Medieval History

How Kashmiri Art Influenced Artistic Expression In The Rest Of India And Beyond

Source: – Subhash Kak / Swarajya Magazine.

Kashmiri art - swarajya


This essay, the fourth and final part in a series on the extensive contribution of Kashmir to Indian culture, focuses on art, architecture and literature in Kashmir and its enormous influence over the arts in the rest of India and beyond.

Architecture And Painting

The uniqueness of the Kashmiri idiom in artistic expression has been greatly recognised by historians. The ancient temple ruins in Kashmir are some of the oldest standing temples in India today (seventh to ninth century) and would have been among the most magnificent temples ever made in India. The sculptures found here are significant and exquisite.

The Martanda temple, built by Lalitaditya Muktapida, is one of the earliest and yet largest stone temples to have been built in Kashmir. The temple is rectangular in plan, consisting of a mandapa and a shrine. Two other shrines flank the mandapa. It is enclosed by a vast courtyard by a peristyle wall with 84 secondary shrines in it. The columns of the peristyle are fluted. Each of the 84 niches originally contained an image of a form of Surya — the number 84, as 21×4, appears to have been derived from the numerical association of 21 with the sun.

Marthand temple - Swarajya

Lalitaditya also built an enormous chaitya in the town of Parihasapura which housed an enormous Buddha. Only the plinth of this huge monument survives, although one of the paintings at Alchi is believed to be its representation. There was also an enormous stupa in Parihasapura built by Lalitaditya’s minister Chankuna, which may have even been larger than the chaitya. The Parihasapura monuments became models for Buddhist architecture from Afghanistan to Japan.

The Pandrethan temple, as well as the Avantipur complex, provide us with further examples of the excellence of Kashmiri architecture and art. Kashmiri ivories and metal images are also outstanding, and are generally considered to be among the best anywhere in the world.

Kashmir also had a flourishing tradition of painting which must have been used to decorate the temples walls. The earliest surviving examples of these paintings come from Gilgit and date back to around the eighth century. Representing a highly developed style, these paintings must be seen as belonging to a very old tradition. Kashmiri craftsmen were long famed for their work and their hand can be seen in many works of art in Central Asia and Tibet.

Although references to paintings in ancient Kashmiri literature are scattered, and because all records of painting in the Valley were destroyed after the advent of Islam, it is only possible to piece together this tradition from the paintings that are preserved in the Buddhist temples of Ladakh and Tibet. The Tibetan scholar Rinchen Zangpo (950-1055 AD) claimed to have visited Kashmir thrice to obtain the services of 75 Kashmiri craftsmen, painters and teachers to build and decorate 108 temples in Western Tibet. According to the 16th century Tibetan scholar Lama Taranatha, author of History of Buddhism In India, there existed — in ninth-century India — four principal schools of art: eastern, middle country, Marwar and the Kashmiri.

The discovery of Gilgit manuscript paintings has deepened our understanding of Kashmiri painting. Although usually assigned to the Kashmir school of the ninth century, on stylistic grounds, they may date even earlier as their nearest parallels are found in the eighth-century stone sculpture of Pandrethan. Painted figures of Boddhisattva Padmapani from Gilgit demonstrates the mingling of the Gandharan and the Gupta Indian conventions with local elements. The faces are typical Gandharan while the iconography and spirit is purely Indian.

After Lalitaditya, Kashmiri style appears to have changed somewhat and it endured till the 10-11th century. This phase is the most developed stage of Kashmiri art with its fame spreading even into the remote Himalayas.

The ninth century complex of Avantipura built by King Avantivarman (855-883 AD) is an amalgam of various earlier prevalent forms of India and regions beyond. The best example of this style is found in the bronze, cast by Kashmiri craftsmen for Tibetan patrons, dating back to the 11th century. The style of such bronzes presents a remarkable affinity to the wall-paintings, dating back to the 10-11th century, decorated in the Buddhist temples of Western Tibet.

The wall paintings of Mang-nang and manuscript painting of Thaling, discovered in Western Tibet, are generally accepted to have been created by Kashmiri painters. Stylistically, they are a pictorial translation of contemporary Kashmiri bronzes. In the treatment of costumes and ornaments, the artists have meticulously executed the finest details of diaphanous and embroidered garments and intricate design. These wall paintings present a final stage of progression of the Kashmiri style which reminds something related to the distant Ajanta.

One of the best sites to see the Kashmiri painting style is in the five temples comprising the dharma-mandala at Alchi in Ladakh, which escaped destruction that other Ladakhi temples suffered at the hands of a Ladakhi king who embraced Islam. The earliest of these buildings is the Du-khang where one can see astonishingly well- preserved mandalas that document the Kashmiri Buddhist pantheon as well as the Buddhist representation of the Hindu pantheon.

The Sum-tsek, a three-level building next to the Du-khang, presents the native architectural tradition characterised by piled-up rock walls faced with mud plaster and decorated with delicate wood carvings of the Kashmiri style. Triangular forms are a part of the pillars and other architectural elements in a style that corresponds to the motifs found on the stone monuments of Kashmir. The plan of the building contains three extensions on the east, north and west where gigantic, two-storied images of Avalokiteshvara, Maitreya and Manjushri— to remove impurities in speech, mind and body— were situated. Elsewhere in the building is a most interesting painting of Prajnaparamita, identified by the book and the rosary she holds. A tall structure depicted on her sides appears to be the famous chaitya built by Lalitaditya at Parihasapura.

According to the historian of art, Susan Huntington:

Kashmir served as a source of imagery and influence for the northern and eastern movements of Buddhist art. The Yunkang caves in China, the wall paintings from several sites in Inner Asia, especially Qizil and Tun-huang, the paintings from the cache at Tun-huang, and some iconographic manuscripts from Japan, for example, should be evaluated with Kashmir in mind as a possible source. A full understanding of the transmission of Buddhist art through Asia is dependent on developing a greater knowledge of Kashmiri art.

Dance And Music

Kalhana, while speaking of Lalitaditya, narrates a charming story of how the king discovered the ruins of an old temple where he had a new temple built. While exercising his horse, Lalitaditya saw two beautiful, gazelle-eyed girls sing and dance every day at the same time. Upon questioning they told him that they were dancing girls who danced at the spot on the instructions of their mothers. Lalitaditya had the place dug up and he found two decayed temples with closed doors. Inside were images of Rama and Lakshmana. Clearly, the tradition of temple dancing was an old one.

The paintings in Kashmiri style bring to us a clear idea of the temple dances which prevailed in Kashmir at the time when these paintings were made (10th–11th centuries). Indian classical dance, in its different forms, was born out of the tradition of dancing before the Lord in the temples. This representation of the dance forms enriches our knowledge of the culture of Kashmir and its close integrity to the rest of India. Kalhana mentions many kings who were interested in dance and music.

The only extant, complete commentary on the Natya Sastra is the one by Abhinavagupta. The massive 13th century text Sangitaratnakara (Ocean of Music and Dance), composed by the Kashmiri theorist Sharngadeva, is one of the most important landmarks in Indian music history. It was composed in South-Central India, shortly before the conquest of this region by the Muslims and, thus, gives an account of Indian music before the full impact of Muslim influence. A large part of this work is devoted to marga, that is, the ancient music that includes the system of jatis and grama-ragas. Sharngadeva mentions a total of 264 ragas.


We return to rasa, mentioned by Bharata Muni, as the essence of artistic expression. In the poetic tradition, it is mentioned by Bhatta Lollata of the ninth century, the oldest commentator on the Natya Sastra whose views have come down to us. Other authors such as Shankuka, Bhatta Nayaka, Bhatta Udbhatta, Rudratta and Vamana also wrote on rasa. Kshemendra, the polymath, had his own theory of poetics. Abhinavagupta speaks of nine rasas, where the rasa of peace represents the addition to the eight enumerated by Bharata.

The ninth century scholar Anandavardhana wrote the Dhvanyaloka (Light of Suggestion) which is a world-class masterpiece of aesthetic theory. He rejected the earlier theories of alankara and guna by Bhamaha and Dandin, according to which ornamental qualities and figures of speech distinguished poetry from ordinary speech. Anandavardhana said that the difference was a quality called dhvani which communicates meaning by suggestion indirectly. Anandavardhana was a member of the court of the king Avantivarman.

Anandavardhana was the first to note that rasa cannot be communicated directly. If one were to say that “so-and-so and his wife are very much in love,” we fail to express the nature of the love. This can be done only by dhvani, or suggestion. Abhinavagupta, who lived about a hundred years after Anandavardhana, added important elements to the dhvani theory. His famous commentary on the Dhvanyaloka is called the Lochana.

The Western classical tradition of criticism has nothing equivalent to the concepts of rasa and dhvani. These ideas provide unique insights into Indic literature and they can also be useful in the appreciation of non-Indic literatures.

Abhinavagupta wrote on philosophy, poetry and tantra, as well as aesthetics. Abhinavagupta also wrote on tantra, his book Tantraloka (Light of the Tantras) is one of the most important on the subject. In all, he wrote more than 60 works. Kshemendra was a philosopher, poet and a pupil of Abhinavagupta. Among his books is the Brihatkathamanjari which is a summary of Gunadhya’s Brihatkatha in 7,500 stanzas. Somadeva’s Kathasaritasagara is another version of Gunadhya’s Brihatkatha. Somadeva’s collection of stories has influenced the birth of fiction elsewhere. These stories were written for the queen Suryamati, the wife of king Ananta (1028-1063 AD). The number of stanzas, not counting the prose passages, exceeds 22,000.

The classic arts and the sciences of Kashmir came to an abrupt end when Islam became the dominant force in Kashmir in the 14th century. Sculpture, painting, dance, and music could no longer be practiced. After the political situation had become stable, the subsequent centuries saw emphasis on devotion and its expression through the Kashmiri language as in the poetry of Lalleshvari. The creative urges at the folk-level found expression in the works of the craftsmen of wood and textiles.

But Kashmiri ideas lived on through the arts that transformed expression in Central and East Asia, and through Tantra and aesthetics that shaped attitudes in the rest of India. Many Kashmiris emigrated to other parts; the musicologist Sharngadeva and the poet Bilhana being just two such people. Although Kashmir had sunk to a state of misery, outsiders continued to pay homage to the memory of Kashmir as the land of learning, and Sharada, the presiding goddess of Kashmir, became synonymous with Sarasvati.

This essay has been taken from Kashmir and its People: Studies in the Evolution of Kashmiri Society. M.K. Kaw (ed.), A.P.H., New Delhi, 2004.

Read Also:

Legacy Of Kashmir, The Forgotten Land Of Beauty And Knowledge — Part I

Legacy Of Kashmir, The Forgotten Land Of Beauty And Knowledge — Part II

How Kashmir Enriched The Religious Diversity Of India

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