South Asian Art

Introduction

Table Summary

Summary of South Asian Art
Indus civilization art seals, figures
Indian architecture Buddhist stupas, Hindu temples
Indian sculpture and wall painting statues, wall paintings/reliefs
Indo-Islamic art architecture, illumination

General Features

Pre-modern South Asian history can be divided into four parts (see History of South Asia). Civilized life in this region began with the Indus civilization, which spanned ca. 2500-1500 BC. With the collapse of Indus society, a non-urban period (ca. 1500-500 BC) ensued, during which the Indic people arrived in South Asia and proceeded to develop Indian culture (using Indus civilization as their foundation). As Indian culture emerged, the Indic people became the Indian people.

With the rise of Indian cities, Indian civilization flourished independently for the period ca. 500 BC-1200 AD (the "Indian kingdom age"). Then came a period of Islamic domination (ca. 1200-1800), during which Islamic states (established by invaders from Central Asia) controlled much of South Asia. This period featured a hybrid Indo-Islamic style of art and architecture.

Main Article

Indus Civilization Art

Little art survives from the Indus civilization; most is small sculpture, which the Indus people produced in two distinct styles. The first is a stylized aesthetic that resembles Mesopotamian sculpture, suggesting that the influence of Mesopotamian art radiated all the way to South Asia. The second, which is native to the Indus civilization, is a more relaxed, realistic style that became the principle model for Indian sculpture.H470,8,9

Perhaps the most famous aesthetic remnants of the Indus civilization are soapstone seals, featuring bulls, elephants, and symbols from the Indus writing system. A few small figure sculptures have also been recovered.

The two largest settlements of the Indus civilization were Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. While the ruins of these cities are renowned for their carefully-planned layouts, little survives of their buildings.D38 The preferred construction material of the Indus people was brick, which endures the elements relatively poorly (compared with stone or concrete).8,H470

Indus Civilization Sculpture (stylized type)
Indus Civilization Sculpture (realistic type)
Indus Civilization Seals
Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro

Buddhist Architecture

India gave rise to three major religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. During the first half of the Indian kingdom age (ca. 500 BC-1200 AD), Buddhism and Hinduism vied for religious dominance of India. Buddhism then fell into decline, leaving Hinduism the dominant faith of India by far (which it remains today). (Buddhism nonetheless became the primary religion in other parts of South and Southeast Asia.) Meanwhile, Jainism has always flourished as a significant minority religion.

Most surviving architecture of the Indian kingdom age is religious in nature. Remarkably, many of these structures (e.g. temples, monestaries) are examples of rock-cut architecture; that is, they were carved out of solid natural rock (typically into cliffsides). Rock-cut architecture was practised by all three major religions.H473-77

Rock-cut Temple
Rock-cut Temple Interior

The most distinctive form of Buddhist architecture is the stupa, which houses the tomb and/or relics of a holy person.10 The stupa is therefore a type of shrine: a religious structure dedicated to a specific person or deity. Shrines may be considered a specialized form of temple, a general term for any building devoted to religious activity.

A typical stupa consists chiefly of a great dome supported by corbelled stones (see Corbelling). The dome is usually crowned with a vertical ornament framed in a square enclosure.H473-474

Stupa in India
Gate at preceding Stupa
Interior of preceding Stupa
Stupa in Sri Lanka
Stupa in Myanmar
Interior of preceding Stupa

The world's largest Buddhist construction is Borobudur, a stupa complex in Indonesia. Borobudur is essentially a terraced, heavily sculpted platform dotted with many small stupas, all surrounding a great central stupa.H486

Borobudur

Hindu Architecture

The most spectacular type of Hindu architecture is the stone temple; that is, a temple constructed from stone blocks. Whereas Buddhist architecture matured during the first half of the Indian kingdom age, Hindu temple architecture only began to flourish in the second half.

The heart of a Hindu temple is the statue chamber, which contains the statue of a deity; larger temples may feature multiple statue chambers. The statue chamber is symbolically united with the heavens by a soaring, tapered tower constructed immediately above.D336 The design of the Hindu temple tower is derived from the Buddhist stupa; essentially, the tower is a vertically elongated stupa.

The remainder of a Hindu temple consists of relatively low-lying extensions around the statue chamber(s), often graced with additional towers. The sides of Hindu temple towers are generally curved in northern India (resulting in oval towers) and straight in southern India (resulting in pyramidal towers).D336,G211 In either case, the tower surface is typically divided into horizontal bands via strips of moulding, and coated with rich sculpture.

Temple in Northern India
Closeup of preceding Temple
Temple in Southern India
Closeup of preceding Temple

The Hindu style of temple construction was also embraced by Jains and Buddhists throughout South and Southeast Asia.

The most famous example of the Hindu temple style is Angkor Wat, in the region of Angkor, Cambodia. Angkor was the capital of the medieval Khmer Empire, the mightiest empire in Southeast Asian history. Originally a Hindu state, the Khmer Empire eventually converted to Buddhism; thus did Angkor Wat, originally constructed as a Hindu temple, later become a Buddhist temple (which it remains today). Angkor Wat is the world's largest religious structure.

Angkor Wat

Indian Sculpture and Painting

Sculpture is considered the primary traditional art form of South Asia. The predominant subject of South Asian sculpture is the human figure. In addition to architectural carvings, South Asian sculptors produced many free-standing statues, primarily in stone (but also bronze).

As noted earlier, the Indus civilization featured two styles of sculpture: stylized and (relatively) realistic. Although both styles were adopted by Indian civilization, the former was used only occasionally. The realistic style, on the other hand, evolved into the typical Indian sculpture style, which dominated South Asian sculpture from the Indian kingdom age onward.

The defining quality of the Indian sculpture style is the inflated body. The human figures of Indian sculpture, while fairly realistic, are not anatomically accurate. The shapes of limbs and torsos are simplified and expanded, giving them the appearance of being inflated with air.D169,8 This imbues the figures with a surreal sense of being filled with spiritual energy.

Sculptors of all three South Asian religions (Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain) embraced the "Indian sculpture style" described above.H474 Moreover, the religions employed the same standard statue posture: a forward-facing stance (sitting or standing), with limbs arranged in a spiritually meaningful gesture. The figure, typically a deity or holy person, may feature multiple pairs of arms.C37,8

Statue of Buddha
Sculpture on a Hindu Temple
Sculpture on a Hindu Temple
Hindu Statue
Hindu Statue

Apart from sculpture and architecture, the most vibrant aesthetic pursuit of the Indian kingdom age was wall painting. As in sculpture, wall painting among the three South Asian religions features essentially the same style. Indian wall painting essentially takes the Indian sculpture style and executes it in two-dimensional form, achieving the "inflated body" effect via skillful shading.

Indian Mural
Indian Mural
Indian Mural

Indo-Islamic Art

With the rise of Islamic states as the dominant powers of South Asia (ca. 1200-1800), Indian art was subjected to Islamic influence, resulting in a hybrid aesthetic: Indo-Islamic art, which flourished to varying extents across South and Southeast Asia. The most brilliant manifestations were architecture and manuscript illumination.

The primary form of Indo-Islamic architecture is the mosque (see Islamic Art). The most obvious differences between an Indo-Islamic mosque and a "mainstream" Islamic mosque are two features adopted from Indian architecture: sculpted decoration and tower/dome shape.

The exterior of an Indo-Islamic mosque is often rich with sculpture, such that it resembles the exterior of a Hindu temple. (This sculpture is limited to abstract designs, however, due to the general prohibition of figures in Islamic art.) Moreover, the towers and domes of an Indo-Islamic mosque are often clearly based on the towers of Hindu temples or the domes of Buddhist stupas.

Indo-Islamic Mosque

The masterpiece of Indo-Islamic architecture is the Taj Mahal, a mausoleum (with a mosque design) constructed from dazzling white marble. The mausoleum contrasts sharply with the smaller flanking buildings, made primarily of red sandstone. (Sometimes the name "Taj Mahal" is used to denote this entire building complex.)29

Taj Mahal (entire complex)
Taj Mahal (central mausoleum)

Manuscript painting is a relatively young medium in South Asia, dating back to the final centuries of the Indian kingdom age; not until the Islamic period (ca. 1200-1800) did this art form truly begin to flourish. This was largely because, starting in the Islamic period, paper became widely available in South Asia. Until then, manuscript painting was executed on palm leaves, which make awkward surfaces for painting (given their irregular shape, size, and texture).8

Islamic illumination features outlined areas of flat colour and abundant decorative patterns (e.g. clothing patterns, repeated foliage textures). Indo-Islamic illumination merges this approach with the shaded contours of Indian wall painting. The most obvious Indian component of Indo-Islamic illumination, however, is simply the presence of Indian figures (i.e. figures with distinctively Indian features and clothing).

Indo-Islamic Illumination
Indo-Islamic Illumination
Indo-Islamic Illumination
Indo-Islamic Illumination
Indo-Islamic Illumination
Indo-Islamic Illumination
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