Ancient Indian Art

Do you like mysteries and secret codes?

sealThen you might be interested in the seals that have survived from the early Indus Valley civilization. These seals were most likely used in trade, as they have been found in the ruins of other civilizations far from the Indus Valley.  They are small rectangular stones with images carved into them.

The images are of animals such as antelope, elephants, rhinoceros, tigers, and water buffalo. There are also images of humans, and some of them even have writing. The writing is in pictographs, which are pictures that represent sounds. The writing on the seals has yet to be decoded. Perhaps you could be the one to find out their meaning!

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Along with the seals, many small metal and clay sculptures of animals and people have been found, and some large sculptures, including large bronze statues of a bull with a chariot driver, a buffalo, and rhinoceros, and an elephant. 


This area is the home of several of the world’s major religions, so it’s not surprising that most of India’s art is centered on religion. Around 300-200 B.C., the Buddhists began to erect large stone pillars at important places. These pillars were often topped with a figure of a lion. The lion was a symbol of power for Indian rulers. Other pillars had figures such as lotus flowers, bulls, and elephants.

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StupasMany large stone figures were made of the traditional village gods, called yakshas and yakshis, which were male and female nature spirits.

Later, the Buddhists began to make large burial mounds called stupas. These were shaped like Buddha’s body, which they believed was perfectly proportioned. (If you’ve seen pictures of the Buddha, you know he is often shown as being quite round). Stupas were originally burial places for holy people.

One legend says that Emporer Ashoka took the relics from Buddha’s grave and distributed them all around the country, and thousands of stupas were built to protect them. One of the most important stupas is the one at Sanchi, a small Indian village. It is a place of pilgrimage (a trip to visit a holy place) because it is believed to cover some of Buddha’s remains.

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As Buddhism spread, Buddha’s followers began to make images of him in human form, so that others might learn about him. At first, he was shown with a very stern look, but later, he was shown to have gentle eyes looking downward, and a soft smile.

Remember the large temples carved into the mountains that you read about in the architecture section? These temples contained not only carvings but paintings as well. The paintings were mainly of people and animals. They were very realistic images, with color and shading that made them look natural, and outlined in a way that made them seem to stand out from the wall.

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Hindus also made carvings of their gods. These were shaped like humans, but often with many arms or heads, to show that they could take many different forms. In northern India, there images were carved into rocks. In southern India, they were made of bronze. When Islamic rulers took over the northern part, they forbid the worship of carved figures shaped as humans, so the carving of these figures decreased.

From around the year 1000, the artists of India began to illustrate manuscripts. The “paper” was made  palm leaves, and the illustrations were in bold, bright colors, to show the events happening in the book. When the Mogul empire ruled India (from the 1500’s to the 1850’s), Islamic artists were hired to train Indian artists in painting. The books that were now illustrated were not religious books, but myths or stories of kings and heroes. And artists were encouraged to observe and try to capture the wonder of the world around them.

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From mysterious ancient seals to brightly illustrated manuscripts, the art of India spans many years with many different styles. Religion is the main focus of the art, with personal expression always finding a way to shine through from the artist. 

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