Ancient South Asia

Marble statue of a tirthankaraSouth Asia is the seat of many of the world’s great religious traditions, most notably Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Objects from the British Museum collection displayed in Room 33 explore the central beliefs of these faiths and their development from the early centuries CE to modern times.

Buddhism was established in the fifth century BCE by the Buddha or ‘enlightened one’. However it was not until the third century BCE that Buddhism enjoyed royal patronage under the Mauryan kings – notably Ashoka – and spread to all parts of the subcontinent. Buddhism continued to flourish in subsequent centuries, reaching South East Asia in the fifth century CE and Tibet in the seventh.

Mahavira – the ‘great hero’ – was a contemporary of the Buddha and founder of the Jain faith. This religion, with its emphasis on harsh asceticism, has been less popular than Buddhism and did not spread beyond continental South Asia. Nonetheless it has survived to the present and through the centuries has enjoyed strong support from the merchant and banking classes. The artistic heritage of Jainism is thus especially rich.

Hinduism has very ancient roots but began to assume its mature form only in the fourth century CE.  The most characteristic features of mature Hinduism are the worship of divine images and the construction of temples to house these images. Hinduism has a vast pantheon of male and female deities but pre-eminent among them are Shiva and Vishnu.

Although indigenous religions dominate Indian history, it is important to note that Christianity was established in India in the first century when the apostle St Thomas travelled east. Islam too became a significant force in south Asia from the early eighth century.

Image caption: Marble statue of a tirthankara
From western India, AD 1150-1200

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