The Indian subcontinent: land and culture

Map: the Indian SubContinent

The Nehru Gallery at the V&A provides an evocative architectural setting for the display of textiles, paintings, jewellery, furniture and precious objects from South Asia, dating from the 16th to the 19th century.

The great artistic developments and opulence of the Mughal Empire are a focal point of the gallery and feature outstanding examples of jade carving and manuscript painting. Also on display are arts of the Rajput kingdoms, the Muslim sultanates of the Deccan and the Sikh courts. The gallery ends with the material produced during the period of British rule in India and includes beautiful painted textiles (chintzes) and ivory-inlaid furniture.

The Indian subcontinent

The Indian subcontinent is a vast area the size of Europe, and is today divided into the separate countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Within the subcontinent itself, there  is a wide variety of peoples, languages and religions. Their distribution is largely a result of physical aspects of the land itself, which in turn shaped historical events such as migrations and invasions.

The North

The great barrier of the Himalayas which runs across the north of  the subcontinent has restricted contact with the rest of Asia except through narrow passes such as the Khyber Pass in the north-west frontier. This meant that most outside influences came into the north-west  via present-day Afghanistan, bringing the earliest waves of migrating peoples from Central Asia. Later, from about AD 1000 onwards, Muslim armies came through the Khyber Pass and set up kingdoms in northern India. The fertile plains of the Indus and Ganges rivers had been the focus of great civilisations since at least 2000 BC. They continued as the heartlands of the major powers who ruled India, and today still include the most populous  areas of India.

The South

Marble window screen, 19th century. Museum no. 07071(IS)

Marble window screen, 19th century. Museum no. 07071(IS). Marble window screen made in Agra in the 19th century, copied from earlier 17th-century models.

The southern peninsula of India consists largely of a high, wooded plateau known as the Deccan, with great rivers flowing down to the sea. Central India was the home of several of the earliest indigenous peoples, and many tribal groups still live in the jungles of central and eastern India.

The far south remained largely untouched by the Muslim invasions of the north, and maintains an undiluted traditional Hindu culture that is quite different from that of the northern plains. Languages of ancient origin such as Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam are spoken here, with complex grammars and scripts quite distinct from the Hindi, Bengali and Persian-influenced Urdu of the north.

The impact of the sea

If the physical land-barriers shaped much of India's internal history, accessibility by sea played a vastly important role in contact with the outside world. Trading had been carried out between India and the Roman world by sea, and the fine silks, cottons and gold of the subcontinent  were renowned throughout the ancient world. The religion of Islam first arrived  not overland through the Middle East but by sea direct from Arabia in about AD 700. First contacts with modern Europe came about through trade, first with the Portuguese, and later with the British, Dutch, French and Danish trading companies. The British became dominant in trade with India, and it was through defending their commercial interests that they made the transition from merchants to rulers.

Islam and Hinduism

Islam means ‘submission’ (to God)  and recognises one God – Allah.  It was founded by the prophet Muhammad in Arabia in the seventh century AD and reached the subcontinent  by sea soon after.  Powerful Muslim kingdoms were established in the north  by the thirteenth century, and the area was under continuous Muslim rule, mostly by the Mughal dynasty, until 1858 when the British formally abolished the title of Mughal Emperor. 

At Independence in 1947, the Muslim states of West and East Pakistan (today Pakistan and Bangladesh) were formed, and many Muslims moved from India, but some 75 million Muslims still continue to live there.

Hinduism had no one founder, but evolved gradually over about 1,000 years, becoming roughly as it is today by the fourth century AD. The main deities worshipped are Vishnu, Shiva and the supreme Goddess, Devi, but all have many other forms and aspects, such as the widely-revered Krishna, who is an incarnation of Vishnu. Brahma, the other main deity of Hinduism, is rarely worshipped in his own right.

Today, Hinduism is practised by about 550 million people all over India, about 80 per cent of the total population.

Private Group Tours & Talks

We offer a wide range of tours to meet your group requirements. Whether a group has a special area of interest, wishes to explore a particular gallery or just get an overview of the Museum's collection the Groups Team can help.

View our Private Group Tours & Talks

Shop online

Indian Temple Sculpture

Indian Temple Sculpture

This innovative book, illustrated with the V&A's unrivalled collection of South-Asian sculpture, looks at Indian temple sculpture in context, as a…

Buy now

Event - M. F. Husain: Master of Modern Indian Painting

Wed 28 May 2014–Sun 27 July 2014

EXHIBITION: This exhibition showcases the final nine paintings by M. F. Husain, one of the most celebrated and internationally recognised Indian artists of the 20th century.

Book online