Sculpture was the favoured medium of artistic expression on the Indian subcontinent. Indian buildings were profusely adorned with it and indeed are often inseparable from it. The subject matter of Indian sculpture was almost invariably abstracted human forms that were used to instruct people in the truths of the Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain religions. The nude was used both to represent the body as a symbol of spirit and to reveal the imagined shapes of the gods. There is an almost complete suppression of individuality in Indian sculpture; this is because the figures are conceived of as shapes that are more perfect and final than anything to be found in the merely transitory appearance of human models. The multiple heads and arms of sculptured Hindu divinities were thought necessary to display the manifold attributes of these gods’ power.
The tradition of Indian sculpture extends from the Indus valley civilization of 2500 to 1800 BCE, during which time small terra-cotta figurines were produced. The great circular stone pillars and carved lions of the Mauryan period (3rd century BCE) gave way to mature Indian figurative sculpture in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE, in which Hindu and Buddhist themes were already well-established. A wide range of styles and traditions subsequently flourished in different parts of India over the succeeding centuries, but by the 9th–10th centuries CE Indian sculpture had reached a form that has lasted with little change up to the present day. This sculpture is distinguished not by a sense of plastic volume and fullness but rather by its linear character; the figure is conceived from the standpoint of its outline, and the figure itself is graceful, slender, and has supple limbs. From the 10th century this sculpture was used mainly as a part of architectural decoration, with vast numbers of relatively small figures of mediocre quality being produced for this purpose.