Hindu art encompasses the artistic traditions and styles culturally connected to Hinduism and have a long history of religious association with Hindu scriptures, rituals and worship.
Hinduism, with its 1.2 billion followers, makes up about 15-16 % of the world's population and as such the culture that ensues it is full of different aspects of life that are effected by art. There are 64 traditional arts that are followed that start with the classics of music and range all the way to the application and adornment of jewellery. Since religion and culture are inseparable with Hinduism recurring symbols such as the gods and their reincarnations, the lotus flower, extra limbs, and even the traditional arts make their appearances in many sculptures, paintings, music, and dance.
It is thought that before the adoption of stone sculpture, there was an older tradition of using clay or wood to represent Indian deities, which, because of their inherent fragility, have not survived.
There are no remains of such representations, but an indirect testimony appears in the some punch-marked coins of the Mauryan Empire, as well as the coinage of the Indo-Greek king Agathocles, who issued coins with the image of Indian deities, together with legends in the Brami script, circa 180-190 BCE. The deity illustrated in some of the punch-marked coins of the 3rd century BCE is now generally thought to be Balarama, with his attributes: a plough in his raised left hand and pestle in his raised right hand. Also among the first known illustrations of Hindu deities appear on Hellenistic coinage, as witnesses by the Indo-Greeks in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent, and they are generally identified as Balarama-Samkarshana and Vasudeva-Krishna, together with their attributes, especially the Gada mace and the plow for the former, and the Vishnu attributes of the Shankha (a pear-shaped case or conch) and the Sudarshana Chakra wheel for the latter. According to Bopearachchi, the headdress is actually a misrepresentation of a shaft with a half-moon parasol on top (chattra), as seen in later statues of Bodhisattvas in Mathura. It is therefore thought that images, predating the coins but now lost, served as models to the engravers.
The dancing girls on some of the coins of Agathocles and Pantaleon are also sometimes considered as representations of Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu, but also a Goddess of abundance and fortune for Buddhists, or Subhadra, the sister of Krishna and Balarama.
By 100 BCE in the art of Mathura, reliefs start to represent more complex scenes, defining, according to Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, an age of "iconic diversification and narrative maturation". Some reliefs, such as the "Katra architrave", possibly representing Brahmins and the cult of the Shiva Linga. These reliefs from Mathura are dated to circa 100 BCE. These examples of narrative reliefs, although few remain, are as refined and intricate as the better known Buddhist narrative reliefs of Bharhut, Sanchi or Amaravati.
Hindu art started to develop fully from the 1st to the 2nd century CE, and there are only very few examples of artistic representation before that time. Hindu art found its first inspiration in the Buddhist art of Mathura. The three Vedic gods Indra, Brahma and Surya were actually first depicted in Buddhist sculpture, as attendants in scenes commemorating the life of the Buddha, such as his Birth, his Descent from the Trāyastriṃśa Heaven, or his retreat in the Indrasala Cave. During the time of the Kushans, Hindu art progressively incorporated a profusion of original Hindu stylistic and symbolic elements, in contrast with the general balance and simplicity of Buddhist art. The differences appear in iconography rather than in style. It is generally considered that it is in Mathura, during the time of the Kushans, that the Brahmanical deities were given their standard form:
"To a great extent it is in the visual rendering of the various gods and goddesses of theistic Brahmanism that the Mathura artist displayed his ingenuity and inventiveness at their best. Along with almost all the major cult icons Visnu, Siva, Surya, Sakti and Ganapati, a number of subsidiary deities of the faith were given tangible form in Indian art here for the first time in an organized manner. In view of this and for the variety and multiplicity of devotional images then made, the history of Mathura during the first three centuries of the Christian era, which coincided with the rule of the Kusanas, can very well be called revolutionary in the development of Brahmanical sculpture"— Pran Gopal Paul and Debjani Paul, in Brahmanical Imagery in the Kuṣāṇa Art of Mathurā: Tradition and Innovations
Some sculptures during this period suggest that the concept of the avatars was starting to emerge, as images of "Chatur-vyuha" (the four emanations of Vishnu) are appearing. The famous "Caturvyūha Viṣṇu" statue in Mathura Museum is an attempt to show in one composition Vāsudeva (avatar of Vishnu) together with the other members of the Vrishni clan of the Pancharatra system: Samkarsana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha, with Samba missing, Vāsudeva being the central deity from whom the others emanate. The back of the relief is carved with the branches of a Kadamba tree, symbolically showing the relationship being the different deities. The depiction of Vishnu was stylistically derived from the type of the ornate Bodhisattvas, with rich jewelry and ornate headdress.
The first known creation of the Guptas relate to Hindu art at Mathura is an inscribed pillar recording the installation of two Shiva Lingas in 380 CE under Chandragupta II, Samudragupta's successor.
Until the 4th century CE, the worship of Vāsudeva-Krishna seems to have been much more important than that of Vishnu. With the Gupta period, statues focusing on the worship of Vishnu start to appear, and replace earlier statues which are now attributed to Vāsudeva-Krishna. Many of the statues of Vishnu appearing from the 4th century CE, such as the Vishnu Caturanana ("Four-Armed"), use the attributes and the iconography of Vāsudeva-Krishna, but add an aureole starting at the shoulders.
Other statues of Vishnu show him as three-headed (with an implied fourth head in the back), the Visnu Vaikuntha Chaturmurti or Chaturvyuha ("Four-Emanations") type, where Vishnu has a human head, flanked by the muzzle of a boar (his avatar Varaha) and the head of a lion (his avatar Narasimha), two of his most important and ancient avatars, laid out upon his aureole. Recent scholarship considers that these "Vishnu" statues still show the emanation Vāsudeva Krishna as the central human-shaped deity, rather than the Supreme God Vishnu himself.
A further variation is Vishnu as three-headed cosmic creator, the Visnu Visvarupa, showing Vishnu with a human head, again flanked by the muzzle of a boar the head of a lion, but with a multitude of beings on his aureole, symbol of the numerous creations and emanations resulting from his creative power. These sculptures can be dated to the 5th century CE.
In the 3rd-4th century CE, Lakshmi, which had been an independent Goddess of prosperity and luck, was incorporated in the Vaishnava pantheon as the consort of Vishnu. She thus became the Hindu goddess of wealth, good fortune, prosperity and beauty.
Hindu art became largely prevalent from the Medieval period onward. It was accompanied by the decline of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent.
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Natya Shastra and centuries of Hindu cultural traditions have given rise to several art forms. Some of which are: