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India's Sculpture

India's Main Page



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 Sarnath.

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.


Hindu Art

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.


Khajuraho

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 his head).

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.


Elephanta Caves

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 sixth century.

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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