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Chapter 7 – The Fine Arts


The Hindu music appears, from the accounts of Sir W. Jones538 and Mr. Paterson539, to be systematic and refined. They have eighty-four modes540, of which thirty-six are in general use, and each of which, it appears, has a peculiar expression, and the power of moving some particular sentiment or affection. They are named from the seasons of the year and the hours of the day and night, and are each considered to possess some quality appropriate to the time. Musical science is said to have declined like all others; and, certainly, the present airs do not give

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to an unlearned ear the impression of any such variety or complication. They are almost all of one sort, remarkably sweet and plaintive, and distinguishable at once from the melodies of any other nation. To do them justice, however, they should be heard from a single voice, or accompanied by the vina, which has been called the Indian lyre.

The usual performance is by a band of fiddles and drums beaten with the fingers. It is loud and unmusical, and would drown the voices of the singers if they were not exerted to a pitch that is fatal to all delicacy or softness541.


Painting is still in the lowest stage. Walls of houses are often painted in water colours, and sometimes in oils. The subjects are mythology, battles, processions, wrestlers, male and female figures, and animals, with no landscape, or at best a tree or two or a building stuck in without any knowledge of perspective, or any attention to light and shade. Of the works of other nations they most resemble the paintings on the walls of Egyptian tombs. They have also pictures of a small size in

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a sort of distemper, which, in addition to the above subjects, include likenesses of individuals.

The Hindus have often beautifully illuminated manuscripts, but the other ornaments are better executed than the figures. If portraits were not spoken of as common in the dramas, I should suspect that they had learned this art from the Mussulmans, by whom (in spite of the discouragement given by the Mahometan religion) they are very far surpassed.


One would expect that sculpture would be carried to high perfection among a people so devoted to polytheism; and it certainly is not for want of employment that it has failed to attain to excellence. Besides innumerable images, all caves and temples are covered with statues and reliefs; and the latter are often bold, including complicated groups, and expressing various passions. They are sometimes very spirited, and neither the sculptures nor paintings fail to produce very fine specimens of grace in figure and attitude; but there is a total ignorance of anatomy, and an inattention even to the obvious appearances of the limbs and muscles, together with a disregard of proportion between different figures, and a want of skill in grouping, which must entirely exclude the best of the Hindu sculpture from coming into the most remote comparison with European works of art.

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The numerous edifices erected by the Hindus attest their knowledge of the practice of architecture; and if any confidence can be given to the claims of the books of which fragments still remain, they seem early to have been acquainted with the science.

A candid and judicious review of the extant works on architecture is contained in a late essay by an intelligent native, where, also, the system taught by them is ably developed542.

The principles of the art seem, by this essay, to have been well understood; and numerous rules appear to have been derived from them.

The various mouldings, twelve in number, are described; some (the cyma, toro, cavetto, &c.) are the same as our own, and a few are peculiar. The forms and proportions of pedestals, bases, shafts, capitals, and entablatures are given; how fully, in some cases, may be conjectured from there being sixty-four sorts of bases. There are no fixed orders, but the height of a column may vary from six to ten diameters, and its proportions regulate, though not strictly, those of the capitals, intercolumniations, &c. This place does not admit of any specification of the rules of architecture, or anything beyond a general notion of the native

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buildings which are now to be seen in India. The style of those structures has been supposed to resemble that of Egypt. It does so only in the massy character both of the buildings and the materials, and in the quantity of sculpture on some descriptions of edifices. The practice of building high towers at gateways is also similar, but in Egypt there is one on each side, and in India only one over the gateway.

Some few of the Egyptian columns bear a resemblance to some in the cave temples; but these are all the points in which any similarity can be discovered.

The two most striking features in Egyptian architecture are, the use of pyramids, and the manner in which the sides of every building slope inwards until they reach the top, where they meet a flat roof with a particularly bold and deep cornice. Neither of these characteristics is to be found in India. Pyramidal roofs to the halls before temples are not uncommon, but they are hollow within, and supported by walls or pillars. Solid pyramids are unknown; and even the roofs are diversified on the outside with acroteria and other ornaments, that take away all resemblance to the Egyptian pyramids. Walls are always perpendicular, and though towers of temples diminish gradually, yet they do so in a manner peculiar to themselves, and bear as much resemblance to our slender steeples as to broad masses of Egyptian architecture. They,

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in fact, hold an intermediate place between both, but have little likeness to either.

In the south they are generally a succession of stories, each narrower than the one below it; and north of the Godaveri they more frequently taper upwards, but with an outward curve in the sides, by means of which there is a greater swell near the middle than even at the base. They do not come quite to a point, but are crowned by a flattened dome, or some more fanciful termination, over which is, in all cases, a high pinnacle of metal gilt, or else a trident, or other emblem peculiar to the god. Though plainer than the rest of the temple, the towers are never quite plain, and are often stuck over with pinnacles, and covered with other ornaments of every description.

The sanctuary is always a small, nearly cubical chamber, scarcely lighted by one small door, at which the worshipper presents his offering and prefers his supplication. In very small temples this is the whole building; but in others it is surmounted by the tower, is approached through spacious halls, and is surrounded by courts and colonnades, including other temples and religious buildings. At Seringam there are seven different inclosures, and the outer one is near four miles in circumference543. The colonnades which line the interior of the courts, or form approaches to the

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temple, are often so deep as to require many rows of pillars, which are generally high, slender, and delicate, but thickly set. Gothic aisles have been compared to avenues of oaks, and these might be likened to groves of palm trees.

There are often lower colonnades, in which, and in many other places, are highly wrought columns, round, square, and octagon, or mixing all three; sometimes cut into the shape of vases, and hung with chains or garlands; sometimes decorated with the forms of animals, and sometimes partly composed of groups of human figures.

Clusters of columns and pilasters are frequent in the more solid parts of the building; where, also, the number of salient and retiring angles, and the corresponding breaks in the entablature, increase the richness and complexity of the effect. The posts and lintels of the doors, the panels and other spaces, are inclosed and almost covered by deep borders of mouldings, and a profusion of arabesques of plants, flowers, fruits, men, animals, and imaginary beings; in short, of every species of embellishment that the most fertile fancy could devise. These arabesques, the running patterns of plants and creepers in particular, are often of an elegance scarcely equalled in any other part of the world.

The walls are often filled with sculptures in relief; exhibiting animated pictures of the wars of the gods and other legends. Groups of mythological

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figures, likewise often run along the frieze, and add great richness to the entablature544.

Temples, such as have been described, are sometimes found assembled in considerable numbers. At the ruins of Bhuvaneswara, in Orissa, for instance, it is impossible to turn the eye in any direction from the great tower without taking into the view upwards of forty or fifty stone towers of temples, none less than fifty or sixty, and some from 150 to 180 feet high545.

Those of Bijayanagar, near the left bank of the river Tumbadra, are of still more magnificent dimensions.

But, notwithstanding their prodigious scale, the effect produced by the Hindu pagodas never equals the simple majesty and symmetry of a Grecian temple, nor even the grandeur arising from the swelling domes and lofty arches of a mosque. The extensive parts of the building want height, and the high ones are deficient in breadth; there is no combination between the different parts; and the general result produces a conviction that, in this art, as in most other things, the Hindus display more richness and beauty in details than greatness in the conception of the whole. The cave temples,

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alone, exhibit boldness and grandeur of design.

The impression made on the spectator by favourable specimens of temples, is that of great antiquity and sanctity, accompanied with a sort of romantic mystery, which neither the nature of the religion itself nor the familiarity occasioned by the daily sight of its ceremonies seems suited to inspire.

Though in temples of recent formation there is sometimes a mixture of the Mahometan style; yet the general character of these buildings is strikingly original, and unlike the structures of other nations. We may infer from this that the principles of the art were established in early times; but we have no reason to think that any of the great works which now attract admiration are of very ancient date. Even the caves have no claim to great antiquity. The inscriptions, in a character which was in use at least three centuries before Christ, and which has long been obsolete, would lead us to believe that the Baudha caves must be older than the Christian aera546; but those of the Hindus are shown beyond doubt, from the mythological subjects on their walls, to be at least as modern as the eighth or ninth century547. The sculptured

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works at Maha Balipuram, south of Madras, have been carried back to the remotest sera; but the accounts on the spot assign their construction to the twelfth or thirteenth centuries after Christ, and the sculptures on the walls afford a perfect confirmation of the tradition548.

Some of the most celebrated built temples are of very modern date. The pagoda of Jagannat (of which we have heard so much), and the Black Pagoda, in the same district, have been mentioned as among the most ancient of Hindu temples; yet the first is well known to have been completed in AD 1198, and the second in AD 1241549. Many of the other great temples are doubtless much older than this; but there are no proofs of the great antiquity of any of them, and some presumptions to the contrary.

The palaces are more likely to adopt innovations than the temples; but many retain the Hindu character, though constructed in comparatively recent times.

The oldest of these show little plan, or else have been so often added to that the original plan is lost. Being generally of solid construction, and with terraced roofs, the facility is great of building one house on the roof of another; so that, besides spreading towards the sides, they are piled upwards to a great height, and with great irregularity.

They generally contain small courts surrounded

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with high buildings; sometimes open, and some times shaded with the trees best adapted for that purpose. There is always a deep colonnade round each court.

The great rooms of state are upstairs, closed round like ours, not running to the whole height of the house, and open at one side like Mahometan divans. The stairs are narrow and steep, and cut out of the thickness of the wall.

The same remarks apply to the private houses, which are hardly entitled to come under the head of architecture.

Those of rich people have a small court or two, with buildings round, almost always terraced, sometimes left in the full glare of the white stucco, sometimes coloured of a dusky red, and the walls sometimes painted with trees or mythological and other stories. All are as crowded and ill-arranged as can be imagined.

Perhaps the greatest of all the Hindu works are the tanks, which are reservoirs for water, of which there are two kinds; one dug out of the earth, and the other formed by damming up the mouth of a valley. In the former case there are stone or other steps all round, down to the water, generally the whole length of each face, and in many instances temples round the edge, and little shrines down the steps. In the other sort these additions are confined to the embankment. The dug tanks are often near towns, for bathing, &c., but are also

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made use of for irrigation. The dams are always for the latter purpose. Many of them are of vast extent, and the embankments are magnificent works, both in respect to their elevation and solidity. Some of them form lakes, many miles in circumference, and water great tracts of country.

One species of Hindu well is also remarkable. It is frequently of great depth, and of considerable breadth. The late ones are often round, but the more ancient, square. They are surrounded, for their whole depth, with galleries, in the rich and massy style of Hindu works, and have often a broad flight of steps, which commences at some distance from the well, and passes under part of the galleries down to the water.

The most characteristic of the Hindu bridges are composed of stone posts, several of which form a pier, and which are connected by stone beams. Such bridges are common in the south of India. Others are on thick piers of masonry, with narrow Gothic arches; but their antiquity is doubtful, nor does it appear that the early Hindus knew the arch, or could construct vaults or domes, otherwise than by layers of stone, projecting beyond those beneath, as in the Treasury of Atreus in Mycenae.

Among other species of architecture must be mentioned the columns and arches, or rather gateways, erected in honour of victories. There is a highly wrought example of the former, 120 feet high, at Chitor, which is represented in Tod’sRajasthan550.”

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Of the triumphal arches (if that term may be applied to square openings), the finest example is at Barnagar, in the north of Guzerat. It is indeed among the richest specimens of Hindu art.


538. Asiatic Researches, vol. iii. p. 55.

539. Ibid. vol. ix. p. 445.

540. Sir W. Jones explains that these modes are not to be confounded with our modern modes, which result from the system of accords now established in Europe. The Indiai modes are formed partly “by giving the lead to one or other of our twelve sounds, and varying, in seven different ways, the position of the semitones.” This gives the number of eighty-four, which has been retained, although many of the original, or rather possible, modes have been dispensed with, and the number made up by aids drawnfrom the association of ideas and the mutilation of the regular scales.”

541. It is but fair to give the following opinion from a person evidently qualified to judge (in the Oriental Quarterly Magazine for December, 1825, p. 197.): We may add, that the only native singers and players whom Europeans are in the way of hearing, in most parts of India, are regarded by their scientific brethren in much the same light as a ballad-singer at the corner of the street by the primo soprano of the Italian Opera.”

542. Essay on Hindu Architecture, by Ram Raz, published by the Oriental Translation Fund.

543. Orme’s Indostan, vol. i. p. 182.

544. There are some beautiful specimens of Hindu architecture in Tod’sRajasthan.” The work of Ram Raz shows the details every where employed, as well as the general architecture of the south; but the splendid works of the Daniells exhibit in perfection every species of cave or temple in all the wide range of India.

545. Mr. Stirling, Asiatic Researches, vol. xv. p. 307.

546. An extensive Baudha cave is mentioned by the Chinese traveller in the very beginning of the fifth century, and must have been excavated in the fourth at latest. – Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. v. p. 103.

547. Mr. Erskine, Transactions of the Literary Society of Bombay, and Professor Wilson, Mackenzie Papers, Preface, p. lxx.

548. Professor Wilson, Mackenzie Papers, Introduction, p. lxxi.

549. Stirling’s Orissa, Asiatic Researches, vol. xv. pp. 315. 327.

550. Vol. i. pp. 328. 761.

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