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Shilpa Shastras

Shilpa Shastra
1st century BC jewelry
Shilpa Shastras are ancient texts that describe design and principles for a wide range of arts and crafts.[1]

Shilpa Shastras (Sanskrit: शिल्प शास्त्र śilpa śāstra) literally means the Science of Shilpa (arts and crafts).[1][2] It is an ancient umbrella term for numerous Hindu texts that describe arts, crafts, and their design rules, principles and standards. In the context of Hindu temple architecture and sculpture, Shilpa Shastras were manuals for sculpture and Hindu iconography, prescribing among other things, the proportions of a sculptured figure, composition, principles, meaning, as well as rules of architecture.[3]

Sixty-four techniques for such arts or crafts, sometimes called bāhya-kalā "external or practical arts", are traditionally enumerated, including carpentry, architecture, jewellery, farriery, acting, dancing, music, medicine, poetry etc., besides sixty-four abhyantara-kalā or "secret arts", which include mostly "erotic arts" such as kissing, embracing, etc.[4]

While Shilpa and Vastu Shastras are related, Shilpa Shastras deal with arts and crafts such as forming statues, icons, stone murals, painting, carpentry, pottery, jewellery, dying, textiles and others.[5][6] Vastu Shastras deal with building architecture – building houses, forts, temples, apartments, village and town layout, etc.


Shilpa (शिल्प) refers to any art or craft in ancient Indian texts, while Shastra means science. Together, Shilpa Shastra means the science of art and crafts. The ancient Sanskrit texts use the term Shilpin (शिल्पिन्, male artist)[7] and Shilpini (शिल्पिनी, female artist)[8] for artists and crafts person, while Shilpani refers to works of arts of man.[1]

Shilpani, works of art made by man, are imitations of divine forms; shilpa artisans, in tune with divine rhythms, produce visual interpretations in spite of the limitations of the human personality.

— Aitareya Brahmana, 6.5.27[9]

The meaning of Shilpa, according to Stella Kramrisch, is complex. She writes that it consists of "art, skill, craft, labor, ingenuity, rite and ritual, form and creation."[1][10] The range of crafts encompassed by the term Shilpa extends to every aspect of culture, includes sculptor, the potter, the perfumer, the wheelwright, the painter, the weaver, the architect, the dancer, the musician, the arts of love, and others. Ancient Indian texts assert that the number of the arts is unlimited, they deploy sixty-four kala (कला, techniques)[11] and thirty-two vidyas (विद्या, fields of knowledge).[1][12] Shilpa is discussed in Agamas, Puranas and Vastu Shastra where it is linked to the mythology of Vishvakarma.

In painting

Shilpa Shastras include chapters on paintings, both miniature and large.[13] For example, Narada Shilpa Shastra dedicates chapters 66 and 71 to painting, while Saraswati Shilpa Shastra describes various types of chitra (full painting), ardhachitra (sketch work), chitrabhasa (communication through painting), varna samskara (preparation of colors).[14]

Other ancient Shilpa Shastra on painting include Vishnudharmottara Purana and Chitralakshana, the former is available in Sanskrit while the only surviving copies of the latter are in Tibetan (both were originally written on birch bark, and have been translated into English and German).[15] These Sanskrit treatises discuss the following aspects of a painting: measurement, proportions, perspective of the viewer, mudra, emotions, and rasa (meaning). Such an approach to Indian paintings, states Isabella Nardi, make Shilpa Shastra not only canonical textual sources but also a means to transmit knowledge and spiritual themes.[16][17]

In carpentry

The first chapter of Shilpa Shastra Manasara discusses the measurement principles for carpentry.[18] The 9th-century version of Mayamata text of Tamil Nadu and 16th-century version of Shilparatna of Odisha describe takshaka and vardhaki as wood Shilpins; takshaka possesses the knowledge of wood types and practices the art of cutting wood, while vardhaki possesses the knowledge of wood forms and practices the art of carpentry.[19] One of the earliest mentions of carpentry arts is in Book 9, Chapter 112 of Rig Veda.[20] Carpentry was also an essential Shilpa Shastra during the construction of a Hindu temple.[21]

In metallurgy

The 4th-century CE 99.7% pure Iron pillar in Delhi reflecting the metal-related shilpa in ancient India.[22] The pillar was moved and reinstalled near Qutb complex about 1000 years later. The upper part of the pillar remains without any rust damage; the lower, reinstalled in-ground part shows signs of rust.

The Vedas, particularly Atharva veda and Sthapatya veda, describe many kinds of arts and crafts in their discussion of Shilpa Shastra and Yantra Sarvasva. The Rig veda, states Ravi,[16] mentions equipment used in casting, such as dhamatri (cupola), gharma aranmaya (crucible) and bhastri (blower). These discussions are in the context of making idols, and describe rules to achieve the best talmana (proportions), mudra (stance) and bhava (expression).[16][17]

Sanskrit texts such as Shilparatna[23] and Manasara[24] describe in detail the process and principles for art work with metals, particularly for alloys such as panchadhatu (five metals – zinc, tin, copper, silver and gold) and ashtadhatu (eight metal alloys – which adds iron, lead and mercury to panchadhatu).[16] Madhuchista Vidhana (cire perdue or lost wax) casting process is the most discussed process in these ancient shilpa shastras with metals.[16][25] Kirk suggests that these Shastras diffused from India to other ancient cultures in Asia.[26]

While there is empirical evidence of high purity metallurgy and art works with other metals, some ancient Shilpa Shastras have been lost. For example, the 5th century Iron Pillar of Delhi, which stands 23 feet, weighs 6 tonnes and contains 99.72% iron without showing any signs of rust, is empirical evidence of the state of metallurgical arts in 5th-century India.[16][22]

Shilpa Shastra education in ancient India

No barriers

Arts were the domain of all classes and genders in ancient India.[27] The ancient texts of Parashara state that all crafts were practised by anyone irrespective of their family's occupation.[1] The Buddhist Jatakas mention Brahmana carpenters, the 4th-century text Baudhayana describes[28] chariot builders, carpenters, brick-workers, potters and metal workers from people classified as Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. Suttavibhanga describes builders and wheelwrights born to Shudra fathers and Brahmana mothers.[1] The goldsmiths of Maharashtra included children born in cattle-herding families. There is no particular community in Assam Valley that is exclusive to traditional crafts such as bamboo and cane. Present day, it is done by particularly the peasants irrespective of caste, community or creed.[29]


Apprentices joined and trained under masters. The best were adopted and recognised as members of various art guilds.[1] The training began from childhood, and included studies about dharma, culture, reading, writing, mathematics, geometry, colors, tools, as well as trade secrets – these were called Tradition.[1][30]


Shilpins had formed śreṇi (guilds) in ancient India. Each guild formed its own laws and code of conduct, one the ancient Hindu and Buddhist kings of India respected by tradition. In some cases, the king established the laws of the guilds;[31] in some cases, the king's treasurer had the final word and served as judge of various guilds in a kingdom.[32] These guilds, in the 1st millennium BC, included all those who practised the art irrespective of the artist's caste or creed.[33] The income of each guild came from fees paid by new members joining the guild, from fines on those violating the code of conduct established by the guild, and levies on tools used for that art. The guilds also performed charity and gifted collective works of art by their members to temples and other social works.[33] During festivals and social celebrations, each guild would contribute their own performance and pavilions with flags and emblems.

Art is spiritual

Creative work and artists were granted the sanctions of a sacrament in ancient Indian culture, states Stella Kramrisch.[30] An artist expresses the spiritual and holiness in his or her art. This belief continues to manifest itself in modern India in the form of rituals, where in an autumn festival (Dashahra), craftsmen in parts of India worship their tools with incense, flowers and unhusked rice.

Brhat Samhita at verses 57.10-11 describes the practice of carpenters offering prayers and seeking forgiveness of a tree before cutting it for wood. The axe used to cut the tree would be rubbed with honey and butter to minimise the hurt to the tree, which was considered a living being. Craft was seen as application of essence of Purusha (Universal Principles) to parts of nature so as to transform it into a work of art.[34][35]

Treatises on Shilpa Shastras

Some known Shilpa Shastras-related manuscripts include:[36][37]

  • Mayashastra (image printing, wall decoration)
  • Bimbamana (painting)
  • Shukra-Niti (pratima – murti or vigraha making, icon design)
  • Suprabhedagama
  • Vishnu dharmottara purana (literature, music, theatre, dance, painting, sculpture, iconography, architecture)
  • Agamas (have chapters on other shilpa shastras)
  • Agni purana (iconography)
  • Brahmanda purana (mostly architecture, some sections on arts)
  • Vastu vidya
  • Pratima lakshana vidhanam
  • Gargeyam
  • Manasara (many chapters on casting, moulding carving, polishing and making of arts and crafts)
  • Atriyam
  • Pratima mana lakshanam (includes chapters on repair of broken idols and art works)
  • Dasa tala nyagrodha pari mandala
  • Sambudhabhasita pratima lakshana vivarana nama
  • Mayamatam (construction – architecture, vehicles, etc.)
  • Brhat Samhita
  • Shilpa ratnam (Purvabhaga book has 46 chapters on arts and construction of house/towns, Uttarabhaga has 35 chapters on sculpture, icons and related topics of smaller scale)
  • Yukti kalpataru (various arts, including jewelry)
  • Shilpa kala darsanam
  • Samarangana Sutradhara
  • Vishva karma prakasam
  • Matsya purana
  • Garuda purana
  • Kashyapa shilpashastra
  • Bhavishya purana (mostly architecture, some sections on arts)
  • Alankara shastra
  • Artha shastra (general crafts such as windows and doors, as well as public utilities)
  • Chitra kalpa (ornaments)
  • Chitra karmashastra
  • Maya shilpashastra (in Tamil)
  • Vishvakarma shilpa (arts on columns, wood working)
  • Agastya (wood based arts and crafts)
  • Mandana Shilpa Shastra (diya, lamps related crafts)
  • Ratna shastra (pearls, string, jewelry crafts)
  • Ratna pariksha (jewelry)
  • Ratna samgraha (jewelry)
  • Laghu ratna pariksha (jewelry, lapidary)
  • Manimahatmya (lapidary)
  • Agastimata (lapidary crafts)
  • Anangaranga (erotic arts)
  • Kamasutra (artistic activities)
  • Rati rahasya (erotic arts)
  • Kandarpa chudamani (erotic arts)
  • Natya shastra (theatre, dance, music, fragments on painting and sculpture)
  • Nrttaratnavali (crafts for fashion and public performance)
  • Sangita ratna kara (crafts for fashion, dance and public performance)
  • Nalapaka (food, utensils, and culinary crafts)
  • Paka darpana (food, utensils, and culinary crafts)
  • Paka vijnana (food, utensils, and culinary crafts)
  • Pakarnava (food, utensils, and culinary crafts)
  • Kuttanimatam (textile arts)
  • Kadambari by Banabhatta (chapters on textile art and crafts)
  • Samaymatrka (textile arts)
  • Yantra Kosha (musical instruments, Overview in Bengali Language)
  • Sangita ratna kara (music crafts)
  • Śilpa-ratna-kośa (architecture, sculpture)
  • Cilappatikaaram (a 2nd-century Tamil classic on music and dance, sections on musical instruments)
  • Manasollasa (arts and crafts relating to musical instruments, cooking, textiles, decoration)
  • Vastuvidya (sculpture, icons, painting, and minor arts and crafts)
  • Upavana vinoda (Sanskrit treatise on arbori-horticulture arts, garden house design, aspects of house plants related crafts)
  • Vastusutra Upanishad (oldest known Sanskrit Shilpa Shastra text, 6 chapters, deals with image making, describes how image arts are means of communicating emotions and spiritual freedom).

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Stella Kramrisch (1958), Traditions of the Indian Craftsman, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 71, No. 281, Traditional India: Structure and Change (Jul. - Sep., 1958), pp. 224-230
  2. ^ Sinha, A. (1998), Design of Settlements in the Vaastu Shastras, Journal of Cultural Geography, 17(2), pp. 27-41
  3. ^ For Śilpa Śāstras as a basis for iconographic standards, see: Hopkins, Thomas J. (1971). The Hindu Religious Tradition. Belmont, California: Dickenson Publishing Company, p. 113.
  4. ^ Monier-Williams, Monier, with Ernst Leumann, Carl Capeller, and other scholars (1986). A Sanskrit-English Dictionary: Etymologically and Philologically Arranged with Special Reference to Cognate Indo-European Languages (rev. ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. p. 1073.
  5. ^ Misra, R. N. (2011), Silpis in Ancient India: Beyond their Ascribed Locus in Ancient Society, Social Scientist, Vol. 39, No. 7/8, pages 43-54
  6. ^ M. Chandra (1973), Costumes, Textiles, Cosmetics and Coiffures in Ancient and Medieval India, Delhi, OCLC 251930242
  7. ^ Śilpin Sanskrit English Dictionary, University of Koeln, Germany
  8. ^ Śilpini Sanskrit English Dictionary, University of Koeln, Germany
  9. ^ Mary-Ann Milford-Lutzker, Intersections: Urban and Village Art in India, Art Journal, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 22-30
  10. ^ Stella Kramrisch (1958), Traditions of the Indian Craftsman, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 71, No. 281, (Jul. - Sep., 1958), pp. 224-230
  11. ^ Vatsyayana, Kamasutra I.3, Jayamangala
  12. ^ Vatsyayana, Kamasutra, Book I, Chapter 3
  13. ^ Isabella Nardi (2006), The Theory of Citrasutras in Indian Painting, Routledge, ISBN 978-0415391955, pages 180-187
  14. ^ S. Dabhade, The Technique of Wall Painting in Ancient India at Google Books, pages 7-12
  15. ^ Isabella Nardi (2006), The Theory of Citrasutras in Indian Painting, Routledge, ISBN 978-0415391955
  16. ^ a b c d e f B. Ravi (2003), Investment casting development - Ancient and Modern Approaches, National Conference on Investment Casting Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute, Durgapur, IIT Bombay
  17. ^ a b Isabella Nardi (2009), Re-evaluating the Role of Text in Indian Art - Towards a Shastric Analysis of the Image of Shri Nathji in Nathdvara Miniature Painting, South Asia Research, July, vol. 29, no. 2, pages 99-126
  18. ^ Ram Raz, Henry Harkness (1834), Essay on the Architecture of the Hindus at Google Books, pages 3-6, (footnote on page 4)
  19. ^ Naoki Ideno (2007), The Artisans' Duty and Ability in Shilpa-Shastras, Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies, 55(2), pages 788-784
  20. ^ R Vyas (1992), Nature of Indian Culture, South Asia Books, ISBN 978-8170223887, pages 20-21
  21. ^ C. Purdon Clarke (1883), Some notes upon the Domestic Architecture of India, The Journal of the Society of Arts, Vol. 31, No. 1594 (JUNE 8), pages 731-756
  22. ^ a b R Balasubramaniam (1998), The decorative bell capital of the Delhi iron pillar, JOM, 50(3): 40-47, doi:10.1007/s11837-998-0378-3
  23. ^ Hans Losch, Sources of Sri Kumara's Shilparatna, Anal. Bhandarkar Orient. Res., Vol. 31, pages 152-164
  24. ^ While Manasara, sometimes spelled Manava sara, has extensive discussions on architecture, guidelines for ancient village and town planning, it has section on metal art works as well; See: Koenigsberger (1952), New towns in India, Town Planning Review, 23(2): 95-99; Acharya (1933), Manasara on Architecture and Sculpture, Mansara Series 1-4, Oxford University Press - A version was reprinted in 1995 as ISBN 978-8186142721
  25. ^ Pupul Jayakar(1984), Metal Casting from Kerala, India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4, DESIGN: TRADITION AND CHANGE (December 1984), pp. 63-68
  26. ^ Kirk, W. (1975), The role of India in the diffusion of early cultures, Geographical Journal, Vol. 141, No. 1, 19-34
  27. ^ Stella Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple, Vol 1, ISBN 978-81-208-0222-3
  28. ^ Baudhayana, XXV.13.22
  29. ^ "Bamboo and Cane Culture of Assam | IGNCA". Archived from the original on 2021-08-29.
  30. ^ a b Stella Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple, Vol 1, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-81-208-0222-3
  31. ^ Manusmriti VIII.41
  32. ^ Nigrodha Jataka VI.427
  33. ^ a b Stella Kramrisch (1958), Traditions of the Indian Craftsman, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 71, No. 281, Traditional India: Structure and Change (Jul. - Sep., 1958), pp. 228
  34. ^ Stella Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple, Vol 1 & 2, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-81-208-0222-3
  35. ^ Heather Elgood (2000), Hinduism and the religious arts, ISBN 978-0304707393, Bloomsbury Academic, pp 121-125
  36. ^ Acharya P.K. (1946), An Encyclopedia of Hindu Architecture, Oxford University Press
  37. ^ Bibliography of Vastu Shastra Literature, 1834-2009 CCA

Further reading

  • Isabella Nardi (2006), The Theory of Citrasutras in Indian Painting, Routledge, ISBN 978-0415391955
  • Alain Daniélou, Virtue, Success, Pleasure, and Liberation: The Four Aims of Life, ISBN 0-89281-218-4 - Chapter "The Thirty-two sciences" on Shilpa Shastra
  • S. Dabhade, The Technique of Wall Painting in Ancient India at Google Books
  • P. K. Acharya, Indian Architecture according to the Manasara Shilpa Shastra, All 6 volumes, London (1927).
  • Dr. G.Gnanananda, "Sri Kashyapa Shilpa shastram (Uttarardha)-1998, Karnataka Shilpakala Academy Publication, "Sri Kashyapa Shilpa shastram (Poorvardha) Volume - 1, 2004 , Volume -2, 2006- Karnataka Shilpakala Academy Publication.
  • P.N. Bose, Principles of Indian Shilpa Shastra with text of Mayamata, Oxford University Press
  • D.N. Shukla (1967), Shilpa Shastra, Vastuvanmaya Prakashan, Lucknow
  • Pillai, G. K. (1948). The way of the silpis: Or, Hindu approach to art and science. Allahabad: Indian Press, OCLC 4483067
  • V.S. Agarwala, The Heritage of Indian Art, Bombay (1964)
  • Dr G.Gnanananda, "Sri Brahmeeya chitrakarma shastra ( 5 Volumes), Sanskriti Sahithya Pratisthana, Publications, Bangalore. Translated into Kannada and published in 5 volumes, source of information on Vaishnava Shilpa Shastra. # 1300 Pages.
  • T. Finot (1896), Les lapidaires indiens, (in French)
  • Dr G Gnanananda, "Paramparika Shilpa: Nenne-Naale (2011-3rd publication)", Sanskriti Sahithya Pratisthana, Publications, Bangalore - This book is a study of traditional sculptures and Temple Architectures.
  • Dr G Gnanananda, "Aalaya Darshana - A Book 12.describing mysticism and symbolism involved in Dravidian Temple. (2013, 2019) -Karnataka Shilpakala Academy Publication.
  • Vastu-Shilpa Kosha, Encyclopedia of Hindu Temple architecture and Vastu/S.K.Ramachandara Rao, Delhi, Devine Books, (Lala Murari Lal Chharia Oriental series) ISBN 978-93-81218-51-8 (Set)
  • Hopkins, Thomas J. (1971). The Hindu Religious Tradition. Belmont, California: Dickenson Publishing Company.
  • Amita Sinha, Design of Settlements in the Vaastu Shastras, Journal of Cultural Geography, Vol. 17, 1998.
  • Dr G Gnanananda, "Shilpaadarsh Volume-1 (1999)", "Shilpaadarsh Volume-2 (2002)", Published by Hampi University.
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Shilpa Shastras
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