Shilpa Shastras are ancient texts that describe design and principles for a wide range of arts and crafts.
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Shilpa Shastras' (Sanskrit: शिल्प शास्त्र śilpa śāstra) literally means the Science of Śilpa (arts and crafts). 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 temple design, 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.
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. (Monier-Williams s.v. śilpa).
While Shilpa and Vaastu Shastras are related, Shilpa Shastras deal with arts and crafts such as forming statues, icons, stone murals, painting, carpentry, pottery, jewelry, dying, textiles and others. Vastu Shastras deal with building architecture - building houses, forts, temples, apartments, village and town layout, etc.
Silpa (शिल्प, Shilpa) refers to any art or craft in ancient Indian texts, while Sastra means science. Together, Silpa Sastra means the science of art and crafts. The ancient Sanskrit texts use the term Śilpin (शिल्पिन्, Shilpin, male artist) and Śilpini (शिल्पिनी, Shilpini, female artist) for artists and crafts person, while Śilpani refers to works of arts of man.
Silpani, works of art of man,
imitate the divine forms,
by employing their rhythms,
they metrically reconstitute,
and interpret the limitless knowledge,
of the sacred hymns,
from the limits of being human.
The meaning of Shilpa, according to Stella Karmrisch, is complex. She writes that it consists of "art, skill, craft, labor, ingenuity, rite and ritual, form and creation.” 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) and thirty two ‘‘vidyas’’ (विद्या, fields of knowledge). Shilpa is discussed in Agamas, Puranas and Vastu Shastra where it is linked to the mythology of Visvakarma.
Shilpa shastra in painting
Shilpa Shastras include chapters on paintings, both miniature and large. For example, Narad 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).
Other ancient Shilpa Shastra on painting include Vishnudharmottara Purana and Citralaksana, former is available in Sanskrit while the only surviving copies of latter are in Tibetan (both were originally written on birch bark, and have been translated into English and German). These sanskrit treatises discuss the following aspects of a painting: measurement, proportions, perspective of the viewer, mudra, emotions, and rasa (meaning). Such an approach of Indian paintings, states Isabella Nardi, make Silpa Sastra not only canonical textual sources but also a means to transmit knowledge and spiritual themes.
Silpa Shastra in carpentry
The first adhyaya (chapter) of Silpa Sastra Manasara discusses the measurement principles for carpentry.  The 9th Century version of Mayamata text of Tamil Nadu and 16th Century version of Silparatna of Odisha describe taksaka and vardhaki as wood Silpins; taksaka 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. One of the earliest mentions of carpentry arts is in Book 9, Chapter 112 of Rig Veda. Carpentry was also an essential Shilpa Shastra during the construction of a Hindu temple.
Shilpashastra in metallurgy
The Vedas, in particular 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, 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 best talmana (proportions), mudra (stance) and bhava (expression).
Sanskrit texts such as Silparatna and Manasara describe in detail the process and principles for art work with metals, particularly for alloys such as pancha dhatu (five metals - zinc, tin, copper, silver and gold) and ashta dhatu (eight metal alloys - which adds iron, lead and mercury to panch dhatu). Madhuchista Vidhana (cire perdue or lost wax) casting process is the most discussed process in these ancient shilpa shastras with metals. Kirk suggests that these Shastras diffused from India to other ancient cultures in Asia.
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.
Silpa Sastra education in ancient India
- Birth was no barrier
All arts were the domain of all classes, castes and both genders in ancient India. The ancient texts of Parāśara states that all crafts were practiced by anyone irrespective of family’s occupation. The Buddhist ‘‘Jatakas’’ mention Brahmin carpenters, the 4th century text ‘‘Baudhayana’’ describes chariot builders, carpenters, brickworkers, potters and metal workers from people of people classified as Kshtriya, Vaisya and Shudra. ‘‘Suttavibhanga’’ describes builders and wheelwrights born to Shudra father and Brahmin mother, who by later texts would be described as untouchables. The goldsmiths of Maharashtra included children born in cattle herding families.
Apprentices joined and trained under masters. The best were adopted and recognized as members of various art guilds. 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.
Shilpins had formed Śreni (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; in some cases, the king’s treasurer had the final word and served as judge of various guilds in a kingdom. These guilds, in 1st millennium AD, included all those who practiced the art irrespective of the artist’s caste or creed. 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. 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. 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 minimize the hurt to the tree which was considered to be 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.
Treatises on Shilpa Shastras
- Mayasastra (image printing, wall decoration)
- Bimbamana (painting)
- Sukratniti (pratima - murti or vigraha making, icon design)
- Visnu dharmottara purana
- Agamas (have chapters on other silpa sastras)
- Agni purana
- Brahmanda purana (mostly architecture, some sections on arts)
- Vastu vidya
- Pratima laksana vidhanam
- Manasara (many chapters on casting, moulding carving, polishing and making of arts and crafts)
- Pratima mana laksanam (includes chapters on repair of broken idols and art works)
- Dasa tala nyagrodha pari mandala
- Sambudhabhasita pratima laksana vivarana nama
- Brhat Samhita
- Silpa 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)
- Silpa kala darsanam
- Samarangana Sutradhara
- Visva karma prakasam
- Matsya purana
- Garuda purana
- Kasyapa silpasastra
- Bhavisya purana (mostly architecture, some sections on arts)
- Alankara sastra
- Artha sastra (general crafts such as windows and doors, as well as public utilities)
- Chitra kalpa (ornaments)
- Chitra karmasastra
- Maya silpasastra (in Tamil)
- Visvakarma silpa (arts on columns, wood working)
- Agastya (wood based arts and crafts)
- Mandana Silpa Sastra (diya, lamps related crafts)
- Ratna sastra (pearls, string, jewelry crafts)
- Ratna pariksa (jewelry)
- Ratna samgraha (jewelry)
- Laghu ratna pariksa (jewelry, lapidary)
- Manimahatmya (lapidary)
- Agastimata (lapidary crafts)
- Anangaranga (erotic arts)
- Kamasutra (erotic arts)
- Rati rahasya (erotic arts)
- Kandarpa cudamani (erotic arts)
- Natya sastra (crafts for fashion and public performance)
- 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)
- Natya sastra (mostly music and crafts in 2nd century north India, sections on music crafts)
- 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 Silpa Sastra text, 6 chapters, deals with image making, describes how image arts are means of communicating emotions and spiritual freedom).
- 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
- Sinha, A. (1998), Design of Settlements in the Vaastu Shastras, Journal of Cultural Geography, 17(2), pp. 27-41
- For Śilpa Śāstras as basis for iconographic standards, see: Hopkins, Thomas J. (1971). The Hindu Religious Tradition. Belmont, California: Dickenson Publishing Company, p. 113.
- 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
- M. Chandra (1973), Costumes, Textiles, Cosmetics an Coiffures in Ancient and Medieval India, Delhi, OCLC 251930242
- Śilpin Sanskrit English Dictionary, University of Koeln, Germany
- Śilpini Sanskrit English Dictionary, University of Koeln, Germany
- Mary-Ann Milford-Lutzker, Intersections: Urban and Village Art in India, Art Journal, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 22-30
- Martin Haug (1922), Aitareya Brahmanam of the Rigveda, The Sacred Books of the Hindus, Allahabad, University of Toronto Archives, Sixth Book, Chapter 5, pages 288-300
- Stella Kramrisch (1958), Traditions of the Indian Craftsman, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 71, No. 281, (Jul. - Sep., 1958), pp. 224-230
- Vatsyayana, Kamasutra I.3, Jayamangala
- Vatsyayana, Kamasutra, Book I, Chapter 3
- Isabella Nardi (2006), The Theory of Citrasutras in Indian Painting, Routledge, ISBN 978-0415391955, pages 180-187
- S. Dabhade, The Technique of Wall Painting in Ancient India at Google Books, pages 7-12
- Isabella Nardi (2006), The Theory of Citrasutras in Indian Painting, Routledge, ISBN 978-0415391955
- B. Ravi (2003), Investment casting development - Ancient and Modern Approaches, National Conference on Investment Casting Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute, Durgapur, IIT Bombay
- 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
- Ram Raz, Henry Harkness (1834), Essay on the Architecture of the Hindus at Google Books, pages 3-6, (footnote on page 4)
- Naoki Ideno (2007), The Artisans' Duty and Ability in Silpa-Sastras, Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies, 55(2), pages 788-784
- R Vyas (1992), Nature of Indian Culture, South Asia Books, ISBN 978-8170223887, pages 20-21
- 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
- R Balasubramaniam (1998), The decorative bell capital of the Delhi iron pillar, JOM, 50(3): 40-47, doi:10.1007/s11837-998-0378-3
- Hans Losch, Sources of Sri Kumara's Silparatna, Anal. Bhandarkar Orient. Res., Vol. 31, pages 152-164
- 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
- Pupul Jayakar(1984), Metal Casting from Kerala, India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4, DESIGN: TRADITION AND CHANGE (December 1984), pp. 63-68
- Kirk, W. (1975), The role of India in the diffusion of early cultures, Geographical Journal, Vol. 141, No. 1, 19-34
- Stella Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple, Vol 1, ISBN 978-81-208-0222-3
- Baudhayana, XXV.13.22
- Stella Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple, Vol 1, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-81-208-0222-3
- Manusmriti VIII.41
- Nigrodha Jataka VI.427
- 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
- Stella Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple, Vol 1 & 2, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-81-208-0222-3
- Heather Elgood (2000), Hinduism and the religious arts, ISBN 978-0304707393, Bloomsbury Academic, pp 121-125
- Acharya P.K. (1946), An Encyclopedia of Hindu Architecture, Oxford University Press
- Bibliography of Vastu Shastra Literature, 1834-2009 CCA
- 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).
- P.N. Bose, Principles of Indian Silpa Sastra 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)
- T. Finot (1896), Les lapidaires indiens, (in French)
- Vastu-Silpa 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