Gold has been widely used since the earliest civilizations of the world (Indian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian) were established. Its use has been documented from the ancient era to modern times. In fact, during the Middle Ages, alchemists believed that gold had the power to transmute other metals into gold and to heal the body and soul, leading to a fascination with the metal. Throughout history, gold has been valued for its scarcity, beauty, and versatility, making it a valuable commodity in many cultures.
According to Hindu mythology, gold is considered to be the soul of the universe. The legend of the birth of Brahama and Brahmana from the golden womb or Hiranyagarbha is one such example. According to the myth, the universe was created from a golden egg or womb, which split into two halves. From one half emerged Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, and from the other half emerged the essence of the universe, Brahmana.
There are references to the use of gold in ancient Indian texts such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. Mahabharata has references to naturally occurring gold, collected from the environment by ants, and hence called piplika. Some references to this legend also come from the accounts of ancient Greek diplomat, Megasthenes. Apart from these, there are numerous references to the collection and extraction of gold in the ancient Indian books such as the works of Kautilya, Anguttara Nikaya, Gandavyuha Sukta, and Shatapata Brahmana, to name a few.
Interestingly, the Vishnudharmotar Purana refers to the use of gold to make pigments for painting. The use of this continued well into the future, as later texts such as Shilpratna and Manasolaasa also recount the same. Once painted with gold, the painting was smoothed with a boar tusk to achieve the luster of gold.
North and South Variations
The use of gold in Indian paintings can be divided into two off-shoots – northern and southern. The northern off-shoot primarily used gold in miniature paintings of Mughal and Rajasthani schools and sub-schools. The gold pigment was used to highlight the features which required emphasis or attention. While the southern off-shoot used gold in the Tanjore and Mysore paintings. The Tanjore paintings use real gold foil and the Mysore paintings use real gold varak to attract the attention towards the central deity.
Mughal-style Miniature Painting
The Mughal rulers embellished their paintings with intricate calligraphy and the use of gold. The artists from Akbar’s atelier developed the Mughal miniature paintings, a beautiful blend of Persian and indigenous Indian art. The paintings were adorned with gold leaves. It was also used to brighten intricate calligraphy, architectural elements, clothing, and even fine borders. Gold was also used in the Usta Kala, a Persian-influenced art form, which continued its way into the common palaces and Havelis of Bikaner from the Mughal courts. Another intricate art in the Mughal court that profusely used gold was Meenakari, whose origins can again be traced to Persia. The Mughal rule also saw the use of gold in textiles for the first time in India. This developed different craft forms such as Brocades and zardozi.
This continued under the reigns of the succeeding Mughal emperors when it slowly faded into the background under Aurangzeb and later the English East India Company.
Tanjore Painting of Tirupati Balaji
The Tanjore style of painting developed in the south in the 16th century CE. However, it was under the patronage of the Maratha ruler Serfoji II that it flourished as we know it today. After the fall of the Vijayanagara empire, the Tamil-speaking artists migrated to Thanjavur, Madurai, and Mysore and continued the art form under the patronage of the Nayakas and Marathas.
The Thanjavur style of painting was patronized by the Maratha rulers and began to be adorned with precious and semi-precious stones and gold foil. While the paintings of the Mysore artists did not have embossing or gold foil work, they used the gold varak. The Tanjore paintings follow a traditional style whereas the Mysore paintings have a sense of freedom when it comes to depictions of deities in the paintings.
The Indian texts are a testimonial to the use of gold in Indian schools of paintings. Although not many specimens from ancient Indian paintings that use gold survive, we are certain of its use from the texts that speak of them, as well as the detailed process to make paint out of the metal. Its use has continued for a large part of our civilized history in different forms, with the first dated evidence from at least the 4th century CE.
“Ancient Indian Metallurgy.” Vedic Heritage Portal. https://vedicheritage.gov.in/vedic-heritage-in-present-context/metallurgy/.
“Colour in Art: A Brief History of Gold | Art UK.” https://artuk.org/discover/stories/colour-in-art-a-brief-history-of-gold.
Deodhar, Santosh Y. “Gold Is Old: Noble Metal in Indian Economy through Ages,” November 2021.
Dube, R.K. “Gold Powder: Its Preparation and Application as Described in Ancient Sanskrit Texts ,” September 1991.
“The Origin and History of the Skilful Mughal Art of Meenakari.” My Gold Guide. https://www.mygoldguide.in/origin-and-history-skilful-mughal-art-meenakari.
Rajvanshi, Nehal. “Tanjore Paintings: A Living Legacy.” Live History India. March 5, 2021. https://www.livehistoryindia.com/story/art-history/tanjore-paintings.
S, Dhanapal. “The Ancient History of Tanjore Painting.” Mangala Arts. Mangala Arts, March 22, 2022. https://mangalatanjorepaintings.com/blogs/blogs/the-ancient-history-of-tanjore-painting.
“Textiles and Fabrics in Medieval India.” INDIAN CULTURE. https://indianculture.gov.in/node/2730143.
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