Ancient Indian Art and Architecture – Part – II

The history of Indian art and architecture is essentially a history of evolution, whereby, be it the remains of the Indus Valley civilization or the monuments of the British period, each possesses its own narrative. Ancient Indian art and architecture, just like its other counterparts, echo and bears witness to the emergence and decay of various civilizations, empires, invasion of foreign rulers and their gradual indigenization, and thus the convergence of various styles and cultures. As we had mentioned in our last issue that this article will be having two parts. In the first part, we discussed the art and architectural developments of the Harappan, Mauryan and post-Mauryan period. This part focuses on the art and architectural developments of the Gupta and post-Gupta period.

Gupta Period

The period between 300-600CE witnessed an exceptionally fine aesthetic ideal in different parts of the subcontinent, whereby we can see that art during this period reflected a fine balance between the sensual and the spiritual. Due to these reasons, the Gupta period is popularly referred to as a classical age in terms of cultural developments. However, we must take into cognizance as to how far the use of such labels like ‘Gupta art’ is actually justified. Contrary to most historians who are apprehensive regarding the usage of such dynastic labels, art historians are of the opinion that in certain cases, which includes this period as well, it is, in fact, quite appropriate. This is evident from the high level of uniformity noticeable in the temples, stone sculptures and terracotta art all over the Gupta empire. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the term ‘Gupta art’ is indeed a convenient shorthand, for it must be remembered that not all the sculptural pieces of this period pertain to the political domain of the imperial Guptas. A group of historians are of the opinion that it was, in fact, the Vakatakas who were the last sponsors and guardians of the so-called ‘golden age’, which is evident from the caves of Ajanta, Bagh, Dharashiva, Ghatotkacha, Banoti and Aurangabad. As per some historians, the Ajanta caves of this period, in fact, belong to the reign of the Vakataka king Harisena (460-77CE). Furthermore, albeit undoubtedly, the patronage of dynasties such as the Guptas and Vakatakas was a very important factor, but nevertheless, we must also take into account the other actors in the play, i.e., the other elite groups who acted as patrons.

This period witnessed crucial developments in the field of temple architecture. The early temples were quite small, Info 1whereby we can see that the square garbha-griha was just large enough to house the image. Though the temple walls were usually plain, the doorways had intricate carvings. Certain changes are noticeable in the temples belonging to the later period of the late 5th and 6th centuries. They were based on a raised plinth and had a shikhara or spire. Mention may be made of the Dashavatara temple at Deogarh and Bhitargaon temple in this respect, both of which had curvilinear shikharas. The main doorway of the Deogarh temple is adorned with various sculptural motifs such as birds, attendants, purna-ghatas, mithuna figures or couples, svastikas, foliated scrolls and dwarfish figures. Another typical feature of this period which is also noticeable in this temple, is the carving or painting of conch and lotus on door jambs.

Many developments took place in the field of Buddhist stupa architecture as well. Mention may be made of the Dhamekh stupa at Sarnath. It was enlarged and encased in stones carved with beautiful scrollwork and geometric designs. It is 128ft high and has four niches at the cardinal point of the Buddha images.

Mention may also be made of the cave architecture of this period which in turn though almost entirely Buddhist, there were nevertheless certain exceptions. For example, there is the Brahmanical cave at Udaygiri that has an inscription belonging to the reign of Chandragupta II. This cave is partly rock-cut and partly stone-built. However, the most spectacular examples of rock-cut architecture of the period are undoubtedly the ones found in Ajanta and Bagh. The Buddhist site of Ajanta constitutes of several caves located in the Sahyadri hills, overlooking the Waghora river. There are a total of 28 caves at Ajanta, out of which five were excavated during the Satavahana period, while the rest of 23 pertain to the Vakataka period. Apart from the two caves, namely cave 19 and 26, that are chaityas, the rest are Viharas. The cave 26 enshrines a high stupa with a seated Buddha who is adorned with rich ornamentation. Like the chaityas, the Ajanta viharas too are adorned with rich sculptural ornamentation. It has a colonnaded porch and three entrance doors leading to the hall that in turn has pillars arranged in a square leading to an antechamber. The latter has a pillared portico that in turn opens into a shrine room. Shrine rooms in viharas cannot be found prior to this period and was, in fact, an innovation.

As far as sculpture is concerned, although this period was marked by the continuation of earlier styles and trends of the Mathura and Gandhara schools, but it also witnessed the introduction of new ones. The themes were primarily religious that were drawn from Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina traditions. Various Vishnu images are noticeable. Some of them are a blend of the anthropomorphic and theriomorphic forms of Varaha or boar avatara, while another is a Info 2human form surrounded by several radiating heads. At Udaygiri, except for the one Jaina cave, all of them depict Hindu deities, such as the four-armed standing Vishnu in Cave 6, Kumara in Cave 3, Durga Mahishasuramardini in Caves 4 and 6, and others. As far as Buddhist sculpture is concerned, greater variety of mudras is noticeable during this period. Contrary to the plain halo of earlier times, we can find ones with ornamentation and Buddha’s body as clothed in transparent drapery. The Sarnath Buddhas of this period has been concluded by some historians to be the greatest produce in the history of entire ancient India. Special mention may be made of the two standing and one seated Buddha figures. The latter depicts him in the padmasana pose and hands in dharmachakra mudra, i.e., the mudra of teaching. Contrary to the Mathura Buddhas, those at Sarnath have no folds in their robes, and only the outline of the transparent robes is indicated. Apart from these Buddha images, various boddhisatva images and narrative reliefs portraying scenes from Buddha’s life have also been found here. Jaina sculptures can be found at Mathura. Mention may be made of the seated Tirthankara of 432-33CE found at Kankali Tila at Mathura that is presently stored in the State Museum in Lucknow. The Jina is seen as having a stocky body with wide hips and high waist that makes the crossed legs appear as if they are tilting forward and downwards.

Post-Gupta Period

This period witnessed certain significant developments in the field of art and architecture, especially in peninsular India, where major edifices were built under the patronage of the Rashtrakutas, early Western Chalukyas, Pallavas, Hoysalas and Cholas. Contrary to the preceding periods when the architectural remains were primarily Buddhist, the remains of this period are mostly dominated by Hindu temples. The various architectural texts of this period refer to three major styles of temple architecture that were prevalent during this period, namely the Nagara style, that was prevalent in the region between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas; the Dravida style that was prevalent in the region between Krishna and Kaveri rivers; and lastly the Vesara style present in the region between the Vindhyas and Krishna river. The Nagara temples have a square plan, with several projections in the middle of each side, thereby giving it a cruciform shape. They also have conical or convex shikhara or temple tower that consists of several layers of carved courses, generally crowned by an amalaka, i.e., notched ring stone. Mention may be made of the Mahadeva temple at Nachna Kuthara (7th century) in this respect. The Dravida temples have a pyramidal shikhara, constituting of progressively smaller and smaller storeys, resulting to a slender pinnacle surmounted by a small dome or stupika. Apart from this in the later temples, we can find huge gateways known as gopurams. Mention may be made of the Parvati temple at Nachna Kuthara. The Vesara style is a hybrid style, i.e., a blend of the northern and southern styles. These include the temples built in Deccan under the late Chalukyas of Kalyani and the Hoysalas.

Significant developments also took place in the field of Buddhist architecture during this period, the best example Info 3being the caves at Ellora (7th to 8th centuries), that represent the last phase of Buddhist cave architecture in Western India. Certain important changes in architectural and sculptural styles are noticeable, as evident from the increased size of the side shrines and a double row of stone benches. Apart from the Buddhist and Jaina caves, the other most important structure of Ellora is the Kailashanatha temple. It is a Shiva temple that was excavated out of the rocky hillside in the late 8th century under the patronage of the Rashtrakutas. The temples comprise of a main shrine that in turn consists of a lower and an upper storey, a Nandi pavilion, subsidiary shrines, wall, gateways and cloisters. The superstructure of the temple is built in Dravida style. The sculptures in the temple include images of Shiva, Shiva and Parvati, Ravana shaking Mount Kailasha, Durga, the Sapta-Matrikas, Ganesha and the goddesses Ganga, Yamuna and Sarasvati.

The architectural remains found at Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram pertaining to the Pallava period are one of the most important architectural remains of ancient India. These include cave temples, monolithic temples and structural temples. Special mention may be made of the gigantic open-air relief at Mamallapuram. The scenes represented in the reliefs have been interpreted by historians in two ways, namely the descent of Ganga and Arjuna’s penance.

The Chola temples are undoubtedly one of the most important constituents of the architectural remains of this period. Special mention may be made of the Brihadishvara or Rajarajeshvara temple at Tanjavur. This Shiva temple is one of the largest and most grand structures of its age. The main shrine consists of a pillared porch, a pillared mukhamandapa and ardhamandapa, an antarala and the sanctum. Three huge Shiva sculptures and paintings can be found in the circumambulatory passage around the sanctum. The front of the temple is adorned with a 6m long Nandi bull carved out of a single stone. The Chola period also witnessed significant developments in the field of metal sculpture, the most popular being the images of Shiva as Nataraja, i.e., Lord of Dance.

Thus, we can see how the art and architecture of the ancient period in India shows great variety, whereby we can see that there were both religious and non-religious structures. The art and architecture of the ancient period undoubtedly echoes the great aesthetic sense and remarkable engineering skills of the people during these periods.


  • Singh, Upinder. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India, From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. Delhi. Pearson, 2009.
  • Singhania, Nitin. Indian Art and Culture. Chennai. McGraw Hill Education (India) Private Limited, 2020.


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