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 Vishnu, Krishna, and Shiva) 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 architecture, 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 BC 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 BC) until Alexander the Great crossed (325 BC) the Indus, few traces remain. However, the principles of Indian architecture were developed in wooden buildings, long since disintegrated.
From the great Maurya dynasty the most famous remains are the edict pillars, erected throughout N India by the Emperor Asoka 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 Asoka 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. BC through the 1st millennium AD, they became elaborate colonnaded halls, or walls embellished with painting or sculpture.
Sunga and Andhra Dynasties
The earliest extant stupas date from the Sunga dynasty (2d–1st cent. BC) and early Andhra dynasty (1st cent. BC). 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 Ajanta 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. AD Its greatest monument is the carving at the Great Stupa at Amaravati, c.AD 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. AD: Gandhara art and art of Mathura. Gandhara art, named after the region of Gandhara 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.