In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhist Art and Architecture in India

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • First Buddha Images
  • Stūpas
  • Architecture
  • Esoteric Buddhist Art and Iconography
  • Art and Ritual
  • Historiography/Critical Inquiry of the Field

Buddhism Buddhist Art and Architecture in India
Jinah Kim
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0214


As Leoshko demonstrates in her Sacred Traces: British Explorations of Buddhism in South Asia (2003), the early development of historical study of Buddhist art and architecture in India is closely linked to the British discovery of Buddhism. It began with the reports of the explorations of the Buddhist sites in northern India conducted by Alexander Cunningham and his colleagues under the aegis of the Archaeological Survey of India, during the 1880s. The first and the most important site that received attention was Bodhgaya, the site of Buddha’s enlightenment, followed by other sites related to the historical Buddha’s biography. Surviving art and architecture from these pilgrimage sites along with artistic productions of internationally renowned Indian monastic centers such as Nālandā and Vikramaśīla, form an important part of the basic canon of Buddhist art and architecture of India. No artistic and architectural remain seems to date to the time of the historical Buddha Śākyamuni (c. 6th century BCE). The remains of some Buddhist stūpas (Buddhist relic mounds) survive from the following period, but the earliest major corpus of Buddhist artifacts belong to the reign of Aśoka the Great of the Mauryan Empire (268–231 BCE). Early Buddhist art of India included many pan-Indic religious images, such as Yakṣa and Yakṣiṇī, often introduced at a stūpa (Buddha’s relic mound) site, to guard the threshold between the sacred and the mundane as symbols of fertility and prosperity. Buddhist stūpas were the main objects of devotion and artistic expression in ancient India. Until the first two centuries of our Common Era, the main body of material for the study of Buddhist art and architecture comes from stūpa sites where we find delightful and creative renderings of visual narratives about the Buddha’s biography and jātakas (stories of Buddha’s previous lives) in stone. Image making gained momentum during the first two centuries of the Common Era as an effective mean for accruing religious merits (puṇyam), and from then on we see an explosion in the production of images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas (enlightened being), especially in Gandhara (modern-day Pakistan) and in the areas around Mathura (in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India). Except for a few well-known legendary examples, such as Aśoka’s and Kaniṣka’s, exclusive royal patronage of Buddhist establishments in ancient India was exception to the rule. The development of Buddhist sites other than those around the pilgrimage sites is often associated with trade and commerce. Many early Buddhist sites went through centuries of expansion and renovations, with some lasting for a millennium. From the 9th century, general patronage of Buddhist establishments decreased in other parts of India, but eastern India (Bihar and Orissa in India and Bangladesh) remained a stronghold for Buddhist activities until the 13th century. Buddhist art and architecture of India provided inspirations and artistic references for the construction of countless Buddhist artifacts and edifices in other parts of the Buddhist world throughout history. With the revival of Buddhism in 20th-century India, artistic expressions from various parts of the Buddhist world as well as from India’s own heritage now return to inform and shape the new phase of Buddhist art and architecture in India.

General Overviews

While there is no single book that focuses on the Buddhist art and architecture of India, a number of introductory books on Buddhist art and Indian art provide substantial overviews of the field. Snellgrove, et al. 1978 is a classic on the topic of the development of the Buddha images, and Zwalf 1995 still provides a useful introduction to Buddhist art. Among the books on Indian art, Huntington 1985 has an extensive coverage of Indian Buddhist art and architecture from the earliest moment until the Pala period (8th–12th centuries). A few publications such as Leidy 2008 and Béguin 2009 provide more comprehensive overviews of the development of Buddhist art in India and elsewhere in Asia with rich color illustrations.

  • Béguin, Giles. Buddhist Art: An Historical and Cultural Journey. Translated by Narisa Chakrabongse. Bangkok: River, 2009.

    Provides a comprehensive overview of Buddhist art throughout history and focuses on well-known major works from all over the Buddhist world. The two introductory essays are insightful and followed by the chapters discussing regional developments starting with India. Art of Gandhara is discussed in a separate chapter on Gandhara and west central Asia. Full color illustrations of uneven qualities accompany the text with some directly reproduced from older publications.

  • Chicarelli, Charles F. Buddhist Art: An Illustrated Introduction. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm, 2004.

    Provides an introduction to Buddhist art using the images from many different periods and places to illustrate the theological meanings and developments in Buddhism. It includes many contemporary (20th-century) images from Buddhist countries. All images are reproduced in color but are unfortunately of poor quality. The book ends with useful appendices for iconographic terms with diagrams and a glossary.

  • Dehejia, Vidya. Discourse in Early Buddhist Art: Visual Narratives of India. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1997.

    Explores the visual narratives as they appear in ancient Indian Buddhist art. It examines the relationship between text and image in ancient Buddhist art by identifying various “modes of visual narration” and seeks to provide a theoretical framework that can help us understand the surviving visual and textual material in a more localized perspective. The extensive analysis of visual narratives covers almost all the major Buddhist sites in ancient India, including Bharhut, Sanchi, Amarāvatī, Nāgārjunakoṇḍa, and Ajanta.

  • Huntington, Susan L. The Art of Ancient India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain. New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1985.

    Provides an extensive introduction to Indian art with the focus on ancient and medieval periods. It is one of the most thorough and comprehensive surveys on Indian Art to date. Much attention is given to the Buddhist material, not only of the early periods, which is typical of many survey books on Indian art, but also of the later, post-6th-century periods. Meticulously rendered maps and ground plans, along with quality black-and-white photographs and a small number of color plates, illustrate the book.

  • Leidy, Denise Patry. The Art of Buddhism: An Introduction to its History and Meaning. Boston: Shambhala, 2008.

    Designed as a general introduction to Buddhist art, this handsomely produced book provides a good historical overview of the topic. To give a more comprehensive account of historical development of Buddhist art across regions, the book is more or less organized chronologically, discussing the contemporaneous developments in different regions. Many good quality color illustrations accompany the text.

  • Snellgrove, David L., Jean Boisselier, Ahmad Hasan Dani, et al., eds. The Image of the Buddha. Paris: UNESCO, 1978.

    Provides a comprehensive overview of Buddhist art with a specific theme of Buddha images. Authored by many scholars on different parts of the Buddhist world, the book is nicely illustrated with black-and-white photographs of many important images.

  • Zwalf, W. Buddhism: Art and Faith. London: British Museum, 1995.

    This is an exhibition catalogue with helpful introductory essays. Thematically and regionally organized, it provides an accessible and insightful overview of Buddhist art across regions. It includes materials not covered in conventional art-historical accounts, such as manuscripts and ritual objects, studied as crucial components of artistic expressions of Buddhism. Many color illustrations accompany the text.

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