The Sanskrit epic Rāmāyana is perhaps the most depicted epic in the world today. Some of the most exotic historic sites in India and the rest of the east, such as the Ellora caves, Mahāvalipuram, Cambodian temples, and several other places in Thailand portray Rāmāyana scenes and characters in their sculptures and paintings. Its literary contents have continued to inspire artists and artesans to depict the Rāmāyana scenes in paintings, on stone and other media for sculptures. Consisting
of 24,000 verses, it is supposed to have been written around 250 to 300 BC, although the events described in it appear to be much earlier, around 1000 BC. Although generally looked upon as a religious epic of the Hindus the contents in relation to Lanka reveal some contents that may be historic.
Many other religious beliefs to stake a claim to Lanka, the present Sri Lanka. To the Mohammedans it was the paradise of Adam and Eve. One Islamic legend says that when Adam and Eve were cast out of the paradise, Adam fell on the island of Ceylon, and Eve near Jeddah, the port of Mecca. They later met each other and lived in Ceylon. Adam’s Peak is a legacy of this legend.
For the Buddhists, it was the island chosen for salvation of Rakshas and Nagas by the Buddha. With such a variety of claims it is not entirely surprising to see Lanka having a multitude of ancient names. The Island’s ancient name, Lanka (Laka or Laksha, thousands) is supposed to be derived from the Sanskrit language, to refer to a multitude of islands around its western coast. In the Pandiyan Saṅgam literature, the southern region in the peninsula is referred to as MaveIlaṅkai (great Lanka), while Lanka, known for its supply of rice to the Tamil kingdom, is referred to as Ilaṅkai. The Sinhalese called the island Sīhala, after the Siṃha (lion) of the Vijaya legend. This name was corrupted to Sinhaladipa, and became the Serendib of the Arabs around the 2nd century AD. During the colonial period Sieladipa became Ceilão, and later ‘Zeilan’, and ‘Ceylon’ under the Dutch and British.
To the Hindus, it was the scene of the epic Rāmāyana battle where Rāma and Rāvaṇa fought over Sītā. The Hindu epic poem, Rāmāyana refers to the island as Ilaṅkai, the most antiquated name for the island. Many holy places in the island are implied in the Rāmāyana. Rāma is said to have prayed for his victory over Rāvaṇa, at the shrine for Siva at Muniswaram (Tamil: mun, ancient or before, Īśvara, Hindu god) in the Chilaw district. The narrow causeway between Ramēśvaram (Hindu gods: Rāma, Īśvara,) in India and Talaimannar served as the crossing point for Rāma before his battle with the Lankan king Rāvaṇa, and we know that this is geographically true. Dandaka forest, the northernmost wildernes of South India (Penninsular India) is where the first conflict between Rama (Aryan) and Surpaanakai, the sister of king Rāvaṇa (Dravidian), began. The legend in many ways is a rerun of the Aryan invasion that occurred thousand years previously in the
Indus which probably captured the imagination of Valmiki.
Following the Rig Veda of the Aryans (c 1400 BC), the next earliest quasi historic document that we can find is the Rāmāyana. The classical historian and Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Theodor Mommsen (1817-1910) quotes: “Imagination, mother of all poetry, is likewise mother of all history.” In the epic a divine monkey from the tribe of Vānarar comes to the island of Ilaṅkai in search of Rāma’s wife, who was abducted by Rāvaṇa, the king of Lanka. Shortly before entering Lanka he stands on Pavalamalai (Pearl Mountain) near Lanka, and observes the island which is regarded as a paradise. In the Kamba Rāmāyanam, a Tamil version of the Rāmāyana written later in the 12th century AD, the divine city of Lanka was built by the architect of God. Its palaces reached for the skies, with shining precious stones embedded in gold. Divine women of the giant race (Rākṣasas) and divine lords were serving giants like King Rāvaṇa. According to Kambar’s description Wind and God could enter the city only with Rāvaṇa’s consent; such was the the defence and glory of Lanka. Men and women happily lived here without the slightest care. Only happy people were seen about, and Hahnuman could not see any signs of discontent as he sifted through Lanka looking for Sītā.
The episode on war, the Uttara- kāṇḍa in the classic, between the Lankan Dravidian king and the Aryan king of India, constitutes 68 chapters out of a total of 537 chapters, in six books. Although in these verses the Rāmāyana narrates unlikely supernatural feats such as the flight of Hahnuman, a monkey god over Lanka, some geographical framework such as the Rama’s Bridge is noted. Rāma and Sītā’s legend still lives on in Sri Lanka through several place-names: Sītāvaka in the
Avissawella district where Sītā is believed to have been held in captivity: Sītākoṭuva, near Gurulupota in Minipe, on the Kandy-Mahiyangana road where Sītā is supposed to have been initially held by the Lankan king: Rāvaṇa, Älla, in Ella (near Badulla), a scenic cave behind waterfalls where Rāvaṇa hid Sītā: Ariṣṭa mountain Riṭigala) where Hahnuman is said to have dumped the earth containing medical herbs from Himalayas: MunĪśvaram Temple where Rāma prayed for his victory: Sītā Amman Kovil, near Hakgala Gardens, where the monkey god Hahnuman found Sītā, and the Rāma’s Bridge (Adam’s bridge) built by Hahnuman and his tribe for Rāma to cross over to Lanka.
Throughout early history the nature has had more control over the course of mankind than man himself. The ancient civilisations on the banks or the regions of rivers, such as Indus and Ganges in India, Euphrates and Tigris in Mesopotamia, and the Nile in Egypt were destined by the state of water levels in the rivers, either too high or too low. Man could either prosper or perish at the mercy of the rivers. Among these, the Indus civilisation is one of the ancient of the river colonies dating back to about 2500 BC. The first invasion of the Indian continent was at Indus region by a set of nomadic people from the west whom we now call the Aryans. The people inhabiting the Indus before the arrival of the Aryans are termed pre-Aryans most of whom seem to have moved towards the south or elsewhere, although a small proportion such as Baluchistanis stayed back in the region. The culture of the pre-Aryans, inferred through their architecture, beliefs, seals indicate that they were possible the fore-fathers of the present Dravidians whose religion evolved through the millennia into the current form of Hinduism.
To many eminent scholars, the Dravidian culture encompassed almost the whole of India before the arrival of Aryans. In referring to the vast area of pre-Aryan Indus culture, the archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler (1890-1976) states: “…… thus by far is the largest unitary civilization of pre-classical times.” The proto-Hindu images similar to Lingam, Yōni and Pasupathi found in the Indus Valley supports the theory of a Hindu based Dravidian origin to the present Hinduism. The fact that Dravidian dialect (Tamil) is still spoken in the Indus region (Baluchistan), renders support to the proto-Dravidian theory before the immigration of Aryans to Indus. Recent Radio Carbon dating of the Indus artefacts estimates the life span of Indus civilisation to be from about 2400 BC to 1400 BC.
In contrast to the well documented Greek invasions of North-western India, we have no written records for the Aryan migration to the Indus region. However, we learn of the struggles and conflict between the original inhabitants of Indus and the invading Aryans through the Rig Veda, composed by the Aryans at the beginning of ca 1400 BC. The pre-Aryan Indus people, believed to be the proto-Dravidians, have left us with objects and undeciphered texts on their seals. The images on their seals, their sculptures, architecture and planned towns over a vast area of over 600 miles, have given us a fair idea of this highly advanced ancient race. The Aryans themselves refer to the ruins left by the Indus valley people as arma (ruined site) and make the following reference to their predecessors of the Indus Valley: “The people whom these ruined sites, lacking posts, formerly belonged, these many settlements widely distributed, they, O’Vaisnavara, having been expelled by thee, having migrated to another land.” In these words, here lies the clue to the destiny of the original pre-Aryan Indus people: they did not perish but simply moved on to new frontiers.
The earliest recorded history of India starts around 1400 BC, with the oral composition of Rig Veda, the sacred text of the Brahmins. Consisting of over a thousand hymns and more than ten thousand verses, composed over a few centuries, this collection became the ‘canon’ of the Vedic religion. These mystical hymns: the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sāma Veda and Atharva Veda were first put down in archaic Sanskrit writing only as late as the 12th century AD. Before this time these hymns were chanted methodically and accurately by the Brāhmīns through successive generations, without the need or intention to write them down. These incantations were regarded as the greatest possession of the Brahmins granting them the privilege, monopoly and hegemony over all other casts of Hindus. Writing the Vedas down not only would have been a sacrilege, but also be inviting lesser castes to their profession.
The culture left behind by the pre-Aryan people in the Indus valley, in many aspects, is cognate with the Dravidian culture. Objects resembling phallus and Yoni, seals bearing images of proto-Hindu god Pasupathi and images of mother goddess are some striking examples of a proto-Hindu culture left behind by the pre-Aryans in the Indus region. The English Indologist, Arthur Llewellyn Basham in his book The Wonder that was India (1954) states: “The modern South Indian is usually a blend of Mediterranean and Proto-Australoid, the two chief ethnic factors in the Harappa culture; more over the Harappa religion seems to show similarities with those elements of Hinduism which are specially popular in the Dravidian country. In the hills of Baluchistan, where people of the Nal and Zhob cultures built their little villages, the Brahui, though ethnically now predominantly Iranian, speak a Dravidian language.” In his chapter on The End of the Indus Cities, Basham states: “First to suffer (the Aryan invasion) were the Baluchistan villages…. When the end came it would seem that most of the citizens of Mohenjo- daro had fled.” Indologist, Father H. Heras (1953), one of the authorities on the Indus scripts, believes that the text on the Indus seals is a form of primitive Tamil, although his theory is disputed by other scholars.
The British archaeologist Sir Henry Rawlinson (1810-1895), who deciphered the cuneiform tablets of the Persians in 1849, gives us a glimpse of India in the 6th century BC, through the eyes of the Persians and Greeks. His younger brother, George Rawlinson (1812-1902), the Professor of Ancient History at the University of Oxford, in his commentaries on the history by Herodotus, says: “The Indians included within the empire of Darius were probably the inhabitants of Punjab, together with those of the lower valley of Indus.” The boundaries of India described by Herodotus is limited to the north by the Gandhārians (in upper Punjab and Kashmir): to the west by the Pactyans (in Afghanistan), Arachosians (in the present Kandahar) and Gedrosians (in Baluchistan): on the east by the Great Indian Desert (Deccan): and the south by the sea.” Herodotus does not seem have been much aware of the southern peninsular India that intervened between that part of India known to the Greeks, and the sea, the Indian Ocean. However, we can still find the first description of Dravidians in the work of Herodotus: “The tribes (of) Indians are numerous, and do not all speak the same language…. Eastwards of these Indians are another tribe called Pandaeans who are wanderers and live on raw flesh…. They all have the same tint of skin which approaches that of the Ethiopians…. Their country is a long way from Persia towards the south: nor had king Darius ever any authority over them.” As there is no historic record of any expedition into the peninsular south India by Persians or the others before the time of Herodotus (c 500 BC), it is likely that the Greek historian obtained his information on South Indians, through hearsay from travellers.
About the Indians (in the North West), Herodotus states: “They were warlike race in the time of Darius.” Through Herodotus we come to know that the Indians served in the Persian army, against the Greeks. It was not until the military expedition of Alexander the Great (reigned 336-323 BC) in 329 BC that the curtain came down between the East and the West. Megasthenes (350-290 BC) the Greek ambassador to the court of Emperor Candragupta during his stay at Pāṭalīputra (311 to 302 BC, wrote Ta Indika, which proved to be one of the earliest records of the Indian region by any westerner. Pāṭalīputra, known as Patna today, became the first imperial city of India with the establishment of Chandragupta’s Empire during the time of Megasthenes. The grandson of Candragupta, King Aśoka, later completed the conquest of the entire north India by subduing the adjacent Kāliṅga Kingdom, but the cruelty of war that he witnessed made him convert to Buddhism. However, Asoka could not as assert his military influence over the South, but he had more powerful weapon: religion, namely Buddhism.
Thus, Buddhism was born as a reactionary force to Hinduism which was underpinned by animal sacrifices and the monopoly of religion by the Brahmins. Buddha’s philosophy was never meant to become a religion, but only a way to eternal peace, Nirvana. Buddha never endorsed personal worship or imitation of his image. His early disciples complied with his directive by worshiping images of his foot prints or stupas until the Greeks arrived in the region. In Gandhara located in the present Pakistan arose the first representation of the Buddha in human form. This was the beginning of Buddhist art which spread to most eastern regions of the world. The adjacent Swat Valley, the land of romance and beauty, is celebrated as the holy land of Buddhist learning and piety. It is said that the Swat was filled with fourteen hundred imposing and beautiful stupas and monasteries, which housed as many as 6,000 gold images of the Buddhism for worship and education. This culture has left us with more than 400 Buddhist sites covering and area of 160 Km in Swat valley alone.
The earliest discovered statue at Gandhara is that of the seated Buddha from 2nd or 3rd century AD. Other Buddha images from this period too are of Greco-Roman style. They seem to have flourished during the adjacent Kushan reign of Mathura (Uttar Pradesh). Since then the schools of Gandhara and Mathura each independently evolved their own characteristic depiction of the Buddha from about the 1st century CE. The Gandhara school mostly drew from the traditions of Rome and Greece and represented the Buddha with a youthful Apollo face, dressed in royal garments. The ancient Gandharan artisans in their composition of Buddha’s images and his experiences have transformed the religion into Buddhist Art. The first depiction of Buddha on a gold coin was released by King Kanishka I in the first century during which time the first image of Shiva and Nandi too appeared on a gold coin.
Nearly a millennium later Tantrism brought mythology and mysticism to the religion. Vajrayāna, Mantrayāna, Tantrayāna, Tantric Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism are the various Buddhist traditions of Tantra and “Secret Mantra”, which developed in medieval India and spread to Tibet and East Asia around the 7th century AD. In Tibet, Buddhist Tantra is termed Vajrayāna, while in China it is generally known as Tángmì, and in Japan it is known as Mikkyō. The new philosophy opened a vast scope to Buddhist art with each country adopting its own culture to Buddhism. A unique turn in the history of religions occurred in the 12th century with the fusion of the two religions in Khmer Empire during the reign of Jayavarman VII. He embraced Buddhism which coalesced with the pre-existing culture of Hinduism for a millennium. Vishnu and Buddha were seated in the same alter, guarded by the Naga, with goddess Uma too appearing as consort of Vishnu. The great temples of Khmer became the ultimate seat of art accommodating Hindu mythology such as Ramayana and heavenly dancers or Asparas, along with Buddha bringing the two oldest religions together without conflict. The fusion brought a whole new spectrum of Hindu-Buddhist art to the south east encompassing many countries including Burma, Thailand, Nepal, Vietnam and other regions of Indochina.
In the meantime, the parallel development of Hindu Art continued mostly in the Southern Peninsula of the Indian continent. The Pandyan dynasty was probably the most ancient of the Tamil dynasty, the other two being the Cholas and the Cheras. Pandyans excelled in Tamil literature and poetry along with performing arts. The Tamil Sangam was the legendary depository of literary works of the Tamil poets at Korkai, a seaport on the southernmost tip of the Indian Peninsula. Following a deluge, the Pandyans shifted their capital to Madurai. Strabo, the Greek philosopher and geographer (63 BC- 24 AD) vouches to the antiquity of the Pandyan king when he sent gifts to Augustus Caesar in Rome. We also see legacy of the Padyans in their ancient coins often depicting a fish in the pre-Christian era. The three dynasties of South India were referred to as the Three Crowned Kings of Tamilakam and were known to King Asoka. Earlier to this time the Greek ambassador Megasthenes at the court of Chandragupta in the 3rd century BC had described the Pandyan kingdom as Pandyan Mediterranea and Modura Regia Pandionis.
Hindu art, architecture and sculpture reached its zenith during the Pallava period (275 CE to 897 AD) and Chola period (848-1279 AD). The gap in Hindu art and architecture from about early Christian era until this period could be partly explained by the rise of Buddhism through King Asoka’s efforts to promote Buddhism in South India. Buddhist monasteries prevailed over Hindu centres in the 5th century at Kanchipuram and adjacent regions. Buddhism started to recede later at the instance of Saivites and the last stand of Buddhism in South India was at Nagapattinam.
The history of Hindu art in India is as old as Indian civilisation itself before the Aryans. Present day Hinduism in India is an interactive product of the nature gods of the Aryans and native gods of Hinduism. The concept of mother goddess prevails strongly since the pre-Aryan times to the multiple forms of goddess such as Shakti, Parvati, Devi, Durga, Kali, Lakshmi and so on depicting the one and the same of female power in many forms. While on the other hand the male deities are mostly representative of male primordial power with female consorts. The Hindu philosophy surpasses most religious ideologies in making the female and male not only a power on their own, but an inseparable power as one and the same in the image of Ardharnishvara, a god who is both male and female. Although the iconic representation Ardharnishvara probably evolved in the 8th to 9th century AD, the concept power of genders itself was conveyed through Linga and Yoni as the primordial genders of procreation much earlier.
Hindu art was born of Hindu deities but propagated through native interpretation of their gods generating thousands of mythologies that empowered the gods by strengthening Hindu faith through fear of these gods. In contrast the compassionate side of the Hindu religion is seen in gods and goddesses such as Sarasvati who bestows prosperity and knowledge, Lakshmi who grants wealth, Vishnu who maintains harmony of the universe, Ganesh who removes obstacles and Durga who protects her devotees.
Shiva is a philosophical concept in Hinduism encompassing the universe and its contents. His abode in Mount Kailash in the Himalayas, one of the highest natural positions on earth, close to the source of some of the longest Asian rivers: the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, and Karnali also known as Ghaghara (a tributary of the Ganges) signifies the essence of nature. His depiction as Linga portrays the male procreational power of the mankind which took its origin during Vedic times around 1400 BC. In the bible during creation god produced Eve out of Adam’s bone so that he is not alone. According to Hindu faith, Shakti (Parvati) was created as consort of Shiva symbolic representation of Linga and Yoni.
Of the Trimurti or triumvirate, Brahma is the creator, Vishnu the preserver of the universe while Shiva is endowed with the power of destruction. Shiva’s role in Hindu philosophy takes multiple forms. The androgynous image of Shiva as Ardhanarishvara (Ardhanaranari) is a philosophical model conceived in 100 to 300 AD during the Kushan period, or possibly even earlier. In this iconic representation of Shiva, one half of the image portrays his male attributes with a short dhoti and without developed breast, while Parvati wears a long dhoti and female breast. The 3rd eye is common to both as they share the wisdom and power together as supreme god and goddess.
The choice of Nandi (cow) as Shiva’s vehicle reflects the pastoral origin of human civilisation and possibly the mother nature of Dravidian goddesses. Nandi and Shiva together, perhaps the first depiction, appears in the oesho gold coins of Kushan of the early Christian era. The presence of the statue of Nandi at the gates of most temples dedicated to Shiva underpins the spiritual role of the sacred animal in Hinduism. The most iconic image of Shiva as Nataraja (natyam; dance, raja; king) comes from the Chola and Pallava period (400-1200 AD) when metallurgic Hindu art reached its zenith.
According to Shaivism sect whose main deity is Shiva, he is formless, limitless, transcendent and unchanging absolute Brahman. There are many interpretations to Tandav (Tamil, tandavam; dance) image of Shiva. As the cosmic dancer he performs his divine dance to destroy a weary and ignorant universe in order to make preparation for the god Brahma to commence the process of creation. Nataraja is the most revered as well as most feared god in Hinduism embracing the extraordinarily rich and complex cultural heritage of India. As he performs his cosmic dance with holy river Ganga flowing from his matted hair, he holds in his upper right hand the damaru, the hand drum from which issues the primordial vibrating sound of creation. His right hand he makes the gesture of abhaya, imparting assurance and divine protection. His upper left hand holds the agni, the consuming fire of dynamic destruction. His right foot tramples a dwarf-like figure (apasmara purusha), the ignoble personification of illusion who leads humankind astray. In his dance of ecstasy Shiva raises his left leg in a gesture known as the gaja hasta, providing refuge for the troubled soul. Encircling Shiva is a flaming halo (prabhamandala) which symbolizes the boundaries of the cosmos. Most exquisite feature of all is the divine and calm facial features of Shiva as he dances to destroy ignorance and save the universe.
Shiva is also tribal god depicted as a warrior riding a horse. As Khandoba (Martanda Bhairava or Malhari) he is worshiped mainly in the Deccan plateau of India, especially in the states of Maharashtra and Karnataka. He is the most popular Kuladaivat (family deity) in Maharashtra, the foremost centre of his worship being Jejuri. Khandoba is also the patron deity of warrior, farming, herding and Brahmin (priestly) castes, as well as several of the hunter/gatherer tribes that are native to the hills and forests of this region. The cult of Khandoba has linkages with Hindu and Jain traditions, and also assimilates all communities irrespective of caste, a concept alien to Brahmins. The worship of Khandoba developed during the 9th and 10th centuries from a folk deity into a composite god possessing the attributes of Shiva, Bhairava and Surya.
The Image of Shiva as he is portrayed in various forms, meditating ion Mount Kailash, performing his Tardive dance, riding a horse wielding a sword, or seated on Nandi are a product of Hindu mythology, faith and philosophy expressed through religious art.