Flora in Indian art : depictions in sculpture

Nature has always inspired man and his creations.He has embellished them by things he has seen around him. Flora like flowers,trees,foliage,fruits,lotuses,creepers,honeysuckles and fauna like elephants,horses,camels,bulls,birds like swans,parrots have all been depicted in scenes and decoration on religious shrines, temples and other monuments across India, over centuries. In Buddhist art the bodhi tree, the jambu tree ,the sala and the asoka tree are very significant as they are part of Lord Buddha’s life. He was born in a sala grove under an asoka tree, mostly meditated under jambu trees and attained enlightenment under a bodhi tree.

Sculpture depictions on religious monuments using flora and fauna was as per the relevance of the subject and artistic convention of the time and region. Trees, flowers et al. were used decoratively to enhance the sculptural composition for  a more splendid effect. Palm trees, kalpavrikhshas, some fruit trees like sita-phal(custard apple), coconut,mango and banana have all been used as motifs. Kalpavriksha (wish-fulfilling divine tree)with rectangular fruits is found at Aihole and another one at Ellora datable to 10th century. Floral depictions use the roundel  frequently in sculptural art which has a common motif .

The roundel could have another decorative motif within. A naga is depicted inside the roundel on ceiling sculpture of 8th century Alampur temples in Telangana.

Lotus is the national flower of India and is the most popular motif. It is associated with poornaghata or pot of plenty. Plenty includes health, wealth and a long life. Lotus represents abundance, purity and fullness of life.

Sculptors used various motifs from nature to decorate pillars,ceilings,borders,facades and pilasters.The creeper,honeysuckle,scrolls have all been used as motifs.

The Great Stupa at Sanchi, in the Raisen district of present day Madhya Pradesh was built in 3rd century B.C, contains the relics of Lord Buddha.  It was initially commissioned by Emperor Ashoka of the Maurya dynasty. It has a hemispherical brick structure for the relics and four elaborately carved toranas. Floral motifs have been  used to decorate the stupa at various places.image001.jpg

Sculpture at The Great Stupa, Sanchi Madhya Pradesh

By Travel Miles With Smiles – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49650399image003.jpg

Sculpture at the Great Stupa,Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh

By Travel Miles With Smiles – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49650395

The Chennakesava temple built by Somanatha Dandanayaka, a commander under Hoysala king, Narasimha III. Built on stellate platform or jagati, it is a trikuta ie. having three shrines dedicated to Kesava, Janardhana and Venugopala, various forms of Lord Vishnu of the Hindu trinity. The shrines are connected to a hall or mantapa by vestibules which have their own towers called Sukanasi. The ceiling of the mantapa is supported by pillars and is ornately decorated with multi-petalled lotuses, banana bud motifs along with snake like knots.


Ceiling of  mantapa at Chennakesava temple,Somnathpura, Karnataka

By Dineshkannambadi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33451919


Ceiling of  mantapa at Chennakesava temple,Somnathpura, Karnataka

By Dineshkannambadi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33451922

The Amrutheswara temple at Karikere in Chikmagalur district of present day Karnataka was built in 1196 A.D by Amruteswara Dandanayaka, a commander under Hoysala king Veera Ballala II. The temple is a single shrine with a closed mantapa connecting to a larger mantapa. Pillars support the ceiling which has inner ceiling structures in floral designs.  The mantapa walls have decorations inspired by foliage patterns.


Decorations at Amrutheshwara temple, Karikere,Karnataka

By Dineshkannambadi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30037813

The Rani Rupavati mosque at Mirzapur at Ahmedabad in present day Gujarat  was built between 1420 and 1440 A.D during the reign of Ahmed Shah I ,by Mahmud Begada who married Rupavati. The mosque is an amalgam of Islamic and Hindu styles of architecture with a high central arch with three imposing domes connected by a flat roof.Intricately carved foliage and creeper inspired designs can be seen on  minarets at the mosque.


Decorative detail on a minaret at Rani Rupavati’s mosque, Gujarat

By Bernard Gagnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31055604

The Adhai din ka jhonpda is a mosque in Ajmer city in present day Rajasthan built between 1192-1199 A.D under orders of Mohammad Ghori, by Qutub-uddin-Aibak ;futher beautified by Iltutmish in 1213 A.D. The structure has amazing Indo-Islamic architecture and shows both Hindu and Jain features. It was built on the remains of a Jaina Sanskrit institution after the original building was partially destroyed. The orders were to build the mosque in two and a half days hence its name. Only a brick screen could be completed in that much time. Another opinion holds the name is to signify the temporariness of human life on earth. The word jhonpda started being used when fakirs gathered there to observe annual death anniversary of their saint-masters.

Designed by Abu Bakr of Herat, the structure has 10 domes and of the total 344 pillars, 70 remain. Arabesque floral and foliate patterns are seen in geometric symmetry in window details, gates,niches and minarets.image013.jpg

Window at Adhai din ka jhonpda, Ajmer, Rajasthan

By Varun Shiv Kapur from New Delhi, India – Window detail, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43682893

The Red Fort was the residence of the Mughal emperors and the political centre of the Mughal government. It was constructed by Shahjahan in 1648 in red sandstone, hence its name Lal qila or Red Fort. Among its many structures, Diwan-i-aam is the public audience Hall which the emperor used for address and for state functions. Its columns and arches show amazing craftsmanship. Floral patterns are used profusely to create a brilliant effect with the jaali .


Jaali decoration at the Diwan-i-aam at Red Fort, Delhi

By Royroydeb – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31826723


References :

Suresh, K.M./Temples of Karnataka; Delhi :Agam Kala Prakashan,2003.

Srivastava,A. L./Life in Sanchi sculpture;New Delhi : Abhinav Publications,1983.

Ansari,Amir/A complete book on Mughal architecture history;New Delhi : Cyber Tech Publications,2010.



Posted by : Soma Ghosh


3 thoughts on “Flora in Indian art : depictions in sculpture

  1. Sharmishtha Basu

    brilliant post Soma, fantastic shots and the description of the title topic, flower, it is so widely used in art-forms, is not it? you have pointed out its importance in our art-forms, never noticed them in that way!

    Your works are amazing!

    Liked by 1 person


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