India is a land of diverse cultures. The variations in physical, climatic conditions and the extent of exposure to other cultures have greatly influenced the traditions and culture of the different regions. There is an underlying basic factor common to the whole of India, with variations in the practices based on their local needs and influences. Further, the greatness of India has been in accepting the best from all the invaders and intermingling the new customs and styles with the existing - this is visible in all aspects - music, dance, painting, sculptures, architecture.
This article, an excerpt from the introduction to the book "The Art and Architecture of India" by Benjamin Rowland puts it all in a nutshell.
The history of India and its art has been so bound up with the geographic nature of this vast continent that something must be said of these physical characteristics. India has a kind of impregnable geographic isolation. It is in the shape of a great sealed funnel extending from the heartland of Asia. This peculiar shape of the peninsula made for an inevitable retention and absorption of all the racial and cultural elements that poured into it. The peninsula is bounded on the west by the Indian ocean; on the east by the Bay of Bengal. Along the northern frontier India is almost sealed off from the Asiatic mainland by the rocky curtain of the Himalayas from Baluchistan to Assam. The only openings in this formidable natural fortification are the various passes of the north-west, such as the famous Khyber and Bolan passes, which wind through the mountains seperating India from the Iranian plateau. Through these gaps came all the migrating tribes and conquerors that made themselves masters of the rich plain of India. The cultural divisions of India proper have always been determined and dominated by the great river systems, the watersheds of the Indus and Ganges, the Deccan plateau and South India.
Climate, no less than geography has played its part in the development of the peculiarly indigenous traits of Indian history and art. All the races of martial character have grown up in the dry and hilly districts of north-west and centre, whereas the fertile plains of Bengal and South have been inhabited by peaceful and unwarlike cultivators.
The overpowering nature of India has in a way forced upon the inhabitants an inability to act, a situation responsible for the Indian races having become lost in religiosity.The mystery of Indian myths and Indian art lies partly in the fact that it suggests rather than states. It could truly be said that Indian symbols of art voiced the same truth as Indian philosophy and myth.
In India, all art, like all life, is given over to religion. Indian art is life, as interpreted by religion and philosophy.Indian art may, in a general way, be described as theological, hieratic, or, perhaps best of all as traditional. The purpose of Indian art, like all traditional art, is primarily to instruct men in the great first causes, which according to the seers, govern the material, spiritual and celestial worlds. Art is dedicated to communicating these great truths to mankind and, by the architectural, sculptural and pictorial reconstruction of the powers that maintain the stars in their courses.