The Indian Region and the Far East




Between the ancient and modern eras, sophisticated civilizations were developing or already in existence in places as distant as India, Java, and Japan. Inspired by differing- and sometimes overlapping - forms of religious thought
and life, these cultures produced a varied array of art and architecture.



In Asia, the cultures of India and China have developed rich artistic traditions over thousands of years. Both have had a profound and widespread influence upon the cultures of surrounding peoples, often developing in tandem with the existing local cultures.


Indian Art from the Mauryato the Gupta

During its long development, Indian art has reflected the constant endeavour to give artistic shape to the divine. The principles of this pursuit remained unchanged over the centuries, but the style of expression took different forms. The pre-classical age is exemplified by the artistic activity of the Maurya (fourth to second century bc) and Sunga (second to first century bc) periods, and later in the art of the important city of Mathura in the Kushan period (first to third century ad). The powerful moulding of Maurya figurative sculpture in polished sandstone and the frontal forms of the Sunga figures at Bharhut and Sanchi were the stylistic examples for the typical Kushan statuary. During the early centuries ad, the abundant production of statues using local pink sandstone provided the foundations for the development of sculpture and the rich Hindu and Buddhist iconography of future years. Some of the most typical images of the Indian world are found at Bharhut and Sanchi; these are the yaksa and yaksini - male and female nature spirits associated with trees and fertility. The male figures are usually in a rigid standing position with a round face and spherical eyes. Female figures reveal characteristic features of Indian grace and beauty: the supple body bent in the trib-hanga posture with the weight on one leg, the sensual shape of the hips and breasts, and the expressive details in the face. There are stupas (domed edifices) and reliquaries dating " to the Sunga period, the earliest of which contain the remains of the Buddha and act as the true focal point of Buddhist culture. These buildings were characterized by an ancient hemispherical shape. On the top of this, a square wall surrounded a pole that passed through the stupa and came out through two or more parasols. The monument was bordered by a circular balustrade, with four gate walls, or toranas, facing the four cardinal points. Stupa 2 at Sanchi was decorated with low relief, as were the four gateways at Bharhut. Amaravati was another artistic centre, which existed at the same time as Mathura, and its sculpture is distinguishable by an image of the Buddha with delicate and elongated features, his robe falling in heavy folds.

Sandstone statue of preaching Buddha, fifth century ad. Archaeoiogicai Museum, Sarnath.

 The Gupta period (ad370-550) was an important part of the classical phase of Indian art. It embodied all Indian aesthetic ideals and formulated the rules for the representation and iconography of Hindu and Buddhist divinities. It was also the period when the shape of the Hindu temple was defined and a formal mode of expression was developed in the arts. The more localized styles of artistic production, which had typified the earlier periods, were replaced by a more unified style. This was first elaborated in Mathura and later exemplified by the school of Sarnath, which established itself as the principal artistic centre of the fifth century. Achieving a balance of form and decoration was both the goal and culmination of Gupta art. However, political, religious, and social changes in the sixth century were to bring distinct changes to the forms of art in medieval times.


Relief showing Vishnu Anantasayana. Vishnu Temple.
Deogarh, Uttar Pradesh The thick and animated network of figures on a variety of levels,
 and the luminosity and sensuality of the high-relief sculpture are very striking.
Perhaps less obvious to the Western observer is the theological content of this sacred work of art.



Gandharan schist statue
of a standing Buddha,
second century.
National Museum, New Delhi.



In the early centuries of the first millennium ad, during the reign of the Kushan sovereigns, two important schools of art developed in the regions of Gandhara in the northwest of modern Pakistan and Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, India. Both centres inherited an ancient artistic tradition, which was manifested in the formulation of well-defined sculptural styles. These two major art schools developed different formal solutions to the anthropomorphic representation of the Buddha. Characterized by an original artistic language enriched by various contributions from other cultures, including the Romano-Hellenist, the Gandharan style can be seen in the production of schist statues of Buddha and narrative reliefs inspired by the Master's life. On the other hand, the sandstone images of the Buddha from Mathura are based solely on Indian tradition.


Temple of Vishnu, Deogarh, Uttar Pradesh, second half of the fifth century. This temple represents
the standard design of temples in the formative Gupta period.


True Indian temple architecture dates from the Gupta period. Prior to this, there had been centuries of religious activity associated with sanctuaries hewn from rock walls, particularly in central-western India. Among the most famous examples of cave temples are the Buddhist grottoes of Ajanta, which were entirely cut out of the rock. In the Gupta period, the format of many Indian temples followed a standardized plan that was to remain the blueprint for later temples. The heart of the building was the cubical cella where the divine image was placed. Raised slightly on a low platform, it was situated inside a square room with an antechamber. A passage surrounded the shrine for the ritual walk around the sacred image. The architraves and jambs of the entrance portal were often richly decorated with plant motifs and the male and female figures of the temple protectors. Images of the Hindu deities also adorned the walls.





The rock-cut temples and "cave" paintings of Ajanta are religious in character and inspired by sacred texts. This particular painting refers to the Vishvantara Jataka, a work narrating the life of Buddha. It shows part of an episode in which the prince tells his wife of his wish to renounce the pleasures of court life and become a monk in his new life as Buddha. Seated on a bed, the princely couple converse, surrounded by three figures. The four columns of the bed and the eyelines of the three figures frame the couple, highlighting them as the subjects of the painting.


Detail from the wall paintings in Cave XVII of Ajanta.
Maharashtra, India.


Stupa of Ruanveli, Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura period.

Sinhalese art

The art of Sri Lanka (previously known as Ceylon) from the fourth century bc to the tenth century ad is best seen in the regions of the ancient capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. The art was inspired mainly by the form of Buddhism that was introduced to the island in the third century bc. Among the most typical monuments are the stupas. such as those of Thuparama and Ruanveli at Anuradhapura, which follow the famous Indian example of Amaravati, but without the narrative reliefs that decorate its body and balustrade. Also typical are the monasteries and the characteristic bodhigham-sanctuaries erected around the sacred bodhi ("illumination") tree. The sculpture in stone and bronze, also influenced by the Amaravati style, consists of statues of the Buddha, clad in a tightly pleated cloak with his right shoulder uncovered. A new, refined sensibility is evident in the carvings of the "moon stones" - engraved slabs situated at the base of the entrance steps to the Buddhist temples. During the last centuries of Anuradhapura's dominance, Sinhalese sculpture reveals the influence of other Indian schools, such as the classical Gupta style and the Pallava style from southern India (seventh to eighth century). These styles were preserved by Sinhalese art, and transmitted to regions of Southeast Asia.


Statue of Vishnu.
The deity's expression
evokes harmony and serenity


The representation of the human figure, which occupies a central position in Indian art, is not concerned with the achievement of realism or individuality. The artists did not seek to illustrate any notion of empirical reality, but chose to represent the spiritual in human form. This is reflected in the bodies of the Hindu gods (rarely defined with anatomical accuracy in order to ensure a harmony of the whole); in the serene and controlled expression of their faces (portraying celestial sovereignty and dominion over the passions); in the multiplication of limbs (sign of divine omnipotence); and in attributes that identify supernatural power. Similarly, the Buddha's image is conveyed through the rapt gaze, the gestures of his hands, and the characteristics that mark him out as a superior being - protruberant skull, open hand, and the symbol of the wheel on the soles of his feet. These sum up the whole spiritual experience as lived and transmitted to his disciples.




Wall-painting from Sigiriya, Sri Lanka, last quarter of the fifth century.


Some compensation for the absence of ancient Indian painting is afforded by the wall-paintings of Ajanta in Maharashtra, India, and Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, both dating from the fifth century. Painted in water colours on dry plaster on the walls of the rock-carved rooms and galleries, both show the influence of classical Gupta art, albeit interpreted in differing fashions. The Ajanta paintings, drawn freely and confidently along conventional lines, illustrate Buddhist narratives, with crowded scenes of people in palaces and gardens. The full, sensual forms of the figures are created by the soft lines of the contours and by the interplay of colour, light, and shade, which accentuates the shapes and creates subtle effects in the expressions of the people. In the figures from Sigiriya, however, there is a sense of greater simplicity. The paintings contain less variety of colour and stylistically place more emphasis on outline.


Wall-painting from the first cave, Ajanta, India, fifth century.



Burmese, Khmer, and Champa Art


Temple of Ananda, Pagan. Burma, late 11th century.
This temple is a magnificent example of Pagan architecture.



The spread of Indian culture was partly a result of commercial contacts with the peoples of Southeast Asia and partly the interaction between the Indian and Southeast-Asian courts of the day during the first centuries of the modern era. Among these kingdoms were ancient Funan at the mouth of the Mekong, Sriksetra in Burma, Dvaravati in Thailand, and the more easterly Linyi in Vietnam - all inhabited by people of diverse ethnic stock and language and and influenced by different aspects of Indian culture. Subsequently, from about the seventh or eighth century, each of these areas was involved in a process of unification, culminating in the foundation of the Cham and Khmer civilizations, and later, in the 13th century, the Thai civilization. Different religious beliefs determined the artistic orientation of these cultures -Buddhist in the case of the Burmese and Thai, Hindu and Buddhist in the case of the Khmer and Cham. By now, these were mature artistic styles, acting independently of Indian models. Local variations produced original results in architecture and sculpture, notably the stupas and sanctuaries of Pagan in Burma, the mountain temples of Angkor and its provincial towns in Cambodia, the distinctive style of bronze manufacture in Sukhotai, and the unusual sculptures of the Champa at Dong Duong. From the 9th to the 13th century, the cities of Angkor and Pagan were the main political and cultural centres of two profoundly different civilizations, the Burmese and the Khmer. Although they differed in their aspirations, the two cultures nevertheless helped each other develop, as exemplified by the Buddhist sanctuaries of Pagan and the Hindu monuments of Angkor. Burmese architecture made exclusive use of brick and stucco. Sanctuary walls were typically lined with plaster, which acted as a surface for the interior wall-paintings, while exterior decoration was confined to the simple moulding and projecting pediments that framed the doors. Panels of glazed terracotta, illustrated with didactic scenes, were sometimes placed around the hemispherical, bell-shaped stupas. Classical Burmese sculpture consists of bronze, stone, and stucco images of Buddha, partly derived from Indian art but distinguished by the stylized modelling and the development of a flamelike skull protuberance. The best examples of classical Khmer art and architecture can be found at the remains of the awe-inspiring ancient city of Angkor. Its sculpture is predominantly Hindu in influence, with rounded statues and shallow reliefs carved on temple walls. The high technical level of Khmer artists is evident in both architecture and sculpture. It is manifested in the skilled use of sandstone blocks in building and in the freestanding statuary, which displays smooth lines and a strong frontality, conveying magnificently the supernatural power of the Hindu divinities. Khmer sculpture is also characterized by the faint smile on the faces of the deities. To a large extent, Champa art parallels that of its neighbouring civilization and is manifested in numerous Hindu temples, particularly at My Son in the north and in the ninth century Buddhist complex of Dong Duong. Rich and imaginative sculpture was also produced, in which diverse influences were blended with great originality.

View of the richly decorated Khmer mountain-temple of Bayon. Cambodia.

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