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Art of India

The Ancient Period
The Middle Ages
The Islamic Period
The colonial and modern periods


The Ancient Period


The Harappan civilization. People of the Harappan civilization built cities such as Harappa and Mohenjo Daro along the Indus River about 4,000 years ago. Artists sculpted fine human and animal figures in stone, terracotta, and metal. The artists used stone seals to stamp goods with a symbol that indicated the owner. These seals were carved with small but wonderfully lifelike bulls, elephants, crocodiles, and other animals. Some seals seem to show religious rituals. Several have a man or god sitting with legs crossed as though he were practising yoga. Shiva, a major god of Hinduism, is often shown in this way. Some people think the figure on the seals shows that Shiva, or a similar god, was worshipped in the Indus valley. 

Terracotta sculptures include female figures who may be goddesses. Possibly they are fertility goddesses whose worshippers hoped to have healthy children and good crops. Both the things depicted and the styles used by these artists are seen in later Indian art. Although the Indus cities declined and finally became deserted, both the religion and the art of the Indus influenced later times.

The earliest stone monuments. Among the earliest monuments that have survived are pillars with skilfully carved animals at the top. One of the finest has four lions facing in four directions: north, south, east, and west. Another has a bull. Many of the pillars have the messages of the great emperor Asoka carved on them. Such pillars date back to the 200's B.C.

Stupas. Other early monuments are Buddhist stupas. These are large mounds, hemispherical in shape, that are solid and cannot be entered. Each stupa had a sacred object inside, sometimes a relic, such as a small piece of bone from the body of the Buddha or of a great Buddhist teacher. The smooth, round shape of the stupa was a geometric symbol of the perfect and immortal. When Buddhists visit a stupa, they walk around it in a clockwise direction to show their respect or devotion. This form of procession is called circumambulation. 

The Stupas of Sanchi. Some of the best preserved early stupas stand at Sanchi in central India. The largest, known as the Great Stupa, is surrounded by a railing with four carved gateways facing the four directions of the compass. The gateways were probably carved in the A.D. 100's. The carvings have a wonderful vitality and show a world where people and animals live together in happiness and plenty. Crowds of people wait to see the Buddha or watch his miracles. However, as at all early Buddhist monuments, the Buddha himself is not shown in human form. Instead, he is depicted by symbols, such as the wheel, which represents his teaching. Sometimes his presence is indicated by footprints or an empty throne. Probably, the Buddha is not shown because he asked his followers not to make images of him. 

Sanchi and other early monuments appeal to people's love of nature. The most frequently shown flower is the lotus, which has a special meaning. The lotus grows from the mud at the bottom of a pond or river but produces a beautiful white blossom. Buddhists believe that, like the lotus, people can rise from the mud of materialism into the sunlight. Lotus flowers were both a beautiful decoration and a religious symbol. 

The decoration of the stupa gateways also includes male and female tree spirits. The female tree spirits are symbols of fertility and often clutch overhanging trees full of flowers or fruit. Such symbols of plenty may date from the Harappan civilization. They were used by the Buddhists as welcoming figures on the gateways.

The Buddha image. The Buddha never appears on early monuments, but images of him began to be made in two areas of India from about A.D. 100. One area was Gandhara in the northwest, now part of Pakistan. The other was Mathura, in the heart of northern India, not far from the modern city of New Delhi. The Gandhara and Mathura images are quite different in style. The Gandhara style shows influences from Greece and Rome that came to India through Bactria in Central Asia . The Mathura images were more Indian in style. For example, like other Indian images, the Mathura Buddha has broad shoulders and a narrow waist, suggesting the power of a lion. 

At both Gandhara and Mathura, the Buddha image has certain symbolic elements. For example, an urna (a dot in the centre of the forehead) and an ushnisha (a bump on the head) symbolize the Buddha's insight and wisdom. The Buddha's hand gestures are also symbolic. The raised right hand means that followers should have no fear. The open right hand extended downward means the Buddha is offering a gift or granting a favour. Hands folded in the lap represent meditation. Hands held together in front of the chest symbolize teaching. 

In early images, the Buddha is often depicted like an ordinary man who, through his efforts and stern discipline, has triumphed over the weaknesses of the flesh. Later images have softer contours and large haloes decorated with bands of flowers, perhaps indicating that people's idea of the Buddha had changed. In these later images, he is seen as superhuman and transcendent (above or beyond the real world of men and women). Therefore his image is wholly gentle with no sense of a struggle to conquer human frailties.

Cave temples. From the 200's B.C., bands of workers cut artificial caves in the rocky cliffs to serve as places of worship and as dwellings for monks. Some of the caves are decorated with wonderful sculpture. Though much of India's early painting has been destroyed, there are a few fine paintings preserved in the caves. 

Ajanta. Some of the finest sculptures and paintings are in the 28 caves at Ajanta, in western India. Paintings are found in only a few of these caves, which were created between 100 B.C. and the A.D. 400's. 

Craftworkers who were organized in groups similar to guilds carried out the work at the caves. Some cut out the rock and sculpted it. Others applied a layer of plaster over the rock surface, made drawings, and then painted the murals using natural pigments such as ochre. The Ajanta paintings have rich and varied shades of yellows, browns, reds, and greens. Blue was used, more sparingly, in later works. The blue pigment was made from a costly imported mineral, lapis lazuli. 

One of the most beautiful paintings shows a Bodhisattva, a person striving to become a Buddha--see BODHISATTVA. He holds a blue lotus, and his skin is slightly tinged with blue so that he seems to glow in the dim light of the cave. His body is shaded to give a sense of its form and contours. The artist has depicted his body with a slight bend so that he appears to look down on the sorrow of the world with gentle kindness. 

Many painters show realistic scenes from Buddhist stories. Ordinary people are shown at everyday tasks, and even beggars are included in the paintings. Scenes set in palaces give us an idea of what long-vanished palace buildings were like. The artists have drawn them to look three-dimensional. The skill of the artists is also apparent in the convincing way that the figures seem to move freely. Most important of all is the artists' rich human insight; their ability to show devotion on the face of a worshipper and adoration on the face of a lover. 

The sculptors of Ajanta were just as talented as the painters, creating wonderfully modelled figures, full of energy and elegance. They did not treat bodies as frames of bone on which to hang flesh. Instead, as in yoga, they saw the ideal body as full of breath, the inner life force, apparently pushing outward from within. Faces and limbs are soft and rounded and portrayed with naturalistic (realistic) detail. 

Ellora. Artists worked at the cave site of Ellora, near Ajanta, until about 1000 A.D. They created Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain caves next to each other. The greatest monument at Ellora, dating from the mid-800's, is a temple to the Hindu god Shiva. It was carved out of the cliff like a great piece of sculpture. The workers started at the top and gradually cut downward. The temple is called the Kailashanatha temple, taking its name from Mount Kailasha, in the Himalaya, where the Hindus believe Shiva lives. The temple is rich in symbolism. Cut from the cliff, it is literally a carved mountain. Its sculpture includes scenes illustrating Shiva's power. For example, near the base of the temple the many-armed demon Ravana is shown shaking the mountain peak where Shiva and his wife, the goddess Parvati, sit. The artist has captured a look of alarm on Parvati's face, but Shiva shows no fear. He merely stretches out his foot, pressing down the mountain and imprisoning Ravana beneath it. The scene is deeply cut into the rock, the contrasts of light and shade increasing its impact. 

Elephanta. Magnificent sculptures were also carved at a cave temple on the island of Elephanta, off the coast, near where Mumbai now lies. The temple was built in the A.D. 500's. Various legends concerning the god Shiva are portrayed in large panels cut into the rock and surrounding an enormous three-headed torso of Shiva. Here, the sculpture's powerful elegance, its size, and its arrangement convey the majesty of the Hindu religious vision.

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