The main purpose of Buddhist art in India was to popularise the religion of Buddhism. Buddhist art in India came into being after the historical life of Gautam Buddha during the sixth to fifth century B.C. and then it developed by contact with other cultures as it spread all through Asia and the world.
Buddhist art has played a crucial role in the dissemination and development of Buddhism in China, which began in the Eastern Han period (25–220 CE). Rigorous scholarship on the works as objects of art, however, began only in the early 20th century, primarily by Japanese and Western scholars, who had access to Buddhist images in China and in their respective countries. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), in 1949, important contributions have been made by Chinese scholars. Some of the best American scholars emerged while China’s doors were closed to the United States. These scholars moved the field forward with remarkable textual studies based on secondary documentation as well as on the limited body of visual material to which they had access. The early art historical scholarship focused on establishing a chronology of formal development; style and iconography were the primary tools for organizing the extant Buddhist works of art. Gradually, an increasing number of scholars shifted to more thematic studies, probing issues of form and meaning; patronage; word–image dynamics; ontological status of image as divine substitute, or representation; the relationship between ritual and art; and so on.
Over the following centuries there emerged a new form of Buddhism, which involved an expanding pantheon and more elaborate rituals. This later Buddhism introduced the concept of heavenly bodhisattvas as well as goddesses, of whom the most popular was Tara. In Nepal and Tibet, where exquisite metal images and paintings were produced, an entire set of new divinities were created and portrayed in both sculpture and painted scrolls. Ferocious deities were introduced in the role of protectors of Buddhism and its believers. Images of a more esoteric nature, depicting god and goddess in embrace, were produced to demonstrate the metaphysical concept that salvation resulted from the union of wisdom (female) and compassion (male). Buddhism had traveled a long way from its simple beginnings.
Buddhist Art in India gained more prominence. It was combined with restraint and aesthetic sense. Nalanda, Sarnath and Mathura were the three pivotal regions which marked the Buddhist art in this period. The images of Lord Buddha from Sarnath and Mathura are hallmark of Buddhist Indian art. The caves of Ajanta contain illustrations depicting stories from Buddha`s life and also tales from the Jatakas. There are numerous statuettes of Buddha and Bodhisattvas present in the Ellora caves.