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Fantastic and Functional Animals in Indian Art

December 9, 2006–June 30, 2007

Animals—from ants to owls, cranes to crocodiles—populate India's art. Rather than merely being part of the landscape, however, they almost always play specific roles whether as characters in a story, symbols, or poetic metaphors.

Fantastic and Functional Animals in Indian Art draws from the Museum's rich collection of "miniature" paintings to explore the many meanings of India's scaly, feathery, and furry inhabitants, both natural and supernatural.

Animal Roles

The Real Thing

Animals in Various Roles

Each Hindu god and goddess has an animal vahana (vehicle) that underscores some important aspect of the deity: the martial goddess Durga rides a powerful lion; the ardent-ascetic Shiva a virile bull; and Indra, king of the heavens, a storm-cloud elephant. At times the gods themselves take on animal form, as when Vishnu becomes a tortoise to help create the earth.

Animal characters are central to the grand religious epics of India. Some, like the monkey-general Hanuman, are heroes in their own right, while others, like the wish-granting cow Kamadhenu, are magical creatures. Animals also play a variety of roles in folktales—especially the Panchatantra, an ancient series of animal fables. Some animals, such as birds and deer, appear as poetic metaphors for love or longing; and animal imagery pervades manuals for interpreting dreams.

Animals also play a host of functions in everyday life. Cattle have long been vital to India's agrarian economy. Horses, elephants, and camels were major forms of transportation and crucial in battle. Hunting with hawks and dogs constituted a primary pastime for kings and courtiers, and elephant combats were also popular in the palace.

Main Building


Darielle Mason • The Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art

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