Artistic Cultures of Asia and the Americas


The Art of Asia



Persia and Islamic India

After the turbulent period of Timurid invasions, Persia was ruled by the Safavid dynasty (1502-1722), which ushered in one of the most peaceful and prolific periods the country had ever known. The kingdom achieved a hitherto unequalled measure of prosperity and creativity during the first phase of the reign of Shah Tahmasp (1524-76), and then, more importantly, with Shah Abbas the Great (1571-1629), at the end of the 16th century, when the capital was moved to Isfahan. Artistic splendour is evident in the fabulous architecture of the capital (Royal Square, the Royal Pavilion of Ali Qapu, and the palaces at Chihil Sutun and Hasht Bihisht) and also in the sensual and refined art of miniature painting and carpet-making, which reached its pinnacle here. The Safavid period marks the beginning of more open relations with the West, the fruits of which were later to be developed under the Zand and Qajar dynasties, when there would also be an Achaemenid revival. The Mughal emperors (1526-1858) of central Asia, likewise proclaimed themselves descendants of the Timurids. In fact, the history of the Islamic penetration of India dates from long before this; there had already been incursions in AD711, 1001, and 1026, while in 1192 the institution of the sultanate had been established in Delhi. At various times and in various places, many local lords declared their independence, but none attained the importance and continuity of the Moghul nobility. The names of Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahanghir, and Shah Jahan are associated with stunning architectural achievements. For the Moghuls, gardens were artificial creations of primary importance. Considerable skill and immense resources went into planning formal gardens on the Persian model, such as those laid out in Kashmir, and all the great capitals were worthily embellished. Two notable examples were Fatehpur Sikri (1570-85), an extraordinary city of red sandstone built by Akbar, and the Taj Mahal (c. 1640), the white marble mausoleum erected by Shah Jahan. The magnificence of the Indian royal courts was proverbial and was reflected in all the arts, including miniatures, which were influenced by contemporary-Hindu styles. 

Mausoleum of the Moghul emperor Humayun at New Delhi, built between 1568 and 1580.


Detail of the honeycomb cells of the muqarnas from the mosque of Imam, Isfahan.





From the emperor's album;
ink. colour, and gold on paper;
38.8 x 25.7 cm (15 x 10 in);
Metropolitan Museum, New York.



This miniature is the work of an Indian painter, Muslim or Hindu, who worked at the court of the emperor Shah Jahan (1628-58), the fifth Moghul sovereign. The miniature portrait, which followed the example of the Persian tradition, was extremely popular under the Islamic rule of the Moghuls and went through a phase of particular splendour in Shah Jahan's reign. The depiction of the sovereign riding a horse was a traditional subject in Asia, derived from Persian examples dating from the Sassanid era. The painted frame contains a scene occupied entirely by the figure of the emperor on horseback. The inner frame is made up of a red border speckled with delicate gold decoration. The border itself is surrounded by other bands, containing a profusion of decorative motifs found also in other parts of the picture, as on the saddle and the emperor's costume.


Indian Miniature

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

also called Jaina Painting, a highly conservative style of Indian miniature painting largely devoted to the illustration of Jaina religious texts of the 12th–16th century. Though examples of the school are most numerous from Gujarat state, paintings in Western Indian style have also been found in Uttar Pradesh and central India. In Orissa on the east coast, the style has persisted almost to the present.

The school is characterized by simple, bright colours, highly conventionalized figures, and wiry, angular drawing. The naturalism of early Indian wall painting is entirely absent.

The earliest manuscripts are on palm leaves, and the same oblong format (about 12 by 4 inches [30 by 10 cm]) was continued even after paper began to be used toward the end of the 14th century. The style, fairly well established by the end of the 13th century, changed little over the next 250 years. Figures are shown for the most part from a frontal view, with the head in profile. The facial type, with its pointed nose, is related to that seen in wall paintings at Ellora (mid-8th century) and is remarkably close to medieval sculpture. A striking convention is the projecting “further eye,” which extends beyond the outline of the face in profile.

The large number of extant Jaina manuscripts is a result mainly of their preservation in bhandaras, or libraries maintained by the Jaina communities. The pious Jaina gainedreligious merit by commissioning religious works, and when the Muslim conquest of Gujarat at the end of the 13th century discouraged the erection of new temples, the wealthy patrons turned their attention to illustrated manuscripts, which became increasingly lavish in their use of gold.

Western Indian painting exerted considerable influence on the development of painting in India, particularly in the Rajasthani schools of western and central India.



Relief of Dancing Shiva, Virupaksha
temple, Pattadakal, Karnataka
(formerly Mysore).

This example of
Western Chalukya art dates from the
first half of the eighth century.


Medieval non-Islamic India

A fragmented political scene, together with the spread of new Hindu movements, helped formulate two fundamental aspects of medieval art in India: firstly, the varied nature of artistic trends that assumed very different forms according to each region, and, secondly, the growing importance of the temple and its religious sculpture. The symbolic decoration of temples and the representation of the divine image became increasingly the focus of acts of ritual devotion and, at a higher level, aids to meditation.
It was in this context that the major monuments of medieval India originated. In the northeast, the most important centre was Bhubanesvara, the site where many sanctuaries were built between the 7th and 12th centuries. In central-northern India, the Khajuraho temples were built during the Chandella dynasty (10th-11th century). Their sandstone walls embodied a series of sculptures featuring particularly striking erotic images, that symbolize the bliss of union with the divine. In the south were the rock temples of Mahabalipuram, built in the Pallava era, with images inspired by mythical subjects, and the early eighth-century Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram, one of the dynasty's most astonishing architectural achievements. Also in southern India, the Early Western Chalukya dynasty introduced some original variations in the apsidal shape of the Durga cave temple at Aihole (7th-8th century). While the temple tradition continued as late as the Vijayanagar period (14th-16th century) in the south, symbolizing Hindu resistance to the advance of Islam, bronze sculpture found widespread appeal under the Chola dynasty (9th-13th century). These small figures were veritable masterpieces in terms of technique and formal beauty. Together with the bronze statuary of the Pala and Sena dynasties (8th—13th century) in the north, they marked the arrival of a purely secular sculptural tradition.

Figure of Vishnu.
Pallava art from southeastern India, fifth to ninth century.




In the centuries following the Gupta period, the design of the Indian temple became increasingly complex. The most evident change was in the vestibule, which now opened to the east, projecting out of the facade and containing a number of colonnaded, covered rooms. The cubical cell of the sanctuary, on the other hand, increased in height as towers began to be built on top. The shape of the structure was either curved or resembled that of a terraced pyramid: as a general rule, the former type was associated with northern Indian temples, the latter with those of the south. However, this type of construction was superseded when a pyramid-shaped root was adopted for the projecting entrance of all Indian temples. Subsequent developments included the terraced platform on which the sanctuary was erected and the grand portal, which allowed access from the east to the terrace steps. The significance of the Indian temple would not have been complete, however, without the sculptural decoration, which covered much of the building with philosophical-religious imagery.

Temple of Brihadisvara at Tanjore,
southwest of Madras in the state of Tamil Nadu.
Dating from the 12th to the 13th century, this temple
exemplifies the artistic climate of the Chola dynasty.

Parasuramesvara temple.
Bhubanes-vara, Orissa.
An important and ancient artistic centre.



A Pala stela with figure of Vishnu.


Although Buddhism had vanished from the rest of India, under the Pala dynasty (8th—12th century) it endured in the northwest of the country, inspiring a school of art that excelled in stone and bronze sculpture. The tradition of pilgrimage to the main religious centres, Nalanda and Bodh Gaya, was also revived and as a result of the contacts made by the pilgrims, Pala art was exported to the lands of Southeast Asia, the Himalayan regions, and parts of China.

Although the results of this influence took different forms and covered different periods of time, the most profound impact was in the area of sculpture. Typical Pala examples were recreated with great innovative flair in Burma and Indonesia, and tastefully perpetuated in Tibet, where the Pala style also extended to painting.

One of the most popular and widely adopted types of Pala art was the elongated stela, rounded or pointed at the top, on which was carved the image of Buddha surrounded by the eight significant events of his life.



The Art of Ceylon

The island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) had always been influenced by the art of India. The monumental buildings of the Pollonaruwa period (8th—13th century) were made almost exclusively of brick, covered with stucco. Among the many beautiful architectural features that graced the new capital were the bell-shaped stupas. Buddhist hall-temples such as the Lankatilaka, and circular shrines with a conical roof containing a small stupa. The design of many Hindu temples was inspired by the architecture of southern India. Stone sculpture was represented by colossal images of the Buddha carved directly into the rock wall, or monolithic statues in shrines. There were also many prized examples of Buddhist- or Hindu-inspired bronze work, which, although as a rule was based on the figurative styles of the southern Indian schools, continued to show great attention to detail and occasional innovations in form and iconography. During the Kandy period (l6th-19th century), considerable progress was made in the decorative arts using ivory, wood, and precious metals. The objects created were often derived from local tradition.

Nepalese sculpture of Tara in gilded bronze, 17th century.
Museum of Art, Bombay. Despite the isolation of the Himalayan region,
its art was predominantly influenced by Indian art, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
Occasionally, the presence of more ancient polytheistic
and animistic forms was evident.

Detail of the sculptural decoration at the
circular temple of Vatadage.
This is an excellent example of Pollonaruwa art
from northwestern Sri Lanka.


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