Cultures & Traditions

The Arts of India to 1500 CE

The history of art in India goes back thousands of years. Traditional arts are also still living cultural traditions essential to rituals and religious practices, and are integrated into daily life. Many motifs in Indian art have survived without significant change over millennia.

Prehistoric peoples of the Indian subcontinent, including nomads, herders, and farmers, appear to have had various reli­gious practices, some celebrating the fertile powers of nature. Their ideas and images endured as essential aspects of Indian civi­lization, for example in representations of female fertility deities and in veneration of the male phallus.

The best - known early culture is the Indus Valley civilization, centered on the Indus River and includ­ing the major urban sites of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. Material culture from these sites dates to approximately 2500–1500 B.C. and represents the earliest art historical material from South Asia. Well - known objects from these sites include artworks of bronze, stone, and terracotta, while the most prolifically produced objects that survive are small terracottas and steatite seals. The seals depict a form of writing, often called the Indus Valley script, that to this day has not been deciphered. This region was in regular contact with Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean world through trade.

Beginning around 1500 B.C., a new group of people, the Aryans, were present in the northwestern area of South Asia. Probably originally nomadic, they apparently spoke an Indo-European language related to Old Persian. It is believed that Sanskrit, the classical and sacred language of Hindu religious texts, may have developed in this region. Interacting with various local popula­tions, the Aryan- speaking people eventually came to dominate the Ganges River plain and northern India where they mingled with other inhabitants. The Hindu texts of the _Rig Veda, _based on much earlier oral traditions and codified around 1200 B.C., reflect this early period. The Hindu religion evolved over time through the intermingling of Aryan and Indo- European language, religion, and cultural practices with those of the many other diverse inhab­itants of India. The great Hindu god Shiva, for example, resembles the Aryan storm god Rudra and also recalls earlier fertility dei­ties. Eventually, ideas about the gods and the religious universe became even more complex, with the development and expan­sion of Hindu metaphysical ideas in the period of the Upanishads, beginning around 800 B.C. What we know today as Hinduism comprises a complicated array of beliefs and practices, a vast pan­theon of deities, and an enormous range of textual sources.

In the 6th century B.C., during the Upanishadic period, new philosophical and religious developments evolved from Hindu roots. A prince called Siddhartha (c. 566–486 B.C.), eventually revered as the Buddha or Enlightened One, renounced his noble heritage and preached ascetic doctrines that would become known as Buddhism. During the same period, another historical individual, Mahavira (c. 540–468 B.C.), also taught renunciation, asceticism, and meditation. His teachings, likewise evolving from coexisting South Asian belief systems, became the foundation of the Jain religion. Thus India is the birthplace of three major world religions that date back thousands of years.

Much of the earliest large - scale sculpture surviving in India was created to adorn Buddhist monuments, especially stupas (memo­rial mounds to deceased Buddhist holy figures) and chaityas (monastic halls). No Buddhist art survives for roughly two centuries after the lifetime of the historical Buddha. From the 3rd century B.C. onward, major monuments adorned with figural and narrative sculpture were created in the contexts of Buddhist patronage, monasticism, and holy places. Elsewhere during this period, another style of Buddhist works proliferated. Originating in a large region that extended from Afghanistan to northern India, the arts of the Gandharan era (1st to 4th centuries A.D.) reflect the influence and interplay between Greco -Roman and Hellenistic art and South Asian and Buddhist art during this period. Traditional trans -Asian trade routes, often referred to as the Silk Road, were established as early as 1000 B.C. and involved extensive trade and contact between the Mediterranean world and South Asia. The result was a rich exchange of artistic and cultural influences.

Over the centuries, religious and cultural developments in India were rich and profound, as numerous religions coexisted and evolved, and political entities ranged from independent principalities to large empires. The influence of Indian religion, philosophy, and visual arts was felt as far away as China and Southeast Asia, dispersed by merchants, scholars, and mission­aries or absorbed by pilgrims coming from distant lands to study in India. For example, both Hinduism and Buddhism flourished under the Pala dynasty in eastern India (8th to 13th centuries). The artistic traditions of this region and period made their way to the Himalayas, where they had an important role in the development of Tantric Buddhist art.

As noted, the Upanishadic age in India produced two major new religious and philosophical traditions, Buddhism and Jainism. Evolving from ancient beliefs and practices of Hinduism, Jainism stresses a peaceful conquest of hate, greed, violence, and lust. Like Hindus, Jains believe in conquering desires in order to achieve _moksha, _or enlightenment and liberation. In Jain philosophy, there are twenty- four _tirthankaras, _inspired holy teachers, of whom Mahavira was the last.

From the early 4th century onward, with the establishment of the Gupta kingdom (A.D. 320-550) by Chandragupta I, there was a flowering of Hindu art. A wealth of stone sculptures was created to ornament the exteriors of temples and to make visible stories of the gods. The first Hindu temples were designed to create a vision of the cosmic world. Temples were constructed to embody devotional mandalas, or sacred diagrams oriented to the cardinal direc­tions, with patterns and images intended to make experiencing a temple a way to find the path to knowledge and enlightenment. Temples were also designed to make the appearance and stories of the gods familiar to their worshippers. In a museum setting temple sculptures often appear monochrome, revealing the color of the stone from which they were carved, but many would origi­nally have been brightly painted, as can be seen in the temples of southern India today.

The development of Hindu art was closely related to religious developments in Hinduism. While Vedic traditions of caste and sacrifice were maintained, more philosophical and speculative religious ideas began to appear by about the 8th century B.C., expressed in the Upanishads, a large collection of texts. The great Indian epics, the _Mahabharata _and the _Ramayana, _were codified fol­lowing the Upanishadic era. Both epics were substantial sources for the visual arts. In particular the _Bhagavad Gita, _a text that is part of the larger epic the _Mahabharata, _is a classic distillation of Hindu beliefs and is one example of a narrative text involving the god Krishna. In the 1st millennium A.D., the ideas of reincarnation, karma, and ultimate release from the endless cycle of rebirth, already present in the Upanishads, expanded considerably in the _Puranas, _or “Ancient Stories.” These texts feature a vast array of narratives and divine figures, offering an abundance of material for the visual arts.

While stone sculptures and reliefs decorated the exterior of great religious monuments for many centuries, bronze sculptures of the gods were probably a later development. In southern India, kings and queens of the Chola dynasty (9th to 13th centu­ries) were well- known patrons of great Hindu temples. Masterful bronze sculptures were worshipped in the temple context, and car­ried through the streets in processions during religious festivals. Such great temple festivals, involving massive carts that transport divine images, still occur today throughout India, and major celebrations may draw hundreds of thousands of participants.

Such images were popular during the Chola dynasty because people increasingly wanted a more intimate, emotional relation­ship with the gods. These ideas were central to the religious movement known as _bhakti, _a personal and emotional experience of divinity. Meeting god face- to -face through imagery—that is, seeing and being seen by the divine—is an essential part of Hindu wor­ship today.

Alluring female figures repeatedly occur in Indian art. They were created in many contexts, including use in religious shrines and monuments, and for various decorative and secular functions. Emphasis on fertility and sexuality is by no means incongruous with the religious. Sculptures at the great medieval Hindu temples at Khajuraho are well known for their erotic scenes, many related to Sanskrit texts. Explicitly erotic images, at times, are associated with auspiciousness and religious practices. Indeed in the Hindu context, in contrast to Western traditions, human love and erotic desire can serve as metaphors for experience of the divine.

In Hindu art, there are many expressions of love between humans and the gods. The theme of _bhakti, _or devotional love and personal, intimate rapport between the divine and human being, appears frequently. One of the great paradigms of divine love is the story of Radha and Krishna, often represented in Indian miniature paintings. Krishna, the beloved youthful deity, is an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu. His love for the _gopis, _or cow-herding girls, and especially for Radha, expresses a particular sensuality, emotionalism, and intimacy that are understood as a metaphor for the god’s love for the human soul.

The South Asian collection provides an excellent survey of major periods in Indian art, illustrated by works of the highest quality. Beginning with an object from the Indus Valley dating to the 3rd millennium B.C., significant artworks from many regions, periods, and styles grace the collection, representing a range of faiths; and revealing how the religious and cultural ideas of India were embodied in images.

The rich and complex civilization that developed in India, with its diverse religious beliefs and lavish art and architecture, influenced many other Asian cultures. Traders and missionaries from South Asia, some Hindu and many Buddhist, traveled across Southeast Asia, making settlements that were reached by land and by sea. Their destinations ranged from Burma and Thailand on the Asian mainland, to the island archipelago that includes Java and Bali. The Mekong delta was a center of trade. Other major routes were the coasts along the China Sea, especially the region known as Cochin China, an area of present-day southern Vietnam.

The beliefs and ways of life of South Asian travelers significantly influenced the states and kingdoms of Southeast Asia, which adopted many Indian customs and adapted Indian styles of sculpture and architecture, as well as literature, dance, religious rituals, and court ceremonies to their native beliefs. "Indianized" kingdoms became common. At the same time, throughout Southeast Asia, as in India itself, indigenous practices and beliefs endured, intermingling with outside and foreign influences and evolving over time in ways that synthesized the old and the new.

Adapted from

Anne R. Bromberg, The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 23-26;

Related Multimedia

Indian art lecture series; speaker is Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Related DMA collection object: Durga, 2003.7.2
Gallery talk by Dr. Anne Bromberg, The Cecil and Ida Green Curator of Ancient and Asian Art, DMA; given in conjunction with publication of The Arts of India, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas