Category Archives: L. Hindu Arts, Architecture and Culture

Amrita Sher-Gil

The Life of Amrita Sher-Gil

Amrita Sher-Gil is a female pioneer of modern Indian art in what was formerly a male dominion (Sivan G 108). With a talent for hybridity in art, she incorporated Western techniques and visuals as well as Eastern. Her personality was one of confidence, blunt, and comfortable promiscuity between men and allegedly women (Dalmia 33, 38: Mzezewa 2018, np); likewise, her paintings portrayed women as strong and powerful while capturing the “neglected” areas of a woman’s life (Sharma, Jha, & Gupta 254). She showed early signs of rejection of the patriarchy that would reflect in her life and her works. Sher-Gil was born in Budapest, Hungary to a Sikh philosopher father named Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, and an equally talented Hungarian mother named Marie Antoniette Gottesmann on January 30th, 1913 (“Cultural India”). According to Dalmia, Amrita was baptized in 1918 as a Roman Catholic and she was partly Jewish (11).

At the outbreak of World War One, the Sher-Gil family moved to Dunaharaszti in 1916. During this period of four years in the village life, Amrita showed interest in coloured crayons to copy toys around her and drew folk songs that her mother would sing to her (Dalmia 14: Sivan G 107). After moving back to Budapest briefly, political instability arose, and the family moved back to India in 1921. Despite her unfamiliarity with formal education, Amrita was enrolled in Santa Annuciata School in Florence, Italy in January 1924. Amrita rebelled against the Roman Catholic regime of the school with a nude portrait and withdrew, but was enrolled into another Catholic school in Simla, India to which she rebelled again (Dalmia 19-20). The Sher-Gil family stayed in India from June 1924 to April 1929.

In 1927, Amrita’s uncle Ervin Baktay encouraged her to move to Paris to develop her artistic skill as well as paint from live models (Dalmia 23-25). While in Paris between the period of 1930-1932, Amrita created over sixty paintings which were mostly of self-portraits and young women (Dalmia 31). Amrita attended the Ecole des Beaux Art from 1929-1934, which is associated with her interest in line and colour (Tillotson 59). In these Paris years, Amrita’s self portraits began to show a change in her personality as she became more confident. This is when she appears to have grown to become her own vivacious person, as well as becoming comfortable in her own sexuality. She began to long for India after five years of gaining new techniques in Paris, and subsequently left in 1934 for her ancestral home in Amritsar.

While back in India, she left behind her Western clothes and vowed to wear saris for the rest of her life (Dalmia 59). Her painting palette began to switch and contain recurring ideas since being in India. It is there in Simla where Amrita starts to depict the poverty in India. She moved to her family’s estate in 1936, but then began a tour of South India with Barada Ukil in which she visited the Ajanta and Ellora caves. (Dalmia 79). These cave paintings inspired some of her work in the future and seemed to have awoken something in her. The winning of the gold medal at the annual exhibition of the Bombay Art Society on January 15th, 1937 occurred when she was touring South India (Shakeel 9). This was also when she began to be noticed.

After travelling to two major temple complexes in India, Amrita was influenced by the religious life. In Trivandrum, she found inspiration in the colours of life. The Indian prince (maharaja) and the Prince’s wife (maharani) in Trivandrum sent for, then refused to buy Amrita’s paintings because they were not within the norm. Her artistic style never was within the norm, as she painted troubled women with expressions of oppression (Mzezewa 2018, np). She then ventured to Cape Comorin, where she stayed for eleven days, and incorporated her South Indian experiences into her paintings. After a visit to the Cochin frescoes, Allahabad, and Dehli, she returned to Simla and “regurgitated” her memories into paintings (Dalmia 86). In the year 1937, Amrita created what became known as the south Indian trilogy; hence Bride’s Toilet, Brahmacharis, and South Indian Villagers Going to the Market were created to encapsulate the exposure to form and colour Amrita saw in south India (Dalmia 91: Sivan G 117).

Amrita had become increasingly popular with a unique and identifiable style, and yet she felt as though people were misunderstanding her paintings. Her paintings were praised for showing Indian poverty with sympathy, but criticized for showing the countries’ bad side, or even aestheticizing the poor (Tillotson 68). Amrita’s sister Indira Sher-Gil got married in 1937, which caused Amrita’s paintings to stop as the house became engulfed in turmoil (Dalmia 99). Amrita ventured to Lahore for an art exhibition, where she met an important art critic whom she became close with, Dr. Charles Fabri. He, along with others, provided her with truth and criticism to improve her style.

After making two paintings in Lahore and feeling regenerated from the trip, she returned to her family estates and married her cousin Victor Egan. Her parents disapproved, but that seemed to make her more determined (Dalmia 108). Before Amrita and Victor were to be married in Budapest, Amrita got pregnant. Victor arranged for an abortion, which was carried out soon after. Amrita’s parents continued to be hostile and reluctant to the two, but Amrita and Victor persisted. The two made agreements in their marriage to not have children, to have a quiet wedding, and that Amrita was also allowed to see other men (Dalmia 112-114). Victor was called out to Kiskunhalas for military duty and sent for Amrita to come live with him, which she did. She also went with him when he moved to Lake Balaton, and then they moved back to Kiskunhalas where Amrita took to painting again.

With the rising of more political instability, Victor and Amrita left Hungary in June 1939 to Genoa and boarded a ship to Colombo. The couple finally reached Simla to live with Amrita’s parents, but her mother was extremely hostile to the couple. The couple were relieved when Amrita’s cousin Kirpal Singh Majithi invited them to live with him in Saraya but were unsatisfied in finding inspiration or work (Dalmia 122). Victor finally attempted to settle things with Amrita’s mother in 1940 after her relentless hostility to him, but to no avail. It was as if the turning point in Amrita’s relationship with her mother also made a turning point in Amrita. After a period of depression, Amrita’s spirits were lifted again. She now began to link form with context in her paintings with the help of the Mughals, who were Muslims who ruled over a large Hindu majority country. Amrita and Victor visited Sonepur Mela in Bihar and Amrita took to painting elephants, which began another turn to other life in Amrita’s paintings (Dalmia 138). And yet, Amrita began to feel herself become sad again even while practicing new art techniques like sculpturing. Amrita hit an artist’s block before her friend, Karl Khandalavala, came to visit but became stuck again when he left. She is said to have felt defeated and depressed, as though her artistic muse had gone. Things were not going good for either Amrita or Victor, so they set out to Lahore in 1941. Victor then moved back to Saraya, and Amrita moved from Lahore to Simla to find her sister Indira and her husband had taken up her art studio. After a fight with Indira over Amrita always being “in the limelight,” Amrita left without a single bag to her old friend Helen’s house (Dalmia 157).

            By now, Amrita was a recognized original painter. Amrita left Simla in August 1941 for Saraya with Victor, then left again to Lahore in September. The couple found a place and Amrita enjoyed life again as the two met and congregated with intellectuals and artists. Finally comfortable, Amrita scheduled an exhibition in December of 1941. Amrita began to work on her final painting that depicted animal forms and the Indian landscape, though it was never finished. Two weeks before her exhibition, Amrita fell ill. Amrita had been sick with the Spanish flu, acute tonsillitis, and a sexual illness, but this was different (Dalmia 13, 35, 80). She died on December 5th at midnight from peritonitis after being visited by three doctors, one of which was her husband. She was only 28, leaving her “artistic voyage… unfinished” (Dalmia 173: Sharma, Jha, & Gupta 254). Her family decided to have a Sikh funeral for her on December 7th, 1941 and her body was cremated on the bank of the river Ravi (Shakeel 15). In her wake, many of her friends and family thought of her as she remained immortal in her works. There are allegations that she passed because of food poisoning, her husband not having enough knowledge to treat her, or a failed abortion (Dalmia 179-180: Mzezewa 2018, np).

            The life on Amrita Sher-Gil can be described as incredibly ambitious, bold, and always changing. Her life was reflected in her art in that it was always shifting, whether leaning more to her European techniques, or to her Indian ideas. Amrita is described as having a “ferocity of mind and sharpness of tongue, combined with an unashamed openness about her own behaviour” (Zaman 2020, np). Her paintings portrayed early ideas of feminism in that it showed overshadowed women, and people who were oppressed. Her comfortability in her sexuality was also a bold notion in her time, and yet she was blunt and open. Some say it is narcissism, some say confidence. Overall, as said by Sivan G, Amrita was a significant, “volatile personality amongst the artists of colonial India” who shaped modern Indian art with her European and Eastern hybridity (106).


Britannica Academic (2013) “Amrita Sher-Gil.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from

Cultural India (2020) Amrita Sher-Gil: Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https:/

Dalmia, Yashodhara (2006) Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life. New York: Penguin.

G., Sivan (2014) “Mimesis and Beyond a Major Philosophical Trend in Modern Indian Painting.” Shodhganga: Reservoir of Indian Theses: 103-129. Retrieved from

Mzezewa, Tariro (2018) Overlooked No More: Amrita Sher-Gil, a Pioneer of Indian Art. New York Times. No page numbers available.

Shakeel, Talat (1998) “Amrita Shergil and Bengal School of Painting.” Shodhganga: Reservoir of Indian Theses, pp. 1-113. Retrieved from

Sharma, Mandakini, Jha, Pashupati, and Gupta, Ila (2016) “Amrita Sher-Gill’s Paintings: A Cultural Evaluation.” THAAP Journal 2016: 254-265.

Tillotson, G.H.R (1997) “A Painter of Concern: Critical Writings on Amrita Sher-Gil.” India International Centre, Vol. 24, No. 4: 57-72. Retrieved from

Zaman, Sahar (2020) Amrita Sher-Gil: A Heroine of Two Nations. The Quint. Retrieved from No page numbers available.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Ajanta Caves

Bengal Renaissance

Bombay Art Society


Bride’s Toilet

Cochin Frescoes

Ecole des Beaux Art School

Ellora Caves

Cultural Hybridity



Marie Antoniette Gottesmann

Modern Indian Art

Santa Annuciata School

Sikh tradition

Three Girls

Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia

Victor Egan

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Allison Vonk (February 2020) who claims authorship of this content.

Amrita Sher-Gil

Amrita Sher-Gil was born on January 30th, 1913 in Budapest, Hungary. Her father, Sardar Umrao Singh Majithia was an owner of a large amount of land that had been granted to him by the British. Originally, he was a member of the well known Majithia clan that was fighting against the British with the Sikhs, however, he switched sides and helped the British win the war. As a thanks for his contributions he was then given land and became an even wealthier, prominent member of society. His brother, Sir Sunder Singh Majithia, turned a large portion of the land into sugar factories that continued to help the family’s wealth grow (Singh 1975).  

Sher-Gil’s mother also came from a wealthy, upper class family. Marie Antoinette Gottesmann was a well known musician and opera singer though she never became a professional. She was known for her love of entertaining and keen eye for decorating. Marie was raised with a very good education (Dalmia 2006) and is the one responsible for the Roman Catholic baptism of both of her daughters, despite Catholicism not being a theology that she practiced directly or insisted on her children practicing. Chrisitianity, specifically Catholicism was something to which both girls were exposed. Amrita attended and was expelled from two Catholic schools as a child (Singh 1975).

The first eight years of Amrita’s life were spent in Hungary until the family moved to India in 1921. The family specifically rooted in Simla where Amrita and her sister began the first parts of their education (Singh 210). Sher-Gil took up a passion for drawing and quickly began an education focused on art and the expansion of her talents. The first teacher she had, Major Whitmarsh, was known to be very conventional and made Amrita draw the same things over and over until she was able to do them as realistically as possible. Major Whitmarsh was dismissed shortly after he started as Sher-Gil strongly disliked listening to him and his teaching style (Singh 211). Her second teacher, Hal Bevan Petman, maintained his position for a considerable time frame and even recommended a formal European style education in art for Amrita, claiming she had a great promise as an artist. In 1924 the family moved again to Florence, Italy, where Sher-Gil was able to study art and go to school at the School of Santa Annunciate. Unfortunately, she was expelled in less than six months as she was caught drawing nude women in class, which was against the strict orthodox rules (Singh 211). 

After the school in Florence did not work out, the family moved back to Simla, India, and Amrita began to develop the relationships that would later become so crucial for her work as many of these individuals became her models. The majority of the models from her later and most famous paintings came from the hills surrounding the Simla area, known as Saraya (Singh 211). Of course, Amrita had to continue in a formal education so she was once again enrolled in a Catholic School and was once again expelled thanks to a letter she wrote to her father that was intercepted by one of the teachers. She was writing to explain to him that she was denouncing all religions as she thought they were pointless and stifling, which was not well received by the religious staff at the school (Singh 211). 

It was not until Amrita’s uncle, Ervin Baktay, started taking an interest in her talent that her parents considered Paris as an option for a formal art based education. He was able to inspire her to focus on incorporating things from the real world in her paintings and cultivated an interest in autonomy in Sher-Gil and her work. In 1929 the family moved, yet again, to Paris for Amrita to pursue her education there (Dalmia 25). 

After first arriving in Paris, Sher-Gil painted at the school Grand Chaumiere under Pierre Vaillent until she was able to get further settled into the area. Once further settled, she began to study at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Art under Lucien Simon. It was here that she was taught to focus on the development of the human form and anatomy, as well as things like line, form and colour (Singh 212). She stayed at Ecole Nationale for almost three years and began to see her first success within the larger art community. In 1932 she was featured in an exhibition and in 1933 she was again featured, but this time won the honor of Associate of the Grand Salon. This made her the youngest individual and first Indian to win this title (Singh 213). This honor gave her the privilege of displaying two paintings at the exhibition every year (Dalmia 31). Paris is the first place we see a shift in her works from naturalism to a focus on anatomy. It has been suggested by critics that due to the influential painters around her, Sher-Gil started to incorporate the styles of painters such as Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh as they quickly became her favourites (Dalmia 30). However, it became increasingly clear to Sher-Gil that she wanted to go back to India and that is where she believed she was destined to become a great painter (Singh 1975).

In 1934 Sher-Gil returned to India and began painting on her family’s land in Simla. Almost immediately after her arrival, a large controversy surrounded her as she declined to accept an award from the Simla Fine Arts Exhibition. She had submitted ten paintings, out of which, five had been chosen by the exhibition to be displayed.  One of those five won an award but Sher-Gil felt it was a lesser option compared to the other paintings she had on display and declined the acceptance of the award. In the letter she wrote to the exhibition, she explains that the judges seemed to pick paintings that followed a very traditional view and she did not want to be set into this mold (Singh 214). Sher-Gil’s early works have been described as a literal and romanticised view of India that seems to follow a “tourist lens” of India (Dalmia 61). 

Sher-Gil settled back into India and while there she was able to gain traction as a recognized artist. In 1936 she won two prizes for self-portraits in the Delhi Fine Arts Exhibition (Singh 214). This award won her large amounts of publicity that resulted in a market for her to participate in individual commissions and solo exhibitions. In 1937 she won a gold medal in the annual exhibition which only further increased the recognition she was gaining (Dalmia 77). It is at this time that she paints her most famous works, including the South Indian Trilogy, and writes consistently that this was a happy time of her life. Sher-Gil painted upwards of 15 of her most famous paintings at this time while she traveled between Simla, Saraya and Lahore (Dalmia 2006).

 When Sher-Gil was asked why she decided to move back to India and out of the European art capital she explained that she wanted to be able to express and illustrate the country that had impacted her so much. She was known for saying that “vibrant art had to be connected to the soil of the land” (Singh 45). Sher-Gil felt that her identity was built in with the people and reality of India, and wanted to bring awareness to the lives of the poor (Dalmia 75). In simple terms, Sher-Gil felt she had only experienced India as an outsider and longed to become an insider through her paintings and the interactions they helped to stimulate with her local models (Tillotson 63). 

Sher-Gil’s original painting and drawing style was based on naturalism and keeping things as authentic to the reference as possible. She was taught to draw the same things over again to make sure that they came across as close to the original as possible. However, after she first returned to India there is a shift in her work that starts small. The colours she uses are influenced heavily by the art she was exposed to in Paris and early paintings show bright blues and greens that will eventually transition to reds and browns that develop deeper hues the more Sher-Gil uses them (Dalmia 60). In her mind, she begins to create a new style of Indian painting that is not traditional but still fundamentally Indian in spirit (Dalmia 2006). She is described as creating paintings that are modern in theory but do not follow any of the typical rules required in modern styles. While she uses clear lines and simple colours, there is still this balance between realism of the specific characters but it is done in a lucid stylization (Dalmia 90). This style is a large change from her early works which are based on realism and naturalism. Realism and Naturalism were the styles Sher-Gil was encouraged by her father for learning and she slowly moved away from them as her education expanded (Dalmia 2006). 

Sher-Gil faced many criticisms both in life and death, however, some of the most critical views of her work come from Sher-Gil herself. She noticed that over time she began to become detached both in a romantic sense as well as a humane sense (Tillotson 68). Her formalistic style was learned from other painters while she was in Paris, but it was also a conscious choice that she made. This formalism caused many individual critics to be very uncomfortable with the tensions it created in her work, mainly that it caused the feelings that form was more important than any individual details that may have been illustrated (Tillotson 65). Some critics felt that the attachment to the formalist values left a weakening of her connection to the human element in her work, to the point that some commented that it seemed she “painted colours more than subjects.”(Tillotson 65) Prioritizing form over the subject was the main critique that Sher-Gil faced and seemed to become more of an issue over time, especially voiced at some of her final works. 

In 1938, Sher-Gil married her first cousin, Dr. Victor Egan. They lived together for a few years in Hungary before moving back to Lahore in 1941. It was here in Lahore where Sher-Gil starts to paint again, completing a few small pieces before starting her final large work that was never completed. In December of 1941, Sher-Gil was struck with a mysterious illness and died two days later. She was 28 years old (Singh 216). Victor planned a Sikh style funeral for her that ended in the cremation of her body on the river Ravi (Dalmia 174). While there is no conclusive idea of the illness that killed her, there are many theories, ranging from basic things such as food poisoning or the straining and rupturing of internal organs due to picking up a heavy painting, to more extreme theories such as the deliberate killing of Sher-Gil at the hands of Victor (Dalmia 179-181).

Sher-Gil strived to express herself in a way that was different from the traditional art style that was prominent in India. In doing so she was able to create a new style and set a course for different art types to break into the artistic community. The largest collection of her works on display is housed at the National Gallery of Modern Art and while it is rare that one of her paintings goes up for sale, when it happens they are very hot items for purchase (Dalmia 207). Sher-Gil has been described as a liberator of Indian art (Singh 216) and continues to be an inspiration for not only artists within India, but also on a global scale as her work continues to captivate new audiences. 


Dalmia, Yashodhara (2006) Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life. New Delhi: Penguin. 

Singh, N. Iqbal (1975) “Amrita Sher-Gil.” India International Centre Quarterly 3:209-217

Singh, N. Iqbal (1984) Amrita Sher-Gil. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House

Tillotson, G.H.R. (1997) “A Painter of Concern: Critical Writings on Amrita Sher-Gil.” India International Centre Quarterly 4:57-72

Related Topics:

To see other female painters of colour:

To see other famous painters from India:

For a book on art and modernity in India: 

            Worldly affiliations: artistic practice, national identity, and modernism in India, 1930-1990 by Sonal, Khullar (available through the University of Lethbridge Library)

Related Websites: 

To see a simplified version of all of this with pictures:                                              

To see the website for the museum where most of her works are kept today:

To see her obituary in the New York Times: 

To see some of her most popular pieces:

To see all things Amrita:

This article was written by: Tiana Williams (Spring 2020), who is entirely responsible for its content.

Raja Ravi Varma

Raja Ravi Varma was born in 1848 in Kilimanur, which was inhabited by about 200 people of the Kilimanur clan, and he later died in 1906. He was born as a Ksatriya; a part of the warrior class in the Indian caste system (Rupika 20). This caste distinction allowed him to successfully pursue a career in art because of the privilege and connections this caste holds. Ravi’s father was known as a namboothiri brahmin the highest among all brahmins in his area, while his mother was an acknowledged poet (Rupika 25). But even with these great influences and broad skillsets exposed to him, his uncle Raja Raja Varma was the one who inspired and taught him to paint. The prefix “Raja” before Ravi Varma’s name symbolizes the recognition and credit he received as a painter (Rupika 19). After years of practice and broadening his knowledge and skills, Ravi Varma submitted his first two paintings to the Fine Arts exhibition in Madras, and to people’s surprise, he was awarded a gold medal by the governor (Rupika 22). After this initial recognition he believed himself ready to begin his travels and expand his career. His travels began in Travancore, there, with his background from Kilimanur, his status, and his proximity to the royal family aided in his growth as an artist, gaining him many new opportunities (Rupika 36). Because of Varma’s orthodox background, knowledge of scriptures and classical literature, and his incredible innate ability to paint, he was able to expand his sensibilities among the court in Travancore (Rupika 37). This in turn allowed him to make important connections with the influential members of the court which led to him acquiring more opportunities for painting commissions. Varma was first known for his massive oil paintings; the style and use of oil painting was introduced by the Europeans (Rupika 38). The style and scale of his paintings allowed a broader audience to enjoy one, or many pieces of art at once rather than a smaller audience only being able to admire at close range. As oil paintings could be made on massive canvases, the idea that a painting could be moved around, hung on a wall and observed at convenience was very appealing to Varma, as his dream was to have a huge exhibition of oil paintings created by him, displayed in a gallery (Rupika 157).

Raja Ravi Varma, Self-portrait, Government Museum, Chennai

Varma became well aware of the many styles that were being introduced by the Europeans (such as oil paintings on canvas, academic realism, and chiaroscuro) but was also aware of the many traditional and historical styles that had been part of Indian culture, his very own upbringing, and traditional art for a very long time (such as the Chitrasutra, from the Vishudharmottara) (Rupika 157). With all this knowledge, one of the main modern techniques he chose to incorporate was lithography. Lithography was created just before 1800 by Aloys Senefelder and it became one of the most popular mediums of the 19th century (Davies 911). Lithography involves the practice of drawing a design onto stone with a specific grease crayon, then dampening the stone with water which absorbs into the stone but does not absorb where the design is. The artist then applies ink to the stone which adheres to the crayon design, the stone is then put through a press where the design is transferred onto paper. This allows for many copies of one design to be made and saves artists tons of time (Davies 911). Through this process he was able to create amazing calendar art, known as oleography; prints made and texturized to resemble oil paintings. This allowed Varma’s art to become even more accessible to the masses and made his beautiful work more affordable and more popular. These prints often depicted Hindu deities and allowed anyone, no matter their class distinction to have a beautiful print with the deities they worshipped, and stories and tales that were known to them. No one had attempted his particular combination of styles before, Ravi utilized the richness of ancient stories and techniques but also incorporated modern varieties which created something purely unique. He was conscious of his selection of themes, genres, and the mediums in which he desired to paint and print. His representation of historical gods and heroes, the portraits of the rich and powerful as well as the many women he portrayed allowed him to prevail and put western influences to good use when it best suited him (Rupika 158). But, his stylistic choices received heavy criticism from traditional Indian artists, as well as European artists that believed his art was too vulgar, or too subtle, and did not follow the traditional ways of each group (Pande 130). Ravi Varma’s style was something never seen before which gave him an edge over other artists of his time.

Radha on the banks of the Ganga by Raja Ravi Varma. Government Museum, Chennai

In Varma’s portraits of females, the dresses, and jewellery portrayed were used to signify class and ethnic identity. Varma’s ability to capture the realness, vividness, and glow of the jewels these women wore was unsurpassable. Varma’s color palette and skill was said to become the inspiration for many deities now portrayed in temples after his time (Pande 130). His paintings as well as prints also brought forward the beauty and pride that Indian culture held which other colonizers and cultures were not aware of. His sophisticated paintings showed the beauty and dignity of the women, and also the status and power of men. From the colonizer’s point of view, India was a dull landscape of heat and dust, filled with beggars and fakirs, but Varma’s paintings showed the dazzling people of India that no foreigner could discredit (Pande 131). His work aided in the growth and achievement of independence for India by showing the pride and joy Indian people felt and by giving them proper representation and access. He is said to have brought a new visual style and vocabulary to the Indian world of art.

In many of Varma’s paintings he makes the effort to bring light into the private life of men and women in their personal interior spaces. He used a technique called Chiaroscuro, a modern technique, to make interior spaces more compelling and more dramatic to the viewer. This was originally a western practice that Varma took on and used to his advantage in his series of men reading books (Dinkar 2). His beautiful paintings were included in the budget to decorate the homes of the royal families of Mysore and Baroda, his mythological paintings were also frequently seen in these homes. His style and broad skillset is said to bridge the gap between the ancient stories and talents of India with the new, contemporary, and western styles used today (Dinkar 6). His venture into painting deities and mythological beings that were so well known by all of the Indian population, along with his unique style and abilities allowed him to have a career of fame and success. He would become most remembered and known for his mythological paintings and prints (Thakurta 181). One of the many known paintings of Varma’s is called the ‘Hamsa Damayanti’, this images connotes the idea of beauty and womanhood in Indian life, but pictured with this beautiful woman is a swan, which carries the meaning beyond a regular woman and into the mythic character of Damayanti, who is part of an epic legend known in India. This painting is known for conveying the ideas of transformation and transmutation of values (Thakurta 182). His many images and paintings of women became popular and well known because of the myth, aura, and beauty of these figures which gave them the privileged title of ‘real life celestial beauties’ (Rupika 140). These painting were some of the first to draw awards and mounting publicity for Varma (Thakurta 180).

Kicaka approaches Draupadi disguised as Sairandhri by Raja Ravi Varma. Government Museum, Chennai.

One deity of interest to Varma was Mohini, the female form of Visnu. She is the subject of several mythological tales, and her image was used in many paintings done by Varma. He portrayed the goddess as living the normal life of an Indian woman; many of the positions she is seen in connects to forms and sequences of traditional dances, which carry immense meaning in Indian culture. She is also pictured playing instruments such as the violin, as well as playing with a ball as a symbol of togetherness (Rupika 212). Instruments and music had special meaning to Varma as they were key factors and a common activity found in his childhood home (Rupika 211). The intention behind these paintings was to give insight into the private lives of young women who were awaiting and anticipating their future life with their chosen groom. Because of this, these paintings were often aimed to appeal to male audiences because of their curiosity and fascination with women (Rupika 212). This gives more meaning to the painting as they hold traditional Indian styles and values, modern techniques, and personal connections. Varma painted with compassion, purpose, and skill, thus allowing him to convey true emotion, status, and mythologies, which gave deep worth to each painting. These aspects carried over into every one of his prints, all showing his incomparable style and displaying cherished stories held within. These amazing abilities gave him the well-earned title as an original, talented, and respected Indian artist, unforgettably known as Raja Ravi Varma. 

Bibliography and Recommended Readings

Davies, Penelope (2010). “Post-Impressionism.” Janson’s History of Art. Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 911-918.

Dinkar, Niharika (2014) “Private Lives and Interior Spaces: Raja Ravi Varma’s Scholar Paintings.” Wiley Online Library Vol. 37, Issue 3. Accessed January 30, 2020.

Pande, Ira (2010) “Review: A King Among Painters” India International Centre Quarterly Vol. 37, No. 1, 128-133. Accessed January 30, 2020.

Rupika, Chawla (2010) Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India. Ahmedabad, India: Mapin Publishing.

Thakurta, Tapati Guha (1986) “Westernisation and Tradition in South Indian Painting in the Nineteenth Century: The Case of Raja Ravi Varma.” Sage Publications 165-195. Accessed January 30, 2020.

Related Topics

Puranic paintings

Raja Raja Varma

Painting style in Tanjore

Academic Realism

Oil painting



Epic tales           

Hindu goddesses

Chitrasutra, from the Vishudharmottara

Fine Arts exhibitions in India

Hindu deities in art


Mythological stories

Western influence on India

Related Websites

Article written by Camryn Smith (March 2020) who is exclusively responsible for its content.

Rajput Painting

In discussing Rajput painting, it is relevant to discuss the Mughal style of painting, which evolved at the same time, and in the same geographic area as the Rajput style (Beach 11). In Mughal painting, “consciousness of style was extreme and stylistic evolution intense and rapid” (Beach 11). Due to the rapid and dynamic development that Mughal painting underwent, is is difficult to specify typical characteristics of the style (Beach 11). However, in general, the artist is concerned with establishing a hazy and romantic atmosphere, which can be seen in the “softness of his colors” (Beach 11) and the “balance of composition” (Beach 11). The artist is also interested in portraiture, the figures convincingly depict actual people (Beach 12). Most importantly, the artist is concerned with minute details. For example, in the Muhgal painting Lovers on a Terrace from ~1645, one notes the tiny pattern on the bolsters and pillows, the texture of the fabric, and the “way a translucent muslin affects the color of flesh or fabric underneath” (Beach 12). These tiny details are a staple of the kind of refined skill required for Mughal painting. By contrast, a Rajput painting is “built in blocks of color” (Beach 12), which give the work a more emotional quality that constrasts with the more visually realistic style found in Mughal works (Beach 12). The figures in Rajput paintings can be seen to have “rectangular heads and enormous eyes” (Beach 12), which are not derived from realistic depiction, but instead are derived from “careful manipulation of pre-existing formulas” (Beach 12). A love-scene from a Rajput painting is “dynamic and impassioned” (Beach 12), whereas a similar Mughal work is “perhaps the least passionate love-scene imaginable” (Beach 12).

            Mughal paintings were almost exclusively commissioned by Mughal emperors (Beach 11-13). Most of these emperors desired uniqueness in their paintings, which provided the artist an opportunity to express his own individuality (Beach 12-17). In contrast, traditional Hindu village painting styles gave no role to the individual (Beach 17). Because Rajput painting was influenced by both Mughal and village ideals, the individuality displayed by the Rajput artists depended both on the context in which they worked, and the persuasions of the patrons for which they worked (Beach 17).

            Raphel Pettrucci writes that a “very narrow conception, unhappily still predominant, has too long overshadowed the art of painting by insisting that imitation is essential to it” (Petrucci 76). Instead, Petrucci asserts that painting is not just a representation of forms, but also an abstract language, just as illusive, indistinct and powerful as poetry and music (Petrucci 76). Rajput painting, when considered with regard to this point of view, reveals a tradition of essential elements which are borrowed from “epic sources, wherein the philosophy of the world and of life, of nature and of sentiment, is expressed in whatever it possessed of the eternal” (Petrucci 76). In other words, the forms in Rajput paintings are often more than their surface appearance, and are, instead, symbols. The Rajput artists reflect just enough of the real world as to express themselves through suggestion, while retaining their “own austerer power” (Petrucci 76).   Despite often drawing subject matter from Hindu texts, of which many depict savage imagery, such as Asura burning alive in flames cast upon him by Durya, Rajput paintings exhibit a certain sentiment of tenderness and love (Petrucci 76).

            Rajput painting is “both essentially and formally religious” (Coomaraswamy 50), and interprets the experience of human life much like a spiritual drama (Coomaraswamy 50). There is a close relationship between Rajput paintings and vernacular Hindi poetry, and the two often go hand in hand (Coomaraswamy 50. In many cases, the corresponding inscription from the particular Hindi subject is written on either the back of the painting, or on the painting itself (Coomaraswamy 50). The paintings are rarely dated or signed (Coomaraswamy 50). Rajput paintings were sometimes painted directly onto walls as murals, though typically were produced in small-scale works, which were meant to be held in the hand, and were often wrapped in cotton and stored (Coomaraswamy 50).

            In terms of technique, the Rajput style of painting is related to the ancient and modern Indian ‘fresco’ (Coomaraswamy 50). To begin, the artist makes an initial sketch, typically in red, or transfers an already prepared design (Coomaraswamy 50). The sketch is then primed with a white primer (Coomaraswamy 50). After the re-drawing and correcting is finished, the painting is coloured, beginning with the background, then foreground elements like buildings, and last of all forms like human and animal figures (Coomaraswamy 50). Brush strokes are made by free-hand, with single, fluid strokes contouring figures, detailing backgrounds, and outlining features (Coomaraswamy 50). Mughal painting, on the other hand, could be more readily described as a more methodical art-form, almost “an art of stippling” (Coomaraswamy 50).

            A frequent subject of Rajput painters is a “set of illustrations to the thirty-six Ragas and Raginis” (Coomaraswamy 50). These Ragas and Raginis are also described by poems, forming a Ragmala, of which are often inscribed on the corresponding paintings themselves (Coomaraswamy 50). Each Raga and Ragini is associated with a very particular mood, such as day and night, seasons, and rain, amongst countless others (Coomaraswamy 52). Most of these moods are connected to love, in the context of traditional Hindu rhetoric or poetry. (Coomaraswamy 52). Much like the way the music from a raga, or the poetry from the Ragmala can express a mood, Rajput paintings provide yet another medium in which to experience these moods (Coomaraswamy 52).

            In the early fifteenth century Rajput paintings, subject matter was mainly based on book illustrations, such as the Bhagvat-Purana, Ramayan, Gita Govinda and Ragmala series (Agre 570). The Rajput painters “brought the gods down to the level of human beings, depicting through the illustration of the divine, the life of the aristocracy and the common man” (Agre 570). From the 17th century onward, the influence of the Mughal Court begins to show in Rajput painting, and the subject matter shifted (Agre 570). While the book illustrations continued, secular scenes like marriage, battle, hunting, dancing, music, and festivals were favoured (Agre 570). Much can be learned about the lives of Indians from 17th century Rajput paintings, particularly aristocratic lives, as these were the primary figures (Agre 571). Men wore pagri, qaba, jama, and takauchia were the coats that they wore (Agre 571). The lower garment consisted of pajamas, which are typically depicted as being striped (Agre 571). Men frequently wore ornaments such as necklaces, and karas on their wrist which were decorated with precious stones, and rings were worn on the fingers (Agre 571). Women wore ear-rings, finger rings, nose-rings, necklaces over the breast, bazuband on the elbows, and anklets over the ankles (Agre 571). Interestingly, these ornaments are “depicted as worn by all women whether princesses, attendants, musicians, singers or dancers (Agre 571).

            The paintings also depict social customs, such as marriage, worship, festivals, among others (Agre 571). The growth of smoking as a habit can also be seen (Agre 571). In terms of entertainment, the Rajput paintings from the 17th century portray a wide variety of entertainment, chiefly dance and music, though also present are gambling, hunting, chess, chupar and kite flying (Agre 571). Hunting, in particular, was favoured by the ruling class; aristocrats used pet hawks to aid in their hunts during the 18th century (Agre 571).


Agre, J. (1976) “Social Life Aa Relfected In The Rajput Painting During The Mughal Period”. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 37, 569-575.

Coomaraswamy, A. K. (1918) “Rajput Painting”. Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin,16 (96), 49-62.

Beach, M. (1975) “The Context of Rajput Painting”. Ars Orientalis,10, 11-17.

 Petrucci, R. (1916) “Rajput Painting”. The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 29 (158), 74- 79.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Mughal Painting

Mughal Courts

Mewar Painting

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Article written by: Cade Sisco (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.

Kedarnath: Temple and Pilgrimage

 Kedarnath temple is a Saivitepilgrimage place in the Himalayan mountains, where according to tradition, Lord Siva manifested in his form as a linga of light (Whitmore 74). Kedarnath pilgrimage is a member of the four abodes system (char dham). The Kedarnath temple is located amidst the tall Himalayan Mountains and is one of the holiest Hindu places on the Indian subcontinent. The pilgrimage to Kedarnath is a difficult one for the pilgrims (yatris) due to the location of the temple which sits on top of a Himalayan mountain at an altitude of 3553 meters, a region often cited as “land of gods” (dev-Bhumi). Kedarnath is a “crossing-over place” (tirtha) that offers the possibility that one can “cross-over” the ocean of rebirth. Furthermore, Hindus consider pilgrimage (yatra) to Kedarnath as one that grants wishes, heals, and purifies karma. (Whitmore 7). In a general sense, the positioning of Kedarnath is in the shape of a linga. According to Hindu beliefs, by praying to Kedareshwar, one can get one’s desires fulfilled. The importance of the shrine can be further understood from the beliefs that Upamanyu (a rgvedic rsi) prayed to Lord Siva in this place in the Satya Yuga and the Pandavas worshipped Lord Siva here after the Mahabharata war(Singh, S., Youssouf, M., Malik, Z. A., & Bussmann, R. W 9). The journey to Kedarnath is difficult, yet most Hindu pilgrims (yatris) undertake this pilgrimage to destroy their sins (pap) and generate merit (punya) (Whitmore 5). This Yatra is pursued especially by Hindus who are in samnyasin stage of their life. The overview of Kedarnath presents a Hindu pilgrimage (yatri) with a unique opportunity to experience, worship, and to be in the conjoined presence of Siva and Ganga in this world (Sijapati, M. A., & Birkenholtz, J. V. 2).

         The origin of Kedarnath temple is a debatable issue, but the most prominent view by devotees about its construction suggests that the Pandavasconstructed it. It was revived later by Adi Sankaracarya but nothing can be said about the date of construction of the temple with certainty (Thapliyal, U. P 1). Claims like these are common in Hindu religious literature, academics do not regard these myths as historically accurate.

           According to the old accounts, Kedarnath is one of the places correlated with the climb to heaven (swargarohan) of the five Pandavasand their joint wife Draupadi. The Pandavas were desperate to cleanse themselves of the karma generated during the Kurukshetra war in which they killed their own cousins (the Kauravas), narrated in the Mahabharata epic (Whitmore 29). Having felt guilty of killing their own cousins, the Pandavas sought the blessings of Lord Siva for redemption. Siva eluded them repeatedly and while fleeing took refuge at Kedarnath in the form of a bull, a form commonly associated with demons (raksasas). Lord Siva, unhappy with the Pandavas, refused a meeting and left Kasi (Varanasi, U.P), his abode. He appeared as Nandi the bull in Guptakasi. In many versions of this story, the Pandavas identify Siva and grab him to prevent him from leaving. Each of the five Pandavas grabs a part of Siva, parts that remain in the landscape and then become the self-manifest rock lingas found in Kedarnath and the other four temples of the Saivite sect dedicated to god Shiva in the Garhwal region  (Panch Kedar)(Singh, S., Youssouf, M., Malik, Z. A., & Bussmann, R. W. 9).

Pilgrimage by foot (paidal-yatra) is the iconic form of yatra to the Kedarnath templeand exemplifies the pain (kasht) and inner production of focus and energy (tapas). Walking to Kedarnath barefoot was better and the traditional way for getting the full experience of the location, an experience that involved both pain and pleasure, but not every yatri is able to carry out this traditional method. Most yatris, prefer to ride on horseback, to be carried by porters, or to come by helicopter (Whitmore 127). Families that pursue this pilgrimage to Kedarnath or any other dham mention that one purpose of a yatra is to instill traditional values in the children of the family (Whitmore 127).

       Inside the temple, yatris who enter the temple in the morning are allowed to massage ghee into the linga. The puja itself is standardized and often include consecration (abhisheka) of the linga. Standard puja offerings usually include camphor, sacred thread, rice, incense, mustard oil, forehead adornments, raisins, split chickpeas, nuts, and more expensive pujas add scarves and plastic flower garlands (Whitmore 123). The general ritual procedure in Kedarnath would occur as follows: invocation (avahan), initial vow (sankalp), puja, arati, and offering of flowers (puspanjali), and finally, the ghee malish. Each member of the family would take ghee into their hands and be urged to massage the linga with ghee (clarified butter)while the priest (pujari) recites the mantra (Whitmore 123). For many yatris, massaging the linga, provides them a unique opportunity to experience intimacy with a famous and powerful form of God (Whitmore 78). Everyone irrespective of their skin colour, caste (jati) and creed is permitted to feel, touch, and express their devotion by smearing butter on the linga as a religious ritual (Hiremath, Shobha S. 1.)

Every year around 500,000 yatris visit the Kedarnath Dham valley, spaces in the eco­nomic catchment area of the Kedarnath valley became spaces predominantly aligned around the yatra tourism of middle-class pilgrims, who expect for comfortable travel. Hence, sheer numbers far exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of the mountain environment (Whitmore 103). This sudden growth of yatris in the Kedarnath region, the nature of economic development connected to pilgrimage and tourism, and poorly planned infrastructure were not sustainable, leading to vast devastation in the region.

           In 2013, the flash floods in the parts of the north-west Himalayan region caused acute damage in the Uttarakhand state of India. The severity of the floods and damage was the most devastating in the Kedarnath region. It caused the death of about 4000 people and almost a similar number were reported missing. Unofficial reports suggest an even higher number of death and people missing in the region (Sati, S. P., & Gahalaut, V. K 193).  The cause of the flash floods was determined to be heavy rainfall, triggering landslides in some places, damaging roads, buildings, and other infrastructure. The extensive damage and large death toll displayed the frangibility of the mountainous region and a lack of synchronized relief and rescue operation (Ziegler, A. D., Wasson, R. J., Bhardwaj, A., Sundriyal, Y. P., Sati, S. P., Juyal, N., … & Saklani, U, 1). Construction of several hydropower projects simultaneously, improper road alignment with poor construction, inadequate consideration of slope stability and faulty engineering techniques were some of the other major factors responsible for the 2013 flash floods (Sati, S. P., & Gahalaut, V. K 198).  During the disaster more than 100,000 yatris were in the region. Despite the floods, the Kedarnath shrine persevered, shielded by a massive boulder, a “divine rock” (divya sila), and by its own solid construc­tion, the temple itself held firm but filled up with debris (Whitmore 153). The unpredictability of the landscape and the continued extreme weather made it arduous for up to two days even to deliver supplies to the survivors, and some attempts even resulted in helicopter crashes. During the floods, dead bodies were coming down the Mandakini river and groups of survivors were coming out of the jungles and finding their way to villages in the upper Kedarnath. Consequently, all these events led to the closure of the Kedarnath temple.

       In Kedarnath, there is a tradition that when the shrine is closed it is the turn of divine beings to come to the site on pilgrimage while it is off limits for humans. On October 4, 2013, the first day of the fall Navaratri, Kedarnath re-opened for yatris (Whitmore 164).

       The Kedarnath valley being surrounded by the Himalayas, lakes, rivers, and forests has natural scenic beauty with several places for pilgrimage making the entire region a highly promising tourist destination. The occupation of the people living in the Kedarnath region is directly or indirectly linked with tourism, and tourism has established itself as a primary component in the Kedarnath valley economy. The relationship between residents and tourists can impact positively by providing new opportunities and negatively through restraining individuality with new restrictions (Bahuguna, A., Joshi, P. C., & Maikhuri, R. K 303).  Today, the accessibility to the Kedarnath temple compared to the last decade has become much more commodious because of better transportation provisions. The helicopter service for the Kedarnath shrine has been started for the pilgrims/tourist.

Though tourism in Kedarnath and the surrounding Himalayan regions have a huge potential for economic improvement, yet it has negatively affected the education of youth residing in Kedarnath. Much of the youth generation started working at an early age for immediate economic gain, neglecting their basic education (Bahuguna, A., Joshi, P. C., & Maikhuri, R. K 305).  “Particular constellations of social, political, and economic forces can over centuries transform the character of a particular pilgrimage place almost beyond recognition” (Whitmore 26).  Despite such a devastating flood in the Kedarnath Valley, the state government has no specific policy for develop­ment and planned construction keeping the environmental issues in mind. “Since the state leaders themselves are involved in hospitality and real estate, both overtly and covertly, no one actively discourages illegal construction” (Joshi, Hridayesh 133). Political leaders and the businessmen have not lost sight of the potential to further their own interests at the yatras, and both segments vie for advertising and merchandizing. Yet, Hindus considers it as a religious duty to embark on the pilgrimage of four holy shrines which include Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri (Chardham), the most captivating reason for this Hindu pilgrimage is that this trip washes away all the sins and cleanses the soul for paramount salvation.

                            References and other materials consulted

Bahuguna, A., Joshi, P. C., & Maikhuri, R. K (2011) Socio-cultural impacts of pilgrimage in Kedarnath and adjoining areas of Garhwal Himalayas. J. Env. Bio-Sci., 2011: Vol. 25 (2): 303-306

Hiremath, Shobha S. (2006) Kedar vairagya peetha: Parampara & Rawal Jagadguru Shri Bheemashankarlinga Shivacharya. Ukhimatha (Ushamath): Himavat Kedar Vairagya Simhasana Mahasamsthana.

Joshi, Hridayesh. (2016) Rage of the River: The Untold Story of Kedarnath Disaster. Translated by Vandana R. Singh. Gurgaon (Haryana), India: Penguin Books India.

Lochtefeld, J. (2010) God’s gateway: identity and meaning in a Hindu pilgrimage place. Oxford University Press.

Singh, S., Youssouf, M., Malik, Z. A., & Bussmann, R. W. (2017) Sacred groves: myths, beliefs, and biodiversity conservation—a case study from Western Himalaya, India. International journal of ecology2017.

Sijapati, M. A., & Birkenholtz, J. V. (Eds.) (2015) Religion and Modernity in the Himalaya. Routledge.

Sati, S. P., & Gahalaut, V. K. (2013) The fury of the floods in the north-west Himalayan region: the Kedarnath tragedy. Geomatics, Natural Hazards and Risk, 4(3), 193-201.

Thapliyal, U. P.(2005) Historical and Cultural Perspectives, B.R. Publishing Corporation, New Delhi,

Whitmore, L. (2018) Changes in Ritual Practice at the Himalayan Hindu Shrine of Kedarnath. Ritual Innovation: Strategic Interventions in South Asian Religion, 71-90.

Whitmore, L. (2018) Mountain, Water, Rock, God: Understanding Kedarnath in the Twenty-First Century. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

Ziegler, A. D., Wasson, R. J., Bhardwaj, A., Sundriyal, Y. P., Sati, S. P., Juyal, N., … & Saklani, U. (2014) Pilgrims, progress, and the political economy of disaster preparedness–the example of the 2013 Uttarakhand flood and Kedarnath disaster. Hydrological Processes, 28(24), 5985-5990.

                             Related Topics for Further Investigation    

Char Dham Yatra





Panch Kedar


                        Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Gagan Preet Singh (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content

Banabhatta: Sanskrit author and poet

Banabhatta (commonly referred to as “Bana”) was a Sanskrit poet in 7th century India. Still to this day, he is considered to be one of the most respected prose poets of ancient India and is ranked highly among other Sanskrit prose writers and poets (Hueckstedt 1985:6). He was born in a village of Brahmin settlers called Pritikuta on the river Shona in the region Kanyakubja. Banabhatta’s mother, Rajadevi died when he was young, and so, he was raised by his Father until his passing when Bana was fourteen (Krishnamoorthy 3). Bana then chose to take on a life of wandering and travelling for many years until he returned to Pritikuta, where he was welcomed by the community, but only stayed for a short visit. A courier by the name of Mekhalaka delivered a letter to Banabhatta, summoning him to the Emperor Harshavardhana. Upon meeting Bana, the emperor became fond of him and bestowed Bana with many gifts and praise (Krishnamoorthy 4-6). One of Bana’s works, titled The Harsacharita, an autobiography and biography styled piece, outlines much of both King Harshavardhana’s life and accounts for many of their encounters together (Hueckstedt 1985:7). Bana spent his life creating many works of literature, his most famous being The Kadambari and The Harsacharita. It is also speculated that he may have written The Candisataka, a verse poem that praises the goddess Durga (Hueckstedt 1985:7). The exact year of Bana’s death is unknown, but most scholars believe he died prematurely, as he died with unfinished works, specifically, The Kadambari (Hueckstedt 1985:9).

In his youth, Banabhatta received a well-rounded education in both sacred and secular divisions. Bana’s teacher was the great Bharchu, who was said to be adored by the Maukhari emperors that ruled the area where Pritikuta was located (Krishnamoorthy 3). Bana’s solid education, wealth, and status created by his family lineage of Brahmins, and close association with the emperor, provided Bana with the tools to produce excellent writings. Banabhatta introduced the writing styles of biography and autobiography into classical Sanskrit literature, and is also regarded as the first poet historian and autobiographer in ancient India (Krishnamoorthly 1-2). There is some evidence to suggest that the tradition of romantic fiction in ancient Sanskrit that Bana writes in may be as old as Patanjali, a significant figure in Sanskrit linguistics, but Bana is regarded as the first poet to achieve great distinction for the quality of literacy (Krishnamoorthly 8). His work excelled in literary forms such as rhythm, compounds puns, paradox, hyperbole, metaphor, while using poetic significance contributing to themes of wonder and romance through fiction.

One of Banabhatta most influential works, The Kadambari, is a long romance fiction written in prose that is almost fourteen-hundred years old (Hueckstedt 1995: 152). The Kadambari explores many different literary techniques and poetic essences created by Bana and embodies the dominant culture of North West India in the seventh century while remaining a vessel for romantic and emotional fictional poetry. One of the most striking features is the narrative used, that frames stories within stories (see Hueckstedt 1995:152). Krishnamoorthy defines The Kadambari as “the most celebrated prose romance in Sanskrit literature” (Krishnamoorthly 1). Many commentaries and translations of The Kadambari exist, but many of the attempts at translation are flawed because of the difficult nature of translating Sanskrit language. Specifically, in order to accurately translate this work, a reader needs a highly developed understanding of Sanskritphonetics and syntax, as well as an advanced understanding of the mythical tales alluded to, and finally, a reader needs to understand alankarasastra (science of figure of speech) to understand what Bana is doing in stylistic terms (Hueckstedt 1995:153). Banabhatta died before finishing this piece, and it was left to his son to complete (Hueckstedt 1985:7).

Another famous work by Banabhatta is The Harsacharita, a biography of the Emperor Harshavardhana, and contains an autobiographical account of the author, Banabhatta himself (Datta 1339). The Harsacharita is arguably one of the most influential pieces of ancient Indian Sanskrit literature because of its uniqueness at the time it was created. The Harsacharita is the first work of its kind (biography and autobiography) and is the first attempt at historiography in Indian literature (Krishnamoorthly 1). It is an autobiographical account written about Bana in a romantic prose style that includes writing on his own ancestry, early life, encounters with Harsha, and the return to relatives (Hueckstedt 1985: 7-8). Although it is most likely that The Harsacharita was written before The Kadambari, The Harsacharita is often criticized for not disclosing some major events in the life of the emperor. Thus, many define The Harsacharita as incomplete, or perhaps is only a part of what Bana had written (Hueckstedt 1985: 8). This work left a “tradition of convention and theory” that was designed to serve the higher class as a pastime (Thomas 385).

While The Harsacharita and The Kadambari are both regarded as great works of literary art, there are some major stylistic differences between the two. First, The Kadambari is written in romantic prose, while The Harsacharita can be defined as a romantic biography and autobiography. Thus, the stylistic choices made by Bana to express these different types of writing are different as well. According to Thomas, these differences contribute to “The Kadambari evoking a more sympathetic judgement than The Harsacharita” (Thomas 385). He illustrates this by providing an analogy of a feminine/masculine duality to illustrate the differences in the two works. The Harsacharita, using reality and history, represents the maturity and masculinity of the author, while The Kadambari shows romance and mellowness. Thus, the latter is regarded as the feminine principle (Thomas 385). Additionally, to explain another difference between the two, akhyayika and katha are two classes of Sanskrit literature that are evident in Bana’s works. akhyayika refers to a ‘historical tale’, while katha refers to a ‘tale’ (Krishnamoorthy 13). Respectively, The Harsacharita and The Kadambari are seen as classic examples of the two (Kane XXII). For a work to be categorized as akhyayika, it must be divided into sections called uchchhvasas and must contain verses in vaktra and apravaktra meters. Additionally, akhyayika deals with historical accounts, whereas katha typically does not (Kane XXVIII).

On the other hand, the two works also show similarities. For instance, both exhibit Bana’s creative use of narrative. The Kadambari possesses a narrative that frames stories within stories, and The Harsacharita has a narrative that allows for biography and autobiography to be accounted for within the same work. Another similarity is the abrupt, and perhaps unfinished endings to both pieces (see Kane XXXV). Also consistent between these works is Bana’s conception of reality. The use of stylized characters, plot and landscape paired with notions of the supernatural and use of non-realistic backgrounds, suggests an “idealization of reality” that allows Bana to romantically express components of his own reality into works of prose (Hueckstedt 1985 10-11).

Even after his death, Bana remained extremely influential in terms of Sanskrit literature. The flawless use of literary techniques combined with the emotion and sentiment carried through romantic prose shown in Banabhatta’s writings changed what literature was in essence. His introduction of new forms of literature such as autobiography and historical prose and creative use of established techniques was significant in Sanskritic writing. Later generations looked upon Bana as an “embodiment of the goddess of learning” (Krishnamoorthy 1). One of the most significant features of Bana’s writing was his ability to express romance and emotion while simultaneously producing historical biographies. Other poets applaud Bana for the “mastery of content” and also, the “depth of insight into the human heart” (Krishnamoorthy 1-2). Bana’s wide exposure to travelling and education provided him with adequate knowledge of both historical tradition of ancient India and its mythological tales (Krishnamoorthy 8). Krishnamoorthy goes as far as to say that “the unique genius of language has been so artistically exploited by Bana that his achievement had perhaps never again been equalled in the history of Sanskrit literature” (Krishnamoorthy 12).


Datta, Amaresh (1988) Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature: Devraj to Jyoti, Volume 2. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi

Hueckstedt, Robert A. (1995) “Reviews of books — Kadambari (of Banabhatta): A Classical Sanskrit Story of Magical Transformations translated and with an introduction by Gwendolyn Layne with illustrations by Virgil Burnet.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 115:152-54. Accessed February 2, 2020. doi:10.2307/605346.

Hueckstedt, Robert A. (1985) The style of Bana: an introduction to Sanskrit prose poetry. Lanham: University Press of America.

Kane, P.V. (1918) The Harshacharita of Banabhatta Bombay: Motilal Banarsidas

Krishnamoorthy, K (1976) Banabhatta. New Delhi:Sahitya Akademi.

Thomas, F. W. (1920) “Reviewed Works: The Harshacharita of Bāṇabhaṭṭa (Uchchhvāsas I-VIII) by P. V. Kane; The Harshacharita of Bâṇabhaṭṭa (Uchchhvâsas IV to VIII) by S. D. Gajendragadkar; The Harshacharita of Bâṇabhaṭṭa (Uchchhvasas I-IV) by S. D. Gajendragadkar”

 The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, no. 3. 384-89. Accessed February 2, 2020.

Related Topics for Further Investigation













Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Brooklynn Rudelich (Spring 2020), who is responsible for this content.


Banaras is a sacred city that has a rich history. The city goes by various other names such Varanasi and Benares. The city is also called Kasi, which can be translated to the city of light, emphasizing its reputation among Hindus (Eck 3). Originally, the city was called Varanasi, which was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Kasi; this is elucidated in Buddhist literature, in the Jatakas (Eck 45). Evidence from the Mahabharata suggests the name Varanasi has its roots in its proximity to the Varana river and the Asi river, which eventually combine into the Ganges river system (Sukul 16). Early Vedic literature such as the Vamana Purana, associates the two rivers as originating as body parts of the cosmic being Purusa, with the Varana river representing a right foot and the Asi river a left foot (Eck 27).

Evidence of the location of Banaras along the banks of the Ganges river, date back to 2nd century BCE. and further evidence suggests this locality continued through the Gupta period in the 6th century CE (Sukul 3). The ancient city was filled with narrow streets, houses, gardens, and temples and has been confirmed through excavations of the much older, northern area of Varanasi situated on Rajghat plateau (Sukul 5-6). This city layout continued in later times as Varanasi expanded. It was common in northern India to build cities with this type of city planning structure (Sukul 6-7).

An early morning puja to the river goddess Ganga attracts tourists and locals in Banaras.

Following the year 1035 CE a series of outside influences affected Varanasi. This included looters, and attempted campaigns against the city by Muslim conquerors (Sukul 4). These early influences also led to pockets of Muslim communities springing up within Varanasi while under Hindu rulers, from the 11th and 12th centuries (Sukul 5). Later, there were other Muslim conquerors who came and looted the city, while also destroying many temples; again this Islamic influence is characterized by the Muslim communities present today in much of northern Banaras (Sukul 6).

Buddhism was also prominent in the region, particularly in Sarnath, but also in the nearby Varanasi where the Buddhist tradition flourished up until the 12th century when the region was conquered by Qutb-ud-din Aibak (Eck 57). During this period both cities had sacred sites destroyed, however the Buddhist tradition in these areas did not recover (Eck 57). In the 500-year occupation of Muslim rule starting from the Delhi Sultanate in 1206 CE, a general loss of religious history is recognized through the destruction of many sacred sites (Eck 83). However, despite many important sites being destroyed, the region still served as a hub of religious and intellectual endeavors (Eck 84). Even through British occupation starting in the late 18th century, the Hindu tradition in the region remained strong (Eck 92-93).

The earliest speculated reign of Aryans in the kingdom of Kasi is between 1800 BCE and 2000 BCE. This reign is assumed to have followed a conquest led by Videgha Mathava, which is mentioned in the Shatpatha Brahmana (Sukul 18). It is speculated that this conquest was the start of the prominence of Aryan influence in the region over the indigenous inhabitants (Sukul 17). Following this, Varanasi went through a progression of control under different kings. Notably king Dhritarashtra is recognized as one of the earliest rulers (Sukul 23). During this period, the city became a hub of commerce, artisan trades, agriculture, asceticism, and philosophy, all under the influence of Vedic teachings (Sukul 24). Naturally these Vedic teachings affected the entire political structure of Varanasi with different classes being associated with certain roles in society. These Vedic influences tie into the sacredness of the city particularly its association with Siva, other deities, and prominent myths.

Even before Aryan influence in the area, non-Aryan groups living around Varanasi already had an established mythology. Ancient deities associated with aspects of nature such as trees and pools existed throughout the region (Eck 51). These deities varied greatly among different localities and were not worshipped in grand temples as seen with some Vedic deities (Eck 51). Aspects of worship in these early non-Aryan traditions are still present today. For example, many of the food offerings associated with these deities have been translated into use in Puja ceremonies (Eck 52). Similarly, blood offerings have changed to smearing icons with red vermillion coloring (Eck 52). Many of these local deities or yaksas became associated with greater Vedic deities. For example, many yaksas became part of groups, or ganas, associated with Siva, they were essentially seen as henchman of Siva (Eck 61, 68).

As Aryan influence increased, myths of greater Vedic gods became further established in the region. Among this range of mythological accounts, Siva searching for a home in Varanasi stands out. The myth tells of a recently married Siva looking for a suitable home for himself and his new wife Parvati (Eck 53-54). Siva finds Varanasi to be the only suitable location, however the city was already under control by king Divodasa (Eck 54). In order to oust the king from the city Siva sends deities from the entire pantheon to help him. One myth tells of Siva sending a deity named Nikumbha to aid him (Eck 54). Nikumbha builds a following of worshippers in Varanasi and eventually tricks the king into destroying one of his shrines (Eck 54). The destruction of this shrine forces the king to leave the city as he becomes cursed (Eck 54). In another account, after many deities fail to oust the king and end up staying behind in the city, Siva calls on Visnu. Visnu takes the form of a Buddhist monk, causes disorder in the city and counsels the king (Eck 155). The king, under the counsel of Visnu and seeking an end to the chaos, eventually creates and worships a linga for Siva in exchange for a high place in heaven, thus leaving Varanasi for Siva (Eck 155).

The sacredness of Varanasi is extoled by a popular myth in the Kasi Khanda, of Siva being cleared of sin when he first enters the region. The myth follows Siva taking the form of Bhairava and cutting off one of the five heads of Brahma after he was slandered by him (Eck 108). It is seen as a major sin to kill a Brahmin, and this sentiment was represented by Bhairava being unable to get the decapitated head of Brahma off his hand (Eck 108). Bhairava travels across India until he eventually reaches Varanasi where the head finally drops from his hand (Eck 108). This myth ties into the idea that one goes to Varanasi to cleanse themselves of sin and relates to the pilgrimage traditions in the region (Eck 108).

Of the many mythological accounts surrounding Siva and Banaras, there is a clear connection between the two. Within Banaras there are hundreds of temples and lingas, which are emblems of Siva, dedicated to him that are worshiped by Hindus (Eck 103). Furthermore, based on the mythology there is a clear connection of the entire pantheon of deities to Banaras. Many other gods such as Visnu, Devi, Durga, Hanuman, Ganesa, among others are worshipped vehemently in Banaras. A noteworthy deity is Kala Bhairava who is considered a form of Siva, and in some representations as a son of Siva (Eck 190). Bhairava is a manifestation of the terrible qualities of Siva, and Kala is etymologically related to death and fate (Eck 190). This combination of qualities warrants the role of the deity as the god of death and officer of justice in Varanasi (Eck 190-192). Yama is another well-known god of death in the pantheon of deities, but is unable to enter Varanasi, thus Bhairava fills the role and punishes and collects souls (Eck 193). It is said that all those who die in Varanasi will face the punishment of Bhairava or bhairavi yatana (Eck 193).

Smoke rises from the cremation pyres in Banaras.

Themes of life in accordance to Hindu tradition are prominent in Banaras, represented by mythological accounts and everyday life within the city. Banaras is referred to as a great mine that carries the jewels of dharma, artha, kama, and moksa (Eck 306). Respectively, each of these names corresponds to one of the aims of life in the Hindu tradition. Kama is related to the pursuit of pleasure, passion and desire (Eck 306). Kama goes beyond sexual pleasure, it can be applied to anything people do, as long as what they pursue is based on their love for doing their activities (Eck 307).  The pursuit of kama is evident in the rich traditions of music, and dance of Varanasi as well as in the mythological accounts of Siva who, although he was an ascetic, loved and pursued Varanasi with a fierce passion (Eck 309-310). Artha is referred to as a purpose, it usually refers to the pursuit of something useful that provides power and wealth (Eck 310). The Kasi Khanda suggests that the power of the universe originates in Kasi (Eck 310). In relation to wealth, as noted earlier, Varanasi has been a hub of commerce and wealth throughout its history (Eck 310). Dharma is related to living in accordance with the cosmic order or laws in Hinduism, this includes many rites involving the stage in one’s life cycle, sacrificial rites, rites for death, among others (Eck 314). Varanasi is viewed as bringing these various rites to fulfillment and amplifying the benefits of any ritual action (Eck 315). Simply to live in Banaras may be seen as fulfilling dharma (Eck 322). From these notions we can see that Banaras extols these themes of life present in the Hindu tradition.

Cows wander the steps at the banks of the river Ganga at the cremation grounds of Banaras.

The theme of death is strong in the city of Banaras, it is seen as common, inevitable, and as a process of transformation (Eck 325). Manikarnika, viewed as a sanctuary of death, home to the main cremation pyres in the city, lies in the center of Banaras (Eck 324). Death in Varanasi offers moksa or liberation from samsara, the cycle of birth and death (Eck 325). This last stage of life may be associated with renouncers and ascetics but is also pursued by others. Many come to Varanasi anticipating their coming death and wait in hospice (Eck 329). In this sense Varanasi is seen as the final destination in a pilgrimage represented by life and is pursued by Hindus from various different backgrounds (Eck 329). When death comes it is thought that Siva will say the taraka mantra, to the deceased granting them liberation from samsara (Eck 332).

There are a number of rituals and festivities in Banaras, all cannot be covered here. The cremation rite known as antyesti or the last sacrifice, may be one of the more well-known rituals of Banaras (Eck 340). It involves a procession of people carrying the deceased through the streets and chanting, then dipping the body in the Ganges river, after this, the body is adorned with flowers and sandalwood oil (Eck 340). A chief mourner, who is usually the eldest son of the deceased, takes twigs that come from the holy kusa grass; these twigs are lit by an eternal sacred fire (Eck 341). Flaming twigs in hand, the chief mourner circles the pyre counterclockwise then lights the pyre (Eck 341). Once the body is almost completely cremated the chief mourner cracks the skull of the deceased by hitting it with a bamboo stick (Eck 341). This is viewed as releasing the soul from the body (Eck 341). Finally, water from the Ganges river is put in a clay pot and thrown over the left shoulder of the chief mourner onto the remaining embers (Eck 341). The chief mourner then walks away without looking back (Eck 341). What follows the cremation is eleven days of offerings of rice balls to the dead (Eck 341). Finally, on the twelfth day, it is believed that the soul of the deceased has reached the heavens (Eck 341-342). Many of the festivities that take place in Banaras are based on the time of year and the seasons. Some of these festivities include the Makara Samkranti, which is akin to a winter solstice celebration, the Maha Sivaratri, which celebrates the marriage day of Siva, and the Chaita Navaratri, which celebrates the new year in the Hindu calendar, among countless other festivities (Singh, Pravin, and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute 70-71).


Eck, Diana L (1983) Banaras: City of Light. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hertel, Bradley R., Humes, Cynthia A., & Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (1998) Living Banaras: Hindu religion in cultural context. New Delhi: Manohar.

Parry, Jonathan P (1994) Death in Banaras. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Singh, Rana P. B., Pravin, Rana S., and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2002) Banaras Region: A Spiritual & Cultural Guide. Varanasi: Indica Books.

Sukul, Kuber N (1974) Varanasi down the ages. Patna: Kameshwar Nath Sukul.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Chaita Navaratri






Five Faces of Siva





Makara Samkranti




Rajgat Plateau





Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Zahin Mohammed (Spring 2020) who is entirely responsible for its content.


Hardwar is known to have historically gone through multiple names before it permanently became known as Hardwar. Some of these names are known as Ahoganga, Gangadvara, Mayapuri, Kapildvara (named after the sage Kapila) and Swargadwara, meaning the way to heaven (Karar 101). Hardwar lastingly got its name from the combination of “har” meaning “Lord Shiva” and “dwar” meaning “gateway to the land of Gods” (Bajpai, Yadav and Pandey 226). The first settlers of Hardwar are believed to have been the Rajputs of Pauri, more specifically Raja Islam Singh who is believed to be the founder of the city of Hardwar (Karar 101). Hardwar being ruled by the Rajputs of Pauri came to an end, but they are still found to be living in areas close to Hardwar. A wide range of communities are involved in the famous pilgrimage activities that occur in Hardwar. For example, during the Kanwar Mela, which is the largest yearly festival that takes place in Hardwar, Hindus from nearby cities of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Haryana “ritually carry the holy water of the Ganga in small pitchers” (Karar 102) known as Kanwar. Muslim artisans travel down to Hardwar to make these Kanwar.

            Hardwar is geographically positioned in northern India in Uttarakhand between the latitudinal parallel and longitudinal meridian (Sultan 9). The city has approximately 225, 235 inhabitants and is about 42.01km2 (Bajpai, Yadav and Pandey 227). Hardwar’s positioning contributes to the city being an extremely famous pilgrimage centre due to it being full of both natural and cultural tourism resources. Some of the natural resources include the Ganga river, hills, forests, elephants, tigers and jungle cats (Sultan 10), which also contributes to Hardwar’s aesthetic. The Ganga river is the most important factor in determining Hardwar’s religious significance as it is regarded as the most holy and scared river in the world to the Hindus since time that is immemorial (Bhutiani et al 1). Some of the cultural resources found in Hardwar are Temples, Ashrams and Dharamshalas. A major place of pilgrimage is the Maya Devi Temple located in Hardwar, which is the temple of the deity Adhisthatri and is known to be “where the heart and navel of Goddess Sati had fallen” (Sultan 11).

            Due to Hardwar’s religious/ritual significance there are many festivals and fairs that take place in the city. There is a religious festival that takes place almost every month: in January they celebrate the Makar Sakranti, the Maha Shivratri is celebrated from February-March, March-April is the Ram Navmi, in April they also celebrate Baisakhi, Buddha Poornima and Ganga Saptami are celebrated in May, Kanwar Mela is in June, Somwati Amavasya is in July, August holds the Janmashttmi, in October they celebrate the Durga Puja and finally, in November the Kartik Poornima is celebrated (Karar 103). Around 2-2.5 million people take part in these festivals (Sultan 11). As well, there is the Kumbha Mela. This festival only takes place every twelve years, marking when the sun is in Aries and Jupiter (Brihaspati) enters into the zodiac sign Aquarius (Kumbha) (Sultan 11). Some Hindus believe that Adi Shankaracharya, who is an Indian philosopher that “consolidated the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta, sub-school of hindu philosophy” (Karar 103) revived the festival and in turn revived Hinduism. The Kumbha became one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, with Hindus from all over the world wanting to revive themselves by taking part in the many religious discussions, preaching and gathering blessings that occur, this is done by participating in the mass bathing in the Ganga river (Karar 103). The initiation of the Kumbha Mela is believed to be a commemoration for the event of the Devas (Gods) and the Danavas (Demons) churning the ocean and finding an Amrita-kumbha, which is a potful of nectar (Karar 101). Many rival parties fought for its possession and when the Kumbha was being taken to safety a few drops of nectar fell out of the pot and onto the site. In the year 2010 more that 80 million pilgrims visited Hardwar during the Kumbha Mela to dip in the holy water of the Ganga river (Sultan 11). It has been examined that the summer months show the biggest rise in tourists to Hardwar. This makes sense due to the fact that that the summer months mark the beginning of pilgrimage of Badrinath and Kedernath following the dip in the holy Ganga river at Hardwar (Sultan 12).

            As the Kumbh Mela is the most important ritual festival for the Hindus, the attraction of many priests, saints and yogis from all over India results in a massive rise in noise levels for the city. A study done by Madan and Pallavi (2010) evaluated the noise level of Hardwar during the Kumbh Mela compared to a normal day in the city, along with the impact this noise has on the inhabitants of Hardwar’s health. The noise levels were monitored at four different locations, the first being the Singh Dwar, which is considered the entry point of Hardwar. This location was shown to be extremely crowded with traffic and high noise levels (Madan and Pallavi 293). The second location is the Rishikul, which is a bus stop that is temporarily set up during the Kumbh Mela festival, constant horns and shrieking take place here as all traffic of the city passes by this location (Madan and Pallavi 293). The Har Ki Pauri is the third location under evaluation, it is known as the main centre of attraction for tourists in Hardwar, as hundreds of Hindus move towards it to ritually bathe in the holy Ganga river (Madan and Pallavi 293). At the Har Ki Pauri loud religious music is blasted all day and night, as well it is an extremely crowded area (Madan and Pallavi 293). The fourth and final location under examination is the Chandi Ghat, which is the junction that is very close to the Har Ki Pauri where “all round the year tourist and pilgrimage activity is clearly visible” (Madan and Pallavi 293). The results found in the study showed that the noise created during the Kumbh Mela festival impacted human health by inducing headaches, which caused a difficulty to concentrate. As well, Hindus got less sleep at night, making them tired or fatigue. The noise also resulted in increased blood pressure and hearing problems (Madan and Pallavi 295). These various impacts are significant because the Kumbh Mela is intended to be a festival in which Hindus take part in many religious rituals to seek Moksha; therefore, it is important for them to be at optimal health and peace; therefore, having little to no factors affecting their physical or mental health.        

For someone who practices religion, pilgrimage can in some cases be regarded as extremely important and significant because it represents someone’s search for happiness, bliss and satisfaction (Maheshwari and Punima 1). Pilgrims who would travel to Hardwar to participate in another religious festival admired by the Hindus called the Ardha-Kumbha, which is only celebrated every six years would travel through dense forests, rivers and rivulets (Karar 101). Kings, saints and ascetics and general pilgrims would travel by foot, on bullock-carts, horse-back, on camels or on elephants in large groups (Karar 101) and it would take months to actually reach Hardwar. On the auspicious occasion of the Ardha-Kumbha roughly 18 million people dip into the Ganga river (Maheshwari and Punima 1), which shows the religious significance of pilgrimage. Dipping in the Ganga river during these religious festivals is regarded as a Hindu attempting to attain Moksha, which is “salvation from the cycle of rebirth and freedom from one’s sins” (Maheshwari and Punima 1). Hindus believe themselves to feel closer to God by following the various rituals of the multiple festivals (Maheshwari and Punima 1). Some of the daily activities of the festivals include bathing in the Ganga, worshiping (Puja), listening to religious discourses voiced by saints and attending the various performances of the Hindu epics (Maheshwari and Punima 1). In a study done by Maheshwari and Punima (2009) the Ardha-Kumbha festival resulted in Hindus feeling more satisfied with life, relieved of all their tensions from their daily tasks and attainment of inner tranquility and peace (Maheshwari and Punima 1). They also found the religious festivals to aid people overcome terrible situations, such as, loss of a family member or loved one (Maheshwari and Punima 1).

Since the Ganga river is one of the most scared rivers in the opinion of the Hindus, concern has been raised regarding the mass amounts of bathing that take place in the river. During the festivals of the Kumbh and the Ardh-Kumbh there is special importance placed on the ritual of bathing in the Ganga river. Therefore, during these festivals millions of people dip into river and bathe themselves (Sultan 14). During the 2010 Kumbh Mela, which began in January and carried on until April there were 11 bathing dates throughout the 104-day festival which took place at Hardwar (Sultan 14). Around 80 million people took part in bathing in the Ganga river, which severely affected the quality of the water in the Ganga. This raised concern for the health of people who participate in the ritual of bathing in the river, as well, for the people downstream who drink the water from the river (Sultan 14). A study done by Sharma, Bhadula and B.D. Joshi (2010) suggested that the bathing leads to an increase in Bio-chemical oxygen demand, total dissolved solids and a decrease in dissolved oxygen. When the water quality was tested before and after the festival drastic changes were found in the physio-chemical and the microbiological dimensions of the Ganga river (Sharma, Bhadula and B.D. Joshi 4). The water quality did not show improvement, it only got worse, which resulted in stray dogs and pigs being attracted to the river. These unsanitary conditions caused various contagious and airborne diseases (Sharma, Bhadula and B.D. Joshi 4). Studies show that the holy river has reached frightening levels of pollution (Sultan 13). Eighty-nine million litres of sewage from nearby cities are dumped into the Ganga river, which is extremely alarming (Sultan 13). This is not only alarming for the Hindus who take part in these ritual practices, as their health is in danger, but this is also concerning for the religion itself. Concern is raised for the religion due to reasons of these festivals and activities having to eventually be changed or forgotten because of the issues that pollution is causing in regards to people’s health. 

Another study done by Bhutiani at al. (2016) suggested that the mass bathing that takes place in the Ganga river developed a range between good and medium water quality. Whereas, after further studies took pace it was found that the water quality of the river is poor. Thus, it is evident that the water quality of the Ganga river ranges from poor to good (Bhutiani at al. 1). The study concluded the primary sources of pollution are sewerage, solid and liquid waste contaminants or organic nature that all enter into the river. Although, the mass bathing that takes place during the religious festivals does not aid in the cleanliness of the Ganga river quality. Inhabitants of the area should take necessary measures to reduce the risks of future contamination entering the river, not only for the health of people living in the area and Hindus who practice these bathing rituals, but for the practices and rituals themselves and their survival in the religion as they are extremely significant in the many festivals held in Hardwar.

Hardwar has proven itself to be an extremely important location for those who practice Hinduism due to its major festivals such as the Kumbha Mela and the Ardha-Kumbha Mela festivals. The positioning of Hardwar close to the Ganga river is the largest contributor to its religious significance because of the ritual importance placed on the river during the Kumbha Mela and the Ardha-Kumbha Mela festivals. Considering the results from the multipul studies examined precautions should be taken in the future in regard to using the Ganga during these important religious festivals to avoid the spreading of more diseases and sickness among the Hindus, as their health is the most important.  

References and Further Recommended Reading

Bajpai, Yadav and Pandey (2015) “Tourism and Tourist Influx Evaluation and Analysis in Haridwar and Rishikesh Townships of Uttarakhand.” Dept. of Geography, Kumaun University. issn- 2348-0459.

Bhutiani, D.R. Khanna, Kulkarni and Ruhela (2016) “Assessment of Ganga River Ecosystem at Haridwar, Uttarakhand, India With Reference to Water Quality Indices.” Applied Water Sci 6, 107-113 (2016).

Karar (2010) “Impact of Pilgrim Tourism at Haridwar.” Anthropologist, 12(2): 99-105 (2010).

Maheshwari, Singh (2009) “Psychological well-being and pilgrimage: Religiosity, happiness and life satisfaction of Ardh-Kumbh Mela pilgrims (Kalpvasis) at Prayag India.” Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT.

Madan and Pallavi (2010) “Assessment of Noise Pollution in Haridwar City of Uttarakhand State, India During Kumbh Mela 2010 and its Impact on Human Health.” Journal of Applied and Natural Science 2(2): 293-295 (2010).

Sharma, Bhadula and B.D. Joshi (2010) “Impact of Mass Bathing on Water Quality of Ganga River During Maha Kumbh.” Nature and Science 2012;10(6): 1-5.

Sultan (2015) “Tourism, Economy and Environmental Problems of a Religious Town: A Case Study on Haridwar, Uttarakhand, India.” Lecturer, Dept. of Geography, Hiralal Majumdar College. issn- 2319-7722.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Kumbh Mela

Ardha-Kumbha Mela

Maya Devi Temple

Ganga river



Makar Sakranti

Maha Shivratri

Ram Navmi


Buddha Poornima

Ganga Saptami

Kanwar Mela

Somwati Amavasya


Durga Puja

Kartik Poornima

Noteworthy Websites related to the Topic,_Lumbini

This article was written by: Teneal Laturnus (Spring 2020), who is entirely responsible for its content. 


Agehananda Bharati said that if you were to ask any Hindu which city they regarded as the holiest in India, they would not hesitate to name Banaras, just as a Muslim would not hesitiate to name Mecca (Hertel & Humes 1). Banaras is a very sacred Hindu city in Northern India which is dedicated to Siva, who in Hindu literature is responsible for the creation of the world, along with the other gods Visnu and Brahma (Bedi & Keay 1). Humans have inhabited Banaras since 1000 BCE, making it one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world (Singh & Rana 31). Banaras is located on the bank of the Ganges river which itself is considered to be the holiest of India’s rivers. There are over a million people tightly packed into the city and the buildings stand in such close proximity that there is barely even any room for the sun to shine (Bed & Keay 1). There are many reasons why Banaras is such a popular destination for pilgrims and tourists alike. Some prominent attractions include the Ganges river, the abundance of temples and lingas, and the belief that 330 million deities dwell in the city (Hertel & Humes 1). Although Banaras is revered for these things, it is important to note that it is the city of Banaras itself, which is said to predate even the gods, that renders the city sacred, not what is found within it (Hertel & Humes 1). Throughout history, Banaras has also been known also as Kasi (“The City of Light”), Avimukta (“The Never Forsaken”), and Varanasi.

            Mythological sources state that Varanasi had been an Aryan settlement since the post-Vedic period (around 1500 BCE) (Singh & Rana 31). By the 2nd millennium BCE, Varanasi was not only known as a place of learning, but it was also famous for its industrial centre which manufactured fabrics, perfumes, sculptures, and more (Varanasi 2020). Kasiis the name of a Northern Indian Kingdom that Varanasi was the capital of during the 6th century BCE, which is when Buddha gave his first sermon nearby at Sarnath (Eck 2005: 778). During the three century long Muslim occupation beginning in 1194, Varanasi declined and many of the Hindu temples were subsequently destroyed (Varanasi 2020). Then under British rule in the 18th century, Varanasi became an independent kingdom (Varanasi 2020). For centuries Banaras was a forest which stretched beyond the urban centre or the “city”, and until the 12th century, the heart of modern-day urban Banaras was all forest with temples and shrines scattered throughout (Eck 2005: 778). The modern-day city is still considered a centre of Hindu learning as it was throughout the previous decades. There are many Brahmin scholars (pandits) who continue traditional learning, and the city has three universities, including the well-known Banaras Hindu University (Varanasi 2020). Banaras lacks authentic ancient buildings due to many of them having been destroyed over the years, namely during the Muslim period. These destroyed Hindu temples have been rebuilt multiple times – for example the Vishvanatha (Golden) Temple, one of the most famous temples dedicated to Siva, has been rebuilt 3 times. In fact most of the impressive places of worship in Banaras actually are Muslim mosques (Bedi & Keay 13).

The mythology of Banaras which describes Siva’s connection to the city, according to most texts, is that Banaras is where Siva’s pillar of light broke through the earth and pierced the sky, which gives rise to the name Kasi(“The City of Light”) (Eck 2005: 778). Another Hindu myth describes how Siva populated the city of Banaras with the whole pantheon of gods (Eck 2005: 779). The story describes how Siva wanted to settle in the city with his wife Paravati, so he sent down gods one-by-one to overthrow the king, but they all lost and yet were so infatuated with the city they stayed there. So, when Siva finally overthrew the king with the help of Visnu, all the gods including himself chose to inhabit the city permanently (Eck 2005: 779).  Hindus believe that Siva lives in Banaras and protects it, and it is common for Banarsis to believe that Siva dwells in everything in the city, even the pebbles: “Kashi ke Kankara Shiva Shankara” (the very pebbles of Kasi are Siva) (Singh & Rana 30). It is also believed that those who live in Banaras are themselves a form of Siva (Singh & Rana 30). All over India Siva is worshipped in the form of lingas which are said to guide Hindus to nirvana (Bedi & Keay 6) .Yet in Banaras, the city itself is sometimes seen as one big linga because of Siva’s pillar of light (Bedi & Keay 6). Banaras is said to possess 100,000 lingas, andmany of them have been carefully described and enumerated (Bedi & Keay 6).

The city is also known as Avimukta because in the puranic literature Sivasaid “Because I never forsake it, nor let it go, this great place is therefore known as Avimukta (‘never forsaken’) (Singh & Rana 29). This name comes from the myths that the city was never abandoned, by humans and deities alike, even during cosmic dissolution (Singh & Rana 29). Many Hindus who were born in Banaras will identify as a Banarsi even if they had long since moved away (Hertel & Humes 1). Pilgrim’s who have visited the city once have been known to identify themselves as a citizen of the city, saying that they feel settled elsewhere (Hertel & Humes 1).

            The Ganges river has a strong personal connection with Banaras due to the fact that it is said to have “fallen from heaven upon the head of Lord Siva, who tamed the goddess-river in his tangled ascetic’s hair before setting her loose to flow upon the plains of North India” (Eck 2005: 778). Hindus believe that the Ganga river purifies everything it touches (Peterson 3274), and in Banaras the smaller rivers called the Varanaand Asi merge with the Ganges, giving rise to the name Varanasi; there are also many kunds (sacred ponds) in the city (Hertel & Humes 3). The great stone steps are known as ghats which lead pilgrims from the city to the river to bathe, and on an auspicious day as many as 30,000 pilgrims may be up at dawn attempting to bathe in the Ganga (Bedi & Keay 7). Bathing in the Ganges in Banaras is said to be especially auspicious due to the fact that the water touches the bank of the holy city (Hertel & Humes 3).

Banaras welcomes more than a million pilgrims each year who go to experience a full range of rituals that are associated with daily, annual, and life cycles (Hertel & Humes 3). The Nitya Yatrais the daily pilgrimage which many devout Hindus perform, beginning with bathing in the Ganga in the morning, followed by worship at various temples (Singh & Rana 55). There is also a weekly pilgrimage, the Vara Yatra, and a monthly pilgrimage, the Masika Yatra, and a seasonal pilgrimage, the Ritu Yatra, and many more that range in duration and intensity (Singh & Rana 55). The most prominent rituals which take place in Banaras are the death rituals.

The Ganga in Banaras at Dawn

            “Kashyam maranam muktih” – ‘Death in Kashi is liberation’ (Eck 1983: 325). Banaras is known to be an auspicious place to die, making death rituals very prominent in the city. Many elderly Hindus go to Banaras to die in special hospitals because it is believed that by doing so, they will receive the blessing from Siva which he gives to all who die in the sacred city (Hertel & Humes 3). According to most texts it is not death itself that grants liberation, instead it is Siva who whispers in the ear of the deceased the taraka mantra, which tells the secret of enlightenment (Bedi & Keay 12). This secret enables the newly deceased to cross over the waters of samsara to the far shore of nirvana, which is also why Banaras is known as a tirtha, or a crossing place (Bedi & Keay 12).There are two cremation ghats in Banaras, the Manikarnika and Harishchandra. Manikarnikais the more popular of the two, known as the sanctuary of death, which is at the centre of the city along the riverfront where the cremation fires are eternally burning (Eck 1983: 324). Hindus believe that the deceased will remain in heaven for as long as their ashes are kept pure in the Ganges river (Parry 24). The fact that the cremation ghats are within the city of Banaras differs from the rest of India where the cremation grounds are outside of city limits as it is seen as polluting, whereas dying and being cremated in Banaras is seen as a blessing (Eck 1983: 4). In these cremation ghats, more than 38,000 deceased Hindus are cremated per year (Singh & Rana 30). After the corpses are cremated, it is said that it takes twelve days for a soul to reach the distant shore of nirvana, which is an anxious time for the deceased family full of prayer with their Brahmin priest (Bedi & Keay 13).

Cremation Ground in Banaras

            The city of Banaras is known as the holiest city in India for a multitude of reasons. The mythology which describes Siva’s connection to the city and the rich history of the city itself shows that Banaras is an old and sacred place. Between the pantheon of gods who reside within, the bathing ghats at the Ganges river, and the temples and lingas, Banaras is a key destination for pilgrims. The rituals associated with daily, annual, and life cycles attract pilgrims and tourists alike to observe and partake in, notably the death rituals. Hindus flock from all over India to die in this city so at their time of death they will be instructed by Siva on how to reach liberation, taken across the rough waters of samsara to the “far shore” of nirvana.


Bedi, R., & Keay, J (1987) Banaras, city of shiva. New Delhi: Brijbasi Printers Private Limited.

Eck, Diana L. (2005)  “Banaras.” Encyclopedia of Religion 2:778-779. Accessed January 28, 2020.

Eck, Diana L. (1983). Banaras: City of light. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Hertel, B. R., Humes, C. A., & Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (1998) Living banaras: Hindu religion in cultural context. New Delhi: Manohar.

Parry, J. P (1994) Death in banaras. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press.

Peterson, Indira Viswanathan (2005) “Ganges River.” Encyclopedia of Religion 5: 3274-3275. Accessed 1 Feb. 2020.

Singh, R. P. B., Rana, P. S., & Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2002) Banaras region: A spiritual & cultural guide. Varanasi, India: Indica Books.

“Varanasi”. Encyclopædia Britannica, s.v. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020. (accessed January 28, 2020)

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Ganges River


Hindu Mythology



Sacred Places

Gods and Goddesses

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Michelle Karbashewski (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.

Siva Nataraja Bronzes (Origins)

Shiva (Siva) Nataraja: Re-examining the Origins of Nataraja Bronzes

Bronze masterpiece of Siva Nataraja (King of the Dance). 11th century CE, Government Museum, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.

One of the most recognizable Hindu icons, both inside and outside India, is the standardized depiction of Shiva Nataraja (Shiva king of dance) seen in places as far apart as Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu and the CERN nuclear research center in Geneva, Switzerland. This particular standardization of Shiva Nataraja seems to have arisen under the rule of the Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, as the first fully three dimensional stone carvings in this style appeared during her reign, though questions have been raised about earlier origins (Srinivasan, 434). This standardized form is distinctive and easily recognizable in several ways. First, this particular style of Shiva Nataraja is distinct from not only depictions of other deities, but also other depictions of Shiva as cosmic dancer, by the raised left leg held high across the body at the level of the hip with the foot at knee level (Srinivasan, 433). The supporting right leg, and indeed all the limbs save the lower left arm, are deeply bent giving an appearance of movement paused in a single frame (Kaimal, 392-3). Though held straight, the left arm does faintly bend at the wrist and the hand is held in a relaxed gesture known as gajahasta or “elephant hand” (Kaimal, 393). His lower right hand is held, just above the wrist of the lower left, in abhayamudra, a gesture of fearlessness seen frequently in Indian and Indian-influenced art (Kaimal, 393). The two upper arms hold a damaru drum (right) and a flame (left) (Srinivasan, 433). The foot of the supporting right leg rests on a dwaf, Apasmara, the demon of ignorance (Srinivasan, 433). Finally, in the bronzes, though not in the stone depictions commissioned by queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, Shiva is surrounded by a ring of flames (Srinivasan, 433). The popularity of this image has far outlasted the Chola dynasty, and inspired many speculative interpretations of the iconography present.

Detail of a Siva Nataraja or Natesa (Lord of the Dance) image, with his four arms holding the drum and fire, and displaying the fear-not (abhaya) mudra and the gajahasta (elephant hand) mudra.

Origin of the Image

It is generally accepted that the style of bronze Nataraja we see today originated, or at least rose to prominence, during the reign of queen Sembiyan Mahadevi of the Chola dynasty during the tenth century (Dehejia, 209). Mahadevi was a great patroness of the arts, she commissioned numerous pieces of art and even engaged in the refurbishment of several brick temples, rebuilding them in stone (Dehejia, 209). Mahadevi made the job of archeologists in our own time somewhat easier by re-inscribing previous information about donations and patrons in the temples she refurbished, providing a rich historical record (Dehejia, 209). Notable in regard to the Nataraja image is that it seems to have appeared first in bronzes and stone carvings during her refurbishments (Dehejia, 209). While the similarity of these Nataraja images to present depictions in this style is undeniable, the peculiar raised foot and four armed form being present, doubts have been raised recently about a definitively Chola origin (Srinivasan, 432).

There are certainly examples of images and sculptures which could have contributed to the present Nataraja image exemplified at sites like Chidambaram and CERN, so a pre-Chola origin is not out of the question. One of the earliest possible ancestors of the Chola-era Nataraja is a stone figure from the Harappan civilization, which shares the raised leg posture with the Chola-Nataraja (Dehejia, 32). Granted, a single oddity from a civilization that died thousands of years before the Chola rose is a tenuous connection at best, but Srinivasan points to numerous other examples which may indicate a continuous line of artistic evolution culminating in the Nataraja images we see today.

One of Srinivasan’s suggested precursors is a Satavahana statue, of Shiva as Lakulisa the ascetic, from Andhra Pradesh in southeastern India, the statue is dated to around the first or second century B.C.E. (Srinivasan, 434). What is remarkable about this statue is that, already as early as the first or second century B.C.E., we see the theme of Shiva trampling a dwarf which appears not only in Chola-era Nataraja images but in Pallava depictions as well (Srinivasan, 434).

The Pallava dynasty, in fact, is where Srinivasan asserts that the image of Shiva Nataraja we are familiar with today rose to prominence. Prior to the Chola overthrow of their dynasty around 850 C.E., the Pallavas ruled in the Tamil regions of south India from about 550 C.E., themselves having risen from the older Andhra dynasty (Srinivasan, 434-5). When the Pallava king Mahendravarman Pallavan converted from Jainism to Shaivism a burst of Hindu art in stone was produced (Srinivasan, 435). We can surmise that these stone icons were probably a distinctly Pallava innovation in the Tamil region by inscriptions at Mamallapuram praising Mahendravarman for building in “neither brick, nor timber, nor mortar.” (Srinivasan, 435).

What is interesting about these Pallavan stone icons is that the depictions of Nataraja among them show the four-armed Shiva with the raised leg and dwarf, of which there are no prior examples outside the Tamil region in stone or metal (Srinivasan, 435). Examples of Shiva Nataraja from outside the Pallava-controlled Tamil region show Shiva in the chatura tandava posture with both feet touching the ground and knees splayed outward, as opposed to the bhujangatrasita karana posture in which one leg is raised at hip level across the body which we see in the Chola bronzes (Srinivasan, 435). In addition, the dwarf is not present in any of these chatura tandava examples (srinivasan, 435). The number of arms also differs from the four-armed depictions seen in the Pallava and Chola examples, we see eight arms in Gupta examples from the Sirpur region of central India dating to the fifth century, and sixteen arms in a Chalukyan example from Badami in south-west India dated to the sixth century (Srinivasan, 435).

The earliest clear approximation of the Chola style Nataraja we see is on a Pallava pilaster from a cave temple at Siyamangalam, dated to the seventh century (Srinivasan, 436). This icon stands in the bhujangatrasita karana posture, although with the right leg raised, his lower right hand is in abhaya mudra with his upper right hand holding a lamp or bowl with a flame (Srinivasan, 435-6). This statue does differ additionally from the Chola examples in that its lower left arm extends out away from the body rather than across the body, though it retains the gajahasta gesture (Srinivasan, 435-6). Furthermore, the upper left hand holds an ax and the dwarf is not present under the foot of the supporting leg (Srinivasan, 435-6). This is paralleled in an eighth century cave painting from Ellora in Maharashtra, attributed to the Rashtrakuta dynasty, as well another Pallava stone icon in the Tirukkadaimudi Mahadeva temple in Tirucchinampundi (Srinivasan, 436).

While evidence seems to suggest that, in the cave temples constructed by Mahendravarman stucco and wood images are most likely to have been the norm, a seventh century verse by the poet Appar mentions Shiva’s “sweet golden foot raised in dance”, so we can not rule out bronze processional icons (Srinivasan, 436). In addition, the mention of Shiva holding a drum in the image worshipped at Tillai (now Chidambaram) from the same seventh century verses by Appar seems to indicate that this aspect of the standardized Nataraja icon was already incorporated during the Pallava dynasty (Srinivasan, 436).

Hindu bronzes have not often been attributed to the Pallavas, due largely to a lack of inscriptions on the bronzes themselves, however there is no definite way to date solid metal artifacts with any known method (Srinivasan, 436-8). What we can do, however, is group metal artifacts by shared ore sources based on lead isotope content (Srinivasan, 437). There are some metal artifacts which have been attributed to the Pallavas, for instance a bronze of Shiva dancing in the urdhvajanu pose found in Kuram (Srinivasan, 440). This bronze is attributable to the Pallavas in part because of the forward facing dwarf, as opposed to the sideways facing dwarf in the Chola Natarajas, in addition it shares a metallurgical profile with other artifacts from the reign of Paramesvaravarman Pallavan I (Srinivasan, 440).

This Pallava metallugical profile becomes interesting in regard to two Nataraja bronzes previously attributed to the Chola dynasty, which share the lead isotope content of the Pallava bronzes and the left legged bhujangatrasita karana posture and four armed form of the Chola bronzes, with the hands of each arm bearing the same gestures and implements (Srinivasan, 440). The first, from Kunniyur, differs from Chola images in that it lacks the flying locks of hair found in the Chola bronzes, though the ring of fire is surprisingly present, a date around 850 C.E. is suggested (Srinivasan, 440-1). The second, a small bronze from the British Museum, differs in several ways; the raised leg does not cross the body, the dwarf faces forward, and both the flying locks and circle of flame are not present (Srinivasan, 440-1). This second bronze has been dated to around 800 C.E., making it the oldest known Pallava bronze of Shiva Nataraja (Srinivasana, 440-1). This may indicate that the ring of flame was the latest addition to the Nataraja icon.

It may be that these two Pallava images show an evolution from wood carvings of Shiva Nataraja due to their compactness and lack of flowing locks, both indicative of the limits of wood’s tensile strength, we see these same limits in modern wood carvings of Nataraja (Srinivasan, 440). This may explain the increasingly flared out and circular nature of the icon in Chola times as the tensile strength of bronze was understood to allow for these stylistic changes.

These issues of tensile strength may also indicate that properly three dimensional stone carvings of this style of Nataraja came later than the bronzes and were, in fact, modelled on pre-existing bronzes. We see the emergence of three dimensional stone Natarajas in this style during the reign of Sembiyan Mahadevi, and these images bear the signs of a struggle to represent the style found in the bronzes in a medium with lesser tensile strength (Srinivasan, 441). For instance, in the stone Nataraja from Manavalesvarar temple at Tiruvelvikudi, we see a strut disguised as clothing supporting the lifted leg and crossed left arm to allow for a more expansive image which would make more sense in a bronze casting (Srinivasan, 441-2). The lifted leg of an eleventh century Chola sculpture at the Gangaikondachalapuram temple is propped up by a rough basal strut, while in several other examples the lifted leg is completely broken off (Srinivasan, 442). These struts may even have been inspired by the runners which facilitate lost-wax casting, though they are usually removed from the finished product (Srinivasan, 442). All of this seems to indicate that the style of Nataraja statue attributed to the Chola dynasty was already well developed as such, and likely in bronze, during the Pallava dynasty.

Iconographic Interpretation

An influential, and enduring, interpretation of the Nataraja icon was offered close to one hundred years ago by Ananda Coomaraswamy in “the Dance of Shiva” (Kaimal, 390). While Coomaraswamy’s interpretation is certainly compelling, and likely responsible for the popularity of the Nataraja icon in the west and its interpretation by Western scholars for the last hundred or so years, there is some reason to doubt its accuracy in reflecting the way that the Pallavas and Cholas interpreted this icon when they developed it (Kaimal, 391). Kaimal offers three fairly compelling reasons for questioning Coomaraswamy’s interpretation. First, the question of if it is even possible to properly recover the original meaning of these objects, given the fragmentary evidence from medieval India (Kaimal, 391). Second, Kaimal questions whether a single interpretation is sufficient, noting that objects of art take on different meanings during different times and in fact live multiple symbolic ‘lives’ (Kaimal, 391). Finally, Kaimal draws attention to the fact that Coomaraswamy based his interpretation on texts written several centuries after this style of Nataraja rose to prominence (Kaimal, 391). On this last point, Kaimal also reminds us that there is no simple equivalence between text and sculpture, both mediums have their own “spheres of eloquence” which do not always overlap entirely (Kaimal, 391).

Kaimal is cautious not to completely reject Coomaraswamy’s interpretation however, as it does reflect the significance of the icon to devotees in the thirteenth century and later (Kaimal, 392). While elements of the thirteenth century interpretation could have, and in all likelihood did, derive from earlier interpretations, Kaimal offers three different interpretations which may reflect the meaning of this icon for devotees in the tenth century and possibly earlier (Kaimal, 392). The first interpretation, that Nataraja was used as a kind of emblem of the Chola dynasty is certainly compelling and well argued by Kaimal. Though, while it could serve as the subject of a book in its own right, this interpretation does not tell us much about the symbols within the icon or their origin, which are the primary foci of this paper.

Kaimal’s second interpretation deals with the origin, or synthesis, of this Nataraja icon in Chidambaram (previously Tillai). When Appar wrote about Tillai in the seventh century, it was already an ancient and well established center of many sects, including sects devoted to Vinshnu and the goddess (Kaimal, 391). Kaimal points to earlier interpretations of Nataraja from Tillai which see the tandavam as a dance much more associated with Shiva’s destructive aspects than with the lofty philosophical interpretation of Coomaraswamy (Kaimal, 401).

Many of the less obvious symbols built into the Tamil Nataraja sculptures do indeed point to an association with the destructive aspects of the creative cycle, and many of these symbols appear on depictions of other wrathful aspects of Shiva all over India (Kaimal, 401). For instance, the skull often present in the hair of Nataraja icons and the serpents which encircle his limbs often receive special emphasis in images of Shiva’s destructive aspects, such as the ‘enraged’ face on the giant three-faced Shiva at Elephanta (Kaimal, 402). These often indicate Shiva as Aghora, associated with cremation grounds and destructive ecstasy, as well as drawing an association with similarly adorned goddesses such as Kali, Chamunda, and Nishumbhasudani (Kaimal, 401). These wrathful goddesses also share the characteristics of deeply bent supporting legs and multiple arms splaying out in an explosive and energetic fashion (Kaimal, 402). That these symbols were present in earlier forms of Shiva and other gods/goddesses may indicate that they were redeployed to allow this icon to participate in a symbolic conversation which was already ongoing, and this interpretation would fit nicely with a gradual evolution of the form from the Pallava dynasty through the Chola standardization (Kaimal, 404).

The association with goddesses is interesting in regard to another possible origin of the icon. One of the origin myths laid down in the Chidambaramahatmya, a tenth century text reflecting the Sanskritization of the Tamil cult at Tillai into a pan-Indic cult, tells of a dance competition in which the goddess already resident at Tillai, Tillai Amman, resented Shiva’s encroachment and challenged him to a dance competition (Kaimal, 407). Shiva won the competition by taking a raised leg posture, which modesty prevented the virginal goddess from copying (Kaimal, 407). This loss split the goddess in two, the wrathful virginal aspect retreated to a shrine outside the temple walls, while her benign aspect became Shiva’s wife and remained in the temple where her worship continued. This may reflect an earlier tradition being replaced by, or syncretized into, a more pan-Indic cult rooted in Upanishadic Hinduism rather than the local Tamil culture. This Sanskritization of a local cult may reflect political or social changes brought about as a result of empires growing larger and larger which had to unify disparate belief systems without abolishing them.

Another myth, also presented in the Chidambaramahatmya support the hypothesis that symbols present in the Nataraja icon derive from earlier cults which where absorbed in, and Sanskritized by, the Nataraja cult. The “Pine Forest myth” relates the story of Shiva visiting several sages who were living in a pine forest to punish them for their devotional inadequacies (Kaimal, 406). Shiva arrives in the form of a nude and mirthful ascetic, Bhikshatana, who was sexually irresistible to the wives of the sages, he was accompanied by Vishnu in his female form, Mohini, who proved distracting to the sages themselves (Kaimal, 406). When the sages realized their humiliation they became infuriated and attacked Shiva with various objects which he incorporated into his dance (Kaimal, 406). After incorporating the objects hurled at him by the sages, Shiva’s dance intensified until it encompassed all of creation (Kaimal, 406). As the sages saw this dance they became enlightened by the cosmic proportions of Shiva’s true form and instituted the worship of Shiva in an aniconic form as the linga, which we see carried on at Chidambaram today (Kaimal, 406).

It is the particular items thrown at Shiva, and their incorporation into his dance, which interest us here. The items were: a skull, which Shiva wears in his hair; serpents, which adorn Shiva’s limbs and hair; a dwarf, which he tramples underfoot; a tiger, to which are attributed the shredded appearance of Shiva’s flowing garment; and the fire and drum which we see in Shiva’s two upper arms as well as the flaming ring within which he dances (Kaimal, 406). It certainly is not out of the question to see this legend as a possible reference to earlier Tamil cults, represented by the items, being displaced by and absorbed into the cult of Shiva as a pan-Indic god. This interpretation would further support the idea of a unification of disparate local cults as the empire grew to incorporate, and accommodate, more cultural groups. This is by no means the last word on the origins of the Nataraja icon, but it may indicate that a reappraisal is in order.

Works Cited

Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. Phaidon, 2011, London.

Kaimal, Padma. “Shiva Nataraja: Shifting Meanings of an Icon” in The Art Bulletin, 81, 3. College Art Association, 2009, New York.

Srinivasan, Sharada. “Cosmic Dancer: On Pallava Origins for the Nataraja Bronze” in World Archaeology, Vol. 36, No. 3. Taylor & Francis, 2004, Abingdon.

Article written by Logan Page (Dec. 2018), who is solely responsible for its content.