Indian Art & Culture – I

Delhi Law Academy


Indus Valley Civilization

•            India has a continuous history covering a very long period. Evidence of Neolithic habitation dating as far back as 7000 BC has been found in Mehrgarh in Baluchistan.

•            However, the first notable civilization flourished in India around 2700 BC in the north western part of the Indian subcontinent, covering a large area. The civilization is referred to as the Harappan civilization.

•            Most of the sites of this civilization developed on the banks of Indus, Ghaggar and its tributaries. The culture associated with the Harappan civilization is the first known urban culture in India.

•            The Harappans built the earliest cities complete with town planning, sanitation, drainage system and broad well-laid roads. They built double storied houses of burnt bricks each one of which had a bathroom, a kitchen and a well. The walled cities had other important buildings such as the Great Bath, Granaries and Assembly Halls.

•            Agriculture was the main occupation of the Harappans who were living in rural areas. Those living in the cities carried on internal and external trade and developed contacts with other civilizations such as Mesopotamia.

•            They were excellent potters. Various types of utensils, toys, seals, figurines have been excavated from different sites.

•            Harappans also had the technical knowledge of metals and the process of alloying. The bronze sculpture of a dancing girl found in Mohenjodaro testifies the sculptural skills and aesthetic sense of the Harappans.

•            Shell, ivory, bone and faience were used as material for different crafts and objects.

•            Lothal was a dockyard situated in Dholaka Taluk of Ahmedabad in Gujarat. It was also a well planned wall city. It was an important centre of sea trade with the western world.

•            Another important town in Gujarat was Dhaulavira while Kalibangan was in Rajasthan.

•            Numerous seals carrying the images of the one-horned rhinoceros known as unicorn, peepal leaves and a male god throw light on the religious beliefs of the Harappans.

•            It appears that they worshipped plants and animals and the forces of nature. They worshipped a male god resembling Lord Shiva of later times and a mother goddess among others. They probably believed in life after death and also in charms and spells.

•            Seals engraved with animal figures like the humped bull, elephant and rhinoceros suggest that these animals were considered sacred.

•            Harappans knew how to write and most of their seals contain some form of script. But unfortunately no one has yet been able to decipher that script. As a result, our knowledge of the Harappan civilization is based on the archaeological evidence alone.

•            The figures of men and women on various seals found in the excavations reveal that the people knew the art of spinning and weaving. They were perhaps the first people to cultivate cotton.

•            A large number of Indus seals found in Mesopotamia which indicated of a possible trade between the Indus valley and Mesopotamian civilization. By 1800 BC the Harappan civilization began declining. However, we do not know the exact reasons why this happened.

Vedic Culture

•            A few centuries after the decline of the Harappan civilization, a new culture flourished in the same region and gradually spread across the Ganga-Yamuna plains. This culture came to be known as the Aryan culture.

•            There were significant differences between this culture and the culture which preceded it. Aryans settled on the banks of rivers Indus (Sindhu) and Saraswati (which is now non-existent).

•            They composed many hymns in honour of the gods and goddesses they worshipped. These were compiled in four Vedas – the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda.

•            The word veda means knowledge of the sacred spiritual knowledge. These vedas were considered infallible as they imparted the highest spiritual knowledge. Initially the Vedas were transmitted orally. Since our knowledge of the early Aryans is based on these Vedas, the culture of this period is referred to as the Vedic Culture.

•            Scholars divide the Vedic period into the earlier and later Vedic period. The earlier is represented by the Rig Veda while the latter by all other Vedic literature including the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. Two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the Puranas, though compiled much later, also throw light on the life and society of an earlier period.

•            Though Aryan society was patriarchal, women were treated with dignity and honour. The family was the smallest social unit; several families (kula) made a village (grama) and several villages formed a vis.

•            A number of villages formed a tribe or jana which was ruled by a chief called rajan. His chief function was to protect the tribe from external attack and maintain law and order.

•            He was assisted by the members of two councils called sabha and samiti. The Purohita performed religious functions while the senani looked after military activities.

•            There was no concept of the state or kingdom at this stage. Although the post of Rajan had become hereditary, he could be removed from power if found weak and inefficient or cruel.

•            Towards the later Vedic period, society was divided into four varnas – Brahamanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. This was also called the Varna-Vyavastha.

•            To begin with it denoted categories of people doing different kinds of functions but with the passage of time this division became hereditary and rigid.

•            The teachers were called Brahmans, the ruling class was called Kshatriyas, farmers, merchants and bankers were called Vaishyas while the artisans, craftsmen, labourers were called Shudras. Moving from one occupation to another became difficult. Simultaneously, the Brahmans also occupied a dominant position in the society.

•            Another important social institution of the time was the system of chaturashrama or the division of life span into four distinct stages i.e. brahmacharya (period of celibacy, education and disciplined life in guru’s ashram), grihastha (a period of family life), vanaprastha (a stage of gradual detachment and sanyasa (a life dedicated to spiritual pursuit away from worldly life).

•            However it should be noted that these stages were not applicable to women or to the people of lower varnas. Women were respected by the society, enjoyed freedom, had access to education and were often free to choose their partners through swayamvara. Purdah and sati was not prevalent.

•            The ultimate aim of life was to attain moksha or salvation through the pursuit of dharma, artha and kama. Karma or performance of duty without any expectation or return was preached in the Bhagavad Gita.

•            The early Vedic people worshipped forces of nature and personified them as gods and goddesses. Indra, Agni, Varuna, Marut were some of their gods while Usha, Aditi, Prithvi were some of their goddesses. Some of the solar Gods and goddesses referred to in the Rig Veda are Surya, Savitri and Pushau.

•            Yajna (sacrifice) was performed along with chanting of Vedic hymns. People poured ghee (clarified butter) and other ingredients into the fire to invoke the blessings of gods. Agni or fire was looked upon as an intermediary between Gods and humans. The Vedic people prayed individually as well as collectively for the welfare of the jana.

•            There was a change in religious practices during the later Vedic period. The prominent Gods of the early Vedic period like Indra, Agni and Varuna lost their prominence and popularity.

•            Their place was taken by a new trinity of Gods where Brahma enjoyed the supreme position, while Vishnu became the preserver and Shiva completed the trinity. The religion became extremely ritualistic.

•            Sanskrit mantras, which were the monopoly of Brahmins, became an essential part of all religious functions. This made the Brahmins very powerful and the Yajnas expensive.

•            Participation in them was restricted to the upper three classes. The kings performed Ashvamedha, Rajasuya and Vajapeya sacrifies to establish their position.

•            By the end of the latter Vedic age changes started occurring in the society. For the first time people started discussing certain beliefs such as creation of the universe, life after death and essence of life. These were questions which were dealt with in great detail in the Upanishads.

Material life and economy

•            The Aryans were primarily pastoral and agricultural people. They domesticated animals like cows, horses, sheeps, goats and dogs.

•            They ate simple food consisting of cereals, pulses, fruits, vegetables, milk and various milk products. They drank a beverage called Soma. Games of chess, chariot racing etc. were their modes of entertainment. In the early period there was no money transaction or taxes. Bali or voluntary donation was prevalent. Cows were the measure of wealth.

•            As the time passed, extensive use of iron brought great changes in their material life. Iron axes enabled them to clear forests leading to the expansion of agriculture throughout the Gangetic plains. Iron tools resulted in varied crafts and technology.

•            Use of iron weapons and horses enabled them to fight wars and defend themselves better against enemies. Increasing number of crafts, availability of surplus food and growth of population led to specialisation of skills and urbanisation.

•            Towns and cities grew and territorial states emerged. High quality earthenware called ‘Painted Grey Ware’ and ‘Northern Black Polished Ware’ have been found in many areas.

•            Coins came into circulation. Trade was carried on, both overland and through waterways, enhancing material prosperity.

•            By sixth century BC, there were some sixteen large territorial states in North India and upper Deccan known as Mahajanapadas. Important among them were Anga, Magadha, Kosala, Kashi, Kuru, and Panchala.

Popular Religious Reforms

•            The period from B.C. 600 to B.C. 200 is important not only for political unity of the country but also for cultural unity. Ancient India saw the rise of two very important religions, Jainism and Buddhism which left a lasting influence on Indian life and culture.

•            Vedic religion was earlier also known as Brahmanism because the Brahmins played a major role in it. Later it came to be called Hinduism. The Brahmins had developed a vested interest demanding large charities at the end of the sacrifices. As a result, the sacrifices became very costly.

•            Moreover, the Brahmins considered themselves superior to the other varnas and became arrogant. This led to the unpopularity of Brahminism and a need for reforms was felt.

•            Besides, there were other factors like the reaction of the Kshatriyas to the Brahmin claim for supremacy and the Vaisya’s demand for an improved social position.  The Vedic religion had become very complex and ritualistic.

•            The reforms led by the Kshatriyas and aided by the poorer masses who could not afford the high cost of sacrifices, resulted in the emergence of Jainism and Buddhism around sixth century BC. These new religions, Jainism and Buddhism also influenced the religious beliefs and several practices of Hinduism.

•            The founder of Jainism is believed to be Rishabhadeva, the first of the twenty four tirthankaras and as the last tirthankara, Mahavira developed and gave final shape to the Jain doctrines.

•            The Jains lay great emphasis on severe penance and asceticism.

•            Lord Mahavira asked them to take five vows – not to tell lies; not to injure life; not to own property; not to steal; and to maintain chastity (celibacy).

•            He also asked the Jains to follow the three-fold path of Right belief, Right Conduct and Right Knowledge.

•            Later, the Jains were split into two sects the Shvetambaras (white clothed ones) and the Digambaras (the naked ones). Most of followers of Jainism belong to the trading community.

•            The other movement was led by Gautama Buddha (563 – 483 BC), a younger contemporary of Mahavira.

•            He taught the Four Noble Truths. His path was the middle path. He believed that there is sorrow in this world and that desire is the cause of that sorrow and it can be conquered by following the Eight Fold Path (ashtangika marga).

•            The eightfold path comprises:

(1)         Right understanding

(2)         Right thought

(3)         Right speech

(4)         Right action

(5)         Right livelihood

(6)         Right effort

(7)         Right mindfulness

(8)         Right concentration

•            Basically both these movements were against the orthodax and ritualistic Brahamanical religion.

•             Both the reformers emphasised a good moral life and the importance of ethics.

•            Both of them founded an order of monks, established monasteries called sthanakas in Jainism and viharas in Buddhism.

•            Later, Buddhism was also split into two divisions- the Hinayana and the Mahayana to which a third called Vajrayana was added subsequently. Buddhism spread to a very large part of the world- Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Japan, Thailand, Korea, Mongolia and Afghanistan. Even today a substantial population of these countries is Buddhist.

•            Hinduism underwent many changes in history. It gave rise to several religious sects within itself with varying beliefs and practices.

•            Like Buddhism, some sects of Hinduism also spread outside India, particularly in the countries of South East Asia.

•            Later Hindu tradition even accepted the Buddha as one of the incarnations (avatara) of Vishnu.


•            In the first half of sixth century BC, there were a number of small tribal states in north west India. There was no sovereign power to unite these warring tribes.

•            The Achaemenid rulers of Persia or Iran took advantage of the political disunity of this region. Cyrus, the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty, and his successor Darius I annexed parts of Punjab and Sindh. It was believed to be the most fertile and populous part of the Achaemenid empire.

•            Indian subjects were also enrolled in the Achaemenid army. The Persian rule in north western India lasted for nearly two centuries. During this period there must have been regular contact between the two regions.

•            The naval expedition of Skylax probably encouraged trade and commerce between Persia and India. Some ancient Persian gold and silver coins have been found in Punjab.

•            Though the mountainous passes in the north western border were being used from very early times, it seems that Darius entered India through these passes for the first time. Later on, a section of Alexander’s army traversed the same route, when he invaded Punjab.

•            The administrative structure of the Mauryan empire was influenced in some measure by that of the Achaemenid rulers of Persia. The Persian title of satrapa (governor) continued to be used by the Indian provincial governors as kshtrapa for quite a long time.

•            The cultural effects of the contacts with the Persians were also significant. The Persian scribes brought into India a new style of writing. It is called Kharoshthi. It was derived from the Aramaic script, which was written from right to left.

•            Many of Asoka’s inscriptions found in north western India are written in Kharoshthi. This script continued to be used in north western India till about third century AD.

•            The Persian influence may also be traced in the preamble of Ashokan edicts. The Mauryan art and architecture were also greatly influenced by the Persian art. The monolithic pillar edicts of Asoka with their bell-shaped capitals are somewhat like the victory pillars of the Achaemenid emperors which have been found in Persepolis.

•            The Persian influence found in Chandragupta Maurya’s court was in the form of the ceremonial hair bath taken by the emperor on his birthday. It was in typical Persian style. It is mentioned in the Arthashastra that whenever the king consults the physician or the ascetic, he should sit in a room where the sacred fire was kept.

•            This indicates the influence of Zorastrianism, the religion of ancient Iranians.


•            During the fourth century BC, the Greeks and the Persians fought for supremacy over West Asia. The Achaemenid empire was finally destroyed by the Greeks under the leadership of Alexander of Macedon.

•            He conquered Asia Minor, Iraq and Iran and then marched towards India. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Alexander was greatly attracted towards India because of her fabulous wealth.

•            On the eve of Alexander’s invasion, north western India was divided into a number of small principalities. Lack of unity among them helped the Greeks to conquer these principalities one after another.

•           However, Alexander’s army refused to march ahead when they heard about the vast army and the strength of the Nandas of Magadha. Alexander had to return. He died at Babylon at the young age of 32 on his way back to Macedon.

•            Alexander hardly had any time to reorganise his conquests. Most of the conquered states were restored to their rulers, who had submitted to his authority.

•           He divided his territorial possessions covering parts of eastern Europe and a large area in western Asia into three parts and placed them under three Greek governors.

•            The eastern part of his empire was given to Seleucus Nikator, who declared himself a king after the death of his master, Alexander.

•            Though the contact between the Macedonians and ancient Indians was for a brief period, its impact was fairly wide in range. Alexander’s invasion brought Europe, for the first time, in close contact with India, as routes, by sea and by land, were opened between India and the West.

•            A close commercial relation was also established. The traders and craftsmen used to follow these routes. Alexander asked his friend Nearchus to explore the sea coast from the mouth of the Indus to the Euphrates in search of harbours.

•            The Greek writers have left many valuable geographical accounts of this region for us. Alexander’s invasion paved the way for political unification of north western India by conquering the warring tribes of this region.

•            It seems that by his campaigns Alexander made Chandragupta Maurya’s work of annexing this area easier. Soon after Alexander’s departure, Chandragupta defeated one of his generals, Seleucus Nikator and brought the whole of north western India upto Afghanistan under his control.

•            The influence of Greek art is found in the development of Indian sculpture as well. The combination of the Greek and the Indian style formed the Gandhara School of art.

•            Indians also learnt the art of making well-shaped and beautifully designed gold and silver coins from the Greeks. The Greeks had some influence on Indian astrology as well.

•            Many valuable information about the social and economic condition of northern and north western India of that time are known from the Greek accounts left by Arrian, admiral Nearchus, and Megasthenes.

•            They tell us about the developed condition of many crafts, existence of a brisk trade with the outside world, and about the general prosperous condition of the country. Much has also been said in these accounts of carpentry as a flourishing trade in India.

•            It seems the fleet which Alexander sent along the western coast of India under Nearchus was built in India. Alexander’s adventure also helped the West to know something about the Indian life and thinking. It has been said that the ideas and notions of Indian philosophy and religion which filtered into the Roman Empire flowed through the channel opened by Alexander.

•            As the Greek writers left dated records of Alexander’s campaign, it helped us a great deal to frame the chronology of ancient Indian history. The date of Alexander’s invasion – 326 BC provides a definite ‘marker’ for arranging the sequence of historical events in India.


•            Ashoka occupies a unique place in the history of India. His policies of universal peace, non-violence and religious harmony find no parallel in the monarchs of the world. Ashoka stands out as a monarch who combined successful kingship with idealism and philosophy.

•            Like other rulers, Ashoka too began his reign with war – the conquest of Kalinga. However, the mindless destruction of life and property in this war shattered him so greatly that he vowed never to wage any war again. Instead he adopted the policy of Dhamma Vijaya that is conquest through dhamma.

•            In his thirteenth major Rock Edict, Asoka states that true conquest is by piety and virtue. Such a decision taken by a king, who lived in an era where military might was the measure of power, earned him a unique place in history.

•            Ashoka was a true humanist. His policies were oriented towards the welfare of his people. His dhamma was based on social responsibility. Besides giving importance to respecting brahmins, and servants, obedience to elders, abstention from killing living beings, dhamma also asked people to live in religious harmony. It combined in itself the good points of all sects.

•            Ashoka proved to be a tolerant monarch who, although himself a Buddhist, never sought to impose his personal religion on his subjects. In his twelfth major Rock Edict, he states that in honouring of other sects lies the honour of one’s own sect.

•            As a king, Ashoka set a very high ideal for himself. He saw himself as a father and the subjects as his children. He communicated his thoughts and philosophy to his people by inscribing them on stone pillars and rock surfaces.

•            These edicts are remarkable examples of Mauryan architecture and also of engineering skills. Ashoka attempted to educate his subjects by pointing out the wastefulness of expensive rituals. He asked people to practice ahimsa.

•            He himself gave up the practices of the royal hunt and pleasure tours and instead began Dhamma Yattas (tours) for the furtherance of Dhamma.

•            By giving his empire a common Dhamma, a common language, and practically one script (Brahmi) he brought further political unification.

•            Though he himself became a Buddhist he did not impose it on the others but followed a tolerant religious policy. He made gifts and grants to non-Buddhists as well as anti-Buddhists.

•            Ashoka’s fame also rests on the measures that he took to spread the message of peace amongst the different regions of the world. He sent ambassadors to the Greek kingdoms and the West. Indian culture spread to far-away lands.

•            According to a Buddhist tradition, Asoka sent Buddhist missions to regions such as Sri Lanka and Central Asia. Buddhism spread to different parts of the world and although it is no longer a major force in India today, yet it continues to be popular in Sri Lanka and the Far Eastern countries.

•            The Varna system popularly known as the caste system which had arisen in the Vedic Age now became well established and gradually became the dominant form of social organization throughout India. Along with the new religions and philosophy the growth of cities, crafts and trade furthered the process of cultural unity in our country.

•            Asoka unified the entire country under one empire and renounced the use of war as state policy. On the other hand he says that he strives to discharge the debt he owes to all living creatures.


•            The Mauryan contribution to art and architecture was significant. Ashoka is known to have built 84,000 stupas to commemorate various events of Buddha’s life. According to Megasthenes, Pataliputra’s grandeur matched that of the cities of Persia.

•            Ashokan edicts were inscribed on stone pillars that were made of single columns of polished sandstone and had capitals on their top. The best preserved of all Ashokan edicts stands at Lauriya Nandangarh (Bihar). This thirty-two feet tall column has an almost fifty ton seated lion capital placed on its top, an engineering feat worth admiring.

•            The bull capital from Rampura is also another fine example of Mauryan sculpture.

•            The most famous capital is the one at Sarnath, which shows four lions and the Dharmachakra. This has been adopted as the national emblem of the Republic of India.

•            Besides pillars, few Mauryan figures have also come to light. The most well known of these is the Yakshi from Didarganj. The beauty of these figures lies in the exactness of their workmanship and in the fact that they appear to be made from one single stone.  Like the pillars, these figures are polished with a unique surface gloss (now called Mauryan polish). It is quite amazing that despite all these centuries this gloss has not lost its shine.

•            The language that has been used in nearly all the inscriptions is Prakrit which appears to have become the lingua franca of the country and in the Brahmi script the earliest known Indian script.

•            Another noteworthy aspect of Mauryan architecture is the rock cut caves. The Lomash Rishi (with its impressive entrance) and the Sudama caves are examples of such architecture. These caves cut from solid rock were provided by Ashoka for non-Buddhist monks. These caves marked the beginning of the rock cut architecture which was patronised by later rulers too. His rock edicts were inscribed in the local language and the local script.


•            Although the Greeks, Shakas, Parthians, and Kushanas were foreigners, they were slowly absorbed into the local population. Since they were warriors, the law givers assigned them the status of Kshatriyas. It should be noted that such a large scale assimilation of foreigners into the Indian society took place only in the post-Mauryan times.

•            We can say roughly from about 200 BC to about 3rd century A.D. profound changes took place in the economic and political life and vital developments in different aspects of cultural life of our country i.e. religion, art and science as well as technology.

•            There was a significant advancement in foreign trade both by land and by sea, besides emergence of various crafts. Many foreign rulers adopted Vaishnavism.

•            In the Besnagar Pillar inscription, Heliodorus (the Greek ambassador of the Indo-Greek king Antialkidas) describes himself as a Bhagavata i.e. worshipper of Vishnu.

•            Similarly some coins of Kanishka also show the figure of Siva on them. One of the Kushan rulers was called Vasudeva, clearly indicating his Vaishnava faith. The year of Kanishka’s accession i.e. 78 A.D. marks the beginning of the Saka era.

•            The interaction among different foreign ethnic groups and the Indians played an important role in their choice of one or the other Indian religions. Some foreign rulers also turned to Buddhism, as this did not create the problems of fitting into the caste system.

•            Menander converted to Buddhism. Kanishka too is remembered for his services to this religion. However this increasing popularity of Buddhism brought about a major change in the religion. Buddhism in its original form was too abstract for the foreigners. They therefore advocated a simpler form through which they could satisfy their religious cravings.

•            Around the same time Buddhism split into two schools: the Mahayana or the Great Wheel and the Hinayana or the Small Wheel. The former believed in image worship, rituals and Bodhisattvas, (incarnations of Buddha) while the latter continued the practices of the earlier Buddhism.

•            The Mahayana received royal patronage from Kanishka, who convened the fourth Buddhist Council to finalise its teachings. He also set up many stupas in memory of the Buddha.

Art and Sculpture

•            Central Asian invasions led to further development of Indian art and sculpture. Close contacts with the western world introduced many new forms in Indian art. The most significant development was the growth of the Gandhara school of art.

•            This school borrowed features from both the Greek and Roman art forms. Many images of the Buddha from the Kushan period have Apollonian faces, their hair is in the Graeco-Roman style and their draperies arranged in the style of a Roman toga.

•            This assimilation of artistic features was probably because many artisans from different countries trained in different schools came together under the Kushan rule.

•            Mathura, which was the centre of the indigenous school of art, was also influenced by the invasions. A number of images from here of terracotta and red sandstone, which have definite Saka-Kushan influence, have survived.

•            The most famous is the headless statue of Kanishka from Mathura. While the earlier Buddhists had used only symbols to depict the Buddha, the Mathura school became the first to make faces and figures of the Buddha.

•            Folklores such as the Jatakas were drawn out in long panels on rock faces. Besides the images of Buddha, which were made in large numbers, statues of Mahavira were also produced.

Deccan and South India

•            The Satavahanas in the Deccan held an important position under the Mauryas. After the death of Ashoka, they assumed total independence. They became very powerful and made their capital at Paithan or Pratisthan on the river Godavari.

•            The Satavahanas soon entered into conflict with the foreign satraps, especially the Shakas. It was under Gautamiputra and his son Vasishthiputra Satkarni that the Satavahanas became very powerful.

•            They extended their kingdom, cleared forests, made roads and administered their State well. New towns came up and trade was carried on with far off countries like Persia, Iraq and Cambodia.

Kharavela of Kalinga

•            Another kingdom which rose to a position of importance after the Mauryas was Kalinga. Kalinga included modern Orissa and parts of Northern Andhra. Its most important ruler was Kharavela.

•            The Hathigumpha Inscription in a Jain cave at Udaigiri hills would give us a detailed account of his reign. He carried out works of piety and public utility, like building roads and gardens.

South India

•            The area which lies to the south of the river Krishna and Tungabhadra is called South India. It was the region of the Cholas, Cheras and the Pandyas who were constantly at war with each other.

•            The main source of information about these kingdoms and the life of the people is the Sangam literature. That is why this period from the beginning of the Ist century B.C. to the end of 2nd century A.D. is called the Sangam period of the history of South India.


•            Karikala was the most important ruler of this kingdom. He defeated the combined forces of the Cheras and the Pandays. He succeeded in pushing back an invasion from Ceylon. Karikala has been credited with many welfare activities.

•            He got may canals dug so that water from the river Cauvery could be used for irrigation purposes. Karikala patronised works of literature and art. He was a follower of the Vedic religion.


•            The Pandyan empire was founded by a woman king. She maintained a huge army. She also encouraged trade and patronised art as well as literature.

Life and Culture

•            The people during this period lived a simple life. They were fond of music, dancing and poetry. Many musical instruments like drums, flutes, pipes, etc. were popular.

•            Most of the people lived in valleys and a majority of them were farmers. Others were herdsmen. There were artisans and craftsmen also who mainly lived in towns. There were merchants especially in the coastal areas and trade was carried on by sea.


•            The Greeks, Kushanas, Shakas and Parthians were called Yavanas. They soon merged with the Indian society and adopted Indian names and inter-married. Even their coins started carrying the images of Indian gods like Vishnu, Ganesha and Mahesha.

•            The fact that they had adapted to the Indian society easily may explain why foreign rulers patronised Buddhism.

The Age of Harshvardhana

•            King Harshvardhana decided that he must subdue the petty warring rulers and bring them under his domain. He devoted six important years of his life to do so.

•            Hiuen Tsang, a Chinese traveller and Bana Bhat, his court poet, have given detailed accounts of Harsha’s reign. According to Hiuen Tang, King Harshvardhana had an efficient government. He further tells us that families were not registered and there was no forced labour

Harsha’s religious activities

•            Harsha built many hospitals and rest houses. He also gave grants to many religions especially Buddhism and Hindu Religion. Later in his life Harsha became more inclined towards Buddhism.

•            Harsha’s literary activities had some important plays e.g. Nagananda Ratnavali and Priyadarsita. He collected learned men around him as is evident from the report of Hiuen Tsang and Bana Bhat.

•            Bana wrote Harsha’s famous biography, Harshcharita as well as the literary piece Kadambari.

Kingdoms of the Deccan and the South

•            After the decline of the Satavahanas, many small kingdoms came up in the Deccan. The first one among them was that of the Vakatakas, who tried to build a strong state, but they did not last long

•            After the Vakatakas came the Chalukyas of Vatapi and Kalyani. Pulakesin was a powerful ruler of the Chalukya dynasty. The Chalukyas kept fighting with the Rashtrakutas (towards the north) and the Pallavas (towards the south).

•            The Chalukya rule came to an end in 753 A.D. when the Rashtrakutas defeated them. The capital city of Vatapi was a prosperous one. There were trade relations with Arabia, Iran and the Red Sea port to the west, as well as with South-East Asia. Pulakesin II sent an ambassador to King Khusrao II of Persia.

•            The Chalukyas patronised art as well as religion. They build temples and cave shrines in the Deccan hills. Many of the sculptures of the Ellora caves were created at this time under the patronage of the Chalukyas and the Rashtrakutas.


•            The last phase of ancient Indian history starts in early fourth century A.D. and ends in about the 8th A.D. The Guptas built a strong and powerful kingdom and under the political unity and state patronage that was provided by them, cultural activities increased manifold.

•            Following the Greek invasion, various art forms in India had been markedly influenced by Graeco-Roman styles. This art mainly depicted the Buddha or Buddhist thought.

•            But during the Gupta period art became more creative and Hindu gods and goddesses also came to be portrayed. The artistic achievement of the age is exhibited in the delicate workmanship and the variety of designs shown in different kinds of Gupta coins.

•            The general scheme that was followed was to exhibit the portrait of the king on one side of the coin or an appropriate goddess with her associated symbols on the other side.

•            The king is shown in many positions – shooting a tiger or a lion, playing a musical instrument seated on a high backed couch etc. On the reverse in most cases was Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and in some cases Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and arts.

•            Besides coins, Gupta art found adequate expression in monuments and sculptures. The skilled artists of this age used their tools and skills to express the ideals and philosophical traditions of India through various art forms.

•            They decorated even the niches and corners of religious places with statues of gods and goddesses. The images of gods were treated as symbols representing attributes associated with the gods. Hence the gods were shown having four or eight arms in each carrying a symbol or an ayudha (weapon) although they were depicted in human forms.

•            Stone, terracotta, and other materials were used to construct the abodes of gods and goddesses. Examples of the Gupta art can be seen at the Dashavatara Temple at Deogarh and the cave temples in Udaigiri hills.

•            However, the most famous examples of Gupta art that still remain are the numerous seated and standing images of Buddha from Sarnath. The school of art that thrived at Sarnath provides us with some of the most pleasing and graceful images of the Buddha.

•            Besides stone, Gupta artists were also skilled in bronze. A two metre high bronze image of Buddha has been discovered at Sultanganj (near Bhagalpur in Bihar). Examples of sculptures in caves created during this period are traced to the famous Ellora Caves.


•            The Gupta architecture has survived in a few shrines, rock cut caves (Ajanta) and temples, such as the Dashavatara temple at Deogarh. These structures were mainly made of stone and bricks.

•            Some references in the works of Kalidasa give us a glimpse of Gupta architecture. The poet has given a vivid picture of a well-planned town with a network of roads, market places, big sky-touching palaces and mansions with terraces.

•            The palaces had many inner apartments. They had court-yards, prisons, court-room and sabhagriha. Their verandahs opened on roofs lit with moon-beam at night. The pleasure garden which was attached to palace contained all sorts of seasonal flowers and trees.

•            Archaeological evidence about Gupta architecture is however poor. However, examples of Gupta shrines have been discovered in the jungles of Central India, especially in the Bundelkhand region. These include the one at Bhitargaon in Kanpur district.


•            Painting as an art form reached a high degree of perfection during the Gupta times. The wall frescoes at the Ajanta caves (Aurangabad) and the one at Bagh caves (near Gwalior) bear evidence of this.

•            Although Ajanta paintings belong to the period between the first to the seventh century AD yet most of these were produced during the Gupta time. These paintings depict various scenes from the life of the Buddha.

•            The skill with which the human, animal and plant figures have been drawn shows the refined and sensitive nature of Gupta art.

•            The conception of beauty was a characteristic of Gupta art. Expression through art was given importance as it was regarded as a means for the attainment of spiritual joy.


•            Any account of ancient India is incomplete without referring to the two dynasties of South India i.e. the Pallavas and the Cholas and their contribution to art, architecture, administration and conquests.

•            Quite a few dynasties rose in the South from the early centuries of the Christian era. Among them the Pallavas were great patrons of art and architecture. The ‘ratha’ at Mahabalipuram style of temples built by them were fine examples of rock-cut temples.

•            The Pallavas also built structural temples like the Kailashanath and Vaikunthperumal temples at Kanchipuram. The Kailashanath temple is a huge structure with thousands of images and is said to be the “largest single work of art ever undertaken in India”.

•            There is also a set of bas reliefs found at Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) which is attributed to the Pallava period. The Pagodas built at Mahabalipuram go back to the first century AD. Temple building activity flourished in India from the 5th century AD onwards.

•            While the North Indian temples were built in the Nagara style consisted of the shikaras (spiral roofs), the garbhagriha (sanctum) and the mandap (pillared hall), the temples in the South were built in the Dravida style completed with vimana or shikhara, high walls and the gateway topped by gopuram.

•            After the Pallavas (6th to 8th century AD) the tradition of building temples was further developed by the Cholas (l0th – 12th century AD) in the south.

•            The temple was the central place in the village. It was the gathering place for the villagers who would come here everyday and exchange ideas and discuss all matters of common interests. It served as a school too. During festival days dances and dramas were also performed in the temple courtyard.

•            The achievements of the Cholas also lie in their conquests across the seas and developing democratic institutions for governance at the village level. The village panchayat called sahha or ur had extensive powers. It had control over finances too.

•            This body included several committees which looked after various aspects of village administration. A very detailed account of the functioning of the sabhas is available from one of the Chola inscriptions.

•            The Chola rulers were also great builders. The Dravida style of temple architecture reached its zenith under the Chola rulers. One of the finest example of this style is the Rajarajeshwar or Brihadeshwara temple. During this period one also notices great achievements in the field of sculpture.

•            Great progress was made in literature both religious and secular. Sanskrit also became the language of the courts in many parts of the country. Tamil literatures also made great progress.

•            The Alvars and the Nayanars, the Vaishnavite and Shaivite saints made lasting contributions to it.

•            Inspite of the dominants position of Sanskrit in most parts of the country, this period marks the beginning of many Indian languages as well as distinct scripts in different parts of the country.


•            Nalanda became a great centre of learning during Harsha’s reign. Students from different parts of the world came here to imbibe learning. Although all the remains mounds of Nalanda have not yet been excavated, yet the evidence of a huge complex of buildings has been uncovered. Some of these were as many as four storey high.

•            According to Hiuen Tsang, Nalanda housed as many as 10,000 students. It was supported by the revenues of 200 villages. Although this huge monastic-educational establishment was primarily a centre for learning of Mahayana Buddhism, yet the curriculum included secular subjects as well.

•            Grammar, logic, epistemology and sciences were taught here. Students were encouraged to develop a spirit of enquiry and reasoning. Active discussions and debates were taking place.

•            Harsha is said to have invited a thousand learned monks of Nalanda to take part in the philosophical assembly at Kanauj. In his account, Hieun-Tsang has given a detailed account of Nalanda.

•            This university continued to be the center of intellectual activity till the twelfth century until it was destroyed by the Delhi Sultanate.


•            Developments in the field of religion, folk art and language in India during the medieval times have been important milestones in the evolution of the composite culture of India.

•            New religions movements like Sufi and Sikhism along with Bhakti movement contributed to this process. You can see the impact of Islam on many aspects of Indian culture. Many famous monuments stand as the symbols of the composite nature of Indo-Islamic culture in India.

Life of People under Delhi Sultanate

•            When the Muslim invaders came to India they decided to make it their home. They intermarried and took to the culture of the Indians.

•            There was a mutual exchange in ideas and customs. In dress, speech, manners and intellectual outlook, the two influenced each other very profoundly. Some of these changes are described below.


•            The Indian society was divided into four major groups.

•            They were the aristocrats, the priests, the towns’ people and the peasants.


•            The aristocrats included the Sultan and his relatives, nobility and the landholders. There were also the Hindu rajahs, chiefs, Hindu merchants and bankers. They concentrated all the wealth as well as the power in their hands.

•            They lived in great style and luxury. The Sultan outmatched everyone in this. He had to do it so as to maintain his superiority and his status. He had to show that he was different from the others.

•            Whenever a new sultan came to the throne, the Khutba or sermon was read out in his name in the Friday prayers at the mosques and coins were issued in his name. This established the new ruler on the throne.

•            To maintain his distinction as the ruler, he was provided with many officers and servants at the royal household where he lived in great luxury. Even the nobility imitated his style and showed off their wealth.


•            The Priests were another important class of people in the society. Among the Hindus, they were the Brahmans and Ulemas among the Muslims. They were given grants of tax-free land for their maintenance and were often very powerful.

•            The Ulemas wielded great influence on the Muslim Sultans and often influenced their policies. But at other times like during the reign of Ala-ud-din Khalji, they were even ignored.

•            Sometimes the priests were not interested in religious affairs but were more interested in worldly affairs.

The Town People

•            In the town lived the wealthy merchants, traders and artisans. The nobility, the officers and the soldiers also stayed in the town that were the administrative and military centres.

•            Places where the Sufi and Bhakti saints lived and places which housed important temples and mosques had become pilgrim centres. The artisans lived in their own special quarters.

•            In fact, the weavers lived in the weaver’s colony, the goldsmith lived in a colony inhabited by goldsmiths and so on. This was the general pattern for all artisans and craftsmen. These people supplied luxury goods were also sent abroad for trade.

•            The royal karkhanas or workshops employed these workers for producing beautiful goods which were often used as gifts to be given away by the Sultans.

The Peasants

•            The peasants, of course, lived in the villages and were often the worst off. They paid huge taxes to the state as land revenue. Any change of dynasty had no effect on their lives. Their life continued as before.

•            The caste system was very rigid and inter-caste marriages and inter-caste dining was totally prohibited. Those who converted themselves to Islam did not forget their old customs. Many Hindu customs were adopted by the Muslims while many Muslim customs were adopted by the Hindus, like those concerning food, dress, clothing and music, besides many others.


•            Trade was flourishing and many new towns came up to encourage trade. Some communities like the Banias, Marwaris and Multanis made trade their special vocation. The banjaras traded in caravans and were continuously on the move carrying goods from one place to another.

•            Delhi was the centre for the incoming as well as outgoing goods. There was rice from the East, sugar from Kanauj, wheat from the Doab and fine silks from the South. Besides, there were luxury goods like metal ware, ivory, jewellery, cotton textiles and many other.

•            Goods from outside India like East Africa, Arabia and China also came to Delhi. According to Ibn Batuta, Delhi at that time was a magnificent city.

•            The growth of trade encouraged the use of money and at this time came into use the silver tanka (coin). It was the most commonly used currency and was introduced by Iltutmish. Even the system of weights that were used at that time continued to be in use until the recent adoption of the metric system.

Religious Condition

•            When Islam came to India, Hinduism was in vogue. But by this time Hinduism had degenerated itself.

•            There were superstitious beliefs, rituals and sacrifices. Brahmans had become very powerful and the caste system was very rigid. The people, especially the lower classes, were ill-treated.

•            Islam was the opposite of what was in practise among the Hindus. It talked of equality, brotherhood and oneness of God.

•            There were no dogmas in Islam. On the other hand, it had a simple doctrine and a democratic organisation.

Rise of Islam and Sufism

•            The Muslims first came to India in the eighth century AD mainly as traders. They were fascinated by the socio-cultural scenario in this country and decided to make India their home.

•            The traders who came to India from Central and West Asia carried back with them traces of Indian science and culture. As a result they became cultural ambassadors of India by disseminating this knowledge to the Islamic world and from there to Europe.

•            The immigrant Muslims also entered into matrimonial alliances with the local people. There was mutual exchange of ideas and customs. The Hindus and Muslims influenced each other equally in dress, speech, manners, customs and intellectual pursuits.

•            The Muslims also brought with them their religion, Islam which had a deep impact on Indian society and culture.

•            Prophet Mohammad preached Islam in the seventh century AD in Arabia. He was born in AD 571 in the Quraysh tribe of Arabia. He migrated to Madina from Mecca in AD 622 and this marked the beginning of the Hijira Era.

•            According-to the Muslim belief, Quran is the message of Allah revealed to Mohammad through his archangel Gabriel. It has been translated into several languages.

The five fundamental principles of Islam are:

(1)         Tauhid (belief in Allah)

(2)         Namaz (prayers, five times a day)

(3)         Roza (fasting in the month of Ramzan)

(4)         Zakat (giving of alms)

(5)         Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca)

•            Prophet Mohammad’s sayings are preserved in what is called the Hadith or Hadees. After his death the Caliphate was established.

Rise of Sufism

•            Sufism is a common term used for Islamic mysticism. The Sufis were very liberal in their religious outlook. They believed in the essential unity of all religions. They preached spirituality through music and doctrines that professed union with God.

•            Sufism originated in Iran and found a congenial atmosphere in India under the Turkish rule. Their sense of piety, tolerance, sympathy, concept of equality and friendly attitude attracted many Hindus, mostly from lower classes, to Islam.

•            Sufi saints such as Moinuddin Chisti, Nizamuddin Auliya, Fariduddin Ganj-e-Shakar were the pioneer sufïs who are still loved, respected and honoured in India. The Sufis were also influenced by the Christian and Buddhist monks regarding the establishment of their khanqahs and dargahs.

•            Khanqah the institutions (abode of Sufis) set up by the Sufis in northern India took Islam deeper into the countryside.

•            Mazars (tombs) and Takias (resting places of Muslim saints) also became the centres for the propagation of Islamic ideas. These were patronized both by the aristocracy and the common people. The Sufis emphasized respect for all human beings.

•            The Sufis were organised into religious orders or silsilahs. These silsilahs were named after their founders such as Chishti, Suhrawardi, Qadi and Naqshbandis.

•            According to Abul Fazl, the author of the Ain-i-Akbari, there were as many as fourteen silsilahs in India during the sixteenth century. Each order had its own khanqah, which served as a shelter for the Sufi saints and for destitutes, and later developed as a centre of learning.

•            Ajmer, Nagaur and Ajodhan or Pak Pattan (now in Pakistan) developed as important centres of Sufism. These also started the tradition of piri-muridi, (teacher and the disciple).

•            In order to attain a state of mystical ecstasy, the sufis listened to poetry and music (sama) which were originally in Persian, but later switched to Hindawi or Hindustani.

•            They preached the unity of God and self-surrender unto Him in almost the same way as the votaries of the Nïrgun Bhakti movement did. Slowly such music attracted the Hindus who started visiting the dargahs in large number.

•            The Hindu impact on Sufism also became visible in the form of siddhas and yogic postures.

Political Background

•            The rulers of Delhi, who ruled from 1206-90, were Mamluk Turks. They were followed by the Khiljis, Tughlaqs, Sayyids and Lodis, who ruled northern India from Delhi till 1526.

•            All these rulers were called Sultans. A Sultan was supposed to rule over a territory on behalf of the Khalifa or Caliph, who was considered to be the spiritual and temporal head of the Muslims. Both the names of the Khalifa and the Sultan used to be read in the khutha, (Friday prayers) by the local Imams.

•            In 1526 the Delhi Sultans were replaced by the Mughals, who initially ruled from Agra and later from Delhi till 1707. Thereafter, the Mughal rule continued only nominally till 1857 when the dynasty ended.

•            The Mughals did not ask for any investiture but continued to send presents to the Khalifas. They also got the khutba read in their own names. However, Sher Shah, a local Afghan ruler, challenged the Mughal ruler, Humayun and kept him away from the throne of Delhi for about fifteen years (1540-55).

•            Sher Shah’s reign stands out for many outstanding achievements. Among these was the construction of several roads, the most important being Sarak-i-Azam or Grand Trunk Road extending from Sonargaon (now in Bangladesh) to Attock (now in Pakistan) and run through Delhi and Agra a distance of 1500 kms.

•            The other roads were from Agra to Burhanpur, Agra to Marwar and from Lahore to Multan. He struck beautiful coins in gold, silver and copper which were imitated by the Mughal Kings.

•            Mughal emperor Akbar who ruled from 1556-1605 was a great ruler in the history of India. He made a sincere effort to foster harmony among his subjects by discouraging racial, religious and cultural biases. He tried to develop friendly relations with the Hindus.

•            To fulfil his imperialist ambitions he entered into matrimonial alliances with the Rajput rulers. His greatest contribution was the political unification of the country and the establishment of an all-powerful central government with a uniform system of administration.

•            Akbar was a great patron of art, architecture and learning. As a secular minded monarch he also started a faith called Din-i-Illahi which encompassed ideas from various religions. On every Thursday, scholars from different religions came to debate on religious issues raised by the emperor. This was done at the Ibadat Khana in Fateh Pur Sikri at Agra.

•            Though illiterate Akbar patronised scholars and learned men. In his court there were nine such Navratna:

Mulla Do Pyaza, Hakin Humam, Abdur Rahim Khan e Khanan, Abul Tayal, Tansen, Raja Todar Mal, Raja Man Singh, Faizi and Birbal

•            Akbar’s policy of liberalism and tolerance was continued by his successors, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. However this policy was abandoned by Aurangzeb.

•            Aurangzeb’s short sighted policies and endless wars in different parts of the country (especially in South India) resulted in the disintegration of the Mughal empire.

•            The rise of the Marathas in the south, the invasions of Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali, unrest amongst the nobility in the court and the rise of the Sikhs in north- western India destroyed whatever was left of the Mughal power.

•            Economically, India was still the biggest exporter in the world and had great wealth, but it was left far behind in the process of modernisation.

Cultural Development

•            It was in the field of art and architecture that the rulers of this period took a keen interest. The composite cultural characteristic of the medieval period is amply witnessed in these fields.

•            A new style of architecture known as the Indo- Islamic style was born out of this fusion.  The distinctive features of Indo-Islamic architecture were the

(a)         dome

(b)         lofty towers or minarets

(c)          arch and

(d)         the vault

•            The Mughal rulers were great lovers of nature. They took pleasure in spending their time in building beautiful forts and gardens. The famous Mughal gardens like the Shalimar Bagh and the Nishat Bagh are important elements of our cultural heritage.

•            There were waterways and fountains criss-crossing these gardens and finally, there were gardens with stages or levels. The water, while cascading from one stage to another, was made to fall in small streamlets with lamps lit behind them, making the water shimmer and lend a special charm to the whole atmosphere.

•            It could also be made to flow over a chiselled and sloping slab, so that the water flowing over it shimmered. The best example of this type of garden is the Shalimar Gardens of Lahore (now in Pakistan).

•            The Lahore garden has three stages. But a better example can be seen in India at Pinjore Garden situated on the Chandigarh-Kalka road where we have a seven-stage garden.

•            This impressed the British so much that they created a three-stage garden in the Vice-Regal Lodge (now the Rashtrapati Bhawan) in New Delhi. It was on these very lines that the famous Vrindavan Garden in Mysore were built in the twentieth century.

•            The pietra dura or coloured stone inlay work on marble became very popular in the days of Shah Jahan and the finest examples of this type of work are available in the Red Fort in Delhi and the Taj Mahal at Agra.

•            Besides, the structures within the Fatehpur Sikri complex, the forts at Agra and Lahore and the Shahi mosques in Delhi and Lahore are an important part of our heritage.

•            During this period, mosques, tombs of kings and dargahs came to dominate the landscape.


•            Another aspect of art, which is of great importance to us, is connected with numismatics (the study of coins) which is a major source of information for any period in history.

•            The coins of Muslim kings are valuable in history. Their designs, calligraphy and mint marks give us plenty of interesting information on this period.

•            From the royal titles, the name and place of minting we can find out the extent of the monarch’s kingdom as well as his status.

•            Muhammad Tughlaq’s coins were minted at Delhi, Daulatabad and several other provincial capitals and had at least twenty-five different varieties.

•            Some of the legends found on the coins are quite interesting. The warrior in the cause of God’ and ‘he who obeys the Sultan obeys the Compassionate’, are a few examples.

Bhakti Movement

•            The Sufis were not the only popular religious teachers of the time. There were also the Bhakti saints.

•            Their teachings were similar to those of the Sufis but they had been teaching for a longer time. They were popular among the artisans, craftsmen and traders in the towns. The people in the villages also flocked to listen to them.

•            The Sufi and Bhakti saints had many thoughts and practices in common. Their essential belief was in the need to unite with God. They laid stress on love or devotion as the basis of the relationship with God.

•            To achieve all this, a Guru or a Pir was needed. The Bhakti saints attacked the rigidity in religion and the objects of worship.

•            They disregarded caste and encouraged women to join in their religious gatherings. The Bhakti saints did their entire teaching in the local vernacular language to make it comprehensible even to simple minds.

•            The Bhakti saints belonged to various backgrounds but mainly from the lower castes. Many were artisans by origin or belonged to the less prosperous class of cultivators.

•            They stressed the need for tolerance among humans and religions.

•            The Bhakti movement was long known in the South. The idea of preaching Bhakti through hymns and stories was traditionally done by the Alvars and the Nayannars of the Tamil devotional cult.

Guru Nanak

•            Guru Nanak was born of a Khatri family in the village of Talwandi which is now called Nankana. Though Guru Nanak was trained in accountancy, he preferred the company of saints and sufis. Some time later, he had a mystic vision.

•            He left home for the company of saints and pirs. He composed hymns and sang them to the accompaniment of the ‘rabab’, which is a musical instrument. His hymns are popular even today. He emphasised love and devotion for the one and only God.

•            He strongly denounced idol worship, pilgrimages, sacrifices and rituals as a way to achieving God. He demanded purity of character and conduct as the first condition of approaching God. He believed that anyone could achieve a spiritual life while doing his duties as a householder.


•            Ramanuja was from the South and he taught in the langauge of the common people. His disciple was Ramananda who took his Guru’s message to the northern parts of India.


•            Ramananda was born at Allahabad and educated at Varanasi. He preached at both these places. He wanted to rid the Hindu religion of its evil customs and practices.

•            He wanted people to know that all men were equal in the eyes of God and there was nobody high born or low born. His followers belonged to diferent walks of like.

•            For example, Kabir was a weaver, Sadhana was a butcher, Ravidasa was a cobbler and Sena was a barber.


•            Kabir was Ramananda’s favourite disciple. Like Nanak, he criticised the existing social order and called for Hindu-Muslim unity.

•            Kabir, the son of a Muslim weaver, strongly denounced idol worship, taking part in formal worship such as Namaz, pilgrimages or bathing in rivers. He wanted to preach a religion which was acceptable to all and that would unite all religions.

•            He emphasised the unity of God. He called Him by several names such as Rama, Gobinda, Hari and Allah. You must have read his ‘Dohas’ or ‘couplets’ in Hindi.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu

•            Chaitanya was a saint from Bengal. He was a devotee of Lord Krishna. Though he was a Brahman he condemned the caste system and emphasised on the equality of all.

•            He wanted the people to know that true worship lay in love and devotion. He used to go into a trance singing devotional songs in praise of Lord Krishna.


•            Mirabai was another Bhakti Saint who worshipped, composed and sang songs in praise of Lord Krishna. Like Chaitanya, she too would go into a trance in her love for the God.


•            Namadeva was a tailor. He wrote in Marathi. His poetry spoke of intense love and devotion to God.

Popularity of the Bhakti Movement

•            An important reason why the Bhakti movement became so popular with the people was that they challenged the caste system and the superiority of the Brahmans.

•            They welcomed the ideas of equality and brotherhood which the Sufi saints also preached. People were no longer satisfied with the old religion. They wanted a religion which could satisfy both their rationality as well as emotions.

•            All the Bhakti saints emphasised oneness of God. They said that the path to God lay in devotion and Bhakti to Him and not in any rituals. They condemned rituals and sacrifices.

•            In northern India, it developed into two streams, nirguna bhakti and saguna bhakti.

•            The nirguna bhakts were devotees of a formless God even while calling him variously as Rama, Govinda, Hari or Raghunatha. The most conspicuous among them were Kabir and Nanak.

•            The saguna bhakts were devotees of Rama, the son of Dasharatha, or Krishna, the son of Devaki and Vasudeva. Some of the best examples of Saguna bhaktas were Tulsidas, who idolised Rama in his famous Ramcharita Manas, and Surdas, who sang praises of Krishna in his famous Sursagar. Raskhan, a Muslim poet, who was a devotee of Lord Krishna, also belonged to this tradition.

•            The first important feature of bhakti movement was the concept of oneness of God and brotherhood of all human beings. It did not discriminate against anyone on the basis of caste or gender.

•            Its second important feature was surrender into God, who is all pervasive and capable of solving the problems of the devotees.

•            The third important feature of bhakti was an intense personal devotion to God with an emphasis on a good moral life. It was felt that chanting the name of God constantly purified the soul and prepared one for His grace.

•            A true devotee does not want heaven or moksha. He only wants to chant the Lord’s name and be born again and again to sing His praise.

•            In addition came the guru or spiritual teacher, whose function was to provide people with hope, strength and inner courage. He was supposed to be a person who had marched ahead on the path of bhakti and had probably realised God and hence was capable of leading others into Him. This brought in a system of pahul.

•            Pahul was the sanctified water offered by a master to the pupil or shishya as a token of his being accepted as a trainee on his march to godliness. The Sikhs performed “washing of the swords” ceremony, called khande ka pahul, evolving as the pir-muridi custom (the saint-soldier concept).

•            The spirit of Bhakti pervaded the whole of India and found vivid and beautiful expression in the religious poetry of the medieval saints and mystics, no matter what religious faith they believed in. Their literary compositions, rendered into geet, qawali, etc united the people, as nothing else could have done. It also stimulated the development of regional languages.

Development of Folk Arts

•            The rural masses got opportunities to display their creative skills in many fields. Several occasions associated with agricultural operations, for example the tilling of soil, sowing of saplings, picking of cotton, pulling out the weeds and many other social functions provided opportunities for singing and dancing.

•            Many of the festivals and rituals we perform today have continued from the past with necessary changes in keeping with time. The advent of rains became occasions for dancing and merry-making. The gods were invoked and special pujas offered in the temples. It was also an occasion for enjoying the swings.

•            Similarly, ladies on their spinning wheels accompanied by other ladies would sit together and sing till late into the night. This was a common sight in almost all the villages in India. It is important to note that almost every region developed its own peculiar dance form with a local flavour.

•            Thus Garba, Kalbella, Bhangra, Gïddha, Bamboo dance, Lavani and innumerable other dance forms, came into existence. Today, some of these are performed during the Republic Day celebrations as well as on other festive occasions.

•            Formal education was not considered very important for women but this did not prevent them from showing their talent in various other fields. They displayed their creativity in needlework.

•            In Rajasthan, girls came up with beautiful designs on odhanis, shirts and ghagras. The Rajasthanis also created beautiful designs of tie and dye work in fabrics used both by women and men. Even today, we find the people of Rajasthan as the most colourfully dressed in India. Their lavishness could be seen in the way they decorated their animals (horses, bullocks, camels and even elephants).

•            In Punjab, the girls created beautiful phulkaris. In and around Lucknow, came up the chikan work on shirts, salwars, odhanis and even sarees. It appears that the dramatists about whom Bharata mentions in his Natyashastra (fifth century AD) had not completely disappeared.

•            The tamasha and the lavani forms of dance drama were developed in Maharashtra; the Pandavanis in central India and Merasis in northern India applied such art forms with slight modifications.

•            So also the puppeteer, the bard and the mime moved from place to place, entertaining people in various ways.

•            The acrobat and the juggler also could be seen moving from place to place. In some areas the martial arts were developed, while wrestling has been popular all over India since time immemorial.


•            Another area which was influenced by Islamic culture was painting.

•            Humayun had spent more than twelve years in Persia as a refugee. He brought painters with him to India when he became the ruler of Delhi once again in 1555.

•            Famous among them were Mir Sayid Ali and Abdus Samad who nurtured the tradition of painting manuscript. An example of it is Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, which has nearly 1200 paintings. The period also witnessed the flowering of portrait and miniature paintings.

•            However, what is amazing is that some of these painters tried to paint the classical ragas, thereby giving form and colour to such abstract conceptions as music. Seasons or baramasa paintings were similarly given artistic forms. Nowhere else in the world except perhaps in China, artists have tried to paint music or seasons.

•            Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan continued to give patronage to these artists and as a result, the Mughal school of painting continued to flourish.

•            Akbar as a liberal ruler extended his patronage to painting. He also employed a large number of Hindu painters like Daswant and Basawan Lal. Consequently, there was a fusion of Persian and Indian styles (of painting) during his period.

•            The European influence on Indian painting too was noticed. The Mughal school of painting reached its zenith under Jahangir who was a famous painter. His court was adorned with famous painters like Ustad and Abul Hasan. Mansur was famous for his miniature painting.

•            However Aurangzeb due to his orthodox views and political preoccupations, stopped patronising music and painting. Like their masters, some princes also extended patronage to painters.

•            Thus, besides the Mughal school, the Rajput and the Pahari schools of painting also received encouragement. Even the upper classes in society started patronising painters. As a result, the havelis (big mansions) of the rich and temples were profusely embellished. These havelis in Rajasthan attract a large number of tourists even today.

•            The Mughal school of painting from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century gave rise to the Indo-Persian school of miniature art. The Mughal court painters introduced landscapes together with human figures and costumes.

•            When they came in touch with the traditional Indian styles, they became more natural. Signing on the miniatures as a tradition also started. Artists were now employed on monthly salaries.

•            They illustrated such important works as the Changeznama, Zafarnama and the Ramayana.


•            The Mughal emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, patronised several musicians. Tansen, who adorned the court of Akbar, not only sang the classical ragas but also composed new ones. It is said that Shah Jahan himself was quite a good singer.

•            These musicians entertained the emperors at different times of the day and in different seasons with appropriate ragas. During the Turko-Afghan rule in India, a synthesis of Indo Iranian music had started. During the Mughal rule, it developed further.

•            It is interesting to note that Aurangzeb was against music, but the largest number of books on classical Indian music in Persian were written during his time.

•            In the North, a distinct school known as the Hindustani school of music came into being and its speciality lay in producing sweet and rapturous melodies to suit different moods of life.

•            The ragas and the raginis were personified accordingly. Khayal, Thumri and Ghazal were also elaborated during this period. Tansen, was in a sense the pioneer of this school.

•            Similarly, in the south, the Carnatic school of music developed.

Indo-Mughal Culture

•            The Mughal rulers discarded the Afghan titles of Sultan and styled themselves as Badshah (emperor) and Din-e-Panah (protector of faith).

•            Further, to evoke reverence among the subject for the emperor, they started the practice of jharokha darshan or making public appearances through specially built windows.

•            They also encouraged the court practice of sijda (low prostration before the kings) and concentrated religious and political power more firmly in their hands.

Rise of Modern Indian Languages

•            Another important development during this period was the emergence of several modern Indian languages.

•            Urdu perhaps originated around Delhi. It developed as a camp language in the army of Allauddin Khilji when they were stationed in the Deccan around fourteenth century AD.

•            In fact, the states of Bijapur and the Golconda in the Deccan became the cradles of Urdu literature. The language soon developed its own grammar and became a distinct language.

•            As time passed, it came to be used by the elite as well. The famous poet Amir Khusrau, who composed poetry in this language, also played some part in making it popular.

•            Besides poetry, beautiful prose, short stories, novels and drama were written in Urdu during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the first half of the ninteenth century Urdu journalism played a very important role during the struggle for independence.

•            Along with Urdu, nearly all other modern Indian languages like Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Khari Boli, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, Sindhi, Kashmiri as well as the four South Indian languages -Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam – came to acquire their present form and developed during this period.

New Faiths

•            During this period, two new religious faiths flourished in India. They were Sikhism and Zoroastrianism.


•            The Sikhs, who mostly belong to Punjab, form a sizable group of our population. The orthodox Sikhs believe that their religion was revealed by God to Guru Nanak, whose spirit entered the second and the subsequent gurus till the tenth Guru.

•            Guru Gobind Singh, ordained the Sikhs to treat the Adi Granth, popularly known as the Guru Granth Sahib, as their Guru. But the students of history and religion think that the seeds for the birth and growth of this religion were present in the Bhakti movement, in its nirguna branch.

•            The Sikhs basically believe in a formless God, equality of all mankind, need of a guru and the pahul tradition. Sometimes, the gurudom was conferred on the son and sometimes on the best disciple.

•            The fifth guru, Guru Arjun Dev, gave the Sikhs three things.

•            The first was in the shape of the Adi Granth, which contains the sayings of five gurus and other allied saints.

•            The second was the standardised script for Gurmukhi in which the Adi Granth was first written.

•            And finally, the site and the foundation of the Har Mandir sahib or the Golden Temple and the Akal Takht at Amritsar, the highest seat from where the dictats for the entire Sikh community are issued.

•            The tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa, which means “the pure”, in 1699. He also ordained the Sikhs to take five vows, namely,

–keeping of kesh (long hair and a beard),

kangha (comb),

kada (a metallic bangle),

kirpan (a sword) and

kaccha (an underwear extending to a little above the knees).

Consequently, these symbols became the distinguishing marks of a Sikh.

•            He further added that after his death the Adi Granth will be the guru of the Sikhs and they have to pay obeisance to this holy book.

•            Music has always been an important feature of Sikhism and they believed that through music one can attain ecstacy or Samadhi.


•            The Parsi or Zoroastrian religion was founded by Zarathushtra or Zoroaster, in the eighth century BC. He preached monotheism in the region now known as Persia.

•            He taught the worship of fire and the presence of good and bad in the form of Ahura Mazda and Ahura Man. He also taught the ethical doctrine of kindness and charity. These doctrines are enshrined in the Zend Avesta.

•            The Zorastrian religion spread over the whole of Persia and remained the dominant religion till the eighth century AD when Muslims conquered this region.

•            Most of the Parsis migrated to different parts of the world. They also came to India and settled at Navsari in Gujarat, and later on spread to almost all parts of India. They have contributed a lot to Indian culture.

•            It was Dadabhai Naoroji, the famous nationalist leader and a Parsi, who exposed the hollowness of the British claim of civilizing India and not exploiting it.

•            Another outstanding figure, who belonged to this community, was Jamshedji Tata, a pioneering Indian industrialist. He established an iron and steel industry in India in the face of the toughest competition posed by the British steel mills and yet continued to prosper.

•            The Parsis also established a large number of public charities. Zorastrianism is not a proselytising religion and no new entrants are accepted into its fold under any circumstances.

•            Thus, we can see that the cultural stream in India continued to assimilate all the newcomers and the resulting cultural interaction gave Indian culture its characteristic multidimensional, multilingual, multi-religious and yet composite nature.

South India

•            Between the ninth and eleventh centuries AD, a dynasty known as the Cholas was ruling the Cholamandalam region in Southern India. The Cholas developed a strong army, besides a powerful navy. During the Chola period, Kanchi became a great seat of learning.

•            Rajendra Chola is said to have conquered some Indonesian islands. They also developed democratic institutions at the village level. Even Buddhism and Jainism flourished in this region. Literature, fine arts, sculpture and metal castings of the highest order flourished under their patronage.

•            The fourteenth century saw the rise of a new state called Vijayanagara now called Karnataka. To the north of this state across the Tungabhadra river rose a new Islamic state, called the Bahmani, now known as Andhra Pradesh. The Bahmani and Vijayanagara kingdoms were pitted against each other over the rich Raichur Doab.

•            Between the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries, Vijayanagara achieved great heights. Some foreigners, who visited these areas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, have praised the kings, the town and the people. The remains of Vijayanagara found in Hampi dazzle the world even today. The Vijayanagara kings also became great patrons of art and learning.

•            In the Cholamandalam region, the Tamil language was popular.  In Karnataka, Kannada, in Andhra, Telegu and in Kerala, Malyalam flourished, all having different scripts.

•            It is just possible that originally the entire region spoke Tamil, as it is a very old language. But by the middle ages, the four languages had come to have distinct identities.