Miniature Paintings of India – Chronicling History Through the Ages

Art Wise

At a distance, they are beautiful. On closer examination, they are phenomenal, unravelling stories captured with infinitesimal, intricate details. The world of Miniature Paintings is a kaleidoscope of history, scriptures and the lives of people through the ages.

Mughal Miniature painting of Emperor with female attendantsA Mughal miniature painting; Image Source:

The Devil is in the Detail

Defined by delicate brushwork, a mélange of colours, and graceful forms, miniature paintings are so delicate, that even today, with so much modernization, squirrel hair is used to create the brushes used in this art form. Each painting abounds with fine photographic details, capturing even the hair on a character.

Indian Miniature Painting of an Emperor and his attendants A highly detailed miniature painting depicting an emperor and attendants
Click to purchase on Artisera

Miniature art is an intense labour of love illustrated on a range of materials like palm leaves, paper, wood, marble, ivory panels and cloth. Organic and natural minerals like stone dust, real gold and silver dusts are used to create the exquisite colours. Even the paper used is special; polished with stone to render a smooth non porous surface.

Miniature Painting of royal lady with two attendants, with calligraphy bordersMiniature painting with calligraphy, featuring a lady with two attendants.
Click to purchase on Artisera

Origin of Indian Miniature Paintings

The earliest Miniature paintings in India can be traced back to the 7th century AD, when they flourished under the patronage of the Palas of Bengal. Buddhist texts and scriptures were illustrated on 3-inch-wide palm leaf manuscripts, with images of Buddhist deities. Pala art was defined by subdued colours and sinuous lines, evocative of the murals in Ajanta.

Buddhist style 11th Century Miniature Painting of Mamaki, the female incarnation of BuddhaFemale Incarnation of Buddha - Mamaki, from the Pala School, late 11th century.
Image Source:

While it was Buddhism in the east, it was Jainism that inspired the miniature artistic movement of the Western Indian style of miniature painting. This form prevailed in the regions of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Malwa, from the 12th-16th century AD. Jain manuscripts were illustrated using exaggerated physical traits, vigorous lines and bold colours.

Miniature Painting of Ganadhara SudharmaMiniature painting from a Kalpasutra manuscript, depicting Ganadhara Sudharma.
Image source:

With the advent of Persian influences in the 15th century, paper replaced palm leaves, while hunting scenes and varied facial types started appearing along with the use of rich aquamarine blues and golds.

15th Century Jain Miniature Painting depicting Goddess Lakhsmi 15th century miniature painting from the Atmananda Jain Gnana Mandir, Baroda.
Image source:

The Mughal Influence

Miniature Art in India truly thrived under the Mughals (16th-18th century AD), defining a rich period in the history of Indian art. The Mughal style of painting was an amalgamation of religion, culture and tradition. Persian styles melded with local Indian art to create a highly detailed, rich art form.

Miniature Painting of Emperor Shah Jahan receiving his sons during his accession ceremonyA miniature painting from the Padshahnama, depicting Shah Jahan receiving his sons during his accession ceremony in 1628

Under Emperor Akbar, portraitures documenting palace life and the various achievements of royalty became a prominent feature. After him Emperor Jahangir’s reign saw more refinement and charm in the style along with the introduction of many elements of nature. European paintings techniques such as shading and perspectives were also introduced at a later stage within these paintings.

Miniature Painting of Emperor Jehangir with Abbas I of Persia, with floral borderJahangir with Abbas I of Persia. With angels holding up the sun, this is a typical example of the influence of European Art in Mughal Miniature Paintings

Rajasthani Miniature Art and Pahari Art

Due to decreased patronage during the reign of Aurangzeb, many artists proficient in Mughal Miniature Art migrated to other princely courts. Subsequently, Rajput miniature painting developed in the modern day Rajasthan in the 17th-18th century.

Rajput Style Miniature painting of Radha and Krishna An 18th-century Rajput painting by renowned miniature artist Nihal Chand

Unlike Mughal miniature art, which depicted royal life, Rajasthani miniatures centered around the love stories of Lord Krishna and the mythological literature of Ramayana and Mahabharata, created as manuscripts and decorations on the walls of havelis and forts. Many distinct schools of Rajasthani miniature art were established, like the schools of Malwa, Mewar, Marwar, Bundi-Kota, Kishangarh and Amber.

Kishangarh style Miniature Painting of Bani ThaniThe Kishangarh style is noted for highly exaggerated features like long necks, large, almond shaped eyes, and long fingers

Miniature Painting of Krishna and his fellow cowherds bringing cows home Godhuli - Hour of Cowdust, Mewar School, ca. 1813. Krishna and his fellow cowherds bring home the cows in the evening

Another style that evolved under the patronage of the Rajputs, was the Pahari style in the mountain regions located between Jammu and Himachal Pradesh. The Pahari school developed as an assimilation of Mughal miniature art and Vaishnavite stories.

Pahari Style Miniature painting of Goddess Durga warning KamsaAn illustration to the Bhagavata Purana: Durga’s warning given to Kamsa, Pahari style, c.1760–65.
Image source:

There are various schools of Pahari art – the bold Basohli art with its use of monochrome colours and multi-floor structures, the delicate Kangra style with its lyrical portrayal of naturalism and ‘sringar’, and other schools like Guler and Kulu-Mandi.

Miniature style Portrait of Raja Amrit Pal of BasohliPortrait of Raja Amrit Pal of Basohli, under whom the Basohli style of art flourished

Kangra style Miniature Painting depicting Rama and Sita in ForestRama and Sita in the Forest, 1780, Kangra Style of Art

Deccani Style

The Deccani style refers to the miniature art style that was practiced in Bijapur, Ahmednagar, Golkonda and Hyderabad from the 16th-19th century. In the beginning, this style developed independent of Mughal influences. It was an art form that was an idiom of Islamic painting combining European, Iranian and Turkish influences. Paintings of this era revolved around text illumination and decoration of the Holy Quran and the Surahs. Later, more indigenous art forms, romantic elements and Mughal art were amalgamated into the art form.

Golkonda and the Bijapur style of Miniature Paintings Left: Golkonda Style: Raga Kakubha, c.1720; Right: Bijapur Style: Sultan Abdulla Qutb Shah, c.1940.
Image source:

Today, a lot of the preserved miniature paintings are found in museums and in old Rajasthani forts. The art is still practiced in a few regions in India, sometimes under the patronage of royal families, but not with the same level of detail as the original paintings. Though its practice may have waned, miniature art has a distinguished place in history, as a chronicler of knowledge passed through the ages.

Share Post: