HISTORY OF ART IN INDIA

HISTORY OF ART IN INDIA

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Content Religious images dominate the surviving art of the great periods of South Asian sculpture, from the second century B.C. to aboutA.D. 1500. What remains are stone temples, stone and metal temple sculpture, and smaller religious sculpture created for personal worship. Like much ancient sculpture—for instance, Greek and medieval European—many of these images were probably originally painted. A few retain original gilt surfaces and inlaid gems. The walls of sacred structures were also sometimes enriched with mural painting and textiles. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Surviving” is a key word because not all art created in this time span was religious. Archaeological excavations have proven the existence of many palaces that were constructed in brick and wood. As described in literature, the interiors were decorated with richly carved wood and murals depicting courtly life. One can only imagine the opulent colors, the lavish royal jewelry made of precious stones set in gold, and the luxurious costumes of silk and diaphanous cotton for which India has been famous in the West since ancient Roman times. The details of costume and adornment found on the sculpture and paintings of Hindu and Buddhist deities give some idea of this splendid finery. Much more Indian art from the last four hundred years has survived, providing a more complete picture of the rich secular arts of India.” <*>

Indian art has had a great influence on the art of Asia. Mandalas—"geometric diagram symbolizing a structure of cosmos"— found in Tibetan and Buddhist art are of Hindu origin. The great temples of Angkor in Cambodia and Prambanan in Indonesia began as Hindu structures and were strongly influenced by Indian art and architecture. Some Indian gods morphed into Buddhist gods and Bodhisattvas are made there way to China, Japan and Southeast Asia. Some of the best Indian artworks are in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. India wants them back.

Books: 1) Blurton, T. Richard, Hindu Art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993; 2) Craven, Roy C., Indian Art. Rev. ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997; 3) Dehejia, Vidya, Indian Art. London: Phaidon, 1998.; 4) Eck, Diana, Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India . Chambersburg, Pa., Anima Books, 1985; 5) Harle, James C., The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent (Pelican History of Art). 2d ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994; 6) Huntington, Susan L., The Art of Ancient India . New York: Weatherhill, 1984; 7) Kinsley, David R., Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988; 8) Knight, Elizabeth, ed. “Florence and Herbert Irving Galleries for the Arts of South and Southeast Asia at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”; Kossak, Steven, Indian Court Painting: 16th–19th Century. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997; 9) In the Image of Man: The Indian Perception of the Universe through 2000 Years of Painting and Sculpture. London: Art Council of Great Britain, 1982; 10) Lerner, Martin. “Aspects of South Asian Art in the New Galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art”; Asian Arts, 24, no. 2 (March–April 1994), pp. 70–112.

Video: Legacy: India: The Empire of the Spirit, 1991, color, video; Produced by Maryland Public Television & Central Independent Television,U.K. This program, part 2 of Legacy, presents a history of India and its people and discusses the origins of the caste system, the symbolic figures of Hinduism, and the development of Buddhism. The video also explores the ancient city of Mohenjo-daro built in 4000 B.C., and asserts that the villages of India best reveal what life in India was like in ancient times. The program credits village life with the long endurance of the Mahabharata, a 3,000-year-old Sanskrit epic. Visits to temples in the great temple cities of southern and northern India are featured, as well as a trip to Fatehpur Kikri, where the buildings of Akbar the Great still stand. Further, the video discusses how knowledge was transmitted through trade and credits India with the mathe- matical system still used throughout the world today. (60 min.) Distributor: Ambrose Video, 28 West 44th Street, Suite #2100, New York, NY 10036, (212) 768–7373

Web Sites: 1) The Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org) ; Asia Society (www.askasia.org/) ; 2) AskAsia is an integral part of the Asia Society’s Asian Education Resource Center (AERC), an initiative to organize and disseminate Asia-related infor- mation and resources; develop student-centered institutional materials; and provide teaching strategies and staff development programs. 3) Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (www.asianart.org/ ); 4) The John C. and Susan L. Huntington Archive of Buddhist and Related Art (kaladarshan.arts.ohio-state.edu/ ), Under the On-line Exhibitions section see “Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion”; 5) Los Angeles County Museum of Art (www.lacma.org/lacma.htm ), Images of and information on ten masterpieces in the South and Southeast Asian art collection; 6) Seattle Asian Art Museum (www.seattleartmuseum.org/ ); 7) Smithsonian Smithsonian Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (www.si.edu/asia/ )

Indus Civilization and Culture

The Indus civilization is the oldest one known in Asia. Stretching from the Arabian Sea to the Himalayas and from the deserts of India to what is now Iran, it embraced 1,500 or so settlements and covered 280,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of Texas, or twice the size of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, June 2000; Santi Menon, Discover magazine, December 1998]

The Indus civilization was founded around 3000 B.C. and flourished from 2600 to 1900 B.C. Regarded as the world’s oldest advanced civic culture, it is believed to have been a collection of states. Much about it is unknown because the civilization’s written language has not been deciphered and no other culture with written languages described them (there was no mention of them in the Bible or the Vedas, which date back to 1500 B.C.). What is known has been determined from archeological excavations.

The Indus civilization was centered around Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, two city-state civilizations that emerged around 3300 B.C. and endured until around 1500 B.C. The Indus civilization was bound together by a common art and written language, and possibly by religion and trade as well. The Indus civilization cities were linked by the Indus river. The Indus River flows south from Karakoram and Himalayan Mountains through present-day Kashmir and Pakistan to the Indian Ocean. In the north it flows along the Pakistan-India border. Although the Indus civilization was scattered over a large area it was not large in terms of population. At its its height it was home to perhaps 400,000 people.

Indus Seals

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Thousands of steatite seals like these have been discovered in the ruins of ancient sites throughout Pakistan and North India. Carved with a copper or bronze burin, the images on the seals depict powerful animals such as elephants, lions, rhinosceri, and bulls. Each seal bears letters in a writing system that is still undecipherable. One famous seal shows a figure seated in a yogic pose of meditation surrounded by animals, perhaps a prototype of the Hindu god Shiva as “lord of the animals.” On these seals, the powerful creatures face ritual stands. Above them are letters or characters, which may represent the name of a family or merchant organization involved in the network of trade extending across western Asia. Indus Valley stamp seals found in ancient Mesopotamian cities and Mesopotamian seals found at Indus Valley sites prove the exis- tence of long-distance trade. Stamp seals were used in the following way: clay was pressed over cords binding bundles of merchandise and then the seal was stamped into the clay. Any attempt to tamper with the contents would be immediately evident. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Scholars have counted more than 400 different symbols inscribed on seals, pottery shards and other surfaces. The inscriptions are short. The longest has 26 symbols. The average is around five. Scholars believe they symbols represent words, syllables or sounds and, based on analysis of overlapping strokes, was read from right to left. Some of the earliest writing was done on perishable palm leaves. Much of this has been lost to time.

Postage-stamp-size seals found at Harappa have yielded a wealth of information about the Indus culture. Made mostly of a soft stone known as steatite, the seals bear inscribed writing and images of Zebu bulls, unicorns, three-headed buffalo, elephants, rhinos, crocodiles and other beasts. Sometimes the writing was accompanied by figures of people, animals, or mythical beasts. Images of unicorns on tokens and seals are so common that some scholars think the unicorn was the symbol of a ruling community.

The inscribed writing on seals may have served as "forms of personal identification, guarded as carefully as today's credit cards." The seals were often used to stamp rectangular impressions on clay rectangles probably attached to trade goods to show ownership. Scientists think the animals and beasts were probably the emblems of powerful clans. The inscriptions have not been deciphered.

Images of people on seals, tokens and tablets indicate that people in different places often wore the same things and had the same hair styles. Men are shown with log hair and are clean shaven or have short beards. Women wear their long in a single braid or a complex hair style piled high with the help of tresses. By same token, people in the same place often had different hairstyles and clothes, which possibly indicates different ethnicity or status.

Indus Art and Crafts

The Indus culture produced sophisticated small crafts such as seals, tokens, figurines and jewelry made of stone, terra cotta, lapis lazuli, bead, copper, bone, ivory, ceramic, gold, silver, shell and faience (ceramics made from powdered quartz fired to produce a ceramic with a glassy finish). Mark Kenoyer of the University of Wisconsin told National Geographic, "If you were a rich merchant, you didn't have to build a huge palace to impress the other elites. You had a beautiful little sculpture that people saw then they came over for dinner."

Jim Shaffer of Case Western Reserve told U.S. News and World Report, "They had tremendous craft technology, if not the best craft technology in the Bronze Age." Some excellent figurines and jewelry have been found in the trash, which indicates that there are better pieces out there or these pieces were toys.”

The Indus people produced a wide variety of terra-cotta and bronze figures and sculptures. Harappan objects, excavated by archeologists include a 4.25-inch-high bronze statuette of a dancing girl, circa 2300 B.C., unearthed from Mohenjo-Daro. At the Mohenjo-Daro Archeological Museum there is a clay figurine of a Mother Goddess, a terra cotta lion head statue and a terra cotta toy cart pulled by terra cotta water buffalos. At Dholovira, archeologists found the remains of a 9-foot-long wooden signboard with ten 15-inch-high symbols made of gypsum. The symbols include a diamond and a spoked wheel. Only a few stone sculptures have been found. Among them are a mongoose and a sitting man with an erect penis (a precursor to Shiva worship?).

Indus jewelry includes bangles with clover-like designs, gold jewelry, calanite bead necklaces, chokers, belts, and pendants. Some people wore four-inch-tall terra cotta mother goddess. Among the items at the Mohenjo-Daro Museum are gold jewelry, an ancient balance with weights, steatite seals and bead necklaces. A pot filled with jewelry found near Karachi contained silver and gold necklaces, gold bands, beads, rings and a belt made with 36 elongated carnelian beads and bronze beads.

Carnelian beads have also been found at Harappa. Carnelian is a kind of grayish agate that turns to orange-red when baked in a kiln. Drilling holes in it is difficult and time-consuming. The beads were drilled with drills made of copper alloy or stone at a rate estimated at a hundredth of an inch per hour. At that rate drilling a single bead can take several weeks. Bead makers in Khambhat, India still make carnelian beads using the same methods as the Indus people except they use diamond-tipped drills. The earliest known buttons, dated to 2000 B.C., were found in the Indus Valley. The earliest buttons were decorative.

Influences on Art from the Aryan Period: 1500 – 3rd century B.C.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “No art or architecture from this period survives, perhaps because it was made with ephemeral materials such as wood and sun-dried brick. However, important philosophical and religious ideas were formulated during this time. The Aryans (meaning “the noble ones” in Sanskrit) began to migrate from Central Asia to the subcontinent about 1500 B.C. They spoke an ancient form of Sanskrit, which became the language of all the great Indic religions. Sanskrit is an Indo-European language related to ancient Greek, Latin, and the modern languages of Europe, including English. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“With superior weapons and horse-drawn chariots, the Aryans overpowered the indigenous peoples. Their great heritage was literary: the Vedas, hymns to their gods composed before 1000 B.C., contain a rich and complex body of religious and philosophical ideas; the Upanishads (ca. 800–450 B.C.) include philosophical musings about the nature of the divine and of the human soul. Handed down orally for centuries, these beliefs were adopted as the foundation of Hinduism at the beginning of the first millennium. <*>

Early Buddhist Art in India

There is no Buddhist art that dates back to period when Buddha was alive nor is there any from and the centuries that followed. The oldest Buddhist art is in the form of symbols’such as the wheel of dharma, stupas and the tree of enlightenment---not human. Objects and images that indicated signs or “traces” of Buddha presence---such as footprints, parasols or empty seats---were the most common.

The first images of Buddha appeared in the A.D. 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries in Gandara, a region in what is now northern Pakistan, and Mathura, near Agra and Delhi in northern India. Among the oldest know images of Buddha are sandstone seated Buddhas carved in India in the A.D. 1st or 2nd century with a friendly, inviting face. Gandara art includes Persian influences, Greek influences, introduced by Alexander the Great, and West Asian influences.

A typical Gandara piece consists of a multi-image sculpture with a central image of Buddha surrounded by images from his life. The hair, clothing and posture all show Greco-Roman influences. Youthful Buddhas often had their hair arranged in wavy curls and wore toga-like garments like these found in Roman statues. Around the same time more Indian-like images were created in Mathura which featured bodies expanded by sacred breath and clad in robes that left one shoulder bare. In southern India and Sri Lanka Buddhas with serious faces and heavy build were being created

Buddhas created in the Gupta period in northern India, from the 4th to 6th century, had an “ideal image” and featured a downward glance, spiritual aura, hair arranged in tiny curls, and a sensuous body visible beneath a transparent robe. These became the models for future images created by artists in India, Nepal, Thailand and Indonesia. Many of the early works from India have Hindu influences such as multiple arms and heads as well as hand, arm and leg positions that are reminiscent of those found on sculptures of Hindu gods and Indian dancers.

Emergence of Buddhism and Buddhist Art in India

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In the sixth century B.C., Buddhism was founded by the Buddha (born Siddhartha Gautama, ca. 563–483 B.C.) and Jainism by Mahavira (ca. 540–468 B.C.). These religions emerged at a time of great ferment, when philosophers and mystics advanced ideas about correcting the ills of Indian society, including the Brahmins’ exclusive access to the Vedic gods and the strictures of the caste system. Caste is first mentioned in the Upanishads. Indian society was divided into three strata: a high caste of priests, or Brahmins, who performed all religious rituals; an intermediate caste of warriors ( kshatriyas); and a lower caste of merchants (vaishyas). A fourth caste, defined in the early first millenniumA.D., consisted of servants (shudras). [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Under the rule of the Mauryas (ca. 323–185 B.C.), the political and cultural life of North India was once again unified under a central authority. The Mauryan emperor Ashoka (272–231 B.C.), a great military leader, conquered a large part of India. As a reaction to the horrors of war, he converted to Buddhism. To bring the Buddha’s teachings to his people, Ashoka built stu- pas throughout his kingdom. He also introduced a system of writing, which had been absent in India since the collapse of the Indus Valley civilization. When the Mauryan dynasty came to an end in the second century B.C., India was once again divided into smaller kingdoms. However, Buddhism continued to spread, and with it the building of stone stupas and meeting halls. <*>

“In the first centuryA.D., the Kushans, nomadic warriors from Central Asia, conquered the ancient Gandharan region (which includes parts of modern Pakistan and Afghanistan) and much of northern India. Different styles of art emerged from the two Kushan capitals, one in the Peshawar area of Gandhara and the other at Mathura further southeast in India. The Gandharan style adapted forms from late Hellenistic and Roman art, perhaps a legacy of Alexander the Great’s successors in the area, but largely because the major trade routes from the Roman Empire to India and China passed through the region, bringing peoples and ideas from the West. In contrast, the Mathuran style drew upon the indigenous traditions of India in portraying the human form in robust, rounded volumes symbolizing the fertility of nature. During this period, Buddhist architecture and sculpture proliferated and the iconography of Buddhist images was formulated. <*>

“In Andhra, on the southeastern coast of India, the Ikshvaku kingdom (A.D. 1st– 3rd century) prospered through the exchange of goods from local ports on the sea routes to Rome. There, as in Gandhara, Buddhist merchants and devotees financed the building of stupas decorated with narrative stone reliefs depicting the Buddha in a distinctive fashion. Andhran Buddhist art influenced the art styles of Sri Lanka and images of the Buddha in Andhran style have been found in Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. By the end of this period, Buddhism was spreading along the silk route to China and later to Korea and Japan. Along with written accounts of the Buddha’s teachings (called sutras), monks and merchants carried small portable works of art—mainly sculptures of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and shrines—which greatly influenced early Chinese and Central Asian Buddhist sculpture. <*>

Gupta Empire

The Gupta Empire (A.D. 320 to 647) was marked by the return of Brahmanism (Hinduism) as the state religion. It also regarded as the classical period or golden age of Hindu art, literature and science. The Gupta established a strong central government which also allowed a degree of local control. Gupta society was ordered in accordance with Hindu beliefs. This included a strict caste system. Peace and prosperity created under Gupta leadership enabled the pursuit of scientific and artistic endeavors. [Source: Regents Prep]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The Gupta emperors (4th–6th century) conquered and unified a large portion of northern India and, like the Mughals, created a powerful central state surrounded by kingdoms loyal to it. Under royal patronage, this period became India’s classical age of literature, theater, and visual art. The aesthetic canons that came to dominate all the arts of later India were codified during this time. Sanskrit poetry and prose, including the work of the great dramatist Kalidasa, flourished, and the concept of zero was conceived which led to a more practical system of numbering. Arab traders adapted and further developed the concept, and from western Asia the system of “Arabic numerals” traveled to Europe. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <>]

The origins of Gupta is not clearly known, It emergence as a major empire occurred when Chandragupta I (Chandra Gupta I) married into royalty in the A.D. 4th century. Based in the Ganges Valley, he established a capital at Pataliputra and united north India in A.D. 320. His son Samaudrahupta extended the influence of the empire southward. Hindu religion and Brahmin power revived under peaceful and prosperous reign.

The Gupta dynasty reached its peak during the reign of Chandragupta II (A.D. 375 to 415). His empire occupied much of what is now northern India. Following a series of victories against the Scythians (A.D. 388-409) he expanded the Gupta empire into western India and what is now the Sind area of Pakistan.Though the last strong Gupta king, Skanadagupta, held off invasions by the Huns in the 5th century, subsequent invasion weakened the dynasty. An invasion by the White Huns destroyed the much civilization around 550 and the empire finally collapsed completely in 647. Inability to exert control over a large area had as much to do with the collapse as the invasions.

Gupta Art

Rich cultures developed in south India in the Gupta era. aided the Hindu revival. Art (often erotic), architecture and literature, all patronized by the Gupta court, flourished. The Gupta empire is regarded as the golden age of Indian culture. The high points of this cultural creativity are magnificent and creative architecture, sculpture, and painting.

The wall-paintings of Ajanta Cave in the central Deccan are considered among the greatest and most powerful works of Indian art. The paintings in the cave represent the various lives of the Buddha, but also are the best source we have of the daily life in India at the time. There are forty-eight caves making up Ajanta, most of which were carved out of the rock between 460 and 480, and they are filled with Buddhist sculptures. The rock temple at Elephanta (near Bombay) contains a powerful, eighteen foot statue of the three-headed Shiva, one of the principle Hindu gods. Each head represents one of Shiva's roles: that of creating, that of preserving, and that of destroying. The period also saw dynamic building of Hindu temples. All of these temples contain a hall and a tower. [Source: Glorious India <>]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The religions of India—Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism—flourished under the Guptas. For the first time, there was a great outpouring of Hindu sculpture and architecture, and the forms in which the great gods of Hinduism were portrayed began to be standardized. In the neighboring Vakataka kingdom (5th–7th century), in central India, artists influenced by Gupta aesthetics produced the extraordinary Buddhist rock-cut caves at Ajanta, with their remarkable sculpture and murals. The great power and extent of the Gupta Empire ensured that, even after it had dissolved, its artistic formula would survive in the art of subsequent Indian kingdoms. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Ajanta Cave

Ajanta Caves (62 miles from Aurangabad) is a set of 30 man-made caves overlooking a wide horseshoe-shaped gorge. Designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the caves features hundred of paintings and murals made between 200 B.C. and A.D. 650, which are considered to be some of the finest Indian painting and the most important Buddhist art in the world.

The caves were formed through the erosive action of nearby rivers and enlarged with chisels and hammers by Buddhist monks into residences, temples and schools. Each cave is adorned with statuary. Many contain wall paintings that record episodes in Buddha’s life and major Buddhist events.

The paintings are mostly frescoes made on a layer of plaster rather than directly on the cave wall. The cave paintings were made by applying mud plaster in two coats on the rock walls. The first was used to fill in the pores of the rough rocks. The plaster for this layer was made of rice husks and other organic materials mixed with mud and covered by sieved gypsum. The second coat was lime plaster that could be painted on. The outlines of the paintings were made with red ocher and filled in with brown, deep red and black. The pigments came mostly from local minerals, many local volcanic rocks, with the exception of bright blues which came from lapiz lazuli from Afghanistan.

The painting at Ajanta Caves offer insight into the clothing, body ornamentation and court life of the period in which they were painted. Among the best works are the Bodhisattva Padmapani, an expressive work of a male figure with large, soulful eyes and lotus flower in one hand; and a 1,500-year-old work showing a princess getting the bad news that her husband has renounced his crown to covert to Buddhism. In a mural in Cave 10, fifty elephants are painted in different poses.

The paintings are known for their fluid yet form lines, sweeping brush strokes, subtle color gradations. The later painting feature bold color washes and shadowing and color used to highlight facial expressions and create a sense of depth.

Art in Southern India after the Gupta Empire

The interdynastic rivalry and seasonal raids into each other's territory notwithstanding, the rulers in the Deccan and South India patronized all three religions--Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. The religions vied with each other for royal favor, expressed in land grants but more importantly in the creation of monumental temples, which remain architectural wonders. The cave temples of Elephanta Island (near Bombay, or Mumbai in Marathi), Ajanta, and Ellora (in Maharashtra), and structural temples of Kanchipuram (in Tamil Nadu) are enduring legacies of otherwise warring regional rulers. By the mid-seventh century, Buddhism and Jainism began to decline as sectarian Hindu devotional cults of Shiva and Vishnu vigorously competed for popular support. [Source: Library of Congress *]

See cave temples of Elephanta Island, Ajanta, and Ellora (in Maharashtra), and structural temples of Kanchipuram (in Tamil Nadu)

Indian Art in the Medieval Period: 7th–14th century

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “After the breakup of the Gupta dynasty, many smaller kingdoms emerged in both the north and south of the subcontinent. The Pala kingdom of eastern India (9th–12th century), which encompassed the majority of pilgrimage sites associated with the life of the Buddha, was a mecca for pilgrims from throughout Asia. Artists in Nepal, Tibet, Myanmar, and Indonesia were pro- foundly influenced by Pala artistic styles. In the state of Orissa just to the south, richly decorated temples were constructed throughout this period, culminating with the extraordinary carved stone temple of Konarak (early 13th century). The temple was dedicated to the Hindu god Surya, who was believed to cross the sky each day in a chariot drawn by seven horses. It is actually in the form of a massive chariot, complete with horses and twelve pairs of chariot wheels. Rajput kings in northwest India commis- sioned many temples, including the Hindu complex at Khajuraho (ca. 945), famous for its sculptural imagery of voluptuous women and loving couples, symbols of good fortune, abundance, and the union of opposites—a metaphor for spiritual transcendence. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“A number of important dynasties, including the Pallava and Pandya (7th–8th century), thrived in South India. Their Hindu temples were built of granite or carved directly from rock. The Pallavas began the tradition of large-scale cast copper processional images of Hindu deities that, under the subsequent Chola dynasty, constitute one of the great artistic achievements of the South India tradition. <*>

“Buddhism was first introduced in Tibet in the seventh century as a court religion. However, it did not gain popular support until the early eleventh century, when Tibetan Buddhist teachers traveled to India to study at the great monasteries and famous Buddhist teachers were invited to Tibet to reform the practice of Buddhist rituals. The Pala style of eastern India influ- enced the art of Nepal from the eighth through the twelfth century, but had a more lasting impact in Tibet, from the twelfth through the early fifteenth century. Nepalese art also had a profound influence on that of Tibet from the thirteenth century through the fifteenth. From the fifteenth century onward, the Tibetans forged their own unique style with elements from India, Nepal, and China.” <*>

Muslim Invasions: 12th–16th century

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Muslim traders and merchants began arriving in India through northwest mountain passes as early as the eighth century, but it was not until the twelfth century that Muslim rulers, backed by armies, gained control in northern India. These early sultans were Turks from Central Asia. The military presence of the Delhi Sultanate (1192–1526), the largest Muslim kingdom, may have saved the subcontinent from the devastating destruc- tion caused by the Mongols throughout western and Central Asia in the thirteenth century. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“During the first millenniumA.D., Hinduism and Buddhism had existed side by side, and the same aesthetic styles—and often the same artists—were employed by adherents of both. However, by the end of the twelfth century, Buddhism was unable to rebound from the destruction of its most important monasteries by Muslim invaders. Although Buddhism continued to flourish in East and Southeast Asia, it all but died out in India in the thirteenth century. Despite Muslim pressure, Hindu and Jain art continued to be created in India but would never again reach the same levels of inspiration. <*>

“As the Delhi Sultanate began to weaken, various Muslim and Hindu petty kingdoms jostled for power. In the sixteenth century, Sikhism was founded in North India in an attempt to reconcile Hinduism with Islam. A monotheistic faith, Sikhs believe that God transcends all religious differences and caste divisions. This was the political situation when the Mughals invaded India.” <*>

Mughals (1526-1857)

The Mughals (also called the Mughals, Mugals or Moghuls) were a Muslim people that originated from Central Asia. They are related to the Mongols, Turks and other horse people who came from the Central Asian steppe, like their ancestors Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane). The word Mughal comes from the Persian word for Mongol. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, April 1985]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The Mughals established an empire that at its peak extended across most of northern India. The Mughal military conquest was directed against both Hindu (Rajput) and Muslim kingdoms and continued through the seventeenth century. However, the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) realized that a policy of tolerance and inclusion would better serve Mughal interests, allowing them to consolidate their conquests and create an effective political system.As a way of securing loyalties, members of the Mughal royal family married Rajput royalty, and Rajput maharajas served as Mughal generals and statesmen. Many Indians converted to Islam in order to advance in the powerful Mughal bureaucracy and to participate in their networks of trade to the east and west. Although the Mughal dynasty continued until 1857, it gradually lost power and by the second half of the eighteenth century, its function was largely ceremonial.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

The Mughals ruled northern India in various degrees from 1526 to 1858 and were the unchallenged rulers of India from mid 16th century to the end of the 17th century. At the height of their empire in the early 1700s, the Mughals ruled 150 million people in an area that covered nearly all of modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. They presided over a long period of stability and continual rule of the like that India had never really enjoyed before. They also ushered in a period of rich cultural life and encouraged painting and music and built great architectural monuments.

Mughal Art

"The Mughals rulers were," Holland Carter wrote in the New York Times, "by all accounts, awful and admirable in about equal measure. Austere political spinmeisters, they were quick to realize the propaganda potential of art." Persia had a great deal of influence on Mughal art. Persian artists were brought in and Persian became the language of the court.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Many Indians were attracted to Sufism, an Islamic sect that preached a direct approach to God through love and devotion. Such an approach was remarkably similar to the Hindu belief in bhakti, the personal devotion to God. Mughal painting and architecture influenced the indigenous Rajput styles and, by the late seventeenth century, constituted the dominant court style. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Akbar (1542-1605, ruled 1556-1605) is regarded as the greatest of all the Mughal emperors ("Akbar" in fact means "Great"). He employed a large number of artists to create illustrations about things other men read about. Much of the Mughal art hanging in museums is illustrations from manuscripts in Akbar's library. Akbar was infatuated with Persia culture. He made Persian the official language of the court. Great art was produced in Akbar rules.

Mughal painting reached it greatest heights under Emperor Jahangir (1569-1627, ruled 1605-1629), Akbar's son. Artists arrived from Persia at a rapid clip. The works included pages from the Koran illuminated and decorated with tiny flowers and geometric designs, miniature battle scenes from manuscripts and "paintings by rare artists" from Jahangir's place. Under Jahangir, Lahore attracted craftsmen from all over Asia: tilemakers weavers, carvers and miniaturists.

Shah Jahan (1592-1666, ruled 1629-1658) is known mostly as the Mughal ruler who built the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan ruled India during the golden age of Mughal art an architecture. He oversaw the merging of Hindu and Muslim art to produce spectacular miniature paintings.

Religion and Art in India

Most Indian art is associated with Hinduism. But India was also the birthplace of other religions—namely Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism—and there is great deal of art in India associated with these religions too. India was also the home of great Muslim sultanates and kingdoms and some of the greatest India art was produced under Muslim leaders, particularly the Mughuls.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, the three great religions that developed in the subcontinent, share certain basic beliefs: that time is cyclical, and the universe is created and destroyed in endless cycles; that the world is transi- tory and the appearance of permanence is illusion (maya); that all living beings are born and reborn in different lives and bodies (samsara); and that one’s good and bad deeds (karma) accumulate from life to life and determine the form in which one is reborn. The goal is to accumulate enough good deeds to finally be released from cycles of birth and rebirth by attaining nirvana (extinction or quiescence) in Buddhism, or moksha (release or liberation) in Hinduism. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Over the centuries, as these religions have evolved, they have incorporated a variety of physical disciplines and esoteric and magical practices such as yoga, meditation, trance, breath control, and the repetition of mantras (words of power). An essential feature of all three religions is a holistic view of life: all forms of life—gods, demons, humans, animals, and vegetation— are integrally connected. Although Buddhists and Jains believe in maya, samsara, karma, and eventual release (as Hindus do), they reject caste, Hindu gods, sacrifices, and the power of the priestly caste (Brahmins). The founders of Buddhism and Jainism both lived in the sixth century B.C. and were born in the warrior, or kshatriya, caste.” <*>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015


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