Gallery Guide: Understanding South Asian Art

Ganesha, The Elephant God
South India, Mysore region
13th century
Chloritic schist; height 86.6 cm (37 7/8 in.)
Gift of Arthur M. Sackler S1987.960

The Indian subcontinent, known today as South Asia, extends as an inverted triangle from the snowbound Himalayan ranges toward the equator and includes the countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan. Extending some eighteen hundred miles from north to south, and almost the same distance from east to west, the area is home to an ancient and varied group of cultures. India, the largest single nation within South Asia, displays a cultural diversity comparable to that seen among the nations of Europe.


Most sculpture from South Asia relates to three world religions that emerged in India—Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Each of these faiths constructed exquisite and distinctive monuments in honor of its deities and spiritual teachers. Their shrines and temples contain sculpted images that lead devotees to contemplate cosmic powers or greater realities.


Hinduism is a faith that admits the power of a multiplicity of deities. Hindus suggest that one may view the Infinite as a diamond of innumerable facets, of which one facet may beckon an individual believer more forcibly than the others. The three most popular deities of present-day Hinduism are the gods Shiva and Vishnu, and the great goddess Devi, or Shakti (power); Hindus are accordingly known as Shaivas, Vaishnavas, or Shaktas. Vast numbers of Hindu temples were built down the ages

A Yogini
South India, Tamil Nadu, Kaveripakkam
10th century
Granite; height 116 cm (45 11/16 in.)
Gift of Arthur M. Sackler S1987.905

to enshrine the image of the chosen deity, and their walls were covered with sculpted images of deities, narrative reliefs from mythology, and rich decorative carving. The greater proportion of the surviving art in stone was used to decorate sacred structures. Fine metal images, too, were created in a sacred context, sometimes to grace an altar, and at other times, particularly in south India, to be honored in temple processions and festivities.

In the fifth century B.C.E., Prince Siddhartha meditated upon the nature of suffering, achieved enlightenment, and became known as the Buddha (literally, Enlightened One). After his enlightenment, the Buddha taught monks, nuns, and householders a way to move beyond the misery of existence by ridding themselves of desire and attachment. In later centuries, devotees constructed monumental reliquaries covered with narrative relief sculptures depicting the Buddha’s life. Over time, images of the Buddha and other enlightened beings (bodhisattvas) became an increasingly important focus of art and devotion. (see Buddhist gallery guide).


Mahavira, the historical founder of Jainism, was an elder contemporary of the Buddha. He became known as Jina (literally, conquerer) after he

Shiva Vinadhara (Holder of the Lute)
India, state of Tamil Nadu
Chola period, ca. 950
Bronze; height 73.6 cm (29 in.)
Purchase F1997.28

overcame the wretched cycle of rebirth by achieving enlightenment. Jain devotees often commissioned manuscripts of sacred literature for temple libraries in order to gain spiritual merit. Many of these manuscripts contain vibrant illustrations that depict Mahavira meditating or teaching.


Merchants brought Islam to South Asia as early as the seventh century (see Islamic gallery guide). The rulers of the Islamic kingdoms that emerged by the twelfth century built vast palaces and forts as well as grand mosques and tombs adorned with calligraphy and abstract ornament. The courts were also centers for the production of book arts, including paintings that illustrated national epics and dynastic histories.



Celestial Drummer
Western India, ca. 13th century
Marble; height 86.0 cm (33 7/8 in.)
Purchase S1995.89
Bronze sculpture of Parvati
Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi as goddess Parvati
India, state of Tamil Nadu, Chola period, ca. 998
Bronze; height 92.1 cm (36 1/4 in.)
Purchase F1929.84

In India, the sculpted representation of the body, both human and divine, was of paramount importance. Such imagery never aimed to imitate nature or to create an effect of illusionistic realism. Sculptors did not model their images on living beings, but produced an idealized form, sensuous and youthful, for both gods and humans. For instance, the model laid down in ancient texts for the female torso was either the double-headed divine thunderbolt (vajra) or the waisted drum (damaru). Following this pattern, sculptors invariably produced a female form with narrow waist, broad hips, and high, rounded breasts. Arms resembled the slender, pliant bamboo shoot and eyes the lotus petal or the fish.


Indian artists often portray Hindu deities with multiple arms to emphasize their omnipresence and omnipotence. A variety of hand gestures, known as mudras, are used to express the mood and meaning of the images of the gods. For instance, when the palm is raised to face the worshiper, it is the gesture of protection (abhaya), while a lowered hand with the fingers pointing downward signifies a promise to grant the devotee’s wishes (varada). The contrapposto pose, known in India as tribhanga, or triple-bent, was a popular stance; it produced a sense of swaying movement, and most images, whether human or divine, are thus poised.



Although ancient literature confirms that wall paintings were a routine part of the decoration of monuments in early India, only fragments remain that date from the first century onward. Illustrated manuscripts on the long, narrow leaves of the palmyra palm survive from the eleventh century, and when paper was introduced a century later, artists retained the horizontal format of the palm leaf.

When the Mughal emperors—Muslim Turks from Central Asia—came to power in 1526, they introduced the vertical page format of the Persian world. Court artists during the reign of Emperor Akbar (ruled 1556–1605) adapted elements from indigenous Indian as well as Persian and European art to create a superb and unique style of painting. Mughal court portraiture combined the naturalistic rendering of individual physiognomies with symbols of rank and status. The portraits were mounted with elaborate borders and bound into imperial albums or given as gifts to cement political alliances. Other important subjects of Mughal painting include dynastic histories, Persian literature, and Hindu epics.

Manuscripts painted for the many small Hindu courts in Rajasthan and the Himalayan foothills illustrate a variety of texts that narrate the myths surrounding the Hindu gods, or deal with the theme of romantic love. The artists at these courts, like the sculptors, were only rarely interested in simulating reality. Rather, they employed rhythmic contours and fields of intense color to create fanciful worlds of the imagination. Even when painting portraits of the rajas (kings) and nobility, the artists emphasized composition, pattern, and color over depth and individual appearance.

When the British supplanted the Mughals as rulers of India, from the mid-eighteenth century onward, a new style known as Company painting (from the English East India Company) came into existence. Local artists adapted their manner to produce the type of accurate documentation of the world around them demanded by their new patrons. Today artists working in a multiplicity of media have found a new idiom that instills a sense of quality and confidence while invoking the strength and dignity of the past.