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Hindu art
Hindu artworks and artifacts from different periods.

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, is the religion of about 15-16 % of the world's population[1] 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.[2] 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.


Earliest depictions of Hindu deities (3rd-2nd centuries BCE)

Early depictions of Hindu deities
Balarama (lower right) on a Mauryan empire coin, 3rd BCE.[3]
Lakshmi on a coin of Pantaleon, circa 180 BCE[4]
Coins of Agathocles with Hindu deities Balarama-Samkarshana and Vasudeva-Krishna, with Greek and Brahmi script, circa 180 BCE.[4]

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.[5]

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.[4][3] 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.[6] 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.[4][7] 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.[7]

Early Hindu reliefs
The Katra architrave, possibly representing Brahmins and the cult of the Shiva Linga, Mathura, circa 100 BCE[8]
Worship of Shiva Linga by Gandharvas, 2nd-1st century BCE

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.[7]

Early reliefs (1st century BCE)

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.[8] 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.[9][10]

Hindu art under the Kushans (2nd-3rd century CE)

The Caturvyūha Viṣṇu: Vāsudeva and other members of the Vrishni clan.[11] Vāsudeva (avatar of Vishnu) is fittingly in the center with his heavy decorated mace on the side and holding a conch, his elder brother Balarama to his right under a serpent hood, his son Pradyumna to his left (lost), and his grandson Aniruddha on top.[11][12] 2nd century CE, Mathura Museum.

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.[13] 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.[13] 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.[14] 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[15]

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.[16] 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.[11][12] The back of the relief is carved with the branches of a Kadamba tree, symbolically showing the relationship being the different deities.[11] The depiction of Vishnu was stylistically derived from the type of the ornate Bodhisattvas, with rich jewelry and ornate headdress.[17]

Hindu art under the Guptas (4th-6th century CE)

Iconography of Vishnu
(5th century CE)
A terracotta statue of Vishnu Caturanana ("Four-Armed"), using the attributes of Vāsudeva-Krishna, with the addition of an aureole around the head (5th century CE). Uttar Pradesh.[20]
Visnu Visvarupa: Vishnu as three-headed cosmic creator, showing Vishnu with a human head, flanked by his avatars (the head of a lion for Narasimha, the muzzle of a boar for Varaha) with a multitude of beings on his aureole, symbol of the emanations resulting from his creative power. 5th century CE, Mathura.[20]

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.[21]

Development of the iconography of Vishnu

Until the 4th century CE, the worship of Vāsudeva-Krishna seems to have been much more important than that of Vishnu.[20] 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.[20] 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.[20]

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.[20] 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.[22][20]

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.[20] These sculptures can be dated to the 5th century CE.[20]

Incorporation of Lakshmi

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.[23] She thus became the Hindu goddess of wealth, good fortune, prosperity and beauty.[24]

Medieval period (8th-16th century)

Hindu art became largely prevalent from the Medieval period onward. It was accompanied by the decline of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent.

Early modern period (16th-19th century)

Modern period

Popular dance and music art forms

Natya Shastra and centuries of Hindu cultural traditions have given rise to several art forms. Some of which are:

floral decoration
A Hindu dance depicting the goddess Durga

64 traditional arts

Hindu dances as part of ritual

Numerical list

  1. gita — art of singing.
  2. vadya — art of playing on musical instruments.
  3. nritya — art of dancing.
  4. natya — art of theatricals.
  5. alekhya — art of painting.
  6. viseshakacchedya — art of painting the face and body with colored unguents and cosmetics.
  7. tandula-kusuma-bali-vikara — art of preparing offerings from rice and flowers.
  8. pushpastarana — art of making a covering of flowers for a bed.
  9. dasana-vasananga-raga — art of applying preparations for cleansing the teeth, clothes, and painting the body.
  10. mani-bhumika-karma — art of making the jewel garlands.
  11. sayya-racana — art of covering the bed.
  12. udaka-vadya — art of playing on music in water.
  13. udaka-ghata — art of splashing water on ground.
  14. citra-yoga — art of practically applying an admixture of colors.
  15. malya-grathana-vikalpa — art of designing a preparation of wreaths or garlands.
  16. sekharapida-yojana — art of practically setting the coronet on the head.
  17. nepathya-yoga — art of practically dressing
  18. karnapatra-bhanga — art of decorating the tragus of the ear.
  19. sugandha-yukti — art of practical application of aromatics.
  20. bhushana-yojana — art of applying or setting ornaments.
  21. aindra-jala — art of jugglery.
  22. kaucumara — a kind of art.
  23. hasta-laghava — art of sleight of hand.
  24. citra-sakapupa-bhakshya-vikara-kriya — art of preparing varieties of foods – curries, soups, sweetmeats
  25. panaka-rasa-ragasava-yojana — art of preparing palatable drinks and fruit juices
  26. suci-vaya-karma — art of needleworks and weaving.
  27. sutra-krida — art of playing with thread.
  28. vina-damuraka-vadya — art of playing on lute and small x-shaped drum.
  29. prahelika — art of making and solving riddles.
    1. pratimala — art of caping or reciting verse for verse as a trial for memory or skill.
  30. durvacaka-yoga — art of practicing language difficult to be answered by others.
  31. pustaka-vacana — art of reciting books.
  32. natikakhyayika-darsana — art of enacting short plays and anecdotes.
  33. kavya-samasya-purana — art of solving enigmatic verses.
  34. pattika-vetra-bana-vikalpa — art of designing preparation of shield, cane and arrows.
  35. tarku-karma — art of spinning by spindle.
  36. takshana — art of carpentry.
  37. vastu-vidya — art of engineering.
  38. raupya-ratna-pariksha — art of testing silver and jewels.
  39. dhatu-vada — art of metallurgy.
  40. mani-raga jnana — art of judging jewels.
  41. akara jnana — art of mineralogy.
  42. vrikshayur-veda-yoga — art of practicing medicine or medical treatment, by herbs.
  43. mesha-kukkuta-lavaka-yuddha-vidhi — art of knowing the mode of fighting of lambs, cocks and birds.
  44. suka-sarika-prapalana (pralapana)? — art of maintaining or knowing conversation between male and female cockatoos.
  45. utsadana — art of healing or cleaning a person with perfumes.
  46. kesa-marjana-kausala — art of combing hair.
  47. akshara-mushtika-kathana — art of talking with fingers.
  48. mlecchita-kutarka-vikalpa — art of fabricating barbarous or foreign sophistry.
  49. desa-bhasha-jnana — art of knowing provincial dialects.
  50. pushpa-sakatika-nirmiti-jnana — art of knowing prediction by heavenly voice or knowing preparation of toy carts by flowers.
  51. yantra-matrika — art of mechanics.
  52. dharana-matrika — art of the use of amulets.
  53. samvacya — art of conversation.
  54. manasi kavya-kriya — art of composing verse mentally.
  55. kriya-vikalpa — art of designing a literary work or a medical remedy.
  56. chalitaka-yoga — art of practicing as a builder of shrines
  57. abhidhana-kosha-cchando-jnana — art of the use of lexicography and meters.
  58. vastra-gopana — art of concealment of cloths.
  59. dyuta-visesha — art of knowing specific gambling.
  60. akarsha-krida — art of playing with dice or magnet.
  61. balaka-kridanaka — art of using children's toys.
  62. vainayiki vidya — art of enforcing discipline.
  63. vaijayiki vidya — art of gaining victory.
  64. vaitaliki vidya — art of awakening master with music at dawn
  65. aaaah vidya — art of awakening sound from Mani.

Historic texts on art practices

Cities dedicated to the production of art

Common symbols

See also

  • Kalā
  • Alpana
  • Balinese art
  • Art of Champa
  • Jnana Vigraham
  • Madhubani art
  • Rangoli
  • Tanjore painting
  • References

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    2. ^ "Heart of Hinduism: Sanskrit and Sanskriti (Culture)." 2004, 30 Mar 2009. < Archived 2010-07-29 at the Wayback Machine>.
    3. ^ a b Bopearachchi, Osmund. Achaemenids and Mauryans: Emergence of Coins and Plastic Arts in India.
    4. ^ a b c d Neelis, Jason (2010). Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks: Mobility and Exchange Within and Beyond the Northwestern Borderlands of South Asia. BRILL. pp. 102–103. ISBN 978-90-04-18159-5.
    5. ^ "The folk art typifies an older plastic tradition in clay and wood which was now put in stone, as seen in the massive Yaksha statuary which are also of exceptional value as models of subsequent divine images and human figures." in Agrawala, Vasudeva Sharana (1965). Indian Art: A history of Indian art from the earliest times up to the third century A. D. Prithivi Prakashan. p. 84.
    6. ^ "Various attempts were made by numismatists to identify the human figures holding various attributes, appearing on the Imperial series of the punch-marked coins dated to the 3rd century BCE. The recent article by Wilfried Pieper has proposed a comprehensive survey of these coins with Vaiṣṇava divinities. The god most probably holding a plough in his raised left hand and pestle in his raised right hand is no doubt Balarāma." in Bopearachchi, Osmund. Achaemenids and Mauryans: Emergence of Coins and Plastic Arts in India.
    7. ^ a b c Osmund Bopearachchi, 2016, Emergence of Viṣṇu and Śiva Images in India: Numismatic and Sculptural Evidence
    8. ^ a b Quintanilla, Sonya Rhie (2007). History of Early Stone Sculpture at Mathura: Ca. 150 BCE – 100 CE. BRILL. pp. 47–49, Fig. 29 and 30. ISBN 9789004155374.
    9. ^ Quintanilla, Sonya Rhie (2007). History of Early Stone Sculpture at Mathura, ca. 150 BCE – 100 CE. BRILL. p. 42. ISBN 9789047419303.
    10. ^ Kumar, Raj (2003). Essays on Indian Art and Architecture. Discovery Publishing House. pp. 50–51. ISBN 9788171417155.
    11. ^ a b c d Paul, Pran Gopal; Paul, Debjani (1989). "Brahmanical Imagery in the Kuṣāṇa Art of Mathurā: Tradition and Innovations". East and West. 39 (1/4): 132–136, for the photograph p.138. ISSN 0012-8376. JSTOR 29756891.
    12. ^ a b Srinivasan, Doris (1979). "Early Vaiṣṇava Imagery: Caturvyūha and Variant Forms". Archives of Asian Art. 32: 39–40. ISSN 0066-6637. JSTOR 20111096.
    13. ^ a b Paul, Pran Gopal; Paul, Debjani (1989). "Brahmanical Imagery in the Kuṣāṇa Art of Mathurā: Tradition and Innovations". East and West. 39 (1/4): 125. ISSN 0012-8376. JSTOR 29756891.
    14. ^ Honour, Hugh; Fleming, John (2005). A World History of Art. Laurence King Publishing. p. 244. ISBN 978-1-85669-451-3.
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    16. ^ Singh, Upinder (2008). A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. Pearson Education India. p. 439. ISBN 978-81-317-1677-9.
    17. ^ Bautze-Picron, Claudine (2013). "A neglected Aspect of the Iconography of Viṣṇu and other Gods and Goddesses". Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Arts. XXVIII–XXIX: 81–92.
    18. ^ Paul, Pran Gopal; Paul, Debjani (1989). "Brahmanical Imagery in the Kuṣāṇa Art of Mathurā: Tradition and Innovations". East and West. 39 (1/4): 128. ISSN 0012-8376. JSTOR 29756891.
    19. ^ Rosenfield, John M. (1967). The Dynastic Arts of the Kushans. University of California Press. p. 93.
    20. ^ a b c d e f g h i For English summary, see page 80 Schmid, Charlotte (1997). Les Vaikuṇṭha gupta de Mathura : Viṣṇu ou Kṛṣṇa?. pp. 60–88.
    21. ^ a b "Collections-Virtual Museum of Images and Sounds". American Institute of Indian Studies.
    22. ^ "Because they date to a period when the Pancharatra sect was most influential, these two images are probably best identified as Chaturvyuha (or Four-Vyuha) Vishnu. The central face is that of Vishnu’s most supreme, most transcendent vyuha, or emanation, known as Vasudeva. The subsequent, less abstract vyuhas, in the form of a lion and a boar, appear at either side, with another vyuha implied at the back. The positions of the lion and boar heads differ in these two pieces, indicating that there was some disagreement about the way the viewer should read such an icon." "Brooklyn Museum".
    23. ^ "By about the 3rd/4th century CE, Shri Lakshmi was absorbed into the Vaishnava pantheon as the consort of Vishnu" in Singh, Upinder (2008). A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. Pearson Education India. p. 438. ISBN 978-81-317-1677-9.
    24. ^ James G. Lochtefeld (2002). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M. The Rosen Publishing Group. pp. 385–386. ISBN 978-0-8239-3179-8. Retrieved 15 October 2016.; Quote: "[Goddess] Lakshmi is associated with wealth, good fortune, and prosperity, and is considered the embodiment of all these things."
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