Art of South and Southeast Asia before 1200 CE

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 03.24.2018
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

1 – Early Indus Valley Civilizations

1.1 – Introduction

1.1.1 – Overview

The Indus Valley Civilization was a Bronze Age urban civilization that existed from 3300–1300 BCE and covered most of present-day Pakistan and northwest India. Situated around the Indus River and the Ghaggar-Hakra River, the Indus Valley civilization is also known as the Harappan civilization, named after Harappa, the first city to be excavated in the 1920s.

Inhabitants of the ancient Indus Valley developed new and notable techniques in handicraft, metallurgy , trade and transportation, systems of measurement, and urban planning.

Indus Valley civilization map: This map illustrates the extent of the Indus Valley Civilization, imposed over the borders of modern-day Pakistan and northwest India.

The civilization is often separated into three phases:

  1. Early Harappan Phase (3300 BCE–2600 BCE).
  2. Mature Harappan Phase (2600 BCE–1900 BCE).
  3. Late Harappan Phase (1900 BCE–1300 BCE).

The Mature Harappan phase was the cultural high point, a time by which communities had grown into well-functioning, enormous urban centers. Many more artistic artifacts—such as ceramics, sculptures, seals, and jewelry—have been excavated from this time than from some civilizations that began centuries after its decline.

Numerous architectural remains have been found as well, including multistory buildings, baths, and dockyards. To date, over 1,052 cities and settlements have been found in the general area of the rivers and their tributaries, with the major ones being Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, Dholavira, Rupar, Lothal, and Kalibangan.

1.1.2 – Indus Valley Cities

The cities of the ancient Indus Valley consisted of highly functional, multistory buildings and structures constructed with uniform, kiln-burnt bricks. There is evidence of urban planning due to the uniformity of size and the style of the brickwork, as well as the organization of streets and neighborhoods into grid patterns, much like many current cities.

The first-known sanitation system, whereby waste-water was directed into covered drains that lined major streets and where clean water was obtained from wells in a designated room in the home, was employed in the ancient Indus Valley. This system of sewage and drainage is quite remarkable and was more advanced than some seen even today.

The Indus Valley Civilization is also known for developing a unified system of weight and measurement, as well as a decimal system and the first known use of negative numbers. In 2001, it was discovered that people from the early Harappan period had knowledge of proto-dentistry with the excavation of the first evidence of drilled human teeth.

1.1.3 – Art in the Indus Valley

The Indus Valley period is well documented through the wealth of artifacts that were excavated from its magnificent cities. It is widely believed that most of the inhabitants of Indus Valley cities were tradespeople and artisans. Archaeologists have excavated sculptures, seals, pottery, gold jewelry, elaborate beadwork, and anatomically detailed figurines in terracotta , ceramic, bronze, lead, tin, and steatite from the ancient Indus Valley area.

A number of bronze, gold, stone, and terracotta figures of girls in dance poses reveal the presence of some dance forms from the time, and a harp-like instrument depicted on a seal indicates the use of stringed musical instruments.

Similarities in the iconography and construction of excavated artifacts suggest the considerable mobility and trade networks of the Indus Valley inhabitants. Raw materials found only in distant regions, such as lapis lazuli and steatite, were imported for artistic use. It is believed that the trade networks of the Indus Valley reached as far as Afghanistan, coastal Persia, northern and western India, Mesopotamia , and Egypt.

Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro: A small, 4500-year-old bronze statuette of a dancing girl that was excavated in Mohenjo-daro in 1926.

The iconography of the artifacts from the Indus Valley region often depict quite anatomically correct animals and human figures. Similar to other civilizations of the same time period, such as Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, there are many depictions of female figures, or possibly fertility goddesses.

Pashupati: Discovered at Mohenjo-daro, this seal depicts a seated, horned figure surrounded by animals, who is commonly interpreted to be Pashupati, the Lord of Cattle.

One motif shows a horned figure seated in a posture reminiscent of the lotus position and surrounded by animals; this was named Pashaputi (lord of cattle) by excavators. Between 400 and 600 distinct Indus symbols that indicate a language have been found on ceramics, seals, and tablets, though the language remains entirely unknown to this day.

1.1.4 – Indus Valley Society

Socially, the Indus Civilization appears to have been relatively egalitarian in nature. All homes within its various cities had access to water and drainage facilities and were generally equal in size. The evidence for planned settlements and the uniformity of Harappan artifacts suggests a strong organizational or governing force in the Indus Valley Civilization, though archaeological records provide no immediate answers.

Around 1800 BCE, signs of decline began to emerge in the Indus River Valley. By 1700 BCE, many of the cities had been abandoned. The reason for the decline of the civilization is unknown, but it is theorized to be due to enemy invasion throughout the area, a change in climate to significantly cooler and drier conditions, or the disappearance of the Ghaggar-Hakra River. After the collapse, regional cultures emerged that continued to show the influence of the Indus Valley Civilization to varying degrees.

1.2 – Vedic and Upanishadic Periods

1.2.1 – Overview: India’s Vedic Period

The Vedic period (or Vedic age) in India was a period in history during which the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, were composed. The time span of the period is uncertain, though it is thought to span from 1700 BCE to about 500 BCE, with 150 BCE suggested as a terminus ante quem (the latest possible time) for all Vedic Sanskrit literature. The transmission of stories in the Vedic period was by oral tradition alone, and a literary tradition began only in post-Vedic times.

The associated culture, sometimes referred to as the Vedic civilization, was probably centered in the northern and northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent, but it has now spread and constitutes the basis of contemporary Indian culture. In the 11th century BCE, the Vedic society transitioned from semi-nomadic life to settled agriculture.

This transition led to an increase in trade and increased competition and conflicts over resources, such as land and water. However, after 1000 BCE, the use of iron axes and ploughs enabled the clearing of jungles, and the Vedic kingdoms were able to expand along the Gangetic plains, ushering in the later Vedic age.

Map of northen India in the later Vedic Period: The Vedic civilization is thought to have been centered in the northern and northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent. Here, the river Indus is shown by its Sanskrit name Sindhu. The location of Vedic shakhas is labelled in green, and the Thar desert is in orange.

By the 6th century BCE, various political units consolidated into large kingdoms called Mahajanapadas. The process of urbanization began in these kingdoms, and commerce and travel—even over regions separated by large distances—became easy.

1.2.2 – Sanskrit Literature

The end of Vedic India is marked by linguistic, cultural, and political changes. The grammar of Pāini marks a final apex in the codification of Sutra texts and, at the same time, the beginning of Classical Sanskrit. The invasion of Darius I of the Indus valley in the early 6th century BCE marks the beginning of outside influence that continued in the kingdoms of the Indo–Greeks. After the end of the Vedic period, the Mahajanapadas period in turn gave way to the Maurya Empire (from c. 320 BCE), which is considered to be the golden age of classical Sanskrit literature.

1.2.3 – Crafts in the Vedic Period

Goblet from Navdatoli, Malwa: An example of pottery work from the black- and red-ware culture (BRW), an early, Iron Age culture associated with the post-Rigvedic Vedic civilization.

Crafts within Vedic culture include that of chariot-making, cart-making, carpentry, metal-working (creating instruments such as razors, bangles, and axes), tanning, bow-making, sewing, weaving, and making mats from grass and reeds. Many of these might have required full-time specialists.

The use of iron implements (krishna-ayas or shyama-ayas, literally meaning black metal or dark metal) increased in the later Vedic age, as did new crafts and occupations such as leather work, pottery, astrology, jewelry, dying, and vintnery. Apart from copper, bronze , and gold, later Vedic texts also mention tin, lead, and silver.

The black- and red-ware culture (BRW) is an early, Iron Age culture associated with the post-Rigvedic Vedic civilization that dates roughly from the 12th  to 9th centuries BCE. It was succeeded by the painted grey-ware culture (PGW), an Iron Age culture that corresponds to the later Vedic period and that lasted from roughly 1200 BCE to 600 BCE.

1.2.4 – Vedic Literature

Rigveda in Sanskrit on paper: The Rigveda text is the oldest of the Vedas, thought to have been composed roughly between 1700 and 1100 BCE.

The Vedas are a large body of texts that originated in the Vedic period. Composed in Vedic Sanskrit, the texts constitute the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and the oldest scriptures of Hinduism.

The reconstruction of the history of Vedic India is based on text-internal details. Linguistically, the Vedic texts could be classified in five chronological strata:

  1. The Rigvedic text: The oldest of the Vedas, thought to have been composed roughly between 1700 and 1100 BCE .
  2. The Mantra language texts: This period includes both the mantra and prose language of the Atharvaveda (Paippalada and Shaunakiya), the Rigveda Khilani, the Samaveda Samhita, and the mantras of the Yajurveda. This is the time of the early Iron Age in northwestern India and corresponds to the black- and red-ware (BRW) culture.
  3. The Samhita prose texts: This period includes the Brahmana part (commentary on mantras and ritual) of the Black Yajurveda and corresponds with the painted grey-ware (PGW) culture from c. 900 BCE.
  4. The Brahmana prose texts: The Brahmanas proper of the four Vedas belong to this period, as well as the Aranyakas, the oldest of the Upanishads, and the oldest Shrautasutras.
  5. The Sutra language texts: This is the last stratum of Vedic Sanskrit leading up to c. 500 BCE, and is comprised of the bulk of the Śrauta and Grhya Sutras, as well as some Upanishads.

The Upanishads are a collection of philosophical texts that form the theoretical basis for the Hindu religion. The Sanskrit term upanishad means sitting down near, implying sitting near a teacher to receive instruction.

Also known as Vedanta, they are considered by orthodox Hindus to contain the revealed truths (Sruti) concerning the nature of ultimate reality (brahman), and describe the character and form of human salvation (moksha).

All Upanishads are associated with one of the four Vedas—Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda—and have been passed down in oral tradition. More than 200 Upanishads are known, and with the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahmasutra, the Mukhya Upanishads provide a foundation for several later schools of Indian philosophy.

1.3 – Maurya Dynasty

1.3.1 – Overview

The Maurya Empire was a powerful Iron Age empire in ancient India ruled by the Maurya Dynasty from 321 to 185 BCE. Founded by Chandragupta Maurya, who overthrew the previous Nanda Dynasty, the empire had fully occupied Northwestern India by 320 BCE.

With an area of 5 million square kilometers and a population of 50 to 60 million, it was the first time in history that the subcontinent was united under a single government. The second emperor of the Maurya Dynasty was the son of Chandragupta, who expanded the empire further but never achieved the same level of notoriety as his own son, Ashoka.

By far the most famous emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, Ahsoka is considered one of the most famous rulers in all of Indian history as well as one of the great Buddhist kings. The decline of the Maurya Dynasty took place somewhat rapidly following the death of Ashoka. Historical theories for this include a succession of weak kings and the division of the Empire in two.

1.3.2 – From Hinduism to Buddhism

After the Kalinga war (262–261 BCE), Ashoka converted from Hinduism to Buddhism. He preached non-violence and religious acceptance, and he laid a foundation for social harmony and religious transformation across all of India.

Ashoka also sponsored the propagation of the Buddhist religion into Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and Mediterranean Europe. The conversion of Emperor Ashoka to Buddhism legitimized and popularized the religion much like the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity did.

1.3.3 – The Pillars of Ashoka

Pillar of Ashoka at Lumbini: The most widespread example of Mauryan architecture that exists today are the Pillars of Ashoka, which are often exquisitely decorated. There are more than 40 pillars spread throughout the Indian subcontinent.

He is famous for ordering that his edicts be carved into stones and caves around the empire and, later, for ordering that his edicts be carved into large sandstone pillars topped with statues of lions, known as the Pillars of Ashoka. These pillars, often exquisitely decorated, are the most widespread example of Mauryan architecture that exists today, with more than 40 spread throughout the Indian subcontinent. The works from this empire represent the earliest surviving remnants of monumental sculpture.

1.3.4 – The Barabar Caves and Other Temples

Barabar Caves: Built in the third century BCE during the Mauryan period, these are the oldest examples of Buddhist rock-cut architecture.

The Barabar Caves are the earliest example of Buddhist rock-cut architecture and were built during the Mauryan period. Attributed to Emperor Ashoka, the caves consist of temples, stupas, and monasteries that are carved elaborately out of granite. The decorated facade of the Lomas Rishi grotto, an offering to the Buddhist sect of the Ajivikas, is a good example of the high degree of craftsmanship.

Mahabodhi Temple: The Mahabodhi Temple is one of the many temples erected by Ashoka across India.

In addition, Ashoka was responsible for erecting several thousand Buddhist temples and stupas across India, such as the Mahabodhi temple. Another famous example includes the Great Stupas at Sanchi, whose gates are lavishly decorated with lions, elephants, figures of fertility, and images from the Jakata tales. Ashoka’s patronage of the Buddhist religion greatly influenced the visual iconography of time.

2 – Buddhist Art

2.1 – Buddhist Stupas

2.1.1 – History

Stupa at Sanchi, India: Emperor Ashoka is credited with construction of numerous stupas that remain to this day, including the stupa at Sanchi.

A stupa, literally meaning heap, is a mound-like structure designed to encase Buddhist relics and other holy objects. Stupas exist all over the world and are the oldest Buddhist religious monuments.

Originally a simple mound of clay or mud, stupas evolved from simple funerary monuments to become elaborately decorated objects of veneration. Legend has it that following the cremation of Buddha, his ashes were divided into eight parts and distributed among various rulers to be enshrined at special burial mounds.

Emperor Ashoka, who ruled from 274–236 BCE during the Maurya Empire, is said to have redistributed the relics housed in the original stupas into thousands of stupas throughout India. Ashoka is also credited with the construction of numerous stupas that remain to this day, including those at Sanchi and Sarnath.

2.1.2 – Structure and Style

While they can vary visually, all stupas have a few features in common. Every stupa contains a treasury filled with various objects—small offerings, or Tsa-Tsas, fill the majority of the treasury, while jewelry and other precious objects are also placed within. It is believed that the more objects placed into the treasury, the stronger the stupa’s energy.

The Tree of Life, a wooden pole covered with gems and mantras , is an important element of every stupa and is placed in the stupa’s central channel during an initiation ceremony , where participants’ most powerful wishes are stored.

There are five types of stupas:

  1. Relic stupas, in which the relics of Buddha and other religious persons are buried.
  2. Object stupas, in which the objects belonging to Buddha or his disciples are buried.
  3. Commemorative stupas, built to commemorate events in the life of Buddha and his disciples.
  4. Symbolic stupas, built to symbolize various aspects of Buddhist theology.
  5. Votive stupas, constructed to commemorate visits or gain spiritual benefits.

In the Buddhist religion, it is believed that a stupa brings enlightenment to the one who builds and owns it. In addition, the stupa is considered a place of worship, and many Buddhists complete pilgrimages to significant stupas.

2.2 – Buddhist Architecture and Sculpture

Sri Lankan art and architecture were deeply influenced by Buddhism, which was introduced to the island in the third century BCE.

2.2.1 – Overview: Buddhist Architecture

Buddhist religious architecture developed in the Indian Subcontinent in the third century BCE. Three types of structures are typically associated with the religious architecture of early Buddhism:

  1. Monasteries (viharas).
  2. Places to venerate relics (stupas).
  3. Shrines or prayer halls (chaityas or chaitya grihas), which later came to be called temples in some places.

Viharas were initially only temporary shelters used by wandering monks during the rainy season, but they later developed to accommodate the growing trend towards Buddhist monasticism. A distinctive type of fortress architecture found in the former and present Buddhist kingdoms of the Himalayas is known as dzongs.

The initial function of the stupa was the veneration and safe-guarding of the relics of the Buddha. The earliest surviving example of a stupa is in Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh).

In accordance with changes in religious practice, stupas were gradually incorporated into chaitya-grihas. These reached their high point in the 1st century BCE, exemplified by the cave complexes of Ajanta and Ellora (Maharashtra). The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya in Bihar is another well-known example.

2.2.2 – Buddhist Architecture in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan art and architecture was deeply influenced by Buddhism, which was introduced to the island in the third century BCE by the son of Ashoka, Mahinda. Ashoka, the great Buddhist emperor of the Maurya Dynasty , dedicated himself to the propagation of the religion across Asia. Sri Lanka has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any Buddhist nation, and its culture reflects its religious tradition.

2.2.3 – Cave Temples

The earliest examples of Buddhist architecture found in Sri Lanka are cave temples. The most famous of these, the Dambulla temple complex, dates back to the first century BCE. This complex consists of five caves and is decorated inside with statues and frescoes of the Buddha and various gods and goddesses from the Buddhist pantheon.

2.2.4 – Sri Lankan Stupas

The kingdom of Anuradhapura (377 BCE to 1017 CE), named for its capital city, produced some of the finest ancient Sri Lankan art and architecture. Some of the most distinctive and famous Sri Lankan monuments were built during this period, including a large number of dagobas or stupas, for which the island is renowned.

Sri Lankan stupas were among the largest brick structures known to the premodern world. Intended to enshrine relics of the Buddha, they were built in various shapes, including the bubble, the pot, and the bell. The Sri Lankan stupa is characterized by its vahalkadaor frontispiece. It is a structure, often ornately carved, that joins the stupa and often uses cardinal directions as a decorative flourish.

One of the most famous stupas in Sri Lanka is the Jetavanaramaya stupa, which was built during the 3rd and 4th centuries CE in the sacred city of Anuradhapura; it is believed to house a part of a sash of the Buddha. Built from baked bricks bound with limestone , sand, and clay and coated with lime plaster, this stupa stands at 400 feet and was the tallest stupa in the ancient world.

2.2.5 – The Vatadage

Polonnaruwa Vatadage: A vatadage in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, from the 12th century CE.

Another architectural creation associated with stupas and unique to ancient Sri Lankan architecture was the Vatadage, a circular Buddhist structure built around small stupas. These were usually made of stone and brick and elaborately carved. They may have also had wooden roofs that were supported by stone columns arranged in concentric rows.

2.2.6 – Sigiriya

Sigiriya fresco: Depicting women with flowers, the Sigiriya frescoes are examples of a distinctive Sri Lankan school of painting from the 5th century CE.

Another famous monument erected under the patronage of Anuradhapura was the rock fortress and palace complex of Sigiriya. Sigirya is particularly renowned for its ancient frescoes, which date from the 5th century and were painted in a very distinctive style.

The lines are painted in a manner that enhances the sense of volume of the figures, and the paint is applied in sweeping strokes, using more pressure on one side than the other and giving the effect of a deeper tone toward the edges. The frescoes all depict beautiful female figures who are carrying flowers and are hypothesized to be apsaras (celestial nymphs), ladies of the king’s court, or women taking part in religious rituals.

2.2.7 – Buddhist Sculpture

Samadhi Statue: Located in Anuradhapura, this statue dates to the fourth century CE and is a fine example of ancient Sri Lankan Buddhist sculpture.

Sculpture was also a notable art form, and many fine statues of the Buddha were produced during the Anuradhapura period in Sri Lanka. The Samadhi statue in Anuradhapura is considered one of the finest examples of ancient Sri Lankan sculpture. Sculpted from dolomite marble, it dates to the 4th century CE and shows the Buddha seated in a position of deep meditation.

2.3 – Buddhist Rock-Cut Architecture

2.3.1 – Overview

Rock-cut architecture is the practice of creating a structure by carving it out of solid natural rock. In India, the term cave is often applied in reference to rock-cut architecture; however, it must be distinguished from a naturally occurring cave, as rock-cut architecture is a highly engineered and elaborately decorated structure.

There are more than 1,500 rock-cut temples in India, most of which are religious in nature, adorned with decorative paintings and exquisite stone carvings that reflect a very high level of craftsmanship.

Buddhist rock-cut temples and monasteries were often located near trade routes and these spaces became stopovers and lodging houses for traders. As their endowments grew, the interiors of rock-cut temples became more and more elaborate and decorated.

While many temples, monasteries, and stupas have been destroyed, cave temples are better preserved due to their hidden locations and the fact that they are constructed from stone, a far more durable material than wood, clay, or metal.

2.3.2 – India’s Rock-Cut Architecture – The Barabar Caves

In India, caves have long been regarded as sacred spaces and were enlarged or entirely man-made for use as temples and monasteries by Buddhist monks and ascetics. The Barabar caves in Bihar, built in the third century BCE during the Mauryan period, are the oldest examples of Buddhist rock-cut architecture.

Credited to Emperor Ashoka, these caves mostly consist of two rooms carved entirely out of granite. The first room, a large rectangular hall, was meant to be a space for worshipers to congregate, while the second room was a small, domed chamber for worship. This second chamber is thought to have contained small, stupa-like structures, though it is empty now. – The Ajanta Caves

Ajanta Cave: A great deal of decorative sculptures—intricately carved columns and reliefs, including cornices and pilaster—are found in the Ajanta caves.

The Ajanta caves in Maharashtra are a group of 30 rock-cut Buddhist temples that span six centuries, beginning in the first century BCE. They are carved into the vertical side of a gorge located in the hills of the Sahyadri mountains.

The Ajanta caves are considered masterpieces of Buddhist architecture and contain living and sleeping quarters, kitchens, monastic spaces, shrines, and stupas. Made of brick or excavated from stone, the residences of monks are called viharas, while the cave shrines used for worship are called chaitya grihas.

Similar to the Barabar caves, the Ajanta caves are situated close to main trade routes. A great deal of decorative sculpture—intricately carved columns and reliefs, including cornices and pilaster—are found here.

A notable trait of rock-cut architecture is the crafting of rock to imitate timbered and carved wood. The Ajanta caves are home to some very early and well-preserved wall paintings that decorate the walls and ceilings and date from the second century BCE.

Executed using tempera technique on smooth surfaces and prepared by the application of plaster, the themes of the paintings are Buddhist and gracefully illustrate the major events of Buddha’s life, the Jataka tales , and the various divinities of the Buddhist pantheon . – The Ellora Caves

Ellora Cave: Similar to the Barabar and Ajanta caves, the Ellora caves contain many frescoes, reliefs, and shrines, including carvings of the Buddha, bodhisattvas, and saints.

The Ellora caves were built between the fifth and tenth centuries. These caves are made up of twelve Buddhist, seventeen Hindu, and five Jain rock-cut temples, excavated out of the Charanandri hills.

The proximity of the temples that belong to different religions demonstrates the religious harmony of the time. Similar to the Barabar and Ajanta caves, the Ellora caves contain many frescoes, reliefs, and shrines, including carvings of the Buddha, bodhisattvas , and saints. In many cases the stone is intricately carved to look like wood.

2.4 – Buddhist Wall Paintings

Buddhist wall paintings can be traced back to the Gupta period and are one of the dominant art forms of the early medieval period in India.

2.4.1 – The Gupta Empire

The Gupta Empire was an ancient Indian empire that covered much of the Indian subcontinent and was run by the Gupta Dynasty from approximately 320 to 550 CE. After the fall of the Mauryan Empire in the 2nd century BCE, India remained divided in a number of disparate kingdoms.

During the late 3rd century CE, the Gupta family gained control of the kingship of Magadha (modern-day eastern India and Bengal). The period of Gupta rule is known as the Golden Age of India, as it was a time marked by unprecedented prosperity and the flourishing of the arts and sciences in India.

2.4.2 – Art in the Gupta Empire

Ajanta cave painting: A wall painting from the Ajanta caves, painted during the Gupta dynasty, circa 6th century CE.

The rulers of the Gupta Empire were staunch supporters of the arts, science, literature, and architecture. In addition to patronizing the art of the Hindu religion, which the majority of the rulers subscribed to, the Guptas were known also for their support of Buddhist and Jain art and culture . In particular, Gupta period Buddhist art was quite influential in most of East and Southeast Asia.

The Ajanta caves are a Buddhist rock-cut structure dating from the 2nd century BCE to 600 CE that contain wall paintings created during the Gupta period. The paintings depict the Jataka tales and are considered to be masterpieces of Buddhist religious art . In addition, the Gupta Empire supported the Buddhist Universities of Nalanda and Vikramasila.

2.4.3 – Medieval India

The Gupta Empire quickly declined under the successors of Chandragupta II. In the year 480 CE, the Huns—nomadic-pastoralist warriors from the Eurasian steppe—launched an invasion of India, and by the year 500 CE, they overran the Gupta Empire. Though the Huns were eventually driven out of India, the Gupta Empire would never recover.

The disintegration of the Gupta Empire towards the end of the 5th and 6th centuries triggered what is known as the medieval period in India (c. 8th–13th centuries CE). This period was marked by the appearance of a multitude of states and dynasties that were often in conflict with one another.

The dynasties of Medieval India were predominantly Hindu, though some were Jain, and a very few were Buddhist. The Islamic invasions of India began as early as the 8th century, and by the early 12th century almost all of northern India was conquered.

The Hindu kingdoms of medieval India fell easily to the Islamic invaders, and soon the majority of India was under varying degrees of Islamic control. The impact of Islam on Indian art was initially quite destructive, but it eventually resulted in a synthesis of styles and the development of new and important works of art.

2.4.4 – Cave Murals

Ajanta cave painting: An example of a painting from one of the Ajanta caves.

The Ellora caves consist of 34 rock-cut temples and monasteries belonging to the Buddhist, Hindu, and Jaina faiths, built between the 5th and 10th centuries. The majority of the earlier caves were Buddhist, while caves constructed in the 9th and 10th centuries were Hindu and Jain.

The caves contain many different elaborately carved rooms as well as figures of gods, stupas , and decorative work that are all carved in stone. Frescoes on the walls and ceilings of both the Ajanta and Ellora caves are believed to date from the early medieval period, between the 8th and 10th centuries, and illustrate various Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain themes.

2.4.5 – Sittanavasal

A painting from Sittanavasal: Sittanavasal contains remnants of beautiful frescoes believed to be from the 7th to 9th centuries.

Sittanavasal dates from the 2nd century and is the most famous of the Jain rock-cut monasteries. It contains remnants of beautiful frescoes believed to be from the 7th to 9th centuries. Again, the themes of the frescoes are religious and generally employ a palette consisting of black, green, yellow, orange, blue, and white.

In addition to wall murals, there are paintings on the ceiling of Sittanavasal from the 9th century that depict elephants, buffalo, fish, geese, dancing girls, and lotus flowers. These frescoes, along with those of the Ajanta caves and Bagh, are considered to be the high point of Medieval Indian art.

2.4.6 – Miniature Painting

Miniature painting is believed to have started in the eastern part of medieval India, as exemplified by illustrations on palm-leaf religious manuscripts that are painted on the leaves and wooden covers of the manuscripts. Some of the most common Buddhist illustrated manuscripts include the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita, the Pancharaksa, the Karandavyuha, and the Kalachakrayanatantra.

Detail of an illuminated manuscript: The detail on this piece of artwork was created circa 700–1100 CE.

Miniature painting is thought to have developed slightly later in western India, somewhere between the 10th and 12th centuries, and it generally exists with Hindu and Jain texts.

Human figures are seen predominantly from a profile view, with large eyes, pointy noses, and slim waists. The color palette often employs black, red, white, brown, blue, and yellow.

While it is believed that miniature painting came into existence during the medieval period, it was to flourish extensively from the 16th to 19th centuries during the Mughal empire.

2.5 – Graeco-Buddhist Art

The art styles of Gandhāra and Mathura are noted for their distinctive style of Buddhist art influenced by Greek culture.

2.5.1 – Overview:  Gandhāra and Mathura

In ancient art, anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha started to emerge from the 1st century CE in Northern India. The two main centers of creation have been identified as Gandhāra in today’s North West Frontier Province in Pakistan, and the region of Mathura in central northern India.

2.5.2 –  Gandhāran Art – Introduction

Gandhāra is the name of an ancient kingdom located in parts of modern-day northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, mainly in the Peshawar Valley, the Pothohar Plateau, and the Kabul River Valley. The Kingdom of Gandhāra lasted from the early first millennium BCE to the 11th century CE.

The art style of the Kingdom flourished and achieved its peak during the Kushan period, from the 1st to the 5th centuries; it then declined and suffered destruction after the invasion of the White Huns in the 5th century. – Style

Buddha Herakles: The Buddha and Vajrapani under the guise of Herakles.

Gandhāra is noted for its distinctive style of Buddhist art, which developed out of a merger of Greek, Syrian, Persian, and Indian artistic influences. This development began during the Parthian Period (50 BCE–CE 75).

The art of Gandhāra benefited from centuries of interaction with Greek culture after the conquests of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE and the subsequent establishment of the Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek Kingdoms, which led to the development of Greco-Buddhist art.

In Gandhāran art, the Buddha is often shown under the protection of the Greek god Herakles, standing with his club (and later a diamond rod) resting over his arm. This unusual representation of Herakles is the same as the one seen only on the back of of Demetrius’s coins, and it is exclusively associated to him (and his son Euthydemus II).

Gandhāran Buddhist sculpture displays Greek artistic influence, and it has been suggested that the concept of the man-god was essentially inspired by Greek mythological culture. Artistically, the Gandhāran School of sculpture is said to have contributed wavy hair, drapery covering both shoulders, shoes, sandals, and acanthus leaf decorations.

Stone was widely used by sculptors in Gandhāra for the decoration of monastic and cult buildings, and stucco provided the artist with a medium of great plasticity, enabling a high degree of expressiveness to be given to the sculpture. Sculpting in stucco was popular wherever Buddhism spread from Gandhāra: India, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and China.

2.5.3 – Mathura Style – Introduction

Mathura is a city in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The art of Mathura tends to be based on a strong Indian tradition, exemplified by the anthropomorphic representation of divinities such as the Yaksas, although in a style rather archaic compared to the later representations of the Buddha.

The Mathuran school contributed to many new styles in art such as clothes of thin muslin that only cover the left shoulder, the wheel on the palm, and the lotus seat. – Art of Mathura

Mathura Buddha: The representations of the Buddha in Mathura are generally dated slightly later than those of Gandhāra (although not without debate) and are also much less numerous.

The representations of the Buddha in Mathura are generally dated slightly later than those of Gandhāra (although not without debate) and are also much less numerous. Mathura sculptures incorporate many Hellenistic elements, such as a general idealistic realism, and key design elements, such as curly hair and folded garments.

Specific Mathuran adaptations tend to reflect warmer climatic conditions, as they consist in a higher fluidity of the clothing, which progressively tends to cover only one shoulder instead of both. The art of Mathura also features frequent sexual imagery: female images with bare breasts or nude below the waist, displaying labia and female genitalia, are common, making these images more sexually explicit than those of earlier or later periods. – Relationship to Gandhāra Style

The Mathura and Gandhāra styles strongly influenced each other. During their artistic florescence, the two regions were united politically under the Kushans, both being capitals of the empire. It is still a matter of debate whether the anthropomorphic representations of Buddha were essentially a result of a local evolution of Buddhist art at Mathura, or a consequence of Greek cultural influence in Gandhāra through the Greco-Buddhist syncretism.

This iconic art was characterized from the start by a realistic idealism that combined realistic human features, proportions, attitudes, and attributes, together with a sense of perfection and serenity reaching to the divine. This expression of the Buddha as both man and God became the iconographic canon for subsequent Buddhist art.

2.5.4 – Influences and Legacy

Gupta Buddha: A statue of Buddha from the Gupta Period, Musée Guimet, Paris.

Hindu art began to develop from the 1st to the 2nd century CE and found its first inspiration in the Buddhist art of Mathura. It progressively incorporated a profusion of original Hindu stylistic and symbolic elements, in contrast with the general balance and simplicity of Buddhist art.

The art of Mathura acquired progressively more Indian elements and reached a very high sophistication during the Gupta Empire between the 4th and the 6th century CE. The art of the Gupta Period is considered the pinnacle of Indian Buddhist art.

3 – Java and Cambodia

3.1 – The Java Culture

The art of Java is the result of a complex cultural mixture that is very different from the original indigenous cultures.

3.1.1 – Introduction

The culture of the Javanese ethnic group in Indonesia is entered in the Central Java, Yogyakarta, and East Java provinces. Due to various migrations, it can also be found in other parts of the world, such as Suriname (where 15% of the population are of Javanese descent), the broader Indonesian archipelago region, Cape Malay, Malaysia, Singapore, Netherlands, and other countries.

The culture of Java has been shaped by its long interactions between original indigenous customs and multiple foreign influences. Indonesia is centrally located along ancient trading routes between the Far East and the Middle East; as a result, many cultural practices are strongly influenced by a multitude of local religions. These include Hinduism , Buddhism , Confucianism , Islam , and Christianity, all of which are strong in the major trading cities. The result is a complex cultural mixture that is very different from the original indigenous cultures.

A cultural mingling occurred in the southwestern part of Central Java and brought together Javanese culture and Sundanese culture to create the Banyumasan culture. This area was also named the Banyumasan region.

In the central Javanese court cities of Yogyakarta and Surakarta, contemporary kings trace their lineages back to the pre-colonial Islamic kingdoms that ruled the region, making those places especially strong repositories of classical Javanese culture. The classic arts of Java include wayang puppet shows, gamelan music, and the martial art silat.

3.1.2 – Java Art – Wayang Theater

Wayang is a Javanese word for a theatrical performance with puppets or human dancers. The term wayang is the Javanese word for shadow; in modern daily Javanese and Indonesian vocabulary, wayang is most often associated with the puppet itself or the whole puppet theater performance.

Performances of shadow puppet theatre are accompanied by a gamelan orchestra in Java (a musical ensemble made up of mostly percussion instruments).

Wayang performance: The Wayang Kulit performance by an Indonesian famous dalang (puppet master) Ki Manteb Sudharsono, with the story Gathutkaca Winisuda.

Wayang kulit, or shadow puppets, are without a doubt the best known of the Indonesian wayang. Kulit means skin and refers to the leather construction of the puppets that are carefully chiseled with very fine tools and supported with carefully shaped buffalo horn handles and control rods. The handwork involved in making a wayang kulit figure that is suitable for a performance takes several weeks, with the artists working together in groups.

The stories are usually drawn from the Hindu epics, such as the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, or from the Serat Menak (a story about the heroism of Amir Hamza). Historically, the performance consisted of shadows cast on a cotton screen and an oil lamp. Today, the source of light used in wayang performance in Java is most often a halogen electric light. – Music

A gamelan is a traditional musical ensemble from Indonesia, typically from the islands of Java and Bali, that features a variety of instruments such as metallophones, xylophones, kendang (drums), gongs, bamboo flutes, and bowed and plucked strings. Vocalists may also be included.

For most Indonesians, gamelan music is an integral part of Indonesian culture. The term refers more to the set of instruments rather than to the players of those instruments. A gamelan is a set of instruments as a distinct entity, built and tuned to stay together, and instruments from different gamelan are generally not interchangeable.

Javanese gamelan: A Javanese gamelan ensemble performance during a traditional Javanese Yogyakarta-style wedding ceremony.

In Javanese mythology, the gamelan was created by Sang Hyang Guru in the Saka era 167 (c. CE 230). He is considered the god who ruled as king of all Java from a palace on the Maendra mountain in Medang Kamulan (now Mount Lawu). He needed a signal to summon the gods and thus invented the gong. For more complex messages, he invented two other gongs, thus forming the original gamelan set.

Variations of gamelan ensembles are distinguished by their collection of instruments and their use of voice, tunings, repertoire, style , and cultural context. In general, no two gamelan ensembles are the same, and those that arose in prestigious courts are often considered to have their own style. Certain styles may also be shared by nearby ensembles, leading to a regional style. – Silat

Silat Minangkabaut: Silat Minangkabaut, a particular form of silat.

Silat is a class of indigenous martial arts from the area of Southeast Asia encompassing most of the Nusantara, the Indonesian Archipelago, the Malay Archipelago, and the entirety of the Malay Peninsula. The art of silat was created and first developed in the islands of Java and Sumatra. It is an art for survival shaped by centuries of tribal wars in Indonesian history.

Silat was used to determine rank and social position in old Indonesian kingdoms; it was also used by Indonesian freedom fighters during their struggle against Dutch colonists. Unfortunately, after Indonesia achieved its independence, silat became less popular among Indonesian youth compared to foreign martial arts like karate and tae kwon do. – Blacksmithing and Woodcarving

Kris and other weapons: The kris is an asymmetrical dagger noted for its distinctive wavy blade patterning.

For the Javanese, blacksmiths are traditionally valued. Javanese blacksmiths provide a range of tools, such as farming equipment and fire-arms, and cultural items, such as gamelan instruments.

The kris is an asymmetrical dagger with a distinctive blade pattern achieved through alternating laminations of iron and nickelous iron; many heirloom kris made by master blacksmiths in Java hold significant historical value . The Javanese art of wood carving is traditionally applied to various cultural attributes such as statues, wayang dolls, and masks. – Architecture

Throughout their long history, the Javanese have produced many important buildings, ranging from Hindu monuments, Buddhist stupa , mortuary temples, palace complexes, and mosques . The paragon of religious monuments are the Hindu temple of Prambanan and the Buddhist temple of Borobudur, both were built in the 9th century near the city of Yogyakarta.

An example of secular architecture can be seen in ruins of the former capital city of the Majapahit Kingdom (which ruled from the 14th to 16th century CE) in Trowulan, East Java. The complex consists of various brick buildings, purification pools, temples, and iconic split gates.

Traditional Javanese buildings can be identified by their trapezoidal roofs that are supported by wooden pillars. Another common feature in Javanese buildings is the pendopo, a pavilion with open sides and four large pillars. The pillars and other parts of the buildings are often richly carved.

Traditional mosques in Java maintain a distinctive Javanese style with both the pendopo and a trapezoidal roof, rather than the more typical dome and minarets . The roofs are often multitiered and tiled. The split gate from an earlier Hindu-Buddhist period is still used in many mosques and public buildings in Java. Some notable examples of mosques that use traditional Javanese architecture include the mosques at Agung Demak, Menara Kudus, and Banten.

3.2 – Cambodian Art

Throughout Cambodia’s long history, religion has been a major source of cultural inspiration for art, dance, and music.

3.2.1 – Introduction

Throughout Cambodia’s long history, religion has been a major source of cultural inspiration. Over nearly two thousand years, Cambodians have developed a unique Khmer belief from the syncreticism of indigenous animistic beliefs and the Indian religions of Buddhism and Hinduism.

Indian culture and civilization , including its languages and arts, reached mainland Southeast Asia around the first century CE; it is generally believed that seafaring merchants brought Indian customs and culture to the ports along the Gulf of Thailand and the Pacific en route to trade with China. The Kingdom of Funan was most probably the first Khmer state to benefit from this influx of Indian ideas.

3.2.2 – Art in Cambodia – Architecture

Angkor Wat: A frontal view of the main complex of Angkor Wat.

The history of Cambodian art stretches back centuries to ancient times, but the most famous period is undoubtedly the Khmer art of the Khmer Empire (802–1431). The 12th century temple complex of Angkor Wat, located amidst other sites in the area around Angkor, it perhaps the most famous example of Cambodian architecture. After the collapse of the Khmer Empire, this and other sites were abandoned and overgrown, allowing much of the era’s stone carving and architecture to survive to the present day.

Angkor Wat was originally constructed as a Hindu temple of the god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire, and gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple toward the end of the 12th century. The temple combines the two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple-mountain and the later galleried temple.

It is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology. There are three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next, within a moat and an outer wall 2.2 miles long. At the center of the temple stands a group of towers.

Unlike most Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west; scholars are divided as to the significance of this. The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of its architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs , and the numerous devatas, or Hindu deities , adorning its walls. – Traditional Arts

In pre-colonial Cambodia, arts and crafts were generally produced either by rural non-specialists for practical use or by skilled artists producing works for the Royal Palace. Cambodia’s best-known stone carving adorns the temples of Angkor.

Silk weaving has a long history—the practice dates back as early as the 1st century, and  textiles were often used in trade during Angkorian times. Many Cambodian farmers would weave baskets out of thinly cut bamboo for household use or to sell as a supplemental source of income. – Lacquerware

The height of Cambodian traditional lacquerware was between the 12th and 16th centuries; some examples of work from this era, including gilded Buddha images and betel boxes, have survived to the present day.

Lacquerware was traditionally colored black using burnt wood to represent the underworld; red using mercury to represent the earth; and yellow using arsenic to represent the heavens. Lacquer on Angkorian stone dates to the 15th or 16th century. – Silversmithing

Silversmithing in Cambodia also dates back centuries, and the Royal Palace traditionally patronized silversmiths’ workshops. Silver was made into a variety of items, including weaponry, coins, ceremonial objects used in funerary and religious rituals , and betel boxes. During Cambodia’s colonial period, artisans at the School of Fine Art produced celebrated silverwork, and by the late 1930s there were more than 600 silversmiths. – Pottery

Cambodian pottery traditions date to 5000 BCE. Ceramics were mostly used for domestic purposes, such as holding food and water, and for figures such as birds, elephants, rabbits, and other animals that were popular between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Cambodia’s kite-making and kite-flying tradition, which dates back many centuries, was revived in the early 1990s and is now extremely popular throughout the country. Kites are generally flown at night during the northeast monsoon season; a bow attached to the kites resonates in the wind, producing a musical sound.

Beginning in the mid-20th century, a tradition of modern art began in Cambodia, though in the later 20th century both traditional and modern arts declined for several reasons, including the killing of artists by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. The country has experienced a recent artistic revival due to increased support from governments, NGOs, and foreign tourists. – Dance

Dance in Cambodia consists of three main categories:

  1. Classical dance of the royal court used for invocation, for entertainment, and to pay homage.
  2. Folk dance that portrays cultural traditions.
  3. Social dances performed in social gatherings.

Cambodia’s premiere performing art form is the Khmer classical dance, or Robam Preah Reach Trop. It is a highly stylized dance form originating from the royal courts. Performances of classical dance consist of elaborately costumed dancers and music played by a pinpeat ensemble . It is performed for invocation of deities and spirits as well as to pay homage to royalty and guests.

Khmer dancer: Lady dancer in Siem Reap.

In the mid-20th century, it was introduced to the general public and became widely celebrated as iconic of Cambodian culture. It was often performed during public events, holidays, and for tourists visiting Cambodia. Two of the most performed classical dances are the Robam Chun Por (Wishing dance) and the Robam Tep Apsara (Apsara dance). – Music

Royal Ballet of Cambodia: The Royal Ballet of Cambodia at curtain call. This was a performance of a dance drama titled Apsara Mera in Paris, France.

Modern music in Cambodia is derived from traditions that date back to the ancient Khmer Empire and from the rapid Westernization of its popular music scene in modern times.

Cambodian pop music, or modern music, is divided into two categories:

  1. Ramvong, a slow dance music.
  2. Ramkbach, which is closely related to Thai folk music.

In the Siem Reap province, a form of music called kantrum has become popular; it originated among the Khmer Surin in Thailand. Kantrum is famous for Thai and Cambodian stars like Darkie.

Cambodian Art music is highly influenced by its ancient forms as well as Hindu forms. Religious dances, many of which depict stories and ancient myths, are common.

4 – Art of Southeast Asia

4.1 – Sculpture in Southeast Asia

4.1.1 – Influences on Southeast Asia

A bronze standing Buddha: Sculpted in the Mon Dwaravati style, this bronze statue from the 7th century has an idealized rather than realistic physical form, including shell-like curls for hair.

The communities and cultures of Southeast Asia were in direct contact with India through trade routes and were heavily influenced by Indian religion and art. The Pali and Sanskrit languages, Indian script, and Hindu epic literature—such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—were transmitted to Southeast Asia during this period.

Hinduism and Buddhism were brought to the region and became the main religions practiced from about the 1st century BCE to the 13th century CE. These influences played a considerable role in shaping the art and sculpture of Southeast Asia.

4.1.2 – The Sculpture

Between the 1st and 8th centuries CE, several Indic kingdoms competed for dominance in Southeast Asia, particularly the Cambodian Funan and the Burmese Mon. Most of the Southeast Asian sculpture of the period 300–600 CE was heavily influenced by the style of the Gupta Empire in India, which patronized Buddhist art in the Greco–Buddhist style.

Buddhist art in Thailand was shaped both by direct contact with Indian traders and the expansion of the Mon kingdom. In later periods, Chinese influences predominated in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and more wooden sculpture survives from across the region.

4.1.3 – Buddhist Sculptures

Southeast Asian Buddha statues of this period were characterized by a purity of statuary and a delicacy in portraying the folds of clothing. Symbolic, shell-like curls were used to render the hair of the Buddha. Somewhat less attention was paid to the realism of artistic details. A number of votive tablets and Sanskrit inscriptions are also found in the region.

4.1.4 – Champa

The birth of Brahma: This unfinished pediment is a fine example of Hindu art in the style of Champa. The relief sculpture shows the birth of the Hindu god Brahma from a lotus growing from the navel of Vishnu.

The Indic civilization of Champa flourished along the coasts of what is now central and southern Vietnam from 500 CE onward. This civilization left an impressive artistic legacy of sandstone sculptures, both in the round and in relief. These sculptures expressed religious themes and synthesized elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and indigenous cults. They depicted common themes, such as Hindu and Buddhist deities and icons , as well as scenes from daily life.

The Cham created freestanding sandstone sculptures in the round, as well as high and bas-relief carvings of sandstone. In general, they appear to have preferred sculpting in relief, and they excelled at sculpture in high relief .

Cham sculpture went through a marked succession of historical styles, the foremost of which produced some of the best works of Southeast Asian art. The subject-matter of Cham sculpture is drawn mostly from the legends and religion of Indian civilization. Many of the sculptures are representations of particular Hindu and Buddhist deities, most prominently Siva but also Lokesvara, Visnu, Brahma, Devi, and Shakti. Such sculptures may have served a religious purpose rather than being purely decorative.

4.2 – Painting in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian painting from 300–600 CE mostly took the form of frescoes and reflected Hindu and Buddhist themes.

4.2.1 – Painting from 300-500 CE

Very little Southeast Asian painting from 300–600 CE has survived to the present day, owing to the heat and humidity of tropical and subtropical weather. One can only hypothesize the styles and techniques that painters would have used based on evidence gleaned from sculptures (which are far more durable and have survived), contemporary painting styles in India (which played a large role in influencing Southeast Asian art), and literary texts that talk about painting. The few examples of painting that do survive are frescoes on cave or temple walls.

4.2.2 – Approaches

Artists worked in perishable mediums, painting mostly on wood, cloth, and palm leaf, none of which have withstood the rigors of the Southeast Asian climate. The most durable forms of Southeast Asian art are sculpture and architecture in stone.

It is likely that stone sculptures, both in relief and in the round , were originally painted in bright colors, but these have worn away over the course of time, leaving the underlying stone exposed. Frescoes, usually executed on cave temple or monastery walls, were the most common form of Southeast Asian painting.

4.2.3 – Themes

The themes most commonly depicted would probably mimic those found in contemporary Southeast Asian sculpture—primarily religious themes from Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which originated in the Indian subcontinent, were introduced to Southeast Asia from the 1st century BCE to the 1st century CE.

Southeast Asia subsequently came under the influence of several powerful Indic dynasties , which established kingdoms, practiced and spread Hinduism and Buddhism through the region, and patronized art that reflected their religious beliefs.

Hindu art commonly depicts figures from the Hindu pantheon, including the gods Shiva and Vishnu and the divine female creative principle or Shakti. Buddhist art depicted images of the Buddha, the Bodhisattvas or enlightened beings, apsaras or celestial dancers, and tales and parables from Buddhist lore, including the Jataka tales—stories about the previous incarnations of the Buddha, both in human and in animal form.

It is also possible that Southeast Asian painting would have depicted court and battle scenes, animals both real and mythical, and scenes from daily life. In Thai art, the most frequent narrative subjects for paintings included the Jataka stories, episodes from the life of the Buddha, the Buddhist heavens and hells, and scenes of daily life. Some of the scenes are influenced by Thai folklore instead of following strict Buddhist iconography.

4.2.4 – Frescoes in Sigiriya

Sigiriya fresco: The frescoes at Sigiriya depict graceful female figures bearing flowers.

The most famous surviving examples of Southeast Asian-style frescoes are to be found in the rock fortress and palace ruin of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka. These date from about the 5th–6th centuries CE and depict graceful female figures bearing flowers. These figures are hypothesized to be apsarasor women of the king’s court.

The paint is applied in sweeping strokes, using more pressure on one side than the other and results in deep colors toward the edge. These frescoes are reminiscent of the contemporary frescoes in the Ajanta caves in India, which are masterpieces of Buddhist religious art and depict figures from the Buddhist pantheon and scenes from the Jataka tales.

4.3 – Northern-Style Temples in Southeast Asia

North Indian temples are often simpler and less orthodox than those in South, and all people are permitted to worship within them.

4.3.1 – Introduction

India’s temple architecture was developed from the creativity of Sthapathis and Shilpis, both of whom belong to the larger community of craftsmen and artisans called Vishwakarma. A small Hindu temple consists of an inner sanctum; the garbha graha or womb-chamber in which the idol or deity is housed; a congregation hall; and sometimes an antechamber and porch.

The garbhagriha is crowned by a tower-like shikara. At the turn of the first millennium CE, two major types of temples existed:

  1. The northern or Nagara style .
  2. The southern or Dravida type of temple.

4.3.2 – The Northern Style

In contrast to the elaborate appearance of South Indian temples, most temples in North India are very simple in design. This is thought to be due, at least in part, to the constant attacks Hindus have suffered from Muslims historically in this region. North Indian temples also tend to be less orthodox than those in the south. In many cases, all castes and categories of people are permitted to enter the innermost sanctum of these temples and worship the deity personally. However, in such cases, the deities are not adorned with valuable jewelry.

The innermost heart of this type of temple is a sanctum where a deity (usually cast in fixed stone) is present, followed by a large hall where lay worshipers can stand and obtain darśana, or divine audience.

Darśana is a Sanskrit term meaning sight, vision, apparition, or glimpse, and is most commonly used for visions of the divine in Hindu worship. These visions are either of a deity, a very holy person, or an artifact . An individual can receive darśana, or the blessing of a particular deity, within the temple, or from a saintly person, such as a great guru.

Hindu temple at Tilla Gogian: A small Hindu temple consists of an inner sanctum, a congregation hall, and sometimes an antechamber and porch. It also contains the garbha graha, or womb-chamber, in which the idol or deity is housed.

In this type of temple, there may or may not be a number of additional corridors and halls, in addition to these aforementioned worship rooms. However, in all cases, there will be space for devotees to circulate the temple in a clockwise fashion. In Hindu culture , this kind of circumambulation is a mark of respect. Many of these temples were destroyed during the Islamic rule of India during the Mughal Empire .

Śikhara, a Sanskrit word that means mountain peak, refers to the tallest tower in Northern Hindu temple architecture. Because the sikhara tower is always situated over the sanctum sanctorum, where the presiding deity is enshrined, it is the most prominent and visible part of this temple’s architecture. Originally, the sikharas were homogeneous in design but, over time, secondary sikharas, which are smaller and narrower, have been plated on to the sides of many of these main sikharas.

4.3.3 – Notable Northern Temples


[LEFT]: Kedarnath Temple: Kedarnath Temple dedicated to Shiva, in Kedarnath, Uttarakhand.
[RIGHT]: Adinath Jain Temple: Sikhara in Khajuraho.

The Somnath Mandir, a temple in Gujarat, is considered to be one of the twelve jyotirlinga shrines of Lord Shiva and has a history dating as far back as the beginning of the common area. Delhi’s Chhatarpur Temple, notable for its size, is one of the largest Hindu temple complexes in India.

4.4 – Southern-Style Temples in Southeast Asia

South India gave rise to the Dravida style of architecture and is where most of the largest Hindu temples are found.

4.4.1 – Introduction

Kapaleeswarar Temple: The tower (gopuram) of the Kapaleeswarar Temple, a typical South Indian temple complex in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

A Hindu temple is a place of worship for followers of Hinduism . A characteristic of most temples is the presence of murtis (statues) of the Hindu deity to whom the temple is dedicated. They are usually dedicated to one primary deity, the presiding deity, and other deities associated with the main deity. However, some temples are dedicated to several deities, and others are dedicated to murtis in an iconic form .

Many temples are in key geographical points, such as on a hilltop or near waterfalls, caves, and rivers. The main architectural styles in India are the Nagara style of North India and the Dravida style of South India.

4.4.2 – The Dravidian Style

The Brihadishwara Temple at sunset in Thanjavur, India: The large vedic brahminical temples of southern India follow the pan-Indian Sanskrit agama scriptural traditions.

Dravidian architecture was an architectural idiom that emerged in the Southern part of the Indian subcontinent, or South India. This style of architecture consists primarily of temples with pyramid-shaped towers constructed of sandstone, soapstone, or granite.

Dravidian-style temples consist almost invariably of the three following parts, arranged in differing manners according to the age in which they were executed.

  1. The porches, or mantapas, which always cover and precede the door leading to the cell.
  2. Gate-pyramids, or gopuras, which are the principal features in the quadrangular enclosures that surround the more notable temples.
  3. Pillared halls (chaultris or chawadis), which are used for many purposes and are the invariable accompaniments of these temples.

In addition to these, a South Indian temple usually has a tank, called the kalyani or pushkarni, to be used for sacred purposes or for the convenience of the priests. Dwellings for the priesthood are typically attached to this kalyani.

Rituals within these temples tend to be orthodox and elaborate, especially in the large vedic brahminical temples that follow the pan-Indian Sanskrit agama scriptural traditions. Apart from the main fixed stone deities, processional deities made of panchaloha (an alloy of gold, silver, copper, zinc, and tin) are bathed, dressed, decorated with valuables, and taken out in processions for festivals throughout the year.

The richer the temple, the more elaborate the festivals. However, many ancient temples in small villages with great architectural and historical heritage value languish for lack of funds for maintenance.

4.4.3 – Notable Temples in South India

Chettikulangara Devi Temple: The Chettikulangara Devi temple in Kerala is one of the most famous examples of South Indian architecture.

Most of the largest Hindu Temples are found in South India, and specifically in Tamil Nadu. Many large bannabs (grand stone temples) still stand in South India. Famous South Indian temples include the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in Andhra Pradesh, the Guruvayur temple in Kerala, the Chettikulangara Devi temple in Kerala, among others.

4.5 – Monumental Reliefs in Southeast Asia

Sculpture and architecture were intimately connected in Southeast Asia, and monumental reliefs were used to decorate the walls of buildings.

4.5.1 – Overview: Relief Sculpture

Relief is a sculptural technique that gives the impression that the sculpted material has been raised above the background plane. This is accomplished by cutting into a flat surface of stone or wood, thereby lowering the field and leaving the unsculpted parts seemingly raised.

Reliefs depicting figures that are at least life-size or bigger or are attached to monuments of some sort are termed monumental reliefs by art historians, thus distinguishing them from small metal or ivory reliefs, portable sculptures, and diptychs.

4.5.2 – Reliefs

Monumental reliefs represent an important facet of ancient Southeast Asian art, where sculpture and architecture were intimately connected with one another. As a result, relief sculpture was generally used to decorate the walls of buildings—particularly Hindu and Buddhist temples—and was accomplished on a very large scale.

It was greatly influenced by Indian styles and techniques, and it generally portrayed religious themes with high iconographic precision. Court and battle scenes, scenes depicting daily life and the customs of the people, and animals (both real and mythical) were other common subjects.

Most of ancient Southeast Asian relief sculpture was done in bas-relief, where the projecting images have shallow overall depth, although the kingdom of Champa in southern and central Vietnam excelled in haut-relief sculpture, which was marked by much greater depth and undercut areas.

Notable examples of monumental reliefs include Borobodur in Java, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Sanchi case in India, and many South Indian temples, including the Unakoti group of sculptures at Kailashahar, Tripura, India.

4.5.3 – Borobudur

Lalitavistara Deva listening to Dhamma: Detail of carved relief from Borobudur, depicting a figure from the Buddhist pantheon.

The most famous examples of monumental relief sculptures in Southeast Asia are to be found in the 9th-century Buddhist temple of Borobudur in Java, Indonesia. Built during the rein of the Indic Sailendra Dynasty , the temple is constructed to reveal many different levels of terraces, many of which are heavily ornamented with intricate bas-reliefs.

In total, there are 2,672 individual bas-reliefs, 1,460 of which depict narratives from Buddhist lore, including the birth and life of the Buddha. The remaining 1,212 are solely decorative.

4.5.4 – Khmer Temples

The Churning of the Sea of Milk: This episode from Hindu mythology is depicted in bas-relief on the south of the east wall of Angkor Wat’s third enclosure.

The Khmer of Cambodia were also renowned for their monumental bas-reliefs, which usually took narrative form to depict stories from history and mythology. They decorated the tympana (semi-circular arched spaces above a doorway), walls, and ceilings with complex scenes.

The earliest surviving example of Khmer narrative bas-relief sculpture comes from the 10th-century Hindu temple of Banteay Srei, which has carved tympana and towers that depict scenes from the great Hindu epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

The most famous example of Khmer bas-relief sculpture is undoubtedly at the 12th-century Hindu temple of Angkor Wat, which has 13,000 square meters of narrative bas-reliefs on the walls of its outer gallery.

4.5.5 – Themes

The reliefs have a diverse range of themes. They depict mythical, spiritual beings from the Buddhist pantheon such as bodhisattvas , apsaras (celestial dancers or musicians), gandharvas (male nature spirits), and asuras (demons). They also depict images of people, such as the king and queen, princes, priests, courtiers, soldiers, servants, and commoners.

Many of these reliefs provide glimpses of scenes of daily life; for example, the relief sculptures from Borobudur depict scenes from 8th-century Java, including courtly palace life, a hermit in the forest, commoners in the village, temple and marketplace scenes, native vernacular architecture , and flora and fauna. These bas-relief sculptures have served as a reference for historians in the study of ancient Javanese architecture, weaponry, fashion, and transportation.

King and queen with their subjects: The bas relief from Borobudur Temple depicts a palace scene of a king and queen accompanied by their subjects. It is strongly suggested that the relief depicts an actual scene of the Sailendran royal court.

In addition, a group of 160 panels of monumental relief sculpture provides a complete illustration of the law of karma or the principles of cause and effect. There are depictions of both praiseworthy activities (including charity and pilgrimage) and blameworthy activities (ranging from gossip to murder), with their corresponding rewards and punishments. These panels provide particularly complex scenes of daily life, depicting the full panorama of samsara (the endless cycle of birth and death).

Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless Art History under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.



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