Sculptural Art in North India (13th -16th C)

I am no expert of Sculptural Art. However here is my take on the development of this art during the period of the Delhi Sultanate (13th to early 16th Centuries). Please do forgive and correct If I make any faults.

• S. Ali Nadeem Rezavi

After the 12th century Indian art fell in the grip of the medieval trend which asserted itself in practically all regions of North India save Orissa. This trend expressed itself in mass production of images fashioned under rigorous canonical prescriptions of proportions, stances and attributes, and iconographic formulae, uniformed by any vision or inner experience of the artist. The plasticity of the fully rounded and modelled form, which was the distinguishing hallmark of early Indian Sculptural art, was now replaced by flat surface, and linear angularity with stress on over-ornamentation, attention to meticulous details and strained, often highly exaggerated flexions in the place of innate dynamism. The outline which had so far remained supple and almost convex now gave way to concavity with emphasis on horizontals, verticals and diagonals and natural expression was substituted by mechanical grace and manneristic elegance, turning sculptural art into a mere craft. The only region which escaped this development was Orissa. According to N.R. Ray, these medieval elements were the accumulated result of a continuous ethnic fusion of northern racial elements that poured into the plains of North India from Central Asia in the centuries preceding and following the fall of the Gupta empire.


Orissa developed a regional school of art and architecture originating in the 7th century with the early group of temples at Bhubaneswar, which is a city of prolific temples, and culminating in the 13th century with the majestic Sun temple at Konark. The course of evolution in Orissa is towards a greater elaboration of the plan and elevation and increasing sophistication and proliferation of the ornaments, figurative as well as decorative. Till the 10th century the Orissan temple consists of only the sanctum and a hall attached thereto, both embellished with a single row of sculptures on the exterior face but from the 11th century onwards, other halls are added to the complex and all components are adorned with two rows of figures, besides numerous decorative friezes. Through all the centuries the plastic and decorative ornaments in Orissa form integral part of the temple fabric and blossom forth from it. As Stella Kramrisch says:

‘architecture in Orissa is but sculpture on a gigantic scale’.

Such an impression grows emphatically as one faces the sprawling grand mass of the temple ruins at Konarak laden with a bewildering array of rows upon rows of sculptures, mostly executed in bold relief along with some carved fully in the round, like the colossal figures of free-standing elephants and horses and standing females, singing or playing on musical instruments, depicted on the roof tiers of the mandapa.

The sculptures comprise besides gods and goddesses, a profusion of nymphs, loving and erotic couples and animals, realistic as well as legendary.

Even the cult images in Orissa are informed by a dynamic vitality, dignified bearing, sinuous modeling and monumentality of composition. The non-iconic figures have all these qualities besides others. They are distinguished by an ecstatic joy of living, a luxurious appearance and bearing, and a delightful abandon of feeling and emotion.

The erotic sculptures of Konarak, which by their vividness and character attract the visitor’s notice, have lent themselves to various interpretations and have even evoked criticism from some quarters. Whatever be the interpretation of these scenes, these have undoubtedly provided some of the finest sculptural compositions which vibrate with a rare sensitiveness and warmth of human emotion and are remarkable for their sculptural quality. It may be pointed out that a strong sensual element runs through the art, literature and folk tradition of India and some other countries and this expresses itself in various forms. It is present in the Indian art of all periods and our literature, more than that of other countries, is full of love adventures and sparkles with sexual motifs, often of the uninhibited variety.

The erotic depictions might therefore have grown from the charming mithuna motif of our early art and tradition. It is quite likely that these artistic representations, which are exuberant manifestations of the creative urge, have sprung from a deep rooted tradition with a social and possibly also religious sanction.

Besides gods and goddesses and idealized representations of Surasundaris (nymphs) and Salabhanjikas (woman and tree motif), and heavenly musicians and imps, realistic contemporary life was also depicted on the temple reliefs and friezes, figuring kings and courtiers, armed processions and hunts, teachers expounding or imparting lessons, dancers and musicians, acrobats and jugglers, and common people engaged in miscellaneous domestic chores at Konarak as also on the many coeval temples built in various art centers of Orissa, dominated by Bhubaneswar.

Central India

No temples of the period under review have survived in the North India plains which were overrun by the invading armies. Some temples situated in the hilly or forest regions or in obscure places which were away from the beaten tracks of the invading armies, however, did escape destruction. The better known of such temples in Central India are briefly noticed below.

Two Siva temples at Ganai and Deor Bija in District Durg, both dating from c.A.D. 1300, are saptaratha (square with seven offsets on each side) on plan with Nagara sikhara (curvilinear spire) and bear two rows of figures in folkish style on the jangha (wall) and the usual iconic representations on the sanctum doorway. The Gandai temple has besides, a labeled frieze of the Pandava heroes accompanied by their wife Draupadi and mother Kunti depicted on the architrave of the doorway.

Chhapari in Distt. Rajnandgaon has a Siva temple known as Bhoramdeo of saptaratha plan with a seven-storeyed Bhumija sikhara and a jangha embellished with three rows of sculptures. The temple, dating from early 13th century, abounds in religious as well as secular figures including erotic couples and groups, but these are all crude and lack sophistication. Some of its architectural motifs and figures show unmistakable influence of the contemporary Kakatiya art flowing from the adjoining region of Andhra Pradesh.

Malwa under the Paramaras of Dhar is known for Bhumija style of architecture which is usually but not invariably stellate on plan. Its most distinctive feature is its sikhara (spire) which shows four spines decorated with the usual mesh of caitya-arches on the central offsets, but the quadrants between the spines are filled with miniature shrine-models on pilasters, arranged in five to seven storeys of three to five horizontal rows. A maximum of nine storeys is permissible though seven storeyes produces the optimum aesthetic result. Bhumija style had a wide diffusion east and west of Malwa and particularly to the southwest in Maharashtra.

The Siva temple at Alirajpur (Distt. Jhabua) is one of the latest Bhumija style temples, assignable to c.14th century in Malwa. It has a stellate saptaratha plan adorned with only three figures on the jangha of which just one, representing Nataraja of indifferent aesthetic merit, has survived.

The old Chandela hill-fort at Ajaygadh (Distt. Panna) in Bundelhand has three temples assignable to the 13th century, of which two are of the stellate Bhumija class. The temples are composed of a saptaratha sanctum, an octagonal mandapa and a porch. Every inch of their exterior as well as interior is carved with floral and geometrical patterns and animal friezes revealing a promiscuity of three coeval styles, viz. Kalachuri, Chandela and Paramara of Central India.

Rajasthan and Gujarat

From 12th century onwards Rajasthan loses its architectural individuality. A substantial part of Rajasthan now passed under the hegemony of the Solankis of Gujarat whose cultural sway was even more effective with the result that henceforth Rajasthan became a province of the Solanki style, as evidenced by the later temples at sites like Chittor and Ranakpur.

The climax of the medieval architecture of the Rajasthan and Solanki styles was reached in the Dilwara group of Jaina temples at Mount Abu, of which the most important are the Vimala Vasahi and Luna Vasahi, built, respectively in A.D. 1031 and 1230, by Vimala and by the brothers Vastupala and Tejapala, the two ministers of the Vaghela rulers of Gujarat. Each consists of a sanctum, a closed hall with lateral transepts, a pillared portico and an assembly hall in front, the whole placed in a quadrangular court, surrounded by an enclosure of shrine-cells facing two bays of colonnaded corridors. The external appearance of the temple with low roofs and a plain enclosure wall is unimpressive in sharp contrast to the exuberant decoration of the interior.

The assembly hall has lavishly ornamented pillars, surmounted by attic sections, with multicusped torana-arches in between. The architraves are heavily ornamented and support a circular ceiling of 10 diminishing rings loaded with a bewildering wealth of carvings of which the most impressive are the 16 figures of the Vidya-devis and the magnificently designed central pendant. These rings are further decorated with friezes of elephants, goddesses, dancers and musicians, horse-riders and female dancers, alternating with cusped and coffered courses. The ceilings and architraves of the lateral bays of the assembly hall are lavishly embellished with carvings including narrative and mythological reliefs.

These narrative reliefs displayed in squares within squares or in parallel rectangular panels depict such scenes as the battle between Bharata and Bahubali, renunciation of Neminatha, birth-rites of Krishna and his childhood exploits like Kaliyadamana, Samavasarana of Adinatha, etc. The central pendant of the mandapa ceiling “hangs from the centre of the dome more like a luster of crystal drops than solid mass of marble or of stone”. As Henry Cousens says

“The amount of beautiful ornamental detail spread over these temples in the minutely carved decoration of ceilings, pillars, doorways, panels and niches, is simply marvelous; the crisp, thin, translucent, shell-like treatment of the marble surpasses anything seen elsewhere, and some of the designs are veritable dreams of beauty. The work is so delicate that ordinary chiseling would have been disastrous. It is said that much of it was produced by scraping the marble away, and that the masons were paid by the amount of marble dust so removed.”

Lavish ornamentation, however, was carried here to an extreme, without regard being paid to structural propriety or proportion with the result that the walls of the assembly hall look stunted and the visitor is lost in a labyrinth of fretted and traceried ornaments with a fatigued mind which looks in vain for respite and pose, two essential qualities of good architecture.

Building activity in the Solanki style continued in Rajasthan till the 16th century. Noteworthy examples of the later phase of the style are the nine-storeyed Kirttistambha (Tower of Fame) and Sringara-Chauri built by Rana Kumbha between A.D. 1440 and 1448, and the Satbis Deodhi of cognate style at Chittorgarh and the Sun temple and the Jaina Chaumukha temple at Ranakpur.

The last temple, also constructed during Rana Kumbha’s reign, is one of the most magnificent temples of North India, covering an area of over 3716 sq. metres and consisting of 86 sub-shrines besides the grand central one, and 29 halls containing 420 pillars, each different from the other.

Temples continued to be built in the late Solanki style in its home-land of Gujarat till the 17th century. Like Mount Abu in Rajasthan, the mountain sites of Girnar and Shatrunjay in Gujarat were each lavished with many Jaina temples, the largest pertaining to the 14th and 15th centuries.

All these temples in Western India were necessarily adorned with icons of gods and goddesses, and sculptures of demigods and godlings, nymphs and humans, besides decorative designs derived from geometry, symbolism and plant and animal kingdoms. The art now has ceased to be creative and the figures are generally elongated and depicted in rigid, manneristic stances. The figures suffer from over-ornamentation and pointed angularity with deeply cut sharp outlines. They often lack coordination of parts and the larger iconic compositions are disposed in compartmental registers. Whatever grace or elegance the sculptures now exude is all artificial, lacking naturalness or inner vitality.

After the 12th century art in all regional schools of North India save Orissa got bound in the rigid shackles of iconographic prescriptions and became desiccated of classical impact.