In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section South Asian Architecture and Sculpture, 13th to 18th Centuries

  • Introduction
  • Terminology and Periodization
  • Islam in the Subcontinent before c. 1200
  • North India: Delhi’s Revival in the 15th and 16th Centuries

Art History South Asian Architecture and Sculpture, 13th to 18th Centuries
Catherine Asher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0002


By the 13th century, the South Asian subcontinent was populated by diverse ethnic and religious groups and the land was divided into multiple kingdoms. Hindus, those adhering to Brahmanical beliefs, were dominant, but Jains also flourished. Followers of Buddhism, once strong in the east and west, died out. While Muslims had been present in South Asia since the 8th century, late in the 12th century Muslim Afghans of Turkish origins established themselves as political authorities in north India. In north India there was no real unified political authority until the establishment of Mughal power (1526–1858), while the Vijayanagara Empire (actually ruled by three different houses) unified a good portion on south India from the 14th through the late 16th century. The first half of the 17th century was a period of stability in most of north India, but in the second half of the 17th century tranquility was marred by incessant warfare, much of which was transacted in the southernmost region of the Mughal Empire, below the Narmada River. From the 17th century on, an increasing European presence was felt in the subcontinent, adding yet more players for control of India’s rich resources. Art and architecture were produced by all these groups, some for religious and some for political reasons, but often for both. Unlike earlier periods, from which only religious art and architecture have survived, commencing about the 14th century, palaces, estates, gardens, fortifications, bridges, hamams, and housing have survived, among others. While sculpture is found more often in a Hindu or Jain context, examples produced by Muslim courts do exist.

Terminology and Periodization

Until relatively recently, Indian art history was divided into three distinct periods with religious appellations, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim, first introduced by Mills (Mills 1975). This same periodization was followed by James Fergusson (d. 1886), who wrote the first history of Indian architecture in any language and whose work was highly influential for some time (Fergusson 1967). The result was to see all artistic production from the late 12th century until the advent of the Raj as Islamic, although by the beginning of the 20th century scholars recognized Rajput painting as originating from Hindu-ruled courts. This legacy is seen to some extent in Brown 1956 and Alfieri 2000, works that focus specially on Islamic material, ignoring production done concurrently by others. In addition to this misleading and unfortunate understanding of South Asian art history, is a tendency to apply the term “medieval” not only to material produced between the 13th and 18th centuries but also to much earlier production as well. Asher and Talbot 2006 was an attempt to study non-Muslim material created during a period often considered to be dominated by Islamic rulers. Most studies on Sultanate architecture are specific to a particular dynastic period or a site. One notable exception is the three-volume tome (in Japanese) Yamamoto, et al. 1967–1970, which covers most Sultanate sites in Delhi. Volume 1 is a general survey of the sites; Volume 2 focuses on tombs and Volume 3 on Delhi’s waterworks.

  • Alfieri, Bianca Maria. Islamic Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent. London: Laurence King, 2000.

    This is a beautifully illustrated, well-written text that covers the Islamic architecture of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh from the late 12th century through the 19th century.

  • Asher, Catherine B., and Cynthia Talbot. India before Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    A recent attempt to understand the diverse multicultural history and art history of India from the 13th to the 18th century.

  • Brown, Percy. Indian Architecture (Islamic Period). Bombay: Taraporevala, 1956.

    This is the second volume of Brown’s work on Indian architecture, the first volume covering what he terms as Buddhist and Hindu periods. This general introduction to India’s Muslim buildings has been revised and reprinted often.

  • Fergusson, James, ed. History of Indian and Eastern Architecture. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1967.

    Originally published in 1910. The first work on Indian architecture. The text follows Mill’s periodization. Revised by James Burgess and Richard P. Spiers.

  • Mills, James. The History of British India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

    Originally published in 1818. This influential history was written by Mills, who had never been to India and maintained a staunch belief in British superiority.

  • Yamamoto, Tatsura, Matsuo Ara, and Takisfusa Tsukiniowa. Delhi: Architectural Remains of the Delhi Sultanate Period. 3 vols. Tokyo: The Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo, 1967–1970.

    This is a near-exhaustive list of Sultanate architecture in Delhi with copious illustrations and plans. Many of the structures included are no longer extant.

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