Cultural Life of India


Teachers in the Indian cities in ancient times used to retire to a nearby grove to teach and to practice religious meditation in peace and quiet. By the fourth century BC these groves had been transformed into great monasteries and universities, famed throughout the Orient.

The universities of Nalanda, Takshashila, Ujjain, and Benares attracted students and scholars from all parts of Asia. Here thousands of boys and girls studied literature and philosophy, architecture, painting, sculpture, and handicrafts, as well as mathematics, astronomy, medicine and surgery, metallurgy, and engineering. Nalanda was both a Buddhist monastery and a university, rivaling the Hindu university of Benares. It remained famous for more than seven hundred years, and exerted great influence on the art and culture of the Orient. It was to Central India what Cordoba was to Moorish Spain, and Cluny and Clairevaux were to France in the Middle Ages-the foundation from which learning spread to many lands.

In 629 AD the famous Chinese traveler, Hiuen Tsang, came to India and spent several years at Nalanda. In his memoirs he tells us that at that time there were nearly 10,000 students and monks living at Nalanda. He found the equipment and environment of the university well planned, both practically and aesthetically. Hiuen Tsang described the view of Nalanda, as one entered through the gate, thus:

A Chinese Impression

"The richly adorned towers were arranged in regular order; the pavilions, decorated with coral, appeared like pointed hilltops; the soaring domes reached up to the clouds, and the pinnacles of the temples seemed to be lost in the mist of the morning. Pools of translucent water shone with the open petals of the blue lotus flowers; here and there the lovely Kanaka-trees hung down their deep red blossoms; and woods of dark mango-trees spread their shade between them. In the different courts the houses of the monks were each four stories in height. The pavilions had pillars ornamented with dragons ' and beams resplendent with all the colors of the rainbow …rafters richly carved - columns ornamented with jade painted red and richly chiselled, and balustrades of carved openwork. The lintels of the doors were decorated with elegance and the roofs covered with glazed tiles of brilliant colors, which multiplied themselves by reflection, and varied the effect at every moment in a thousand manners.

The groves of mango trees and the pools still remain as memorials to the past glory of Nalanda.

After the Moghuls invaded India, they continued to support the universities, until their empire began to decline in the eighteenth century.

Literature in India

Most of the early literature of India was written on palm leaves -a very perishable material which time has destroyed. This is one of the reasons for the scarcity of written historical documents dealing with ancient India. That which survives has been written down later from memory by people who had learned it by rote.

The earliest literature extant is the Vedas, or books of knowledge.

Of these, the Rig-Veda dates back to at least 1500 BC. It is full of poetic descriptions of natural phenomena and rituals to be performed on various occasions, and speculations on the beginnings of the world.

Indians turned out a vast body of philosophical literature of varying merit. In India, as in Greece, bards and story-tellers handed down epic poems from generation to generation, of which the Mahabharata and Ramayana are the most famous. Starting as a narrative poem long before the Christian era, the Mahabharata took on additional episodes until it became seven times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. It is a stupendous compendium of tales of violence and civil war, of fables, fairytales, and love-stories, and of philosophical dissertations and rules of conduct. Embedded in the Mahabharata is one of the greatest philosophical poems in the world's literature-the Bhagavad Gita, or the Lord's Song. This remarkable poem, which attempts to discover when a war is just and must be fought, is supposed to have been composed as early as 400 BC. It has since become the New Testament of Hindu India. The other of the great Indian epics, Ramayana, is sung by traveling bards even today. Like the Iliad, it tells the story of a war fought by gods and men, and like the Odyssey it recounts the hero's hardships and wanderings while his wife patiently waits for reunion with him.

For the teaching of language there were many treatises on grammar, phonetics, prosody and etymology. Sciences were taught from books on astronomy, medicine and surgery. Political treatises were not unknown and one of them, the Artha-shastra (Treatise on Wealth) by Kautilya, written in the fourth century BC, fortunately has been preserved. The Artha-shastra dealt with an amazing variety of subjects: the duties of the king and his ministers and counselors, council meetings, departments of government and their functions; manufacture and trade; municipal administration of cities and villages; laws and law courts; social customs and manners; rights of women; marriage and divorce laws; taxation; the army and the navy; the sciences of war, diplomacy, and peace; spinning, weaving, and other handicrafts; and even a jail manual!

Artists and artisans studied the Shilpa Shastras -books on painting, sculpture, architecture, design, and the theatre. Classifications found in treatises on literature and the drama give us a picture of the variety of literary works produced in those days: Puranas, or stories based on mythology; Itivrittas, or legendary tales; Akhyaikas, or short stories and novels; Vakavakyas, or tales in dialogue; Kavyas, or poems; itihashas, or histories; and Natakas, or plays.

Dramatic Arts

Dramatic art was highly developed by the fifth century AD Plays were given in halls of palaces or the courtyards of the wealthy, as was done in Renaissance Europe. The players performed on a raised platform, but without scenery. Actors had to learn singing, dancing and pantomime as well, because there were no plays without songs and dances.

Poetic Imagery

Indian plays were characterized by beautiful imagery, poetic imagination, nobility of expression and a happy ending! Though they lacked what is generally known today as "action," they seem to have made up for it, as far as the Indian audience was concerned, in lyricism, style, and the combination of music and dancing with action. Since the plays were written for the pleasure of the wealthy, the leading characters were often royalty or members of the nobility. But plays dealing with lesser mortals were not uncommon. And contrary to popular Western belief, comedy was well represented, and satire was not neglected.

Like Shakespeare, Wagner, and Eugene O'Neill, Indian dramatists had a fondness for writing long plays and operas which took many hours to perform. They invariably opened with a prologue invoking the Deity and explaining the theme of the play. The Indian dramatists were not afraid of innovation; the following two lines of admonition to the audience, from the prologue of a play by the famous Kalidasa, who lived in the fourth century, might even apply to the present day:


"Wise men approve the good, or new or old;

The foolish critic follows where he's told."

The most famous names in the early Indian drama are those of Bhasa, Saumilla, Kaviputra, Kalidasa, Bhabavuti, and Sudraka. Kalidasa's Sakuntala and Sudraka's Little Clay Cart are both known to American audiences.

The East has been a rich storehouse of fables, and some of the oldest folk tales have traveled from India to be woven into the fabric of European literature.

As early as the sixth century BC, Indian folk tales had found their way to Asia Minor. Many of them were translated into Arabic and Persian, and then into European languages. The animal fables of the Panchatantra (the Five Books), stories from the Buddhist Jatakas (tales of the many incarnations of the Buddha), and tales from the Suka Saphati (Seventy Tales of a Parrot), passed through the East into Europe, enriching the literature of every country they touched.

Many of Aesop's fables have been traced back to India, and Indian tales appear in Herodotus. The Suka Saphati stories reached Europe through Persian translations; one of the best known of these stories was the basis of von Strassberg's Tristan und Isolde, Masudi, the Persian historian, wrote . in the tenth century that the Arahian Nights contained Persian, Greek, and Indian tales. The story of Sindbad the Sailor is of Indian origin, and the fable of the Ebony Horse traveled from India via the Arabian Nights, eventually turning up in Chaucer's Squire's Tale. Many Indian stories appeared in Europe as the Fables of Pilpay; La Fontaine made use of the fables of the "Indian sage Pilpay."

Local Variants

There are many other examples of the migration of Indian folk tales. In the Panchatantra there is the tale of the father who comes home and is greeted by the mongoose he had left to guard his child. Its jaws are covered with blood, and thinking it has killed the child, he slays it. Then he finds the child asleep in the cradle, a dead snake by her side. This tale reappeared in the well-known Welsh story of Llewellyn and Gilbert, the mongoose and the snake reincarnating as the locally familiar hound and fox.

Indian stories have found new homes in the Gesta Romanorum, the Decame-ron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The tales of the Magic Mirror, the Seven-League Boots, Jack and the Beanstalk, and the Purse of Fortunatus, have been traced to Indian sources. The Pardoner's Tale is derived from one of the Buddhist Jatakas. The stories of the Three Caskets and the Pound of Flesh are also of Buddhist origin.

Indian music, like medieval European music, can be divided into folk music and court music. The basic difference between Indian and European music lies in the fact that the former has confined itself to the development of melody and rhythm, whereas the latter is based upon harmony. But this very absence of harmony and counterpoint tended to develop great complexity and subtlety in melodic line and rhythm in the music of India.

Indian Music

The songs of the Indian plains have some of the rhythmic quality of Irish folk songs. Like French songs, they are sung within a short compass thoroughly well explored. They have a leisurely quality, smoothly gliding from note to note in almost a melancholy manner. In the hills the songs are decidedly cheerful. The glides become leaps, the rhythms are strongly accented, creating a sense of breathless excitement. One special characteristic of hill songs is that they use a pentatonic scale; in their invigorating leaps in melody they remind one of Scottish Highlanders and Swiss yodelers. Indian folk songs hardly ever use any instrumental accompaniment, except the ubiquitous drum.

In the cities an elaborate system of music developed under the patronage of the nobility. The Western scale has twelve notes; Indian music, by using ten microtones, makes up a scale of twenty-two notes. This is not as unusual as it seems, for all non-harmonic peoples use microtones of some sort, the Arabs using it even oftener than the Indians.

Indian music is divided into a number of ragas and raginis, each one of which has a special name. A raga is a composition in a certain scale and mode, and evokes a definite mood. Variations on the ragas are called raginis or wives of the ragas. Tradition does not allow any changes in the structure of ragas, and raginis, which has been established over the centuries. The reputation of an Indian singer or instrumentalist does not depend upon a literal rendering of the raga or ragini, but on the individual improvisations of the artist. The ragas and raginis are mere skeletons which the performers build up with flesh and blood through their own artistry. Since each scale contains 22 notes (consisting of tones, semitones, and quarter-tones), the Indian musician has a wide choice of embellishment. Each season of the year and each hour of the day and night have their appropriate ragas, or raginis.

Some of the finest examples of Indian architecture, sculpture and painting are to be found in the Hindu temples, the Buddhist shrines and monasteries, and the Moslem mosques of India, just as the cathedrals furnish similar examples in medieval Europe.

Of the early cities of India mentioned in Hindu literature nothing is left visible today. Built of wood and sun-dried bricks, they have fallen prey to the ravages of time. Some may still be buried under the earth, waiting, like Mohenjo-Daro, to be discovered.

Many of the earliest temples and monasteries were hollowed out from the sides of cliffs, affording excellent shelter both from the heavy rain and the glaring heat. Superb examples of these are still to be seen at Karla, Ajanta, and Elephanta.

Indian Architecture

The earliest structure that has survived is the Buddhist stupa, a mound of solid brick or stone to mark a sacred place or hold a shrine. The great stupa. at Sanchi is representative. It is hemispherical, with a flattened top, and rests upon a high circular terrace. At the four cardinal points are ornamental gateways, lavishly carved. The supports of these gates are covered with elaborate reliefs, and the spaces between the bars are filled with animals, winged griffins and human figures in the round. The main characteristics of Hindu decoration are already visible in these gates-a loving kinship with all nature, exuberance, and neverending rhythmic movement.

The architecture and decoration of the shrines, monasteries, temples and mosques were conditioned by the manner of worship: the Buddhists gathered together for worship, whereas the Hindus worshipped individually, and the Moslems prayed out-of-doors. Thus Buddhist edifices contained assembly halls, but Hindu temples contained shrines only large enough to hold images of the deities and small porticos for the guardians of the temples. Many of these temples had attached halls open on all sides, not for purposes of worship but for public gatherings.

The great era of Hindu temple-building began in the sixth century at about the time churches and cathedrals began to cover Christian Europe. Temples in the north of India are typified by tall, lean towers reminiscent of the European spire, while those of the South are recognized by their broad gate-towers. Southern temples often served as places of refuge for peasants and their precious cattle in time of war; hence the gate-towers are called gopurams, literally meaning shelter for cattle. The temples at Khajuraho and Madura are excellent examples of these two forms of architecture.

Indian architecture was enriched by the introduction of Persian culture brought by the Moghuls. The great emperor Akbar encouraged' a fusion of Hindu and Moslem culture, and the now deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra, holds many magnificent examples of this enlightened policy. Under the patronage of the Moghul emperors Indian architects designed and built superb mosques and memorial tombs, harems, palaces and audience halls. All these are characterized by a lavish use of marbles and precious stones, delicately carved, panelings and floral designs, and the setting of the buildings in wide expanses of lovely gardens with artificial rivulets and ponds. Human figures are conspicuous by their absence in the decor of these buildings, as the Moslem religion forbade the use of images. The Moti Masjid, or Pearl Mosque, and the famous Taj Mahal are excellent examples of Moghul art in India. Built on the tomb of Mumtaj Mahal, wife of Shah Jehan, the Taj cost the labor of 22,000 workers for twenty-two years.

Early Sculpture

In India, as in medieval Europe, sculpture was a handmaid of religion. Most of the Indian sculpture consists of a torrent of temple decorations resembling the outpourings of tropical nature which surrounded the sculptors. These decorations illustrated the Hindu mythologies and commemorated the experiences of Buddha through many incarnations, much as European sculpture illustrated the life of Christ and stories from the Bible. Indian sculptors carved magnificent images of animals for natural representation as well as for symbolic purposes, and their symbolic bulls, elephants, lions, and peacocks were not so very different from, for example, the four beasts of the Apocalypse symbolizing the four evangelists in the church of St. Trophime at Arles. In the cave temple at Elephanta the carvings of bulls, eagles and elephants, and the colossal Trimurti or the three aspects of God as Creator, Preserver and Destroyer, furnish excellent examples of Indian sculpture. Other examples are to be found in the many giant statues of Buddha and bronze statuettes of various deities, of which the Nataraia, or Siva as a Dancer, is prized by collectors.

In some of the early Indian sculpture and architecture the Indian craftsmen displayed considerable proficiency in metallurgy. Two excellent examples are the Iron Pillar of Delhi and a colossal statue of Buddha, dating back to about 400 A.D., located at Sultanganj. The Iron Pillar measures 23 feet 8 inches from the top of the bell capital to the bottom of the base; and the diameter diminishes from 16.4 inches below to 12.05 inches above. The material is pure, rustless, malleable iron, and is estimated to weigh more than six tons. In 1881 V. Ball, in his Economic Geology of India, wrote: "It is not many years since the production of such a pillar would have been an impossibility in the largest foundries of the world, and even now there are comparatively few where a similar mass of metal could be turned out." The statue of Buddha is made of pure copper, cast in two layers over an inner core, and is 7 1/2 feet high and weighs about a ton.

Fresco Paintings

One of the oldest pictorial processes of India was fresco-painting, i.e., painting on a prepared surface of lime spread on a wall of wood, brick or stone. But as it was largely used in an exposed situation, or in buildings which were not very durable, there are no examples of, them left before the second century AD.

That they did exist is proven by many allusions to them in the early literature of India. Aside from references to frescoes applied to exteriors of buildings, we learn also of "picture halls," where religious subjects, mythologies, exploits of heroes and even portraits, were painted directly on panels of the walls.

The earliest examples of fresco painting in India are those of the cave temples of Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta. By the fourth century, Indians were already using a kind of canvas for their paintings-a piece of cloth prepared with a ground of lime. Later, very fine paper was used.

During the Hindu period painting remained primarily concerned with religious motifs, under the patronage of royal courts and monasteries. The Moghuls helped the development of a purely secular school of painting. Artists in the courts of the Moghul emperors were encouraged in painting portraits, in illustrating legend and history or contemporary life, both in murals on the walls of palaces and villas, and in exquisite miniature paintings. Like the European monks, Indian painters illuminated their manuscripts with miniature illustrations. Unlike most of the other paintings, much of the miniature painting has survived, primarily because these were not hung on the wall, but were preserved like valuable manuscripts, and only brought out on special occasions to be looked at and enjoyed.

In pre-Moghul days painters never signed their names to their work, so the identity of most of them is completely lost to us; the, few names of great artists that have come down to us, such as Shringadhara, Jaya, Parajay, and Vijay, are found in contemporary literature. It was only with the spread of secular painting during the Moghul period that painters began to attach their signatures to their work. Paintings of the most famous of these artists can be seen in various museums of India, Europe and America.

The cave temples of India display to this day the breadth of conception and brilliant execution of both sculpture and fresco-painting of these artists. "In the cave temples of Elephanta, Ellora and Ajanta," writes E. B. Havell, "Indian sculptors played with chiaroscuro in great masses of living rock with the same feeling as the Gothic cathedral builders, or as Wagner played with tonal effects, hewing out on a colossal scale the grander contrasts of light and shade to give a fitting atmosphere of mystery and awe to the paintings and sculptures which told the endless legends of Buddha or the fantastic myths of the Hindu Valhalla."

Although most of these frescoes, and the statues and statuettes in bronze and cast copper, deal with mythological and religious subjects, portraiture and depiction of rural and urban life were not uncommon. The Indian sculptors remain anonymous, too; the few names, such as Bimbasara, Dhiman and his son Bitpalo, and Hasuraya, are found only in the literature of the period.

Skilled Craftsmen

Minor arts developed a high degree of excellence in India, and the craftsman was an important member of Indian society. Being often under the patronage of, and catering exclusively to, the priests and the nobility, the craftsmen lived and worked mostly in the monasteries and the big cities. Goldsmiths turned out exquisite ornaments, sometimes inlaid with tiny pieces of ruby, sapphire, emerald or topaz, showing his skill in massing color harmonies and creating), rich decorations out of almost valueless bits of stone. When the Indian used gems, he did not facet them but only smoothed them off, thus obtaining a deep and glowing, rather than flashing, effect. Damascening, ivory carving, working in copper and bronze, and other minor arts were also practiced by the Indians. -From "The People of India" (Sheridan House, New York).


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