The rise of the rakshasas

The rAkshasa brothers sumAli (left), mAlyavAn (centre) and mAli (right). Watercolor on paper. 

The uttara kAnda of the rAmAyaNa is filled with delightful stories of the origins of the rAkshasas and their rise to power. According to Sage agastya, there were several rAkshasas much more hardy than rAvaNa himself. They descended directly from brahma. One of their kings, sukesha, was given a boon by shiva – he, and all the rAkshasas after him, will be born instantly and will attain adulthood immediately.

But it was sukesha’s three mighty sons, mAli, sumAli and mAlyavAn who were destined to attain great strength. mAlyavAn, the oldest, and king of the rAkshasas, followed the path of dharma. sumAli, the second, though a worthy warrior, was an astute political strategist. And mAli, the most valiant, was the leader of the rAkshasa army. The rise of the rAkshasas begins with the exploits of the three brothers, spurred on by the boons they received from brahma himself – guaranteed victory on the battlefield and unerring dedication to each other.


The Thirupullamangai temple

Part of the Thirupullamangai temple structure, located in Pasupathikoil near Kumbakonam. Oil paint on canvas 11″ x 15″

This is a side section of the main temple structure. The temple is referred to in the 7th century tamil shaivate hymns called the thevaram. The present structure was most likely built over a period of several decades, covering the reigns of some prominent Chola kings, starting from Parantaka I, his grandson Parantaka II (Sundara Chola) and Sundara Chola’s son, the illustrious Rajaraja I. If you are ever in the Kumbakonam area, a visit to one of the many Chola temples in the vicinity is an absolute must.

I have always shied away from painting Hindu temples given their highly intricate (and often overwhelming!) details that demand the utmost concentration. I finally summoned the courage to make an attempt. The painting was actually done using only two colors (yellow ochre + black) and white. The sky is actually black + white, which appears blue (cool) in relative contrast to the (warm) yellow of the structure. The under-drawing was done directly with the brush using mineral spirits to thin the oil paint. Two initial stages of the painting are shown below.

Underdrawing in black paint over a yellow ochre wash (thinned paint with odourless mineral spirits)
More details added over the underpainting, final stage before adding white to the mixes

Maratha light cavalryman

Maratha light cavalry charge. Oil on paper 12″X16″

Light cavalry was one of the mainstays of the Maratha army in the 17th and 18th centuries. Speed of movement and the ability to strike and break the ranks of enemy infantry dictated their appearance and armor. The elite Maratha light cavalryman shown here was clad in mail and carried a round shield and patta or gauntlet sword. Sometimes they were armed with a lance when thrusting through infantry lines. The gauntlet sword combined a gauntlet (hand armour) with a sword and offered excellent swiping ability at the expense of thrusting. If the cavalryman chose to thrust the patta he’d likely fall off his horse trying to retract the weapon. The elite light cavalry rode unarmoured horses (again for speed) and wore light chain mail underneath.

The painting is done on paper using liquin medium for quick drying. The preliminary drawing was executed using brown colored pencil underneath.




Durga slays the asura Mahisha, oil painting on paper, 12″ x 16″.

The episode of durga devI slaying the haughty asurA mahIsha is probably one of the most iconic in hindu art (both contemporary and ancient). The episode is prominently narrated in the devI mahAtmyam of the mArkandeya purANa.

Here, I have chosen to depict my own version of the event, beginning with a buffalo-esque depiction of the asurA (as he is indeed referred to in the scriptures) since I am quite tired of the usual depictions in contemporary art (for which we can thank Ravi Varma and C. M. Vitankar, among others). In fact there are several such depictions in temple art, most notably in the mahishAsuramardinI relief sculptures at the group of monuments in Mahabalipuram.

The painting was done in oil on paper (oil paper, no pre-processing). The absorbent surface quickly sucked out the oil binder and the painting had to be ‘oiled out’ twice midway. The early layers used liquin, the base painting was a wash (OMS + Liquin) of transparent red oxide.

Preliminary pencil study on toned paper, 9″x12″

A preliminary study was done on toned paper using pencil & chalk to establish the lighting, position the characters and set the scene. The drawing (as well as the painting above) was done from the imagination.



A portrait of Kaushika by Kaushika. Oil on paper 11″x15″.

In Hindu lore, the sage vishwamitra holds a highly exalted position. Once a king (kaushika), he gave up his mighty kingdom to become a brahmarishi (best among sages). He appears often in the purANas as well as in the rigveda. Vishwamitra is perhaps best known as the guru of Srirama in the ramayana and as the one who revealed the gayatri mantra. A less famous account, that of the battle of ten kings in the rigveda, also pits him against the might of another stalwart vashishta. Vishwamitra is one of the central characters in K. M. Munshi‘s novel Bhagavan Parasurama

This imaginary portrait is painted in oil (alla prima) on paper. After a rough preliminary pencil sketch (mainly for placement of facial details), the paper was washed with an acrylic undertone of burnt umber and ultramarine blue. The paint palette  consisted of Cadmium Orange, Burnt Umber, Ultramarine Blue, Napes Yellow and Titanium White.

Bharata threatens a lion

Bharata threatens a lion, casein and watercolor on paper 10″x14″.

Emperor bharata can well be considered the founder of the Indian state. His exploits have earned him near legendary status. First as a 6-year-old abandoned prince in the hermitage of the sage kaNva, bharata apparently tamed the wild lions and played with their cubs. Then, as emperor of hastinApura, he is said to have established a kingdom covering significant parts of modern India. Bharata is featured in the mahAbhArata (which derives its name from his descendants) as well as in kAlidAsa’s famous play Abhijñānashākuntala.

Painted in casein on watercolor paper 10″x14″. A thin layer of acrylic matte medium was first used to reduce paper absorbency and aid the flow of paint. The characters are based on several little studies, such as the one below:

Head and lion studies, pencil on toned paper, 9″x12″.

Bhojadeva paramAra

Imagined portrait of bhojadeva paramAra. Watercolor on paper 10″x14″

The year is 1010 CE. In south India, the great king rAjarAja has just finished and consecrated what is arguably one of the grandest temple projects in Indian history. His son rAjendra has already shown remarkable prowess in war.

Meanwhile, in central India, the kingdom of mAlava is going through a period of change. The ruling king sindhurAja is dead. Enemy kings threaten the kingdom’s borders on all sides. To the west, the solanki king vallabha is looking to avenge an earlier defeat. To the south, mAlava’s eternal foes, the chAlukyas, are determined to recover lost territory. An even greater threat looms in the north-west. The turuShka king Mahmud has grand imperial ambitions. He wishes to overrun the entire Indian subcontinent and has pledged to plunder and seize her vast wealth and riches. He has already sacked and annexed large parts of north-western India and modern day Pakistan.

It is at this junction in history that a young and erudite prince ascends the throne of mAlava. His name is bhojadeva paramAra. He will go down in history as one of the great military strategists and a noble philosopher king. Forging an alliance with the equally remarkable rAjendra chola, bhojadeva will crush the chalukya threat in years to come. His military might will intimidate Mahmud’s forces and dent hopes of an easy conquest. To rival rAjarAja’s temple in the south, he will embark on the grandest shivA temple yet conceived, near present day Bhopal (central India).

Bhoja’s military expeditions are perhaps outdone only by his contributions to society. See this link for an excellent list of his public construction and literary works (esp. the champU rAmAyaNa). In dhArA (bhoja’s court), poets sing his praise unabashedly thus:

अद्य धारा सदाधारा सदालम्बा सरस्वती। पण्डितः मण्डितः सर्वे भोजराजे भुवं गते।

“Today dhArA (bhoja’s capital) is ever supported, and the Goddess Sarasvati is ever propped up. All the pundits are adorned with the coming of king Bhoja on this earth.”