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Timeless Tales And Artistic Traditions: The Panchatantra In Indian Art and Beyond

Do You Know the History of the Panchatantra In Indian Art?

Animal fables take us back to our childhood- a utopia of wax crayons, tinkle comics, and Parle-G. Who can forget reading about Aesop’s fables and the Panchatantra? Animal fables are an excellent device to teach children about morality and the concepts of right and wrong. As such, they have been used for millennia to break down ethical concepts into simple, bite-sized pieces. In this blog, we’ll explore the importance of the Panchatantra in Indian art and sculpture, as well as its many global adaptations.

The Origin of the Panchatantra

Amarshakti of Mahilaropa was a king who had three foolish sons. He complained that they had no knowledge of the ‘Arthashastra’ a treatise that dictated the rules and ideals of kingship and administration. The king ordered the Brahmin Vishusharman to teach the sons and make them capable administrators, who recorded the teachings of the arthashastra in the form of five stories or books.

The Panchatantra contains tales of animals with human characteristics, virtues, and vices. Its principle purpose is ‘niti’ , which means prudent conduct of oneself in worldly affairs.

The Panchatantra has been present in Indian art since even before the creation of the earliest written texts of the fables. This may be due to the prevalence of this story as an oral tradition prior to being written down.

Two main versions of the Panchatantra exist: the southern version written in Kannada called ‘Vasubhaga’ and the Sanskrit version called Visghnusharman in the north. This is due to the author being mentioned as ‘Vishnu Sharma’ in certain versions and as ‘Vasubhaga’ in other ones. The northern version ended up spreading to Egypt, Syria, and Persia.

The Structure of the Panchatantra in Indian Art

The oldest surviving copy of the Panchatantra dates back to 200 BCE. Written in Sanskrit verse and poetry, it features a frame-story format. Frame stories are like Russian Matroyshka dolls; one frame story contains other stories within it.

The Panchatantra contains five such stories or frames, which contain numerous other tales within.

The five main stories are:

1. Mitra-bheda (Dissonance Among Friends)

This first book contains over thirty fables including tales that explain the conflicts and reasons behind the breakup of close, inseparable friendships. It is the longest of the five books.

2. Mitra-lābha (Advantages of friendship)

The second book contains ten fables that demonstrate the power of unity and how individuals may be weak on their own but strong when united through cooperation and mutual support.

3. Kākolūkīyam (Story of Crows and Owls)

The third book includes fables that focus mainly on war and peace. Some also outline how different characters may have individual beliefs and motivations that are subjectively rational, and meeting others at a middle point may meet their needs and create peaceful collaborations between these different groups.

4. Labdhapraṇāśam (Loss of what was gained)

Thirteen fables which provide examples and precautions feature in the fourth book. This is different from previous books as it does not show positive outcomes but rather the negative effects of making the wrong decisions.

5. Aparīkṣitakārakaṃ (To act without pre-examination)

The fifth book contains twelve fables about the importance of making wise decisions without jumping to conclusions. It features stories that show the consequences of hasty actions and how they sometimes cause irreversible damage.

The Panchatantra’s Global Transmission and Influence

An illustration of the fable of a dog and its reflection. From Egypt, circa 1310. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Panchatantra shares similarities with the Jataka tales, which are believed to be stories that the Buddha himself told. The first translation of the Panchatantra that we know of is by the Persian royal physician Borzui. He translated it into the Pahlavi (Middle Persian) script and titled this version Karataka and Damanaka. Idn-al-Muqaffa subsequently translated it into the Syrian (Arabic) language and named it ‘Kalīlah wa Dimnah’ after the two jackals that star in one of the fables. Of these adaptations, only a copy of the Syrian version survives.

The jackals Kalîla and Dimna. An illustration from the Kalīlah wa Dimnah created around 1200-1220. Image credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France via Wikimedia Commons

In the preface of the Kalīlah wa Dimnah, Idn-al-Muqaffa states that he wanted the text to be accompanied by illustrations as it would increase the book’s popularity and make it accessible to both kings and common folk. This preface was written in the 8th century, but the only reason we have knowledge of it is because it was included in manuscripts of the 13th and 14th centuries.

The Panchatantra In Indian Art and sculpture
Carving from the Kopeshwar Temple, Khidrapur, 11th–12th c. Image credit: Indica Academy

The above carving depicts the story of the Tortoise and Birds, probably inspired from an illustration of the Kalila wa Dimna featured below.

Illustration from a Kalila wa Dimna manuscript from 1357. Image credit: Indica Academy

The Panchatantra’s Influence on International Art

Two main versions of the Panchatantra exist: the southern version written in Kannada called ‘Vasubhaga’ and the Sanskrit version called Visghnusharman in the north. This is due to the author being mentioned as ‘Vishnu Sharma’ in certain versions and as ‘Vasubhaga’ in other ones. The northern version ended up spreading to Egypt, Syria, and Persia.

‘Burzuya’s Mission’ is a page from a folio of Kalila Wa Dimna of Bidpai. It is attributed to Gujarat, India, and presumed to be a copy of an Egyptian original.

The Persian version was also the source of a Greek translation. This illustrated Greek manuscript contains Aesop’s fables, parts of the Kalila wa Dimna and the Physiologus and was created in south Italy between the late 10th and early 11th centuries.

According to Franklin Edgerton, the Panchatantra reached Europe as early as the 11th century. As the Panchatantra has been translated and transmitted from one storyteller to the other, it has evolved and changed. Traces of the Panchatantra can be found in the Arabian Nights, The Brothers Grimm, the Decameron, the Fables of La Fontaine, Br’er Rabbit tales and the Canterbury Tales.

Artistic Depictions of the Panchatantra In Indian Art

The Panchatantra In Indian Carving and Sculpture

The turtle escaping from hunters with the help of two geese, a carving at the Nalanda temple. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

According to Channabasappa S. Patil, there are 39 Indian historical sites with over 120 sculptures with themes from the Panchatantra. The ‘monkey and the crocodile’ was one of the earliest Panchatantra themes that were introduced in Indian and Indonesian sculpture. Patil discovered twenty-one carvings on this theme in various temples of Karnataka, created sometime between the seventh and twelfth centuries.

The Panchatantra In Indian Art
8th century Panchatantra reliefs at Mallikarjuna temple, Pattadakal, Karnataka. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pattadakal in Karnataka was the seat of power of the Chalukyan and Rashtrakuta kings of South India in the mediaeval ages. This site contains art from the 7th to 9th centuries, along with carvings, sculptures, and temples.The architecture here shows a mix of northern and southern styles.

8th-century Panchatantra panels at the Virupaksha Shaivism temple in Pattadakal, Karnataka. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Indian and Indonesian carvings of the Panchatantra themes are small and located at the base of pillars, staircases, and windowsills, and are mostly limited to the lower part or base of architectural structures. This is due to a rule of Indian temple architecture that required carvings of secular and moralistic nature were usually confined to the lower part of the structure.

The Panchatantra In Indian Art of the Rajasthani School of Painting

An illustrated manuscript of the Panchatantra was created in the Rajasthani Miniature painting style in the 18th century.

The Panchatantra In Indian Art of the Rajasthani School of painting
‘The talkative turtle’. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
The Panchatantra In Indian Art of the Rajasthani School of painting
Birds Try to Beat Down the Ocean, an illustration from an 18th century Panchatantra manuscript. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Elephants Trample the Hares. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Panchatantra In Indian Art of the Mughal Era

The Panchatantra In Indian Art of the Mughal School of painting
The eloquent crow successfully persuades the assembly of birds not to elect the owl as their leader. Artist: Ḥusayn. Image source: The British Library

Although the Mughal Emperor Jahangir recorded that his father, Akbar, was illiterate, many scholars believe that he did not learn how to read and write due to dyslexia. Since he couldn’t read, he gravitated towards illustrations or narrative art. He was particularly fond of animal fables and commissioned a folio on the Tuti-Nama not long after he became emperor.

He also commissioned an illustrated copy of the Anvar-i Suhayli (‘Lights of Canopus’), and one of the Iyar-i Danesh (‘Pearls of Wisdom’) for his sons. The Iyar-i Danesh is a simpler rendition of the Panchatantra that was compiled in Akbar’s court.

The Greedy Dog, from a lost manuscript based on the Anwar-i Suhayli or the Iyar-i Danish, between 1575 and 1600. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The Panchatantra In Indian Art in Contemporary Times

The Panchatantra In Indian Art
The Greedy Cobra and the King of Frogs. Gond painting by Venkat Raman Singh Shyam. Image credit: Google Arts and Culture

In February 2014, an exhibition of traditional Indian art called Painted Fables was held by the Crafts Museum. It was meant to showcase India’s long history of narrative art. It featured the vibrant and insightful interpretations of the Panchatantra by ten Indian tribal and folk artists in different art forms like Pattachitra of West Bengal and Odisha, Sanjhi, Madhubani, Santhal, Sikki grass, Phad, Gond, Kalamkari and contemporary art styles.

The Monkey and the Crocodile. Kalighat painting by Anwar Chitrakar. Image credit:  Google Arts and Culture

The Panchatantra In Indian Art: Morals and Literary Legacy

Of course, the Panchatantra also begs the question: what is moral and what is not? Morality exists in several shades of grey. The Panchatantra is based on the principle of ‘niti’ and thus its stories favour shrewd and cunning behaviour over pure-heartedness and altruism. They were meant to serve as lessons to young princes on conduct in worldly matters.

The Panchatantra is believed to be the most widely translated literary work of Indian literature. There is a version of the tale in nearly every major Indian language, and about 200 versions in more than 50 languages exist internationally. It has thus influenced the arts and literature of not just India, but almost the entire world.

By Melissa D’Mello

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