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History of Indian Crafts

The history of Indian crafts is as old as its origin. Going back to almost 5000 years from present. The first references to Indian crafts can be found from the Indus Valley Civilization (3000 B.C.-1700 B.C.). The craft tradition in India has revolved around religious beliefs, local needs of the commoners, as well as the special needs of the patrons and royalty, along with an eye for foreign and domestic trade. These craft traditions have withstood the ravages of time and numerous foreign invasions and continue to flourish till date owing to the assimilative nature of Indian culture and broadmindedness of the craftsmen to accept and use new ideas.

The Indus valley civilization had a rich craft tradition as well as a high degree of technical excellence in the field of pottery making, sculpture (metal, stone and terracotta), jewellery, weaving etc. A lot of material information from excavations at Harappa, Mohen-jo-daro etc. substantiate the craft tradition of the Indus valley civilization. The craftsmen not only catered to all the local needs but surplus items were sent to ancient Arabian cultures via ancient sea routes. The Indus Valley Civilization was followed by the Vedic age (1500 B.C.), when the Vedas were written. There are numerous references in the Vedas on artisans involved in pottery making, weaving, wood crafting etc. The Rig Veda in particular refers to a variety of pottery made from clay, wood and metal. It also refers to weavers and weaving.

The concept of state was ushered by the rise of the Mauryan Empire in the 3rd century B.C. It is said that during the time of Ashoka 84,000 stupas were built in India, including the world famous Sanchi stupa, which has beautiful stone carving and relief work done on it. Numerous sculptures from Bharhut, Mathura, Amravati, Vaishali, Sanchi etc show female figures adorned with an array of jewellery, which continues to inspire contemporary jewellery making. The iron pillars of Vaishali (Bihar) and Delhi, created during the time of Emperor Ashoka, are a marvel in the field of metallurgy.

The period between 1st century B.C. and 1st century A.D. was a period of political turmoil as a result of foreign invasions from central Asia. The impact of these intrusions can be seen in the Buddhist sculptures from Taxila, Begram, Bamiyan, Swat valley etc (all from the present day Pakistani North West Frontier province) which show a high degree of Greek influence. The depiction of Buddha, having curly hair and wearing draperies, until date is the result of this Greek influence. The sculpture of the Kushan king Kanishka from this period depicting him wearing leather boots and a heavy warm coat amply reflects the influence of the central Asian Culture on Indian craftsmanship. Jewellery, sculpture, textile making, leather products, metal working etc. were the main crafts that inherited these foreign influences and assimilated them in accordance with the Indian milieu.
The Gupta (AD 320-647) age is referred to as the classical period in Indian history. The points in the field of craft include the rock cut temples of Ellora and the Ajanta murals. These murals give us a realistic view of the lifestyle of that time. The craftsmen of this period, under royal patronage excelled in jewellery making, woodcarving, sculpture, stone carving and weaving.

The Medieval period of Indian history in the context of crafts showed a marked shift from north India to the Deccan and southern parts of the country, though the craftsmen under the Delhi Sultanate period flourished in the field of pottery, weaving, wood carving, metal working, jewellery etc. The contribution of the Cholas and the Vijaynagar Empire in the field of bronze sculpture, silk weaving, jewellery, temple carving is beyond parallel. The fine example of stone carving from central India can be seen in the form of the Khajuraho Temples, built by the Chandelas. Rich and ornate wood and stone carving can be found in medieval temple of Jagannath at Puri in Orissa.
The Mughal era was the golden period in the history of Indian art, craft and culture. The Mughals not only invaded India and ruled it but also brought with them a rich heritage, which they had acquired from Persia. They introduced new techniques like inlay work, glass engraving, carpet weaving, brocades, enameling etc. The Mughal miniature paintings influenced many schools of Rajasthani paintings and the Kangra Pahari schools of miniatures. The famous Peacock Throne of the Mughals is one of the finest examples of gem inlay work and metal craft, having few parallels in world art. They also laid the foundation for the famous Mughal miniature painting, Petra dura or inlay work, enameled jewellery and a host of other craft traditions many of which continue today.

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