Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
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Artists that Changed the World
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Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Ancient World

ca. 2500 B.C. - 900 A.D.


The epics of Homer, the wars of Caesar, and temples and palaces characterize the image of classic antiquity and the cultures of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. They are the sources from which the Western world draws the foundations of its philosophy, literature, and, not least of all, its state organization. The Greek city-states, above all Athens, were the birthplace of democracy. The regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and great parts of Northwest Europe were forged together into the Roman Empire, which survived until the time of the Great Migration of Peoples. Mighty empires also existed beyond the ancient Mediterranean world, however, such as those of the Mauryas in India and the Han in China.


Alexander the Great



Ancient India

321 B.C.-500 A.D.


The Gupta Dynasty
ca. 320-550 a.d.

Foreign conquerors and tribes continually pushed out of the northwest into the Indian subcontinent and founded kingdoms, though they tended to be shot-lived. The last great Indian empire of antiquity was that of the Guptas.

After the fall of the Mauryan Dynasty in 184 B.C., several forms of states with strong Hellenistic traits established themselves independently in the northwest, stretching from 5 Bactria (Afghanistan) to the Punjab, whose western part became for some time part of the Parthian empire.

They were overrun in the first century a.d. by the nomadic Sakas, who swept down from Central Asia into India and established several kingdoms that survived into the second century under the domination of the Parthians and Kushana. The empire of the Kushana in the northwest of India, then disintegrated in the third century under pressure from the intruding Sassanians.

At first, orders of Buddhist 6 monks exercised great power in the numerous Indian states.

5 Ruins of the city Bactra, present-day Balkh,
Afghanistan, former capital of Bactria

6 Buddhist cave monasteries and temples,
second century B.C.-sixth century a.d.

The princes then promoted the ancient Indian cults and priest castes as a counterweight, which brought about a renaissance of 8 Hinduism.

8 The god Vishnu shows sympathy for the
animal world, fifth century

In this period, the great Indian hero epics 9 Mahabharata and 7 Ramayana, in which the political events of the times are reflected, were written.

9 The Bhagavad Gita, part of the
Mahabharata, excerpt from
a script scroll

7 Illustration of the Ramayana, the life story of Rama miniature painting,
18th century

Rama (right) seated on the shoulders of Hanuman,
battles the demon-king Ravana.



Encyclopaedia Britannica

Hindu literature
(Sanskrit: “Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty”)
one of the two Sanskrit great epic poems of ancient India (the other being the Ramayana). The Mahabharata is an important source of information on the development of Hinduism between 400 bce and 200 ce and is regarded by Hindus as both a text about dharma (Hindu moral law) and a history (itihasa, literally “that’s what happened”). Appearing in its present form about 400 ce, the Mahabharata consists of a mass of mythological and didactic material arranged around a central heroic narrative that tells of the struggle for sovereignty between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas (sons of Dhritarashtra, the descendant of Kuru) and the Pandavas (sons of Pandu). The poem is made up of almost 100,000 couplets—about seven times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined—divided into 18 parvans, or sections, plus a supplement titled Harivamsha (“Genealogy of the God Hari”; i.e., of Vishnu). Although it is unlikely that any single person wrote the poem, its authorship is traditionally ascribed to the sage Vyasa, who appears in the work as the grandfather of the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The traditional date for the war that is the central event of the Mahabharata is 1302 bce, but most historians assign it a later date.

The story begins when the blindness of Dhritarashtra, the elder of two princes, causes him to be passed over in favour of his brother Pandu as king on their father’s death. A curse prevents Pandu from fathering children, however, and his wife Kunti asks the gods to father children in Pandu’s name. As a result, Dharma fathers Yudhishtira, the Wind fathers Bhima, Indra fathers Arjuna, and the Ashvins (twins) father Nakula and Sahadeva (also twins; born to Pandu’s second wife, Madri). The enmity and jealousy that develops between the cousins forces the Pandavas to leave the kingdom when their father dies. During their exile the five jointly marry Draupadi (who is born out of a sacrificial fire and whom Arjuna wins by shooting an arrow through a row of targets) and meet their cousin Krishna, who remains their friend and companion thereafter. Although the Pandavas return to the kingdom, they are again exiled to the forest, this time for 12 years, when Yudhishthira loses everything in a game of dice with Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas.

The feud culminates in a series of great battles on the field of Kurukshetra (north of Delhi, in Haryana state). All the Kauravas are annihilated, and, on the victorious side, only the five Pandava brothers and Krishna survive. Krishna dies when a hunter, who mistakes him for a deer, shoots him in his one vulnerable spot—his foot—and the five brothers, along with Draupadi and a dog who joins them (the god Dharma, Yudhisththira’s father, in disguise), set out for Indra’s heaven. One by one they fall on the way, and Yudhisthira alone reaches the gate of heaven. After further tests of his faithfulness and constancy, he is finally reunited with his brothers and Draupadi, as well as with his enemies, the Kauravas, to enjoy perpetual bliss.

The central plot constitutes little more than one fifth of the total work. The remainder of the poem addresses a wide range of myths and legends, including the romance of Damayanti and her husband Nala (who gambles away his kingdom just as Yudhishthira gambles away his) and the legend of Savitri, whose devotion to her dead husband persuades Yama, the god of death, to restore him to life. The poem also contains descriptions of places of pilgrimages.

Along with its basic plot and accounts of numerous myths, the Mahabharata reveals the evolution of Hinduism and its relations with other religions during its composition. The period during which the epic took shape was one of transition from Vedic sacrifice to sectarian Hinduism, as well as a time of interaction—sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile—with Buddhism and Jainism. Different sections of the poem express varying beliefs, often in creative tension. Some sections, such as the Narayaniya (a part of book 13), the Bhagavadgita (book 6), the Anugita (book 14), and the Harivamsha, are important sources of early Vaishnava theology, in which Krishna is an avatar of the god Vishnu. Above all, the Mahabharata is an exposition of dharma (codes of conduct), including the proper conduct of a king, of a warrior, of an individual living in times of calamity, and of a person seeking to attain freedom from rebirth. The poem repeatedly demonstrates that the conflicting codes of dharma are so “subtle” that, in some situations, the hero cannot help but violate them in some respect, no matter what choice he makes.

The Mahabharata story has been retold in written and oral Sanskrit and vernacular versions throughout South and Southeast Asia. Its various incidents have been portrayed in stone, notably in sculptured reliefs at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom in Cambodia, and in Indian miniature paintings.

Wendy Doniger

see also

Ramayana illustrations



Encyclopaedia Britannica

Indian epic
(Sanskrit: “Romance of Rāma”)
shorter of the two great epic poems of India, the other being the Mahābhārata (“Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty”). The Rāmāyaṇa was composed in Sanskrit, probably not before 300 bc, by the poet Vālmīki, and in its present form consists of some 24,000 couplets divided into seven books.

The poem describes the royal birth of Rāma in the kingdom of Ayodhyā (Oudh), his tutelage under the sage Viśvāmitra, and his success in bending Śiva’s (Shiva’s) mighty bow at the bridegroom tournament of Sītā, the daughter of King Janaka, thus winning her for his wife. After Rāma is banished from his position as heir by an intrigue, he retreats to the forest with his wife and his favourite half brother, Lakṣmaṇa, to spend 14 years in exile. There Rāvaṇa, the demon-king of Laṅkā, carries off Sītā to his capital, while her two protectors are busy pursuing a golden deer sent to the forest to mislead them. Sītā resolutely rejects Rāvaṇa’s attentions, and Rāma and his brother set about to rescue her. After numerous adventures they enter into alliance with Sugrīva, king of the monkeys; and with the assistance of the monkey-general Hanumān and Rāvaṇa’s own brother, Vibhīṣana, they attack Laṅkā. Rāma slays Rāvaṇa and rescues Sītā, who in a later version undergoes an ordeal by fire in order to clear herself of the suspicions of infidelity. When they return to Ayodhyā, however, Rāma learns that the people still question the queen’s chastity, and he banishes her to the forest. There she meets the sage Vālmīki (the reputed author of the Rāmāyaṇa) and at his hermitage gives birth to Rāma’s two sons. The family is reunited when the sons become of age, but Sītā, after again protesting her innocence, asks to be received by the earth, which swallows her up.

The poem enjoys immense popularity in India, where its recitation is considered an act of great merit. Many of its translations into the vernacular languages are themselves works of great literary merit, including the Tamil version of Kampaṉ, the Bengali version of Kṛttibās, and the Hindi version, Rāmcaritmānas, of Tulsīdās. Throughout North India the events of the poem are enacted in an annual pageant, the Rām Līlā, and in South India the two epics, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, even today make up the story repertoire of the kathākali dance-drama of Malabar. The Rāmāyaṇa was popular even during the Mughal period (16th century), and it was a favourite subject of Rājasthānī and Pahārī painters of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The story also spread in various forms throughout Southeast Asia (especially Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand); and its heroes, together with the Pāṇḍava brothers of the Mahābhārata, were the heroes of traditional Javanese-Balinese theatre, dance, and shadow plays. Incidents from the Rāmāyaṇa are carved in bas-relief on many Indonesian monuments—for example, at Panataran in eastern Java.



The Mahabharta - War


The Mahabharta - War


The Mahabharta - The advent of Geeta


The Mahabharta - Lord Krishna and Arjuna blow their conches

In the long run, the revitalization of Hinduism pushed Buddhism out of India.

In the fourth century Magadha once again became the foundation of a great empire. The local princes of the Gupta Dynasty (320-500 A.D), which reigned during the golden age of Hindu culture, under Chandragupta II and his son Samudragupta, were able to make vassals of the neighboring rulers in quick succession.

Under Chandragupta II, who also stood out as an 11 architect, the empire stood at the pinnacle of its power at the beginning of the fifth century, stretching over all of North India.

11 Vishnu Temple in Deogarh, fifth century

But then it was destroyed by invading Hephthalites. The last Guptas in the sixth century reigned only in Magadha, while in the rest of northern India a number of warring powers emerged.

Among them only the powerful Hindu dynasty of the 10 Gurjara-Pratiharas stood out, as they were able for some time to withstand the onslaught of Islamic conquerors, who had been invading India repeatedly since the eighth century.

10 Shiva as Nataraja, lord of the dance, sandstone from Pratihara, ninth century

Several states existed in central and southern India, among which the central Indian Andhra of the first and second centuries is of note. The Tamils were able to maintain their independence and the characteristic features of their southern Indian culture in the great plain of the Carnatic and northern Ceylon even in the times of the Maurya and Gupta empires.


Deogarh Vishnu Temple


Deogarh Vishnu Temple


Deogarh Vishnu Temple
Doorway detail


Deogarh Vishnu Temple
South Side
Vishnu on Ananta


Deogarh Vishnu Temple
South Side
Vishnu on Ananta


Deogarh Vishnu Temple
South Side
Vishnu on Ananta


Deogarh Vishnu Temple
South Side
Vishnu on Ananta


Deogarh Vishnu Temple


Deogarh Vishnu Temple
Doorway detail


Deogarh Vishnu Temple
East Side
Vishnu as Two Sages


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