Indian Sculpture
Characteristics, History of Plastic Art in India.

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Asokan Pillar with Lion Capital
(c.250 BCE) Vaishali, Bihar,
India. Still standing after
more than 2,000 years.

Indian Art
For a brief survey of
painting, sculpture and
architecture, please see:
Art in India.

Indian Sculpture (3300 BCE - 1850)


Indus Valley Civilization
Mauryan Sculpture: Pillars of Ashoka
Ajanta Caves
Kushan Empire Sculpture
Hindu Sculpture of the Gupta Empire
Elephanta Caves
Pallava and Pandya Sculpture from South India
Ellora Caves
Pala Buddhist Art
Chandela Stone Sculpture in Central India
Chola Bronze Sculpture of South India, Sri Lanka
Mughal Relief Sculpture
Related Articles on Asian Art

More About Art of the Indian Subcontinent
- Classical Indian Painting (Up to 1150 CE)
- Post-Classical Indian Painting (14th-16th Century)
- Rajput Painting (16th-19th Century)

King Chandragupta I and Queen
Kumaradevi featured on a coin
during the reign of their son
Samudragupta, 335–380.
An exquisite example of Gupta
sculpture of the fourth century.

Some of the many erotic images
carved in stone on the outside
of Lakshana Temple, Khajuraho.
The complex represents the
highpoint of Chandela sculpture
in Central India.


Cultural stonework in India - in the form of primitive cupule art - dates back to the era of prehistoric art of the Lower Paleolithic, around 700,000 BCE - see Bhimbetka Petroglyphs (Auditorium Cave and Daraki-Chattan Rock Shelter, Madhya Pradesh). By the time of the Bronze Age, sculpture was already the predominant form of artistic expression throughout the Indian subcontinent, even though mural painting was also popular. Sculpture was used mainly as a form of religious art to illustrate the principles of Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism. The female nude in particular was used to depict the numerous attributes of the gods, for which it was often endowed with multiples heads and arms. There was certainly no tradition of individuality in Indian sculpture: instead, figures were conceived of as symbols of eternal values. In simple terms, one can say that - historically - Indian sculptors have focused not on three-dimensional volume and fullness, but on linear character - that is to say, the figure is designed on the basis of its outline, and is typically graceful and slender. The origin of plastic art in India dates back to the northwestern Indus valley civilization, which was noted primarily for its terracotta sculpture - mainly small figurines - but also for the pioneering bronze sculpture of the Harappan Culture. Other important milestones in the history of sculpture include: the Buddhist Pillars of Ashoka of the Mauryan period, with their wonderful carved capitals (3rd century BCE); the figurative Greco-Buddhist sculpture of the Gandhara and Mathura schools, and the Hindu art of the Gupta period (1st-6th century CE).

Over the next five centuries, a wide range of sculptural idioms flourished in many different areas of present-day Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, but by the time of the Khajuraho Temples in Madhya Pradesh, which were erected in the 10th/11th century by the Chandela dynasty, and which were renowned for the erotic content of their stone sculpture, Indian sculpture had reached the end of its most creative stage. From then on, sculpture was designed mostly as a form of architectural decoration, with huge quantities of small, mediocre figures being manufactured for this purpose. It has continued in this way, with little significant change, up to the present. For sculpture from across Asia, see: Asian Art (from 38,000 BCE).


Origins and History

Indus Valley Civilization Sculpture (c.3300-1300 BCE)

The art of sculpture began in India during the Indus Valley civilization which encompassed parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and north-west India as far south as Rajkot. Excavations at Indus valley sites at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa in modern-day Pakistan have uncovered a large quantity of terracotta sculpture and steatite seals, featuring images of female dancers, animals, foliage and deities. But Indus sculpture is most famous for its figurative bronze known as The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro (2500 BCE, National Museum, New Delhi), contemporary with masterpieces of Mesopotamian sculpture such as Ram in a Thicket (2500 BCE, British Museum). For a comparison with Chinese metalwork please see Sanxingdui Bronzes (1200-1000 BCE).

Mauryan Sculpture: Pillars of Ashoka (3rd Century BCE)

The story of monumental stone sculpture begins with the Maurya Dynasty, when sculptors first started to carve illustrative scenes from India's three main religions - Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.

Note: Ancient Religions of India and Pakistan
Around 800 BCE following the decline of the Indus Civilization and the arrival of Aryans from the northern Steppes, a family of religions - now known as Hinduism - began to emerge in the form of a series of sacred texts (Vedas) written in Sanskrit. A further set of holy texts, known as the Upanishads, appeared between 700 and 300 BCE. Another ancient religion which shares many features with Hinduism is Jainism, a peace-loving culture founded by Mahavira during the 6th century BCE. Later, a third religious system called Buddhism appeared, based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha (also known as Siddhartha Gautama, or Buddha), a sage who lived and taught in eastern India during the 5th century BCE.

One of the earliest Mauryan patrons of the arts was Emperor Ashoka (ruled 270-232 BCE) who decided to spread the Buddhist faith through the construction of 85,000 stupas or dome-shaped monuments, decorated with Buddhist writings and imagery engraved on rocks and pillars. The finest example is probably the Great Stupa at Sanchi, whose carved gateways depict a variety of Buddhist legends. The actual Pillars of Ashoka, typically erected at Buddhist monasteries or other pilgrimage sites, were hewn out of sandstone and topped with capitals decorated with carvings of animals, mainly lions. The lions are depicted in the round, either seated or standing. Only six such pillars survive. The most famous lion-capital - consisting of four lions, and known simply as the "Ashoka Column" - is located at Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh. It is interesting to note that some of Ashoka's lions resemble those at Persepolis, Persia, leading some scholars to believe that Mauryan sculpture was influenced by Ancient Persian Art from the Achaemenid and Sargonid eras. Other animal images used on the pillars, include bulls (Rampurva) and elephants (Sankissa).

Ashoka himself may have focused on Buddhism, but his sculptors almost certainly maintained the same sculptural traditions which were used to illustrate Hinduism, both before and since. Thus, in addition to stone, artists also practiced wood carving, terracotta and metalworking in bronze and iron. To compare terracotta production in China, see: Chinese Terracotta Army (246-208 BCE).

Ajanta Caves (c.200 BCE - 650 CE)

Located in a remote valley in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, Western India, the Ajanta Caves are world famous for their cave art - paintings and carvings illustrating the life of Buddha. There are some 29 rock-cut caves in total, five of which were used as temples or prayer halls, and twenty-four as monasteries. The earliest date from the 2nd and 1st century BCE; more caves were carved and decorated during the Gupta Empire (400–650 CE). The parietal art at Ajanta includes some of the finest masterpieces of Buddhist iconography in India. In addition to numerous serene statues of Buddha, the Ajanta sculptures include intricate images of animals, warriors, and deities while the paintings depict tales of ancient courtly life and Buddhist legend. Finally abandoned about 650, in favour of the Ellora caves some 100 kilometres (62 miles) away, the Ajanta Caves were gradually forgotten until 1819, when they were accidentally rediscovered by a British officer during a tiger-hunt. Since 1983, the Ajanta Caves have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Kushan Empire Sculpture (1st–6th century)

After Ajanta, the next two distinctive schools of Buddhist visual art emerged during the Kushan Empire in eastern Afghanistan, Pakistan and north-western India, during the 1st century CE. The first, known as the Gandhara school (flourished 1st-5th century), was centered around Peshawar - formerly an important centre of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom - and later at Taxila, in the Rawalpindi district of the Punjab province in Pakistan; the second, located south of New Delhi in Uttar Pradesh, was the Mathura school (flourished 1st–6th century). Their significance lies in the fact that they gave Buddha a human figure. Up until now, despite India's rich tradition of figurative art, Buddha had never been represented by a human image, but only by symbols. To emphasize his divinity therefore, the typical Kushan statue of Buddha was typically huge, with a halo around his head, and the dharmachakra engraved upon the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet. Although the two schools differed in the details of their Buddhist figures, the general trend in both was to move away from a purely naturalist design and toward a more idealized image.

The Gandhara school was noted for its Greco-Roman style of Buddhist sculpture, partly due to the conquests of Alexander the Great in the region and the resulting legacy of Hellenistic art (c.323-30 BCE), as well as the active trade between the territory and Rome. Borrowing heavily from classical Greek sculpture as well as Roman sculpture, Gandharan artists depicted Buddha with a youthful Apollo-like face, complete with Roman nose, dressed in toga-style garments like those seen on Roman imperial statues. Greek acanthus foliage decoration was another popular feature, as were cherubs bearing garlands. The most common material used by Gandharan sculptors was dark grey or green phyllite, grey-blue mica schist, or terracotta. In contrast, the Mathuran school is associated with native Indian traditions that emphasized rounded or voluptuous bodies adorned with minimal clothing, typically carved out of mottled red sandstone from local quarries. The typical Mathuran standing Buddha - derived from the earlier yaksa figures - exudes enormous energy. The more common Mathuran seated Buddha is characterized by broad shoulders, powerful chest, shaven head, round smiling face, right arm raised in reassurance, left arm resting on the thigh, and close-fitting drapery arranged in folds over the left arm, leaving the right shoulder bare. In all, very similar to the idealized Buddha statue that in due course became the standard representation throughout the world.

Jaina and Hindu images of the Mathura school are carved in the same style as the Buddhas. Indeed statues of Jaina Tirthankaras (saints), can only be distinguished from statues of Buddha, by scrutinizing the iconographic detail. Furthermore, the Hindu sun god, Surya, was typically dressed in belted tunic, high boots, and conical cap - the same outfit that was used in Mathura portraits of Kushan kings. Mathuran female figures, such as those carved in high relief on the gateways and pillars of both Buddhist and Jaina monuments, are strikingly sensual. These female nudes are depicted in a variety of domestic scenes or surrounded by nature.

Under the Kushans, sculpture from Gandhara and Mathura art went on to influence artists across India, including the Hindu and Jain sculpture of the Gupta Empire. In addition its influence also radiated northwards into Central Asia, where it affected the figurative sculpture of China, Korea, and Japan. (Note: For a comparison with East Asian work, see Chinese Buddhist Sculpture 100-present.)

Hindu Sculpture of the Gupta Empire (flourished 320-550)

Founded by Maharaja Sri Gupta, the Gupta Empire unified a large portion of northern India and led to an extended period of stability and cultural creativity. The Gupta era is often referred to as the Classical or Golden Age of India, and was characterized by extensive inventions and enormous progress in technology, engineering, literature, mathematics, astronomy and philosophy, that laid the basis for what is generally termed Hindu culture. During this period Hinduism became the official religion of the Gupta Empire, which saw the emergence of countless images of popular Hindu deities such as Vishnu (see the colossal image of Vishnu in the Udaigiri caves in Madhya Pradesh), Shiva, Krishna and the goddess Durga. But the period was also a time of relative religious tolerance: Buddhism also received royal attention, while Jainism also prospered. In fact, thanks to the influence of the Mathura school, the Gupta era is associated with the creation of the iconic Buddha image, which was then copied throughout the Buddhist world.

The Gupta style of sculpture remained relatively uniform across the empire. It incorporated the earlier figurative styles practiced in Gandhara and Mathura, but introduced new and more sophisticated forms and motifs. It is marked in particular by sensuous modelling of bodies and faces, harmonious proportions and more subtle expressions. The most innovative and influential artistic centres included Sarnath and Mathura. The Gupta idiom spread across much of India, influencing artists for centuries afterward. It also spread via the trade routes to Thailand and Java, as well as other countries in South and Southeast Asia.

Note: Characteristics of Jain sculpture
Practiced in India since the 6th century BCE, Jainism is a religion that advocates non-violence towards all living things, along with an austere lifestyle. Currently it has some six million adherents. The word "Jainism" comes from from jina (meaning liberator or conqueror), the name given to the 24 main adepts and teachers of this faith. Also known as also known as tirthankaras (river-forders), these 24 individuals are the principal focus of Jain sculpture. The highest form of life in Jainism is the wandering, possessionless, and passionless ascetic, which is why jinas are typically portrayed in statues or reliefs as itinerant beggars or yogis. Invariably they are depicted in only two positions: either sitting in the lotus posture (padmasana) or upright in the Jain body-abandonment posture (kayotsarga).

Elephanta Caves (c.550-720)

The famous rock-cut Elephanta Caves - created some time between the mid-5th and the 8th century - are a complex of rock-cut basalt caves located on Elephanta Island, in Mumbai Harbour, about 10 kilometres (6 miles) east of the city of Mumbai, in Maharashtra. The complex contains two groups of caves; the first is a group of five Hindu caves dedicated to the god Shiva; the second, a smaller group of two Buddhist caves. The last (Hindu) cave to be in active use was abandoned during the 16th century. Part of the complex was renovated in the 1970s, and in 1987 was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Elephanta Caves are known in particular for their Hindu rock art, featuring sculptures of many figures from the Hindu pantheon, such as Shiva, Vishnu, Parvati, Brahma, Ravana and Shiva's elephant-headed son Ganesha. The most important sculpture in the caves is the Trimurti (or Maheshmurti), set deep into a recess at the back of the cave opposite the entrance. Described by one scholar as a "masterpiece of Gupta-Chalukyan art", the 20-foot high Trimurti is a relief carving of a three-headed Shiva, whose three heads (Ardhanarishvara, Mahayogi and Aghori) symbolize the three fundamental aspects of Shiva: creation, protection, and destruction. Other highlights include: an engraved panel showing Shiva slaying Andhaka; an image of Shiva sitting like Buddha in a cross-legged Yogic position while doing penance after the death of his first wife Sati, who was later reborn as Parvati; a panel showing Shiva getting married to Parvati, watched by Brahma, Vishnu, Indra, and other deities.

Pallava and Pandya Sculpture from South India (600-900)

Nearly all the sculpture created in southern India during the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries, is associated with the Pallavas or the Pandyas - the two most important Hindu dynasties of the time. The Pallava dynasty reportedly dates back to the 2nd century CE, although it wasn't until the eclipse of the Satavahana dynasty in the 3rd century that the family and its history entered the spotlight, and not until the 7th century that they achieved real power. Pallava rule was centered on the eastern coastline and included the city of Mamallapuram, in the Kancheepuram district of Tamil Nadu, which was famous for being the site of the carved-stone cliff created by Pallava kings in the 7th century. The Pallava era is significant for marking the transition from rock-cut architecture to stone temples. Its best-known achievements include the Kailasanatha temple in Kanchipuram (685-705) noted for its huge pillars ornamented with multi-directional carvings of lions, and the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram (7th century), overlooking the Bay of Bengal, which was decorated with copious stone statues and reliefs of Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna and other Hindu deities.

The Pandya dynasty, based further south in the vicinity of Madurai, Tamil Nadu, ruled parts of South India from 600 BCE to first half of the 14th century CE. Like the Pallavas, the Pandyas were famous for their rock-cut architecture and sculpture. The latter is exemplified by the granite statue of a Seated four-armed Vishnu (770-820), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Ellora Caves (c.600-1000)

The Ellora Caves are a collection of some thirty-four structures - spread out over more than two kilometres - which were hewn out of the vertical basalt face of the Charanandri hills north-west of the city of Aurangabad, in Maharashtra, Western India. Unlike the nearby Ajanta Caves, Ellora celebrates the Hindu and Jain religious faiths, as well as Buddhism. Built by the Rashtrakuta dynasty, the site includes twelve Buddhist caves (the oldest structures), seventeen Hindu and five Jain (the youngest). Interestingly, although all are lavishly decorated with rock carvings, the Buddhist and Jain caves seem rather quiet and meditative, while the Hindu halls seem to resonate with energy. The latter are noted in particular for the "Cavern of the Ten Avatars", and the Kailasha Temple - which includes a full-size temple flanked by elephants carved out of the rock - with its famous sculpture of Ravana attempting to lift Mount Kailasa, the Himalayan mountain home of Shiva. The Jain Caves are equally large, richly decorated and mark the last phase of activity at Ellora, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Pala Buddhist Art (8th-12th century)

The Pala dynasty (in Sanskrit, "Pala" means "protector") exerted control over the present-day states of Bihar and West Bengal in eastern India, as well as the region of Bangladesh, from the 8th to the 12th century. The Pala school of sculpture is seen as a distinct phase of Indian art, created by the artistic ingenuity of Bengal sculptors across the region. It is noted chiefly for its bronze Buddhist statues and figurines, created by the lost-wax process and involving an alloy of up to eight metals. Depicting various divinities, they are typically small and portable, and designed mainly for private worship. The style is reminiscent of the Gupta tradition developed at Sarnath, but Bengal artists added an unmistakeable sensuality. Figures are fuller, more rounded and convey a certain elegant virtuosity. The leading centres of production for this mobiliary art were the Buddhist monasteries at Nalanda and Kurkihar. Pala sculptors are also known for their stone sculpture, often used to decorate wall niches in Hindu as well as Buddhist temples.

The Pala kingdom was one of the last strongholds of Buddhist culture in India, although by its decline in the 12th century Hinduism had become predominant. Until then however, the monasteries and holy sites of the Pala region attracted Buddhist pilgrims, monks, and students from all over Asia. When these visitors returned home, they took with them a wide variety of Buddhist art, including Buddhist statuettes, illustrated manuscripts, drawings, and other types of art associated with Shakyamuni Buddha. As a result, Pala sculpture in particular, influenced the art of Nepal, Tibet, Burma, and Java.

Chandela Stone Sculpture in Central India (10th-13th century)

The Rajput clan of the Chandelas ruled the Bundelkhand region of central India between the 10th and the 13th centuries. Chandela culture is best-known for the nagara-style architecture and erotic stone sculpture at the temples of Khajuraho - now a UNESCO world heritage site. Mostly erected between 950 and 1050, the Khajuraho complex consists of 85 Hindu and Jain temples spread over 2.5 square miles, southeast of Jhansi, in Madhya Pradesh. Made from sandstone on a granite foundation, the Khajuraho temples were actively used by worshippers until the establishment of the Delhi Sultanates of the 13th century. Under Muslim rule, most of Khajuraho's monuments were destroyed or left to fall into ruin. Of the 20 or so surviving temples, perhaps the best-known are the Khandarya Mahadeva temple (1029) dedicated to Shiva, and the Lakshana Temple (939) dedicated to Vaikuntha Vishnu. Khandarya Mahadeva is the largest Hindu temple and is decorated with over 640 statues. Lakshana is famous for its three-headed, four-armed statue of Vaikuntha Vishnu, and its eight armed, elephant-headed image of Lord Ganesha, the Hindu Lord of letters and learning. Most (90 percent) of the thousands of Khajuraho statues and reliefs are concerned with daily life, as well as mythical stories and symbolic values. But around 10 percent of both the interior and exterior carvings are erotic images featuring female nudes cavorting with naked males. The exact meaning and purpose of this so-called art remains a matter of debate, but there can be no doubt as to its importance to the Hindu and Jain faiths, not least because it involved the creative efforts of hundreds of highly trained sculptors.

See also: How to Appreciate Sculpture (c.30,000 BCE - 1900 CE).

Chola Bronze Sculpture of South India, Sri Lanka (9th-13th century)

From the late 9th century to the late 13th century the Chola dynasty ruled much of south India, Sri Lanka and the Maldive Islands from their base near Thanjavur on the southeastern coast. Chola kings were active patrons of the arts, and during their reign they built a number of large stone temple complexes decorated throughout with stone carvings of Hindu deities. However, Chola art is best-known for its temple bronze sculpture of Hindu gods and goddesses, many of which were designed to be carried in local processions during temple festivals. Cast using the lost-wax method, Chola bronzes were admired for their sensuous figures as well as the detail of their clothing and jewellery. It is worth remembering that when these images were worshipped in the temple or during processional events, they were lavishly adorned with silk cloth, garlands, and jewels. The Chola style of sculpture was greatly admired for its elegance and grace, but especially for its vitality - an attribute conveyed through facial expression, posture and movement. Even though bronze sculpture was well established in south India before the Cholas, a much greater number of bronze statues were created during the Chola period. Chola Hindu sculpture features countless figures of Shiva, often accompanied by his consort Parvati; Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi; the Nayanmars, other Saiva saints and many other Hindu divinities.

Mughal Relief Sculpture

From 1526 until 1857, much of northern India was ruled by the Mughals, Islamic rulers from Central Asia. During this era, the principal artistic activity was painting, while metalwork, and ivory carving as well as marble sculpture also flourished. The quality of Mughal stonework is exemplified by a number of intricately carved sandstone screens.

The Mughal Emperor Akbar was an enthusiastic patron of stone carving. He commissioned statues of Jai Mal and Fatha (Rajput heroes of Chittor) shown sitting on elephants, to guard the gate of the Agra Fort. Emperor Jahangir erected two life-size marble statues of Rana Amar Singh and his son Karan Singh in the palace garden at Agra. In general, Mughal rulers were great admirers of relief sculpture (including abstract work as well as naturalist depictions of flowers, butterflies, insects and clouds) which was regarded as an essential element of Mughal architecture, and embellished their buildings with a wide variety of this type of decorative art: an example being the 50 varieties of marble carving on the walls of Akbar's tomb at Sikandra.

For more about Mughal/Mogul art, see: Mughal Painting (16th-19th Century).

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