Religion & Culture in Medieval India
Diverse institutions with different ideologies came up within the bhakti movement during the medieval period. Mathas or mutts were established under different gurus or religious leaders like Vidyaranya; Saivite movements came up like the Tamil Saivasiddhanta, and the Virasaivas in Karnataka; in Maharashtra the Varkarisampradaya (tradition) of the devotees of Vithoba arose in the 14th century.
Buddhism had faded out in India. Jainism also lost ground in most parts of India due to emergence of bhakti movement under Sankara and Ramanuja. However, it continued to thrive in parts of Gujarat and Marwar, especially among the trading communities. Islam spread throughout the country as Islamic sultanates were set up eventually entering south India. With regard to Christianity, there were a small number of Christian groups in Kerala claiming their origins to the time of St Thomas, the disciple of Jesus. But Christianity took roots when the Portuguese arrived in Kerala and set themselves up in Goa. In Goa itself the local population was under great pressure to convert to Christianity, especially under the oppressive conditions of the Inquisition. But Jesuit missionaries were also active in other areas, especially among the fishing communities on the Pandyan coast. The best known among the Jesuit missionaries was St Francis Xavier who was instrumental in making the fishing community to take to Christianity in the Tuticorin region. Another notable Jesuit was Roberto de Nobili, a scholar, who was based in Madurai.
In the north a new religion, Sikhism, was founded by Guru Nanak, who lived during 15th and 16th century. Sikhism grew in strength in spite of severe repression by Aurangzeb. Thus, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, many religions co-existed across India. Foreign religions also came to India when Jews and Zoroastrians (Parsis) migrated to India. The Parsis, who fled Persia to escape persecuation, settled in Gujarat, while the Jews lived in Kerala. Parsi merchants were among the richest and most prominent in the port of Surat, and subsequently, in Bombay under the British.
Literature, Art and Architecture
The Chola period was an era of remarkable cultural activity. These were the centuries when major literary works were written. The best known classical poet, Kamban, wrote Ramayana in Tamil which was formally presented (Arangetram) in the temple at Srirangam. Sekkilar’s Periyapuranam, similarly was presented at the temple in Chidambaram. Among the other great works of the period is Kalingattup-parani and Muvarula. It was also a period when great religio-philosophical treatises like the Sankara-bhasyam and Sribhashyam were produced.
The monumental architecture of the Cholas is visible in the great temple of Tanjavur, Gangai-konda-cholapuram and Darasuram, to name only a few. Stone images were sculpted on the temple walls and pillars. Bronze images of great beauty and artistry were made by the ‘lost wax’ process. The best known of them is the iconic representation of Siva as Nataraja, performing the cosmic dance.
A distinct Islamic cultural tradition developed in India with the establishment of Muslim rule. The sultans built forts, tombs, mosques and other monuments in Delhi as well as in south India which came under their rule. The Mughal period particularly was a brilliant epoch in the cultural history of India. The Mughals were well-known for their aesthetic values, and were great patrons of the arts. They left behind numerous monuments, in addition to constructing entire cities like Shahjahanabad (Delhi) and Fatehpur Sikri, gardens, mosques and forts. Decorative arts – especially jewellery set with precious and semi-precious gems for items of personal use – flourished under
the patronage of the royal household and urban elites. The art of painting also flourished in the Mughal period. Primarily known as Mughal miniatures, they were generally intended as book illustrations or were single works to be kept in albums. A large volume of literature was produced, especially in Persian, and also in Urdu, Hindi and other regional languages. In the performing arts, like Hindustani the name of Tansen is well-known indicating the patronage extended to classical music under Akbar.
In south India, the Vijayanagar rulers and their military chiefs actively supported temple construction. Many new temples were built by them. Besides this, new structures like pavilions and halls with many pillars were added extensively to existing temples, with elaborately carved pillars. Art historians point to the distinctive style of the temple sculptures of the Vijayanagar period. The intricately carved lofty towers or gopurams at the entrance to temples were all added during the Vijayanagar period. The walls of the temples were embellished with paintings.
A large volume of religious literature, especially in Sanskrit, was produced under the patronage of the nayakas and the Vijayanagar rulers. Telugu literature flourished under royal support. A new style of Tamil literature called Prabandham emerged during this period. The great commentaries of the epic Silappadikaram and Tirukkural were also written during this period. Venkatamakhi, son of Govindha Dikshidar who codifying the ragas of Carnatic music had lived in this period.