The Vedic Period: (1500BC to 500BC) The Iron Age

Indian Art in the Vedic period, which is the time spanning the end of the Indus Valley Civilisation to the rise of the first Indian empire, the Mauryas, can be seen as a time for the blend of ideologies, philosophies, and concepts and also finding representations from the Aryan origins as well as Dravidian civilisation. This age also is known as the Iron Age, with metallurgical advances made in the Indus Valley Civilisation, being carried forward in this era with more verve. There is very little archaeological evidence of the artworks from this era, and in spite of it being a considerable span of time, very little is known about this period’s artworks. Having said that it would be ignorant to believe that nothing related to art happened in India in that time. What we know today as markers of the Vedic period are the contributions to architecture, agriculture, literature, religion, philosophy and social awakening. Apart from this, there are some stone carvings and rock-cut shrines, which date back to the Vedic period. One has to consider the effect of the migration of the Aryans from the Indus valley southward, pushing the Dravidians to the south of the continent.

The Indo- Aryan population was quite scattered and the inherent nature of being agrarian nomads, their lifestyles and architecture remained quite temporal as compared to Dravidians who built specific pyramid-shaped temples and presented architectural finesse, intricately carved stone statues of deities, kings, warriors and dancers. However the choice of materials like wood probably was the reason that very little artifacts survived the Vedic era. In the Vedic age, the major contribution was towards the written word, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata were written in this age, apart from the Vedas and Upanishads and this Vedic literature possibly became the ideological foundations for the future generation’s art practices. In the epics there is a mention of grand painted halls and walls of palaces, which could suggest that mural art was a common feature in those times. Architectural advances were made in this age and one could see the remnants of the Indo Aryan village layouts feature much later in the physical and metaphysical requisites of architectural arrangements in Hinduism and Buddhism.

Vedic Period_Wood Carving Art
Vedic Period Iron Implements_300x300
Early Middle Bronze Age_300x300

(Images from Vedic Period Art Specimens are used only for illustration purpose)

The Iron Age in the Indian subcontinent coincides with the Vedic period in history and lasts from approximately 1200BC to 600BC. From the archaeological finds in the Uttar Pradesh dating about 1300BC, iron implements were uncovered; evidencing the method of iron smelting was being practiced in that era. The Upanishads mention iron ore and metallurgy, and in south India, as early as 1200 BC to 1100BC, huge developments were made in iron ore related metallurgy. It is believed that by the early 300 BC, high quality of steel was already being produced in the south of the country, which was encouraged by the Mauryan Empire.

 

When we look at what kept the artist of those times going, we could glean the fact that they belonged to either specific guilds or families who spent their lives making and perfecting their kind of specific art. This phenomenon is seen even to this day. Such guilds often relied on the patronage of the ruling regent/king or at some point even a religious outfit like a temple authority. The artist often took the responsibility of adhering to specific traditional processes and chose not to be an independent free thinking soul, with a free will to create artwork as he chose/ experienced. Sculptors and painters were hence commissioned to carve the designs on to the rock surfaces of the pillars that would emboss the temple structures and the palaces alike. The ideas were formulated by the decision makers of the kingdom, kings, advisors, and ministers and carried out by the executives. Each act of art making at some point in history could be seen as specific milestones or intentional markers of that kingdom. Each flamboyant pillar generated much accolades and patronage and even the ability to loan the artists/artisans to other friendly, non-feuding kingdoms around the areas. Even the heinous acts of defacing the existing artwork to superimpose the new empire’s art on structures and walls could be seen as a claiming ownership of the space. In those times, architecture and art went hand in hand and it was about creating a permanent mark on the realm one owned or ruled over.