). A Rāmāyaṇa manuscript dated 1587–1598 that was directly inspired by Akbar's imperial manuscript was commissioned by a leading patron of painting, the Mughal courtier ʿAbd al-Rahīm, the Khān-i Khānān (commander-in-chief). The manuscript, classified as subimperial because of its nonimperial patron, contains 130 paintings and is now in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (07.271). Another subimperial Rāmāyaṇa manuscript, now dispersed, is attributed to about 1595. A number of folios from these subimperial manuscripts survive in various museum and private collections, including the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly called the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India), Mumbai; Indian Museum, Kolkata; British Library, London; National Museum, New Delhi; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Chester Beatty Library, Dublin; Museum Rietberg, Zürich; Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; Cincinnati Art Museum; Cleveland Museum of Art; Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Philadelphia Museum of Art; San Diego Museum of Art; and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond.


Presumably stimulated in part by the splendor and success of the imperial and subimperial Mughal manuscripts, illustrated Rāmāyaṇa manuscripts soon began to be created for the rulers and high nobles of the various Hindu Rajput (princely) courts in Rajasthan and central India that were encompassed within the greater Mughal empire. They were perhaps made for certain wealthy Hindu merchants as well. These manuscripts displayed varying degrees of Mughal-influenced naturalism, a stylistic feature that Rajput artists encountered due to their patrons' participation in the Mughal political world. One of the earliest surviving Rajput Rāmāyaṇa manuscripts features a bold palette, lively expression, and scant if any Mughal stylistic influence. The manuscript is generally ascribed to the central Indian regions of Malwa and Bundelkhand in modern Madhya Pradesh, although its exact place of origin remains a matter of scholarly dispute and is dependent upon the interpretation of two important later colophons. According to the manuscript's colophon on a folio in the Bharat Kala Bhavan, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi (6756-6815), it was made for Hira Rani, who can be identified as Hirade, the queen of Pahar Singh of Orchha (r. 1641–1653). The manuscript is attributed to about 1640, as its sophisticated compositions represent a slightly later stage of artistic evolution than those of a dispersed Malwa Rasikapriyā dated 1634, folios of which are now primarily in the National Museum, New Delhi. Other paintings from the 1640 Malwa Rāmāyaṇa manuscript are in the Kanoria Collection, Patna; Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; Brooklyn Museum of Art; and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It is relevant to note here that a newly published inscription on a Soratha Rāgiṇī dated 1687 (VS 1744) in the Collections of Basant Kumar and Sarladevi Birla, Kolkata, records that the painting was made in the city of Lalitapura near Jhansi in Bundelkhand, thus providing at least one definite place of creation for central Indian paintings during the seventeenth century.

One of the largest and most accomplished Rāmāyaṇa manuscripts is a now dispersed compendium of over 450 full-page paintings made between 1649 and 1653 for Maharana Jagat Singh I of Mewar (r. 1628–1652). Three master artists directed the production of different sections of the seven-book manuscript: Sahibdin (active c. 1628–1655), Manohar (active beginning c. 1640), and an unnamed Deccani artist. The first book, the Bālakāṇḍa (Book of childhood), was completed in 1649 and painted by Manohar. It contained seventy-nine illustrated folios, twenty of which are now in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai; two in the Baroda Museum; and approximately fifty-five folios in the family collection of the late Sir Cowasji Jehangir, Mumbai. The second book, the Ayodhyākāṇḍa (Book of Ayodhya), has sixty-eight paintings attributed to Sahibdin. It was finished in 1650 and is now in the British Library. The third book, Ā ranyakāṇḍa (Book of the forest), has thirty-six paintings executed in the style of Manohar. It was completed in 1651 and is now in the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, Udaipur. The fourth book, the Kishkindhākāṇḍa (Book of Kishkindhā), has thirty-four paintings primarily attributed to the Deccani artist and his assistants. It was finished in 1653 after the death of Jagat Singh I at the beginning of the succeeding rule of Maharana Raj Singh I (r. 1652–1680). It is now in the British Library. The fifth book, the Sundarakāṇḍa (Beautiful book), may have never been completed. However, eighteen paintings attributed to the Deccani artist and his assistants that are presumably from the fifth book have survived. They were probably executed early in Raj Singh I's reign, and are now in the India Office Library collection of the British Library. The sixth book, the Yuddhakāṇḍa (Book of the battle), has eighty-eight paintings by Sahibdin. These superlative works represent the mature phase of Sahibdin's production and are among the finest paintings ever produced during India's long and rich artistic heritage. The sixth book was finished in 1652 and is now in the British Library. The seventh book, the Uttarakāṇḍa (Final book), contains ninety-two paintings attributed to a follower of Manohar. It was completed in 1653 and is now in the British Library. Another notable Mewar Rāmāyaṇa containing 201 paintings was produced during the early rule of Maharana Sangram Singh II (r. 1710–1738). It was finished in 1712 and is now in the British Library.


Illustrated manuscripts of the great epics were also produced by families of artists working in association with various courts located in the Himalayan foothills known as the Pahari region, primarily in present-day Himachal Pradesh but also in neighboring Jammu and Kashmir and the Punjab. Although only five folios may have survived, perhaps the earliest Pahari Rāmāyaṇa was created at Mandi around 1630–1645, during the late rule of Raja Hari Sen (r. 1604 or 1623–1637) or during the early rule of his successor Raja Suraj Sen (r. 1637–1664).

One of the finest and best known, but until recently improperly understood, Pahari Rāmāyaṇas is known as the "Shangri" Rāmāyaṇa because it was once in the ancestral collection of the Shangri branch of the royal family of Kulu in Himachal Pradesh. Accordingly, most of the manuscript of at least three hundred paintings was once attributed to Kulu, with some later sections thought perhaps to have been finished in Mandi or even Bikaner in Rajasthan. However, more current research indicates that the beginning portions of the manuscript were painted by an unknown master artist working about 1690–1710 at the Bahu branch of the Jammu court in the modern state of Jammu and Kashmir during the reigns of Raja Kripal Dev (reigned c. 1660–1690) and his son Raja Anand Dev (r. 1690–1730). The "Shangri" Rāmāyaṇa manuscript is now dispersed, with 168 folios now in the National Museum, New Delhi. Additional pages are in the Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi; British Museum, London; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Museum Rietberg, Zürich; Brooklyn Museum of Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Philadelphia Museum of Art; San Diego Museum of Art; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; and various private collections.

Other significant Pahari Rāmāyaṇas, all now dispersed, include a Mankot manuscript of about 1700–1710, the Guler manuscript of about 1720 attributed to the master artist Pandit Seu (c. 1680–c. 1740), the Kangra manuscript of about 1775–1780 attributed to a first-generation descendant of Pandit Seu's son Nainsukh (c. 1710–1778), and the "Nadaun" Rāmāyaṇa done in Kangra around 1820. Although the Mahābhārata was apparently not as favored as the Rāmāyaṇa in the Pahari artistic traditions, there is also a Kangra manuscript of the Mahābhārata attributed to about 1775–1800.


Although three South Indian Jain manuscripts survive from as early as the twelfth century, very few illustrated manuscripts from South India predate the eighteenth century. One of the earliest and most important such works is a dispersed Mahābhārata manuscript made for the Brahman Timaji Pandit in the Mysore region, probably at Seringapatam. The colophon records the manuscript's completion date of 1670 (VS 1592) and the name of its scribe, Govind Sharma from the village of Chalitgram. Folios from the manuscript survive in the collections of the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, Hyderabad; Salar Jang Museum, Hyderabad; National Museum, New Delhi; Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. There is also a mid-eighteenth-century Rāmāyaṇa manuscript from southern Andhra Pradesh, now in the State Museum, Hyderabad.

Vernacular Renditions

Finally, mention should be made of the numerous Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata manuscripts and individual illustrations created by folk artists across India in the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, such as the so-called Paithan paintings of Maharashtra, northern Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh; the "Kalighat" paintings of Kolkata (Calcutta) in West Bengal; and the "Mithila" or "Madhubani" paintings of Bihar. These works form a rich corpus of epic imagery. Moreover, they are distinct from the Rajput and Pahari traditions in that they are often based on vernacular renditions of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata rather than the revered Sanskrit originals of Valmiki and Vyasa, respectively.

Stephen Markel

See alsoMiniatures ; Mughal Painting


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