The earliest specimen of Orissan sculpture is the elephant figure at Dhauli coming from Buddhist Iconography. The next stage of Orissan sculptural art was the friezes of Khandagiri and Udayagiri Jain Caves. In the Jain sculptural art of Orissa, Khandagiri and Udayagiri found the supreme place during the rule of Kharavela. These were made in the first century B.C.
The sculptural decorations of the caves comprise mainly the large panels of popular legends, historical episodes, religious observances, dancing and singing performances and last but not the least human and animal figures. Jain Tirthankra figures and Sasanadevas with their emblems are found in some of the caves. Jainism suffered an eclipse after the fall of Kharavela dynasty. But during the Somavansi rule of Udyatkesharideva (1040 – 165 A.D.) it got a new impetus. Jain antiquities have been found in Puri, Keonjhar, Balasore and Koraput districts. During this period, Tara Temples, housing Jaina sculptures like Rusavanath, Mahavira, Parswanath, etc. were found. After Somavansi period, Jainism gradually faded away from the religious scene of Orissa.
Coming to Buddhist sculptures, evidence indicates its development in Orissa from the time of Emperor Ashoka (261 B.C.) to about twelveth Century A.D. It seems Mahayana form of Buddhism prevailed in Orissa, which later transformed into Vajrayan apantheon with the introduction of Tantra element in its philosophy. The most important feature of the new School was monotheistic conception of a supreme being who was identified with Adi Buddha and given the name of Vajrasattva. From him originated, five Dhyani Buddhas. The tenets of Vajrayana were compiled in the first half of the eighth century. The evolution of a new pantheon of gods and goddesses gave full scope to the creative genius of the sculptors of early medieval Orissa.
The Buddhist monasteries of Lalitgiri, Udaygiri and Ratnagiri became epicenters of Buddhist art. In other places such as Balasore, Mayurbhanj, Phulbani, Dhenkanal and Ganjam etc. Buddhist Sculptures particularly have been found. Apart from the Buddha figures, the other important feature of Buddhist art in Orissa was the representative of Boddhisattva, Avalokiteswara, in his different varieties such as Padmapani, Lokeswara etc. Large number of Vajrayana sculptures was found in Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri and Udayagiri. These are different forms of Avolokiteswar namely Manjushri, Heruka, Jambhala, Kurukulla, Mahakala, Tara, Manici etc. The Buddhist sculptures found elsewhere were particularly Vajrasattva figures, along with Buddha images. Excavations at Ratnagiri revealed that Buddhist art developed in Orissa from about fifth century A.D. and continued up to twelveth century A.D. Buddhist sculptural art was the main constituent of Medieval Orissan sculptural art.
The main bulk of Orissan sculptural art is however represented by sculptures of Hindu faith. Sculptures pertaining to Saivism. Vaishnaism and Saktism were found in Orissa. Under Sakti Sculptures, we come across the Saptamatruka Chamunda and Durga images. The tantrik Yogini sculptures are found at Hirapur and Ranipur – Jharial. The famous temple of Konark has some of the latest sculptures, particularly the Surya deity and others. Along with cult deities in the temples, we come across other decorative sculptures such as Nayika figures, Gajasimha figures, mithuna figures etc. Then there are sculptures of kings, queens, priests, soldiers, elephants, horses etc. along with sculptures depicting social themes such as family life, dance, music, and games and hunting scenes which were carved out in Konark temple. Life-size Surasundari figures i.e. the heavenly musicians, are found on the upper two tiers of the temple. Also evident in the indigenous character of the Orissan sculptural art, are the depiction of dress, ornaments, anatomical features, facial expression and peculiar poses. A Giraffe has also been depicted in a sculpture at Konark. Konark temple is famous for its erotic sculptures about which scholars have been debating on its meaning.
The sculptures of the Ganga period (1110 to 1435 A.D.) are remarkable and after this dynasty, the sculptural art in Orissa gradually died down.