Omniscient mortal's grammar for frescoes - Painting techniques from a 12th Century work !

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

That which rejoices the mind:

Sanskrit has produced many literatures on various topics ranging from polity, aesthetics and poetics to sex. As Dr.B.R.Ambedkar writes, “Sanskrit is the golden treasure of epics, the cradle of grammar, politics and philosophy and the home of logic, dramas and criticism.”

In addition to producing many treatises on specific subjects, India has also attempted to create her own Encyclopedia. Mānasollāsa is one such novel effort by a cālukya King Someśvara-III during the 12th Century. ‘Mānasollāsa’ literally means ‘that which rejoices the mind’. It is also called as abhilaṣitārtha Cintāmaṇi, which translates as ‘the precious gem that grants wishes’. The treatise is divided into 5 parts of twenty chapters each, traversing across various topics including food, medicine, polity, ethics, economics, arts and entertainment among others.

The 5 parts are called prakaraṇas and the author’s name is available at the end of every twenty chapters in each prakaraṇa. There have been scholars who doubt the authorship assigned to the king as the subject matters dealt with in the treatise are vast and a single man on a royal throne could not have developed expertise in so many fields of knowledge. It is probable that it was written by the scholars of his court and attributed to him. In the absence of any evidence, a conclusion is not achievable.

The Know-it-all: King Someśvara-iii belonged to the kalyāṇa cālukya​​​ dynasty that ruled parts of current day Karnataka. After succeeding his father vikramāditya - VI in 1126 CE, he ruled for around 13 years. He devoted his time to learning various arts and sciences and writing literary works. Three works are attributed to Someśvara, being Mānasollāsa, vikramābhyudhayaand saṅgītaratnāvali. He assumed various titles including bhūlokamalla and tribhuvanamalla proclaiming his military prowess. Since he was the author of an encyclopedia that almost covered all the existing streams of knowledge in his age and country, he is also called sarvañabhūpa​​ meaning, ‘the king who knows everything’. At the end of the chapter on painting and visual art, he proclaims the title citravidyāviranci which translates to ‘the lord of visual art’. Painting - Texts and Traditions of India:

Many early Indian texts, including the vedās, purāṇas and other śāstrās have ample references to visual art and painting. The viṣṇu dharmottara purāṇa​analyses painting in detail and gives various grammars in relation to art and its techniques. The narrative begins with a mythical story wherein for the welfare of the world, a sage called nārāyaṇa originated the art of painting. Legend has it that the heavenly damsels had come to seduce him. In order to put their beauty to shame, the sage decided to draw a painting of a perfect woman. After nārāyaṇa completed his painting, a lady called ūrvaśī originated from it and put the beauty of the damsels to shame. This is believed to be the first painting ever created, whose techniques and grammar were taught to the architect of gods, viśvakarmā. Thus, the architects of those times, who believed that they were decedents of viśvakarmā had the knowledge of painting and visual art also. The purāṇa analyses various techniques of painting. It divides the basic topics into four – rekhā, vartana, bhūśaṇa and varṇa respectively. ​​ Rekhā dealt with lines and their harmony, vartana meant smearing of colours or brush work, varṇa means colour and discusses the various combinations and effects of colours. bhūśaṇa means ornamentation. It discusses aspects like aesthetics, beauty and detailing.

(Pallava Mural from 8th Century, Kanchi)

The earliest and perhaps the greatest aesthetician bharata in his treatise called nāṭyaśāstra discusses colour, painting and emotions expressed through colours. The text discusses the paintings that are required to be made in dance halls, the colour combinations for makeup and costumes. It also speaks about colours that are conventionally assigned to various moods such as anger or calmness.

Three main texts prior to Mānasollāsa that provide major accounts of paintings and their grammar are citralakṣaṇa of nagnajit, chitrasūtra – the section of viṣṇu dharmottara that deals with paintings (dateable to around 5th -6th Century CE) and samarāṅagaṇasūtradhārā of King bhoja (first half of the 11th Century CE).

Many texts like these were written in India across various time periods on painting, in both Sanskrit and vernacular languages. Mānasollāsa, being an encyclopedic work is no exception.

Many works of later authors on this topic have been based on Mānasollāsa’s chapter detailing painting, śilparatna of śrīkumāra dated to 16th century CE and śivatatvaratnākara dated to 18th Century CE, to name a few. ​

The Artist:

The work starts by defining the necessary qualities of an artist. The best among artists should be matured, experienced, curious and an expert in sketching fine lines. He must be skillful in painting as per the grammar specified and an expert in shading and colouring. He must have worked hard and practiced his capabilities of handling various brushes and colours. He must also be adept in understanding the mood and aesthetics of the paintings he works on.

pragalbhai: bhāvakai: stajñai: sūkṣmarekhāviśāradai: vidhinirmānaṇa kuśalai: patralekhana kovidai: varṇapūraṇadakṣaiśca vīraṇe kr̥ta śramai: citrakai: lekhaye citram nānārasasamudbhvam

The Medium & lepanadravya:

The medium chosen by Someśvara to describe the techniques is a wall. This is probably because of the context in which paintings are discussed. Earlier in the text, the author had described the construction and varieties of palaces and mansions in detail. It is in this context that he proceeds to discuss paintings that adorn the walls of palatial mansions.

(Wall painting of a lady from Sigriya, Sri Lanka)

The wall chosen for painting must be white washed first, upon which a liquid is to be applied without cracks and blots. The medium to be applied is called the lepanadravya. The lepanadravya involves a detailed process for manufacture.

Buffalo skin is macerated in water until it becomes as soft as butter. After such consistency is arrived at, it is spread on sticks and dried until it hardens. Someśvara says that this medium to be applied on the wall is universally accepted for painting. While applying, the medium as described above is mixed with water heated in an earthen pot mixed with white clay. Someśvara prescribes three coats of lepanadravya to be smeared on the wall. It is on this wall that an attractive painting is be done that embodies different moods using appropriate pigments.

Tools and colours:

Stylus - tūlikā:

The first tool spoken about in the text is that of

a stylus. Someśvara writes in verse;

kaniśṭikāparīṇāhām bhāgadvayasamāyatām ghanavṇusamudbhūtām tūlikām parikalpayet | tadagre tāmrajam śankum yavamātram vinikśipt tāvanmātram vahi: kuryāttindūnrmaritāvughai: ||

Take a bamboo tube of smallest circumference and insert at its end a copper rod which is almost the length of a barley corn. This shall serve as the stylus.

Crayon - vartikā:

It is prescribed by Someśvara to grind lamp soot (kajjalam) with boiled rice. This is to be rolled almost to the size of the middle finger. Such a roll shall be used as a crayon. Such a crayon was called vartikā around 800 years ago.

Brush – lekhanī:

The specificity of the verse with regards to the hair to be used for brush manufacture makes it a very interesting read. Someśvara writes – ‘vatsakarṇa samudbhūtā romānyādāya yatnata: tūlikāgre nyaset’, i.e. it is essential to obtain after much effort the hair from behind the ear lobes of a calf and such hair be attached to the tūlikā to form the brush, called as lekhanī. Such brushes, Someśvara says are of three types- coarse, medium and fine.

Colours - varṇa:

Colours are divided into primary (śuddha varṇa) and mixed (miśra varṇa) respectively. While the former consists of white, crimson, red, brown, green and black, the latter are various shades obtained from mixing of the primary colours. The sources of primary colours are all natural, for example, conch for white, lac for red and soot for black respectively.

Mānasollāsa gives a very elaborate list of the colours obtained by mixing the primary colours.

Gold mixture for ornaments - svarṇalepa

Mānasollāsa prescribes using of gold to colour ornaments and give detailing to them, similar to what is seen in Tanjore style paintings today. The procedure for making this gold mixture is detailed by Someśvara. He says that pure gold is to be ground with stone to make fine particles. The powder thus obtained needs to be put in a bronze vessel and shaken by adding fine sand to it. This mixture is to be ground again, during which process water is also added to obtain a fine paste. The paste, after settling would separate into semi-solid gold paste in the bottom and water at the top. After draining the excess water, the golden paste is to be mixed with the lepanadravya made with buffalo skin. This golden paint is to be applied on the ornaments and places on the picture where such detailing is required using the tooth of a wild-boar.

Techniques of Painting:

Sketching the figures:

Someśvara opines that a talented artist should contemplate and meditate the subject matter of his painting before attempting to sketch it. The object of contemplation could be animate or an inanimate object. The artist must sketch the outline proportionately after having contemplated on it. He says that experienced artists usually use a crayon for the outline and fine tune it again without using any additional colours. For all types of paintings, the rule he lays down is that the first outline is given using lamp soot only.

Depicting depth:

pūrayedvarṇakai: paścāttattadrupocitaisphuṭam ujvalam pronnata sthāne śyāmalam nimnadeśata​:

Someśvara has summed up the study of depth in a brief two line verse. He says that during the process of colouring the figures, an artist should pay attention to the effects of depth in the painting. The areas which, in a 3-dimensional space would occupy the forefront have to be made brighter and those which would recede to the inside be made darker in order to achieve realism. He advises the same for monochrome paintings also, i.e. colour should recede from high-light to deep darkness.

Spots, errors and corrections:

If the painting erroneously has spots of different colours spilled during the work or if it had developed white patches (called paṇḍūras), they have to be gently scraped out using a pointed knife and refilled with the requisite colours. Someśvara warns that this process should not damage the primary coat of lepanadravya.

Detailing and ornamentation:

Working delicately with various sizes of brushes, the artist is required to give details to the painting such as representing the growth of hair in its various ways and types.

Details such as garments, jewels and the ruddiness of the face are to be attempted first with Lac for the outline and filled with svarṇalepa (the golden mixture).

Portrait paintings:

Someśvara discusses in detail the techniques of portrait paintings. His explanations on iconometry (tālamāna) and the analysis of human anatomy are par excellence. He classifies portrait paintings into five types, based on the how the subject faces the viewer. These are, Frontal (riju), Half-Frontal (arddha riju), Three-Quarters (sācī), Quarter (dyayārdhākṣi) and Back side (bhittikā) respectively.

(Portraits from circa 1760-1775 CE)

The text discusses this aspect in much detail with regards to various parts of the human body, the brahmasūtra ​ (Middle line to be drawn as the base for symmetry) and the pakṣasūtra (other lines to the side of middle line to guide the artist for depicting the subject) etc.

The literature also discusses the portraits of animals in addition to humans.


Though iconography is not discussed in great detail as it would be in a religious text, it is nonetheless covered to a certain extent by Someśvara also. He writes in verse the grammar of icons like umā maheśvara, hari, trivikrama​, vāmana​, rāma​,narasimha​, gajāsuravadha​, svacchanda bhairava​, gaṇeśa, kālī,mahiśāsuramardini,yama​,vetāla and navagraha among other gods and celestial figures.​

Someśvara ends the chapter on painting with a verse that translates to: “The King bhūlokamalladeva, who is the creator of this branch of painting (he compares himself to lord brahma, the creator of the Hindu pantheon), has composed this treatise on paintings which is distinctive and attractive, having practiced the art of painting on the walls of palaces which are attractively adorned with golden vases on their terraces”

Someśvara’s work thus forms an important link like a crest jewel between the texts on painting that pre-date him which are mostly combined with mythical stories and the later texts that follow his style and elaborate his techniques. It also paints a beautiful picture of an artist’s workshop from 12th Century India. His treatise opens the gates to the lost frescoes of his times, at least in literature if not in reality. His elaboration on tools, colours, light and anatomy are valuable inputs for anyone studying art history in India.


Someśvara. Manasollasa. Edited by Gajanan Shrigondekar, Central Library, Baroda, 1925.

P, Arundhati. Chitrakala in Manasollasa. P Arundhati,Delhi 2003.

Joshi, Mahadev Narayanrao. “Treatment of Secular Arts and Sciences in Somesvaras Manasollasa.” Shodhganga@INFLIBNET: Treatment of Secular Arts and Sciences in Somesvaras Manasollasa, Dharwad, 1 Jan. 1970

Pandey, Deenabandhu. “Alekhyakarma of the Manasollasa.” Sthapathyam, June 2014.

Hudlikar, Prof Satyabodh, The Navyug-Ambedkar Special Number, 13 April 1947

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