Art and religion

The art and architecture of the Indian subcontinent reflect its complex history. Some of the earliest art to survive is in the form of stone carvings on temples, dating from 2000 years ago to the current day.


South Asian artists were not as concerned with the illusion of space and the use of perspective as their Western counterparts. Instead, the emphasis was on expressing philosophical and religious concepts through a complex language of images and symbols.

Symbolism is very important in South Asian art, and one symbol may have many meanings depending on where it is seen, and in what context. Images that frequently appear in sculpture are those of animals and plants, portrayed with great accuracy and skill. They appear in wood, ivory and stone across the region.


In India, as in the rest of the world, the veneration of nature has inspired artists for thousands of years. The Buddhist temple at Sanchi is encrusted with elaborate stone carvings of plants and animals. The lotus flower appears many times here, underlining its importance as a symbol of purity and spontaneous generation in Buddhism.

Beautiful painting of lotus dating to about 1800. The purple petals make a striking pattern.
A lotus flower. In Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, the unfolding flower embodies the endless Ocean of Creation.

The lotus flower is also important in Hindu temples. Temples dedicated to Vishnu depict the lotus flower in a variety of positions and stages, such as beneath the seated Sri Lakshmi, or growing from the navel of Vishnu. The appearance of plants in temple art is not random, but particular to the god, goddess or event that the building was built to honour.


Trees are dominant in religious sculpture, in particular those popularly called the bodhi trees, which are associated with the sages that receive enlightenment beneath their branches.

Buddhist temples are often adorned with aswattha (Ficus religiosa), the bodhi tree under which Buddha is often depicted. Trees appear in religious Indian art not as decorative scenery, as props would fill a stage. Instead, they are living or spiritual beings, or the abode of tree-spirits and deities. Sometimes trees appear with human limbs, such as those in carvings at the Hindu temple Mahahbodi.


Flowers feature on many temple walls, often with a set number of petals, from the 4-petal image to the 5-petal, 6-petal and 8-petal symbol. Each variation of this flower motif has a significantly different religious meaning, for example, the five petals on a flower motif may refer to the five senses, a 4-petal flower the four stages of life for a Hindu lifespan, and so on.

The elaborate development of temple art was brought to an end with the Muslim invasions that began in the 11th century. Artists, sculptors and craftsmen had to either move further and further south, or adapt to the artistic constraints of their new rulers.