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Updated on September 2, 2010


A Brief History of Indian Art

Indian art is a blend of the sensuous and spiritual and has its origin nearly five thousand years ago during the heyday of Indus Valley civilization. Often referred as the Harrappan culture it was a civilization which existed during the second half of 3rd millennium BC. What makes Indus valley civilization unique is its urban culture. As Indus valley scripts have not been deciphered, whatever understanding we have of it is on the basis of sculptures, artifacts and ruins left behind. Many statuettes were found made of steatite and limestone which had the distinct impact of the hieratic style of Mesopotamia. Figurines of mother goddesses and bronze weapons though throw some light on the sophistication of this lost civilization; it is inadequate to arrive at rational conclusions. It was however a precursor of later Indian sculptures. As Indian art is the outcome of multiple influences, it is essential to consider each one of it for better understanding.

Influence of Buddhism

Though Buddhism originated in India its influence lasted only up to the middle of the first millennium AD. But its artistic influence has been profound. Its heyday was from 200BC to AD300. The Buddhist stupas at Sanchi and the cave temples of Karle, Ajanta and Ellora are standing testimonies of this. This entire artistic works were possible due to the patronage of royalty and wealthy guilds. Early sculptures of this period were mainly in wood and ivory. But by the second century stone was used particularly in places like Amaravati and the Deccan.  The Jains like the Buddhists developed a school of freestanding sculpture which came to be known as the ‘Mathura school’. It was here the first image of the Buddha was made. In earlier stupa sculptures, Buddha was depicted symbolically. The later ‘Gandhara school’ was a hybrid Indo-Greek art form found in North Western India and Afghanistan. Greek influence was obvious from the fine aquiline features of the various subjects. Stucco was widespread and terracotta an equally popular medium.

Influence of Hinduism

Hinduism’s greatest influence is found in its temple architecture. Basically Hindu temples are of three types namely Nagara or ‘northern’ style, the Dravida or ‘southern ‘style, and the Vesara or hybrid style which is seen mostly in the Deccan. There are however other variations too found in Kerala, Bengal and the Himalayan belt. Nagara style was developed around the 5th century AD and the Jagadamba temple at Khajuraho is an example of this.  The Dravida style on the other hand evolved around the 7th century, and the Pallava temples of Mammalapuram and Kanchipuram were models around which later versions emerged. Examples of Vesara style architecture is found mostly in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.  Though cave temples existed prior to the 7th century which were predominantly Buddhist, the first free standing rock cut temples were built by the Pallava Kings in Tamil Nadu

Influence of Jainism

Though temple murals existed in the Deccan around the 9th century, it is the Jaina miniature paintings of manuscripts which are the most noteworthy in the evolution of Indian art. Found mainly during the period 13th to 16th century, Buddhist manuscripts too had similar illustrations, but they were stylistically different. In the 15the century however there were two major innovations. The first was the use of paper by the Arabs and secondly the influence of the Persian miniatures. The use of more subtle colors later greatly influenced Rajasthani miniature paintings.

Influence of Islam

Islamic influence was not confined to miniature paintings but also found in architecture. It was most evident in mosques and mausoleums. The Arabs and Persians blended to give a totally new architectural style. Some of the most obvious innovations were for example the use of concrete and mortar which was never done before. Similarly the arch and dome became an integral part of architecture. In Islamic architecture vaults were built using radiating voussours, which however was blended with the trabiate system which was uniquely Indian. Islamic influence is also found in the long and stately minars, half-domed portals and honeycombed walls.  There were other innovations too, like the blending of Islamic calligraphy with traditional Indian floral designs. These innovations evolved in two phases; one during the period of the Delhi Sultanate and other during the heyday of the Mughals. The Taj Mahal being symbolic of the pinnacle of aesthetic refinement and imperial grandeur.

gandhara buddha
gandhara buddha
vaikunta perumal temple, kanchipuram
vaikunta perumal temple, kanchipuram
ajanta cave painting
ajanta cave painting
sanchi stupa
sanchi stupa
the giant statue of Buddha which was vandalised by the Taliban
the giant statue of Buddha which was vandalised by the Taliban
vaikunta perumal temple at kanchipuram
vaikunta perumal temple at kanchipuram
the taj mahal
the taj mahal


Submit a Comment

  • profile image


    4 years ago

    the summary was no doubt infomative.but a little more detail will surely enhance its quality

  • ram_m profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from India

    Thank you Romalisa for your good suggestion. I shall certainly try to add those details.

  • profile image

    Romalisa Samal 

    7 years ago

    iam a 2008,12th passed out girl from cbse,and had painting(history of indian art as an optional),its my hobby as well to study indian art please collect more details about diff school's style,add elaborate the evolution till the emergence of modern trends in indian art.



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