Benoy K Behl
The early art of India is a valuable record of the thoughts and the vision of one of the most ancient civilisations in the world.
This ancient art brings before us a view of the world which sees a great harmony in the whole of creation. It sees the same which is in each of us, in the animals, the flowers, the trees, the leaves and even the breeze which moves the leaves. All that there is, is seen to be a reflection of the One.
Our experience of beauty when we respond to a sunrise or to a great work of art is seen to be a moment when we perceive the Grace which underlies the whole of creation.
The moment of the aesthetic experience is “akin to Brahmananda”, or the final ecstasy of salvation itself. The Chitrasutra of the Vishnudharmottara Purana, which was penned out of earlier oral traditions in the 5th century AD, is perhaps the oldest known treatise on art in the world. It states that art is the greatest treasure of mankind, far more valuable than gold or jewels.
Indus Valley Period
In the fourth millennium BCE, one of the earliest civilisations of the world was developing in the river valleys of the Indian subcontinent.
The first sites of this culture were discovered in the basin of the River Indus and consequently the name Indus Valley Civilisation has remained. However, scores of other sites have been found in recent decades spread over a vast area, including coastal Gujarat, Maharashtra and eastwards till Uttar Pradesh. Estimations of the area covered by this civilisation vary from 1.2 million sq.km to 2.5 million sq.km . In any case, it was by far the largest area of any civilisation in the world at that time.
Unlike other civilisations in the world of that period and later, excavations across this culture have not revealed evidence that point to the existence of military forces or weaponry for warfare. While the art of other early civilisations such as the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian has many images of prisoners, monuments to war victories and other activities related to warfare, the art of the Indus Valley has not yielded a single such depiction.
It may be noted that excavations have not revealed the remains of any barracks, which are considered essential for the housing of armies or police. Quite remarkably, archaeology has also not found weapons of war at these sites. Whereas the sites of other civilisations have yielded many thousands of weapons of war, the Indus Valley sites have only provided single or very small numbers of blades, which would be expected to be hunting or kitchen implements. (It is true that in 2018, the Archaeological Survey of India found a few copper swords at a burial site at Sinauli in Uttar Pradesh. However, this site is of the 2nd Millennium BCE, late / post Indus Valley period.) While the above facts are not necessarily conclusive proof that the Indus Valley civilisation was a unique example of a culture which managed without military and police forces, it certainly points towards such a possibility.
Even as a possibility, what a remarkable example of peaceful living and harmony emerges from the study of this ancient civilisation. Here were very prosperous people who were technologically advanced for their time and they appear to have lived in great harmony, without finding the necessity to have barracks for police or armies!
The artefacts that have been excavated from the Indus Valley culture are unique in their small scale. No monumental sculpture has been found at the sites. All the art objects, whether in terracotta, stone or metal can be described as being on an intimate scale. This is surely related to the fact that no palaces or other monumental architecture has been excavated either. All archaeological evidence indicates the existence of a cooperative system and not a conventional kingship. Monumental structures and art which display royal authority only follow much later in the Indian subcontinent.
What a remarkable civilisation we are talking about! There is highly developed town-planning and technology, sea-fairing ships, a dock an evidence of trade with far away lands, yet no evidence at all of any army or police. What is more, we find no evidence of royal grandeur or kingly rule. All archeological evidence points to a cooperative society. Best of all, there is no evidence of grand and monumental art. All art that we find is on a small and personalized scale. Here we see the roots of a great tradition of art which evolved and continued till the middle of the First Millennium CE.
The plains of the Ganga
By the beginning of the First Millennium BCE, a second phase of urbanisation began in the Indian subcontinent, this time in the valleys of the river Ganga. The north of India was divided into a large number of principalities, many of which were governed by elected chiefs. In others, the concept of hereditary rule and kingship was beginning to develop.
The Upanishads were composed by the eighth or the ninth century BCE, out of philosophic traditions which perhaps came from the earliest times of Indian civilisation. The thoughts contained in the Upanishads were to form the basis of all major Indic philosophic streams thereafter. In this period, there developed a tradition of asceticism, where the material attractions of the world were shunned in order to seek the truth beyond. The names of two historical ‘renunciators’ of this tradition became most prominent. One of them is Mahavira, who is known as the Twenty-fourth Tirthankara or ‘Victor’ (over the fear of death) and those who follow his path are known as Jainas. The other is Gautama Siddhartha, who is known as the Fourth or the Seventh Buddha, the ‘Enlightened One’ and those who follow his path are known as Buddhists. Both Mahavira and Gautama Buddha taught the philosophy of the Upanishadic age and there are striking similarities in their teachings.
Meanwhile, concepts of state and kingship were developing in the subcontinent. One of the main principalities in North India was Magadha. At the end of the fourth century BCE, under the leadership of the dynamic Chandragupta Maurya, it expanded and is believed to have become the first full-fledged empire on Indian soil. Chandragupta Maurya’s grandson Ashoka is believed to have further extended his empire, to cover the whole of north and north-western India.
With the introduction and imbibing of concepts of kingship, the art also changed. Instead of the small-scale objects of the earlier period, art was now created to project the messages of rulers. The rulers of the Mauryan period inscribed their messages on rocks and large pillars which they erected for the purpose. But that is where the similarity with the other cultures ends. In keeping with continuing Indic traditions, the inscriptions display that the raja was preoccupied with dharma. Dharma is a man’s duty to all others and the whole of existence around him. The inscribed messages instruct people to follow the ethical path: to respect teachers and elders and much else which is a part of dharma.
Under its series Glimpses Of Culture, India Habitat Centre is presenting a talk by Art Historian,
Film-maker & Photographer (and the author of this article) Benoy K Behl today (November 4) at 6pm.
A film ‘Roots of an Ancient Art’ ’ (produced by Behl for Doordarshan)
will also be screened on the occasion.
Click here to join