In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Wall Painting of South Asia and Allied Textile Traditions

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Murals, Texts, and Practice
  • Technical and Conservation Studies

Art History Wall Painting of South Asia and Allied Textile Traditions
Anna Seastrand
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0068


The diverse traditions of wall painting in South Asia span the full extent of the region’s geography, all periods of historical inquiry, and numerous media and artistic styles. South Asia is here understood to include Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. While the western Tibetan plateau within India is included, other Himalayan countries and Tibet are not. Perhaps the most famous—and the most well documented—wall paintings are the murals that decorate the Buddhist monasteries and shrines in the rock-cut caves of Ajanta, the earliest of which may date to the 1st century BCE, but most of which date to the 5th century CE. The luminous 5th-century figures at Sigiriya, Sri Lanka, have also generated significant interest among both scholars and the public. Other sites have come to attention because of greater access or publicity. The recent 1,000th anniversary of the dedication of the great temple at Thanjavur elicited new studies of its murals; similarly, increasing access and restoration to sites such as the 11th- to 12th-century Buddhist monastic complex at Alchi and the 17th-century Mughal palace in Lahore have generated research and publications about their murals. Few examples in the total corpus of mural sites, however, stand out as truly well known or well studied. Generally, paintings produced for vernacular consumption, or by and for those traditionally on the social margins, remain relatively unknown; they have been grouped together here under the heading On the Margins: “Tribal,” “Women’s,” and “Folk” Painting. An attempt is made here to present a broad survey of mural painting traditions in South Asia, while representing the field in a way that accurately reflects its body of scholarship. Thus, sites that have attracted a significant amount of scholarship receive individual treatment here, while places or traditions that remain understudied are, regrettably, excluded entirely. It is hoped that these subjects may be added in the future. Most studies of murals document and analyze the context, content, and style of wall paintings. Beyond these concerns, a comparatively smaller body of scholarly literature investigates related areas of research. The first of these areas is the study of literature that prescribes art making and its appreciation, a genre known generally as śāstra, śilpaśāstra, or citrasutra. Another minor area of research is devoted to analysis of the technique and chemical compositions of the murals. Increasing awareness of the importance of the murals, especially in view of their accelerated decay and disappearance due to pollution, vandalism, and renovation, has generated studies devoted to the care and conservation of wall paintings. The third closely related topic is the tradition of large, painted, wall-hung textiles. The textiles included in this study are those considered to closely mirror the scale, style, and function of mural paintings. While an argument could be made for including many types of painted textiles in the myriad traditions of South Asia, only pichhvai and kalamkari are here considered to correspond most closely to the mural tradition.

General Overviews

Surveys of the entirety of Indian painting almost invariably begin with the 5th-century CE wall paintings at the site of Ajanta and rarely thereafter return from manuscript and miniature paintings to the subject of murals. An exception to this is Sivaramamurti 1970, wherein mural painting is understood to underpin all other forms of painting in South Asia. Studies confined to mural paintings are generally documentary; interpretation extends to identification of the subject of the paintings and historical contexts of production. Seth 2006 offers an alternative, integrating a consideration of other types of media, such as manuscript painting, sculpture, and literature, into the analysis of murals. Contestation within scholarship revolves around questions of style, influence, and date. Following the comparative methodology of Rowland and Coomaraswamy 1938 (cited under Early Cave Murals, 5th–9th Centuries), many surveys extend the argument that murals in China and Japan were influenced by the style of murals in South India (Chaitanya 1976), as well as Nepal, Burma, and Thailand (Seth 2006). Nagpall 1988 considers the state of preservation of the murals, and Agarwal 1989 discusses conservation issues. See Technical and Conservation Studies for more work of this kind.

  • Agarwal, O. P., ed. Wall Paintings of India—A Historical Perspective. Lucknow, India: INTACH Conservation Centre, 1989.

    This volume is not widely available. It comprises collected essays from a seminar on the subject of mural paintings and their conservation in South and Southeast Asia. The essays are brief and serve as introductions to the regions, themes, techniques, and conservation of the paintings.

  • Chaitanya, Krishna. A History of Indian Painting: The Mural Tradition. New Delhi: Abhinav, 1976.

    History of murals from prehistoric to Buddhist caves and their “continental radiations” to Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, China, and Japan. Final section focuses entirely on painting in south India, from the 7th to17th centuries. Includes histories of the sites and dynasties, descriptions of the murals and their physical contexts, and references to relevant literature.

  • Nagpall, J. C. Mural Paintings in India. Delhi: Gian Pub. House, 1988.

    Survey of mural sites in India organized by state and dated. Introduction considers technique and conservation problems. A bibliography for each site, as well as pertinent technical information, is included where available. Some black-and-white images. Useful for identifying and locating sites.

  • Seth, Mira. Indian Painting: The Great Mural Tradition. New York: Abrams, 2006.

    A broad survey, richly illustrated in color, of ancient to early modern murals spanning the entire length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent. Analysis of the paintings is mostly focused around problems of style and stylistic transmission. Some dates are contested in other scholarship.

  • Sivaramamurti, C. Indian Painting. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1970.

    Promotes mural painting as the tradition indigenous to South Asia, and most of the text concentrates on early examples. Manuscript and miniature painting, which are understood to blend Chinese, Turkish, Persian, and Western influences with mural traditions, are seen as uniquely Indian expressions of these media.

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