Warli Art- Tribal Art of India - MeMeraki.com

Warli Art and Warli painting are tribal art done majorly by the Adivasi community located in North Sahyadri Range in western India. The Warli community is the largest tribe located on the outskirts of Mumbai. Despite its close proximity to Mumbai, the Warli tribesmans have been able to shun most influences caused by urbanisation. The art-form was first discovered in the early seventies. According to Yashodhara Dalmia, “when Warli painting was first discovered in the early 1970s, it created a huge sensation in many aspects because these paintings were very unique to that of other folk paintings in India.” Warli as we know it today was introduced due to the efforts of late Bhaskar Kulkarni. He encouraged the Warli artists to paint their art on paper instead of the mud walls of their huts. The monotony of Warli being a married women-wall art tradition was broken by Jivya Soma Mashe. He experimented with non-ritual paintings and created new images depicting everyday life.

While there are no records of the exact origins of this art, its roots may be traced to as early as the 10th century A.D. Their extremely rudimentary wall paintings use a very basic graphic vocabulary: a circle, a triangle and a square. Their paintings were monosyllabic. The circle and triangle come from their observation of nature, the circle representing the sun and the moon, the triangle derived from mountains and pointed trees. Only the square seems to obey a different logic and seems to be a human invention, indicating a sacred enclosure or a piece of land. 

In this article, we shall cover various aspects of Warli art covering the themes, concepts, traditional aspects, colour theory and preparation for a Warli painting. 


You can check out our beautiful Warli painting collection here. 

Warli art and warli paintings have a rich and ancient history. These paintings most resemble prehistoric cave paintings and their origins have been dated back to 2500 to 3000 BCE, as stated in Yashodhara Dalmia’s book “Painted World of the Warli”. The visual resemblance to these cave paintings further adds value to it being prehistoric paintings. Warli art as an art-form is extremely well-preserved and has been imbibed into the tribal communities and passed from generation to generation. A majority of the warli tribes are known to reside near the base of the Sahyadri mountains spread across the northern side of Mumbai viz. Javhar, Dahanu, Talasari, Mokhada, Wada and Palghar villages. The art has received immense popularity at both international and national platforms because of its simplicity in shapes, use of single white colour, requirement of minimum tools and creation of beautiful motifs by using simple lines, triangles, squares, circles and dots. 


Village Life- Warli painting by Anil Wangad


In late 1970s, artist Jivya Soma Mashe started practising Warli art. Born in 1934 in the Thane district of Maharashtra, Jivya Soma took up Warli, a predominantly ritual art and radically changed it from ut begin used for special occasions to being used on a daily basis. His work was recognised nationally and internationally with political figures such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi and by centres such as Magiciens de la terre, Centre Pompidou. Jivya was able to showcase a “heightened sensitivity and unusually powerful imagination” which were the highlight of his earlier introspective work. He moved Warli art and warli paintings from the constraints of rough, sheer walls onto paper and canvas. The move allowed freedom of expression helping him create warli art paintings that were free and highly sensitive in nature. His sensitivity emerges in every detail of his paintings. Strokes, lines and a mass of dots swarm and vibrate on the canvas, coming together to form clever compositions. Details and the overall composition both contribute to creating a sense of life and movement. Recurring themes, from tribal life and Warli legends, also form a part of celebrating life and movement.

Jivya Soma Mashe summed up the deep feeling which animates the Warli people, saying "There are human beings, birds, animals, insects, and so on. Everything moves, day and night. Life is movement". 

He received the Padma Shri award for his contribution towards Warli painting. He introduced Warli to the world as an art form and inspired many tribal youth to practice Warli as commercial art. He died aged 84 on 14 May 2018 and was accorded a state funeral.



Forest Warli Painting by Dilip Ram Bahotha


The Warli art is based on the concept of Mother Nature and the elements of nature are often kept in focus. Since farming is the tribes main way of living, they have immense respect for nature and wildlife for the resources that they provide. Warli artists are known to use their clay huts as backdrops for creating these warli paintings, similar to the way prehistoric paintings were made. Warli painting never uses religious iconography such as figures of gods and religious symbols. It represents nature as a god and talks about human dependence and association with nature. Warli paintings depict a sense of uniformity in people and highlight close social relations within their community members. Elements in paintings such as trees, animals, events, social gatherings and formations of humans are from real life scenarios and situations. A Warli painting can also be a visual narration of their traditional stories. Artists nowadays include elements of the modern world such as bicycles, cars, buildings, computers, aeroplanes and trains.

These rudimentary paintings are made using a set of geometric shapes- a circle, a triangle, and a square. These shapes are considered to be symbolic of different elements found in nature which are- 

  1. The circle represents the sun and the moon. 
  2. The triangle represents mountains and conical trees. 
  3. The square is a human invention depicting a sacred enclosure or a piece of land. The central motif in every ritual painting is a square known as the “chauk” or “chaukat”. 

 In Warli paintings, male gods are uncommon to find and are usually related to spirits which have taken human form. In warli paintings, the central motif is depicted by scenes which portray hunting, fishing and farming. Festivals and folk dances are also common scenes depicted through Warli art. People and animals represented in Warli paintings are depicted by two inverse triangles joined at their tips. The upper triangle represents the torso and the lower triangle represents the pelvis. This precarious equilibrium is meant to symbolise the balance of the universe. Apart from ritualistic paintings, Warli paintings also represent various day-to-day activities performed by village members. 



Tarpa Dance Warli Painting by Dilip Ram Bahotha 


A warli painting is an emblematic expression of day-to-day experiences and belief. As such, symbolism, simplicity and beauty hold them together in a single school of traditional art. The attributes associated with warli paintings are as follows- 

  1. Use of natural and artificial white colour. 
  2. A border with simple triangles, squares and geometric figures. 
  3. Symbols like sun, moon, birds, trees which support the main theme. 
  4. Abstract human-like figures, figures of bride-bridegroom and in some cases, figures of deities. 
  5. The faces of human figures are represented in circles while the body is represented with two triangles. Males are identified by a larger triangle at the top whereas a female is identified by a wider triangle at the bottom. Along with that, females can also be identified by protruding curved lines symbolising ponytail. 


Along with understanding attributes of a warli painting, it is also important to understand the various types of motifs that are used in warli paintings. These motifs help us to understand what type of warli painting we are seeing.There are two types of Warli painting – ritualistic and non-ritualistic. The ritualistic paintings are the ones which connect the past, present and the future. These paintings are sacred and ritualistic, for example Lagna Chowk, Dev Chowk, Kanna, etc. The non-ritualistic paintings are not associated with any ritual before, during or after the painting. These are done for decorative purposes, the example of this is hunting scenes, agricultural activities, festival scenes like holi, etc. Some of the most important and commonly seen motifs in warli art are- 

1. Marriage Ceremony

A marriage ceremony warli painting is one of the most important warli paintings. In this painting, a suvasini or a married woman paints the marriage chowk or a square on the wall. The warli marriage lasts for about four to five days and there are various rituals associated with it. These chowks are painted to protect the bride and groom from evil spirits, to ensure fertility to the couple and to enhance their procreative abilities. There are two types of marriage chowk; Dev chowk and Lagan Chowk.  

  1. Lagna Chowk- It is a rectangle with the figure of the Palaghat Devi, the goddess of fertility. She is invoked to bless the bride and groom with good fortune. The border is made with diverse geometrical patterns. There are different variations of the Palaghat Devi done on different parts of the painting. It is also done in the houses of the bride and the groom. A typical chowk will have five five to eight rows of designs such as pophala, the sakhali, the dhak, the pasondi and the basinda pattern. Warli artists believe that the lagan chowk is the jewellry of the goddess. This is why the lagan chowk is painted with intricate designs and geometrical patterns. 
  2. Dev Chowk- It is drawn during the time of the wedding. It is generally painted beside the Lagan chowk, A panchsiriya or the five-headed god and the headless warrior. It is drawn either standing or riding a horse. It is done to protect the bride and the groom from disease, illness, misfortune and bad luck. 

 2. Human figures 

The central motif in these ritual paintings is surrounded by scenes depicting hunting, fishing and farming. Human figures are depicted by two triangles joined at the tip: the upper triangle depicts the trunk whereas the lower triangle represents the pelvis. Circle depicts the face without features like nose, eyes and ears. Males are identified from a bunch of hair whereas females are identified with special hairstyles in a circle called “Ambada”. 

3. Birds and Animals 

As warli artists are farmers, a lot of the motifs they draw are centred around the flora and fauna that surrounds them. Therefore animals such as cows, bulls, cocks, hens, sheeps and dogs are showcased as domestic animals. Artists also depict birds such as peacocks, sparrows in their warli paintings. The peacock is a beautiful and regal bird depicted everywhere in traditional textiles, embroidery and paintings. Warli paintings also depict snakes and frogs. Frogs are considered to depict rainfall, scenes of harvesting or farming are shown to grow grains in ample amounts and prosperity. 

4. Tarpa Dance 

One of the central aspects depicted in various Warli paintings is the Tarpa Dance. The tarpa is a trumpet-like musical instrument played in turns by different men of the village. The tarpa itself is made using dry bottle-gourd, bamboo tubes and stickers, cord and wax. Men and women of the village, entine their hands and move in a circle around the tarpa player. The dances then follow him, turning and moving as he turns but never turning their backs on the tarpa player. The musicians play different types of notes which help direct the head dancer to either move clockwise or counter clockwise. The dancers take a long turn in the audience and try to encircle them for entertainment. The circle formation of the dancers is also said to resemble the circle of life. 

5. Kanna 

Kanna is the only Warli image drawn on the ground by the Suvasinis. It is considered to be a symbol of virginity, drawn on the third day of the wedding at the bride’s house. It is drawn around the pounding hole in their houses, otherwise used to separate seeds from their husk. Kanna is drawn using different colours: white from rice powder, yellow from turmeric, red from Kumkum and orange from sindoor. The symbol of kana represents the vulva of a virgin warli bride. 

6. Muthi

Muthi or the fist is imprinted on the walls of huts when new rice is brought home from fields. This can be seen on almost all huts of the tribe. These imprints are also one on graniers, inner walls of the kitchen, ploughs and also on baskets used to store the grain. The repetition of the imprint symbolises the abundance of food. 



Net Warli Painting by Anil Wangad


A warli painting consists within it various parts that come together to create a beautiful final product. Some of the important parts involved in the preparation and creation of a warli painting are- 

1. Raw Materials 

As we know, early warli paintings were painted on mud walls of their own houses. In this folk art, the design is drawn directly and never traced. These designs are painted with wooden sticks. The background for these designs is usually an earthen colour which is reddish in colour. House walls are painted with cow dung and coating is given with geru powder for this. White paste is made from rice flour and the paste is prepared with water. 

 2. Colours 

The walls are made from a mixture of branches, earth and cow dung creating a red ochre background. The warli art uses only white paint for drawing. The white pigment is formulated by creating a mixture of rice paste and water with gum as binding. To create variations of geru, natural dyes are extracted from ingredients such as turmeric, kumkum leaves and coloured flowers. Black colour is extracted from charcoal and used to depict evil spirits. Red colour from Butea Monosperma (Palas) flowers used to show the existence of god Narada Muni. It is also used to depict departed souls. Kumkum is used to depict prosperity. Yellow colour is extracted from pineapple. 

3. Painting Techniques

Firstly, the design is decided. Without tracing, the design is directly drawn on canvas, paper, cloth or wall. Bamboo sticks are chewed at the end to make them supple like a paint brush. Motifs are painted with white paint onto the respective canvas such as walls, earthen pots, wooden articles, paper or cloth. The painting will consist of human figures drawn by connecting to triangles at the tips. Hands and legs are showcased in dancing positions. THe remaining design is accomplished by painting minute details. Cloth is ironed on the reversed side to keep the colour intact. 


Since its inception, warli art and warli paintings has grown and evolved. Majority of the artists now dabble with watercolours and handmade paper or canvas cloth. But they have been able to keep the essence of warli art intact. In order to create a new source of income apart from agriculture, many organisations have encouraged warli artists to produce their traditional paintings on hand paper for commercial sales. In the process, we have seen a boom in warli art’s popularity among national and international communities. The artisans of the warli community are well-aware of their art and try to carry its essence in every stage of production. The production process in many stages hasn’t changed a lot but the natural ingredients being used has changed dramatically. Materials such as cloth and paper make it easier for warli artisans to mass produce their work. Traditionally, Warli paintings are done of mud walls but now we see it being used in fashion apparel such as dresses, kurtis, sarees, dupattas etc. Warli art has also found a market in home textiles as well such as bedsheets, cushion covers, table runners, table mats, doily sets, table napkins etc. 


Warli art is an ancient Indian folk art, tradition of painting of a Maharashtrian tribe called warli. They build their square bamboo huts coated with mud and cow dung and these mud walls are painted at the time of ritual functions and marriage ceremonies. The Warli tribe is fond of folk art and they worship gods, goddesses and ritual culture too. They depict their traditional lifestyle and their customs and traditions through this art of painting. Women are mainly engaged in the creation of these paintings. Warli art is known for its monochromatic depictions that express the folk life of socio-religious customs, imaginations & beliefs. The Warli Tribe has still preserved their independent existence through Warli art and folk dance “Tarpa Nrutya”.  Earlier Warli paintings used to be etched out on walls of Warli’s houses, but nowadays they are being painted on papers, vases, mugs, bed sheets, textiles and apparels too. The wall paintings are done only for special occasions such as weddings or harvests. These paintings do not depict social life. Images of human beings & animals, along with scenes from daily life are created in a loose rhythmic pattern. Nested at the foot of the western ghat range in Maharashtra, India is the settlement of an ancient tribe known as the warli’s. These tribal people, who survive on forest produce & worship nature, have carved an international niche for themselves by virtue of their artistry. The name of the clan has given the name to the art form & today we know it as the warli painting. Artists & scholars believe in the painting style.  


Further Reads

  1. The Painted World of the Warlis: Art and Ritual of the Warli Tribes of Maharashtra
  2. Indian Folk and Tribal Painting by Charu Smita Gupta
  3. Warli Art: Diversificaftion of Traditional Painting Creatingv Future, Hope and Happiness by Kavita Paul.
  4. https://www.memeraki.com/blogs/news/warli-paintings-different-types-styles?_pos=11&_sid=b891e33e7&_ss=r 
  5. https://www.memeraki.com/blogs/news/the-tradition-of-warli-painting?_pos=1&_sid=b891e33e7&_ss=r


Sources and Links 

  1. https://www.dsource.in/resource/documentation-warli-art/introduction 
  2. https://openart.in/history/tales-folk-west-warli-painting/
  3. https://www.dsource.in/resource/documentation-warli-art/place
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warli_painting
  5. https://www.dsource.in/resource/documentation-warli-art/history
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jivya_Soma_Mashe
  7. https://mediaindia.eu/culture/warli-art-journey-from-walls-of-tribal-homes-to-household-goods/
  8. https://www.dsource.in/resource/documentation-warli-art/warli-artist
  9. https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/untitled-warli-tribe/QAEoPWAkUF9xfg?hl=en 

  10. https://www.dsource.in/resource/documentation-warli-art/process
  11. https://www.homesciencejournal.com/archives/2017/vol3issue3/PartF/3-3-70-220.pdf 

  12. https://www.dsource.in/resource/documentation-warli-art/warli-paintings



  • Sheetal: January 29, 2024
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  • Kumar Devendra: April 15, 2022
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    Well researched and nicely presented article. Thanks for giving us opportunity to know about our hidden art forms. Keep it up.

  • Ashok Chhibbar: April 15, 2022
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    Very enlightened reading this blog. Nature in art…. Warli art has been brought to the forefront through the efforts of Jivya Soma Mashe & later by Bhaskar Kulkarni. Well documented!

  • Mohit Kapoor: April 15, 2022
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    Always a pleasure to read about our rich heritage and culture.
    Makes me proud to be an Indian . The topic is well researched and written.

  • NN Sinha: April 14, 2022
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    A well researched and informative piece. A must read. Looking forward to more such articles.

  • Raman Sahay: April 14, 2022
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    Well researched and very informal. All the very best.

  • Atul Gade: April 14, 2022
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    Well researched and informative article. Makes an interesting read. Great work!

  • Neeraj Rathi: April 14, 2022
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    A very well researched article that develops your interest in this long forgotten ancient art of Western India. Excellent job!!

  • Makarand Ranade: April 14, 2022
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    Excellent piece. Nicely written. Very informative, to say the least!

  • Gp Capt PK Singh (Retd): April 14, 2022
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    The hard work and effort is clearly visible in the excellent write-up. Great work

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