Shrines, such as this western Indian example, would have held a sculpture of a holy figure in the center. These structures were used in both homes and temples as devotional chapels. With its Indo-Islamic architectural elements and Hindu sculptural forms, this cosmopolitan Mughal period shrine may belong to the Hindu or Jain religious tradition. This structure, like an actual Hindu or Jain temple, represents a miniature version of the universe. The imagery on the shrine evolves from the earthly realm of human and courtly activities, represented by the courtiers and elephants at the base, to the heavenly realm, represented by the celestial dancers and birds near the dome.
Shrines such as this one were used as domestic shrines in private homes as well as devotional chapels inside larger temple complexes. The center of the shrine would have held a sculpture of a holy figure, likely a Hindu deity or sacred Jain image of Jinas. Due to the popularity of shrines such as this in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries among both Hindus and Jains, it is uncertain whether this particular shrine was used as devotion for the Hindu or Jain tradition.
If placed inside a Hindu temple, the shrine would have been installed on a pedestal at eye-level in the inner sanctum or garbagirha, meaning “womb house.” This area was only accessible to the temple’s priests, who would have ensured that the central enshrined image was washed, clothed, and fed. If in a Jain temple, the shrine would have been placed centrally on a pedestal where devotees could wash, decorate, and circumambulate or walk around the figure. This ease of access is in keeping with the Jain rejection of a priestly caste, a tradition supported by the Hindus.
Like a Hindu temple, this shrine is meant to represent a miniature version of the universe. The imagery on the shrine evolves from the earthly realm of human and courtly activities, represented by the courtiers and elephants at the base, to the heavenly realm, represented by the celestial dancers and birds near the dome. A low relief of intricate plant forms extends around the base of the shrine. Tapered columns rise from the four corners of the base and provide support to the Indo-Islamic structure’s arches and domes. Two pairs of elephants, ridden by mahouts or elephant drivers, flank the opening of the shrine, which would have revealed the central Hindu or Jain figure. Above the columns on either side of the arch are divine entertainers playing musical instruments and performing classic Indian dance. These apsaras or sensual female performers of the heavenly court evolved from early fertility figures or yakshis. The acts of dancing and musical performance are believed to be both a way to honor and worship the gods and transcend human existence. Classical Hindu dance performances often took place in temples and lasted through the night. Modern dancers in India are trained in classical dance to perform the histories and epics of the Hindu gods and heroes.
Temple Art and Architecture
This shrine takes the form of a miniature temple, mirroring the structural and architectural elements of a full-scale Hindu or Jain temple. The style of the shrine is north Indian and is common of both Hindu and Muslim architecture. Arches, domes, and columns, along with rich ornamentation associated with Indo-Islamic architecture, were adapted by north Indian elites regardless of religious affiliation by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for their own homes and religious structures. However, the figural sculptures that ornament the exterior derive from a long tradition of Hindu temple decoration.
After the establishment of the Gupta [GUP-tah] kingdom in the fourth century A.D., Hindu art began to flourish. The first Hindu temples were constructed and modeled after earlier Buddhist monuments. Hindu temples are designed to represent a diagram of the universe. Temples take on the form of a three-dimensional mandala, a sacred diagram that is oriented to the cardinal directions and contains patterns and images intended to aid viewers along the path to understanding and enlightenment.
Many stone sculptures were created to decorate the exterior walls of these temples. Sculptures decorating the temple serve the dual purpose of familiarizing worshipers with the appearance and stories of Hindu gods and goddesses and welcoming the worshiper into the temple. For example, many doorjambs that frame the entrance to a temple offer a visual summary of the cults honored inside. Though most Hindu objects in museums today appear unpainted, these sculptures were originally been painted using a polychrome technique.
India and the Mughal Empire
Due to the pervasiveness of Hinduism in Indian culture, Indian art, which primarily consists of religious art, remains a living tradition that has survived without significant interruption over several millennia.
The early inhabitants of India were farmers and herders who practiced religious cults focused on the fertility of nature. When the Aryans arrived in the region around 1500 BC, these indigenous traditions were combined with the Indo-European cults of the Aryans to create Hinduism. Then, in the sixth century BC, the Buddhist religion, grounded in Hindu roots, developed and spread. During this same time, the Jain religion also grew out of Hinduism, establishing the third major world religion to originate in India.
Muslim traders and merchants brought Islam to northern India around the eighth century A.D., though Muslim warriors would not gain control of the region until the twelfth century. Conquests in northwest and central Asia led to the decline of Buddhism in those areas, but Hinduism remained the faith of many conquered peoples. Although the government consisted of Muslim sultans, significant parts of India and the Himalayan hills remained Hindu or Jain.
In 1526 Babur, a descendant of both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, conquered the Sultan of Delhi and founded the Mughal dynasty (1526-1857). Mughal conquest was directed against both Hindu and early Muslim kingdoms and continued through the seventeenth century. Mughal emperors ruled much of northern and central India until the nineteenth century, though the Muslim states were far from unified and began to lose power in the early eighteenth century.
There were reciprocal influences between Hindu and Mughal courtly art and a style referred to as Indo-Muslim developed. This style is clearly demonstrated in the DMA Shrine, which features both Islamic domed architecture and the lintel, column, and bracket forms of Hindu buildings. The dancer figures or apsaras derive from Hindu sculpture, while the elephants and their riders generally symbolize elevated status.
This particular shrine is made of carved wood and covered with hammered sheet silver using a technique called repoussé. Repoussé is a metalworking practice that creates designs in low relief by hammering the reverse side of a malleable metal. The design is further refined by chasing or embossing, which involves sinking the metal on the front side of the relief. This style was popular across north India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in both Hindu and Jain temples. However, we know that this object is from the western Indian state of Gujarat. This is indicated by presence of a Gujarati Jain inscription that appears on various sculptural parts of the shrine and possibly lists the cost of each section. Donation of works such as this shrine was a common act of piety in the Hindu and Jain traditions, and an inscription recording the cost of each piece allows for speculation that the donor was perhaps a merchant.
Hinduism is a complex system of beliefs. It incorporates many religious texts and many local and village gods, along with the principle trinity of Brahma [BRAH-mah], Vishnu [VISH-noo], and Shiva [SHEE-va]. Hinduism is characterized by a belief in reincarnation, the notion that opposing forces are aspects of one eternal truth, and the practice of good deeds in hopes of being reborn into a higher caste. Through trade and cultural connections, Hinduism became a major influence on many cultures throughout Asia, such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
Jain derives from the word Jina, meaning victor or conqueror, indicating one who has overcome all human passions. Jains live according to five key principles: ahimsa (avoidance of harm), satya (truthfulness), asteya (no stealing), brahmacharya (chastity), and aparigraha (detachment from material things). Jains also believe in reincarnation and karma, as well as right thought and right action to liberate the soul and reach moksha or Nirvana.
The Jains believe in cycles of evolution and that twenty-four tirthankaras, or Jain saints, appear in each cycle to serve as guides for worshippers hoping to gain release from the cycles of existence or rebirth. Tirthankaras are supernatural figures who began as mortals and through spiritual practices gained supernatural status. Mahavira was the twenty-fourth tirthankara who lived between 599-527 B.C. Though Mahavira is not the founder of Jainism, it is during his lifetime that Jainism emerged as a historic sect or religion.
The sixth century B.C. saw the rise of both Buddhism and Jainism, which are typically conceived as reactions against the Hindu caste system. Though Jainism is derived from Hinduism, Jains reject the notion of a priestly caste (Brahmins), while maintaining the other hierarchical categories found in the Hindu caste system. Jainism departs from Buddhism in the rejection of gods, spirits, and demons, and Jains only believe in the tirthankaras as supernatural beings.
Jains erect temples as works of piety and some of the finest temples in India have been built to contain images of Jain tirthankaras.
1. This shrine is meant to look like a miniature temple. What aspects make it look like a building?
2. Consider the materials this shrine is made of. What effect do these have on its appearance? How do they affect your reaction to the object?
3. A sculpture of a holy figure would have been placed inside this shrine. What types of holy figures or imagery do we typically see in religious spaces?
4. The shrine has many figural and animal forms decorating the exterior. What are these figures doing, and what might their purpose be?
5. Considering the figures and animals that appear on this shrine, encourage the students to consider ratios. How many more/less elephants are there than birds? How many more/less columns than domes? How many more/less mahouts than dancers?
6. Act out the behaviors of the animals seen in this shrine. Elephants are a common animal in India and hold special meaning for Indian people. What animal is special to you or common where you live?
1. The DMA Shrine is made of repoussé silver-over-wood. Repoussé is a metalworking practice that creates designs in low relief by hammering the reverse side of a malleable metal. Consider the effect of this material on the appearance of the object. Fold, shape, twist, and crumple the foil provided into a silver-like creation. How is foil different from other supplies you have worked with?
2. This shrine may have appeared in a Hindu or Jain temple alongside many other objects. Research the types of materials and figures seen in sacred spaces of another religion (i.e. Islamic mosque, Buddhist temple, Catholic cathedral, Jewish synagogue, etc.). In an essay compare and contrast the materials and objects found in your research to those of the Shrine and Hindu or Jain temples in India.
3. Many cultures consider silver to be a precious material and utilize it to communicate power or wealth. Research the history of silver and its use outside of a Hindu or Jain context (i.e. amongst European peoples or Mesoamerican cultures) and present a report to the class on your findings, providing plenty of artistic examples (hint: search “silver” in the DMA collections online).
4. The creator of this shrine used animals, flowers, and abstract designs to decorate this work of art. How would you decorate a special place? Have students create a drawing of how they would decorate a space such as their room. Students can also create memory boxes using an old shoe box and decorate the outside with special images.
|Listen to curator Anne Bromberg discuss this shrine.|
Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas, 1997. Page 56.
Dhamija, Jasleen , ed. Crafts of Gujarat. New York: Mapin International, 1985. 745.0954 D536c.
Michell, George. The Majesty of Mughal Decoration: The Art and Architecture of Islamic India. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2007.N7301.M43 2007.
Zebrowski, Mark. Gold, Silver & Bronze from Mughal India. London: Alexandria Press, 1997. NK6476.A1Z49 1997
Books for Students:
Martell, Hazel M. Looking Back: India Under the Mughal Empire 1526-1858. Evans Bros, 1998.
Rosinsky, Natalie M. World Religions: Hinduism. Compass Point Books, 2009.
Srinivasan, Radhika. Jermyn, Leslie. Cultures of the world – India. Marshall Cavendish, 2002.
Learn about the Mughal Empire that ruled most of India and Pakistan in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Access a pdf education resources with activities and information.
This website provides a summary and timeline of Mughal art.
Access rich educational materials focused on the Art of South and Southeast Asia.
This web site provides a rich, multimedia exploration of India through photos, commentary, and educational resources.
Secondary level lesson plans focused on reflection and comparison of world belief systems.
Explore religion and philosophy in the contemporary world through photos, articles, and video.
Access a pdf document full of teaching ideas for understanding South Asian Hindu and Buddhist art.
Learn the basic concepts and gods in the Hindu religion.
This website provides a summary and timeline of South Asian Culture through art.
Explore five facts helpful to teaching about Indian Art.
Concise and comparative presentations of world religions with connections to works of art.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”