Shilpa Shastras literally means the Science of Shilpa (arts and crafts). It is an ancient umbrella term for numerous Hindu texts that describe arts, crafts, and their design rules, principles and standards.
Among other things the Shilpa Shastras prescribe the proportions of a sculptured figure, composition, principles, meaning, as well as all the rules of architecture.
Sixty-four techniques for such arts or crafts, sometimes called Bahya-kala are traditionally enumerated including carpentry, architecture, jewellery, farriery, acting, dancing, music, medicine, poetry etc., besides sixty-four Abhyantara-kala or ‘secret arts’, which include mostly erotic arts.
While Shilpa and Vastu Shastras are related, Shilpa Shastras deal with arts and crafts such as creating statues, icons, stone murals, painting, carpentry, pottery, jewellery, dying, textiles and others.
Vastu Shastras deal with building architecture – building houses, forts, temples, village and town layout, etc.
Description of Shilpa Shastras :
Shilpa refers to any art or craft in ancient Indian texts, while Shastra means science. Together, Shilpa Shastra means the science of art and crafts.
The ancient Sanskrit texts use the term Shilpin male artist and Shilpini the female artist for artists and crafts person.
The meaning of Shilpa is complex. The range of crafts encompassed by the term Shilpa extends to every aspect of art & culture that includes sculptor, potter, perfumer, painter, weaver, architect, dancer, musician the arts of love, and countless others.
Ancient Indian texts assert that the number of the arts is unlimited. They deploy sixty-four Kala (arts) and thirty-two Vidyas (fields of knowledge).
Shilpa is discussed in Agamas, Puranas and Vastu Shastra where it is linked to the mythology of Vishvakarma – the celestial engineer & architect of Hinduism.
Shilpa Shastras include chapters on paintings, both miniature and large.
For example, Narada Shilpa Shastra dedicates chapters 66 and 71 to the art of painting, while Saraswati Shilpa Shastra describes various types of Chitra (full complete painting), Ardhachitra (sketch work), Chitrabhasa (communication through painting) & Varna Samskara (preparation of colors).
Other ancient Shilpa Shastras on painting include Vishnudharmottara Purana and Chitralakshana.
The former is available in Sanskrit while the only surviving copies of latter are in Tibetan. Both were originally written on birch bark and have been translated into English and German.
These Sanskrit treatises discuss the following aspects of a painting : measurement, proportions, perspective of the viewer, Mudra, emotions, and Rasa.
Such an approach of Indian paintings make Shilpa Shastra not only canonical textual sources but also a means to transmit knowledge and spiritual themes.
The first chapter of Shilpa Shastra Manasara discusses the measurement principles for carpentry.
The 9th-century version of Mayamata text of Tamil Nadu and 16th century version of Shilparatna of Odisha describe Takshaka and Vardhaki as wood Shilpins;
takshaka possesses the knowledge of wood types and practices the art of cutting wood, while Vardhaki possesses the knowledge of wood forms and practices the art of carpentry.
One of the earliest mentions of carpentry arts is in Book 9, Chapter 112 of Rig Veda. Carpentry was also an essential Shilpa Shastra during the construction of a Hindu temple.
In Metal Craft
The Vedas, in particular Atharva Veda and Sthapatya Veda, describe many kinds of arts and crafts in their discussion of Shilpa Shastra and Yantra Sarvasva.
These discussions are in the context of making idols, and describe rules to achieve best Talmana (proportions), Mudra (stance) and Bhava (expression).
Sanskrit texts such as Shilparatna and Manasara describe in detail the process and principles for art work with metals, particularly for alloys such as Panchadhatu (five metals – zinc, tin, copper, silver and gold) and Ashtadhatu (eight metal alloys – which adds iron, lead and mercury to panchadhatu).
Madhuchista Vidhana (cire perdue or lost wax) casting process is the most discussed process in these ancient shilpa shastras with metals.
These Shastras diffused from India to other ancient cultures in Asia.
While there is empirical evidence of high purity metallurgy and art works with other metals, some ancient Shilpa Shastras have been lost.
For example, the 5th century Iron Pillar of Delhi, which stands 23 feet, weighs 6 tonnes and contains 99.72% iron without showing any signs of rust, is empirical evidence of the state of metallurgical arts in 5th century India.
Shilpa Shastra education in ancient India
Birth was no barrier in Shipa Shastras. All arts were the domain of all classes, castes and both genders in ancient India.
The ancient texts of Parashara states that all crafts were practised by anyone irrespective of family’s traditional occupation.
The Buddhist Jatakas mention Brahmin carpenters, the 4th century text Baudhayana describes chariot builders, carpenters, brick-workers, potters and metal workers from people classified as Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra.
Suttavibhanga describes builders and wheelwrights born to Shudra father and Brahmin mother, who by later texts would be described as untouchables.
The goldsmiths of Maharashtra included children born in cattle herding families.
There is no particular caste or community in Assam Valley that is exclusive to traditional crafts such as bamboo and cane. It is done by particularly the peasants irrespective of caste, community or creed.
Apprentices joined the masters of arts and crafts and were trained under them. The best were adopted and recognised as members of various art guilds.
The training began from childhood, and included studies about Dharma, culture, reading, writing, mathematics, geometry, colors, tools, as well as trade secrets.
Shilpins had formed Sreṇi (guilds) in ancient India. Each guild formed its own laws and code of conduct – one the ancient Hindu and Buddhist kings of India respected by tradition.
In some cases, the king established the laws of the guilds, and in some cases, the king’s treasurer had the final word and served as judge of various guilds in a kingdom.
These guilds, in the 1st millennium BC, included all those who practised the art irrespective of the artist’s caste or creed.
The income of each guild came from fees paid by new members joining the guild, from fines on those violating the code of conduct established by the guild, and levies on tools used for that art.
The guilds also performed charity and gifted collective works of art by their members to temples and other social works.
During festivals and social celebrations, each guild would contribute their own performance and pavilions with flags and emblems.
Art – A Spiritual Practice in Ancient India :
Creative work and artists were granted the sanctions of a sacrament in ancient Indian culture.
An artist expresses the spiritual and holiness in his or her art. This belief continues to manifest itself in modern India in the form of rituals, where in the autumn festival Dashahra, craftsmen in some parts of India worship their tools with incense, flowers and unhusked rice.
Brhat Samhita at verses 57.10-11 describes the practice of carpenters offering prayers and seeking forgiveness of a tree before cutting it for wood.
The axe used to cut the tree would be rubbed with honey and butter to minimise the hurt to the tree which was considered to be a living being.
Craft was seen as application of the essence of Purusha (Universal Principles) to parts of nature so as to transform it into a work of art.
Treatises on Shilpa Shastras – See Wikipedia Page of Shilpa Shastras