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Exploring Symbolism in Indian Art

Symbolism in Indian Art

Indian art is renowned for its vibrant colours, intricate designs and rich symbolism. From ancient times to the present day, artists in India have used various mediums to express cultural, spiritual and social themes through their work. Across different regions and communities, distinct art forms have emerged, each with its unique motifs and symbols. In this blog, we shall delve into six prominent Indian art forms, namely Madhubani, Phad, Pichwai and Gond. Join us in our journey to uncover the hidden meanings behind their imagery and symbols.

Symbolism in Indian Art: Madhubani

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Madhubani art, originating from the Mithila region of Bihar, is characterised by its bold lines, intricate patterns, and vibrant colours. Madhubani paintings are a form of visual expression and storytelling. It serves as a cultural identity for the people of Mithila. Women, in particular, played a crucial role in the development and propagation of the art form in their village. They would create intricate paintings on the walls of their houses during ceremonies and auspicious occasions like weddings and religious festivals. The most common motifs found in this style of painting are as follows. 

Peacocks: A peacock in Indian mythology is known to symbolise fertility and good fortune. The peacock is a recurring motif in Madhubani art. In paintings, peacocks are often depicted dancing amidst lush green foliage. It represents the beauty and abundance of nature.

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Lotus: The lotus flower holds deep spiritual significance in Hinduism, symbolising purity, peace and enlightenment. In Madhubani paintings, lotus motifs are intricately woven into the background, typically surrounding central figures. They could also be found running along the borders. 

Fish: Fish motifs in Madhubani art symbolise fertility and prosperity. They represent the bountiful blessings of nature. Their presence in this style of art signifies the interconnectedness of all living beings with the natural world. With intricate patterns and bold lines, this motif comes with symbolic significance of evoking a sense of harmony and balance. 

Symbolism in Indian Art: Phad

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Phad painting is a traditional art form from Rajasthan, known for its elaborate narratives and vibrant colours. Phad art serves multiple purposes within the community. They were not only decorative artworks but also functional tools used in religious rituals and ceremonies. In rural Rajasthan, Phad scrolls are prominently displayed during festivals. Common symbols and motifs found in Phad paintings are as follows. 

Lord Shiva: Lord Shiva is depicted as a central deity, embodying the attributes of destruction and regeneration. He is often portrayed with a third eye symbolising divine insight and a crescent moon adorning his matted locks. Shiva is surrounded by intricate detailing representing his cosmic presence. Phad artists honour Lord Shiva, capturing his divine significance within the painting. 

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Horses: Horses hold a prominent place in Phad art, symbolising power, agility and speed. Often depicted with majestic postures and adorned with intricate decorations, horses accompany heroic figures or divine beings in the art work. Their presence embodies the spirit of adventure and conquest. Phad artists capture the dynamic energy and noble grace of these magnificent creatures. 

Kalash: The Kalash, or sacred pot, in Phad art, representing abundance, auspiciousness and divine blessings. It is shown overflowing with flowers, foliage or sacred water. The Kalash is adorned with intricate patterns and vibrant colours, signifying the divine blessings bestowed upon the depicted scenes of ritual, celebration or festival. 

Symbolism in Indian Art: Pichwai

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Pichwai Art: Pichwai paintings originated in the temples of Nathdwara, Rajasthan, and are known for their intricate depictions of Lord Krishna. They are usually big devotional Hindu painted representations of Shrinathji that are typically on fabric. The Pichwais are seen behind the deity, simply translating to “that which hangs from the back” in Sanskrit. Motifs used are as follows. 

Krishna: Lord Krishna is portrayed as the central figure, radiating divine love and compassion. Depicted amidst lush landscapes of Vrindavan, Krishna is often shown playing the flute, enchanting devotees with his melodious music. His playful interactions with Radha and the Gopis symbolise divine love and the eternal bond between the soul and the Supreme Being.

Image source: Gallery Store

Peacocks and Cows: Cows hold sacred significance in Pichwai paintings, symbolising purity, abundance and divine grace. They are revered as embodiments of the divine mother, providing nourishment and sustenance to all beings. Peacocks and cows are adorned with floral garlands and decorative ornaments, highlighting their revered status in Hindu culture. Pichwai artists honour the sacred bond between humans and animals through these motifs. 

Lotus Pond: The lotus pond is a recurring motif in Pichwai paintings, representing the divine abode of Lord Krishna. Its petals unfold in radiant beauty. The lotus pond serves as a sacred sanctuary, inviting devotees into the realm of spiritual bliss. The details and colours used in Pichwai bring the lotus pond to life, evoking a sense of tranquillity and serenity. 

Symbolism in Indian Art: Gond

Image source: Tribal Art India

Gond art originates from the indigenous tribal community in India. One of the biggest tribal populations in India practices gond art, in different parts of the country, especially in Madhya Pradesh. Their paintings are highly distinctive because of their vivid dots and striking geometric lines. Vibrant colours like yellow, orange, red, blue, and green are highly favoured by Gond artists. They are attracted to the following motifs. 

Dots and Lines: In Gond art, dots and lines form particular patterns that are meant to represent cosmic energy and interconnectedness. These geometric motifs depict the rhythm of life, connecting the earthly realm with the spiritual plane. Dots represent stars, celestial bodies and the eternal cycle of creation. Lines signify rivers, forests and the web of life. Gond artists convey a sense of harmony and balance in the universe. 

Nature and Wildlife: Nature and wildlife reflect the deep spiritual connection between indigenous communities and their natural surroundings. Animals such as elephants, tigers and birds embody the bond between humans and nature. Trees and plants are another highlight of this style of painting, representing life and growth. Gond artists also convey a message of environmental conservation and respect for all living beings. 

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Click on this link to know about Warli motifs and patterns that have grown to acquire international recognition.

To summarise…

Motifs and symbols in Indian art are not just decorative elements but carriers of a certain cultural, spiritual or social significance. Across various art forms like Madhubani, Phad, Pichwai and Gond, we observe some common motifs and some specific to the art form it belongs to. Each carries layers of meaning and forms a part of the visual storytelling process. By exploring the symbolism within these art forms, we gain a deeper understanding of India’s cultural and historic legacy.

Additionally, these symbols serve as powerful tools for preserving and transmitting cultural knowledge across generations. They bridge diverse communities and regions in a shared artistic perspective. Lastly, they extend beyond the confines of art, influencing various aspects of Indian life including rituals, festivals, architecture, and textiles. They remind us that life exists on a canvas too! 

To learn more about art forms and their unique features, download the Rooftop app from Google Play or App Store to stay updated on our upcoming art events and workshops. Stay tuned to rooftop blogs and follow us on @rooftop_app

By Freya Bulsara

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