The Indian subcontinent has given rise to three major religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism—and been the center of several Muslim states, and much of traditional Indian art was made in the service of religion. Many stone sculptures and larger bronze sculptures also were used in temples, while smaller bronzes often originally adorned either a village or home altar.
Many small bronze sculptures were intended to please or placate deities, for it was widely believed that gods could descend to earth to interact with human affairs. Among this group are images of Durga, a powerful goddess with multiple arms. According to epics and Puranic legend, Durga is a fierce warrior and destroyer of asuras (demons). One form of Durga, Mahishasuramardini, was named for her feat of slaying the asura Mahisha, whom she battled until he was transformed into a buffalo; when Mahisha attempted to escape the body of the slain buffalo, Durga decapitated him. Even quite small sculptures convey Durga’s majestic and terrible power: she often carries a sword and sometimes a kapala, a cup made from a human skull.
Equestrian figures can be vahanas, or the mounts of Buddhist, Hindu, or Jaina deities, and were often associated with a particular deity; it was also a folk tradition that local heroes and clan ancestors were deified on horseback. A bull may be a referent for Shiva, who is often depicted with the white bull Nandi, or Nandi himself, who was a deity in his own right.