Prehistoric Era (until ca. 3300 B.C.E. – Stone Age) and First Urbanization (ca. 3300 – 1500 B.C.E. – Indus Valley Civilization).

Rock paintings in Rock Shelter 8, Bhimbetka, India. The Bhimbetka rock shelters (Raisen district, Madhya Pradesh, central India) span the prehistoric paleolithic, mesolithic and historic periods. They include the earliest traces of human life on the Indian subcontinent. Some of the Bhimbetka rock shelters feature prehistoric cave paintings and the earliest are about 30000 years old. These cave paintings show themes such as animals, early evidence of dance, and hunting. The Bhimbetka site has the oldest known rock art in the Indian subcontinent.

The only purely Eastern country that the ancient Greeks and Romans knew was India. Only after the expedition led by Alexander the Great, the first positive news about the Hindu peoples were known in Europe around three centuries before Christ, thanks to the wonders told by the men of science who accompanied the great conqueror and whose stories were highly commented in Greece at that time. On the other hand, the chronicles of the Chinese pilgrims who later visited the holy places of Buddhism contributed to divulge in the Far East the knowledge about India and the Hindu art that had already penetrated in China in the 2nd century of our era through Buddhist missionaries.

India was the cradle of an art that influenced a vast geographic area. Apart from having originally covered an area that was not only limited to India and Ceylon, but that also included the territory of present-day Afghanistan and a large part of Balochistan (one province of Pakistan in the southwest), throughout the course of centuries has also influenced the art of the Khmer Empire in the Indochina (X-XII centuries) and has transcended to Burma, Thailand and Insulindia (the interface zone between the cultures of Oceania and Southeast Asia, the present day Malay archipelago), aside from also having influenced the Tibetan art and, as we will see, the art of China, Korea and Japan.

The Harappa archaeological site (Punjab, Pakistan) includes ruins of a Bronze Age fortified city which was part of the Indus Valley Civilization. The city is believed to have had as many as 23500 residents and occupied about 150 hectares (370 acres) with clay brick houses at its greatest extent (2600–1900 B.C.E.). Top: Reconstruction of Harappa.  Bottom: A view of Harappa’s Granary and Great Hall.

The art of India is above all a sacred art whose primary purpose is not to achieve merely aesthetic results, but to facilitate the religious contemplation whether by means of symbols or by using sensible, or even sensual forms, which in many cases are part of compositions with an animated narrative style in which religious intention is sometimes hidden under the appearance of dynamic or even erotic forms. All these artistic expressions relate to a theory of beauty that is very different from the artistic concepts of our own western mentality.

India is a subcontinent in which the forces of nature unfold with all their power and in which the tropical climate allows the growth of a lush vegetation. Within this exuberant natural setting, it is not strange that the art of India reflects at the same time a sublime mysticism and an overflowing and intense sexuality.

Mohenjo-Daro (Sindhi for “Mound of the Dead Men”) is an archaeological site in the province of Sindh (Pakistan). It was build around 2500 B.C.E. and was one of the largest settlements of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, as well as one of the world’s earliest major cities contemporaneous with the civilizations of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Minoan Crete, and Norte Chico (coastal Peru). Mohenjo-Daro was abandoned in the 19th century B.C.E. as the Indus Valley Civilization declined. Top: An artist’s rendition of what Mohenjo-Daro might have looked like during its peak. Bottom left: Partial panoramic view of the ruins of Mohenjo Daro. Bottom right: View of Mohenjo-Daro’s Great Bath, it is called the “earliest public water tank of the ancient world”. Most scholars agree that this tank would have been used for special religious functions where water was used to purify and renew the well being of the bathers.

India had a prolonged phase of prehistoric art that, in general, coincides with that of the Near East and southern Europe, and that in the south of the Deccan plateau did not experience the Bronze Age. This prehistoric art phase lasted until the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., leaving vestiges of an autochthonous megalithic art.

But also, since the middle of the third millennium B.C.E. in the Indus Valley (northwest India) it was developed a civilization that offered many affinities with the Mesopotamian civilization and as old as that, as has been revealed by the excavations undertaken since 1921 in Harappa in Punjab, and since 1924 in Mohenjo-Daro in Sind.

Examples of Harappan pottery. Top left: Bowl with painted decoration from the Early Harappan period, ca. 8000-2000 B.C.E.. Top right: Harappan pottery, ca. 3000 B.C.E. Bottom: Harappan civilization pottery.

It was undoubtedly a civilization that preceded the arrival of the Aryans* to the country and that must have been Dravidian* in origin. It probably started around the year 3000 B.C.E. in Harappa, and before the year 2700 B.C.E. in Mohenjo-Daro. This civilization had a very advanced urban organization with brick buildings and produced a painted pottery of remarkable perfection. The cities of this Indus Valley Civilization had a regular plan with parallel streets that crossed one another at right angles, these cities were provided with large ponds and water reservoirs, a perfect drainage system, and in some have been preserved large fortified constructions as in Harappa where the walls measured 14 m wide. Altogether, this urban planning seems to have been designed by experienced architects. Important artifacts have been collected in both mentioned places, particularly busts representing bearded old men and youthful torsos that, together with a completely classical concept of human sculpture, demonstrate an enviable mastery of modeling. There is also a bronze figure representing a naked young female dancer known as “The Dancing Girl”, with long hair and left arm wearing several wide bracelets, it was found in Mohenjo-Daro. Both in Harappa and in Mohenjo-Daro, numerous carved seals with figures of animals (rhinoceros, bull, elephant, etc.) have been found demonstrating the existence of a writing system whose signs have not been deciphered. This Indus Valley Civilization lasted until ca. 1500 B.C.E.

The “Dancing Girl”, bronze, ca. 2500 B.C.E., from the Indus Valley Civilization city of Mohenjo-Daro (modern-day Pakistan), the statuette is 10.5 cm (4.1 in) tall (National Museum, New Delhi, India).
Indus Valley Civilization carved seals. Top left: Unicorn seal of Indus Valley (Indian Museum, Kolkata, India). Top right: Elephant seal of Indus Valley (Indian Museum, Kolkata, India). Bottom: Indus Valley seals (British Museum, London).


Aryan: A word meaning “noble” used as a self-designation by Indo-Iranian people. The word was used by the Indic people of the Vedic period in India as an ethnic label for themselves and to refer to the noble class. Scholars point out that, even in ancient times, the idea of being an “Aryan” was religious, cultural and linguistic, not racial.

Dravidian people: The native speakers of any of the Dravidian languages, a language family spoken mainly in southern India and parts of eastern and central India, as well as in Sri Lanka, small areas of southwestern Pakistan, southern Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan, and overseas in other countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Dravidian-speaking people are natively found in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.