Mauryan Art and Architecture in Ancient History of India

Mauryan Art and Architecture - The art and architecture of the Mauryan Empire constitute the culminating point of the progress of Indian art. The period was marked by the mature use of stone and the production of masterpieces.

Classification: The Mauryan period art and architecture, except that of the relics of the palace of Chandragupta Maurya at Pataliputra, is mainly Asokan. It can be classified into Stupas, Pillars, Caves, Palaces, and Pottery.

Mauryan Stupas: The Stupas were solid domes constructed of brick or stone, varying in size. Samrat Ashoka built numerous stupas scattered over the country. But most of the stupas have not survived the ravages of time. The Ashokan stupas were constructed to celebrate the achievements of Gautama Buddha. The Sanchi Stupa is a hemispherical dome, truncated near the top, surrounded at the base by a lofty terrace to serve as a gate for the procession.

The special point of stupa architecture was the dome. Inside the stupa, in the central hall were preserved some relics of Buddha in a casket. The inner wall of the stupas was built either with terracotta bricks or by sun-burnt bricks. The top of the dome was decorated with a wooden or stone umbrella denoting the universal supremacy of Dharma. There was a parikrama encircling the stupa. One of the most notable and vast stupas was built in Ceylon. The Amaravati Stupa was built in the Lower Krishna Valley in 200 A.D. Besides, there were  Nagarjunakonda, and Ghantasala stupas built in later ages in South India.

Mauryan Pillars: The most striking monuments of Mauryan art are the celebrated Pillars of Dharma. These pillars were free-standing columns and were not used as supports to any structure. They had two main parts, the shaft, and the capital. The shaft is a monolith column made of one piece of stone with exquisite polish. The art of polishing was so marvelous that many people felt that it was made of metal. Some of the Pillars mark the stages of Asoka's pilgrimage to various centers of Buddhism.

The Sarnath: The Sarnath column has the most magnificent capital. It is a product of a developed type of art that the world knew in the Third Century B.C. It has been fittingly adopted as the emblem of the Modem Indian Republic. It is seven feet in height. The lowest part of the capitol is curved as an inverted lotus and bell-shaped. Above it are four animals, an elephant, a horse, a bull, a lion representing the east, south, west, and north in Vedic symbols. The four animals engraved on the abacus have been variously interpreted.

Mauryan Caves Architecture: The pillars are not the only artistic achievements to Ashoka's reign. The rock-cut caves of Ashoka and that of his grandson Dasaratha Maurya constructed for the residence of monks are wonderful specimens of art. The caves at Barabar hill in the north of Gaya and the Nagarjuna hill caves, the Sudama caves, etc. are the extant remains of cave architecture of the Mauryan era.

The Barabar hill cave was donated by Asoka to Ajivika monks and the three separate caves at Nagarjuna hills were by Dasharatha to them. The Gopi cave was excavated in the reign of Dasaratha in a tunnel-like fashion. The caves are chaste in style and their interior is polished like a mirror. The pillars inside these caves appear to be superfluous. They perhaps are legacies of wooden architecture that preceded stone or lithic architecture.

Mauryan Palaces and Residential buildings: The gilded pillars of the Mauryan palace were adorned with golden vines and silver birds. The workmanship of the imperial palace was of very high standard. Fa-Hien remarked that 'no human hands of this world could accomplish this.”

Probably there were similar palaces in other cities. All towns were surrounded by high walls with battlements and ditches with water, bearing lotuses and other plants and the whole was surrounded by railings.

Mauryan Pottery: The Mauryan pottery consisted of many types of wares. The black polished type found in North India is important. It has a burnished and glazed surface.

The center of North Indian pottery manufacture is presumed to be Kosambi and Pataliputra.

The SIXTH century BCE marks the beginning of new religious and social movements in the Gangetic valley in the form of Buddhism and Jainism which were part of the shaman tradition. Both religions became popular as they opposed the varna and jati systems of the Hindu religion. Magadha emerged as a powerful kingdom and consolidated its control over the other regions. By the fourth century BCE the Mauryas established their power and by the third century BCE, a large part of India was under Mauryan control.

Ashoka emerged as the most powerful king of the Mauryan dynasty who patronized the Buddhist shaman tradition in the third century BCE. Religious practices had many dimensions and were not confined to just one particular mode of worship. Worship of Yakshas and mother goddesses was prevalent during that time. So, multiple forms of worship existed. Nevertheless, Buddhism became the most popular social and religious movement. Yaksha worship was very popular before and after the advent of Buddhism and it was assimilated in Buddhism and Jainism.

Pillars, Sculptures, and Rock-cut Architecture
The construction of stupas and viharas as part of monastic establishments became part of the Buddhist tradition. However, in this period, apart from stupas and viharas, stone pillars, rock-cut caves, and monumental figure sculptures were carved in several places. The tradition of constructing pillars is very old and it may be observed that the erection of pillars was prevalent in the Achamenian empire as well. But the Mauryan pillars are different from the Achaemenian pillars.

The Mauryan pillars are rock-cut pillars thus displaying the carver’s skills, whereas the Achaemenian pillars are constructed in pieces by a mason. Stone pillars were erected by Ashoka, which have been found in the north Indian part of the Mauryan Empire with inscriptions engraved on them. The top portion of the pillar was carved with capital figures like the bull, the lion, the elephant, etc.

All the capital figures are vigorous and carved standing on a square or circular abacus. Abacuses are decorated with stylized lotuses. Some of the existing pillars with capital figures were found at Basarah-Bakhira, LauriyaNandangarh, and Rampurva in Bihar, and Sankisa and Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh. The Mauryan pillar capital found at Sarnath popularly known as the Lion Capital is the finest example of Mauryan sculptural tradition. It is also our national emblem. It is carved with considerable care—voluminous roaring lion figures firmly standing on a circular abacus which is carved with the figures of a horse, a bull, a lion, and an elephant in vigorous movement, executed with precision, showing considerable mastery in the sculptural techniques.

This pillar capital symbolizing Dhammachakrapravartana (the first sermon by the Buddha) has become a standard symbol of this great historical event in the life of the Buddha. Monumental images of Yaksha, Yakhinis and animals, pillar columns with capital figures, and rock-cut caves belonging to the third century BCE have been found in different parts of India. It shows the popularity of Yaksha worship and how it became part of figure representation in Buddhist and Jaina religious monuments. Large statues of Yakshas and Yakhinis are found at many places like Patna, Vidisha, and Mathura.

These monumental images are mostly in the standing position. One of the distinguishing elements in all these images is their polished surface. The depiction of faces is in the full round with pronounced cheeks and physiognomic detail. One of the finest examples is a Yakshi figure from Didarganj, Patna, which is tall and well-built. It shows sensitivity towards depicting the human physique. The image has a polished surface. Terracotta figurines show a very different delineation of the body as compared to the sculptures. Depiction of a monumental rock-cut elephant at Dhauli in Odisha shows modeling in the round with linear rhythm. It also has an Ashokan rock edict.

All these examples are remarkable in their execution of figure representation. The rock-cut cave carved at Barabar hills near Gaya in Bihar is known as the Lomas Rishi cave. The facade of the cave is decorated with the semicircular chaitya arch as the entrance. The elephant frieze carved in high relief on the chaitya arch shows considerable movement. The interior hall of this cave is rectangular with a circular chamber at the back. The entrance is located on the side wall of the hall. The cave was donated by Ashoka for the Ajivika sect.

The Lomas Rishi cave is an example of this period. But many Buddhist caves of the subsequent periods were excavated in the eastern Due to the popularity of Buddhism and Jainism, stupas and viharas were constructed on a large scale. However, there are also examples of a few Brahmanical gods in the sculptural representations. It is important to note that the stupas were constructed over the relics of the Buddha at Rajagraha, Vaishali, Vethadipa, and Pava in Bihar, Kapilavastu, Allakappa and Ramagrama in Nepal, Kushinagar and Pippalvina in Uttar Pradesh. The textual tradition also mentions the construction of various other stupas on the relics of the Buddha at several places including Avanti and Gandhara which are outside the Gangetic valley. Stupa, vihara, and chaitya are part of Buddhist and Jaina monastic complexes but the largest number belong to the Buddhist religion. One of the examples of the structure of a stupa in the third century BCE is at Bairat in Rajasthan.

The great stupa at Sanchi (which will be discussed later) was built with bricks during the time of Ashoka and later it was covered with stone and many new additions were made. Subsequently, many such stupas were constructed which shows the popularity of Buddhism. From the second century BCE onwards, we get many inscriptional pieces of evidence mentioning donors and, at times, their profession. The pattern of patronage has been a very collective one and there are very few examples of royal patronage. Patrons range from lay devotees to chapatis and kings. Donations by the guilds are also mentioned at several sites. However, there are very few inscriptions mentioning the names of artisans such as Kanha at Pitalkhora and his disciple Balaka at Kondane caves in Maharashtra. Artisans’ categories like stone carvers, goldsmiths, stone-polishers, carpenters, etc. are also mentioned in the inscriptions.

The Lion Capital discovered more than a hundred years ago at Sarnath, near Varanasi, is generally referred to as Sarnath Lion Capital. This is one of the finest examples of sculpture from the Mauryan period. Built-in commemoration of the historical event of the first sermon or the Dhammachakrapravartana by the Buddha at Sarnath, the capital was built by Ashoka. The capital originally consisted of five component parts:
(i) the shaft (which is broken in many parts now), 
(ii) a lotus bell base, 
(iii) a drum on the bell base with four animals proceeding clockwise,
(iv) the figures of four majestic addorsed lions, and 
(v) the crowning element, Dharamchakra, a large wheel, was also a part of this pillar.

However, this wheel is lying in a broken condition and is displayed in the site museum at Sarnath. The capital without the crowning wheel and the lotus base has been adopted as the National Emblem of Independent India.

Now kept in the archaeological museum at Sarnath, the capital has four lions firmly seated back to back on a circular abacus. The lion figures of the capital are very impressive and massive. The monumentality of the image is easily noticeable. The facial musculature of the lions is very strong. The inversed lines of the lips and the subsequent effect of projection at the end of the lips show the sculptor’s observation of naturalistic depiction.

The lions appear as if they have held their breath. The lines of the mane are sharp and follow the conventions that were in practice during that time. The surface of the sculpture is heavily polished which is typical of the Mauryan Period. Their curly manes have protruding volume. The weight of the body of each lion is firmly shown by the stretched muscles of the feet.

The abacus has the depiction of a chakra (wheel) having twenty-four spokes in all four directions and a bull, a horse, an elephant, and a lion between every chakra is finely carved. The motif of the chakra becomes significant as a representation of the Dhammachkra in the entire Buddhist art. Each animal figure, despite sticking to the surface, is voluminous, its posture creating movement in the circular abacus. 

Despite having limited space between each chakra, these animal figures display considerable command over the depiction of movement in a limited space. The circular abacus is supported by an inverted lotus capital. Each petal of the lotus is sculpted keeping in mind its density. The lower portion has curved planes neatly carved. Being a pillar image, it was conceived to be viewed from all sides, thus there are no boundations of fixed viewpoints. A lion capital has also been found at Sanchi but is in a dilapidated condition. The motif of lion-capital-pillar continued even in the subsequent period.

The life-size standing image of a Yakshini holding a chauri (flywhisk) from Didargunj near modern Patna is another good example of the sculptural tradition of the Mauryan Period. Kept in Patna Museum, it is a tall, well-proportioned, free-standing sculpture round made in sandstone with a polished surface.

The chauri is held in the right hand whereas the left hand is broken. The image shows sophistication in the treatment of form and medium. The sculptor’s sensitivity towards the round muscular body is clearly visible. The face has round, fleshy cheeks, while the neck is relatively small in proportion; the eyes, nose, and lips are sharp. Folds of muscles are properly rendered. The necklace beads are in full round, hanging to the belly. The tightening of the garment around the belly creates the effect of a bulging belly. The lower garment has been rendered with great care.

Every fold of the garment on the legs is shown by protruding lines clinging to the legs, which also create a somewhat transparent effect. The middle band of the garment falls till the feet. Thick bell ornaments adorn the feet. The image stands firmly on its legs. Heaviness in the torso is depicted by heavy breasts. The back is equally impressive. The hair is tied in a knot at the back. The back is bare. Drapery at the back covers both legs. The flywhisk in the right hand is shown with incised lines continued on the back of the image.

The method of working was collective in nature and at times only a specific portion of the monument is said to have been patronized by a particular patron. Traders recorded their donations along with their place of origin. In the subsequent century, stupas were elaborately built with certain additions like the enclosing of the circumambulatory path with railings and sculptural decoration. There were numerous stupas constructed earlier but expansions or new additions were made in the second century BCE. 

The stupa consists of a cylindrical drum and a circular and with a harmonica and chhatra on the top which remains consistent throughout with minor variations and changes in shape and size. Apart from the circumambulatory path, gateways were added. Thus, with the elaborations in stupa architecture, there was ample space for the architects and sculptors to plan elaborations and to carve out images. During the early phase of Buddhism, Buddha is depicted symbolically through footprints, stupas, lotus throne, chakra, etc. This indicates either simple worship, or paying respect, or at times depicts the historicization of life events. Gradually narrative became a part of the Buddhist tradition.

Thus events from the life of the Buddha, the Jataka stories, were depicted on the railings and torans of the stupas. Mainly synoptic narrative, continuous narrative, and episodic narrative are used in the pictorial tradition. While events from the life of the Buddha became an important theme in all the Buddhist monuments, the Jataka stories also became equally important for sculptural decorations. The main events associated with the Buddha’s life that were frequently depicted were events related to birth, renunciation, enlightenment, dhammachakrapravartana, and mahaparinibbana (liberation from the cycle of birth.) Among the Jataka stories that are frequently depicted are Chhadanta Jataka, Vidurpundita Jataka, Ruru Jataka, Sibi Jataka, Vessantara Jataka, and Shama Jataka.

1. Do you think that the art of making sculptures in India began during the Mauryan period?
2. What was the significance of the stupa and how did stupa architecture develop?
3. Which were the four events in the life of the Buddha which have been depicted in different forms of Buddhist art? What did these events symbolize?
4. What are the Jatakas? How do the Jatakas relate to Buddhism? Find out.

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