Indian Art and Architecture: Looking at the History & Present

Indian art and architecture is considered one of the important factors in knowing the countries values. Here’s a detailed study of the same.


Indian Art and Architecture

The three-letter word art encompasses a diverse range of expression and evolution of human beings. With this fact, it is not terrible to say that our great ancestors were outlandish artists, considering which I am curating this read to cover the crucial aspects of artistry and get in-depth knowledge of Indian art and architecture.

On Forthcoming to history, art has different periods and eras. But before moving on further, it is crucial to know about their inspiration? As we all know that inspiration is anything that enables us to complete or at least start something. Behind art, there were objects and things made by humans. Their meaning fetches spiritual, narrative, philosophical, symbolic, and conceptual aspects. Some of the sub-divisions and general categories might have been familiar to you. They cluster according to Prehistory, Antiquity, Middle Eastern, Americas, Asian, and European types. Although the chapters of art provide an interesting read, they have a tremendous syllabus, which means analyzing and appreciating them can take a lot of time. Inclusive to human creativity, art can be paintings, sculptures, architecture, handicrafts, theatres, and photography. The question turns into a sub-division that why art? Prevalently, we form art because we are interested to dive into new things. It is also an indication of our social and emotional happenings. You might have seen the posters and banners for even educating society. Sounds fascinating right? To know that we are surrounded by it everywhere. Nature has also crafted art by cutting the rocks forming waterfalls when rivers flow from heights. So it is clearly understood that art is not just confined to places and things but holds a significant position in our world. Additionally, it is surprising to learn that it can even cure psychological issues such as depression, Alzheimer and anxiety.

Indian art of present times showing elephant on the shores of a lake

Stories in India are miraculous and divine and so is the ancient Indian architecture. Besides being charming, it also takes pride in its heritage. For example, from the ancient Indus valley civilization to the emergence and decay of different empires, invasion of foreign rulers, and colonial era, it reflected the confluence and styles of its pulchritudinous art forms.

On the subject of its different periods, it is primarily divided into Early Indian Art, Middle Kingdoms, Late Medieval Period, Early Modern, and Colonial Era. Furthermore, they are bifurcated into other civilizations and dynasties. It is undeniable that India has a rich history of culture and art, which includes the vibrant Indian architecture, sculpture, paintings, puppetry, theatre, and literature. We all know that the ancient Indian subcontinent geographically included parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. The influence of its presence has also spread to areas like Iran and Central Asia, which further expands its importance. It is possible to gain a deeper understanding of the world by reading through the eyes of foreigners, like Fa-Hein, Al-Biruni, Marco Polo, Ibn Batuta, and so on. If it is so crucial, then give a moment to think what would have happened if Indians did not contribute to art? The consequences are diminishing and to come to conclusion, I will share the next paragraphs for your knowledge to get deepen and precisely pass a judgement. So without a further ado, let us carry the pot of historical remains and learn about Indian art and Indian architecture.

Ancient Indian Architecture: Travelling Through History.

Architecture derives from the Latin word tekton, which means builder. Its modest meaning behind the early man was to find shelters. It appears that modern architecture is currently resting on the shoulders of its predecessors.

Indian Architecture has three periods- Ancient India, Medieval India, and Modern India. Historically, we know the origins of Ancient Indian architecture, also referred to as Old Indian Architecture, which ranges from the Harrapan period to South Indian art. The early civilization used burnt mud bricks joined together by Gypsum Mortar to form buildings. One splendid example of this kind is the Great Bathe from the excavated remains of Mohenjodaro. Numerous scholars believe that the early people used this for religious purposes and religious public bathing. In addition, there were granaries for storing food, and what makes them even more fascinating is the strategic air ducts inside, protecting them from pests, which is an example of a monument with utility.

Great Bath Mohenjo Daro Ancient Indian Architecture
Ancient Indian architecture of Granary Harappa

The Stupas and Pillars.

Moving forward in the Ancient Period of Indian Monuments, the Stupas and Pillars from Mauryan art showed a clear demarcation of art for different communities. Here at Kumrahar, Ashoka’s Palace is a fine early example of such a massive structure decorated with carvings. Excavations have enabled us to learn about the Assembly Hall with 80 pillars, Arogya Vihar, Anand Bihar, and Durakhi Devi Temple. One more example of this kind is the famous Ashokan Pillar which has inscriptions to commemorate battle victories. Further, the prominent Sanchi Stupa has been embellished with Medhi and Toran decorations.

Indian architecture Ruins of Arogya Vihar, Kumhrar
Old India Architecture of Ashoka Pillar Kolhua, Vaishali, Bihar
Indian architecture of East Gateway - Stupa  - Sanchi Hill

Cave Architecture of India.

As the Indian architecture progressed from the Buddhists, the highly polished finish of the interior walls and decorative gateways of caves signalled a crucial development. Among the most impressive cave structures were those in Ajanta and Ellora. Furthermore, paintings in Ajanta Caves of Aurangabad, which used fresco painting techniques, displayed natural elements. As we have seen, different periods of Indian architecture symbolized different meanings. There has been a tremendous evolution of religious places in India thanks to one dominant form of Indian architecture. The contribution of Indian art and architecture was always for ordinary as well as religious purposes.

Indian architecture of Cave 19, Ajanta
Sculpture of Reclining Buddha Cave 29 Ajanta
Indian architecture and sculpture of Ellora Cave 10 Teaching Buddha
Devotional Indian Art of Ajanta Cave 2, Painting

Temple Architecture in India.

Contributing to Temple architecture is not uncommon for most people. Among the earliest

Temple architecture designs are Nagara Style, Dravidian Style, and Nayaka Style. The UNESCO World Heritage Site Pallava has marvelous architecture in terms of this. There were also several temple architecture schools regulated during this period. For example, the Nayaka School that flourished under Nayaka rulers was architecturally similar to the Dravidian Style but more swayed by Islamic architecture. Meenakshi Temple of Madurai was noted to be developed under this. The Vesara School that was conceptualized under Chalukya rulers combined with features of Nagara School and Dravidian School emphasized vimana and mandapa. Ladhkan temple at Aihole is one such example of this kind. Similarly, there were other schools of Temple architecture like Vijayanagara school, Hoysala Art, etc.

Architecture of Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India
Detailed Shot of Meenakshi Temple Decorative Sculptures
Meenakshi Temple paintings on the wall
Temple Architecture of Lad Khan Temple, Aihole, Karnataka
Interior of Lad Khan Temple Aihole Karnataka

Mughal Architecture.

Mughal architecture is top of the list when we talk about Medieval Indian Architecture. It introduced the Charbagh style of gardening, calligraphy for decoration, geometric vegetal ornamentation, a broader sense of symmetry in the structures, and many more. In the Delhi Sultanate Period, there were two kinds of style – Imperial and Provincial, which were promoted by Delhi rulers and local rulers, respectively. The use of red sandstone and mortar as cementing agents was prominent here. Some of the constructions under them are- Moti Masjid, Sheesh Mahal, Rohtas Fort, Taj Mahal, etc.

Mughal Architecture of Moti Masjid in Delhi
Mughal Architecture of Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Mughal Architecture Rohtas Fort, Pakistan

Modern Architecture of India.

The Modern Indian Architecture that is the final phase included the arrival of the European colonists and the decline of Mughal influence in India. Like the Portuguese bought Iberian style with them, similarly French bought the urban planning with them, and the Britishers bought Gothic style of architecture with them. The best examples of their kind are the Se Cathedral of Goa, the Church of Sacred Heart of Jesus of Puducherry, and the St Paul’s Cathedral of Kolkata.

The result of even the minute changes has been to make the whole of Indian art and Architecture a wholesome and inspiring era.

Architecture of St Paul's Cathedral, Kolkata, India
Se' Cathedral Goa Indian architecture

Learning the History and Different Types of Indian Art.

From the perspective of time, the journey of Indian art was similar to the journey of architecture. Unlike Indian architecture, the first paintings were created on cave walls as representations. However, it was only from the Gupta era that art truly began.

Ajanta Cave art showing Jataka tale

According to Vishnudharmottara’s Citrasūtra, there are six elements that make an painting beautiful. They are: Pramanam, Rupabheda, Sadrsyam, Bhava, Lavanya Yojanam, and Varnikabhanga.

From the beginning of prehistoric art, rock engravings were particularly prominent, and these rock carvings are known as petroglyphs.

Furthermore, the paintings can be split into three periods: Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Chalcolithic Period. It is imperative to understand the color formation before analyzing their forms.

Upon careful inspection, we discovered that each of the colors: red, green, and yellow, were created using different minerals. The origin of these colors should be evident by now.

While speaking of the classification of Indian art of painting, there are two types – Mural and Miniature.

Mural Paintings.

Work on walls is known as a mural painting. The Ajanta Caves, Bagh Caves, and Kailasha temple in Ellora are some places where you can observe the beauty and exquisiteness of these carvings. Among the oldest murals in the Ajanta, where pigments are of Tempera style. They portray human values and social fabrics. Graceful postures of humans and animals are shown that is the sense of divinity. Likewise, each cave painting showed glimpses of different eras. For example, the Lepakshi temple paintings witnessed a complete absence of primary colors, especially blue. The Bagh Cave Paintings are exquisite due to tight models, strong outlines, and more earthly and humanistic elements.

Ajanta Cave 17 art of White Elephant
Dancing Girl Cave 1 Ajanta artwork
A prince bringing offerings to Vajrapani, the Bearer of Thunderbolt, in Cave 1 Ajanta Art
Bagh Cave 4 Ajanta painting
Leepakshi Temple Ceiling artwork

Miniature Art.

The second part features miniatures of India. It requires a few conditions to make them, such as a size that is no larger than 25 square inches and that the subject of the painting is no bigger than a sixth of its actual size. These types usually have bulging eyes, pointed noses, and slim waistlines, among other characteristics. It is common for Rajasthani miniatures to have brownish skin, while Mughal miniatures tend to have a more even complexion. There were two prominent schools of this type: the Pala School of Art and the Apabhramsa School of Art. However, both Rajasthani & Mughal miniatures were protruding forms on their own. They had several differences making them exceptional and different from each other. But their beauty remained in no comparison.

Couple Goals, Limestone Miniature Art
Rajasthan Indian Miniature Rajput Painting
Lady with peacock, Limestone Miniature Art

Miniature Art During Delhi Sultanate.

Paintings like these are the result of combining Persian elements with traditional Indian designs. The Persians favored illustrated manuscripts over other art forms. One fine example of this kind is Nimatnama. In addition to this, there was another style called Lodi Khuladar. Later, three main types emerged- Mughal, Deccan, and Rajput.

One can see the difference between the Rajput style & the Mughal Style in terms of the themes, peculiarity, and time. Apart, there were various schools of Indian art of painting like Pahari School & Rajasthani School that carried differently.

Rajput Miniature Indian Painting

Miniatures of South India.

The miniature art paintings of South India were different from North India since they used heavy gold for them. They also used the divine structure and people from the north ones. Tanjore Painting is famous for its gold-coated painting style. Glass and wooden boards are the most popular substrates for these paintings. Because they use brilliant colors and liberally use gold, they are considered unique. Another kind, in Mysore Paintings, Hindu gods and goddesses were formed with gesso paste.

Mysore Painting of India
Tanjore painting India

Folk Paintings.

Among the Folk Paintings of Indian art, Madhubani paintings are traditionally done by the rural women of India. They usually have religious motifs & the figures used in them are symbolic. Despite its old existence and crucial technique, it was only in the 1970s that this art was recognized by the president of India who honored Jagdamba Devi. Another traditional Indian art by Odisha that showed a mixture of classical and folk elements is Pattachitra Paintings.

The themes of these paintings were inspired by Jagannath and Vaishnava cult.

Kalamkari Paintings made by sharp bamboo pens regulating the flow of colors are also famous. There are other folk paintings as well that carried importance like Warli painting, patua art, phad painting, pithora painting, majhusa painting, etc.

Madhubani Painting
Pattachitra painting
Kalamkari painting

Final Words.

With a brief form of words, our only motive was to engage you with the history of Indian art and architecture to the world. Besides being a land of spirituality, India is also rich in culture and history. We hope you loved reading about them!


1. National Council of Educational Research & Training.

2. Ministry of Culture, Government of India.

3. Elements of Indian art by S. P. Gupta.

Frequently Asked Questions.

What is the oldest Indian art?

One of the oldest forms of Indian art is often referred to as cave or rock art. However, it was only in the Gupta period that art truly began and did not remain just a representation. The Guptas were true Indians with no foreign blood or love for foreign dress, ornaments and mannerisms. Although they had an implied discipline of ‘the orchestra’, the artists were allowed full liberty and thus showcased the most creativity.

What is the main art of India?

From the beginning of the Indian civilization, art has been categorized into three major forms; the art of painting, architecture and sculpture.

What are the different periods of Indian art?

The different periods of Indian art are Mauryan art, Shunga-Satavahana art, Kusåna art, Gupta art, Post Gupta art phase 1, Post Gupta art phase 2, and medieval art.

Is Indian art categorized under Asia?

Indian art, though had a variety of differences with other regions of Asia, is categorized under the Asian art.

What are the 3 types of temples?

The three types of temples in Indian architecture are Nagara, Dravida and the mixture of Nagara and Dravida called Vesara. Most of the northern temples are of the style Nagara, Dravida encompasses the southern India while the middle India has Vesara style of temple architecture.

Which is the oldest architecture site in India?

The remains of Harrapan civilization.

Which state is famous for architecture in India?

Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are some of the states popular for their architectural attractions from different periods.

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