Indian Art

The art of India, birthplace of three major religions, provides an introduction to a fascinating culture.

Idea One: Much Indian art illustrates religious ideas.

10th-11th century
Unknown artist,
Buff sandstone

Much Indian art illustrates the gods and spiritual figures of three major religions that developed in India. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism all teach their stories to the faithful through images.

In all three traditions, believers worship independently rather than gathered as a congregation. Works of art are the focus of their worship. With proper ritual care, some images and structures become a home for the deity itself. The more decoration at a temple or shrine, the more pleased the god honored there will be.

Art also helps worshippers imagine the world beyond the one they know. All three religions teach that the physical world is just an illusion. Studying an image can help one learn truths that cannot be grasped in the world we know. It is this knowledge that is most valuable to a believer, not the work of art itself.

Religious texts provide precise descriptions of how gods and the cosmic world they inhabit should appear. A work of art that does not follow these descriptions accurately cannot serve its purpose.

The three main Hindu gods take different forms to show their many qualities. Here Shiva, god of destruction, appears in his loving form beside his wife Parvati.

Each of the three main Hindu gods has its own temples and followers. This sculpture comes from a temple devoted to Vishnu, the god who keeps order in the universe.

Vishnu with Lakshmi and Sarasvati
11th century
Grey schist
Buddhism declined in India itself but spread through Southeast Asia. Sculptors there borrowed ideas from Indian sculpture, as in this head from Thailand or Cambodia.

Buddha Head
Cambodia or Thailand
8th century
Bequest of Alfred F. Pillsbury
Jain artists are best known for illustrations of their holy texts.

Queen Trisala on Her Couch
15th-16th century
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper
The Helen Winton Jones Purchase Fund
Jain artists are best known for illustrations of their holy texts.

Idea Two: Indian gods and spiritual figures look human, but special features show they are divine.

Vishnu with Lakshmi and Sarasvati
11th century
Grey schist
The John R. Van Derlip Fund

The Buddha appears in art with specific physical traits, like long dangling earlobes and a bump on his head.
For Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, the gods look human. Take the Hindu god Shiva pictured at left, for example. He dances in a pose from classical Indian dance traditions. He wears the earrings, necklaces, and bracelets of an Indian prince. The sacred thread, a cord worn by upper class Hindus, crosses his chest.

But what about that extra pair of arms? One way of showing that gods have powers and responsibilities humans do not have is to give them many arms. Each hand holds a symbol of the gods unique qualities, or forms a gesture with a special meaning.

Some spiritual figures were actual people. The founders of both Buddhism and Jainism began their lives as princes in the sixth century B.C. They rejected the luxury of their royal lives and taught their followers a simpler life. Both are shown with long ear lobes, stretched from wearing heavy earrings when they were princes. A lump on top of their heads shows their divine wisdom.

The purity of gods and spiritual figures can be seen in their bodies. Unlike humans, the bodies of the divine do not contain muscle and bone. They are instead filled with prana, or the breath of life, which makes their skin appear somewhat puffy.

Seated Jina
12th century
The Katherine Kittredge McMillan Memorial Fund


Idea Three: Clothing and jewelry show status and honor.

Portrait of Fakir Khan and His Sons
Ink, colors and gold leaf on paper
17th-19th century
The Katherine Kittredge McMillan Memorial Fund

This illustration from a Jain manuscript shows Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, giving away all his possessions.
Clothing and jewelry have long shown status in Indian society. Little remains from long ago, but fashions can be observed in art. Although most Indian art from that time depicts gods or spiritual figures, the gods wear the finest styles worn by Indian royalty.

The rejection of fancy clothing and jewelry could be symbolic as well. The princes who founded Buddhism and Jainism gave away all they owned, including their clothes. With that act, they left the concerns of the physical world behind them.

Around 1500 a new style of art took hold in India. Muslim rulers from Central Asia introduced a style of miniature painting popular in Persian courts. Islam discourages pictures of people or animals in a religious setting. At court, however, royalty enjoyed miniature paintings showing a variety of scenes from real life. Like the portrait of a man and his sons at left, these pictures are a good record of the styles of the time.

Mahavira Gives Away His Possessions

A Hindu priest might wear a necklace like this one during special ceremonies. Temples often have large collections of jewels, gifts from wealthy patrons.

Blouse, c. 1960
Rajput group
Silk, cotton, rayon, metal; embroidery

Indian textiles have been famous since ancient times. Different regions of India are known for different styles.

Idea Four: Lively colors and textures suggest the abundance of nature.

Toran, 20th century
Unknown artist,
Cotton, mirror disk; needlework

The blue-skinned god Krisha receives offerings from his followers in a lush landscape.
India’s climate is varied. Life is different in the tropical lowlands than on the dry plains or in the Himalayan foothills. But plentiful fruits, flowers, animals, and birds have been a sign of health and good fortune across India since ancient times.

Indian art commonly captures a feeling of nature’s bounty. Even stone sculptures are full of details. Many of them, now the gray of plain stone, would have been painted bright colors. Seen in a temple or shrine, the sculptures would be draped with dazzling fabrics. Cloth hangings, like the one shown here, would brighten doorways and walls.

The gods are responsible for the generosity of nature. In return, the faithful leave plentiful offerings of each gods favorite foods at their temples. These offerings are an important part of worship for Hindus and Jains. In a way, the lively colors and textures of the art in a temple are like offerings for the eyes.

Toran, 20th century
Unknown artist,
Cotton, mirror disk; needlework

Every inch of this stone arch has carvings that almost seem to pulse with life.

Goddesses play an important role in Hindu beliefs. They usually have large breasts and a small waist, a reminder of the fertility of the earth.

Idea Five: Sculpture was built into the walls of temples and shrines.

This 19th-century photograph of a temple to Vishnu shows how sculptures can be part of the temple itself.
Many of the Indian sculptures on display in the museum were meant to be seen in a very different context. In the museum a sculpture sits on a plain base under a spotlight, in front of a plain wall. But most large stone sculptures were originally built into the outside walls of a temple or shrine.

In both Buddhism and Hinduism, ordinary people worship by walking around the outside of the temple or shrine. The sculptures they pass as they walk remind them of the stories and beliefs of their faith. The same images often appear many times. The more times an image is seen, the closer a worshipper comes to understanding its message.

For Hindus, a god dwells in a temple like a spirit in a body. Decoration on the walls of the temple is like jewelry adorning the body. If a god or goddess is not pleased with a temple, he or she will not inhabit it.

Smaller sculptures, often made of bronze, were used in other ways. In Hinduism, only priests can enter the inner temple where the most important images of the gods are kept. On holidays, they carry small bronze sculptures on poles outside the temple so all can see them. Most homes have shrines for honoring a favorite deity as well.


This bronze Shiva would have been carried outside the temple in ceremonial processions.


Related Activities

Body Language

Different poses and hand gestures hold special meanings. Look at Shiva in Fact 2 and mimic the pose. Working in a group think about what message Shiva might be trying to reveal. What do you see that makes you say that? Next, brainstorm different emotions that can be expressed through body language. Write each emotion down on a slip of paper and take turns picking a slip and striking a pose to express the different emotions.

Patterns and Adornment

Indian gods and spiritual figures, like members of Indian royalty, wore an abundance of jewelry to show their status and power. Look carefully at the figures in Facts 1 and 2. What different types of jewelry do they wear? Where do you see different adornment? Using similar patterns, design an item of jewelry that you would like to wear to show your importance.

Exploring Hinduism

Learn more about Hinduism and Hindu art at The Minneapolis Institute of Art with [“World Religions in Art”] .

Art by the Book

Hindu and Buddhist religious texts describe exactly how a god or goddess should appear in art–for example, the shape of their eyes and mouth, how they stand or sit, what objects they hold. Artists must follow these instructions exactly or the images will not function for their ritual purpose. Choose a work of art from the images in this unit and write a description that someone else could use to create a similar work of art. Trade your description with someone who chose another work of art and try make a drawing based on the description. How does it compare to the original image?”