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Art of India

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


The Middle Ages

The Hindu temple. As Hinduism grew in popularity, Buddhism declined and, finally, nearly died out in India. Much of the greatest art from the 400's until the Muslim conquest in about 1200 was made for Hindu temples. The Jains remained a small but important religious group. Craftworkers also produced fine art for Jain temples during this time. 

Most surviving Hindu temples from this period are of stone, though a few are of brick. Artists carved the exterior and sometimes the interior with hundreds of figures of gods, people, animals, and plants. Most temples have one or several pillared halls called mandapa. Worshippers pass through the halls to a garbhagrha (small chamber) where the image of the temple's main deity (god or goddess) is housed. A shikhara (tall tower) rises above the most sacred part of the temple. 

The temple conveys many symbolic meanings. The floor plan of early temples may have been like the Aryan fire altar, an altar used to sacrifice food to the gods by burning it in a special fire. In later times a mandala (sacred diagram symbolizing the universe, usually circular) was drawn on the ground by priests and the temple was built upon it. The temple exterior is often compared to a mountain, which symbolizes the whole universe. 

Khajuraho. The mountain symbolism is very obvious in temples at Khajuraho in central India. Khajuraho was the capital of the Chandella kings, who built temples there from the mid-900's and through the 1000's. The largest temples rise from high bases into a series of peaks culminating in a single, immensely high tower. From far away, they look like mountain ranges. Both Hindu and Jain temples were built in the same style at Khajuraho. The walls and towers are decorated with hundreds of figures, including gods and goddesses, beautiful women, lovers, and mythical beasts. 

In southern India, the temple complex was rather different from that of the north. The temple was surrounded by one or more walls. It was entered through gopura (high gateways) covered with sculpted figures. Often, there was a number of gateways leading from outer courtyards to inner courtyards. The total area covered by the temple complex might be vast. Such temples were great religious centres where Brahmin priests conducted worship, organized sacred readings, studied, taught, and debated. Many are still in use today. 

Southern India was the home of the subcontinent's greatest bronze casters. They created groups of figures, often consisting of the gods Shiva or Vishnu with their wives, children, and companions. Of the many types of figures made, the best known is the Shiva Nataraja (Dancing Shiva). The finest of these images capture both the power and the grace of Shiva's dance. The southern Indian bronze casters were familiar with the art of dance and were able to give their figures (even those not actually dancing) bending postures and delicate gestures. 

Mahabalipuram. At Mahabalipuram, in southern India, sculptors carved a group of temples from huge boulders. Here, on a huge rock face, sculptors working in the 600's produced a spectacular work of art based on a famous legend. In the sculpture, as in the story, thirsty animals of all kinds gather to watch the descent of the Ganges River. Elephants, deer, a cat, and other beasts have come to drink; at one time water flowed from a tank at the top of the rock to suggest the river itself. The elephants, including a baby, are very realistically carved, and are almost life-size. At the side of this relief, a family of monkeys is carved in the round from a boulder. The whole conveys the Indian empathy with nature. 

Orissa. Some of the most spectacular early Hindu temples are in the state of Orissa, on India's northeastern coast. They include the Mukteswar temple at Bhubaneswar and the Surya Deula (Sun Temple) at Konarak.