Painting is supposed to be a finer and subtle form of human feelings which finds expression through brushes and colours on the multi-layered canvas of life. Wall Painting as an expression of art is one such format where the canvas is the wall in lieu of paper or cloth. It began in the pre-historic age and was nurtured by the sustained efforts of successive generations to come. Though the tradition of wall paintings had been a practicing norm in many parts of the world, its footprints on Indian soil are still extant in a number of Asian countries including India. In the context of Asia, wall paintings are found in countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, etc., where a large number of such paintings have been wiped out on account of natural causes and human neglect. In spite of their locations in different countries, there exist a common bonding of cultural affinity amongst them. First of all, there is clear influence of Buddhism and connected themes, and also, there appears to be a common approach in the execution of figures, lines and colour scheme. Besides that, common technique of execution of these paintings has been largely adopted in most cases, namely, the tempera technique, and not the fresco. This has resulted in fine detailing of the painting as a necessary ingredient of creation.

In the Indian context, it is worth mentioning that wall paintings are found in almost every part of India. There are varied forms of wall painting in India such as cave paintings at Ajanta and Ellora etc., paintings on the walls of palaces, forts, and havelis, especially in Rajasthan, followed by Kerala, etc. Then, there are some wall paintings to be found on the walls of temples, monasteries, cenotaphs, etc. in the Himalayan region, Bundelkhand and other parts of India. It would be highly appropriate at this juncture to elaborate upon the different forms of wall paintings found in India.

1. Cave Paintings:

The traces of earliest cave paintings have been discovered in Madhya Pradesh. According to the noted archaeologist, and former Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, M. N. Deshpande,

“These paintings were done by the Stone Age man in Upper Paleolithic Age on the rough surfaces of rock-shelters. Ancient man was then using stone tools made out of Jasper or Chalcedony such as arrowheads, burins, and blades and was essentially a hunter and food gatherer. He painted his exploits of hunting wild animals, dancing scenes or fights between different groups for supremacy of the forest area occupied by them”.

The colours used were predominantly red, green, yellow and black, usually found in the hills and dales. This practice was further followed by the successors of upper Paleolithic man even in the historical period. Resultantly, many such paintings can be found where new paintings had superimposed or overlapped the older painting. On the rock surfaces. Additionally, at other places, each successive tribe has left its own imprint on the imperishable rock. The ancient rock shelters exist in different parts of India but the most significant amongst them are located in the sand stone region of Madhya Pradesh at sites like Hoshangabad. Bhimbetka in the sand stone hills near Bhopal is also famous for noteworthy paintings. In the historic period, such paintings were transformed into quite distinct and cultivated art form which was rooted into the royalty and elite class. It also became popular in the rural and tribal segments of the society. The oldest paintings of the historical period have been discovered in the Buddhist caves of Ajanta, district Aurangabad in Maharashtra, which dates back to Circa 2nd-1st Century B.C. The spread of Buddhism in Western India was spearheaded through the efforts of Asoka (273-36 B.C.). Out of nearly twelve hundred rock-cut excavations in India, about eight hundred are suited in India.2 The earliest caves in the Deccan belong to the Hinyana faith. The subject-matter of Ajanta cave’s paintings is mainly related to the Jataka Stories incorporating the accounts of the previous lives of the Master where the would-be Buddha was born not only as a human or celestial being but also as a small bird or mighty animal like an elephant or a buffalo. There are also depiction of the principal events of the life of Siddhartha such as his great miracles.3

In the commentary of Kamsutra of Vatsyayana, in the Silpa text, Vishnudharmottara, the five mula rangas or principal colours viz. Sveta (White), pita (yellow), vilohita (red), Krishna (black) and nila (blue), have been mentioned in the Chitrasutra chapter. The artists prepared numerous shades by mixing these colours in different proportions. The Ajanta artists were quite adept in draftsmanship and they excelled in brushwork. The colours used were of mineral origin, except the black which was extracted from the soot of the oil lamp. These colours were mixed in water and animal or vegetable glue and put on a well-made smooth white plaster surface after making it dry. The ground was prepared by using mud plaster, fortified by cow-dung, sand, husk, brick-bats and hemp, and set in two or three layers on the rough surface of the wall. 

This technique is widely known as Tempera and not fresco as popularly described.4 The art of mural paintings developed at Ajanta from the second Century B.C. to fifth Century spreading its tentacles to near and far lands in due course of time. Later, the influence of Mahayana became visible in the paintings of the artists that can be observed at Pitalkhora in the fifth Century, Buddhist caves like Kanheri near Mumbai, Kerala, and Junnar caves. The Bagh caves in Madhya Pradesh, situated in the slopes of Vindhyan range, also reflected the Ajanta style of painting. The subject-matter of these was different from the Jataka Stories. Instead, there was a portrayal of festival scenes, groups of noble men, animals and birds. Ajanta caves are the most prominent face of the Asiatic art which travelled to Central Asia and to China and Japan afterwards.

In the latter phase of the 8th Century, Ajanta art style went into decline and a new style came into being which can be observed in the Buddhist, Brahmanical and Jain caves excavated from A.D. sixth to the tenth Century. Large traces of paintings have been located in the renowned monolithic temple of Kailasa and the Jain caves at Ellora excavated during the rule of Rashtrakuta kings. Thus, one comes across a continuous string of paintings starting from the 2nd Century B.C. to the 10th Century, between, Ajanta, Pitalkhora and Ellora, all situated in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra. The Kailasa temple at Ellora is ornate with paintings of the 8th, 9th and 10th Century. The traces of superimposition by the latter paintings on the existing ones are also visible. There are a number of paintings portraying Brahmanical deities including a fine panel of Nataraja Siva. The Jain caves of 9th Century also contain paintings on the walls and ceilings depicting figures of Tirthankaras, Gandharvas and flying Celestials. Thus, an unbroken tradition of paintings is preserved in the Buddhist monasteries and Hindu and Jain temples of India. This tradition was kept alive and perpetuated by the Chola monarchs in the South and the Brahdisvara temple at Thanjavur is as fine examples of this tradition.

2. Wall Paintings of Madhya Pradesh:

History of wall paintings in Madhya Pradesh dates back to pre-historic and proto-historic days. It has the largest number of painted rock-shelters in the country. The classical style of wall paintings found an eloquent expression inside the Bagh caves in the 5th Century A.D. where the panels of songs and dance, weeping women, preaching monk, flying arhats, cavalcade of horses or elephants and floral rhizomes depicted a clear understanding of balance, proportion, shading, stippling, and crosshatching, modelling by colour as well as bhittisams-karas (preparation of the wall) prescribed in the Vishnudharmottara. Besides, these paintings also demonstrate knowledge of the colour symbolism, as vividly elucidated in Bharata’s Natya Shastra, and of the chaturbhani (the four burlesque) of the Gupta period highlighting the life of the citizens of Pataliputra and Ujjain.

The period between 5th to 14th Century A.D. is said to be the watershed as far as the development of the Central India style of painting is concerned. The sense of proportion, modelling etc. of Bagh gave way to a flattening of volume, enlargement of cheeks, lips, eyes, projection of the further eye, recession of forehead and to a vacant, lifeless expression in the face. Further, 15th and 16th Century represent a confluence of styles, indigenous and the foreign, coming through the Mughals and the Sultans of Jaunpur, Malwa and Bengal. This style encompassed Herati, Shirazi, and Western Indian conventions as blossomed in the late 15th Century reached its pinnacle under Sultan Ghiyasuddin of Mandu in the 16th Century. The main characteristics of this style were the hills, wiry turfs of grass, luxuriant swards, dense with massed yellow and green plants, interspersed with red flowers, brick work, shaded with pink, hexagonal tiles, ladies in male Persian costume, features culled out from Shiraz. Additionally, the style showcases trees with oval or round masses of leaves, mounds fringed with commas, lotus pools with aquatic birds, features taken from the Malwa landscape.6 Continuing this trail, the period between 16th Century to 20th Century represents the composite tradition which can be witnessed in the paintings done in the Jehangir Mahal, Shish Mahal, Raja Mahal and Praveen Rai Mahal at Orchha in Bundel khand in the 17th Century. 

Here, it is worth mentioning that the themes covered in these paintings range from Jahangir himself being served with wine, being rowed on a boat in a lake by ladies, or listening to a female musician, and ladies holding pets on lap or playing Chaugan. Also, the themes from Krishna Lila, Ram Lila, and Bhagwat Puranas were drawn and illustrated in the murals showing a blend of Mughal with Rajasthani styles. The Purana Mahal at Datia contains Ragmala paintings besides floral and faunal designs.7 Apart from wall paintings in the royal buildings, such paintings can also be found in the temples also. Ramraja, Chaturbhuj Raj Mahal and Kamla Raj Mahal at Gwalior, Rajwada at Indore and Ujjain and many others are the prominent examples of paintings on the walls of temples in Madhya Pradesh. These paintings, however, show the combined influence of the Deccan, the Rajasthani style of Nathadwara, Kota and Bundi, of Malwa and the Maratha poet Prabhakar. In Malwa paintings, Rama and Shiva wear moustache and beard, and Shiva looks like a Chitapawan Brahmin. Draupadi, Radha. Parvati and Sita usually wear the Paithani sari, lehenga, nose rings, chunaris and judas while Pandavas in Draupadi svayambara or kamsa wear Marathi pagadis.

In the 20th Century, the paintings at Lalbagh palace of the Holkars at Indore were renovated and paintings representing Greek and Roman mythology were done on the ceiling and lintels. These paintings contain the images of Helios (Sun God), Hephaistos (God of Smithy), Poseidon (Sea God), Naiads (Water Nymph), ladies in Greek chiton and sandals, and griffins. Embodying a mood of buoyant enlightenment, these paintings reflect a blend of proto-baroque and manneristic traits with romantic and neoclassical tradition.9

The wall painting tradition of Madhya Pradesh has been, predominantly, tempera. In the rock or cave paintings, pigments were directly applied to the rock surfaces, using bone and wooden sticks as well as mineral colours. In the cave paintings of Bagh, the carrier was generally made of lime plaster, sand, red ferruginous earth, and pigments used were white (lime), green, yellow and red ochre, lamp black (lapis lazuli). At Orchha, coarse rubble stone masonry in lime mortar (1:3) was used. The pigments used were usually derived from ochrous clay, having affinity with the top layer of the ground. The binding medium was gum and animal glue. Yellow ochre (Ramraj) was used till 12th Century. Later, blue or golden yellow were introduced. By the end of the 18th and 19th Century, yellow and olive green, Persian blue, orange, Indian terra cotta red were being used. Red and yellow ochre (geru and ramraj), indigo (neel), lamp black (kajal) became the dominant material in this period. At the end of the 19th Century, imported cakes and tubes of colour were added to the indigenous material. The pigments in the tempera style of paintings stuck on the dry surface which did not penetrate the ground.

3. Wall Paintings of South India:

The tradition of wall paintings in South India is generally found in Karnataka and Kerala. In Karnataka, the evidence of wall paintings are to be observed in the historic period. The cave temples of Badami carry forward the Buddhist tradition known from the murals of Ajanta. Cave no. 4 of Badami, a rock-cut temple dedicated to Vishnu, was excavated during the reign of early Chalukyan King, Mangalesha and is dated to 578 A.D.. This temple contain the earliest paintings among the Brahmanical temples. After the Chalukyan example of Badami, the famous paintings at Kailasa temple, Ellora were executed by the Rashtrakuta King, Krishna III. In this connection. The famous rulers of Vijaynagar Empire also made a significant contribution. 

Their best contribution is the Rangamandapa of the Virupaksha temple at Hampi. Towards the decline of the Vijaynagar Empire, Adil Shahis of Bijapur patronized the tradition of painting. The few murals of Adil Shahis are found in Asar Mahal in Bijapur in poor condition. Another significant example of 18th Century paintings is found in the Jain Matha at Sravana Belgola. The walls of this Matha contain murals executed over plastered walls in which the lives of Jain monks and kings have been illustrated. However, the most significant contribution in this field in the 19th Century was that of Krishnaraja Wadeyar III who started building Chitramandapas in temples and Palaces. The best examples are found at the sites of Sira, Sibi, Varsha and Krishna and Venkataramna templess besides Jaganmohana Palace at Mysore.10

In Kerala, the earliest specimen of murals can be found on the walls and ceilings of the cave temples of Thirunandikkara which dates back to 8th Century A.D. From the 14th to 15th Century, mural tradition gained momentum in Kerala which reached its pinnacle in the beginning of the 19th Century. Kerala is credited with the exquisite number of murals, only next to Rajasthan in quantity. Some of its most exciting sites include Padmanabhapuram Palace, Krishnapuram Palace, and Pundareekapuram Vishnu temple in Kottayam district.

4. Wall Paintings of Rajasthan:

Origin of wall paintings in Rajasthan dates back to antiquity. But the historic age marks the most striking phase of development of murals and similar forms. The Ala-Gila of Jaipur is very much similar to the Italian Buono fresco style. Jaipur is famous for araish work since long. This word is of Persian origin and this work was introduced to India with the onset of Mughal Empire. Araish work in Rajasthan has a long tradition of about four Centuries. This art spread to various princely States in due course of time. In such paintings, a clear stencil of the painting is fixed against the fresh araish wall. Afterwards, it is dabbed gently with a small cotton pad over the perforated lines in ochre colour to leave a clear impression of the drawing on the ground. Only selected colours are used like kajal and charcoal powder for black, lime for white, geru-mitti for red and yellow and hara-bhata for green in ala-gila paintings. These are kept dipped in water in advance making them easy to grind with finger in separate bowl mixing with glue to become as thick as honey. After filling the different spaces of the drawing with different colours, the borders and lines are dabbed with karnika to achieve the effect of polish. Lastly, dry coconut powder is spread over the whole space and then wiped out with a soft clean piece of cloth in order to give the final touch of the polishing stone. In this way, ala-gila of Jaipur is prepared.

Rajasthan is endowed with a rich heritage of forts, palaces, cenotaphs, tombs, stepwalls and temples. Many of them are embellished with the fine murals. In successive periods, this tradition of mural paintings spread gradually to princely States of Rajasthan, such as Bikaner, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur. Technique-wise, these murals are a fine blend of Mughal and indigenous styles. This blending has manifested itself in sophistication of colour and superb lining. However, the pattern of such paintings has shown a little difference with each-other in different regions of Rajasthan which culminated in different styles. Thus, the paintings differed in depiction of costumes, physical features and landscaping. In due course of time, various schools of paintings came into existence which are known as: 1. Alwar School, 2. Bikaner School, 3. Bundi School, 4. Jaisalmer School, 5. Jaipur School, 6. Jodhpur School, 7. Kishangarh School, 8. Kotah School, 9. Nathdwara School, and 10. Udaipur School. The growth of all these Schools took place between 17th and 19th Century A.D.

Shekhawati is a semi-arid historical region in the north-eastern Rajasthan which was earlier ruled by Shekhawat Rajputs. There are many buildings in the area, widely known as Havelis. These havelis were built between the 18th and the early 20th Century. These havelis are famous for their ornate murals and are rightly termed as the world’s largest open-air art gallery.

5. Wall Paintings of Uttar Pradesh:

Uttar Pradesh is home to a sizeable number of rock shelters which are adorned with paintings on the rough surfaces of the rocks. These are situated in the districts of Varanasi, Mirzapur, Allahabad (now Prayagraj), Banda and Agra. In these paintings, colours have been directly applied on the rock surface. There is depiction of animals or sometimes, humans alone or both grouped together. Some of these rock paintings date back to pre-historic period.

The earliest examples of wall paintings in Uttar Pradesh are Vishnu temple of Madanpur in Lalitpur district. This temple was built by King Madan Verma in the mid- 12th Century A.D. The themes of these paintings are associated with the stories of Panchatantra. The most prominent paintings of the later period were discovered at Kusum Van Sarovar in Mathura district. This ancient kund was renovated and restored by the Orchha king, Vir Singh Deo. The largest among the chhatris situated in the middle belongs to Raja Suraj Mal. Its ceiling is profusely painted. Execution of these paintings has been done artistically on a thick plaster depicting the incidents connected to Krishna Lila, life of Raja Suraj Mal, scenes from Durbar, processions, Dussehra Pooja, and hunting scenes. Such paintings have also been executed in the Baradari of Shukla Talab and Tikait Rai in Kanpur district and in the chhatri of Gangadhar Rao, Samadhi of Gangadhar Rao near Laxmi Gate, Jhansi. 

In the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, the credit of mural decorations in the forts, temples and chhatris goes to the Bundelas. Besides Fresos, tempera style was also popular in Bundelkhand. The early paintings of Bundela period evolved a style which was a mix of many schools and the influence of Mughal style was clearly visible. In Ramjanaki temple at Todi Fatehpur, there are beautiful paintings related to Ramayana stories. In the fort of Teharoli, the two rooms, known as Darbar Khas and Dauji Ka Dera are decorated with wall paintings depicting royal scenes, Brahmanical Gods and Goddesses and Radha Krishna stories in which the use of red and black colours is prominent. In Jhansi city, Gusain temples have traces of such paintings. Rani Mahal has floral decorations in some of the rooms. Jhansi fort must have such wall paintings which are now extinct. There are faint traces of linings and colours indicative of the past decorations.13

6. Wall paintings in Haryana:

Recently, archeologists have discovered cave paintings in a rocky and forested corner of Faridabad district in Haryana. They belong to the Upper Paleolithic age which could possibly place them mong the oldest cave arts in India. The caves are situated in the maze of quartzite rocks in the Aravali mountain ranges and are close to a holy grove called Mangar Bani. The caves and the paintings are reminiscent of Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh which is home to the oldest known cave art in India, dating back to the Mesolithic Age around 10,000 years ago. The Manger cave art is 20,000 -40,000 years old, according to Mr. Banana Bhattacharya, deputy director of the department of archaeology and museums, Haryana.14 According to Mr. Sunil Harsana, the environmental activist who spotted the caves in May 2021, some of the caves have rock art while others have paintings, but only a few of the paintings are in good condition, The others have deteriorated. The art includes what appears to be symbols, markings, some are drawings that are very old. The cave paintings are yet to be dated and further studies are to be carried out by the archaeological department of Haryana. According to the officials, it is for the first time that a prehistoric site with cave paintings and rock art of a large magnitude has been found in Haryana.15 

7. Present Scenario:

Image by Richard Mcall from Pixabay 

The age-old tradition of wall painting is still not extinct in India. In rural areas, this type of painting has been kept alive by the rural women who prefer to draw beautiful paintings on the mud walls of their houses. In Uttar Pradesh, ladies paint on the inner side of the mud walls of the rooms in earthen colours with certain designs and patterns. In such paintings, generally bright colours are used and the portrayal of flowers like lotus, etc., images of gods and goddesses, animals like deer, and religious motifs are done with dexterity. This is also happening in other parts of rural India. Pithora painting, for example, is the trademark of Bhil tribes living in Jhabua and other tribal districts of Madhya Pradesh. These paintings are made on the walls of the house with the help of herbal colours extracted from plants and flowers. Brushes are also made by using household objects. In these paintings, the cultural traditions and different aspects of the daily lives of the Bhil tribal community are vividly depicted. Bhuri Bai is now a renowned artist of national repute of this style of painting.16


Thus, in India, the tradition of wall painting is existing from the pre-historic era. In the early phases, when the people were living in the forest areas as food-gatherers and hunters, such paintings were done by them on the hard and rough rocks which came to be known as Rock painting. Later, the tradition of cave paintings was developed during the historic period .and lastly, it became a popular medium to adorn and embellish the inner walls of the palaces, forts, havelis, temples, and cenotaphs. Many of such paintings are extant today. But the majority of such valuable heritage could not survive the ravages of nature combined with utter human neglect. Still today, restoration and conservation work has not gathered momentum due to various reasons. This is high time proper and effective action was taken to save this national heritage. Otherwise, the future generations will be deprived of having a glimpse of their glorious past. These paintings reflect the vivacity, joyfulness, and buoyancy of Indian people down the ages.

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  • M.N.Deshpande, Cave Paintings in India 16, Wall Paintings in India-A historical perspective (ed.) O.P.Agrawal, INTACH Conservation Centre, Lucknow, 1989.
  • Ibid, p.18.
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid, p.20.
  • K.K.Chakravarty, A History of Wall Paintings in Madhya Pradesh 52, (ed.) O.P.Agrawal, INTACH Conservation Centre, Lucknow, 1989.
  • Ibid, p.57.
  • Ibid, p.58-59.
  • Ibid,p.61.
  • Ibid.
  • M.S. Nagaraj Rao, Wall Paintings of Karnataka 32, (ed.) O.P.Agrawal, INTACH Conservation Centre, Lucknow, 1989.
  • M. Velayudhan Nair, Mural Art Tradition in Kerala 34-35, (ed.) O.P.Agrawal, INTACH Conservation Centre, Lucknow, 1989.
  • P.L.Chakravarty, Ala-Gila of Jaipur 68, (ed.) O.P.Agrawal, INTACH Conservation Centre, Lucknow, 1989.
  • S.D.Trivedi, Wall Paintings in Bundelkhand Region 86, (ed.) O.P.Agrawal, INTACH Conservation Centre, Lucknow, 1989.
  • Sadia Akhtar, Paleolithic cave paintings found in corner of NCR could be among oldest in the country, The Hindustan Times, Jul 14, 2021.
  • Sukhbir Siwach & Sakshi Dayal, Prehistoric site in Faridabad could be a lakh years old, says archeologists, The Indian Express, Jul 23, 2021.
  • सीमा झा, ‘दुनिया भर में छा गए दीवारों के रंग’, दैनिक जागरण, 11, 12, 2021.

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