Gonda Fellow (2003, 2004) at International Institute for Asian Studies. Leiden, the Netherlands


Animals in Stone

[A goat resting at a well, Jaisalmer (Rajasthan); photo J. Kamphorst]

The art history of South Asia covers a time span of roughly four and a half thousand years. During this period, a vast number of animal stone sculptures has been produced, ranging from the pre-historic period till today and covering a great variety of motifs and imagery in different regions and religious traditions. Even so, the number of studies devoted to these animal sculptures has remained extremely limited. The present book aims at filling this knowledge gap. With this richly illustrated book, the first of its kind, I offer a comparative study of the ways in which various animals have been depicted and a lucid analysis of the sculptors’ treatment of their “models”: living animals. The art history of sculptured animals is contextualized with a description of the use of animals as can be read from ancient texts, archaeological evidence and contemporaneous culture. In doing so, parallels as well as differences in style or iconography are highlighted, elucidating the variety of animal depictions across regions, religious contexts and through time. The corpus of discussed material ranges from Indus seals, stupa panels and railings, monumental temples from North and South India, non-religious palace and fort architecture to loose sculptures in museum collections.

Published (2008) in the series Handbook of Oriental Studies, Section 2 South Asia, 21, by Brill (Leiden, the Netherlands) (ISBN-13 978 90 04 16819 0, ISSN 0169-9377, hardback, number of pages lxxii + 814) (Order from

Animals in Stone, Indian fauna sculptured through time combines zoology and art history of the South Asian subcontinent. Indian mammals as they were sculptured in stone through the ages are compared with their living counterparts and their role in society and religion is discussed. The animals are sometimes rendered with great care and good observation, whereas others are no more than a vague reference to the animal in question. In some cases, the animals as prescribed in written text, appear to belong to a different species in the sculpture. A number of animals escaped depiction all together, either because they are very rare and seldom seen, or because they are not wanted. The overwhelming majority of animals depicted in stone sculpture is limited to the domestic animals. Only a minority of stone sculptures focusses on wild animals, some of which are nowadays extinct from the area.

This material is based upon work supported by the Jan Gonda Foundation (Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences) (link to JGF) and the International Institute for Asian Studies (link to List of Fellows, IIAS). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jan Gonda Foundation or those of the International Institute for Asian Studies.

Geology of South Asia

[The Thar desert, one of the various South Asian geo-environments; photo J. Kamphorst]

South Asia in the geographical sense is one of the most intriguing areas in the world from a zoological view point. It consists today of several nation states: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and Sri Lanka. South Asia forms a subcontinent on its own, and knowns an extreme variety of physical features, resulting in an immense rich flora and fauna. Once, South Asia was connected to Africa. Evidence of this time are, amongst others, the dinosaur remains in the Deccan traps. Gradually, this landmass broke off, and formed an isolated continental island in the Mesozoic, drifting slowly towards the Palearctic landmass in the North. The collision, which took place some 40 million years ago, resulted in the formation of the highest mountain range of our planet: the Himalayas. This uplift goes on, with a speed of about one centimetre per year, because the Indian plate still moves at a speed of 3 to 4 centimeter per year towards the north. The long-term isolation of South Asia, first by surrounding waters, later by the inaccessible Himalayas, resulted in a unique endemic fauna. Many species are restricted to this subcontinent, and are not found in the wild elsewhere in the world. Famous examples are the Indian elephant, the blackbuck, the nilgai, the four-horned antelope, the spotted deer and the Indian rhinoceros. Disappearance from India means disappearance from our planet.


[The Indian elephant (Elephas maximus), undoubtly the most typical Indian animal today; photo J. Kamphorst]

South Asian abounds in ecological niches, ranging from arctic conditions to arid desert zones and wet tropical forests. The South Asian alpine fauna contains ibexes, snow leopards and picas, while the jungles are home to leopards and monkeys. On the western plains, desert-loving species are found, like khurs and camels. On the table-lands of the South, the savannah-adapted species prevail, like gazelles and antelopes. In open, deciduous hill forests we find species like chital deer, Indian bison and the dhole. In the east, the Sundarbans, a region of swamps, tropical forests and mangrove forests, swamp deer, tigers and crocodiles can be expected. In the western and northwestern parts, the fauna bears a central asian-european stamp, with species that live also in North and Central Asia and in Europe, for example the ibex, the khur, and the hangul or red deer. In the eastern and northwestern parts, the fauna bears a Sino-Indian stamp: some species are found further eastwards in Assam, Myanmar and southern China, for example sambar deer, muntjac, and gaur. In the North and the South a more exclusively Indian fauna is found, with elements that are not found outside India, for example the blackbuck, the blue cow or nilgai, and the barasingha or swamp deer. The richest fauna is found in the forests of the Western Ghats and the South Indian hills.

Human Impact

[The impact of humans in India: urbanisation even in the desert (Jaisalmer); photo J. Kamphorst]

The South Asian subcontinent does not anymore represent an unspoiled patchwork of various ecosystems. Humans, as everywhere on the planet, adapted the landscape to its own needs and ideas. Large urban areas spread into all directions as oil on water, reaching the horizon. In prehistoric time, the landscape was still original, compared to the present-day, human-made landscape. For example, due to soil erosion and destruction of original vegetation, less water is retained in the Indus valley nowadays than that it was in the times of the Harappa culture. An indication of this is shown by some fresh water plants that grew in that region some 4,000 years ago, but that are absent nowadays. This means that the inhabitants of those settlements knew a larger variety of flora and fauna than is visible today. The same is likely true also for other regions. Once cheetahs and lions were hunting on large parts of the subcontinent, but nowadays the cheetah is extinct in India, and lions are restricted to reserves. Tigers and most wild herbivores are under extinction. And even the once so common rhesus monkey needed special attention and protective laws to escape near extinction. Gradually, faunal diversity is getting lost. Sculptures from the past are in some cases evidence for this.

Sculptures Through Time

[One of the earliest examples: a zebu bull on a steatite seal, Harappa period, c. 2300-1700 BCE; photo Archeological Survey of India, courtesy Kern Institute (Leiden, NL)]

The earliest trace of depiction of animals in stone in South Asia comes from the Indus Valley (Harappan period, c. 2500-1750 BCE). Steatite seals generally depict an animal, realistic or mythical. After that, there is an archaeological silence of more than a millenium. The scattered post-Harappan ruins yield no seals. From about 800 BCE again an urbanisation phase took place, but no animals in stone art were found. The first post-Harappan sculptured animals come from the Mauryan dynasty, the first over-all India empire. The animals adorn pillar capitals, such as that from Sarnath, UP (c. 250 BCE), which figures today as India's official emblem. Later animal sculptures range from decorative reliefs to free-standing independent statues. The animal motifs evolve as time passes by, and follow the general patterns of stylistic developments. Bound to the limitations of style, the wishes and demands of the commissioner and not to forget the limitations of the material itself, including available space, the artists depicted the animals from amazingly naturalistic to highly stylized or in the worst case, completely mistakenly. In the latter case one may wonder whether the artist ever saw the creature he had to depict. This is often the case with lions, an animal belonging to the phantastic realm in the imagination of the common people, and that is seen only by a few people.

Which Animals?

[Domestic animals, such as zebus, elephants and horses, dominate South Asian sculptures. Moonstone at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, 6th-7th century CE; photo W.L.H. Skeen & Co, 1892-1895, courtesy Kern Institute (Leiden, NL)]

The overwhelming majority of the sculptured animals appear to belong to domestic species. These are cattle, elephants, horses, water buffaloes, goats, sheep, and dogs. Extremely rarily depicted, and almost limited to the early historical period, are camels and dromedaries. The section devoted to wild life is much more limited, especially when we exclude the overrepresented lion. The depicted wild animals fall for the greater part into the category of game animals: blackbucks, deer, wild goats, gazelles, tahrs, and wild boars. The remaining part it of the wild animals is almost entirely represented by the lions, and only sparsely by jackals, dholes, khurs, wild cats, gibbons, hares, otters, bears, leopards, tigers, river dolphins, and foxes. The few animals that live in and around villages, but are not domesticated, hardly made it into sculpture. The credit goes first of all to the monkeys, followed by the (bandicoot) rats, and only distantly followed by the palm squirrels, common house mice, and mongooses. Animals which were sculptured only in the remote past, but seemed to have disappeared greatly, are the rhinoceros, the Indian bison, the nilgai, the markhor, and the tapir.

Identified mammalian species with their Latin binominal name, in alphabetical order: Antilope cervicapra (the blackbuck), Axis axis (spotted deer), Bandicota indica (bandicoot rat), Bos gaurus (gaur or Indian bison), Bos indicus (zebu), Bos primigenius (aurochs), Boselaphus tragocamelus (nilgai), Bubalus bubalis (water buffalo), Camelus bactrianus (Bactrian camel), Camelus dromedarius (dromedary), Canis aureus (golden jackal), Canis familiaris (domestic dog), Capra aegagrus (bezoar goat), Capra falconeri (markhor), Capra hircus (domestic goat), Capra sibrica (Asiatic ibex), Cervus unicolor (sambar deer), Cuon alpinus(red dog), Elephas maximus (Indian elephant), Equus caballus (domestic horse), Equus hemionus (khur), Felis spp. (cats), Funambulus palmarum (three-striped palm squirrel), Funambulus pennanti (five-striped palm squirrel), Gazella bennetti (chinkara), Giraffa camelopardalis (giraffe, NOT sculptured contrary to some published works), Hemitragus hylocrius (Nilgiri tahr or Nilgiri ibex), Herpestes spp. (mongooses), Hylobates hoolock (white-browed gibbon), Lepus nigricollis (Indian hare), Lutra lutra (common otter), Lutrogale perspicillata (smooth Indian otter), Macaca mulatta (rhesus monkey), Macaca radiata (bonnet macaque), Melursus ursinus (sloth bear), Moschiola nemmina (mouse-deer), Muntiacus muntjak (Indian muntjac or barking deer), Mus musculus (common house mouse), Ovis aries (domestic sheep), Panthera leo (Asiatic lion), Panthera pardus (leopard), Panthera tigris (tiger), Panthera uncia or Uncia uncia (snow leopard), Platanista gangetica (river dolphin), Rattus rattus (black rat), Rhinoceros unicornis (Indian rhinoceros), Semnopithecus entellus (common langur), Sus scrofa (pigs and boars), Tapirus indicus (Asian tapir), Tetracerus quadricornis (chousingha or four-horned deer), and Vulpes bengalensis (Indian fox)

Example of a Story

[Vishnu comes down to rescue the elephant king. Vishnu temple at Deogarh, Madhya Pradesh, 6th century CE; photo Archeological Survey of India, courtesy Kern Institute (Leiden, NL)]

Almost all depicted animals figure in one or more stories (myths, legends). An example is the story of the elephant which got caught by a water monster. In this story, known as the myth of Vishnu Gajendramoksha or Karivarada-Vishnu, the Hindu god Vishnu comes down to rescue an elephant king from a graha (grasper). The term is often translated as crocodile, or as a tortoise, but literally it could be anything as long as it grasps. The subject is exceedingly rare in sculpture. An unmistakable and early depiction is seen on the unfinished Vishnu temple at Deogarh, Madhya Pradesh. The grasper is a naga, or multi-headed snake-king. Depictions from the South (Karnataka) are also known. At the Virupaksha temple (Pattadakal), the elephant stands on a turtle, which grasps the right front limb of the elephant with his beak. It is a naive composition, and gives the impression of a mere pile of creatures: the turtle at the bottom, the elephant on its back, anthropomorph Garuda on his back and finally Visnu sitting on Garuda. At the Buceshvara temple (Koravangala), the grasper is a typical Hoysala-style makara, with bushy paws and a curly tail. The idea of a pile of creatures, as present in several other southern examples, is also preserved here. An example from the Himalayas comes from the ancient kingdom of Kashmir. Here, the poor and tiny elephant is firmly grasped by Vishnu. Notwithstanding its miniature size, the elephant is accurate and realistic. The grasper is, like in the Gupta examples, a long naga; the whole setting is, however, mirrored.

Examples of Illustrations

    The book "Animals in Stone" is richly illustrated with 49 colour plates (GO TO PLATES) and 528 grey-scale figures. The sample below is therefore a tiny fraction of what the book may offer you. The selection is entirely at random, and many chapters and animals are not represented here.

    For the complete list of captions of figures and plates, including courtesies and copyright statements, click here (pdf). For a low-resolution version of the colour plates, click here (pdf).

My animals in Art

    Inspired by animals from the past and the present, I make reconstructions and drawings of animals in my spare time. For more drawings, see my blogspot or my Deviant Art gallery.

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