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6-08-2015, 21:01

Literature, Art, Music, and Dance

Ancient India’s culture is rich and varied. Foremost
is its literature, which has survived for millennia.
Other creative endeavors, including art and dance,
have also stood the test of time.


Artifacts such as seals show the Indus people used a system of symbols
for their written language. Researchers have recovered almost 4,200 items
with the writing. The characters number in the hundreds and were written
from right to left. Most items with symbols are very small. The longest string
of characters, 17, appeared on an item measuring only one square inch
(6.5 sq cm).1 No one has deciphered the Indus writing system.
Sanskrit, developed later, holds a prominent position in India’s history.
It is part of the Indo-European language group, grammatically similar to
Greek and Latin, which are part of the same group. Sanskrit is still spoken in
India today. In the 400s BCE, grammarian Panini laid out the structure of the
language in the Astadhyayi, which means “eight chapters.” His book defines
classical Sanskrit’s grammar, including nouns, pronouns, and verbs. Through
history, people have written Sanskrit using a variety of systems, with scripts
varying by region.


The peoples of ancient India produced an abundance of literature—most of it
written in Sanskrit. Much of it is religious, particularly Hindu. The Vedas, an
assortment of texts written during the Vedic period, have also provided the
world with considerable information about life at that time.
Veda is a Sanskrit word meaning “knowledge.” The Vedas contain a wealth
of material that was initially passed along orally, spoken by one generation to
the next. The material is divided into several collections. Much of the content
developed from hymns about sacrifice, which honor the Hindu gods the
Indo-Aryans worshiped. The Vedas address magic as well, providing charms
and spells for Indo-Aryan priests.
The first four Vedic texts feature collections of hymns known as the
Samhitas. The Rigveda, “Knowledge of Verses,” is the oldest Vedic Samhita,
dating to approximately 1200 BCE. Its ten books contain 1,028 hymns, which
cover a variety of topics. “The Waters of Life” acknowledges the importance
of water:
Waters, you are the ones who bring us the life force.
Help us to find nourishment so that we may look upon great joy.
Let us share in the most delicious sap that you have, as if you were
loving mothers.2
The Yajurveda, “Knowledge of the Sacrifice,” has mantras for a priest to
recite when leading a sacrificial ritual. The Samaveda, “Knowledge of the
Chants,” contains verses for chanting. The fourth Samhita, the Atharvaveda,
“Knowledge of the Fire Priest,” has information on magic. All four Samhitas
of the Vedas address more than religion. Other topics include philosophy,
mathematics, medicine, science, and yoga.
Additional Vedic texts came after the first four Vedas. The Brahmanas,
written in approximately 900 BCE, address prayer and rituals for the top
members of society. The Aranyakas, “Forest Books,” followed. These contain
understanding that can be obtained only through being alone in a forest.

The Upanishads, probably written between 600 BCE and 100 BCE, were the
last of the Vedas the Indo-Aryans wrote. Topics covered include philosophy,
religion, and the origin of the universe.


Ancient India’s extensive collection of writing
includes two great epic poems: the Ramayana and
the Mahabharata. Both are in Sanskrit, and both
describe a battle of good versus evil. The Ramayana,
“Romance of Rama,” is the older of the two great
poems. It began as an oral story that may date as far
back as 1500 BCE. The poet Valmiki wrote down the
story sometime after 300 BCE.
The Ramayana tells the story of Rama, the
seventh incarnation of Vishnu, a popular Hindu god.
Through its approximately 24,000 couplets, which
are divided among seven books, the Ramayana
teaches values such as devotion, duty, morality,
and valor.
The Mahabharata, “Great Epic of the Bharata
Dynasty,” is considerably longer. Its 18 books contain
220,000 lines, which make it the longest poem in the
world.3 Legend attributes its writing to Vyasa, a wise
man. Vyasa wrote the great poem approximately 100
years after Valmiki wrote the Ramayana.
The Mahabharata tells the story of two groups of
sons in a royal family as the cousins fight for power.
The text is valuable to Hindus and non-Hindus alike.
It teaches dharma, or morality. It also provides
historical information about the religion, including
its development from 400 BCE to 200 CE.


Ancient Indians also expressed their beliefs and
stories through their visual art. The inhabitants of
India have been artists for hundreds of thousands
of years. Paintings such as those in Bhimbetka, in
central India, date to prehistoric times. People of
the Indus civilization worked with clay. They drew
figures—human and animal—and symbols into
their now famous seals and other earthenware.
The people of ancient India were also sculptors. They modeled simple
shapes, such as carts, cattle, and monkeys, with terra-cotta. The female form
was popular, too, particularly in Indus art.
As Buddhism became more popular in India, it became the focus of much
of India’s early art and architecture. Some of Ashoka’s edicts were inscribed
on pillars adorned with animal shapes. He also had stupas built or restored,
honoring his belief in Buddhism by helping preserve remains of the Buddha.
During the second and first centuries BCE, Indian artists honored the
Buddha in Ajanta in west-central India. There, they carved caves to serve as
temples, adorning them with monuments and paintings of the Buddha’s life.
The Buddhist focus continued during the beginning of the new
millennium. Artists in the first, second, and third centuries CE concentrated
on building more stupas. Their carvings told stories. The style was ornate
and more complex.
Later, in the 400s and 500s, during the Gupta period, artists added to
Ajanta, creating more caves and artwork. Painters worked almost exclusively
on plaster.


Visual art provides clues to music in ancient India. Statues from the Indus
period show instruments such as drums and a bow-shaped harp. Like other
art from the time, music during the Vedic era focused on religion, serving
two purposes: to please the gods and as part of sacrificial rituals. The
Rigveda includes spoken hymns. The Samaveda, “Knowledge of the Chants,”
is a Hindu book of songs. Its hymns are chanted, using seven musical notes.
Vedic music includes pieces for individuals and groups.
Literature reveals some of music’s history, but few specific details
are mentioned. The Ramayana discusses a lute. The Mahabharata details
a musical scale with seven notes. And both Buddhist and Jain texts
mention singing.
During the Gupta era, in approximately 400 CE, a book of music known as
the Dattilam was created by the sage Dattila Muni. It describes a system for
music that includes notes and how to arrange them.


Like other forms of expression, dance often related closely to religion. Dance
in ancient India dates back at least 4,500 years. Artwork and Vedic literature,
including the Mahabharata, mentions dance. Ancient Indian dance was a form
of worship. It reflected rasa, which are nine emotions: anger, compassion,