History of Asia

Indian Art and Architecture - History of Indian Art and Architecture


Set of artistic and architectural works from the Indian subcontinent since the 3rd millennium BC. until our days. To adherents of the Western tradition, they may seem, at first glance, exaggerated and sensual; however, even these are appreciating its refinement. They are also characterized by a great sense of design, evident in both modern and traditional forms. Indian culture usually manifests voluptuousness with an unusual freedom of expression.

The Jaini temple of Jaya Stamba, Ranakpur, has towers or siharas carefully carved in stone, with finials at its upper ends. The decoration of Jain temples, as well as that of miniatures, is one of the maxims of Indian art.

The art of India can be understood and judged in the context of the ideological, aesthetic and ritual claims and needs of Hindu civilization. Such pretensions were established as early as the 1st century BC. and have displayed remarkable tenacity over the centuries. The Hindu-Jaino-Buddhist worldview depends on resolving the central paradox of all existence, according to which change and perfection, time and eternity, immanence and transcendence, function as parts of a single process.

Thus, creation cannot be separated from the creator and time must be understood as a matrix of eternity. This concept, applied to art, divides the universe of aesthetic experience into three distinct elements, although related to each other:the senses, the emotions and the spirit. These elements dictate the norms for architecture, as an instrument for closing and transforming spaces, and for sculpture, in terms of volume, plasticity, modeling, composition and aesthetic values. Instead of representing the dichotomy between flesh and spirit, Hindu art, through deliberate sensuality and voluptuousness, fuses both, through a complex symbolism that, for example, transforms the carnality of a female body into a perennial mystery of sex and creativity, in which the momentary wife reveals herself as the eternal mother.

The Taj Mahal, mausoleum of the wife of a 17th century Mongol emperor, was built by around 20,000 workers from 1631 to 1648 in Agra, a city in northern India . This huge building topped with domes was built in an Indo-Islamic style, using white marble and inlaid gems. At each corner is a minaret, and the outer walls are adorned with passages from the Quran, the Muslim holy book. The bodies of the Emperor and his wife lie in a crypt.

The Hindu artist correctly uses some motifs, such as the female figure, the tree, the water, the lion and the elephant in a specific composition. Although the result is sometimes unsettling in terms of concepts, in terms of sensual vitality, the sense of terrain, muscular energy and rhythmic movement remain unmistakable. All the elements that make up Indian painting - such as the form of the Hindu temple, the contours of the bodies of Hindu gods, light, shadow, composition and volume - are aimed at glorifying the mysteries that resolve the conflict between life and life. death, between time and eternity.

Indian art manifested in architecture, sculpture, painting, jewelry, ceramics, metals and fabrics spread throughout the East with the spread of Buddhism and Hinduism and exerted a great influence on the arts of China, from Japan, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Java. Both religions, with their ramifications, predominated in India until Islam took hold between the 13th and 18th centuries. The Muslim religion prohibits the representation of the human figure in religious contexts, which is why the decoration came to represent geometric motifs.


The first show of Indian architecture was the construction of brick buildings, while wooden structures were erected. Although the latter disappeared over the centuries, they were imitated by stone buildings that are still standing.

The early classical era began in 250 BC, during the reign of Asoka, who lent Buddhism imperial patronage. Very common at this time are the stupas (small temples to keep the relics dedicated to Buddha) and the chaityas (rock temples), among which the Great Stupa of Sanchi, started by Emperor Asoka and expanded in later times, and the Chaitya of Karli, early 2nd century.

From the 5th century onwards, the decline of Buddhism took place, with the rise of Hinduism and Jainism. The style inherent to these religions merged to make way for the elaborate motifs that constitute the hallmark of Indian architecture and that appear carved into the rocks, forming valances. The most important examples are on Parasnath Hill in Bihar; on Mount Abut in Abu Rajasthan; and at Strunjaya in Gujarat.

The Islamic architecture of India dates back to the 13th century to the present day. To her belong the famous mausoleum of Gol Gundadh (1660), in Bijapur, state of Mysore; the Qutb Minar tower (12th century), with five floors of stone and marble, in Delhi, the capital; and the mosque of Jami Masjid (1423) in Ahmadabad.

The Mongolian phase of the Indo-Islamic style, between the 16th and 18th centuries, encouraged the use of luxurious materials, such as marble. The crowning example of this style is the mausoleum of the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Since the 18th century, the construction of large buildings in India has maintained its own historical forms or been subjected to European models introduced by the British.


In the Indus Valley, among the remains of the burnt brick buildings of Mohenjo-Daro, objects from the 3rd millennium BC have been found, among which there are alabaster and marble figures, terracotta figurines and fine china depicting naked goddesses and animals, a copper cart model and numerous square ceramic and ivory seals with animals and pictographs.

With the arrival of Buddhism, in the 3rd century BC, the evolution of a monumental architecture in stone began, which was completed with sculpture in low relief. The most outstanding examples from this period are the animal-shaped capitals of the sandstone pilasters for the edicts of the Asoka monarch and the marble balconies that surround the stupas of Bharhut near Satna in Madhya Pradesh. Also noteworthy are the doors of the Great Stupa of Sanchi (2nd century BC), whose reliefs have the delicacy and detail of carved ivory works.

The traces of early works belonging to this school also denote a close relationship with the sculptural style of Bharhut. Later, in the 1st and 2nd centuries, the Mathura school drew the ancient symbols of Buddha and began to represent him through real figures. Such an innovation was adopted in successive phases of Indian sculpture.

In the Gupta period, which spans from the year 320 to about 600, Buddha figures with clearly defined lines and refined contours were made, wrapped in diaphanous robes that clung to the body as if they were wet, like that of Sultanganj, in the state of Bihar.

In this period, the development of Hindu sculpture also took place. Reliefs were carved to adorn the rock-cut shrines of Udayagiri (400-600) in Madhya Pradesh and the temples of Garhwa near Allahabad and Deogarh.

From the 9th century to the consolidation of Muslim power at the beginning of the 13th century, Indian sculpture was, little by little, turning to linear forms, to the pronounced contour instead of the volume. It was increasingly used as decoration, subordinated to the architectural style. It was rich in intricate details and was characterized by multi-armed figures, taken from the pantheon of Hindu and Jain gods, which came to replace the sensitive figures of Buddhist gods, with the multiplicity of forms accentuating the importance of technical mastery.

When Muslims came to power in the 13th century, they adopted many of the native motifs for their ornamentation. Traditions have been maintained until the present time, especially in the south, where the art still maintains its Hindu purity.


In two locations, remains of Indian paintings prior to the year 100 of our era are preserved. The fantastic murals in the Ajanta caves cover the period between 50 and 642. Also noteworthy are the paintings in the Jogimara cave, in Orissa, which belong to two periods:the 1st century BC. and in medieval times, the former were more vigorous in design and of better quality than the latter.

In the Gupta period, the classical phase of Indian art was reached, at times serene and spiritual, at other times energetic and voluptuous.

In Patan, Gujarat, a Kalpa Sutra (manual of religious liturgy) from the year 1237, illustrated in palm leaf, is preserved.

Rajput painting flourished in Rajputana, Bundelkhand (currently part of Madhya Pradesh), and the Punjab Himalaya between the 16th and 19th centuries. It was based on manuscript illumination with flat decorative motifs and is a refined and lyrical folk painting illustrating traditional Hindu epics, especially the life of the god Krishna.

Mongolian painting, derived from the sophisticated Persian tradition, was a courtly art sponsored by emperors.

Jewellery, Ceramics and Textiles

Among the Indian decorative arts, jewelry is the most beautiful and the most universally aroused. Its craftsmen mastered the techniques of filigree and granulation.

The special features that distinguish the best Indian pottery are the strict subordination of color and ornamentation to form — and the repetition of natural motifs in the decoration. In the field of metal crafts, the paraphernalia and weapons of high-ranking military personnel stand out.

Kashmir is notable for its richly colored wool shawls; Surat in Gujarat is famous for its patterned silks; and Ahamadabad and Varanasi, along with Murshidabad in West Bengal, produce sumptuous brocades.

By Rainer Sousa