Indian art and architecture

Indian art and architecture,

works of art and architecture produced on the Indian subcontinent, which is now divided among India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In the Western world, notable collections of Indian art can be seen in the British Museum, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


Although a great deal of Indian secular art was produced, it was essentially made of perishable material and has not survived. What has survived in the medium of stone is religious art. In both Buddhist and Hindu art, symbolism in gesture, posture, and attribute contains many levels of meaning. In images of the Buddha, different hand positions (mudras) signify religious states, such as the Enlightenment (Nirvana), Meditation, and Preaching. In Hindu sculpture, deities (see VishnuVishnu
, one of the greatest gods of Hinduism, also called Narayana. First mentioned in the Veda as a minor deity, his theistic cults, known as Vaishnavism, or Vishnuism, grew steadily from the first millennium B.C., absorbing numerous different traditions and minor deities.
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, KrishnaKrishna
[Sanskrit,=black], one of the most popular deities in Hinduism, the eighth avatar, or incarnation of Vishnu. Krishna appears in the Mahabharata epic as a prince of the Yadava tribe and the friend and counselor of the Pandava princes.
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, and ShivaShiva
or Siva
, one of the greatest gods of Hinduism, also called Mahadeva. The "horned god" and phallic worship of the Indus valley civilization may have been a prototype of Shiva worship or Shaivism.
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) are frequently represented with many hands to indicate their power to perform multiple deeds at the same time, and the hands each carry their characteristic attributes. With the exception of Mughal art and architectureMughal art and architecture,
a characteristic Indo-Islamic-Persian style that flourished on the Indian subcontinent during the Mughal empire (1526–1857). This new style combined elements of Islamic art and architecture, which had been introduced to India during the Delhi
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, which demands separate treatment, the major trends in Indian art–Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain–are discussed within this article.

Indus Valley Civilization

The earliest Indian art emerged from the valley of the Indus River during the second half of the 3d millennium B.C. The best-known sites are Harappa, destroyed in the 19th cent., and Mohenjo-Daro; these are among the earliest examples of civic planning. Houses, markets, storage facilities, offices, and public baths were arranged in a gridlike scheme. There was also a highly developed drainage system.

The Indus civilization produced many statuettes made of steatite and limestone. Some statuettes resemble the hieratic style of contemporary Mesopotamia, while others are done in the smooth, sinuous style that is the prototype of later Indian sculpture, in which the plastic modeling reveals the animating breath of life (prana). Also found in this region are square steatite seals adorned with a range of animals, including naturalistically rendered bulls; ceramic storage jars with simple, stylized designs; toys with wheels; and figurines, which may be mother goddesses. Bronze weapons, tools, and sculptures indicate a sophistication in craftsmanship rather than a major aesthetic development.

Post-Indus Civilization through the Maurya Dynasty

Of the period from the end of the Indus civilization (c.1500 B.C.) until Alexander the Great crossed (325 B.C.) the Indus, few traces remain. However, the principles of Indian architecture were developed in wooden buildings, long since disintegrated.

From the great MauryaMaurya
, ancient Indian dynasty, c.325–c.183 B.C., founded by Chandragupta (Chandragupta Maurya). He conquered the Magadha kingdom and established his capital at Pataliputra (now Patna). His son, Bindusara (d. c.
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 dynasty the most famous remains are the edict pillars, erected throughout N India by the Emperor AśokaAśoka
or Ashoka,
d. c.232 B.C., Indian emperor (c.273–c.232 B.C.) of the Maurya dynasty; grandson of Chandragupta. One of the greatest rulers of ancient India, he brought nearly all India, together with Baluchistan and Afghanistan, under one sway for the
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 to proclaim his devotion to Buddhism. The monolithic, smooth columns are over 50 ft (15 m) high and are surmounted by lotus capitals and animal figures. Some of the pillar capitals reveal forms that suggest Persepolitan influences. Also dating from the reign of Aśoka is the earliest stone ogival chaitya window, found on the portal of a small rock-cut sanctuary near Bodh Gaya. The chaitya halls were monastic sanctuaries hewn out of rock. As they evolved, from the 3d cent. B.C. through the 1st millennium A.D., they became elaborate colonnaded halls, or walls embellished with painting or sculpture.

Sunga and Andhra Dynasties

The earliest extant stupasstupa
[Sanskrit,=mound], Buddhist monument in tumulus, or mound, form, often containing relics. The words tope and dagoba are synonymous, though the latter properly refers only to a Sinhalese Buddhist stupa.
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 date from the Sunga dynasty (2d–1st cent. B.C.) and early Andhra dynasty (1st cent. B.C.). These relic mounds are surrounded by railings and gateways covered with carved ornament. One of the main stupas is at Bharhut, where the sculpture is archaic in character. Relief medallions of the Buddha's life or of the jatakas (tales of his previous lives) are shallow cut, with all the incidents of each story arranged within a single composition. The bodies of semidivine beings including yakshis (female tree spirits) are flattened against the pillar of which they form part; prana is still emphasized.

The important stupa at Sanchi shows a similar style. Important carvings on the gateways of another stupa at Sanchi date from the early Andhra period. The yakshis have acquired full, graceful forms, and high-relief compositions are frequently conceived in a continuous method of narration. The carved railing from Bodh Gaya, the place of the Buddha's enlightenment, and the earliest surviving wall paintings are also early Andhra; paintings in the rock-cut cave at AjantaAjanta
, village, Maharashtra state, W central India, in the Ajanta Hills. The famous Ajanta caves, discovered in 1819, contain remarkable examples of Buddhist art. The caves, carved out of the side of a steep ravine, consist of chapels and monasteries dating from c.200 B.C.
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 narrate the Buddha's birth as an elephant and the entire synopsis of historic life. In the far south, in the Deccan, the later Andhra dynasty continued to flourish into the 1st cent. A.D. Its greatest monument is the carving at the Great Stupa at Amaravati, c.A.D. 200. The complex but coherent composition, the chiaroscuro, and the liveliness of the crowded surfaces distinguish these bas-reliefs.

Gandhara and Mathura

Under the Kushans, conquerors from central Asia, two of India's most important styles were developed between the 2d and 5th cent. A.D.: Gandhara art and art of Mathura. Gandhara art, named after the region of GandharaGandhara
, historic region of India, now in NW Pakistan. Situated astride the middle Indus River, the region had Taxila and Peshawar as its chief cities. It was originally a province of the Persian Empire and was reached (327 B.C.) by Alexander the Great.
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 now in Pakistan, presents some of the earliest images of the Buddha. Earlier at Bharhut and Sanchi, the Buddha's presence was represented by symbols, such as the pipal tree, the wheel of life, footprints, and an empty throne. The Gandhara style was profoundly influenced by 2d-century Hellenistic art and was itself highly influential in central and eastern Asia. Ivories and imported glass and lacquerware attest to the cosmopolitan tastes and extensive trade that characterized the period. Stupas and monasteries were adorned with relief friezes, often carved in dark schist, showing figures in classical poses with flowing Hellenistic draperies.

Farther east and south, contemporary Mathura, also under Kushan rule, created a wholly Indian sculptural art. Reddish limestone was the usual medium. More sensuous, heavier Buddhas whose limbs are created according to canonical instructions, smile directly at their worshipers. Reliefs of the yakshis carved against railing pillars are more frankly sensual and erotic than those at Sanchi. Buddhist iconography was developed in Gandhara. Mathura, however, preserved and developed Indian forms for three centuries.

The Gupta Period

Buddhist art flourished during this period, which has often been described as a golden age. A famous rock-cut monastery at Ajanta consists of several chaitya halls and numerous residential viharas. Both facades and interiors contain elegant relief sculpture, while interiors are covered with painted murals that feature superb figures drawn with a gracefully sinuous line. As in all periods, there is little difference in the images of the major Indian religions, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain. Large stone figures, stone and terra-cotta reliefs, and large and small bronzes are made in the refined Gupta style; the level of production is uniformly high. After the 7th cent., although the rulers of the Pala and Sena dynasties (730–1197) were Hindu, significant Buddhist art was created. Images in bronze and in hard black stone from Nalanda and elsewhere reveal a development of the Gupta manner, with extensive attention to ornamental details.

Architecture and Sculpture of the Hindu Dynasties

From the 6th cent. on, with the resurgence of Hindu dynasties throughout India, a characteristic temple plan was developed. An entrance portico led to a pillared hall (mandapa) into the cella. The shrine was often crowned by a large tower known as the shikhara. In S India the Dravida tower rose in a series of terraces, each symbolizing a different divinity; in the north, nagara spires ascended in a massive conical shape.

Innumerable temples were built that were so exuberantly embellished with sculpture that their style is called "sculptural architecture." The Khajuraho temples in central India (c.1000) represent one of the high points of the nagara buildings, and the damaged Temple of the Sun at Konarak (c.1250) reveals, in its famous erotic sculptures, carvings that combine balanced mass with delicate execution. The Jain temples at Mt. Abu, constructed entirely of imported white marble and dating from the 10th and 13th cent., have plain exteriors but are ornately carved inside.

In S India the 7th-century Pallava dynasty introduced the dravida style temple in a number of pyramidal raths (temples) at MahabalipuramMahabalipuram
, town, Tamil Nadu state, SE India, a coastal resort on the Coromandel Coast. Archaeological remains there represent some of the earliest-known examples of Dravidian architecture (c.7th cent. A.D.) in India.
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; an enormous cliff-face at the site is carved with a life-size representation of gods, men, and beasts, including the elephant family. The dravida style plan was used also in the 8th cent. in the quarried temple at ElloraEllora
, village, E central Maharashtra state, India. Extending more than 1 mi (1.6 km) on a hill are 34 rock and cave temples (5th–13th cent.), most of them Hindu but some Buddhist and Jain.
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. The CholaChola
, S Indian dynasty, whose kingdom was in what is now Tamil Nadu. Its chief capitals were at Kanchi (Kanchipuram) and Thanjavur (Tanjore). The Chola kingdom was one of the three of ancient Tamil tradition, but the dynasty had been virtually submerged for centuries when at
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 dynasty of S India further developed this form in the 11th cent., when they probably also cast most of large numbers of S Indian bronzes, of which the Nataraja (dancing Shiva) images are perhaps the best known.

The dravida style culminated in a series of expanded "temple townships," of which the largest is SrirangamSrirangam
, town (1991 pop. 70,109), Tamil Nadu state, SE India, on an island in the Kaveri River. It is noted for a group of temples to Vishnu (built c.1600), which attract many Hindu pilgrims. Srirangam is also a market for grain, sugarcane, and pepper.
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, consisting of seven concentric enclosures. These ended in the comparatively crude stucco sculptured architecture of 17th-century Mandura. Medieval bronze sculpture was highly developed in S India. The chief subjects were the deities, figures of whom were used for processional and home ritual. Skilled cire-perduecire perdue
[Fr.,=lost wax], sculptural process of metal casting that may be used for hollow and solid casting. The sculptor makes a model in plaster or clay that is then coated with wax. This model is then covered with a perforated plaster or clay mold.
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 sculptures were produced until the late 19th cent. in many regions of India.

Indian Painting

Adverse climate and other conditions have injured what wall painting existed. The most famous surviving Buddhist paintings are from the caves at Ajanta. Little is known of Hindu wall painting except for fragments at Ellora and Tanjore (see ThanjavurThanjavur
, formerly Tanjore
, city (1991 pop. 202,013), Tamil Nadu state, SE India. It is a district administrative headquarters and a rice-milling center on the Kaveri River delta, known as the "rice bowl" of Tamil Nadu.
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). The earliest Indian manuscript paintings are Buddhist, of the Pala dynasty; they have a delicate color. The 13th- to 15th-century Jain manuscript illuminations, painted in vivid red, blue, and gold, are most easily recognized by the characteristic protruding farther eye. Rajput miniature painting, which was practiced in N India from the 16th through the 19th cent., is related both to Mughal painting and to earlier Indian styles. It illustrates a variety of Hindu subjects: the ragamala series (musical modes), the legendary epics and romances, and particularly Krishna's deeds. Rajput painting is characterized by lyrical landscapes, sinuous grace in the depiction of the human form, and an interest in perspective.

The Modern Era

Little of the glorious tradition of Indian artistic achievement survived British rule. Indian artists adapted Western techniques and produced gouache paintings to suit the tastes of European buyers. Patua scrolls, containing swiftly executed watercolor illustrations of many subjects, became one source for the revival of Indian themes during the 20th cent. A growing nationalist sentiment pervaded Indian art in the early decades of the 20th cent. along with the conscious assimilation of Western styles. Major modern artists include Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy, Amrita Sher Gil, N. S. Bendre, M. B. Samant, F. N. Souza, Bhagwan Kapoor, M. F. Husain, Bhupen Khakhar, Ram Kinker, Dhanraj Bhagat, Amar Nath Seghal, Chintamoni Kar, and Amina Ahmad.


See H. R. Zimmer, The Art of Indian Asia (2 vol., 2d ed. 1960); W. G. Archer, Indian Painting from the Punjab Hills (1974); J. C. Harle, Gupta Sculpture (1974); J. C. Huntington, The Art of Ancient India (1985); J. Guy and J. Britschgi, Wonders of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100–1900 (2011); M. C. Beach et al., ed., Masters of Indian Painting, 1100–1900 (2 vol., 2011).

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When the British began to focus on Indian art and architecture in the first half of the nineteenth century, during their progress toward ruling the subcontinent, they brought two Western scholarly disciplines to bear, art history and archaeology.
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