Calling ancient and medieval Indian architecture “progressive” for its inclusion of nudity is not the best way to frame it. There were many ancient and medieval cultures around the world where women were topless, so ancient India doesn’t really stand out in that regard.
And the fact that nudity or partial nudity was seen as normal means that it wouldn’t have been understood as “progressive” to depict human bodies this way, the way that a #FreetheNipple photoshoot would be construed today.
First, we’ll talk about nudity in other architectural styles. Nudity in art was common in areas influenced by Hinduism and by the wider culture of the Indian subcontinent. One of the most famous examples of nudity in architecture is the 10th-century temple of Banteay Srei in Cambodia. The temple was originally called Tribhuvanamaheśvara, but its modern name, which translates to “citadel of the women”, is a reference to the many depictions of devatas, or demi-goddesses, in the architecture. There are also many apsaras, which are a very common part of Hindu and Buddhist iconography, and take the form of beautiful half-naked women.
While these topless women are divine beings, not depictions of real women, their clothing is very similar to that worn by real people in the art of the period. For example, at the 9th-century Buddhist temple of Borobudur in Java, both queens and commoners are portrayed topless. It’s not that surprising that in warm climates it would have been the norm for women to have their breasts exposed.
Given how important figurative art is in the history of Hindu and Buddhist architecture, it makes sense that when they portray the human figure, they do so according to both current cultural norms of dress and to iconographic histories (which were in turn influenced by ancient dress norms).
The celebration of sexuality was also an important part of Hinduism at the time, which is why you get erotic sculptures in temples like those in Vishvantha Temple. (These erotic sculptures may have been connected to tantric practices at the time, which emphasized sex more than other types of Hinduism.)
You also get depictions of nudity in architecture beyond Hindu and Buddhist countries. Greek architecture frequently includes depictions of the human form that are sometimes nude, such as the nude Hercules at the Temple of Zeus. The Romans imitated this, sometimes in sculpture but also in mosaic art. It’s been speculated that the conquests of Alexander the Great led to an increase in figural representations in Indian art due to similar Hellenistic influence.
Nude depictions of people in architecture go even further back than that. A nude worshiper.jpg) offers libations to the goddess Inanna in relief besides a temple door in 2500 BC; naked men herd cattle on a mural in an Egyptian acropolis from between 2500 and 2300 BC; palace women were depicted topless in the Minoan temple of Knossos from 1800 BC; a musician is topless in the tomb of Nakht from 1400 BC.
This huge variety of ancient nude portrayals hints at the wide range of meanings that nudity can hold in different cultures. In tropical parts of the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, women going around with exposed breasts was practical. In ancient Greece and Rome, the nude male figure was romanticized and intellectualized.
Mesopotamian priests were sometimes ritually nude. In some Ancient Egyptian art, nudity is portrayed in architecture to show the vulnerability of captives, whereas at other times exposed breasts represent the everyday fashions of the elite or of their slaves. We can’t assume that showing breasts or genitalia in architecture is a sign of “progressivism” since these body parts’ significance has been socially constructed in many different ways throughout history.
While Abrahamic traditions brought with them the idea that nudity must be restricted in order to please God, that did not stop depictions of nudity from appearing in the architecture of people who followed these faiths. Nudity has continued to form a part of the architecture in the medieval and modern periods in many different places across the world.
Medieval Europe, particularly Ireland, brought us the Sheela na Gig, grotesque figurines flashing their vulvas in the ceilings and walls of castles and cathedrals. Other times, nudity served to convey a specific story detail in Christian narrative art in churches throughout Christendom, such as in stained glass windows and murals depicting Adam and Eve.
Folkloric and mythological themes include nudity in Christian churches too, such as this mermaid on a church pew from Cornwall. You also see nude mermaids incorporated into coats of arms.jpg) on buildings in the late medieval and early modern periods.
The perfection of the human form was also part of the mindset of Renaissance artists who revived ancient Greek and Roman styles of architecture. Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a great example of this. You also get a lot of nude depictions of angels in the Renaissance. This built-in part on classical motifs as well, with nudity being associated with youth such as in depictions of Cupid. Indeed, in many ancient cultures, it was the norm for children to be nude until puberty, so the association with youthfulness would have been a natural one.
Today there are still cultures where nudity is considered normal. Women of the Zo’é tribe in Brazil go completely nude except for their lip plugs, while men sometimes wear loincloths. Again, it’s not really “progressive” of them to do this, because they have not existed in a cultural context in which “conservative” moral weight was attached to the idea of covering up one’s breasts or genitals.
As to why attitudes towards nudity changed in Indian history, hopefully, someone else can come along and answer that. But we hope our answer has demonstrated that depictions of nudity in ancient Indian architecture are far from an outlier in world history.