"Birth of Classic Form" (Maurya Period + Bharhut)


“Stupas”, both of the Buddhist and Jaina traditions, are amongst the earliest monuments to survive.

The Dhamek Stupa, Sarnath. This marks the spot where the Buddha gave his first sermon, setting in motion the "Wheel of Dharma".

ALL archaeological evidence points to the fact that the early river valley civilisation in India was remarkable in being a cooperative culture without the rule of kings. The emphasis appears to have been on peaceful trade and not on the development of military might. The art of the Indus Valley period was very sophisticated, yet always on a small and human scale. It did not attempt to portray grandeur or to impress viewers with its size or majesty.

Ashoka's Edict, Mount Girnar, Gujarat. Emperor Ashoka had his edicts inscribed on numerous rocks and pillars across his territories. These are a remarkable proclamation of the rules of "dharma", or righteous living.

By the beginning of the first millennium B.C., a second phase of urbanisation in the Indian subcontinent began, this time in the valleys of the Ganga. The north of India was divided into a large number of principalities, many of which were governed by elected chiefs. In others, the concept of hereditary rule and kingship was beginning to develop.

By the 8th or 9th century B.C., the Upanishads were composed out of philosophic traditions that perhaps came from the earliest times of Indian civilisation. The thoughts contained in the Upanishads were to form th e basis of all major Indic philosophic streams thereafter.

In the Indian subcontinent in the first millennium B.C., there were many ascetics who gave up the material attractions of the world to seek the truth beyond. Two such historical “renunciators” of this tradition became most prominent. One of them was Mahavira, who is known as the 24th “Tirthankara”, or “Victor” (one who conquered the fear of death), and those who follow his path are known as Jainas. The other was Siddhartha, who is known as the fourth or seventh Buddha, or the “Enlightened One”, and those who follow his path are known as Buddhists. Both Mahavira and the Buddha taught the philosophy of the Upanishadic age and there are striking similarities in their teachings.

Asoka pillar, Vaishali. Pillars with highly polished surfaces were erected by Emperor Asoka at numerous spots of pilgrimage throughout his land. These have capitals of animal figures, often made with great naturalism. Vaishali, in present-day Bihar, was an important city for Buddhists, as the Master was known to have visited it many times

In the meanwhile, especially with contacts with the Achaemenid Persians on the northwest and with the Greeks, the concepts of state and kingship were developing in the subcontinent. One of the main principalities in north India was Magadha. At the end of the 4th century A.D., under the leadership of the dynamic Chandragupta Maurya, it expanded and became the first empire on Indian soil. With the coming of the first extensive state, art also changed. Instead of the small, personal-sized objects of the earlier period, art was now created to project the messages and grandeur of rulers.

Chandragupta Maurya’s grandson Asoka further extended this empire to cover the whole of north and northwestern India. Perhaps following the example of the Achaemenid Persians with whom he had considerable contact, he inscribed his messages on rocks and large pillars that he erected. But that is where the similarity ends. In keeping with Indian tradition, his inscriptions display that he was preoccupied with the concept of dharma. Dharma is a man’s dut y to all others and the whole of existence around him. Asoka’s message to his people was to follow the ethical path: to respect teachers, elders and much else that is a part of dharma.

Lion capital, Sarnath (ASI Museum, Sarnath). This was the capital of the Asoka pillar at Sarnath. The four lions face the cardinal directions to indicate the spread of "dharma". They are stylised, indicating the influence of Persian art. Originally, the lions supported a "chakra" above them

The lion capital, or the pillar at Sarnath, is a fine example of royal Mauryan art. Four lions placed back-to-back face the cardinal directions, indicating the spread of dharma. These are formal and stylised and are reminiscent of t he Persian tradition.

The lions on the Sarnath pillar originally supported a large chakra, or wheel. Chakras were also made on the circular drum under the feet of the lions. The chakra is an important symbol of cosmi c order in Upanishadic thought. In Buddhism, it represents the turning of the “Wheel of Law”. Four other animals were also shown proceeding clockwise around the drum, suggesting the movement of the wheel of dharma. Unlike t he lions above, these animals are made in a highly naturalistic manner. This is in keeping with the sensitivity towards animal life that was seen in the Indus Valley period.

Barabar Caves, Bihar. Asoka and his grandson Dasratha made rock-cut caves for the ascetics of the Ajivika sect in the 3rd century B.C. The decorative arch above the entrance is made in imitation of the wooden architecture of the time. This became a constant feature (now known as the "chaitya" arch) in the halls of worship to follow. It also continued as a decorative motif in later temples. The marvellous tradition of hundreds of rock-cut caves in India was initiated at Barabar

Asoka and his grandson Dasratha made rock-cut caves at Barabar, near Gaya in present-day Bihar. They were made for the Ajivikas, a deeply ascetic sect of that time. This began one of the greatest architectural traditions in India. Hundreds of rock-cut caves were made later for the Buddhist, Jaina and Brahmanical traditions.



Mastery over stone

The Mauryan period brings us finely sculpted figures, which established the traditions to come in later times. One such figure, a two-feet high nude male, may represent a follower of the Digambar sect of Jainas, who renounce clothing. (It may be remembered here that Chandragupta Maurya gave up his throne in his later years to become a Jaina ascetic.) The artist’s mastery over stone is seen in the naturalism and sensitivity of the modelling. The hard stone has been transformed into pliant flesh. There are many similarities between this figure and a tiny male torso made in the Indus Valley period.

Detail, Lion capital. Animals and "charkas" were made below the lions, indicating the setting in motion of the law of "dharma". The animals below the lions are made naturalistically and are reminiscent of the sensitivity towards animals that is seen in Indus Valley art.

One of the best known Maurya period sculptures is that of a female chauri, or whisk bearer, that was found at Didarganj, in present-day Patna. She is approximately life-sized and is practically free-standing. The high polish of the sandstone is a hallmark of Mauryan stone sculpture. She is shown wearing a translucent lower garment and heavy ornaments. The lower garment, bare torso and jewellery remain a norm in sculptures of later periods. In the Mauryan period, the formal frontal posture and the monumentality of the figure create a certain distance between the viewer and the sculpture.

Centralised royal workshops would probably have been set up, as is indicated by the uniformity of style and material. There was a preference for the tan-coloured sandstone that was quarried from Chunar, near modern-day Patna.

The rule of the Mauryas was followed by that of the Sunga dynasty. About a hundred years from 185 B.C. is known as the Sunga period. The Sungas worshipped Brahmanical deities but were also benevolent to the Buddhist sangha (communit y). The earliest body of Buddhist art, with images from the life of the Buddha and the Jataka stories, was made under their rule. It is significant that at least the first 700 years of surviving Buddhist art was all made under the rule of kings who worshipped Brahmanical deities. However, these kings gave equal attention and financial support to the monuments dedicated to all spiritual streams.

Stupas, both of the Buddhist and Jaina traditions, are amongst the earliest Indian monuments to survive. Recent excavations near Nalanda, Bihar, have also unearthed a large mud stupa of the 8th to 10th century B.C. E arly Chinese pilgrims mentioned that Indians created vast numbers of stupas, simply by piling up stones and bricks. It is a practice that continues in the Himalayan Buddhist states to this day. Just placing a few pebbles one on top of another creates an object of worship for divinity is seen in the whole of creation. Chitrasutra, the earliest known treatise on art, says: “The best position of the Supreme Soul however is to be imagined without form.” Acco rdingly, the simplest symbols were used as representations of the formless divine.

"Chauri" Bearer from Didarganj, near Patna, Maurya period (Patna Museum). This is the best known figurative sculpture of Maurya times. The monumental figure recalls the impressive "yakshas" and "yakshis" of this period. The high polish is typical of Mauryan art

The followers of the Buddha enshrined his mortal remains in a number of stupas. Thus began a tradition that spread to many countries and continues to this day. Later stupas housed the remains of other great teach ers, their personal belongings and also Buddhist teachings.

Around 100 B.C., a great stupa was made at Bharhut, in the eastern part of present-day Madhya Pradesh. The railings of the stupa and its one surviving gate are at the Indian Museum in Kolkata. This is the earliest stupa railing to have survived. Unlike the imperial art of the Mauryas, the inscriptions on these railings show that the reliefs and figures were donated by lay people, monks and nuns.

The nine-foot-high railing, or vedika, and the gateway, or torana, are made in imitation of the wooden architecture of that time. The railings create a path for the devotee to walk on as he goes around the revered stupa. As he proceeds, stories made on the railings remind him of the virtuous qualities of the Buddha. Jatakas, or tales of the pervious lives of the Buddha, are used to exemplify the rules of conduct in everyday l ife. These stories continued previous folklore.


Gateway and railings of the Bharhut "stupa", 2nd century B.C., Madhya Pradesh. Very little of the "stupa" itself remains today. A portion of the railings that surrounded it and one of the gateways are preserved in the Indian Museum, Kolkata

Images of yakshas and yakshis came to us from time immemorial. These embody the spirit of nature and serve to remind us of the divinity that underlies all that is around us. They represent the protection of nature and its great fertility, which ensures the continuance of life.

Kubera, who symbolises abundance, can be seen on the left of the north gateway of the vedika. The yakshi Chandra is on the same pillar. She holds a branch of the Asoka tree above her. At Bharhut, these are the ear liest such images, which were to become prolific in later art. The tree longs for the touch of a beautiful woman to then burst into blossom. Holding the Asoka tree, she is known as an Asoka Dohada. Dohada means a  220;two-hearted one”, who bears a child and is filled with the longings of the two hearts within her. She entwines herself like a creeper around the trunk of the tree.

The deity of prosperity and abundance, Lakshmi, can also be seen on the vedika. This is the earliest image of the deity, who is later seen repeatedly in the stupas of Sanchi and in other Buddhist art.

"Yakshi", Railing of the Bharhut "stupa" . The "yakshi" is intertwined with the tree, presenting the early Indic view of the interrelatedness of the whole of creation. The touch of the young woman makes the tree blossom and bear fruit.

The whole of existence is seen as deeply connected. All around us is a part of the greater “One”. Therefore, artists saw no problem in joining different forms of plant, animal or human life in a fully harmonious depiction.

The carvings on the Bharhut railings are in low relief and not yet as deep as can be seen in later Indic art. The relative sizes of the figures are according to the importance given to them by the artists. There is no effort to try to replicate only the reality of the material world as seen by the eyes. The focus is always on the conveying of the inner logic or essence.

"Yakshi", Railing of the Bharhut "stupa". Early Indian art abounds in images of the abundance and fertility of nature. The woman and the tree against which she stands represent the bounteous, regenerative qualities of the natural world

The viewer is constantly made aware of the cosmopolitan world in India at that time. A pillar of the vedika has a depiction of a Greek warrior. He wears boots and a tunic and has short hair and a headband. On another railing, there is a Nagaraja, the serpent king. He is in human form but has a serpent hood. Like yakshas and yakshis, Naga deities serve to keep us conscious of the power, the protection and the fertility of nature. Serpents appear in art from the Indus Valley times and continue as Nagarajas in popular Indian imagination to this day.

Many of the roundels in the vedika have lotus medallions. Human figures have also been made inside these. In Indic thought, the lotus is a symbol of purity and of rising above the mundane, of transcendence.


Maya's dream, preceding the birth of the Buddha, railing of the Bharhut "stupa" . The railings are made of sandstone and are engraved with sculptures representing incidents from the Buddha's life, the "Jataka" stories and other scenes. In the early art of Buddhism, the figure of the Buddha was never represented. Instead, there were symbols of him, such as a seat, footprints, the Bodhi tree, the wheel and the "stupa". The sculptural reliefs of the railings are a virtual library of early Buddhist iconographic motifs.

The vedika reliefs depict many scenes from the life of the Buddha and from his previous lives. The Buddha is himself never shown in this early Buddhist art. Instead, there are symbols that indicate his presence.



Eternal themes

One of the remarkable aspects of early Indian art is that the focus was not on individuals and there were no portraits, even of the kings who were its patrons. In fact, Chitrasutra states that eternal themes and not personalities a re the fitting subject of art.

The Buddha did not claim any divine status and is believed to be one in a line of Buddhas. The focus of the art of the early stupas is one of the ethical message. It is this ethical message that is contained in the Jataka stories made on the vedika of the stupa.

Mahakapi Jataka, Railing of the Bharhut "stupa" . The railings of Bharhut have the earliest known representations of the "Jataka", stories of the Buddha in his previous lives, in the form of different men and as animals. One of most marvellous aspects of early Buddhist art is the portrayal of fine ethical qualities in the world of animals, often missing even in men. This roundel depicts the story of the Buddha when he was born as a virtuous monkey, the "Mahakapi Jataka". Many incidents of the story are shown very skilfully in a small space.

The stories are told in a continuous narration in which the same figure appears several times. There is no attempt to imitate the passage of time. All time and the significance of each moment are eternal in this vision. There is no need to separate the episodes of the story with frames, signifying a before and an after. As always, the space and time of the ephemeral world are not the important parameters of this vision in art.

One of the marvellous aspects of the art of this period is that sublime character, rare even in humans, is presented in the sculpted animals of the Jataka stories. This is a view of the world that makes no distinction between the li fe of man and that of the animals and even plants and trees. The figures of men and women are part of the harmony of nature and are endowed with a generous sense of well-being. There are no groups of figures. Each appears to abide peacefully, self-contained, in the place assigned to it.

Procession with relics of the Buddha, railing of the Bharhut "stupa" . A representation of an urn containing the holy relics of the Buddha being carried on an elephant at the head of a procession

The Sunga period saw the emergence of artistic traditions that were to prevail in Indic art for all time to come. The human figure became central to the art and was used to personify philosophic concepts. The basic idiom of Indian art had been formulated.




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