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Volume: V, Issue: I, January-December 2014



This article tries to explain the world view as contained in the ancient Indian art where nature and human existence are so entwined with each other that they become the integral part of the other and this inclusiveness brings home the point that they are not mutually exclusive as is thought of in modern times. Ancient Indian art symbolizes this integrated approach and one may find the assimilation of nature in every form conceived and depicted therein.

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Nature i.e. Prakṛti is omnipresent and omnipotent and, hence, Indian religion and philosophy from the Vedic times, talked about the nature and its importance (Agrawal, V.S. 1965: 1-20; Ray: 1974). The flora and fauna along with water, fire, earth, sky and wind (pañca tattva—five primeval elements) occupy a substantial and integrated (sampṛkta) place in the total plethora of Indian Art (Coomaraswamy, A.K. 1995: 1-20). In fact, Indian art seems to be the integrated visual manifestation of human and non-human (nature) forms.  Our ancient scriptures are full of such references which indicate not only the importance of earth, tree, water, animal, plant for our survival but also make them sacred objects of worship. Their sacredness and, thereby, reverence in the mind and heart of the people, naturally stopped them from causing any damage to the Nature and also encouraged them for its preservation for the survival and sustenance of the entire humanity.

The Śāntimantra of Yajurveda mentions about the Śānti (pacification) of earth and vegetation world—Pṛthiviḥ Śānti, Vanaspatayaḥ Śānti. The Atharvaveda says that the earth is our Mother and we all are her sons. Our welfare completely depends on her (earth) happiness (Prasannatā); and our annihilation (Purṇa Vināśa) is due to her unhappiness (Aprasannatā). These lines have the suggestion of the integration and interdependence of human and non-human forms, which solely depend on earth (Pṛthivi):


 Mātā bhūmih putrohaṁ pṛthivyā

aprasanno vināśāya prasannaḥ sarva siddhaye l

                                                    Atharvaveda. 12. 1. 26


In another reference of Atharvaveda, it is said that whatever the portion of land (Bhūmi) we dig, it should immediately be filled properly otherwise that will hurt the heart of the earth (Mother):


Yatte bhūme viśvanāmi kşipraṁ tadapi rohatu

Mā te marma vimrigvari , mā te hṛdayamarpitam l

                                                                                       Atharvaveda. 12. 1. 35


We all are aware of the tree and animal worship in ancient India which continues even today in the form of worship of various animals and trees, such as, cow (savatsa go), snake (specially on nāgapañcamî), two fish (suggestive of yugal), elephant like animals and reptiles and Nīma (Azadirachta Indica), Pīpal (Ficus religiosa), Tulasī (Ocimum tenuiflorum), and Banyan (Ficus benghalensis) trees. By the worship of trees and animals and its representations in Indian Art from the time of Indus Valley civilization through the centuries, the perennial importance of Nature is automatically reinforced. Some of them are included also in the list of auspicious symbols and the national emblem of India (four back to back lions) and state emblem of Uttar Pradesh (a pair of fish). The auspicious dreams of Indian tradition and story of Samudra-manthana also make reference to them.

Another interesting point is that Indian gods and goddesses—Śiva, Viṣṇu, Brahmā, Indra, Vāyu, Varuṇa, Durgā, Gaṇeśa, Kārttikeya, Kāmadeva, Sarasvatī, Gangā, Yamunā (deification of river goddesses since water is Āpa—Prāṇa tattva—life essence), and Buddha and Jaina Tīrthaṅkaras are invariably associated with flora and fauna mainly as their mount (vāhana) or  cognizance (cinha) and  as attributes  to be shown in their hands, excepting the figures of Buddha and Tīrthaṅkaras. For example, Lotus is shown in the hands of Sūrya, Lakṣmī, Viṣṇu, Sarasvatī, and Iku-dhanu (bow made of sugarcane) and five arrows made of different flowers with Kāmadeva (god of love),  and cock with Yama and Kārttikeya. In most of the cases the individual identity of Brahmanical deities and Jaina Tīrthaṅkaras rest mainly on the vāhanas (or cognizances) and attributes (āyudha) drawn from the world of flora and fauna.  

The present paper proposes to discuss the above and some other points pertaining to the importance of Nature in terms of specific examples of Indian art to underline how Indian art could be useful in building ecologically sustainable society today. These are important since we in the present live around those images for the sake of our faith and look at them either for aesthetic appreciation or for worship and inspiration. The paper aims at understanding the present through the strength of the past to get acceptability of the importance of Nature in present day society in the backdrop of faith and religion—Āsthā and dharma and its visual manifestations (Kalā). We all live in the present  with traditions and tangible (mūrta) and intangible (amūrta) heritage of the past moving around us in the forms of our rites, rituals, fairs, festivals  and worship in temples or of images. We can not think of any present without past. Our national emblem and keyline (bīja-vākya)— satyameva jayate—on it are from the past. The chanting of verses, drawing of svastika and keeping kalaśa full of water in every kind of pūjā (worship) by the Hindus today are the heritage of past only.

For showing the impact and inseparability of nature I have chosen some examples from different places and belonging to different periods and faith; they are the Lion Pillar of Aśoka at Sarnath, the masterpiece of Gupta art showing Buddha in preaching posture (dharmacakrapravartana mudrā) and the images of Lakṣmī, Kāmadeva and Gommateśvara Bāhubalī. I shall show not only the assimilation of nature into divine and human forms but also their vital communication in non-verbal language of art to suggest their relevance for the society at large at present.

The Sarnath Lion pillar of 3rd century BCE (Fig. 1) is on exhibit in the Archaeological Museum, Sarnath (Agrawal 1965: 110-116). It has some unique features due to which it had been chosen to become the National emblem of Indian Republic. It is a wonderful example to show how past is entwined with the present. However, I shall deal only with the presence of nature in Aśokan pillar and also discuss how the inscription of Aśoka on it helps in understanding the purpose of presence of four back to back sitting lions at its top. If we remove nature i.e. lotus, horse, bull, elephant and lions nothing would remain and the meaning and very purpose of its installation will be lost. Through the small figures of four animals on the abacus—elephant, horse, bull and lion—four main events from the life of Buddha were suggested. However, the presence of four back to back ferocious lion figures as its capital was interpreted in different ways by the scholars. But, if we take into consideration the Aśokan inscription which is a royal edict, its context becomes clear. The inscription gives the command of Aśoka against causing any harm to Buddhist organization (saṅgha) (Sircar, D.C. 1993: 72-73; EI  Vol. 8: No. 36). The figures of four ferocious lions, hence, seem to indicate the royal power of Aśoka and with this his firm desire for the spread of Buddha’s preachings (suggested through bigger wheel indicative of Buddha’s presence shown above the  lion figures, now kept in  restored form  in the Sarnath  Museum  close to the lion capital) in all the directions.

Another unique image is a Gupta period (5th century CE) image of Buddha sitting in meditative posture of dharmacakrapravartana mudrā (Fig. 2). This image is also procured from Sarnath and is preserved in Archaeological Museum, Sarnath. Besides iconographic and aesthetic features, it also reveals wonderful assimilation of nature in the rendering of halo which is of exceptional grace and beauty created by undulating creepers flowing all around, suggesting unceasing flow of energy and life. If we remove this halo showing the creepers, the image does not remain that graceful. I have virtually done it in the photograph given in the illustration. The other important point in this image is the presence of two deer on the pedestal which flank the central dharmacakra symbolizing here the dharma in command. Let us understand the reason for the presence of deer close to dharmacakra. What could be the ultimate objective of the preachings of Buddha or any other preceptor or Guru? Obviously, it would be to tell the means and ways to attain peace of mind leading to the welfare of body, family, society, nation and the world. In inanimate stone what better animal than deer could have suggested the ultimate outcome of the preachings of Buddha, which, by all means was the peace? Incidentally, the cognizance of the 16th Jaina Tīrthaṅkara Śāntinātha is also deer—mṛga which was befitting the name Śāntinātha denoting peace. Here element of nature becomes suggestive words and this is the beauty of the image. I have noted that such vital communication of art traveled beyond our narrow sectarian feelings and regional boundaries. As a result this suggestive motif was assimilated in the Jina images of western India from 11th century CE onwards. I have found, likewise, two deer flanking the dharmacakra in the centre of the pedestal of all the Jina images from Western India at Kumbhariya and Delvada. Here also the suggestion is same that the ultimate outcome of the preachings of the Jinas is the attainment of Peace, which alone could be the key instrument for harmony and progress of the people irrespective of caste, creed and region. This was the reality of the past which now is more relevant in the 21st century in the age of conflict, misunderstanding and the violence based on creed, caste and region. Thus, the images of past  become socially relevant in the present for all of us.

Now we shall talk about the figures of Lakṣmī and Kāmadeva who were popularly represented at many sites. These are merely two examples out of many which reveal that if the elements of nature associated with the deities in the forms of attributes, features and vāhanas are withdrawn, the images may lose their individual identity. Lakṣmī, the goddess of prosperity, seated on lotus is shown with lotuses in two hands, while two elephants in her Abhieka Lakmī form illustrate her with water pitcher, best expressed at Sāñchī, Ellorā (Fig. 3), Khajurāho and Mahābalipuram. The lotus and elephants both as elements of nature symbolize wealth and fullness of life to match with the concept and function of Lakṣmī as goddess of abundance (samṛddhi). On the other hand Kāmadeva, the god of love, is shown as carrying five arrows made of five different flowers (pañcaśara) like lotus Aśoka, Āmra and bow made of sugarcane (Ikudhanu) with makaradhvaja (flag topped by makara). Such images are found at Khajurāho, Halebid, Jinanāthpur. These attributes taken from nature are indicative of the sweetness (mādhurya) and power of love personified by Kāmadeva. In Āyurveda also the importance of Makaradhvaja in respect of power of Kāma is described.

Another rare examples of nature coming closest to human body to become integral part of image is the Bāhubalī (or Gommaṭeśvara as he is called in southern tradition) images coming as they do from Bādamī, Aihoļe, Deogarh, Khajurāho, Bilhari, Ellorā, Śatrunjaya, Kumbhāriyā, Śravanabeļgola, Kārkal, Veṇūr, Moodbidri, Karaikoyil and many other places in North and South India from about seventh century CE onwards (Tiwari, M.N.P. & Sinha, S.S. 2011: 164-207). Bāhubalī occupies a singularly venerated position in Jaina tradition and worship, and hence, also in visual art. He was not a Jina or Tīrthaṅkara but was merely the son of first Jina Ṛṣhabhanātha. His unceasing faith in and observance of ahiṁsā (non-violence), austerity and absolute renunciation inspired the Jainas to worship  Bāhubalī who as a result, became a powerful symbol as well as a personification of the peace, non-acquisition, renunciation and austerity  preached by the Jinas (Tiwari: 2011). He stood motionless in kāyotsarga mudrā for one whole year at one place when creepers entwined all his body and snakes, lizards and scorpions also crawled on the body. These representational features distinctly suggest the long passage of time in which Bāhubalī was absorbed in tapas. These features also symbolize the intimate relationship and co-existence of man and nature (Tiwari: 2010). The images of Bāhubalī could also be viewed today with a new awareness in the context of our serious ecological concern for peaceful survival of humanity. It was perhaps due to above reason that the tallest image (of c.983 CE, monolithic, 58 ft. in height) ever carved in ancient India was of Gommaṭeśvara Bāhubalī who was so close to nature. This image is at Śravaṇabeļgola (Fig. 4) in Karnataka.

In a rare open air large rock-cut panel at Mahābalipuram (Tamilnadu), I could notice both the indication of time and presence of nature. This brilliant Gaṅgāvataraṇa panel (Fig. 5) of Pallava period is datable to seventh century CE (Sivaramamurti, C. 1994: 23-29). In the centre of the cliff there is a gap showing nāga figures which are flowing downward to suggest descent of Gaṅgā on the earth. On ground level, on its right bank two figures are shown of which one is carrying water-pitcher (kalaśa) having Gaṅgā jala while other one is squeezing water from his long hair after taking bath in the Gaṅgā. However, two other male figures are shown in two different gestures of Sūrya namaskāra. One is in namaskāra mudrā while the other one is having both the hands being raised above the head with open palms facing sky and their fingers touching each other. These figures distinctly suggest that this Gaṅgāvataraṇa panel represents the normal religious activities on the bank of Gaṅgā in the morning hours. It has also natural renderings of the figures of elephants (in group with baby elephants), deer and tiger to give impact befitting the occasion of penance of Bhagīrath   and descent of Gaṅgā on the earth—Gaṅgāvataraṇa.

Indian art, thus, in all its magnitude and manifestations has always been eco-friendly imbibing the elements of nature (flora & fauna) for giving specific meaning and identity to the forms in sculptures/icons. Besides, nature has always beautified the sculptures and provided relevant backdrop. We may look at the plethora of Indian Art  from the view point that it does   represent the life and thought of the past to serve as the ideal model for the present and, therefore, all such visual examples become relevant for all of us today. Indian art through and through gives perennial message for all of us today to live with nature and become eco-friendly to ensure our own existence.



Agrawala, V.S. 1965. Indian Art. Varanasi.

Coomaraswamy, A. K. 1995 (reprint). Transformation of Nature in Art. New Delhi.

Epigraphia Indica (EI). Vol. 8.

Ray, Niharranjan.  1974.  An Approach to Indian Art. Chandigarh.

Sircar, D. C. 1993 (reprint). Select Inscriptions. Vol. I. Delhi.

Sivaramamurti, C. 1994. Some Aspects of Indian Culture. New Delhi.

Tiwari, M. N. P. 2010. “Gommateshvara Bahubali Image of Shravanabelgola : A Unique Example of Coexistence of Man and Nature”, paper presented at XIX Indian Art History Congress on the theme Nature in Indian Art, held at Kanyakumari (Tamilnadu), Oct. 30 to Nov. 01, 2010.

_______________2011. “Ascetism and Shanta Rasa : The core spirit of Jaina Art”, paper presented at International Seminar on Asia Encounters: Networks of Cultural Interaction, jointly organized by India International Centre, Delhi, Indira Gandhi National Centre of Arts and Archeological Survey of India from Oct. 31 to Nov. 04, 2011 (Proceedings in Press). 

Tiwari, M. N. P. & Sinha, S. S. 2011. Jaina Art and Aesthetics. New Delhi.


List of Figures

1. Lion Pillar Capital of Aśoka, Sarnath (U.P.), now in Archaeological Museum, Sarnath, 3rd century BCE.

2. Preaching Buddha dharmacakrapravartana-mudrā, Sarnath, now in Archaeological Museum, Sarnath, 5th century CE.

3. Abhişekalaşmî, cave 16 (Kailāśa temple), Ellorā (Maharashtra), 8th century CE.

4. Gommaţeśvara Bāhubalî, Śravanabeļgola (Hassan, Karnataka), 983 CE.

5. Gaṅgāvataraṇa panel, Mahābalipuram (Chingelpet, Tamilnadu), 7th century CE.

6. Kāmadeva, west façade, Śāntinatha temple, Jinanāthapur, Śravanabeļgola, 12th century CE.




1.Lion Pillar Capital of Aśoka, Sarnath (U.P.), now in Archaeological Museum, Sarnath, 3rd century BCE.




2. Preaching Buddha dharmacakrapravartana mudrā, Sarnath, now in Archaeological Museum, Sarnath, 5th century CE.




3. Abhiṣekalakṣmī, cave 16 (Kailāśa temple), Ellorā (Maharashtra), 8th century CE.




4. Gommaṭeśvara Bāhubalī, Śravanabeļgola (Hassan, Karnataka), 983 CE.




5. Gaṅgāvataraṇa panel, Mahābalipuram (Chingelpet, Tamilnadu), 7th century CE.



6. Kāmadeva, west façade, Śāntinatha temple, Jinanāthapur, Śravanabeļgola, 12th century CE.