Hindu Art and Architecture Before 1300

First Things First...

Before discussing the objects and monuments most significant to Hinduism, begin with an introduction of the basic tenets of the religion itself. Hinduism shares many of the same presuppositions as Buddhism and uses both of the foundational texts the Vedas and the Upanishads. Unlike Buddhism, Hinduism accepts the authority of the Vedas and upholds the principles of a caste system. In both Buddhism and Hinduism, devotees search for a way out of samsara, but in Hinduism, it is called moksha (“release”).

In all indigenous Indian religions, the atman (devotee) equals the Brahman (divine), meaning that we are all one in the same and that the Divine is found within. In other words, the devotee has an inherent connection to the Divine, both in a personal and universal sense. All Hindu art is based on this principle and therefore, the Divine is often modeled after the human form. Because of this, Hinduism has often been called polytheistic, meaning that there are many gods. This is a misnomer, however, since it is believed that there is only one true god in Hinduism, called the Brahman. The Brahman can manifest itself in several forms, including Gods, to allow the devotee several opportunities to encounter it. In Hinduism, the most important gods are: Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, and the Goddess.

  • Shiva represents the destructive force in the Universe, destroying those whose time has come. Because of the belief in samsara, once a being is destroyed, they will automatically be reborn and so, Shiva is also the god of procreation. One of his main attributes is a trident (called trishula), which represents creation, destruction, and procreation; the cycle of samsara. Emphasizing his role as creator, Shiva is often represented as a linga, a phallic form, placed in a yoni, a vaginal form–the equal, yet opposing forces of the Universe. Shiva’s followers are called Shaivites.
  • Vishnu is the god who represents the preservation of the Universe. His symbolism often relates to the military: a shankha, which is a conch used to alert troops to war, a gada, a mace, and a chakra, a sharpened wheel used as a weapon. Vishnu is the focal point of the two Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. All Hindus are familiar with these great epics. They are so popular in Hindu culture that there are comic books that retell parts of their stories. Vishnu has many different forms, he is a shown as a god or as one of his ten incarnations–beings that exist on earth, called avataras. Vishnu’s most popular incarnations is Krishna, who is often depicted in art. Vishnu’s followers are called Vaishnavites.
  • Brahma completes the trinity of the gods (called trimurti or three forms) with Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. They are believed to be one in the same, different aspects of Supreme Enlightenment (the Brahman). In all of India, there is only one water hole and one temple dedicated to Brahma. Brahma is honored, but he is never the main god.
  • The Goddess has many forms in Hinduism, generically called Devi. Durga, the warrior goddess, is one popular form, depicted with a lion as her vehicle. The Goddess is the shakti or the energizing force in the Universe that causes action to occur. Therefore, the Goddess is often portrayed in an active form. The Goddess’ followers are called Shaktas.

Two important aspects of Hindu society include bhakti and dharma. Dharma means “duty,” fulfilling one’s societal role, and bhakti is one’s supreme devotion to god. Ask your students “What does devotion mean to you?” “When do we use the word devotion?” Devotion is not necessarily a rational act, involving supreme and unquestioning faith. Devotion and duty in religion is the driving form behind patronage of Hindu art.

Before class, have your students watch the video the Ganapati Spirit of Mumbai, a short introduction to the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in Mumbai. This video shows a contemporary example of a devotional, as well as a social, practice. Ask your students to think about who commissions Hindu artworks in contemporary times. Another good question to ask is “Why are animals readily cast in the role of Hindu gods?”

Background Readings

Vishnu Laying on this Serpent, from the Vishnu Temple at Deogarh, c. 500 CE.

For a brief survey of Indian art, Vidya Dehejia’s Indian Art (Phaidon, 1997) is a good introduction and helps put Indian art in context. For a more in depth study of Indian art before 1300, Susan Huntington’s The Art of Ancient India (Weatherhill, 1985) is extremely thorough and detailed. The glossary at the end is an especially useful tool for both instructors and students.

For a short background about Hinduism, An Introduction to Hinduism (Introduction to Religion) (Cambridge, 1996) is a concise text. George Michell’s The Hindu Temple (Chicago and London, 1988) explains the meaning and form of the temple, the embodiment of Hindu culture and society. Diana Eck’s Darshan (New York, 1998) explains the important concept of “seeing” in Hinduism. For Hindus, the god is not just represented by the artwork, the god actually embodies the artwork. Stephen Huyler’s Meeting God (New Haven and London, 1999) is also an excellent exploration of this topic, along with beautiful photographs.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History provides an excellent general overview of South Asian art and culture, as well as other topics. Smartlinks.org provide a comprehensive overview of South Asian culture, as well as specific links about the Hindu trinity and Shiva as the Lord of the Dance. The PBS series on the Story of India provides many citations, including a separate resource page.

Content Suggestions

The following artworks illustrate Hindu art and architecture within the context of an hour and a half class. The limited number of artworks allows for a thorough explanation of each work:

  • Vishnu Temple at Deogarh, c. 500 ce
  • Cave I at Elephanta, c. 550-557
  • Kailasanatha Temple at Ellora, c. 757-783 ce
  • Kandariya Mahadeva Temple at Khajuraho, c. 1004-1035 ce
  • The Great Relief at Mamallapuram, c. 630-728 ce
  • Shiva Nataraja, eleventh century

The Vishnu Temple at Deogarh is one of the earliest extant Hindu Temples, dedicated to the god Vishnu. Made out of masonry, it is a uniquely simple, single-cell shrine temple, but unfortunately, the tower of the shrine is in ruinous condition. When approaching the temple, a devotee would first walk around it on the exterior. As they walk, they would encounter different reliefs that illustrate the mythology of Vishnu. The Brahmins, who are the highest caste, are the only ones are allowed to enter the inner sanctums of Hindu temples and perform religious rituals.

The most famous relief on the temple is a depiction of Vishnu reclining on his serpent, named Ananta. Due to the belief in samsara (reincarnation of life, including the world), several creation myths exist in Hinduism; this relief depicts Vishnu dreaming of the creation of the world, while his wife, Lakshmi massages his feet. Brahma, the creator of the Universe, can be seen at the top seated on a lotus, which is wrapped around Vishnu’s body. Brahma then goes on to create the world.

The site of Elephanta, a one-hour ferry ride from Mumbai, is a major Hindu rock-cut site. The site has three caves and was probably used by a select community of Brahmins (again, the members of the priestly caste in Hinduism). The site is probably a royal commission by Krishnaraja I of the Kalachuri dynasty because his coins were found on the island and he was a devotee of Shiva. Thus, this architectural work could demonstrate Kirshnaraja’s bhakti or devotion to Shiva. The main cave at this site, Cave I, consists of the main shrine with a Shiva linga, a form that is repeated on many relief sculptures against the cave walls. The reliefs are so prominent in this cave that they overpower the main sanctum–the most important place in a Hindu temple.

The main image of the temple is called Sadashivan the south wall. The multiple faces of Shiva underscore his multiple aspects, as outlined above (and below). Many have interpreted this image, but in this context, it seems plausible that this image represents Shiva’s ultimate manifestation, the totality of all he does. The right side has an angry expression, called aghora, with twisting hair, a moustache, a furrowed brow, and snake earrings. He represents the ferocious side of Shiva, the destructive force that fights time, death, and evil. The left profile encompasses Shiva’s feminine side, called Vamadeva, through the face of the Goddess Parvati, who represents benign beauty and femininity. The middle face is called Sadyojata, which represents Shiva’s most essential and serene form–his absolute knowledge.

Western India is known for its abundance of Buddhist and Hindu rock-cut sites. About two hundred years after the site of Elephanta was made, the Kailasanatha Temple at Ellora was constructed. The site of Ellora is impressive, recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site, full of rock-cut caves, and Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain temples. The Kailasanatha Temple was a huge undertaking at a size of one 196 by 98 by 98 feet, carved completely out of the negative space of a hill. This allowed for freestanding “islands” of rock, chiseled out of the ground from top to bottom. For example, one can find two free standing rock-cut elephants and a column on the floor of the courtyard. The entire temple complex was commissioned by Krishna I (reigned 757-783) of the Rashtrakuta dynasty.

Kailasanatha, or “Mt. Kailasa,” is the heavenly abode of Shiva in the Himalayas, where Krishna, Shiva’s avatar, brought heaven to earth. Naming this site Kailasanatha then associates his territory with Shiva’s home, the center of the Universe. (In what other examples do we see the use of divinity to legitimize a ruler?) The building of temples is, again, part of a king’s dharma; it is his duty to provide for his subjects both spiritually and materially, and to demonstrate his devotion. Because of this, a large part of most Hindu kingdoms’ economies were invested into building temples. The actual building of this temple was a tremendous effort that required tons of resources, such as laborers to remove the rock, an architect to design the temple, artists to create sculptures and paintings, members of the clergy to manage production, etc. Once finished, markets opened up outside of the temples to take advantage of the foot traffic. Providing these opportunities for commerce, the temple’s construction puts money back into the economy. (Ask your students how this is similar to contemporary major building projects, like the building of sports complexes.)

In general, a Hindu temple like Kailasanatha has four main parts: gopura (gateway), mandapa (porch or hallway for worshippers to gather), garbha griha (the inner shrine), and the shikhara (the exterior tower). All four sections are preserved at Kailasanatha, but unfortunately, only fragments of its paintings remain. The building was so spectacular that, according to legend, its architect stood in front of it in amazement asking, “Was it indeed I who built this?” This site was one of the last hurrahs for rock-cut architecture in western India, as it proved too costly to continue.

The Chandellas were rulers of a small kingdom in North India, whose capital was Khajuraho–another UNESCO world heritage site. The first temple they commissioned was the Laksmana temple, which was completed in 954 and established sovereignty of the new dynasty. The Chandellas are best known for their temples and artificial lakes, with twenty-two temples still intact occupying one square mile. The rulers built a temple for every year they were power, which would mean that there were originally eighty-five completed Hindu temples at this site–the majority erected between c. 954-1035 ce. It is not unusual to build many structures on the same site, but the enormity of this site (a square mile) suggests a special goal–perhaps a declaration of power? A desire to create a seat of religious learning?

The Kandariya Mahadeva temple (also called Kandariya Mahadeo temple) was the climax of building activity in 1035 ce. The Kandariya Mahadeva temple rises ninety-eight feet high with one entrance, an assembly hall (mandapa), a vestibule before the main shrine shrine, and a garbha griha (main shrine) surrounded by a processional passage for circumambulation. Only the Brahmins were allowed into the inner sanctum (the garbha griha) of a Hindu temple, therefore, the mandapa provided the place where devotees could gather while they waited for the Brahmin to perform rituals. Ritual worship is called puja; Brahmins perform pujas at set times of day, and they also perform them for individual worshippers. An essential part of puja for the devotee is to make a connection with the Divine. The link to the New York Ganesh Temple in Flushing, Queens will connect you to several examples of rituals.

The elevation of the Kandariya Mahadeva temples has three horizontal zones. The first zone is a solid basement, which raises the floor level of the temple to thirteen feet above ground. The second zone has a series of walls and interim compartments, a series of projections and recesses to allow for maximum number of sculpted images. Here, three horizontal sculpted bands hold about six hundred and fifty life-size figures in total, carved in high relief. The elevation culminates in a grouping of roofs, reminiscent of a mountain range, that sweep upward towards the tall shikhara above the shrine. Indeed, the shikhara symbolizes the cosmic mountain of the Universe.

The Kandariya Mahadeva temple’s famous exterior sculptures have an iconographic program that has yet to be thoroughly studied. Because texts for temple decoration during this time specified that images of women were a necessity, more female, mortal figures exist than gods. In fact, images of women have often been used as auspicious emblems throughout the history of Indian art. Here, they are depicted nude to the waist with large breasts, small waists, big hips, and heavy thighs, wearing lots of jewelry. In general, these types of women represent the potential for fertility in both the spiritual and material sense. The carvings also include both depictions of mithuna and maithuna couples, which represent the unity and the duality of male and female energies. Maithuna couples are explicitly shown engaged in sexual intercourse. These images are placed on the “Joining Wall” that connects the sanctum and the assembly hall–texts describe the shrine and the hall as a bridegroom and bride, with the “Joining Wall” as their place of union. Therefore, he literally “joining” couples on all three levels serve as a visual pun.

The Chandellas were patrons of the Kaulas, an esoteric sect that practiced Tantric Hinduism. When looking closely at the maithuna couples, it is apparent that these are not ordinary situations. Often, the couples have attendants and they are depicted in unusual positions. The practice of Tantra involves partaking in activities that ordinarily would be prohibited, called the panchamakara or “five mas,” as each syllable of the words begins with “ma.” They are matsya (fish), mamsa (meat), mudra (parched grain beverage), mada (wine), and maithuna (sexual intercourse). Normally, these things would be highly addictive, but the goal is that if one partakes in them, they will be able to overcome them and achieve enlightenment. This is great point in the lecture to ask your students what it means for Hinduism to accept aspects of life to the extent that it allows images of sex outside of a temple wall.

In Southern India, two important dynasties ruled in Tamil Nadu before 1300. The Pallavas created the site of Mamallpuram, also called Mahabalipuram, a coastal site about forty miles south of the modern city of Chennai. Mamallpuram contains an enormous amount of unique monuments carved out of natural granite outcroppings, divided into four types: great sculpted cliffs, rock-cut monolithic shrines created out of single boulders, rock-cut caves, and traditional free-standing temples built by masonry. Over half of the monuments are unfinished most likely due to the poor condition of the granite. These monuments were probably built over a period of a hundred years, showing the importance of the site and how the Pallava kings greatly fulfilled their dharma.

The Great Relief at Mamallapuram has also been called a “Great Sculpted Cliff,” “Descent of Ganges, ” or “Arjuna’s Penance,” but no one knows what the iconography means. The relief dates from around the early to mid seventh century ce and is carved out of two granite monoliths with a natural cleft in the center. The boulders measure forty-nine by ninety-eight feet and incorporate a scene of a mountainous abode incorporating elephants at its base. Shiva is depicted twice on the relief: once at top on the proper right and again below in a shrine. A man stands in a tree pose in front of Shiva and is depicted again in front of the shrine. Shiva is shown with his hand in varada mudra, which is the gesture of gift bestowal. The relief received its names since Shiva is prominent in both the story of Arjuna’s penance and the descent of the Ganges:

  • In the story of the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic, Arjuna enacts a penance for Shiva’s weapon. The Mahabharata was composed between 300 bce and 300 CE and is the longest epic in world literature. It is the story about the battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas, who were cousins. Arjuna is one of the five Pandava brothers and needs Shiva’s weapon in order to defeat the Kauravas.
  • Bhagiratha performs austerities to persuade Shiva to bear the force of the Gange’s descent to earth. If the Ganges fell from the heavens to the earth without a buffer, it would have destroyed the world. Bhagiratha wanted the Ganges on earth in order to purify the remains of his ancestors.

The relief could possibly depict both stories, but most accept the interpretation is that it depicts the descent of the Ganges. The site of Mamallapuram is far from the Ganges river and so, by creating this relief, the Pallava rulers brought the Ganges to their territory. Indeed, the snake deities (called naga) swimming along the natural cleft also emphasize a water theme in this relief. To add to this interpretation, an unfinished carving of the same subject can be found nearby. It was probably abandoned because of the quality of the granite.

The production of portable metal images of deities was an important practice during the Chola dynasty (mid ninth-thirteenth centuries ce), they also were located in Tamil Nadu. They used a copper alloy of copper with a small amount of lead, tin, gold, and silver–the combination of which they believed had magical properties. The objects were bathed, clothed, decorated with flowers, and kept in separate shrines in temples. The Rajarajeshvara temple built by Raja Raja Chola I in the eleventh century possessed sixty-six metal sculptures according to inscriptions. The metal images were used during festival processions where they would be attached to carts (called rathas) and taken out of the temple grounds. The idea is that if a devotee cannot go to the god, the god will come to the devotee. This allows for darshan, seeing the Divine and the Divine seeing the devotee.

The metal images were constructed using the cire perdu, or “lost wax” technique. Initially, the image was carved out of wax, then the wax was encased in clay, and the clay fired. While being fired, the wax melted and ran out of passageways left from wax stems, and this left a clay mold. Molten metal was then poured into the mold. Once cool, the mold was broken and the image remained with all of its detail.

The Shiva Nataraja was the supreme Chola image, with dozens in existence, and it is an image that has religious and political connotations. The objects show Shiva dancing the destruction of our era of time in the Universe. Because Shiva is the god of contradictions, the Universe is also manifesting itself at the same time. Shiva could perhaps be a political emblem of the Cholas, signifying their power to create or destroy their subjects. A good essay about the Nataraja can be found at Smarthistory.org.

At the End of Class...

Shiva Nataraja, eleventh century, copper alloy.

At the end of the lecture, the following topics can be used for discussion:

  • How does the idea of god differ in Hinduism from the Judeo-Christian tradition?
  • Does the making of Hindu art fit within the Hindu idea of society?
  • Do you think it is helpful that Hinduism shows figurative representations of god?
  • Why is the Hindu temple the ultimate expression of Hindu society?

Have the students review the short video of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival again and talk about the idea of darshan. Try to link contemporary Hindu practices with ancient examples.

Further Resources

Smarthistory on the Roots of Hinduism

Nancy Eder (author) is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, teaching Western and Asian art survey classes. Her interests are Hindu and Buddhist iconography, the female image in South Asian art, and fashion in art. Nancy is also an Adjunct Lecturer in the Education Department for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Amy Raffel (editor) is a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has a Master’s degree in Contemporary Art history from the Institute of Fine Arts (NYU) and has taught Introduction to Modern Art as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Lehman College since 2010. Currently, Amy is a genome contributor for Artsy and editor and contributor of Art History Teaching Resources.