Evolution of Indian Art | Overview of Dynasties

Antiquity Guide


A Chronological Overview of Dynasties and Periods

The Indian sub-continent has a tradition of visual arts dating back more than 5000 years. The works of art produced were diverse in their style, subject and medium used; at once complex interpretations of philosophical musings and manifestations of ‘bhakti’ or the love of devotees’ for higher beings. The sheer scale and depth of the artistic traditions of the sub continent continues to enthrall connoisseurs around the world.

The development of the sculptural arts in India has grown through centuries from the Indus valley civilization in the third millennium B.C. Sculptures in stone form an integral part of the aesthetic idiom of classical Indian art, as do decorations in temples like those at Khajuraho, and standalone fi gurines like the Didarganj Yakshini or the many statues of Buddha. The trajectory of Indian sculpture is marked by a continuous evolution that seems to roughly overlap with the dynasties that ruled the subcontinent, which is not surprising as much of the patronage for the arts came from these royal houses.

The Indus Valley Civilization, with its well planned towns, did not leave any record of monumental sculpture. However, what it did leave were remarkable miniature sculptures in stone, metal and terracotta. A new effl orescence in art and architecture in the subcontinent, however, came with the emergence of religions like Buddhism and Jainism. Apart from sculptures, these new artistic traditions included rock cut caves, monumental stupas and elaborately carved doorways amongst other architectural elements and structures.

The Maurya Empire, established by Chandragupta Maurya in 322 B.C., lasted in power until 185 B.C., and produced some of the earliest works of art and architecture, including the great stone stupas of Barhut and Sanchi and free standing pillars with superior polish on stone. The earliest surviving objects of art from this period date to the reign of Asoka the Great, the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, whose vast territories extended from the borders of the Chola Kingdom in the South to Kandahar in the Northwest.

Following the assassination of Brihadrata in 185 B.C. and the coup the followed, the Mauryas were succeeded by the Sunga dynasty in the North and then the Kanvas, and by the Satavahanas in the South. In addition, the IndoGreeks from Parthia and Bactria extended their territories from the northwest into the trans-Indus region and central India, leaving a few great examples of their artistic traditions including coins and sculptures in Hadda, Buner and Takshashila, in present day Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Around the second century A.D., the Kushanas, a line of kings from Central Asia, established themselves in South Asia. Under Kanishka, their fifth and most famous ruler, the Kushan Empire extended from Ujjain, Mathura and Sarnath, across the Hindu-Kush to Afghanistan and Bactria. Several sculptures and reliefs from Gandhara and Mathura depict characteristically robed Kushans as devotees of Buddha, Maitreya and the Bodhisattva.

In the fourth century, the Gupta kings came to power. The foundations of the empire were laid by Chandragupta I, and were built upon by his son, Samudragupta. However, it was the reign of Chandragupta II, his son, which is remembered for its thriving artistic, literary, scientifi c and cultural practices. It is widely believed that the zenith of Indian classical art was reached during this period, and that the treatment of the human form in sculpture was at its most lyrical, graceful and balanced. Synthesizing Hindu, Jain and Buddhist traditions, works of art created during the Gupta period include the famous carved panels of the Dashavatara Temple in Deogarh and the cast iron pillar at the Qutub complex in Delhi.

To the south of the Gupta territories in the Deccan plateau, the Vakatakas, who were allies to the Guptas, ruled, having succeeded the Satavahanas. The Vakatakas were also great patrons of the arts, and oversaw the creation of the caves of Ajanta and their renowned frescoes.

Following several generations of kings, the Gupta Empire was eventually weakened in the sixth century by a Huna invasion and the rise of King Yasodharman in Malwa. However, after the downfall of the Guptas, the next great ruler of North India is generally acknowledged as Harshavardhana of Thanesar, who successfully united the small republics that emerged in north and central India from the remains of the Gupta Empire. Apart from being a playwright himself, Harsha commissioned several including and was a patron of Nalanda University.

Harshavardhana’s contemporaries to the South were also renowned patrons of the arts. Ruling over the Deccan was Pulakesi II, of the Western Chalukyas, and further South, the Pallava ruler Narasimhavarman.

The Pallavas were deeply art-minded. While the Pallava ruler Mahendravarman introduced of rock-cut architecture in the South, his son, Narasimhavarman, is responsible for the art and temples in the sea port of Mahabalipuram. Correspondingly, Mangalesa of the Chalukyas is responsible for the artistic beautifi cation of the city of Badami.

Just as the Pallava king Rajasimha, and his queen Rangapataka, built the Kailasnatha temple, the Chalukya king, Vikramaditya, and his queen, Trailokya-Mahadevi built the Mallikarjuna temple at Pattadakal.

In the eighth century, the Chalukyas were succeeded by the Rashtrakuta dynasty, who famously commissioned the Kailasanath temple at Verul or Ellora, the rock cut caves at Elephants, and the Kashivishvanatha and Jain Narayana temples at Pattadakal, Karnataka, amongst other monuments. The main challenge to the Rashtrakuta reign came from the Cholas, who succeeded the Pallavas and the Eastern Chalukyas in the middle of the ninth century, and were some of greatest temple builders and patrons of art.

The artistic contributions of the Chola dynasty include some remarkable pieces cast in bronze, and the great Chidambaram and Gangaikondacholapuram temples amongst others. The appeal of the Chola bronze fi gurines lies not only in their aesthetic sensibilities, which were guided by the Shilpa Sashtras, but also in their technique, namely the lost wax process or cire perdue. The power of the Cholas was fi nally eclipsed in the thirteenth century by the Pandya leader Jatavarman Sundara, but the art of making bronzes continued and spread throughout the region, particularly under the Nayakas during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Nayak dynasty was founded by Vishwanatha Nayak and made Madurai its capital. Thirumalai Nayak in particular, who was one of the most prosperous Nayak rulers, gave a boost to the architectural legacy of the splendid city by creating new structures and expanding its existing landmarks. The Raja Gopuram and sanctuary of the Meenakshi Temple at Madurai was built by Vishwanath Nayak, the fi rst king of the Nayaks.

Following Harshavardhana’s reign, the prevailing dynasties in North India were the Gurjara-Pratiharas, and then the Gahadavalas, during the eleventh century. Further North, in Kashmir, the rule of Muktapida Lalitaditya in the eighth century is regarded as a golden age, during which the town of Parihasapura and the Martanda temple were constructed.

The Palas, who ruled in East India from the eighth to the twelfth centuries, gave a great impetus to art during their reign. This is evident in the bronzes of Kurkihar and Nalanda. Dharmapala and his son, Devapala, were renowned for their patronage of the arts and centers of learning like Vikramasila and Nalanda. Devapala’s exchanges with South East Asian dynasties are evident in the bronze sculptures of the Pala period.

Also in the East, the Ganga kings of Orissa, Anantavarmachodaganga and Narasimha, are credited with building the stunning temple complexes at Puri and Konarak. Some of the other notable dynastic patrons of the arts in India were the Chandellas and Chedis in central India, the Solankis in Gujarat, the Hoysalas in the South, and the Paramaras in Malwa. Art from the Chandella period includes several famous temples constructed in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The Vijayanagara Empire, established in the mid fourteenth century, was one of the last great Hindu kingdoms. Of its rulers, King Krishnadevaraya was responsible for the construction of many temples in South India, and the renovation of several others. While this empire faded following the battle of Talikota, other smaller kingdoms like Madurai under the rule of Thirumalai Nayaka, continued even in the seventeenth century.