The record of religious painting in North India is even more depleted than is the tally of temple architecture, and for the same reasons, Indian painting of the first millennium AD barely survives anywhere on account of the deleterious climate, and in northern India there has been the added problem of Muslim iconoclasm.
From surviving texts, however, and by analogy with what is known of later periods, we can infer that there has always been a substantial tradition of painting on wood and above all on cloth. This must have been the case throughout the subcontinent, and not just in the north. Some fragmentary notion of this north Indian painting tradition can be seen from the paintings recovered by Sir Aurel Stein from Central Asia.
Of these a small number reflect a very clear Indian influence, or were perhaps produced in north western India. Most of these are Buddhist in subject, but they include a small number of images of Hindu deities such as Ganesha and Shiva. One panel painting shows Shiva in a form instantly recognisable from the corpus of Kashmiri sculpture of the god, being three-headed, four-armed and ithyphallic. Elsewhere on the southern edges of Central Asia (for instance in Ladakh) religious paintings survive to give some idea of northern Indian styles. They are, however, invariably Buddhist in subject matter.
Examples of Hindu painting are hardly known in north India until the late sixteenth century, and then in a quite different guise. During the period of religious tolerance associated with the Mughal emperor Akbar, the greatest of the Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, were translated into Persian at his order. These manuscripts were illustrated in the court ateliers. Examples can be seen in the British Library (Razmnama [the Mahabharata]) and the Metropolitan Museum in New York (Harivamsa).
The most remarkable example, however, is of the Ramayana, now in the Man Singh Museum in Jaipur. In these manuscripts the paintings are full of brilliant colour and compositional expertise. Remarkably, these painters (many of whom were Hindus) could illustrate manuscripts of Persian fables or the lives of the Mughal emperors, just as they could the Indian epics. This unusual situation of a non-Hindu ruler (Akbar) commissioning Hindu subject paintings is interestingly paralleled during the rule of the successors to the Mughals - the British - in some of the so-called Company paintings.
The later Mughals showed less interest in the religion of the majority of their subjects, with the result that most of the rest of the body of great Mughal paintings are products of the Muslim courts as far as subject matter is concerned. Religious painting remained at a consequently lowly level throughout the break-up of the Mughal empire and during the British period. Examples include items such as the paintings made for the Nagapanchami festival.
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