Maurya Period (c. 322- c. 185 B.C.E.)
At the other end of northern India, around the same time of Alexander the Great’s death, a kshatriya named Chandragupta Maurya became king of Magadha and from there he extended his domain until he came into contact with Alexander’s Greek satrapies of the northwest. It was he who founded the first unifying empire: the Maurya empire (from 322 to 185 B.C.E.) born from a ruthless despotism that is well known thanks to the chronicles of the Greek ambassador Megasthenes and to an ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, the Arthashastra, which stated that “the government is the science of punishment” and described an 18 days cycle of tortures with a different method of torture for each day. Megasthenes wrote that the army of the Maurya Empire had 700000 men, 9000 elephants and 10000 chariots, and was deeply surprised by its administrative perfection.
Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka (274 to 237 B.C.E.) was the greatest emperor that India has known. After a bloody start, he converted to Buddhism, and to preach his people the new morality of tolerance, he had his edicts engraved on high stone pillars that were distributed throughout the empire. Among those that have survived to this day, the pillar of Sarnath is particularly famous. It was crowned by a capital with four lions resting on the “Wheel of the Law”, and carved out of a single block of polished sandstone. The capital features four Asiatic lions standing back to back. They are mounted on an abacus* with a frieze carrying sculptures in high relief of an elephant, a galloping horse, a bull, and a lion, separated by intervening spoked chariot-wheels. The whole group sits upon a bell-shaped lotus. This capital, which is 2.15 m in height, was adopted as the official emblem of India in 1950 accompanied by the Sanskrit phrase Satyameva jayate (truth alone triumphs).
To the Maurya period belong the first monuments of Hindu art: stupas*, chaityas* and viharas*, all of Buddhist inspiration. A stupa is a hemispherical construction made to contain relics, probably derived from ancient burial mounds. The most well preserved stupas are those of Sanchi (three of them), the largest of which is 32 meters in diameter by 36 in height and dates back to the time of Ashoka. They are surrounded by stone balustrades whose shapes imitate those characteristic of the wood construction of the time and have monumental gates called toranas*, magnificently decorated with stone reliefs and sculptures, which mark the passage from the exterior material world to the spiritual world. The sculptures of Sanchi translate the exaltation and the innocent and spontaneous joy of living, especially in the youth bodies of the yakshi suspended in the air while hanging from the branches of the Sacred Tree. Older than the stupas of Sanchi was the stupa of Bharhut, today destroyed, but whose sculpted balustrades are partly preserved in the Museum of Calcutta. These balustrades have other yakshi, more rigid and less gracious than those of Sanchi, but with the same taste for the jeweled nude and for their ambiguous character of beings united to the fertility of the vegetation, embracing the trees.
The other two typically Buddhist constructions are the chaitya or sanctuary and the vihara or monastery. It is interesting to note that these are not architectural structures, but sculptures excavated in the living rock, and as a consequence they have been collectively grouped under “Indian rock-cut architecture*“. In fact, in India there is no signs of built architecture until the fifth and sixth centuries, under the Gupta dynasty. For that reason, the sanctuaries and monasteries previous to the Gupta period are usually designated as caves or grottoes, because it is a rock architecture that imitates the old wooden structures by sculpting them in the rock. This is what happens with the chaityas (a nave with columns that ends in an apse where there is a small stupa surrounded by an ambulatory for the circulation of the faithful) and with the viharas (a square room supported by columns that serves as a vestibule to a series of cells excavated around it). The oldest chaityas of Ajanta (from the 2nd century BCE to the 4th century AD) and the famous one from Karla (2nd century BCE) have sculpted curved “wooden beams” in the rock ceiling and the exterior was carved imitating the typical Hindu windows with a wooden arch called kudu, similar to a horseshoe.
The valley of Ajanta is constituted by a high volcanic curved rock wall in which during near thousand years the Buddhist monks that fled from the agitated life of the cities excavated more than thirty chaityas and viharas. Its interior, with an incredible amount of reliefs and mural paintings, forms a set of artistic masterpieces whose beauty hasn’t been surpassed in the art of India. Its walls, capitals, and columns were decorated with representations of the Buddha, his disciples, scenes of daily life in the princes’ palaces, celestial couples, animals, flowers, and geometric motifs. In the surroundings of Bombay there are other wonders of rock architecture made during pre-Gupta times: Bhaja (where the oldest chaitya is located), Kanheri (where there are three important chaityas among a total of 109 small caves), Nasik (with 23 caves including a chaitya and three large viharas of outstanding artistic value) and, above all, Karla with the great chaitya that is considered the masterpiece of the series. Excavated in the rock between 100 and 125 AD., it has an interior nave of 41 meters in length and 15 meters in height and it’s impressive for its decorative sobriety. In contrast, the exterior porch is filled with ornamental elements (kudu, etc.), among which are the reliefs of embraced couples of men and women, similar to those of the Sanchi stupa, although here the women -despite wearing pearl belts- appeared less overloaded with jewelry and their modeling is stronger.
Bodhisattva: In Buddhism, refers to the Sanskrit term for anyone who, motivated by great compassion, has generated Bodhicitta, which is a spontaneous wish and a compassionate mind to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. Bodhisattvas are a popular subject in Buddhist art.
Chaitya: A shrine, sanctuary, temple or prayer hall in Indian religions. The term is most common in Buddhism, where it includes a stupa at one end. Strictly, the chaitya is actually the stupa itself, and the Indian buildings are chaitya halls, but this distinction is often not observed.
Indian Rock-Cut Architecture: A varied architectonic style found in greater abundance than any other form of rock-cut architecture around the world. It refers to the practice of creating a structure by carving it out of solid natural rock. Rock that is not part of the structure is removed until the only rock left is the architectural elements of the excavated interior. Indian rock-cut architecture is mostly religious in nature. These ancient and medieval structures represent significant achievements of structural engineering and craftsmanship. In India, caves have long been regarded as places of sanctity.
Padmapani: Also known as Avalokiteśvara, is a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. This bodhisattva is variably depicted, described and is portrayed in different cultures as either female or male.
Stupa: (Sanskrit for “heap”). A mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics (śarīra – typically the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns) that is used as a place of meditation. A related architectural term is a chaitya, which is a prayer hall or temple containing a stupa.
Torana: A free-standing ornamental or arched gateway for ceremonial purposes seen in the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain architecture of the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and parts of East Asia. In Buddhist architecture, a Torana is a sacred or honorific gateway. Its typical form is a projecting cross-piece resting on two uprights or posts. It is made of wood or stone, and the cross-piece is generally of three bars placed one on the top of the other; both cross-piece and posts are usually sculpted. Both Chinese paifang gateways and Japanese torii gateways have been derived from the Indian torana. The functions of all three are similar, but they generally differ based on their respective architectural styles. The Korean gateway is also related to the Japanese torii, and similar structures exist in Thailand.
Veranda: A roofed, open-air gallery or porch. A veranda is often partly enclosed by a railing and frequently extends across the front and sides of the structure. The word “verandah” comes from India. The word has been modified from a Persian word “Bar-Amada”, which means a place which leads to outside. Two words from Sanskrit were combined and changed in Bengali and then borrowed by English. “Vahir” means “outside” and “Andar” means inside a room. It means something that is outdoors but inside a room or covered area.
Vihara: A Buddhist bhikkhu monastery. The architectural concept refers to living quarters for monks with an open shared space or courtyard, particularly in Buddhism. The term is also found in Ajivika, Hindu and Jain monastic literature, usually referring to temporary refuge for wandering monks or nuns during the annual Indian monsoons. In Indian architecture, especially ancient Indian rock-cut architecture, refers to central hall, with small cells connected to it sometimes with beds carved from the stone. Some have a shrine cell set back at the center of the back wall, containing a stupa in early examples, or a Buddha statue later.