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Courtly Culture and Visual Art in India: Ramayana Reliefs on Hindu Temples of the Sixth to Eighth Century

  • Author(s): Romain, Julie Marie
  • Advisor(s): Brown, Robert L
  • et al.

The earliest extant depictions of the Ramayana in Indian art are found on narrative reliefs on Hindu temples dated to the sixth to eighth century, and are located primarily in the region governed by the Early Western Chalukyas (a.k.a. Chalukyas of Badami), who ruled from circa 550-750 CE in much of the Deccan and southern Maharashtra. The sixth to eighth century is significant as the period immediately following the florescence of a shared courtly culture, and the establishment of regional dynasties across the Indian subcontinent. The political culture of the court was highly aestheticized, and heavily informed by the Sanskrit literary tradition of eulogistic inscriptions, epic poems, and dramatic performances. The Valmiki Ramayana was among the most popular heroic narratives; the story of Rama, an avatar of the god Vishnu, was considered a paragon of Hindu kingship. The goal of this dissertation is to understand how Rama's life was represented in literature and visual art, and what it signified for the king and members of his royal entourage. Through a comparative analysis of narrative depictions of the Ramayana in plays and temple reliefs dated to the sixth to eighth century, I identify a shared visual lexicon that reflects a courtly worldview. The methodology employed in my analysis emphasizes the social history underlying the monuments in order to think about their secular meaning. This dissertation is a reconsideration of material that has primarily been studied in terms of its religious function, iconographic meaning, and stylistic attributes. Chapter 1 provides a historiography of the study of Hindu temples, and the impact of previous scholars' emphasis on the religious symbolism of the temple. My analysis of literary and art historical evidence is presented in Chapters 2 and 3. Chapter 2 looks at the literary evidence of aesthetic treatises and plays that informed the artists who produced the relief sculptures that are the subject of Chapter 3.

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