Sacred Illuminations
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Sacred Illuminations: Indigenous Indian Paintings for Scripture and Devotion


Buddha, the Supreme Healer. Tibet, fifteenth century. Opaque watercolor on cotton. © The San Diego Museum of Art.
Throughout the last thousand years of cultural change, coming from both within the region and from Central Asian, Middle Eastern, and European migrations, Indian artists have displayed remarkable adaptability and skill. To best see this story of power and influence unfold, this gallery features some of the finest and earliest examples of the indigenous artistic tradition, which were of a deeply spiritual character.

The practice of illuminating manuscripts in South Asia began to flourish around the eleventh century. These were sacred texts, commissioned for Indian Buddhist monasteries and Jain temples as acts to garner karmic merit. The texts were handwritten on cured palm leaves, bound together by strings threaded through a pair of holes in each page, and protected by wooden covers. As receptacles of sacred wisdom, the manuscripts themselves were seen as objects of veneration. Having a painter embellish these texts only increased their spiritual value. Often the illuminations were used to aid meditation or elaborate on the stories told within. They also provide us an opportunity to appreciation the hallmarks of the traditional Indian aesthetic, free of outside influence.

The three earliest palm leaf manuscripts here are Buddhist texts from the great monastic universities dating to the twelfth century. In fact, the incorporation of images and text in India appears to have originated here, perhaps linked to the increased use of deities and visualizations in tantric Buddhist practice. When the Buddhist universities were destroyed in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries—an event still not well understood—many of these manuscripts and the traditions that inspired them spread to Nepal and Tibet, where they continued to thrive.

In western India, artists were illustrating Jain manuscripts in a similar manner.  It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that Hindu artists took up the practice of illustrating sacred manuscripts to dramatic effect, coinciding with an explosion of interest in the book illustrations across India during the second half of the fifteenth century. All three strands of traditional sacred illumination in South Asia are represented here.

 

Jain Art in Western India

Jina enthroned. India, ca. 1475. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. © The San Diego Museum of Art.


In the sixth century BCE, the Jina Mahavira founded the Jain religion. Jain tradition holds that Mahavira is the twenty-fourth person to achieve liberation and advances a belief that austerities, meditation, and non-violent actions are the route to liberation from the cycles of birth and death. Buddhism and Jainism emerged in India at roughly the same time, and the two would rise to prominence in parallel.

Avid patrons of illustrated sacred texts populated the wealthy Jainist communities in western India. The works they commissioned earned them karmic merit, either to be used for themselves or given to those in need. Like the Buddhist manuscripts, these were made on palm leaves until the introduction of paper in the fifteenth century.

The two texts most often illustrated were the Kalpasutra, which contained the stories of the lives of the Jinas, or liberated beings, and the Kalakacharya Katha, the hagiography of an early royal convert. Hundreds of copies of these two most sacred texts painted with the same scenes in highly formalized styles survive to this day, suggesting that many times that number were actually made. In fact, the bulk of Indian manuscripts from this time are Jainist. The paintings illuminating these manuscripts are highly consistent in style, suggesting that up to the middle of the fifteenth century artists in India were working in a conservative, repetitive mode with limited palette and scope of subjects.

 

The Emergence of Hindu Manuscript Illuminations

Mahalakshmi riding her lion. Nepal, ca. 1750. Opaque watercolor on paper. © The San Diego Museum of Art.

It wasn’t until the second half of the fifteenth century that Indian artists began illuminating various Hindu sacred texts. Why this happened so late is the subject of much speculation. Perhaps the so-called Muslim Sultanate in northern India, with its veneration of Persian book arts and court culture, helped popularize the practice of illustrating texts in all parts of Indian society. If true, this marks the beginning of the Indo-Persian hybridization that would continue to shape and define Indian painting for the next five hundred years.

The three major Hindu traditions are represented in these manuscript pages: Shaktism in the texts detailing the victorious exploits of the Goddess, also known as Shakti or Devi; Vaishnavism in the devotional works dedicated to the god Krishna; and Shaivism in the philosophical texts expounding on Shiva’s mythology and supreme divinity. The stylized figures, flat red backgrounds, and lack of spatial depth show a continuity with other Indian illustration styles, though these paintings tend to have a more spontaneous appearance, as the scenes depicted were not repeatedly copied to the point of standardization like the Jain paintings.

Soon Hindu illustration practices spread to Nepal, just as the Buddhist manuscripts had over two hundred years before. Unlike the disappearance of Buddhism, however, these indigenous Indian painting traditions continued alongside works made to suit the Persian or European tastes that would shape Indian illustration over the next several hundred years.

Last Updated on Friday, 21 June 2013 17:38

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