Maurya Period (c. 322- c. 185 B.C.E.)

The Lion Capital of Ashoka was originally placed atop the Ashoka pillar at the Buddhist site of Sarnath by the Emperor Ashoka, in about 250 BCE. Though the pillar (or Ashoka Column) is still in its original location, the Lion Capital is now in the Sarnath Museum (state of Uttar Pradesh, India).

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 700.000 men, 9.000 elephants and 10.000 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 until today, 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 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 Sanchi Stupa Buddhist complex in the town of Sanchi (State of Madhya Pradesh, India). Top Left: The Great Stupa is one of the oldest stone structures in India and was originally commissioned by the emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE. Top Right: Carved decoration of the Northern gateway (torana) to the Great Stupa of Sanchi. Bottom: Close up of one of the panels of the southern torana of the Great Stupa showing king Ashoka visiting Ramagrama, to take relics of the Buddha from the Nagas.
Left: A sculpture of a Yakshini in the Eastern Torana of the Great Stupa of Sanchi. Some types of load-bearing pillar capitals in the Toranas of Sanchi: Second from left: A lion capital. Third from Left: An elephant capital. Right: Yakshas (the male counterpart of the Yakshis) capital. All three capitals from the 1st century BCE.
The Bharhut sculptures represent some of the earliest examples of Indian and Buddhist art, later than the monumental art of Ashoka (ca. 260 BCE). Though the Bharhut stupa didn’t survive to this day, the Bharhut balustrades and Torana are now housed at the Indian Museum in Kolkata (India). The Bharhut balustrade reliefs are dated ca. 125-100 BCE. Bottom Left: The Bharhut torana gateway was made slightly later than the railings, and is dated to 100-75 BCE.  The Torana and  railings were carved in red sandstone. Right: A panel from the balustrade representing the adoration of the Diamond Throne and the Bodhi Tree Bharhut: in the middle is seen the Diamond Throne or Vajrasana, decorated in front with four flat pilasters. Behind the Throne appears the trunk of the Bodhi Tree, which rises up high above the building, and on each side of the Tree there is a combined symbol of the Triratna and the Dharmachakra, standing on the top of a short pillar.
A Buddha statue on the porch of the Ajanta caves (Maharashtra State, India).

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 grottos, 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 BC to the 4th century AD) and the famous one from Karla (2nd century BC) 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.

The Ajanta Caves (Maharashtra State, India) include 29 cave monuments that include paintings and rock cut sculptures described as among the finest surviving examples of ancient Indian art. The caves were built in two phases, the first phase starting around the 2nd century BCE, while the second phase built around 400 to roughly 480 AD. The Ajanta Caves constitute ancient monasteries and worship halls of different Buddhist traditions carved into a 250 feet wall of rock. Textual records suggest that these caves served as a monsoon retreat for monks, as well as a resting site for merchants and pilgrims in ancient India. Top Left: Exterior porch of Cave 24 (ca. 475-477 AD). Top Right: Worship hall of the Chaitya of Cave 26 (5th century AD), at the center of the apse is a rock-cut stupa. Bottom Left: The nave  of the Chaitya of cave 19 (5th century AD) has 15 pillars with Buddha reliefs on the capitals supporting an elaborately carved frieze. Bottom Right: The Buddha in a preaching pose flanked by Bodhisattvas* a relief in Cave 4, the largest cave of Ajanta. Cave 4 is a Vihara dated from the 6th century AD.
The Ajanta cave paintings predominantly narrate the Jataka tales or Buddhist legends describing the previous births of the Buddha. These fables embed ancient morals and cultural lores. The Jataka tales are exemplified through the life example and sacrifices that the Buddha made in hundreds of his past incarnations, where he is depicted as having been reborn as an animal or human. Top Left: One of four frescoes for the Mahajanaka Jataka tale located in Cave 1, here the king announces he abdicates to become an ascetic. Top Right: The Bodhisattva of compassion Padmapani* with lotus also in Cave 1. Bottom Left: In the Veranda* doorway of Cave 17 there are figures of eight Buddhas above eight couples. Bottom Right: A painting depicting an Apsara in Cave 17.
The Bhaja Caves (Pune district, Maharashtra state, India) include a group of 22 caves dating from the 2nd century BC. The Bhaja caves are distinct for their stupas. Top Left: The entrance to the main Chaitya, Cave 12, the most prominent excavation in the Bhaja complex, with a vaulted horseshoe ceiling. It is perhaps the earliest surviving chaitya hall, dated from the second century BCE.  A large horseshoe-shaped window, the chaitya-window, was set above the arched doorway and the whole portico-area was carved to imitate a multi-storeyed building with balconies and windows and sculptured men and women who observed the scene below. This created the appearance of an ancient Indian mansion. Top Right: The interior hall of the main Chaitya, cave 12, consists of an apsidal hall with a stupa. The columns slope inwards in the imitation of wooden columns. The ceiling is a barrel vault with ancient wooden ribs set into them. The walls are polished in the Mauryan style. Bottom Left: A sculpted doorway at the right side of verandah of the small vihara (Cave 18). Bottom Right: Outside stupas at the Bhaja caves.
The Kanheri Caves (Sanjay Gandhi National Park, island of Salsette, western outskirts of Mumbai, India) are a group of caves cut into a massive basalt outcrop in the forest. They contain sculptures, relief carvings, paintings and inscriptions, dating from the 1st century BCE to the 10th century AD. The cave complex comprises 109 caves. Most of the Kanheri caves were Buddhist viharas, meant for living, studying, and meditating, although the larger caves functioned as chaityas. Top Left: Entrance to the Great Chaitya cave (cave No. 3). Top Right: A panorama of the interior of the Great Chaitya at Kanheri. Middle Left: Detail of a carved capital at the Great Chaitya of Kanheri. Bottom Left: The dining hall at the Kanheri caves. Bottom middle: Great Chaitya of Kanheri hall panorama imitating the Great Chaitya at Karla caves. Bottom right: A Buddha statue at the entrance of cave 3.
The Nasik caves, or Pandavleni caves (Maharashtra state, India), are a group of 24 caves carved between the 1st century BCE and the 3rd century AD, though additional sculptures were added up to about the 6th century. Most of these caves are viharas except for Cave 18 which is a chaitya of the 1st century BCE. Top Left: Nasik cave No. 17 entrance built ca. 120 AD. Top right: interior panorama of cave 3 called “Gautamiputra vihara” (ca. 150 AD). It is the largest cave of the Nasik caves complex. This cave is a vihara meant to provide shelter to Buddhist monks. Bottom left: the cave 18 Chaitya interior, ca. 0 AD. Bottom middle: Detail of a capital in Cave 3. Bottom right: The front view of Cave 15, with sculpted sitting Buddha and standing attendants.
The Karla Caves (Maharashtra state, India) were developed between the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD. The group at Karla is one of the best-known because of the famous “Grand Chaitya” (Cave 8), which is the largest and most completely preserved chaitya hall of the period, as well as containing unusual quantities of fine sculpture. Top left: A diagram showing a section in perspective of the Grand Chaitya of Karla. Top right: The reliefs of the left panel at the entrance of the Grand Chaitya. Bottom left: View of the interior hall of the Grand Chaitya. Bottom middle: The carved left panel of the veranda at the entrance of the Grand Chaitya. Bottom right: View of a column and its richly ornamented capital at the interior hall of the Grand Chaitya. The interior of the Grand Chaitya contains 15 pillars on each side, each one of these pillars has a tall base, an octagonal shaft, and an ornamented capital. The inner side of these capitals (towards the hall) were decorated with the figures of two kneel elephants, each bearing two figures (generally a man and a woman, but sometimes two females) and the exterior side (towards the walls) have figures of horses and tigers, each also bearing a single figure.
Karla caves. Top left: A panorama of the Grand Chaitya hall. Top right: Elephants carved at the right panel of the veranda. Bottom left: Elephants carved at the left panel of the veranda. Bottom right: A view of a capital from the Grand Chaitya.


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: 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.



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