Indian Art and Architecture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations  

From at least 3000 B.C. to the present day, many civilizations have flourished on the subcontinent of India (which includes today's countries of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh). Each has made valuable contributions to India's rich artistic heritage.

Several of the world's major religions (including Buddhism and Jainism, Hinduism, and Islam) either began in India or flourished there. India has also been home to small communities of Jews, Christians, and Parsis. (Parsis are Iranian fire-worshipers who moved to India in the early A.D. 700's). Much Indian art, therefore, has a religious content.


The earliest examples of Indian art come from the Indus Valley, an area in present-day Pakistan. The Indus Valley, or Harappan, civilization flourished from about 3200 to 2000 B.C. Many small sculptures of metal and clay survive from this period. They usually represent human or animal figures. Other objects include soapstone seals engraved with writing and animal forms. The seals may have been used to stamp trade goods or as a means of personal identification.

Four larger bronze statues of a buffalo, rhinoceros, elephant, and bull with chariot driver have also been found near Bombay. They are thought to date from about 1300 B.C.

About 1500 B.C., nomads from the Russian steppes (plains) invaded India. The era that followed is known as the Vedic period. It was named for the religious hymns called Vedas that were brought by the nomads to India. Except for some pottery and metal figures, few works of art remain from the Vedic period.

Buddhist Sculpture
Indian sculpture flourished during the Mauryan dynasty (about 321-184 B.C.). Much of the surviving art of this age is Buddhist. Among the most important monuments of the Mauryan period are large stone pillars that stood at crossroads and important sites. A pillar often had a lotus-shaped top bearing the figure of a lion. The lion was a symbol of imperial rule borrowed from Iranian art. Many pillars also featured important Indian symbols. These included the elephant, the bull, and the lotus itself.

Asoka (Ashoka) was the most famous Mauryan ruler. He made Buddhism the state religion. But he tolerated the worship of such traditional village gods as yakshas and yakshis. These were male and female nature spirits. Many larger-than-life stone images of these spirits were made during Asoka's reign. Smaller versions began to be placed on Buddhist monuments.

During the Mauryan period and the following Shunga dynasty, burial mounds (stupas) were built. Often, ornately carved gateways surrounded the stupas. Reliefs (raised carvings) on the gateways used symbols rather than a human image to represent Buddha.

During the Kushan dynasty (about A.D. 50-250), Buddhism spread to areas outside India. To teach new followers the story of Buddha's life on earth, relief carvings began to show Buddha in human form. Early images of Buddha had staring eyes and a tense smile. By the Gupta period (A.D. 320-475), the images of Buddha had changed. He had a more inward, meditative look, with downcast eyes and a graceful pose.

Hindu Sculpture
Small images of Hindu gods were also carved of stone. Although made in human form, the images were also meant to show the many different forms taken by Hindu gods. Some gods were given many arms or heads. They were always shown carrying certain emblems.

In northern India during the Gupta dynasty, images of Hindu gods were carved into the rock in man-made caves or housed in temples. Such temples appeared across India after A.D. 400. Elaborate relief carvings were made on the temple walls. These represented a variety of gods and their attendants.

In southern India after 800, bronze figures of Hindu gods were made. It was believed that the spirit of a temple god could be transferred to the statue. The statue was then carried in a religious procession. Outstanding bronzes were made in the Chola period (800-1200).

During the period from 900 to 1500, Hindu sculpture in the north tended to emphasize rich decoration. Much of this sculpture was used to ornament religious buildings. Sculpture of figures decreased after 1200 when northern India was ruled by Islamic leaders. Islam forbade the use of human images for worship. Figural sculpture was produced for Hindu rulers, however.

Traditional sculpture continues to be made in modern India, mainly for an international tourist market. Other sculptors have experimented with modern styles and techniques.


The people of ancient India made little distinction between artists who made images in paint and those who carved in stone. Each brought reality into being through his art.

Wall Painting
In the first centuries A.D., large Buddhist temples and monasteries were cut into cliffs near Bombay. The walls of these cave-halls are decorated with both carved and painted images. Some of the paintings date from the first century and earlier. But most were made in the 400's, when support for the arts came mainly from the royal court of the Vakataka dynasty. The painting style used at one site, Ajanta, later spread from India into Afghanistan and Central Asia. Figures are realistically painted and firmly outlined. Color is used for shading and to suggest the body's solidity. The scenes seem to project out from the painted wall.

Manuscript Illustration
Illustrated manuscripts were made in India beginning in the 1000's. Early manuscripts had writing surfaces made from palm leaves. Some schools of manuscript illustration tried to imitate the complex colors and solidly modeled shapes of earlier wall paintings. In western India, however, a different style of manuscript painting developed. There, manuscripts that told the life stories of saints of the Jain religion were used as offerings in temples. Their illustrations had flattened shapes and areas of pure, bright color. Illustrations made in this style stand out from the text. They can be easily understood by the viewer.

The Mogul (Mughal) dynasty came to power in the 1500's. It ruled much of India until the British took control in the 1850's. Mogul rulers followed the Islamic faith. They brought Islamic artists from Iran to train talented Indian painters. The literary works commonly illustrated in the Islamic world were very different from the religious texts illustrated by Indian artists. Many were myths or histories of kings. Akbar, one of the most famous Mogul rulers, encouraged painters to record the world around them. During his rule, Mogul painting combined Islamic, Hindu, and European elements into an original and expressive style.

Another style of manuscript painting developed in the courts of the Rajput rulers in northern India. These works continued to follow older Hindu themes. But they also adopted some Mogul traditions, such as portrait painting. Some Mogul court-painters went to Rajput kingdoms in the Pahari hills when Mogul power declined in the 1600's. A Pahari school of manuscript illustration developed in the 1800's that used pastel colors rather than the bright, intense colors of earlier Rajput paintings.

Modern Painting
The observation of nature encouraged by some Mogul rulers continued under the British, who first went to India as traders in the 1700's. Paintings made for the British East India Company include detailed studies of birds. These resembled the works of the American painter and naturalist John James Audubon (who painted the birds of North America). European painters who worked in oils also went to India and painted for local Hindu rulers. In the late 1800's, art schools modeled on European institutions were established in Calcutta and Bombay. A number of talented Indian painters were trained at these schools.

Early in the 1900's, a South Indian artist, Ravi Varma, made large oil paintings of Hindu gods in the style of British portrait paintings of the 1800's. These works had a strong influence on modern images of Hindu gods. A painter from eastern India, Jamini Roy, used the simple lines of modern European painters such as Henri Matisse to cast traditional folk images in a new light.

The writer Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, was also a painter. Tagore's nephew, Abanindranath, and his followers tried to combine Indian painting traditions with other Asian styles. Their work has had little influence on modern Indian art, however.

The oil paintings of Amrita Sher-Gil, on the other hand, continue to influence many Indian painters. Sher-Gil, who was half Hungarian, studied in Europe, but her paintings have a well-observed Indian content.

Other modern painters have followed a variety of international models. Most seek in personal ways to find a means of expression that can be both modern and Indian.


During the Indus Valley period, cities were built according to a grid pattern of intersecting streets. Buildings were made of brick. Later Hindu cities seem less organized. But similar rules of planning were laid down in Hindu architectural manuals. In Buddhist India small trading towns formed as centers of commerce, linked by trade routes. Structures were built of brick or mud. They often had pillared halls, balconies, and vaulted roofs with dormer windows.

Cave Architecture
The design of Buddhist cave-halls carved into the mountainsides near Bombay was based on the free-standing structures built in towns. Cave architecture continued at least into the 800's at such sites as Ajanta and Ellora. They were created by Hindus and Jains as well as Buddhists. In some cases, whole temples were carved out of the rock. The most famous rock-cut temple at Ellora is called the Kailasa temple. It was named after the mountain on which the Hindu god Shiva was said to have his palace.

Large free-standing temples were built in India from the 500's onward, mainly by Hindus and Jains. In the north, these temples had curving towers. The architecture of the temple was used to symbolize many things. These included an altar, a residence for a god, or a shelter for the worshiper seeking enlightenment. Many such temples were built in northern India. Outstanding examples are also found at Khajuraho in central India, Bhubaneswar on the eastern coast, and Somnath in the west.

In southern India, temples were more like palaces. Great walls with tall gateways were built to include much of the surrounding city within the temple grounds.

Islamic Architecture
Islamic rulers gained political control over northern India in the 1190's. Long before this period, Islamic merchants along the coasts of India had hired local craftsmen to build structures for their use. One common type of Islamic building is the mosque. A mosque is where the faithful gather for prayer. Most mosques have an open courtyard surrounded by a covered hallway and are oriented toward the sacred city of Mecca. (In India, this would be to the west-southwest.)

Under the patronage of sultans and emperors, a variety of Indo-Islamic architectural styles developed. Some were based on local styles. Others borrowed from Islamic traditions. Mosques, tombs, and palaces all survive from this era, known as the Sultanate period. They also survive from the period of Mogul rule that followed it.

A masterpiece of Indo-Islamic architecture is the Taj Mahal. This large marble structure was built in the 1600's by Shah Jahan, a Mogul emperor, as a tomb for his wife. It combines architectural conventions from Central Asia with uniquely Indian craftsmanship and materials.

Modern Architecture
Architecture in modern India draws on a variety of contemporary styles. For example, buildings in the capital, New Delhi, were designed by the British architect Edwin Lutyens in the early to mid-1900's. They were built by Indian craftsmen, however, and are decorated with a variety of Indian designs.

After the creation of the nations of India and Pakistan in 1947, the Indian government asked the great French architect Le Corbusier to create a plan for the new capital of the Punjab State at Chandigarh. Le Corbusier also designed many buildings in the city of Ahmedabad in western India. One of his supervising architects, B. K. Doshi, founded India's premier school of architecture there in the early 1960's.

Doshi and other architects built major projects for the Indian government and for industrial housing. Their designs follow many of the conventions of the modern international style. Doshi also established a foundation for the study of India's traditional architecture. He and other modern Indian architects have sought to design buildings in a style based on India's past rather than on forms adopted from European traditions.

Michael W. Meister
University of Pennsylvania

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