5. State and Faith

AD 200–1500

Religions across the world have sought to represent the divine in order to bring people closer to their gods. This has led to the making of extraordinary objects as a focus for worship. Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism all originated in India and by the sixth century, much of the iconography of these faiths had been established.

Religious objects function in different ways. Hinduism, Buddhism and the faiths of Hawaii for example, believe that religious objects act as either symbolic portals to the divine or the embodiment of the divine itself.

Alternatively, objects can be used to focus attention during meditation and worship. In Christianity, the crucifix is meant to encourage contemplation of Christ’s suffering, while in early Buddhism, the chakra, or wheel, symbolised the universal spread of dharma. In Islam, the written word communicates the message of the Qur’an. It also becomes a talismanic charm.

Artists the world over have tried to communicate different emotional expressions through religious art – compassion and detachment in the Virgin Mary, serenity in the enlightenment of the Buddha, singularity and steadfastness in Jain tirthankaras and the dance of life itself in Shiva.

Objects in conversation: Spiritual journeys

Here are two iconic images, one from Hinduism and one from Christianity, but there is more to these familiar images than meets the eye.

This Ganesha does not come from India but from a temple in Java. Along with Buddhism, Hinduism also spread from India to Southeast Asia, as a result of trade and political contact.

The sculpture of Christ is from a church in Goa. Catholicism was brought to the region by Portuguese traders and settlers, but Christianity has a far longer history in India dating back to at least the fourth century.

Religions are not static, just as people and goods move so too do beliefs. The objects that manifest and communicate people’s faiths trace these physical and spiritual journeys.



Polychromed wood
AD 1560–1620
Goa, India
Basilica of Bom Jesus, Goa

This sculpture of Christ – his arms and cross now missing – comes from an altarpiece in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa. In the sixteenth century, Goa became one of the grandest colonial posts of the Portuguese, rich with trade, and appointed with magnificent churches. The Basilica of Bom Jesus contains the remains of the Saint Francis Xavier, who was sent to Asia in AD 1541 as papal legate and became a symbol of the Roman Catholic faith in India.


AD 1100–1200
Java, Indonesia
British Museum

Ganesha is one of the most beloved of all deities of the Hindu pantheon and is worshipped across South Asia and beyond. The first examples of Ganesha materialised in Java in the eighth century as a result of trade and political contact between South and Southeast Asia. His role and appearance in the region, however, is different from India.

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Jain tirthankara

Chunar sandstone
Between 200 BC – AD 100
Lohanipur, Bihar, India
Patna Museum, Patna


Jainism creates images of the twenty-four tirthankaras or ford-makers as a focus for meditation. Tirthankaras symbolically help mortals cross over the turbulent sea of souls during the repeated journeys of birth and death in their many lives. This polished statue from Lohanipur near Patna is thought to be one of the earliest known Jain images of a tirthankara. The arms would have hung by his sides in the standard Jain posture of detachment called kayotsarga.

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AD 800–899
Karnataka, India
CSMVS, Mumbai


The bronze sculpture depicts Bahubali (he of strong arms) who was the second son of the first tirthankara, Rishabha. Bahubali retreated to the forest to repent after assaulting his brother Bharata. Creepers grew around his legs, but he was not deterred from his austerities. Bahubali, therefore, serves as an image of physical and mental strength.  Bahubali


Taíno god

AD 1451–99
British Museum

The Taíno lived in the Caribbean before the arrival of the Europeans. Taíno people believed that they lived in parallel with an invisible world of powerful spirits, ancestors and gods known as cemís, from whom their leaders could seek knowledge of the future.

With his eyes streaming with tears, this cemí appears to be in a trance. His thin body and the protruding bones of his back indicate he is a dead ancestor.

Kū-ka’ili-moku, god of war

AD 1750–1800
British Museum

This image of the god Ku shows him in his aspect as Kū-ka’ili-moku – Ku the snatcher of land. Rather than being a representation of the deity, the figure depicts the god’s qualities of strength and readiness for battle. During ceremonies, the figure served as a receptacle which the god could enter through prayer and ritual.

The statue comes from one of the temples that King Kamehameha I built for Ku, seeking the god’s support for his military ambitions.

Virgin and Child

AD 1450–1499
United Kingdom
British Museum


Catholics believe the Virgin Mary is the mother of Jesus, and therefore the mother of god. Mary’s role is to offer compassion and intercede on behalf of those who pray to her. This Virgin, crowned and enthroned, holds in her right arm the figure of Christ. He gazes lovingly at the face of his mother, while she directs her gaze to the onlooker.

The large size of this figure suggests that it occupied a prominent space in a church.

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About AD 1190
Limoges, France
British Museum


The crucifix is the most recognisable symbol of Christianity. It is a representation of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the son of god, who is believed to have died for the salvation of humanity. This crucifix would have acted as a focal point for worship. It shows the body of Christ in white looking cadaverous. His face, however, is not leached of colour, and his eyes remain open indicating that he remains unconquered by death.

Huastec goddess

AD 900–1400
British Museum


The Huastec people lived on the Gulf of Mexico. They were the northern neighbours of the Aztecs, who conquered them in around AD 1400.

This is one of a distinctive group of Huastec female figures. It has an open mouth and sagging skin beneath the breasts, which may suggest that she has had children. These features prefigure aspects of sculptures of the later Aztec goddess Tlazolteotl, associated with purifying both physical waste and moral sin.

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AD 1600–1700
Tamil Nadu, India
CSMVS, Mumbai


Narasimha (man-lion) is the fourth avatar of the god Vishnu. He appeared to kill the evil king Hiranyakashipu who could neither be killed during the day or night, inside or outside, or by man or beast. Neither human nor animal, Narasimha emerged at dusk from a pillar at the threshold of the palace to kill the king. The liminality of this avatar of Vishnu is thus the source of his ferocious power.



AD 870–920
Tiruvarangulam, Tamil Nadu, India
National Museum, New Delhi

This sculpture of Shiva is a balancing of opposites. Shiva dances the ananda-tandava – the tandava is the dance of destruction, but ananda means pleasure. One of his four hands holds fire which destroys, but is also the heat that is necessary for life. Another holds a drum, which provides the rhythm or pulse for life associated with Shiva as Nataraja (Lord of the Dance). This dance squashes apasmara, the demon of ignorance that is below Shiva’s feet.

Bodhisattva Maitreya

Grey schist
AD 120–200
Gandhara, Pakistan or Afghanistan
Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh, India


This sculpture of the Bodhisattva Maitreya – the Buddha to be who will succeed Gautama – is an amalgamation of many cultures. The robes are drawn from Greek art traditions, the shape of the moustache and eyes hint at Central Asian ideals of beauty, while the Buddhist iconography originates in India. Strength is communicated by his musculature, strong jaw and noble expression; spirituality through the meditative eyes and by the kamandalu, the water pot carried by wandering ascetics in India.

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Alam (panja)

Brass (casting and engraving)
AD 1770–1790
Deccan, India
National Museum, New Delhi


Alams are victory standards sometimes in the shape of a hand (or panja) that bear auspicious inscriptions and decoration. Along with calligraphy, they present a graphic focus for salutations. In the Shi’a tradition alams are taken out of shrines or mosques, on the first day of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar). They then remain the focus of prayer for the entire month, at the end of which they are taken out in mourning processions.

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Calligraphy from the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque

AD 1195–1320
Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, Mehrauli, Delhi, India
Qutb Minar, Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi


This stone fragment comes from the Quwwat ul-Islam (the Might of Islam) Mosque, the first imperial mosque of India. It was built during the Delhi Sultanate – ruled by India’s first Islamic dynasty – which was established at the end of the twelfth century. Calligraphy in Islam takes on special meaning as being talismanic and a focus in itself. This beautiful Persian inscription reads: ‘al-muqsit al-jami' al-ghani’ which means ‘the fair-dealing, the universal, the self-sufficient’ referring to the many names of Allah.

Commemorative panel showing a mihrab

AD 1300–50
Kashan, Iran
British Museum


This panel depicts a mihrab, the niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca in which to pray. It comes from Iran, where those who had died were sometimes commemorated on tile panels placed in shrines. This one commemorates a senior judge (qadi or kazi), named in the centre as Jalal al-Din Ali.

Along the outer edge and sides of the panel, the throne verse from the Qur’an is reproduced in Naskh script.

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Worshiping a chakra

220–180 BC
Bharhut, Madhya Pradesh, India
Indian Museum, Kolkata


Depictions of the Buddha in bodily form appear only to have started in the first century AD. Before that, his message was inferred through symbols such as the chakra or wheel. The Buddha upon attaining enlightenment is believed to have set the wheel of law or the dharmachakra in motion. Devotees commemorate the spot where the Buddha delivered the first sermon at the Deer Park in Sarnath, thereby setting in motion the eternal movement of the faith of Buddhism.

Buddha in human form

 The earliest anthropomorphic depictions of the Buddha started being made in Gandhara and in Mathura in the first century AD. It was during this early Kushan period that the format of presenting a Buddhist triad became common. The inscription on the Mathura sculpture dates it as one of the earliest known images of Buddha. It shows the Buddha seated in the centre, flanked by the Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani on either side. The triad from Gandhara combines Hellenistic ideas with Indian iconographic concepts. The Buddha is seated on a lotus pedestal, with his hands in the dharmachakrapravartin mudra – setting the wheel of law in motion.

Buddhist triad from Mathura

Red sandstone
Probably AD 159–160
Ahichhatra, Uttar Pradesh, India
National Museum, New Delhi

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Buddhist triad from Gandhara

Grey Schist
Approximately AD 150–250
Gandhara, Pakistan or Afghanistan
Haryana State Archaeology and Museums

Standing Buddha

AD 400–450
Phopnar Kalan, Maharashtra, India
National Museum, New Delhi


This Gupta-style Buddha is one of the finest examples of ancient bronze casting in India. It was made in Maharashtra – an important centre of Buddhism at the time of the Vakatakas (about AD 250–500). He stands under a parasol and on top of an open lotus – an ancient Indian symbol of transcendence. However, the figure is surmounted by a pair of flying gandharvas (male nature spirits) who seem to be inherited from the Greek and Roman influences of Gandhara.

Chola Buddha

AD 900–1000
Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, India
Gift from the Collection of Smt. Amravati Gupta
CSMVS, Mumbai


This statue comes from the port town of Nagapattinam, a leading centre of artistic production of Buddhist imagery during the reign of the Chola dynasty (about AD 880–1279). The flame on top of his ushnisha (cranial protuberance) is symbolic of the wisdom that is believed to have emerged during his meditation. The iconography of the flaming ushnisha directly influenced the images of the Buddha in Sri Lanka, from where it spread to East and Southeast Asia.

The spread of Buddhism

The spread of the image of the Buddha reveals how civilisations interpret the same idea differently. After its diffusion across the Indian Subcontinent, Buddhism spread throughout Asia. Theravada Buddhism travelled from Sri Lanka to most of Southeast Asia, while Mahayana Buddhism reached Central Asia and Tibet, before proliferating in China, Korea and Japan. In a few centuries, the Indian religion travelled far and wide, establishing itself as one of the main world faiths. While remaining loyal to its basic principles and teachings, Buddhism adapted and incorporated practices and styles from the local cultures it came in contact with. This resulted in a rich and diverse body of Buddhist works, ranging from art and architecture to written materials. 

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Korean Buddha

AD 700–800
British Museum


Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China in the fourth century. Inspired by Chinese Tang sculpture and what is known as the international style of Buddhist art, which combined influences from East, Central and South Asian art, this striking Korean Buddha is characteristic of the Unified Silla dynasty (AD 668–935). Its stylised body, plump face, and the naturalistic arrangement of the folds of its robe are all typical of eighth-century Korean sculpture.

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Copper alloy
AD 1500–1700
British Museum



AD 552
British Museum

Standing Buddha

AD 700–900
Sambas, Indonesia
British Museum


AD 1800–1900
Sri Lanka
British Museum