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The History and Development of Indian Sculpture

Updated on April 5, 2014

The sculpture of Asia, notably that of India, China, and Japan, is today recognized as one of the great sculptural traditions of world art. Profoundly religious in nature and usually created by anonymous craftsmen, it is an art that takes its place beside the medieval sculpture of Europe as one of humankind's great spiritual expressions. Its purpose was to help the believer visualize the deity as an aid in worship. Sculpture as a fine art, made for purely aesthetic purposes, did not exist in the East until modern times, when, especially in Japan, a school of sculpture based on Western prototypes came into being.

Indus Valley Civilization

The most ancient of the Asian sculptural traditions is that of India, where remarkable works were produced by the Indus Valley, or Harappan, civilization, which flourished from about 2500 B.C. It is sometimes also referred to as the Indo-Sumerian civilization because it has striking similarities to the somewhat older culture of ancient Sumer. Small statues in stone, clay, or copper have been excavated at numerous Indus Valley sites, notably at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in what is now Pakistan. Human figures or animals were represented both in three-dimensional images and in low relief on numerous engraved seals.



This early period of Indian art was followed by the Vedic age, when Aryan tribes invaded India from the northwest before 1200 B.C. According to some scholars, they probably destroyed the already weakened Indus Valley civilization. Consequently, little art of any kind was produced in India for the next 1,000 years. Not until the reign of the Buddhist King Ashoka (Asoka) during the 3d century B.C. did a new school of sculpture arise, under Buddhist inspiration. Elaborate carving often decorated early Buddhist monuments such as cave temples, stupa mounds erected in memory of the Buddha, and other structures. Especially famous are the stupas at Bharhut and Sanchi and the free-standing sanctuary at Bodh-Gaya. Images of pre-Buddhist tree nymphs (yakṣī) and reliefs representing scenes from Buddhist legend are particularly fine. However, Buddha as a person never appears.

With the reign of the Indo-Scythian (Kushana) King Kanishka (1st or 2d century A.D.), Buddhist art changed greatly. In the Gandhara region of northwestern India, there arose a new school of sculpture, which is usually referred to as the Greco-Buddhist because it employs Indian Buddhist iconography but artistic forms derived from Greek and Roman art. At the same time another school of art closer to the native Indian tradition flourished in Mathura in northern India. In both of these sculptural traditions the Buddha and his saints, or Bodhisattvas, were now represented in human form. It was at this time, during the first three centuries A.D., that the standard iconographical types, such as the Buddha seated in the Yogi position and the standing Buddha, were evolved.

The golden age of Indian Buddhist sculpture took place under the Gupta dynasty (4th–6th century A.D.). Following carefully prescribed iconographical and aesthetic canons, the sculptors of this age produced images that are among the great masterpieces of world art. They had a profound influence on the Buddhist art of Southeast Asia, China, and Japan. In these images the Buddha is usually shown dressed in a monk's garment and with his curly hair cut short, indicating that he had renounced the world. He has the third eye (ūrṇā) and the protuberance on his head (uṣṇīṣa), symbols of his supernatural powers. His expression is always serene; the smile hovering over his lips shows that he is the Enlightened One, who has overcome the world and has achieved inner peace and harmony. Great emphasis is also placed on his hand gestures (mudrā) which express the various qualities associated with sacred beings. The Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, are always dressed in the garments of Indian princes, with skirts, scarves, and jewels, for Shakyamuni Buddha himself had been a royal prince before his Enlightenment.

The center of the Gupta school was at Sarnath in northern India, but fine examples of this type of art may be found all over India, especially at the great cave temples of Ajanta. The preferred medium was stone, but bronze, clay, and ivory images also exist. The style of these statues represents a synthesis of the Gandhara and Mathura schools and represents the classical statement of Indian Buddhist art.



By the 7th century, Hinduism, which incorporated the ancient Vedic religion, had replaced Buddhism as the chief religion of India. From that time most Indian sculpture was created under Hindu auspices. Hinduism taught the worship of the Hindu gods, especially Shiva and Vishnu with their female counterparts Parvati and Lakshmi, as well as a huge pantheon of other deities, demons, and sacred animals—all of which were represented in Hindu sculpture.

It is difficult to select among the many great artistic movements of Hindu India. The most famous of the early Hindu sculptures, dating from the 7th and 8th centuries, are the elaborate cave temples carved out of rock at Ellora, in central India; at Elephanta, an island near Bombay (Mumbai); and at Mamallapuram in southern India, near Madras (Chennai). These temples consist of architectural elements adorned with figures and scenes, in which the dynamic spirit of Hinduism finds powerful expression, combining a deeply spiritual feeling with great emphasis on sensuous beauty.


The next phase of Hindu art is best exemplified by the free-standing temples at Khajuraho in northern India and at Bhuvanesvara and Konarak in Orissa, which are decorated with thousands of magnificent sculptural images dating from the 10th to the 13th century. Here the sensuous aspect of Hindu art is very evident in the loving (maithuna) couples, who symbolize the love of the soul for the deity in terms that, for the Western viewer at least, often border on pornography in their explicitness.

This art came to an end, at least in northern India, as Islam, brought to the subcontinent by invaders in the 11th and 12th centuries, gradually took hold. Only in the south did Hindu sculptural tradition continue to flourish. The finest creations of the southern school were the bronze images created under the Chola dynasty (10th–13th century). Representing Shiva as Nataraja, or Lord of Dance, and his beautiful wife, Parvati, these metal images are among the great achievements of Indian art. However, even in the south, Hindu art began to decline in the 15th century. On a folk level fine carvings, usually made of wood, were produced in later times.

Central and Southeast Asia

From India proper both Buddhist and Hindu sculpture spread throughout the Indian-influenced world. To the north, in Afghanistan and Central Asia, a late form of Greco-Buddhist sculpture flourished between the 4th and 6th century. Later, Tibet and Nepal, where a form of Buddhism known as Lamaism developed, produced a sculpture that included many Hindu and native Tibetan elements. It usually took the form of strange, esoteric bronze or clay images of divinities with bizarre shapes and demonic expressions. This Lamaist art has been a vital force into modern times.

To the southeast, Indian Buddhist art exerted a powerful influence in Sri Lanka, Java, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Cambodia. Many critics regard the great stupa mound at Borobudur in central Java as the single greatest monument of Buddhist art in all Asia. The most persistent of these traditions of Buddhist sculpture is that of Thailand, where fine Buddhist sculptures have been made for over 1,000 years. The best of them, especially those of the early period, are among the masterpieces of Buddhist art.

The single greatest school of religious sculpture of Southeast Asia is that of Cambodia, which, under the Khmers (10th–13th century) produced some of the supreme masterpieces of Buddhist as well as Hindu art. Best known are the architectural carvings on the great temples at Angkor Vat and Angkor Thom, impressive both for their huge scale and their artistic excellence. However, numerous individual images, some of them colossal in scale, others small, often of metal, are equally fine. In fact, the Cambodian statues of this period are equal to the best sculptures produced in India at the time.


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