Animal Paintings ~ The role of animals in Indian Art, History & Culture

The natural world is perhaps the most ubiquitous subject of art throughout history, and Indian artists have forever used animals and birds as their base for inspiration. The coexistence of humankind and animals is natural inspiration for ornate painting, yet for India, animals are also symbolic of religion,

carved into Hindu temples offering divinity and qualities humanity should endeavour to


Indian art
Ancient Cave Art

Indian art repeatedly reflects the metaphors and teachings of Hindu mythology. The majority of deities within Hinduism are associated with a particular bird or animal, consequently natural creatures are elevated from existences to symbols of spirituality, and this can be seen in temple carvings and idol


One of the most celebrated and revered divinities for Hindus is the son of Shiva and Durga, Ganesh. His image can be found across Hindu populations, places of strong ethnic Indian people, as well as throughout Buddhism. Ganesh has a direct connection with writing and letters, and mythical texts, whilst artwork also reflects this. His human body and elephant head have been the focus of great artwork throughout Indian history as he is widely known, important, and historically symbolic. His large stomach depicts widespread acceptance and charity, his raised hand offers protection, as he is the Lord of all matter and provides order in our chaotic world. Ganesh is an example of how Indian artwork offers recognised animals and gives them symbolic meaning and moral characteristics to encourage self-thought and meditation.

A common feature of Indian culture, composite art features amalgamations of humans, insects, birds, mythical creatures, and animals. Mughal art from the 16th century until the mid-19th century heavily displayed composite pieces, offering an insight into the creativity and vision of the artist, as well as the emotions of humankind through symbolic figures, as displayed below.

Indian art also compliments the abundance of folklore stories and tales, as visual representations, amateur or professional, enhanced the teachings and meanings of particular messages. This is inherently linked to religion and a relationship which allows Indian art and culture to become widely accessible to all, both in the past and present. Irrespective of one’s religious principles, purchasing art featuring nature or animals can allow one to retrospectively appreciate our environments, the wonders of the natural world, and the importance of respecting and involving ourself with nature as there are endless mental and physical benefits to be reaped.

Indian art continues to focus on the role of animals and birds in art, as horses are often incorporated into modern Indian artwork. Generally, horses have lost their place in artwork as their significance in transportation or warfare has decreased in our modern world, yet, horses play an important role in Indian sculptures as symbols of determination, speed and power. Moreover, the interconnectedness of religion and horses, such as the Hayagriva, a horse-headed avatar, the god of wisdom, represents the horse as a symbol of truth and knowledge.

Similarly, for example, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythologies reflected figures and symbols who also featured metaphors and teachings. Animals, birds and horses have been central to this work, with some of history’s most revered artists such as Degas, Rubens, Kandinsky and Da Vinci all studying and painting the natural world.

Clearly, nature, culture and history have inspired and continue to inspire artwork throughout the world and time. This relationship is imperative to humankind, as artwork encourages us to learn, create, and think about the world around us. Greek sculptures can tell us the priorities, emotions, and life of humans amidst the foundations of democracy. Da Vinci’s study of horses highlights the importance, resourcefulness and beauty of horses in the Renaissance period. And Indian artwork, traditional and modern, offers a reflection of symbolic figures holding significant life lessons, teachings, and beautiful depictions of the natural world.

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Article By: Oscar Rihll

Oscar Rihll Content Writer

Oscar is a final year history student at the University of Manchester. A travel and food fanatic, he loves to understand and observe different cultures both domestically and abroad. An avid reader and writer, he is excited to link his historical knowledge to his fascination with art.

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