Pages from the cultural history of the Indian subcontinent

Developments in Indian Art and Architecture

Challenging Western constructs and stereotypes concerning the Indian legacy

Academic appraisals of Indian art and architecture in the Western world have suffered from many of the same biases and prejudices that have infected analyses of Indian philosophy and culture. In the colonially constructed model, India was to be pigeon-holed as a land seeped in incomprehensible mysticism - where religion dominated all aspects of social life, but unlike the "noble" piousness of the Western world, India's religious practices were often seen as bizarre and grotesque. 


Although the subcontinent has enjoyed a virtually uninterrupted history of developments in the realm of art and architecture, India has been either studiously ignored in compilations of "world" art - or it has been represented by a very small and limited number of examples. When volumes on Indian art and architecture have been produced, it has not been unusual for the commentaries to begin with generalizations like "all Indian architecture has been religious" and very quickly through the text, one runs into comparative statements suggesting that Indian art and architecture was never quite able to reach the grand heights achieved by Western art and architecture. 


The statement that all Indian architecture has been "religious" displays not only a poor understanding of philosophical practices in ancient India, but also a remarkable lack of perspective concerning not only the archeological discoveries in India, but also in the West. Such  characterizations of the Indian legacy are especially puzzling because the urban character of  the Harappan civilization ought to be quite well-known to all Western academics as should the cosmopolitan and secular character of the Mauryan era. 


If one wished to be biased and subjective in summarizing the Western architectural record, one could just as easily claim that all Western art and architecture has been "religious". One could point to Greek and Roman temples, the sculptures in the burial tombs, the numerous synagogues, Byzantine and gothic churches, the monasteries of Eastern Europe and the thousands of paintings of the christ and the cross to bolster ones case. 


And while such a description would do great injustice to the Roman period when aqueducts, amphitheatres, palaces and private villas were also built and have survived, churches and religious paintings predominate the surviving historical record of the Christian period before the renaissance.


By and large, throughout the world, religious inspired architecture predominates the planet's archeological record simply because religious monuments were often built from more permanent building materials. 


India's Secular Architecture

Much of India's oldest secular architecture has not survived because it was built from wood. Stone was a cumbersome and time consuming material for construction, and given the intense heat, it is a particularly unsuitable material for closed construction. That is why stone was used primarily for buildings where much of the activity would take place in an outdoor setting. However, anecdotal accounts of Greek and Chinese travellers, surviving literature and court histories, ancient sculptural finds and cave paintings - all indicate that India was not lacking in secular buildings, many of which were embellished with architectural ornamentation and painted in naturally available colours.


For instance, there is considerable literary evidence to indicate that public gateways known as Toranas were constructed by numerous rulers throughout India - some of which were vandalized or destroyed during the early period of Islamic invasions, and some remodelled or adapted, and incorporated into structures utilized by later royal courts. 


Nevertheless, some have survived intact and there are enough surviving physical remains to suggest that Indian architecture achieved it's greatest heights in the construction of these Toranas  that once graced the entries to the major capitals of India's ancient and medieval past.


Gupta period remains from the 5th-6th C in Delhi are particularly impressive, as are the exquisitely carved Toranas from Vadnagar in Gujarat (of which only one is left standing), and probably dates from the 9th or 10th C. Dabhoi, the 12th-13th C capital of the Solankis, has four gateways, each of which is richly carved, and four handsome Toranas  still stand in Warangal, the 13th C capital of the Kakathiyas. Most of  Warangal was sacked in the 14th C, but the ruins of the city point to an impressive architectural complex that probably included an amphitheater, royal pavillions and perhaps public meeting halls. 


(The tradition of the Torana continued with the Bengal Sultans, Sher Shah Suri and the Mughals who converted the rectangular or stylized U and V shaped forms into the classical arch, but in Srirangam (Tamil Nadu), the older style prevailed, but took on a more grand and imposing aura.)  


Stone and (sometimes brick) were also used in constructing step-wells and sunken swimming pools (or bathing tanks) in the manner of Mohenjodaro, but often became exceedingly elaborate after the 9th C. While some of these were constructed next to temples (as in Modehra, Gujarat) others were part of royal complexes such as the Queen's step-well of Patan with it's stunning sculpture galleries, and Adalaj with it's many terraces and carved ornamental niches. A less elaborate but aesthetically pleasing example is to be found in the old town of  Bundi (Rajasthan) and several other interesting examples (mostly attributed to the Chauhans) are to be found in the Ajmer-Delhi region.


(Al-Beruni makes special note of these step-wells (i.e.Baolis) in his India chronicles. Step-wells for both royal and public use were constructed in much of the Indian North West, and some may have been part of water management projects as evident in Farrukhnagar in Haryana.) 


Also of note are the remains of the universities of ancient India - such as Taxila, Nalanda, Vikramshila or Sarnath - where instruction was provided on a variety of subjects including mathematics, epistemology and logic, the natural sciences and medicine. Nalanda, even today retains the unmistakable air of a college campus with it's many dorms and what appear to be lecture halls. To classify such historical sites as "religious" sites would be clearly misleading. 


Although it has been customary to treat India's forts as a largely an Islamic contribution and to treat the Rajput forts as quite apart from the general Indian tradition, India was dotted with hill-top forts that were constructed several centuries before they were conquered and occupied by India's Islamic rulers. (Examples of such forts, some of them long abandoned, can still be found in Kalinjar and Ajaigarh in Central India, for instance.) Over time, India's Rajput, and other rulers learnt to build enormous palaces within these forts and evolved techniques of  insulating them from the heat, and palace architects found ways of ensuring optimal ventilation and exposure to light. Most of these palaces were richly decorated and provide tremendous insight into the artistic and decorative choices that were favored by the royalty.


It is therefore quite bizarre how influential Western academics have tried to confine the historic Indian legacy to the sphere of religion. But even when Western art historians have concentrated exclusively on India's temples and stupas, they have  seriously erred in their analyses of these monuments and the impulses that led to their creation. 


Philosophical content of Indian Art

Unlike the Western religions, which have little philosophical content and belief in the "One God" is mandatory, many of India's ancient religions were not religions in the narrow sense in which religion is construed today. India's early Buddhists were predominantly atheists, the early Jains were agnostic, and within the broad umbrella of Hinduism, there was space for considerable philosophical variety. In the Upanishads, god is described in an extremely abstract and metaphysical way. The philosophical content is essentially secular and spiritual ideas emerge from debate and speculation - not immortal revelations that cannot be challenged or modified with time. In the Nyaya-Sutras, the overwhelming focus is on rational and scientific thinking and analysis, on human understanding of natural phenomenon and physical processes occurring in nature. 


This rich tradition of philosophy - both rational and spiritual - found it's way into Indian art and architecture as well. Stupas and temples incorporated a profound symbolic language based on visual representations of all the important philosophical concepts. These included the Chakra - the revolving wheel of time which symbolized the cyclical rhythms of the cosmos;  the Padma - or the lotus symbol which embodied the prime symbol of creation - of the universal creative force that springs from the bosom of the earth; the Ananta (represented as a snake) symbolized  water - the most important life-giving force and the infinite ocean from which all life emerged, got differentiated and then got re-merged and redissolved; the Swastika - representing the four-fold aspects of creation and motion; the Purnakalasa - or the overflowing flower pot - a symbol of creativity and prosperity; the Kalpalata and Kalpavriksha -  the wish-fulfillment creeper or tree that were also symbols of imagination and creativity; Gavaska - sometimes understood to be the third eye; Mriga - or deer - symbolic of erotic desire and beauty; and lingam and yoni - the male and female fertility symbols. 


Rules were also evolved to provide additional symbolic content through hand gestures (mudra) of sculptured deities.  Deities were sometimes given multiple arms to signify energy or power or to suggest movement and as symbolic of the celestial dance.  Different arm positions embodied different virtues such as wisdom, strength, generosity, kindness and caring. Multiple arms could thus be used to  signify multiple virtues. 


Western analysts have often had difficulty understanding the complex cultural and philosophical systems that gave birth to India's artistic tradition. For many, Indian sculptural panels appeared to be nothing more than a random collection of strange or arbitrary juxtapositions of  primitive beliefs and superstitions. This is not to say that Indian spirituality was always free from superstition or arbitrary constructs, but in the best of the sculptural panels, there was a conscious and knowledgeable attempt to convey powerful philosophical ideas. 


Secular and Spiritual Fusion 

As physical embodiments of philosophical systems that combined the secular with the spiritual, India's stupas and temples were not just religious monuments but also cultural centres that had both  spiritual and secular significance. That is why the stupa or the temple could never be completely equated to a synagogue or church.  And this is why, when built, they incorporated so many images from secular life.


For instance, take the stupas at Amravati (1st C BC), Sanchi (1st C AD) or Nagarjunakonda (2nd-3rd C AD). Each displays a wealth of carving and the main themes uniting the sculpted panels in all three stupas are scenes from the life of the 'Buddha'. Yet, in the Amravati panels, there is an intense and barely concealed sensuality that pervades throughout, and flowers and creepers are depicted with a loving tenderness. In the Sanchi toranas  there are also depictions of warriors on horses, royal processions, traders' caravans, merchant families in their multi-storied homes with balconies, farmers with produce and animals, and again, there are beautiful depictions of plants and animals. 


In contrast to synagogues, churches or mosques, the Indian temple from the 8th C onwards incorporated sculpted images of musicians, dancers, acrobats and romantic couples, in addition to depictions of a variety of deities. After the 10th C, erotic themes begin to make their mark. Sensuality and sexual interation is displayed without inhibition in the temples of Khajuraho, Konarak and  Bhubaneshwar and in the Kakathiya temples of Palampet. (Erotic carvings are also to be found  in many of the lesser-known temples of Rajasthan and the Jabalpur-Chhatisgarh region). This may have seemed shocking and scandalous to the puritanically minded Western art critic but it showed that in that period of Indian history, Tantric ideas on the compatibility of  human sexuality with human spirituality had entered the mainstream. Erotic desires were not considered to be antagonistic to spiritual liberation but instead an important component of spiritual release. A completely different moral outlook was at work here - religion was not based on sensual starvation but on a healthy and egalitarian acceptance of all activities that contributed to the emotional health and well-being of human society. 


In many ways, the temples of Khajuraho and Konarak were a logical culmination of the general trend towards including all things sensual in the temple. Beginning with lyrical depictions of flutists and drummers and expressive depictions of romantic couples and continuing with lively depictions of dancers and acrobats, the Indian temple evolved into breaking the very last taboo. The most intimate and personal of human interactions (normally shrouded behind a veil of secrecy) were now sculpted in stone, in full public view. For some, this represented decadence and a regression from spiritual purity - for others it was a sign of remarkable advance - that society had been able to break down the shackles of hypocritical prudery.


But no matter how this was viewed, it demonstrated in a very powerful way that at that time, Indian religion and it's monumental expression were based not on worldly denial but instead on an unabashed acceptance of essential human urges.


However, Islamic invasions created an enormous challenge for this fusion of the secular - (especially the sensual)  with the spiritual to survive. Monuments were vandalized beyond recognition, with monasteries and institutions of learning becoming particular targets. Manuscripts were put to fire while some temples and stupas were rebuilt as mosques or madrasahs. In the Gangetic plain, virtually nothing of the old civilization was left to illuminate the future. Fear of vandalism caused new temples built during the period of Islamic rule to largely eschew sculptural decoration. Although in places like Benaras floral and abstract decorations filled the gap, and in Maharashtra  there were successful attempts to enliven the temples with bold use of color and architectural embellishment, the long tradition of sculptural exuberance that characterized the classical Indian temple gradually came to an end in most parts of Northern and Central India. 


When the European world began to experience a renaissance in the realm of art and sculpture, exactly the opposite processes were at work in India. After the renaissance, much of the new patronage for European sculpture came from the urban areas, and this is why European sculptors infused their creations with an urbane  sophistication. The strong shadow of Islamic prudery prevented such a development from taking place in India. The great wealth of  Indian sculpture was created during Europe's Christian era, in a society where the divide between the city and the countryside had not yet sharpened as much. This is why so much of Indian sculpture retains such a strong link to nature and seems less urbane and cosmopolitan, and hence less meritorious to the Western eye. 


Another aspect of the Indian tradition that has baffled Western critics is the apparent lack of individualistic expression in traditional India art and sculpture. There are few Indian sculptures of actual personages. There are no sculptures of rulers or rich patrons. But that should be seen as the strength of Indian art - that it strived for the universal as opposed to the particular. That Indian rulers were not so vain as to think that their portraits would have any meaning for posterity.  In this regard, Indian tastes appear to resemble Greek/Mediterranean tastes in that most sculpture celebrates gods and goddesses in their most idealized forms (unlike the Roman elite who were more vain, and displayed a preference for their own portraits)


Finally, it should be noted that it isn't always essential to be knowledgeable about Indian philosophy to enjoy or appreciate Indian sculpture. Because the best of Indian sculpture is imbued with an advanced degree of  expressive visual realism comparable to the sculpture of the pre-Christian Mediterranean civilizations, one might think that it might make it easier for an unbiased Western viewer to appreciate Indian sculpture on at least that common basis. But many Western art critics have simply avoided trying to see any commonalities between the two traditions. And when they have noted this aspect, they have immediately rushed  to making poorly substantiated claims that the realism in Indian sculpture must have been a Western import forgetting that Indian sculpture from the Harappan period was also realistic or that the rich tradition of realism in Indian philosophy might very naturally have given birth to an aesthetics that favored realistic rendering in sculpture albeit modified by locally prevalent ideas of poise, expression and beauty.


The Indian Miniature

Painting in India has a very old tradition, with ancient texts outlining theories of color and aesthetics and anecdotal accounts suggesting that it was not uncommon for households to paint their doorways or facades or even indoor rooms where guests were received. Cave paintings from Ajanta, Bagh and Sittanvasal and temple paintings testify to a love of naturalism - both in the depiction of the human form and in the depiction of nature. 

But in Ajanta, we also see the emergence of a style that appears again and again, and many centuries later: the tendency to draw abstractions from nature in a manner that is both aesthetically pleasing and very effective as decorative embellishment. 

In the illustrated manuscripts of later eras, it is this latter trend that becomes most important and provides the foundation for the Indian miniature in which even the human form can become exceedingly stylized. 

When analyzing Indian miniature paintings, art critics have often focused on the absence of perspective as employed by European painters. This has led many art historians to view Indian miniatures as naive or primitive and inferior to the large canvasses in Europe that depicted scenes with photographic accuracy. Indian art critics swayed by the importance given to the single vanishing point perspective scheme used by European painters after the European Renaissance, accept this as a weakness of Indian painting, and some have sought to classify Mughal paintings as superior because they were able to find hints of  Western influence in some of the Mughal miniatures. 

What these art critics and historians fail to note is that every artist faces an enormous dilemma in deciding what aspects of multi-dimensional reality to portray in two dimensions. When we observe reality, our eyes rarely rest on a single scene absorbing it from one angle alone. Our eyes focus far and near, they move spatially across a wide panorama. A single snapshot-like depiction, no matter how skillfully executed, and no matter how brilliantly accurate, is obviously capable of relaying only one view of that reality.

When the Indian painter employed multiple perspectives, he/she was trying to convey more than what would have been possible had he/she merely imitated the European approach. Often, the Indian painter was interested in conveying the reality that existed behind walls and doors, or on the other side of a hill or a tree. These attempts were not naive or simplistic, they reflected larger goals. They attempted to demonstrate that reality was more than what could be observed from a single focal point or a single perspective - that a reality existed that may be unseen from a certain vantage point - yet required to be conveyed. Since the genesis of the Indian miniature lay in the illustrated book, this approach to painting becomes very easily understandable. 

Indian miniatures have also been criticized for their flatness - i.e. lack of body and shading, but here again, we might observe that a different value system may be at work.  For instance, reality is never constant. Trees bend with the wind, birds fly around, people shake their heads and shift their body parts - none of this can be conveyed through any standardized rules concerning perspective. Sometimes a painting that appears to lack three-dimensionality may actually better convey a sense of motion than one that seems three-dimensional in appearance. Miniatures depicting dance scenes might float the dancers around curved lines set against a flat background to emphasize the fluidity of motion and to bring out the gaiety of the scene. Flatness also assisted the painter in shifting focus away from individuals  to broader groups such as an ensemble of dancers or ensemble of musicians, or a crowd at a festival.

Many of the finest Indian miniatures were based on Ragmalas - i.e. moods associated with different musical ragas. Here the emphasis was on conveying a particular sentiment or mood, or atmosphere. Through the bold use of color, abstract touches, and deliberate flattening of three-dimensional textures, the artist succeeded in bringing out certain hidden nuances that simply would not be possible any other way. 

Painting was also a medium for the expression of visual fantasies. Birds and flowers, trees and creepers have often been depicted with a loving grace by Indian sculptors and painters alike. In the miniature paintings from Mewar or the Kangra Valley, idyllic nature scenes were created to convey a sense of joy and wonder, or a mood of unspoiled romance and eroticism. 

In recent years, the sheer decorative brilliance and luminescent color of some Indian miniatures has won over converts amongst Western collectors and critics alike. And they have begun to realize that a different aesthetic principle is at work. The decorative brilliance of the Shah-Nama (commissioned by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan) and the expressiveness of the bird and animal paintings commissioned by Jehangir have won particular international acclaim. But appreciation of Indian miniatures need not be confined to Mughal examples.

Once Indian painting is freed from externally imposed standards, and the motivations of the Indian artist are better understood - a whole new world of visual delight can open up. From the quixotic 15th C illustrations of  Jain texts in Gujarat to the deeply expressive miniatures of Malwa, one can move on to the colorful whimsy of 16th C Mewar, the striking elegance of the Kishangarh school, and the refined beauty of later Kangra miniatures. One can appreciate  the earnest lyricism of the Orissa palm-leaf miniatures, the decorous elan of the Bundelkhand wall paintings, the bold and dark colors of  Lepakshi, and the vivacious renditions in the palaces and temples of Madurai, Thanjavur and Ramanathapuram. In all these varied traditions of Indian painting, an important element that infused Indian painting with charm and vivacity was the folk idiom that unabashedly found it's way in the art of the regional kingdoms who were less infected by formal Mughal tastes. 

(Paintings of the Deccan courts,  - particularly those illustrating Ragamala themes from Ahmednagar, Aurangabad and Bijapur also reveal folk influences. Ragamala paintings from Hyderabad are particularly evocative and appealing. Although rarely on display in Indian museums, illustrated books with charmingly colorful folk-like renditions were also commissioned during the reign of the Sharqis of Jaunpur.)

Architecture of the Islamic Courts

After the Islamic conquest in India - (by the 12th-13th C in the northern plains, and by the 14th C in the Deccan plateau), monumental architecture in India often came to be defined by the tastes of  medieval India's Islamic rulers. Construction activity became more geared towards the demands of the elite, and the voluntary participation of the masses in monumental construction became greatly reduced, or even entirely eliminated.

In Sanchi, it is useful to note that the construction of the Toranas involved the voluntary labor and contributions of much of the citizenry. Voluntary participation in the construction and maintenance of temples in South India and in the Deccan region has also been recorded and quite likely occurred throughout India. 

Yet, it would be an error to think that popular influences on Indian architecture were completely extinguished. In the Gangetic plain, folk influences continued to play a vital  role in the decor of Havelis and  village homes; traditions like Rangoli also continued. In the regional courts, folk influences played an important role not only in the fine arts, but also in royal furniture and architectural decor. Folk influences also found their way in some of the smaller mosques and Sufi shrines which were painted with floral motifs in folkish style. 

The change in ethos was reflected most in prominent urban landmarks, in the architecture of city gateways and inns for the nobility, and in the design of royal mosques and tombs. But, it would be incorrect to consider India's  Islamic architecture as an entirely foreign implant as some art historians (both in the West and in India) are inclined to do. As we shall see, traditional Indian tastes and influences played an important role in shaping the most vibrant monuments commissioned by India's Islamic rulers.

Some art historians have routinely treated Indian art and architecture of the Islamic period as a regional derivative of Persian art and architecture - almost a poor cousin of the grand Persian Islamic tradition. Western biases and an admiration of all things Persian amongst sections of the Urdu speaking Indian intelligentsia have combined to spread the myth that all great Islamic art originated in Persia and the quality of  art and architecture sponsored by India's Islamic rulers must be judged by how closely it came to meeting Persian ideals. That many of India's Islamic rulers employed Persian artists in their ateliers and Persian poets and writers found favor in the royal courts cannot be denied. But this obsession with connecting all things Islamic in India to Persia has not only led to an extremely selective and distorted analysis of the Islamic legacy in India, it has been based on a rather superficial examination of the Islamic legacy. Not only have art historians often failed to distinguish between what came from Persia  from elsewhere, such as Afghanistan, Iraq or Central Asia - it has led to the virtual neglect of those aspects of the Islamic legacy in India where the predominant influences have been almost entirely from within the  subcontinent. (Art historians have also failed to investigate the possibility of Indian influences impacting Persian tastes and sensibilities as was quite likely during the reigns of Jehangir and Shah Jehan).

Many art historians who attempt to analyze "Islamic" art in India seem to forget that the Islamic faith was born in a rather barren land without a history or tradition of support for the fine arts. (Although some argue that the Arabian peninsula had a rich tradition of terra-cotta sculpture that vanished with the iconoclastic ascent of Islam.) In any case, in terms of architecture, prior to the ascendance of Islam in the Middle East, one could speak of monumental Egyptian, Persian or Babylonian architecture, but certainly not Meccan architecture. As Islam spread, it was obliged to borrow and adapt  from the older traditions that already existed in the lands it conquered. For instance, the Islamic monuments of Syria and Palestine have a remarkable resemblance to Byzantine architecture of earlier centuries with the important exception that all portraiture is avoided. Although vegetal motifs are employed with exuberance in the 7th-8th C Umayyad architecture in Syria and Palestine, later Islamic architecture, especially from Central Asia relied almost exclusively on abstract figuration. 

But since sculptural decoration and representation of animals and nature played such a significant role in the architecture of pre-Islamic  India - the advent of Islam (at least initially) led to mere imitation of forms borrowed from Central Asia. What seemed fresh and original in Bukhara during the Samanid reign (9-10th C) became dull, laborious and out of place when transplanted into Indian soil.  With the exception of a few monuments that make rather effective use of decorative columns and motifs from earlier Jain monuments as in Ajmer or the Qutb area in Delhi - early Islamic architecture in India is singularly bland and uninteresting. Much of it is starkly austere and coldly aloof from the more lively traditions of the subcontinent. It is only after the 13th century when a bit of whimsy and ornamental fancy begins to enliven some of India's Islamic monuments (as in Chanderi). But this influence comes from Turkey, not Persia! 

Outside India proper,  architecture in the Islamic courts continues to make progress, culminating in the  the construction of the overwhelmingly grand monuments of the Timurids in Herat, Samarkand and Bukhara (14th-15th C and onwards). Although the Timurids wreaked considerable havoc on their immediate neighbours and raided and plundered lands as far West as in Eastern Europe, the Timurids were not wedded to Islamic orthodoxy and continued the Samanid tradition of promoting the arts and learning.  Samarkand and Bukhara emerged as the most important urban centers of the medieval world where study in astronomy and mathematics was encouraged and poetry and art received royal support. But above all, it was in their sponsorship of monumental architecture where the Timurid rulers excelled. Awe-inspiring monuments with tile work in dazzling green, blue and turquoise rose from the Afghan and Central Asian deserts and these rich  urban centers became the models for cities throughout the Middle East.  Brilliant regional variants sprang up throughout Afghanistan, Persia and Iraq. However, there were serious obstacles to the import of this new and brilliant architectural style into India. 

As self-conscious outsiders, and with a rather tenuous hold on power in a largely non-Islamic land, it was probably  difficult for India's Islamic invaders to commission monuments that could have matched the power and grandeur of the monuments in lands where Islam had triumphed completely and concerns of legitimacy had been adequately settled. The Lodhis and the early Mughals could only bring a modest and rather restrained version of the Central Asian style to India.

In Multan, Ucch Sharif, and Dera Ghazi Khan (all in Western Punjab) where a majority of the population had been converted to Islam, tombs built in honour of  Sufi saints displayed an expressive originality even as they imbibed influences from Central Asia. But beyond Punjab, the impact was fairly limited, and  some of the greatest  Islamic monuments of the sub-continent show little if any trace of foreign influence. 

The Sultans of Bengal and Gujarat, the Sharqi kings and Sher Shah Suri - all commissioned monuments that were virtually unlike any seen outside the subcontinent. The exquisitely chiseled reliefs in the 14th C Jama Masjid in Pandua (one of the old capitals of the Bengal Sultanate) display a kinship with the carved reliefs of the 13th C Kakathiya monuments of Warangal. Other mosques of the Pandua/Gaur region skilfully recycled material  from Hindu and Buddhist temples, creating a uniquely lyrical and  expressive Bengali Islamic style. Like the monuments of Bukhara, some of these mosques and gateways were decorated with colored tiles, but the construction techniques and colors were quite original. Many of the tiles were multi-colored and incorporated motifs considered important and auspicious in the Indian tradition. 

In Ahmedabad and Champaner, symbolic motifs that had been in use for centuries in Jain and Hindu monuments were employed with abandon and became the very focus of both the internal and external decorative space of the typical mosque or tomb. The Chakra, the Padma, the Purnakalasa, the Kalpavriksha, the Kalpalata and the Jain 'lamp of knowledge' became vital centerpieces of the monuments of the Gujarat Sultanate.

Although geometrical decoration is a common feature of all Islamic architecture, the Indian Jaali developed some original features by combining motifs considered auspicious in the Hindu tradition with arabesques and geometrical designs. Lace like Jaalis distinguish the Sharqi monuments  of Jaunpur and the Chunar monuments  commissioned by Sher Shah Suri.  

In the Deccan, architectural forms were sometimes inspired by nature. The Hyderabad monuments stand out for their use of pineapple-like domes and minarets, and columns modelled on palm trees. In many ways, these monuments are more interesting than the more renowned Mughal monuments. While the best of the Mughal monuments stand out for their balance of form, technical virtuosity and the luxuriant use of marble, semi-precious stones and gilt - critics find some Mughal architecture to be excessively formal, and a bit too reliant on architectural clichés. 

Nevertheless, the Mughal era monuments of Punjab stand out in some ways. In Nakoddar (near Jullundhur) there are two tombs with brilliant polychrome decorations, unusual not only for their tile-work but also because they were dedicated to a scholar and a court musician, not royal personages. One, (also known as the Baghdadi owing to it's imitation of a style popularized in Baghdad) effectively employs geometric arabesques in yellow, green and blue tile set off against a brick background, while the other makes liberal use of the Purnakalasa motif , but with an ingenious innovation: the Purnakalasa motif appears in a rainbow of colored tiles. To the uninformed this may appear as a Persian transplant since floral motifs were also used in Persian architecture, but the Purnakalasa motif had come into frequent use during the reign of Akbar (before floral motifs came to be widely employed in the Persian tombs) and the Nakoddar tomb was more likely a natural evolution of the  Mughal style popularized by Akbar. Later tombs in Lahore appear to effectively replicate this style.

However, Mughal architecture took a on decisively conservative tone  during the reign of Aurangzeb. With the exception of the Qutab Shahis who turned Hyderabad into a grand and glorious city in the 17th C, and the Awadh nawabs who made Lucknow famous in the 18th-19th C, the last phase of the Islamic chapter in India gradually faded into oblivion. 

This was in stark contrast to trends in Persia, where the Safavids continued to build on the achievements of the 16th C until well into the 17th and 18th C when the Safavid capital of Isfahan acquired the reputation of being one of the world's most handsome cities. Whereas Aurangzeb's reign in the subcontinent was marred by tremendous political strife and social upheaval,  Safavid Iran enjoyed relative peace and prosperity, causing India's Persian/Urdu-speaking intellectuals and cultural elite to look to Persia for cultural affirmation and inspiration.

The Decorative Arts and Crafts

But in the realm of the decorative arts and crafts, India's legacy had few challengers. The Mughals were especially great patrons of the decorative arts, and although initially it appears they may have favored imports from Persia and China, Indian manufactures rapidly perfected and enhanced imported styles and techniques. Indian textiles had always been known for their rich colors and  variety of design, and Indian steel products commanded worldwide respect. But very rapidly India also emerged as a preeminent center for a variety of  fine arts and crafts, excelling in the manufacture of all manner of objects sought by the royalty including  luxuriant carpets, decorated metal-ware,  fine jewelry, glass and jade-ware. Although initially, the impetus for some of these crafts may have come from China, Central Asia or Persia - by the late 16th-17th century, rulers in both China and Persia coveted luxury-ware from India, and sought to imitate the perfection of Mughal manufactures in their own ateliers. 

But the Mughals were not alone in their encouragement of fine arts and crafts. The Rajput courts were more than equal to the Mughals, and far more amenable to the employment of traditional and folk elements in their furniture, jewelry and other decorative crafts. They also displayed a greater fondness for bold and saturated colors whereas the Mughals (like Shahjahan) showed a distinct preference for formal graces. When the Mughal empire collapsed, it was the Rajput courts that became the models for the regional Sikh kingdoms, the hill kingdoms, the kingdoms of Bundelkhand and Benares, and also the Nawabs of Bengal and Awadh to an extent. The Deccan courts also played a significant part in encouraging the decorative arts and crafts, and they too exerted a strong  influence on the courts in Cuttack, as on Lucknow.

(A more detailed discussion of Indian Crafts is available in the essay: Historic Aspects of Craft and Trade in India)

Art and Architecture of the Regional Kingdoms

Whereas Mughal architecture went into rapid decline after the ascendance of Aurangzeb, a cultural renaissance of sorts occurred in the regional kingdoms of the North, and the Deccan and Maratha kingdoms of the South. But even during the period of Islamic rule, the Rajputs, the Bundelkhandis, the rulers of  Tripura, Manipur and Assam, and the Vijaynagar and Malabar kings retained their independence. In these regions of India, architectural styles emerged that were partially influenced by contacts with the Islamic courts, but retained a large degree of autonomy and continuity with  older Indian traditions. In Tripura, Manipur, Assam and the Himachal region, both temple and palace architecture were strongly influenced by vernacular traditions. 

In Gwalior, the Man-Mandir palace (built in the 15th C) appears to hark back to a much older era. One of it's facades bears striking resemblance to depictions of a palace in the Ajanta wall paintings, and there are also some architectural similarities with the Ajanta caves. A particularly interesting aspect of the indoor designs are the creative transformation of two-dimensional decorative motifs commonly seen in the Indian temple or Stupa into spatially effective three-dimensional architectural features. The resplendant outer facade is in polychrome tiles with a charming frieze of  geese, palm and other decorative motifs. All in all, it is one of India's architectural jewels and there are few others quite like it. {The now mostly ruined palace in the Raisen fort (near Bhopal) bears some resemblance to it, as does the much later and considerably more elaborate Nayak palace in Madurai}

In Vijaynagar, there was an eclectic  fusion of  stylistic inputs derived from previous Southern dynasties. A particularly interesting development was the Srisailam temple (central Andhra 14th-15th C) all of whose carvings are in fascinatingly folkish idiom - a variety of  interesting scenes from the popular epics make up the themes of it's sculpted panels. Particularly endearing are the portrayals of yogis, acrobats, folk-dancers, musicians, and queens with their ladies-in-waiting. 

A distinctive feature of the Rajput forts was the fanciful use of color, mirror-work, mother-of-pear and gilt in the decoration of their fortress-like palaces. Although not remarkable in architectural terms, the Jharokhas and Aangans, and richly decorated gateways make these palaces unique and interesting. In Bikaner, the gold lacquer-work is quite exceptional and probably influenced the decoration of the Golden Temple in Amritsar and the Sheesh Mahal in Patiala.

Virtually all of the Rajput Palaces had Chitra-Shalas - i.e. painting galleries, and the ones in Jhalawar, Bundi, Nagaur, Karauli, Jaipur, and Kishengarh are especially remarkable as are the galleries in the Bundelkhand palaces of Datia, Orchha and Jhansi. The Himachal palaces  also have fine Chitra-Shalas, such as in the Sultanpur palace in Kulu and the Rang Mahal of Chamba. In the South, the Ramanathapuram palace is notable for it's engaging wall paintings, while Majuli is a renowned centre of wall paintings in Assam.

The role of Folk art in the Indian artistic tradition

As brought out earlier, one of the most endearing aspects of Indian art and architecture prior to colonization has been the strong impact of folk idioms and folk art on courtly art. Although folk art received little encouragement during the period of colonization, independence brought forward a renewed interest in folk paintings. Historically, folk artists not only provided an important recreational service in village and urban communities, they helped preserve cultural traditions through their illustrations of love stories, popular ballads, epics and folk-tales. Along with playwrights and poets, they were instrumental in the spread of social values and  ethics, and religious and philosophical ideas that had popular appeal. 

But above all, owing to their close contact with the masses, their paintings were often infused with a warmth and attractive simplicity that more than made up for any lack of formal grace or technical brilliance. And in some ways, it is the widespread penetration of the folk idiom into courtly traditions that has been the outstanding  hallmark of Indian art, and gives it it's highly characteristic flavor.

(For an abstract and thematic outline of this article, click here.)

On-line Visual  References:

For images of Indian art and architecture, see:

Survey of Indian sculpture:  INDIAN SCULPTURE GALLERY

Indian Monuments:  LEGACY-INDIA and IMAGE INDIA  

Folk Art and Drawings: Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art

Ragamala paintings from the Deccan (Hyderabad, 18th C): Bombay Museum

Some Buddhist Archealogical Sites 

Indian Sculpture and Temple Ornamentation 

Forts, Palaces and Toranas

Architecture of the Islamic Courts in India

Indian Folk Arts & Crafts

Antiques from the Khajuraho Region

Illustrated Text  References:

1. R. Nath: History of Decorative Art in Mughal Architecture

2. Jagdish Mittal: Indian Folk paintings

3. C. Sivaramamurti: Indian Painting, National Book Trust, India

4. Mira Sethi: Wall Paintings of the Western Himalayas (Publications Division, GOI)


5. Birendranath Dutta: Folk  Painting in Assam, Tezpur University


6. Shiv Kumar Sharma: The Indian Painted Scroll, Kala Prakashan, Varanasi


7. B.N. Goswamy/Usha Bhatia: The Goenka Collection of Indian Paintings (Vedams Books)


8. R.A. Agarwal: Bundi, The City of Painted Walls (Publications Division, GOI)


9. Leela Shiveshwarkar: Charupanchasika  - A Sanskrit Love Lyric (Publications Division, GOI)


10. M.S. Randhawa : Basohli Paintings, Kangra Paintings on Love (Publications Division, GOI)


11. M.S. Randhawa/ D.S Randhawa, Guler Paintings (Publications Division, GOI)


12. Mukandi Lal : Garhwal Paintings (Publications Division, GOI)


13. Kapila Vatsayan : Gaur Gita Govinda (Publications Division, GOI)


14. B. Mohanty : Pata Paintings of Orissa (Publications Division, GOI)


15. C. Ramamurti : Vijayanagar Paintings (Publications Division, GOI)


Also see:  K.M. Shrimali: Aesthetic deceptions (who criticizes the compartmentalization and division of India's cultural history along religious lines).


C. Sivaramamurti (Indian Painting, National Book Trust, India) provides a short but useful introduction to the study of Indian Painting. He provides several references to ancient texts such as the Chitrasutra in the Vishnudharmottara, the Shilparatna (which also had sections on sculpture and other art-forms), and the Abhilashitarthachintamani, amongst many other texts that describe various aspects of the ancient (and medieval) arts of India. He refers to treatises/essays  on art classification and art criticism; theories on what constitutes fine art - on the merits and demerits of a "good" painting;  the construction of chitrashalas to display art; painting techniques and art materials such as paints and brushes; the social response to art, it's importance in the cultural life of India and the status and recognition provided to court painters. His book also provides color illustrations from the important centres of Indian Art such as: Balavaste (3-4th C Kushan site), Gupta period murals from the Bagh Caves (5th C), Jataka illustration from a Vakataka Cave Painting (5th C, Ajanta), Cave Paintings from Badami ( Western Chalukyan -6th C), Panamalai (Pallava 7th C), Temple paintings from Thanjavur, Lepakshi and Chidambaram, Manuscript paintings from Moodbidri (12th C Hoysala), a Pala illustrated palm-leaf illustration (12th C) as well as illustrations to the Gita Govinda from Orissa and an illustrated leaf from the Kalpasutra (Western India). 

Pages from India's illustrated manuscripts are now scattered in museums throughout the world, and some of the most interesting genres of Indian painting have become almost obscured due to the very limited availibility of their representations in Indian museums. For instance, the illustrated Kalpasutras from Jaunpur (15th C) are very unusual and attractive because although they share certain stylistic similiarities with the Gujarat style of illustration, the colors are more vivid, and the borders have a more folkish  flavor. 

Also little known are the Pala-era  illustrated manuscripts of Bihar and Bengal, and the  vibrantly illustrated manuscripts from Orissa. The collections  in the  Benaras Museum,  the N.C. Mehta and the Sarabhai collections  (Ahmedabad), the Salar Jung Museum, and the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal collection ( Hyderabad) are amongst the finest in the country and are a good place to find examples of interesting  paintings from the lesser known regional schools. A particularly  fine collection of Sikh miniatures is on display at the Patiala Palace Museum. 

The folk element comes out particularly strongly in the miniatures from the Malwa, Bundelkhand and Mewar regions and  Lalit Kala Academy's recently released volume on the Goenka collection has several attractive selections. Three vivacious examples from the Malwa school have been included in Hugo Munsterberg's Art of India and South East Asia, who describes the best of the Malwa miniatures as "masterpieces of color and design".


Since so few Mughal artifacts remain within India, it is difficult to fully gauge the excellence of design and execution that exemplified items commissioned during the reign of emperor Jehangir.  However, illustrated books on Mughal artifacts such as The Indian Heritage: Court Life and Arts under Mughal Rule which documents Mughal artifacts in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London can be helpful in this regard. Although the text leaves much to be desired, the numerous plates provide a good introduction to the quality and range of Mughal artifacts. While it is unfortunate that  much of the Mughal legacy now survives in museums outside India, pictorial volumes documenting the Mughal heritage can serve as important guides in properly assessing the Mughal record in India.


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Last update: Mar 19, 2002