The Indian subcontinent forms an inverted triangle extending from the snow-bound Himalayan ranges of Asia toward the equator. Known also as South Asia, the area includes the countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan; artistically, the Tibetan highlands also form part of the region. Stretching some 1,800 miles from north to south, and almost the same distance from west to east, the area is home to an ancient and diverse group of cultures.
India is the largest single nation of South Asia. Its currently twenty-four states exhibit a cultural diversity comparable to that seen among the nations of Europe. The Tamil region of South India has a language, script, musical tradition, dance forms, and an artistic heritage that are quite distinct from those found in, say, Punjab in the north. It is this diversity that makes the artistic traditions of India so complex and rewarding to follow.
During the third millennium B.C., spacious cities, displaying advanced town planning, were built along the plains of the Indus River. The settlers of these ancient communities traded with the contemporary civilizations of Mesopotamia and used an elegant form of pictorial writing that is yet to be deciphered. Steatite seals, delicately carved with figures of animals and occasionally of humans, testify to their creators’ artistic sensibilities. The great cities of the Indus Valley flourished for more than a thousand years.
Between 1800 and 1200 B.C., a steady trickle of Indo-European peoples who called themselves Aryans (Sanskrit arya means “noble”) entered the Indian subcontinent. They brought with them a group of sacred hymns known as the Vedas (“knowledge”), composed in the ancient Sanskrit language. The Vedic hymns praise an entire group of deities to whom the Aryans offered homage. Several are personifications of the powerful forces of nature, such as Indra, the god of thunder and rain and the patron deity of war; the solar deity Surya; and Agni, the god of fire. The religion known today as Hinduism has its roots in these ancient texts. Hinduism is a religion without a single founder, a single spokesman, or indeed a single set of fixed tenets. It evolved and changed over the years as the once-nomadic Aryans spread across the subcontinent, took to settled life, and as they mingled with the local populations, adopted several of their beliefs and customs.
In keeping with its Vedic origins, Hinduism remains a polytheistic faith that admits the power of a number of deities. The three most popular deities of present-day Hinduism, which draws directly on later texts known as the Puranas (composed early in the present era), are the god Shiva, the god Vishnu, and the goddess Shakti (literally, “Power”). Hindus generally address their worship to one or another of the three and are accordingly known as Shaivas, Vaishnavas, or Shaktas. Temples were built to enshrine the image of the chosen deity, and the exterior walls of these temples were covered with numerous sculpted images and masses of decorative carvings. Relief carvings from the myths of the enshrined deity played an important role in glorifying the god whose various manifestations found a place in the niches on the temple walls. In addition, sculptors carved a variety of auspicious motifs that included overflowing foliage, figures of women, and images of embracing couples, all of which suggested growth, abundance, and prosperity.
Side by side with the flowering of the plastic arts, philosophy and literature, as well as music and dance, flourished in the Hindu context. India’s best-known philosophical system, Vedanta, associated with the philosopher Shankara, proposed a monistic belief in the identity of the human soul with the divine principle. A rich body of secular literature, including poems and dramas, fables and epics, was written first in Sanskrit and later in a number of regional languages, from southern Tamil to northern Kashmiri, from western Gujarati to eastern Bengali. Music and dance played an important part in the religious and secular life of the subcontinent. Hindu religion, culture, and art spread overseas into several parts of Southeast Asia, where the two great epics of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, continue to play an important theatrical role.
India is the birthplace of two other major religions that arose during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. One was Buddhism, a faith propounded by Prince Siddhartha, who achieved enlightenment and became known as the Buddha (literally, “Enlightened One”). The Buddha’s path to nirvana (Buddhist salvation) was a path of moderation that was open to all. It denied the caste system of the Hindus and emphasized an upright, moral life. Buddhism gained rapid popularity within India and, at an early date, spread along the Silk Road into China, Korea, and Japan, where it became a major force. The countries of Southeast Asia, too, imbibed the Buddha’s teachings. Buddhists especially revere the founder of their faith, who was deified and adored as a god. In early times, his mortal remains (in the form of ashes following cremation) were interred within relic mounds known as stupas. Relief sculptures narrating the life of the Buddha were used to decorate such stupa mounds. The range of auspicious motifs used in a Hindu context—foliage, women, couples—also formed part of the decorative scheme of the stupa. Buddhas later built richly decorated temples to enshrine an image of the Buddha.
The other major religion that arose in the sixth century B.C. is traditionally accepted as having been founded by Mahavira, an elder contemporary of the Buddha. Once he had attained enlightenment, he was known as Jina, or “Victor,” and the path he propounded is known as Jainism. Although similar in many ways to the path of the Buddha, Jainism places greater emphasis on austerity and asceticism, which are upheld as ideals. The faith did not spread beyond India, but it holds an important place within the subcontinent. Jain temples, which enshrine an image of one of the twenty-four jinas, are similar in many ways to those built to honor Hindu gods; only the narrative themes and the identity of the sacred images are different.
India is home to other religions as well, including Islam, a monotheistic faith. Northwestern India was first penetrated by Muslim armies in the early eighth century A.D., although Islam did not establish a firm foothold there until the eleventh century. The last of the world religions to arise in the subcontinent is Sikhism, which, in certain respects, attempted to bridge the gulf between Hinduism and Islam.
The greater proportion of the art in stone that has survived was used to decorate sacred structures. Secular monuments certainly existed, and monarchs and nobles built themselves imposing palaces and mansions. It would appear, however, that such structures were made in the perishable medium of brick and wood and decorated with terracotta and wood sculptures. In the hot and humid climate of much of India, these ancient secular monuments have perished. It is only after Islam came to India that secular monuments began to be constructed of stone. Thus it is that the majority of the works of art seen in the South Asian galleries of the Metropolitan Museum, most of them of stone, come from a religious context. The artistic remains, consisting of sacred images as well as sensuous, often flamboyant figures of women, emphasize the intermingling of the sacred and the secular in the art of India.
Dehejia, Vidya. “South Asian Art and Culture.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/sasa/hd_sasa.htm (February 2007)
Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. London: Phaidon, 1997.
Mitter, Partha. Indian Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.