Published : Jan 16, 2004 00:00 IST

The Mahaparinirvana, Cave 26, Ajanta, 5th century. The monumental figure of the Buddha as he attained Parinirvana. -

The Mahaparinirvana, Cave 26, Ajanta, 5th century. The monumental figure of the Buddha as he attained Parinirvana. -

The sculpture of India represents the 5,000 years of evolution of the noble art.

SINCE ancient times, the sculptor's chisel has caressed stones, making their hard surface give way to graceful representations of gentle expressions, thereby seemingly infusing life into them.

The sculptures of India go far beyond the depiction of the mere physical reality. The artist has deep belief in the intrinsic unity and harmony of the whole of creation and he sees the material reality around him to be a reflection of the glory of God.

The earliest known Indian treatise on art, "Chitrasutra" in the Vishnudharmottara Purana, gives a very noble purpose to art. It states that images, which are made with the understanding of the harmony of life, are immensely satisfying to the viewer.

Indian sculpture is naturalistic, yet vastly different from that art which attempts to portray only the transitory shapes of the objects of the world. Here naturalism is the expression of that sense which moves beneath the surface of objects, that inner being of trees, animals and people; the spirit which moves the whole of creation. This is the intensely intertwined relationship of all the objects of the world, which is conveyed in the essence of Indian art.

In the Indian philosophy of aesthetics, it is believed that the ecstasy on seeing the beauty of nature and the finest art is akin to brahmananda (the joy of salvation itself). In that moment, one is transported to a different plane, feeling within the kinship of the whole of creation. Thus, the purpose of creating and experiencing the beauty of art is understood as the most sublime state.

India has a long history of exquisite sculpture. The subtle forms of the Indus Valley civilisation ( 4th and 3rd Millennium B.C.) - such as those evident in the expressive images of the bearded man and the bronze figure of a dancing girl that were excavated from the ruins of the civilisation - point to the climax of an art form, obviously based on a long previous artistic experience. The slender grace and wiry vigour of the bronze figurine is a remarkable work of art. Indus Valley sculpture represents a fine balance between stylised abstraction and subtle naturalism. The inner breath of life is seen captured within the chiselled stone.

In the 3rd century B.C., emperor Asoka laid the foundations upon which was built the classic style of Indian sculpture. Asoka devoted himself to spreading the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha and he created many monuments that reflect the dignity and values of Buddhism.

Asokan pillars of polished stone capped with finely carved animal capitals, sculpted railings of the Bodh Gaya shrine and figures of yakshas and yakshis survive from the Mauryan period. The dignified and graceful figures of the pillar capitals are among the best-known and most recognisable images of Indian art, including the lion capital in the Sarnath pillar, which has been adopted as India's state emblem.

The sculpted reliefs on the railings of the 2nd century B.C. stupas of Bharhut and Sanchi present another dimension to Indian art. For the first time, scenes from the life of the Buddha and from his previous lives (Jataka tales) are illustrated in stone.

One marvellous aspect of the art of this period is the sense of the sublime, rare even in humans, presented in the sculpted animals of the Jataka stories. Indeed the Jataka tales are a natural expression of the beliefs and worldview of the artist. The stories of the Buddha, in his various avatars (incarnations) in the form of different animals, naturally depict the artist's belief of the whole of creation being linked intimately.

The figures in the reliefs of Bharhut appear to be endowed with a generous sense of well-being. The lines flow gracefully with a sense of inner peace. There is no attempt to group the figures and each appears to abide, self-contained, in the place assigned to it. There is a sense of the lyrical, unending melody of life.

From the languid grace of the world of Bharhut we come to the expression of energetic movement and boundless vitality in the reliefs of Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh, also of the 2nd century B.C., made under the Satavahanas.

The railings of the stupa at Sanchi present the overflowing activity of life. Whereas the figures at Bharhut were single ones scattered over the composition with large spaces around them, the ones at Sanchi are in the midst of tumultuous life. There are large groups of figures in a variety of poses, sometimes frolicsome or displaying vital existence. There is a rich interplay of light and darkness, and three-dimensionality of objects. With diagonal movement, the energetic figures appear to be breaking out of the boundaries of the stone, which seems to hold them with difficulty within the confines of the reliefs.

The Sanchi stupa has an inscription on the Eastern Gateway, which mentions that the magnificent carvings on the gateways are the work of the ivory carvers of Vidisha. Indeed, the minute and exquisite details on the stupa reflect the skill of fine work on ivory.

There is a marvellous `continuous narration' seen in the reliefs of Sanchi. Events that take place in the story are placed in a harmonious relationship with each other without following any linear chronology of the tale. Important moments, symbols and events occur together in a vibrant portrayal of the essence of the message. It reminds us that in the Indian view, time is not seen as a strict and chronological movement of the past, the present and the future: all time is seen as eternally present. All moments are seen as a reflection of the eternal truth and exist in the mind of the artist simultaneously.

Moments of the Buddha's life and his previous births are brought before us time and time again on the stone of these railings. The Buddha is not yet represented in Indian art as a human figure. It is symbols of him that are ever present in the rich tapestry of these reliefs.

At Sanchi we see one of the most beautiful subjects of Indian art: the Vrikshdevi. A young maiden who reaches above her to hold the bough of a tree, which bursts forth into fragrant blossoms at her touch.

The eastern seat of the Satavahanas, who made the sculpted railings and gateways of the stupa, was in Amravati in the Krishna Valley, in present-day Andhra Pradesh. Here, a great stupa of Mauryan times was reconstructed during the 2nd century A.D. and a magnificent sculpted railing was made around it.

As at Sanchi, the railings around the stupa in Amravati and the later stupa at Nagarjunakonda were sculpted profusely with the Jataka tales. In these reliefs there is a sense of roundedness and three-dimensionality. The figures turn and twist and move in every direction. The sense of the physical flesh, its movement, its softness and its vibrancy are captured intimately and yet with a sense, which is constantly that of the spirit within. These sculptures are an exquisite representation of a comprehensive view and understanding of life, where the pliable flesh is never forgotten, yet the focus is always on the world within.

This vision of people fully at ease with themselves and with the world around them is carried forward into the fine sculpture of the many caves that were excavated in the Western Ghats. These include those at Bhaja, Karle and Kondavane. It is a vision of life lived simply and fully: with innocence and without guilt or remorse. The ease with which the figures interact with each other is a great lesson in the uncomplicated understanding of life. The sculpture of the early period has many gifts, which it constantly bestows on mankind.

The beginning of the first millennium saw dramatic developments in the religious philosophy and art of India. Early Buddhism was an ethical system based upon the wisdom and compassionate message of the Buddha, who had preached in the 6th century B.C. Towards the end of the B.C. period, there had evolved another school of thought among Buddhists who had begun to worship the Buddha as a god. The new form of Buddhism came to be called Mahayana Buddhism.

In the 1st century A.D., the Kushana ruler Kanishka held the Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir and then onwards Mahayana Buddhism was given the fullest royal patronage.

Early Buddhism was a moral code, which called for strict self-examination and personal discipline on the part of one who was on the path to salvation. The new form of Buddhism brought images to be worshipped, which would help man in his goal of enlightenment. Soon a large pantheon of glorious and compassionate deities was created.

The region of Gandhara and Kashmir in north-west India had been a meeting place of cultures. The ancient trade routes connecting China and Central Asia with Persia and Mediterranean Europe passed through here. Along with silks, spices and other goods of trade, influences and ideas of art and philosophy also came to this region.

It was in Gandhara and in Mathura in northern India that the first images of the Buddha in human form were created. Hellenistic influences are clearly visible in the sculpture of the Gandhara region: in the anatomy of the figures, the arrangement of drapery, the treatment of the hair and the poses and attitudes of the figures.

Simultaneous with Gandhara, we see the birth of the human Buddha image in Mathura. However, the form here was a development of the indigenous idiom of Indian sculpture. The sculpted Buddhas of Mathura are based on the figures of yakshas and yakshis coming from ancient times in Indian art. Whereas in Mauryan art the drapery of clothes was depicted as being separate from the human form, at Mathura the garment is made as transparent as possible. Only a few lines are incised on the modelled surface of the body to depict it.

IN about A.D. 320, the powerful empire of the Guptas emerged in Bihar. They came to dominate all of north-central India and gave their name to the `classic' period in Indian art. The Gupta period was one of cultured opulence, resulting in great heights of development in science, visual arts, music and literature.

The image of the Buddha reached a fine perfection in the Gupta period. There is a deep and inward look, which takes us far from the clamour and concerns of the material world. These images present the transcendental qualities of the Buddha.

The Gupta artist conceived the Buddha as a conqueror of the inner world. From the early Gupta period, almost all the figures in Indian sculpture, whether of gods, men or women, assume a similar `inward look'. The glance, while physically riveted to the tip of the nose, masters the fields of the mind.

The images have a great depth and transcendental sense of completeness: a sense of the deepest absorption in the harmony of existence. The images move and are yet unmoving in their stillness and sense of divine peace.

The Mathura-Gupta style was refined and perfected at Sarnath. The sublime example of this is a 5th century figure of the Buddha preaching Dharma, carved out of chunar sandstone at Sarnath. It typifies the essence of Gupta art, where a sophisticated balance was achieved between refined simplicity and exquisite love of decoration. This figure is one of the masterpieces not only of the Gupta period but also of the art of the world.

Simultaneously, Vedic Brahmanism had also been evolving its various icons. Now, in the Gupta period, as Buddhism began to wane in the country of its birth, Hindu art emerged into prominence. The temple at Deogarh (near Jhansi in Madhya Pradesh) and the rock-cut caves at Udaygiri near Bhopal present us some of the most powerful depictions. The artist's mastery over the medium is complete. The stone appears to yield and curve at the touch of the sculptor, to bring a vision of moving and living beings.

The first and most dramatic examples of Gupta Hindu art date from the beginning of the 5th century A.D. and are found in Udaygiri. Here is a monumental and expressive depiction of the Varaha (boar) avatar of Vishnu, as he rescues Goddess Earth from the deep and chaotic waters. There is a great sense of power and majesty in the figure of the boar.

Paramount among Hindu sculptures of this period are also reliefs on the exterior walls of the ruined Dashavatara temple at Deogarh. These include a marvellous 6th century image of Vishnu lying on the serpent Sheshnag, in wakeful slumber, as he dreams the world into existence.

The influence of Gupta art spread across the country from Assam in the east to Gujarat in the west. This was truly the Golden Age in Indian art.

While the Guptas ruled in north India, the Vakatakas held sway in the Deccan. The paintings of Ajanta, which are known to be the fountainhead of the classic tradition of Indian painting, were created under their patronage. The paintings of Ajanta have received so much attention that the exquisite sculpture of the site often does not receive its deserved merit. The sculptures of Ajanta are among the finest ever made and reflect the exquisite qualities found in the paintings.

The Parinirvana of the Buddha in Cave 17, with numerous celestial musicians above and the sorrowful figures of his followers below, is one of the grandest and yet most delicately expressive scenes ever made in stone. The grieving figure of Ananda near his feet is an exceptionally fine and thoughtful representation. Everywhere at Ajanta, the stone appears to have been transformed by the sculptors' hand into a pliable repository of sensitive and tender expression. Indeed, Ajanta is one of the most subtle and spiritual sculptural monuments of India.

A truly grand monument of this period is the rock-cut shrine dedicated to Siva on the island of Elephanta, off the coast of Mumbai. Here the sculptural style of western India coming from Karle and other caves is seen modified by the classic aesthetics and elegance of the Gupta-Vakataka period.

In the Gupta-Vakataka period, definite canons of proportions and the appearance of figures came to be laid down systematically in the Chitrasutra. This period laid the norms of classicism for all time to come in Indian art.

From the 7th century onwards, with the Pallavas and later the Cholas, comes the most exuberant sculpture of south India. This period brought new developments and shaped the future art of the region. At the wondrous site of Mamallapuram (near Chennai), Pallava artists transformed rocks into a living world of sculpted forms.

One of the most remarkable groups of sculptures anywhere in India is `Arjuna's Penance' or the `Descent of Ganga', sculpted on the surface of two huge boulders at Mamallapuram with a narrow fissure between them. This magnificent relief, 20 feet high and 40 feet across, brings the rocks alive. The moon, the sun, pairs of singers, siddhas, nymphs are all shown moving towards the cleft in the rock, where a sage is seen engaged in penance. Gracefully carved nagas and naginis with their hands folded in adoration stand out against the cleft. The artists have used the cleft beautifully to represent Ganga as she flows down from the heavens.

Everywhere in Mamallapuram, the sculpture is sensitive and graceful. The subtle touches and gentleness belie the hard granite surface, which appears to have been lovingly shaped by the artists' hands.

The sculpture of Mamallapuram presents some of the simplest and most charming scenes: a cowherd milks a cow that fondly licks its calf, a milkmaid holds a pile of milk pots and balances a bundle of fodder on her head; a woodcutter rests his axe idly on his shoulder; and a cowherd plays the flute. These are some of the most natural pastoral scenes in the realm of sculpture.

The images of Siva, Vishnu, Durga and other gods and goddesses sculpted here are unforgettable in their quality and liveliness. For the first time in Indian sculpture, we also come across portraits of kings and queens. This is an important turning point and the beginning of the depiction of imperial grandeur in the art of India.

The Cholas succeeded the Pallavas as the prominent dynasty of south India. The sense of imperial majesty reaches a climax of heroic proportions in the art of the Cholas.

The Brihadeesvara temple in Thanjavur, built by Rajaraja Chola, and the temple at Gangaikondacholapuram, built by his son Rajendra, are the pinnacles of the artistic achievements of the Cholas.

The temple in Thanjavur is an eloquent expression of the extent and power of the Chola empire under Rajaraja. The temple is called Brihadeesvara (the Great Lord), with reference to Siva's greatness. It was also called Rajarajesvara temple after the king.

The temple is a veritable treasure house of Chola art. The sculptures are of impressive proportions and adorn the huge pyramidal vimana with great stateliness. Here we find a great wealth of iconographic detail and an emphasis on the heroic aspects of Siva. Indeed, the entire temple appears to reflect the power and grandeur of both Siva and the king.

The art of the Cholas comes to its fruition and finds expression in the famed bronzes. From the 10th to the 12th century, some of the finest sculptural pieces of Indian art were made under the Cholas.

Chola bronzes capture the stately dignity of the art of the period. While they are grand, they are also graceful and sensitive.

The finest sculptures of the Chola period are of the form of Siva as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, of which many bronze figures were made. The image of Nataraja, which combines dynamic movement with graceful harmony, conveys a deep sense of the eternal rhythm of the cosmos.

During the Chola period, the art of south India also evolved from its earlier simplicity and naturalism to a style of greater formality and monumentality.

THE magnificent site of Ellora near Aurangabad marks one of the grandest moments ever in the art of India. Of the 33 caves sculpted out of the side of the mountain here, Cave 16 is the most spectacular achievement of rock-cut architecture and sculpture.

The rock-cut caves of Ellora span a period of about 350 years, from the 6th to the 10th century. Caves 1-12 are Buddhist, caves 13-29 are Hindu and caves 30-33 belong to the Jain faith.

Ellora presents us the final and full development of rock-cut architecture and sculpture in India. It is a site created by a vision of grandeur and hewn out of vast rock surfaces. The sculpture here is awesome in its scale and spectacle and yet tender and sensitive. It is a wondrous world of gods and celestial beings created out of living rock.

While the sculpture of Ellora shows the continuation of the sensitive and supple past traditions, it also brings to us the beginnings of the medieval idiom of sculpture in India. We see here the coming of stylisation in elongated figures and angularities of forms. The beginnings of the new idiom are also reflected in the paintings of this great monument.

The Gangas were an ancient dynasty who ruled over Gangavadi (in Karnataka, with their capital at Talakad) from the 2nd to the 10th century. The greatest monument of the Gangas is the colossal image of Bahubali, popularly known as Gomatesvara, at Shravanabelagola in Karnataka. It is dated to the end of the 10th century and is said to be the largest freestanding monolithic sculpture in the world, at a height of about 18 metres.

In keeping with the Jain view that saints or tirthankaras are supposed to be beyond the material world and its sensuous attachments, the great statue has a certain stiffness, which represents the realm of pure objectivity. Bahubali was a Jain tirthankara who stood so long in meditation that vines grew around his body, as is represented in the statue. His posture is a specific meditational pose known as kayotsarga.

The Sun temple of Konarak is one of the great masterpieces of Indian sculpture and architecture. Built during the reign of Narasimhadeva I in the mid-13th century, the temple was conceived as a gigantic stone representation of the sun god's chariot. On either side, 12 huge wheels are carved into the plinth, and the building is preceded by seven sculpted horses, which draw the chariot.

The 24 wheels represent the hours of the day, and the rows of horses represent the steeds of the sun, in his journey across the skies. Some of the wheels have been lost, but one is still overwhelmed by the intricate carving on the stone, especially on the rims and spokes of the wheels. Here, a profusion of designs - creepers, animals, birds and men, all intermingle freely.

The jagmohan (audience hall) and the natya mandir in the temple complex are covered with a profusion of exquisite sculptures. These include some of the finest depictions of mithuna couples, symbolising the ecstatic bliss experienced by the soul when it is reunited with the lord. On the pyramidal roof of the hall are beautiful free-standing sculptures of female musicians, who provide music for the passage of the god's chariot through the heavens.

The sculptures of the heavenly musicians and those of the smaller figures in a multitude of dance poses in other parts of the complex conjure up a festival of music and dance for the rising sun.

Large niches on three sides of the ruined shrine have striking figures of the sun god in various forms. The nine planets are represented as figures placed within architectural niches. An outstanding sculpture is the solar aspect of Siva as Bhairava, who is represented dancing in the boat in which he crosses the ocean of the sky.

The Oriyan figures have an extravagance of mood and appearance. Their generous grace remains untouched by heaviness or over-ornate style and profuse details.

THE valley of Kashmir, in the north of India, was known in ancient times as Sharada Peeth, the seat of the goddess of learning. It was a great centre of Buddhism and also of the Saivite and Vaishnavite faiths. The art of Kashmir continued the mainstream traditions coming from the Gupta-Vakataka period. Kashmir was also at a crossroads of culture and here the classic traditions of Indian art met with and incorporated influences from Persia, central and north-west Asia and Mediterranean Europe.

Sculptural heads, which have been found at Akhnoor and Uskur of the late 5th century, show a strong relationship with the contemporaneous Gupta idiom, especially in the softly modelled facial features.

The remains of the Sun temple at Martand (rebuilt by Lalitaditya in the 8th century), testify to an original construction, which must have been one of the grandest temples in the subcontinent. Each of the 84 niches in the surrounding wall of the temple originally contained an image, probably of some form of Surya (sun), and more depictions of the sun god were placed around the plinth of the temple.

In the 8th century, Kashmir was a major centre of Buddhism, whose influence spread throughout northern and eastern Asia. In that period, Parihaspura in Kashmir was the site of many Buddhist stupas and Hindu monuments. The remains of these still give the visitor a sense of their original grandeur and scale. A number of beautiful stone sculptures have been found at this site. Several of them are representations of crowned Buddhas, which had become popular iconic forms in Buddhist art by the 8th century, where the ornaments are symbols of the highest spiritual achievements.

Stylistically, many of the figures show the influence of the Bactro-Gandhara region, especially in the toga-like garments with emphasised folds. However, their inward-looking eyes and the sensitivity and gentleness of expression show a continuation of Gupta traditions.

The sculpture of Kashmir is one of the lesser-known chapters in the history of Indian art. It, however, represents a period of great beauty and shows the finest continuation of the art of the classic period.

After the Golden Age of the Guptas, which lasted until the 6th century, the next great phase of the blossoming of art in northern India took place from the 8th to the 12th century in the eastern plains in Bihar and Bengal, and this included Magadha, the land where the Buddha was born.

During this period of intellectual activity and art in the eastern plains, Buddhist monks and pilgrims from near and distant parts of Asia, including China, South-East Asia, Nepal and Tibet (China) came to Bihar and Bengal to study Buddhism and to carry back the religious, cultural and artistic influence of this region. Indeed the art of the eastern plains in this period had a significant impact on the art of the whole of Asia.

This region was ruled by the Pala dynasty, with some parts ruled by the Senas. These kings were great patrons of the Buddhist monasteries and viharas, as well as of the prolific creation of statues and paintings.

The Pala school of art first flourished in southern Bihar, the homeland of the Buddhist faith. Gradually, the centres of art further east in Bihar and Bengal began to grow in importance. During the rule of the Senas, who came to power in the late 11th century, Bengal became the major centre of art.

By the end of the 12th century, foreign invaders had destroyed important Buddhist and Hindu monuments of the eastern plains. Although the architectural heritage of this period is lost, large numbers of sculptures have survived and these reflect the glorious traditions of those times. Most of the sculptures are in the form of steles and would have been set into niches in the buildings.

The stupa of the early Pala period at Paharpur, now in Bangladesh, has fine terracotta figures in plaques at the base of the monument. The recently excavated base of a large stupa in south Tripura, dated to around the 9th and10th centuries, also has excellent and lively sculptural figures. There are also a large number of metal images, which survive from the Pala and Sena periods, from both Bihar and Bengal.

The earliest art of the Pala period is reminiscent of late-Gupta carvings. The relaxed posture, treatment of the hair and graceful simplicity recall the earlier idiom. However, more detailed carving of the lotus pedestal and jewellery indicate a departure from the early style. In the fully developed Pala-Sena tradition, the figures are more stylised rather than naturalistic. They follow the guidelines of complex iconography, which had been formulated by this period.

A rich variety of iconography is presented in the Pala-Sena sculptures. During this time, the great universities of Nalanda, Vikramshila and Odantpura flourished in eastern India. Religious philosophies were deeply analysed and developed in detail, and this is reflected in the sculptural forms.

The Buddhist and Hindu sculptural art of Kashmir came to an abrupt end with the dominance of Islamic rulers from the middle of the 14th century. However, the traditions of Kashmiri art lived on in other regions beyond the borders of Kashmir.

Throughout the first millennium, the Tibetan plateau, including Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur, had turned to Kashmir for the knowledge and artistic traditions of Buddhism. The First Great Coming of Buddhism in the trans-Himalayas was when Guru Padmasambhava arrived there from Kashmir to establish the faith in the region in the 8th century. The Second Great Coming of Buddhism was with the construction of 108 monasteries in the 11th century in order to revive the faith. These monasteries were constructed and decorated with sculptures and paintings by artists who were invited from Kashmir. Some of these monasteries survive even today. They open a marvellous window, showing the art and sculptural styles of Kashmir and the Tibetan plateau at the beginning of the second millennium.

On the ancient route between Srinagar and Leh, there is an enormous figure of the Bodhisattva Maitreya carved on the face of a solitary rock at Mulbek. The style of this figure reveals 8th-9th century Kashmiri conventions. The attention to the abdominal and pectoral muscles, the high arching brows and the full-cheeked face of the figure, as well as the simplicity of the ornamentation and jewellery are typical of the style of Kashmir at that time.

The surviving monasteries made by Kashmiri artists from the late 10th century onwards have fine examples of wood carvings. The entrance doorways of the Sumtsek and Dukhang at Alchi and Wanla in Ladakh, Tabo, Nako and Ribba in Lahaul-Spiti constitute a treasure house of the earliest extant Buddhist wood carvings.

The interiors of the monasteries at Alchi and Wanla are dominated by mud statues of Bodhisattvas. The monasteries at Tabo, Nako, Lhalung and Ribba have many graceful statues, which are affixed to the interior walls.

These statues have the most gentle and peaceful expressions. Their graceful gestures exhibit various attitudes of Buddhist iconography and they transport us to a magical and sublime world.

The history of northern India after the Guptas until the establishment of the Mughal empire by Akbar is the history of numerous Rajput clans which ruled over different parts of the region.

There are isolated temples, which survive at various sites of this period. Of these, the temples of the Solanki period are noteworthy.

At Modhera stands a fine Sun temple, which was made in the 11th century. Every inch of it appears covered with exquisite carving of figures and foliate motifs. The detailed and intricate sculpture is reminiscent of the wood carving tradition of Gujarat.

Jainism, like Buddhism, had spread across most of India and by the late medieval period attracted a strong following among the wealthy mercantile communities of western India. The flourishing trade in cloth and ivory from the ports of western India brought great wealth into this region and many lavish temples were built.

Throughout Saurashtra, Gujarat and western Rajasthan are many Jain monuments, the most beautiful among which are the shrines of Mount Abu in south-west Rajasthan. Here, between A.D. 1032 and A.D. 1233, Jains brought the late styles of western India to a last flowering. The two most outstanding examples are the Vimala Sha temple (1032) and the Tejahpala/Vastupala temple (1233).

Objective and detached from the physical and material world, the Jain tirthankaras are symbols of spiritual perfection. Jain sculpture developed a style of representing these figures in which the forms of the body are abstracted to almost pure geometric equivalents. However, the style of the subsidiary figures adorning the temples is generally very lively and animated.

During the 12th century, in Karnataka, the Hoysalas created the most profusely sculpted temples, at Belur and Halebid. These are ornamented visions, with detailed and delicate carving. The figures are deeply undercut so that these and other motifs stand out sharply against their shadows. Decorative elements, such as female figures and vine scrolls, are placed in horizontal rows along the temple wall, creating a highly organised and controlled design pattern.

In the 14th century, the kingdom of Vijayanagar was established in south India, with its capital at Hampi. This powerful kingdom created a sanctuary in the south, where temple art and sculpture continued. The sculpture of the Vijayanagar empire exhibits the vigour and pride of the period. The grand monolithic depictions of Narasimha and Ganesa are impressive in their scale and monumentality.

A unique feature of the art of Hampi is the vast numbers of figures carved in low relief on the walls of the Hazara Rama temple and on the base of the platform of the King's pavilion. These depict the joyous and cosmopolitan life of the kingdom of Vijayanagar: we see delightful dancers, musicians, acrobats and even Portuguese merchants displaying Arabian horses before the king and other buyers.

The Nayaks came to power after the decline of the Vijayanagar empire and made many temples in order to celebrate the greatness and glory of Siva and of their own rule. The art of the Nayak period was a continuation of the traditions fostered by the Vijayanagar kings. Architecture and sculpture became more ambitious, with an emphasis on decoration and large scale.

Vast corridors of sculpted pillars and richly ornamented shrines covered with elaborate carvings are the hallmarks of this period. There was a marked emphasis on scale and ornateness. The great artistic achievement of the Nayaks is the grand Meenakshi temple at Madurai. This is one of the most impressive temple complexes in the whole of India. The interior corridors, pillared halls and shrine areas of the complex are profusely carved with heavily ornamented monumental sculpted forms.

The sculpture of India presents 5,000 years of the continuous evolution of this noble art. In the ancient vision, the work of the sculptor was to reveal the image contained within the stone and, in different styles, which evolved through the ages, there is a fine consistency of his dedication to his divine task. Through the centuries, we also see important changes that take place in the manner and content of the art, as it reflects the changing times and beliefs of the Indian people.

The writer is an art historian, film-maker and photographer. He is the author of The Ajanta Caves, and has produced 26 films for Doordarshan on the paintings of India.

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