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Sculptures of the Indus Valley
The story of Indian art and sculpture dates back to the Indus valley
civilization of the 2nd and 3rd millennium BC. Tiny terra-cotta seals discovered
from the valley reveal carvings of peepal leaves, deities and animals. These
elemental shapes of stones or seals were enshrined and worshipped by the people
of the civilization. Two other objects that were excavated from the ruins of the
Indus valley indicate the level of achievement that Indian art had attained in
those days. The bust of a priest in limestone and a bronze dancing girl show
tremendous sophistication and artistry.
Buddhist Sculptures - Sarnath and
Sanchi, Gandhara and Mathura
The next golden chapter of Indian sculpture opens in the 3rd century BC, when
the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka adopted Buddhism and set out on a mission to spread
the teachings of the faith as far and wide as possible. He had 85,000 stupas or
dome-shaped monuments constructed with the teachings of Buddhism engraved on
rocks and pillars. These inscriptions which served as edicts can be seen in
Buddhist monuments in Gujarat, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The famous
Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath in Madhya Pradesh gleams in polished sandstone
representing the hieratic art under the Mauryan Empire. The lion capital of the
pillar is now the official emblem of the Indian Republic and the sacred wheel of
law or the dharmachakra is symbolic of the first sermon that Buddha delivered at
The Great Stupa at Sanchi is perhaps the finest surviving relic of the
Mauryan Empire and is a renowned Buddhist monument. Its finely carved gateways
depict Buddhist legends and lifestyles of two thousand years ago. The foundation
of the Stupa was laid by Ashoka and he set up monasteries here as a retreat for
the Buddhist monks. The Great Stupa is fifty-four feet high and is surrounded by
a stone railing and four elaborately carved gateways on each side. The gateway
reliefs depict tales of Buddha's incarnations, his life as a prince, his moment
of enlightenment, his sermons and his worshippers. This site at Sanchi also
includes remains of smaller stupas, pillars and monasteries.
In the 1st century AD, the position changed somewhat radically in art and
sculpture. The human figure replaced the symbolic representation of Buddha and
his teachings. Though Buddha opposed the idea of idol worship, his cult image
was established and became essential for acts of worship. The Mathura and the
Gandhara schools of sculpture imparted human form to Buddha's image. To
emphasize his divinity, this human form was depicted with features like a halo
around the head, the dharmachakra engraved upon his palms and soles of his feet,
and the lion throne representing his royal ancestry. These early stone images of
Buddha are awe-inspiring in terms of size and magnificence.
The Buddha statues of the 5th century exhibit a unique sensibility with human
figures that are meditative and serene, a body that is subtly modeled and a
face that glows with enlightenment. Here, the ultimate definition of the divine
is indicated in the soft folds of the dress, the exquisite curvature of the
hands and the half-closed eyes of the Buddha.
The 4th, 5th and 6th centuries AD witnessed a tremendous resurgence of
Hinduism when it became the official religion of the Gupta Empire. Consequently,
this era was also marked by the emergence of innumerable images of popular Hindu
Gods and Goddesses. Images of Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, the Sun-God and goddess
Durga evolved in this period. The Udaigiri caves in Madhya Pradesh house a
colossal image of Vishnu. Here he is presented as the great savior who rescued
'mother earth' from the depths of the ocean, in his incarnation as a varha
(boar). Other statues of this period found in various temples and museums are
indicative of the various dimensions of early Hindu art and sculpture.
The link between dance, drama, literature and art became crucial to aesthetic
expressionism in centuries to come. This new era in art and sculpture witnessed
a unique fusion, a synthesis embodied in the caves at Ajanta and Ellora and the
temples of central and South India.
Ajanta and Ellora
North-east of Bombay, near Aurangabad are two astonishing series of temples
carved out of living rock over the course of fourteen centuries. During the 4th
century AD. in a remote valley, work began on the Ajanta caves to create a
complex of Buddhist monasteries and prayer halls. As centuries passed, numerous
Buddhist monks and artisans excavated a set of twenty-nine caves, some cells,
monasteries and Buddhist temples. All of these were carved from the rock cliff
at Ajanta. These caves are adorned with elaborate sculptures and paintings which
have withstood the ravages of time.
The sculptures are finely wrought images of animals, guards and deities while
the paintings tell ancient tales of courtly life and depict hundreds of Buddhist
legends. Amid the beautiful images and paintings are sculptures of Buddha, calm
and serene in contemplation.
Work started on the Ellora caves in the seventh century AD where another set
of caves were created from living rock. Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism inspired
these sculptors to create these elaborate rock carvings. The Buddhist and Jain
caves here are ornately carved yet seem quiet and meditative whereas the Hindu
caves are filled with a divine energy and power.
The most impressive and majestic creation at Ellora is the Kailasa Temple, a
full-sized freestanding temple flanked by elephants carved out of solid rock.
Pillars, podiums, spires and towers combine to produce an awe-inspiring
representation of Shiva's Himalayan abode.
The tranquil town of Khajuraho, in the central state of Madhya Pradesh boasts
of the best medieval temples in India, known all over the world for their erotic
sculptures. These glorious temples are the state's most famous attraction.
Amid green lawns and brilliant pink flowers is a complex of temples, glowing
with the warmth of sandstone and ornamented with the sinuous curves of sculpture
unparalleled in their beauty. Out of the 85 temples built originally, only 22
survive today. These temples were created by the Chandela rulers in the
Indo-Aryan style. The site was forgotten for centuries before it was
rediscovered in 1838. The temples were restored and attract visitors from all
over the world.
The sculptures include statues of gods and goddesses, warriors, celestial
dancers and animals, besides those of couples in erotic poses. The Hindu
philosophy of Yoga and Bhoga (physical pleasure), the two paths leading to final
liberation, seem to be the underlying theme of these sculptures. These temples
celebrated a Hindu faith exuberant in its love for the divine. All life was seen
as an expression of divinity, including human love. The union between man and
woman was viewed as the culmination of devotion, symbolic of the union of the
devotee with god and divinity. The other sculptures in these temples depict the
daily lives of the people in the 10th and 11th centuries AD.
The famous temples at Khajuraho include the Lakshmana Temple and the
Kandariya Mahadeva temple. The latter is dedicated to Lord Shiva and has a
shikhara or spire that is 38 meters high. Here we see an attempt to reconstruct
the image of Shiva's home in Mount Kailasha. Giant reliefs also portray various
manifestations of Shiva, who is both a destroyer and a savior. Of the many
statues found in this temple, the most fascinating is that of an ascetic
performing the shirshasan (a yogic posture where the yogi balances himself on
The temples of Khajuraho display a wealth of sculptural beauty, evoking the
grandeur of the snow-capped Himalayas as well as the earthly pleasures of life.
The most profound aspect of the mighty Shiva is in evidence at the Shiva
temple in the Elephanta caves. Situated near Bombay, these caves present an
introduction to some most exquisitely carved temples. One can witness a symphony
in stone in praise of Lord Shiva, created by India's expert stone carvers of the
The central attraction here is a twenty-foot high bust of the deity in
three-headed form. The Maheshamurti is built deep into a recess and looms up
from the darkness to fill the full height of the cave. This image symbolizes the
fierce, feminine and meditative aspects of the great ascetic and the three heads
represent Shiva as Aghori, Ardhanarishvara and Mahayogi. Aghori is the terrible
form of Shiva where he is intent on destruction. Ardhanarishvara depicts Shiva
as half-man/half-woman signifying the essential unity of the sexes. The Mahayogi
posture symbolizes the meditative aspect of the God and here Shiva is shown in
his most quiet and serene form. Other sculptures in these caves depict Shiva's
cosmic dance of primordial creation and destruction and his marriage to Parvati
and Shiva as half man/half-woman . The Elephanta sculptures meaningfully convey
the oneness of the human and the divine and the images transcend the scope of
human imagination to achieve a grandeur that remains undiminished by time.
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