Vedic Art: Indian Miniature Painting, Part 7

By editor - 6.1 2017

Krishna-lila Malwa, c. 1550

A serial presentation of India's artistic legacy in paintings, sculpture and temple architecture.


The region of Mewar is rich not only in Vaisnava themed paintings, but also in Vedic history. Previously known as Udaipur Kingdom, Mewar covered a wide-ranging area comprising what is now south-central Rajasthan, parts of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. For centuries the region was under Rajput control, ruled by Chattari Rajputs for over 1,400 years. It later came under British control.

In ages past, Mewar was known as Medhpaath. Lord Shiva (Ekling Nath) is known as the King of Mewar, thus he is referred to as Medhpateshwar, Lord of Medhpaath. The name Mewar is derived from the ancient place name, Medhpaath.

Map of Hindostan, c. 1814

Mewar is bordered on the northwest by the great Aravali Range. Ajmer lies to the north, Gujarat and the Vagad region of Rajasthan lie to the south. The Hadoti region of Rajasthan borders Mewar on the west, and the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh lies on its southeast border.

Mewari art is closely associated with the art of Malwa and today, Indologists are working to increase our knowledge of the interconnectedness between these two regions. Miniature paintings are often found with the source label, 'Mewar/Malwa'. Some of these paintings show a strong Persian influence, such as the illustrated Kalpa Sutra (1439 A.D.), currently housed in the National Museum at Delhi. This Kalpa Sutra, prepared in Mandu, the capital city of Malwa, is the earliest known example of dated Miniatures in India.

Radha and Krishna Malwa, c. 1620

A range of Miniature styles evolved from the Kalpa Sutra, including the Nimat Nama cookbook, discussed previously in this series, and other Rajasthan and Persian-influenced Western India school works. The Mandu Kalpa Sutra illustrations are striking for the large eyes and angular figures, ornamented with an abundance of gold motif.

As we move forward on the art timeline to the 17th Century, we will explore a wealth of magnificent Mandu/Malwa Miniatures from Bhagavata Purana, Ramayana and other Vaisnava texts.

Some art historians suggest that the Malwa School does not actually have its origin in Malwa, Central India, nor does it come from Rajasthan or the northwestern front, but rather from the Bundelkhand, an ancient kingdom to the east of Malwa. Bundelkhand, also known as Chedi Kingdom, was named for the Bundela Rajputs up until the 16th Century. Art historian Gautamavajra Vajracharya writes:

"When the sultans ruled central India from their capital Mandu in Malwa, they controlled Bundelkhand. During the first and second quarters of the sixteenth century when the Malwa sultans were losing their control and the Mughal dynasty was still struggling to establish dominance in northern India, a Hindu king known as Raja Rudra Pratap, took advantage of this political situation to found an independent kingdom around Orchha.

Although we have no Bundelkhand painting from this early period, art historians believe – on the basis of the earliest dated work that can be epigraphically ascribed to Bundelkhand, such as the 1675 Ramayana manuscript in the National Museum, New Delhi – that the early Hindu paintings of Bundelkhand show strong stylistic affinity with contemporaneous Malwa painting (Chaitanya, vol. 3; 89-90)."

As the 10th Century temples of Khajuraho show, Bundelkhand was an ancient center of Vaisnavism. It is also known for its Vaisnava culture, coming down from the Yadu dynasty.

16th c. Bundi School, Bundi Fort, Rajasthan

As discussed in our last segment, the 16th Century Chaurapanchasika Miniatures demonstrate a Western Indian art style that maintained its Vaisnava roots, despite strong Persian and Jain influences. That Vaisnava style is mirrored in the oldest extant copy of Bhagavat Purana, from Delhi/Agra area, c. 1530 A.D. Likewise, a strong Vaisnava influence from Bundelkhand appears to be responsible, at least in part, for the wealth of Vaisnava-styled Miniatures coming out of Malwa.

The paintings of Malwa can also be compared to those of nearby Bundi, Rajasthan. While both may depict Vaisnava themes, there is a marked difference in style. The Malwa School images maintain an archaic indigenous style, as seen in illustrated versions of the Rasikapriya (1634), the Sanskrit poem Amaru Shataka (1652), Ragamala and Bhagavata Purana manuscripts from the region. While some of the Bundi School paintings are quite similar in composition, they tend to be more finely drawn than their Malwa counterparts.

Krsna and the Gopis Bundi School, Rajasthan


Sources: Excerpted and paraphrased from: 
Ministry of Culture, Government of India 
National Museum. New Delhi
Watson Collection of Indian miniatures at the Elvehjem Museum of Art by Gautamavajra Vajracharya