In Focus

The Evolution of Indian Temple Sculpture from the Gupta Period

Gupta period 319-550

In 319 Chandragupta II established the Gupta kingdom at Pataliputra (Patna) in Bihar, the site of Ashoka's capital some 500 years earlier. His rule led to a two hundred-year period marked by cultural richness that looked back to Mauryan times. The renowned paintings at the Buddhist site of Ajanta are among the most celebrated works surviving from this era. The Gupta age brought lavish developments in painting, sculpture, and architecture. At the same time, the Kushan arts at Mathura, which survived the decline of the Gandharan empire, influenced Gupta styles. The radiant, poised character of Gupta art is often described as classical, expressing a deep sense of divine power through strongly centered figures. The Gupta era indeed in known as a golden age for the arts.

After the Guptas, 7th - 15th Centuries

The arrival of invading Hun tribes in the 6th century brought an end to Gupta power. In succeeding centuries, power shifted among various contending states and political entities in northern India. Eastern India remained powerful under the Pala dynasty until the 12th century. Although Buddhism had declined elsewhere in India, it continued to endure here, the homeland of the faith. The Buddhist sites in north and eastern India-Bodgaya, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment, Sarnath, near Varanasi, where he preached his sermons, and Nalanda, the great Buddhist university-were important as pilgrimage sites for Buddhists across Asia and also were influential artistic centers. It was from the Pala kingdom, as well as from Kashmir, that the Tantric form of Buddhism spread to the Himalayas.

For Hinduism this was an important time of development. Sacred texts such as the Puranas reflect expansive religious and metaphysical growth expressed in the evolution of India temple architecture. Politically, Brahmanic Hinduism was a powerful cultural force, supported by rulers who commissioned important temples and other arts. Following the development of carved and painted cave-temples such as Ajanta and Ellora, free-standing temples devoted to various Hindu deities were constructed with lavish sculpture adorning exterior walls and worshipped in interior shrines.

The artistic growth was not only Hindu. Jain temples also adopted this dynamic mixture of painting, sculpture, and architecture, as Buddhist stupas and monastic halls had earlier.

Earlier Hindu temples, such as the Durga temple at Aihole in the Deccan, are relatively small in scale. Over time projects became much more lavish, like the temples at Khajuraho that were supported by the Chandella dynasty rulers. In Orissa, the great temples at Konarak and Bhubaneshwar are among the superlative examples of ambitious artistic projects devoted to Hindu deities.

While Islam arrived with the conquest of northern India by Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century, the Hindu states remained powerful and Hinduism continued to be a central religious and cultural force in India. Rajasthan, in northwestern India, consisted of independent principalities, whose rulers might serve Muslim overlords, but whose cultural life was largely Hindu. Rajasthan was also an important center for Jainism, and the Jain temples at Mount Abu are among the striking creations of this period. Similarly, the development of Indian miniature painting, which among Muslims in India was influenced by Persian painting, built on earlier Hindu and Jain painting both in themes and styles.

Adapted from

  • Anne R. Bromberg, "The Evolution of Indian Temple Sculpture," in The Arts of India, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 50-51.

Web Resources

  • UNESCO
    Explore the Khajuraho Group of Monuments.

  • UNESCO
    Learn more about the Sun Temple at Konarak.