Fragment of a Wall Painting with a Scene from Mahabharata

This fragment is from a wall painting found in the main hall of a building in Panjikent. It shows part of a scene of an Indian epic from the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is one of two Sanskrit epic poems from India. It consists of mythological and didactic material centered on a narrative of a struggle between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas (sons of Dhritarashtra, the descendant of Kuru) and the Pandavas (sons of Pandu). This narrative takes up a little more than one fifth of the total work. The rest of the poem talks about other myths and legends including Damayanti and Nala’s romance and the legend of Savitri. There are also descriptions of pilgrimages as well as the evolution of Hinduism.[1]

Panjikent provides us with numerous wall paintings found in palaces, temples and homes. All these paintings have a variety of subjects and images, with secular subjects dominating. By the 6th century Indian influences had made their way into Panjikent, and from then onwards, Indian mythological creatures and epics are seen in these wall paintings. [2] 

The paintings found in Panjikent were usually featured on three tiers. The top tier showed religious scenes, the middle tier had scenes of feasting, hunting, and narrative epics, and the lowest tier had illustrations of fables, parables and anecdotes.[3]

The artists of Panjikent had their own visual system such that color, contour, the interrelationship of figures and objects, all played a particular role on the flat surface. The interaction of figures and background were completely unrelated.[4] As seen in this fragment, figures were depicted either facing forward or at a three-quarter view. Facial expressions were not very defined, unless they were used to depict demons.

Panjikent artists used gypsum with a mixture of calcite for the ground. There was also a lot of use of black and white, colored in with shades of red, brown, yellow and blue. However, green was not used in Panjikent. Use of color also depended on the tier. Thickness of lines also varied, with thicker lines used to emphasise objects or figures.

Based on the variety of epic subjects found in Panjikent wall paintings, this fragment probably comes from the house with Indian ancestors.[5]

- Aleena Malik

[1] “Mahabharata,” Encylopaedia Britannica. 

[2] Bijl and Boelens. Expedition Silk Road, 90.

[3] Ibid., 90-91.

[4] Ibid, 93.

[5] Azarpay, Sogdian Painting, 67.


This Wall Painting is from Panjikent and is dated to the 8th Century. It depicts scenes from the Mahabharata, the famous Hindu epic of both intense cultural and religious significance. This painting was discovered in the Rustam Room, discovered in 1956 (Marshak 2002, 25). While not the most spectacular painting in the Rustam Room, this one stands out for its subject matter.  In the ruins of Panjikent we have uncovered a great many different paintings. A majority of them are religious in subject. We see Zoroastrian scenes, the Mesopotamian goddess Nana, and a plethora of other religious deities and symbols (Hansen 2012, 124-125). Those paintings that aren’t are focused on religious subjects are focused on noble activities and scenes. Hunting and feasting, for instance, would fit in these categories. What makes this painting interesting is that it fits in both categories.

The Mahabharata is, first and foremost, a religious text. It contains important sections of Hindu religious teachings, such as the Bhagavad Gita. In fact, one of the characters featured in this painting is Arjuna, a figure who, along with Krishna, plays a large role in bringing theological discussion to the table in certain parts of the epic. Clearly, this seems an image that would have had some religious significance to its viewers.

The specific subject of the scene also fits with some of the secular paintings around Panjikent. The scene itself shows noble characters feasting and gambling. If it weren't for the association with the Mahabharata, one could be forgiven for overlooking this painting as another simple depiction of nobility in Sogdian art. After all, revelry of this nature was a common scene in secular focused art. It isn't even the only gambling scene in Panjikent (Marshak 2002, 14).

We know that the Sogdians had some religious connection with the Indian Subcontinent. This scene is not the only scene to feature figures important to Hinduism and other Indian religions. Yet, while based on a religious text, this scene does not seem devotional. It is possible that, in this instance, the inspiration from the Mahabharata was not its religious significance, but simply its story. The painting is placed in the middle level of the room, underneath the space reserved for religious scenes and in the place where would usually find narrative cycles (Expedition Silk Road 2014, 90). Perhaps, to the Sogdians, it was simply a good story.

-Matthew Dischner


This fragment was discovered in the main hall of one of the residential houses of Panjikent, the so-called “House of the Gambler” (Marshak, 2002, 142). It is the last part of a long narrative depicted on the northern and the western walls of the hall (Semenov, 1985), and the medial position of the painting suggests its importance, since in this way it would be certainly perceived by a viewer (Azarpay, 1981, 95). The narrative opens with another partly extant painting, describing a procession of several horses and an elephant, as well as musicians playing. The presence of the elephant in the first part and of an Indian-looking man in the last suggest an Indian inspiration, while the continuity of the narrative refers back to a literary text. The whole narrative of the northern and western walls has been identified as an illustration of the fourth book of the Indian epic, the Mahābhārata, the “Virata Parva” or the “Book of Virata”, and is considered to be one of the finest examples of the Panjikent painting. Why was this particular text chosen from the whole of the Mahābhārata? Apparently, the “Book of Virata” is a sort of a “miniature” Mahābhārata, enabling one to capture the grandeur of the whole of the literary masterpiece in just one chapter. In India, too, this part of the epic was the most widely copied and distributed (Semenov, 1985, 226). Also the choice of an epic scene involving dice might testify the popularity of such games on the territory of Transoxiana (Belenitsky, 1959, 47). According to Semenov, the fresco reproduces the story of the life of the Pāṇdava brothers and their wife Draupadi in Virata’s palace (Semenov, 1985). Having lost their kingdom they had to go into exile for thirteen years and spend the last year incognito. The first extant scene of the eastern wall depicts the brothers on horses, and Draupadi on an elephant, arriving at the palace. The scene with musicians may refer to Arjuna, passing himself off as a eunuch Bṛhannaḍa, and so able to sing, to dance and to entertain women in the king’s harem. On the last part of the narrative, which we see here, three separate scenes are depicted. First, the aftermath of the battle with the Kauravas, won by Virata’s son Uttara, thanks to Arjuna who had to reveal his true identity for that purpose. Arriving at the palace walls Arjuna asks Uttara not to disclose him to the king yet. Women from the harem are looking at them from afar. The two large scenes are separated with a castle wall, which seems to be inspired by central Asian style rather than by Indian architecture (researchers point here to a very similar representation on the Anikovskoe plate where the artist represented Jericho looking like a central Asian keshk (Ibid; Belenitsky, 1959). The second scene depicts the eldest Pāṇdava brother, Yudhiṣṭhira, playing dice with the king Virata, with Draupadi serving them as if a servant. The crowns, the halos, and, in the case of Virata, the flames, confirm their status as princely figures. This is the moment when an angry Virata raises his hand to hit Yudhiṣṭhira’s face with a die, because the latter suggests that Uttara owes his victory not to his own valor but to that of Bṛhannaḍa. An upset Draupadi is painted one more time, behind Yudhiṣṭhira. According to the legend, Arjuna has vowed to kill whoever causes Yudhiṣṭhira to spill his blood on the earth. On Draupadi’s lap we see a detail which can be interpreted as a flat vessel. It corresponds to one of the scene’s key moments, when Draupadi, in order to prevent Yudhiṣṭhira from spilling his blood on the earth, slides up a vessel sso preventing Virata from becoming subject to Arjuna’s vow. On the lower scene Virata, holding his son’s chin, asking how he managed to beat the Kauravas. Arjuna is looking at them from behind. Although Arjuna and Yudhiṣṭhira look very similar, this was a conventional way to represent Indians. So as to distinguish one brother from another the artist painted animals on their clothes: that is what explains the picture of a lion on Yudhiṣṭhira's dress (Semenov, 1985). Despite its Indian literary inspiration, the fresco is executed in purely Sogdian style (Marshak, 2002).

-Maria Slautina

Bibliography

“Mahabharata,” Encylopaedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/topic/Mahabharata (AM)

Bijl, Arnoud, and Brigit Buelens, 2014. Expedition Silk Road: journey to the West: Treasures from the Hermitage. (AM) (MD)

Guitty Azarpay, 1981. Sogdian Painting: The Pictorial Epic in Oriental Art. University of California Press. (AM) (MS)

Hansen, Valerie. 2012. The Silk Road: A New History. New York: Oxford University Press. (MD)

Marshak, Boris. 2002. Legends, Tales, and Fables in the Art of Sogdiana. New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press. (MD) (MS)

Semenov, G. L. “A Motif from Mahābhārata in the Painting of Panjikent” (“Siuzet iz «Mahabharaty» v zivopisi Pendzikenta”), in Kul’turnoe Nasledie Vostoka: Problemy, Poiski, Suzdenija, Leningrad, 1985, pp. 216-229. (MS)

Belenitsky, A. M., Piotrovsky, B. B. Sculpture and Painting of the Ancient Panjikent (Skuptura I Jivopis Drevnego Pianjikenta), Moscow, 1959. (MS)

Metadata

Date

8th century

Coverage

Panjikent

Format

Wall Painting

Location

State Hermitage Museum

Additional Research Metadata

Sources

Bijl, Arnoud, and Birgit Boelens. Expedition Silk Road: journey to the West: treasures from the Hermitage, 2014

Citation

“Fragment of a Wall Painting with a Scene from Mahabharata,” Telling the Sogdian Story , accessed July 16, 2019, http://sogdians.nyufasedtech.com/items/show/243.