Sculpture: Mauryan and Shungan

views updated

Sculpture: Mauryan and Shungan

India's Mauryan period (324–185 b.c.), which opened with the martial conquests and diplomatic matrimonial alliances of Chandragupta Maurya (r. 321–297 b.c.), culminated in the creation of a mighty Mauryan empire in the last quarter of the fourth century b.c. India emerged as a vast united continent, thanks to Chandragupta's son Bindusara (reigned c. 297–273 b.c.) and grandson Ashoka (r. 268–231 b.c.), both of whom expanded Mauryan borders and enhanced Mauryan glory in multiple ways.

Ashoka expanded the empire, annexing Kalinga (modern Orissa) after a fierce battle, which proved to be the turning point of Ashoka's life and reign, reflected in edicts he had inscribed on pillars of stone erected throughout India. He aspired to abandon violence and hoped instead to make lasting peace the primary policy of his administration.

There are two distinct forms of Mauryan art: folk art, the tradition of which was handed down through the ages and which manifested itself mainly in clay, timber, early ring stones, and a few statues; and court art, which emerged under the patronage of Emperor Ashoka, and which is represented by monolithic stone columns, crowned by a "Wheel of the Law" or animals, and rock shelters at Barabar and the Nagarjuni hills in Bihar. The so-called Chandragupta Sabha (palace), the remains of which were discovered at Kumrahar, near Patna (Mauryan Pataliputra) was erected followed the earlier Mauryan timber tradition, although several stone fragments were also found there. It may be presumed that the palace and assembly hall constructed by Chandragupta Maurya in the fourth century b.c. served not only the Mauryan dynasty but was probably also used by the succeeding Shunga monarchs. Some of its remains are preserved in the Kolkata's Indian Museum, as well as in Patna's State Museum.

Mauryan Court Art

Rock-cut dwellings

The experiments in architecture by Mauryan stone masons were made in the hills of Barabar and Nagarjuni, in Bihar's Gaya district. These were excavated to provide shelter for Buddhist monks. The Lomasha Rishi Cave is the best preserved of the Barabar group. With its face to the south, the cave has two chambers; the outer chamber, gleaming with lustrous polish, measures about 32 feet by 17 feet (9.86 × 5.18 m); the inner one, measuring about 14 feet by 17 feet (4.33 × 5.18 m), is incomplete. The most striking feature is the facade bearing a fine polish, a hallmark of Mauryan court art, with a frieze in low relief depicting elephants and a Buddhist stupa between a crocodile at each end. The adjacent Sudama Cave bears an inscription, which states that it was carved in the twelfth regnal year of Ashoka. With two chambers, this cave is finished with a high polish.

About .6 mile (1 kilometer) to the east of Barabar are three caves: Gopi, Vapi, and Vadathika of Nagarjuni, which were excavated at the instructions of King Dasharatha, grandson of Ashoka, and gifted to an order of ajivikas (Jain monks). Each has a single, highly polished chamber. One other cave is situated at Sitamarhi, 12 miles (20 kilometers) from Rajgir, but it bears neither Mauryan polish nor an inscription.

Aesthetically, the site of Dhauli in Orissa, with an elephant in front, is an outstanding example of Ashoka's rock-cut experiments. Captioned as seto in the Brahmi script, meaning "white," it may represent the dream of the Buddha's mother, Mayadevi, in which she saw a white elephant, symbolizing the Buddha, entering her womb. Art historian Nihar Ranjan Ray, on the other hand, speculates that the animal symbolizes the presentation of King Ashoka to the people of Kalinga. The site also has the a number of Ashokan edicts, inscribed in his twelfth regnal year.


Ashokan court art is famed for the monolithic columns installed at several places in India and Nepal. The notable features of these columns are the use of light pink Chunar sandstone, tapering shafts, the figure of either a lion or other animals (such as a bull or an elephant) on the capital, auspicious motifs, and messages carved in beautiful calligraphy. Ashokan pillars have been found in the following places:

In Bihar: a lion capital at Basarh, Vaishali; a bull capital at Rampurwa (now in New Delhi, outside Rashtrapati Bhavan); a lion capital at Rampurwa; another lion capital at Lauria Nandangarh; a fragmentary shaft at Lauria Araraja; and some fragments from Patna (now in the Patna Museum).

In Uttar Pradesh: the famous symbol of India, the four-lion capital at Sarnath; an elephant capital at Sankisa; a pillar in the Allahabad Fort (originally from Kaushambi); a fragmentary pillar at Kaushambi; a fragment of an abacus with a lion's paw from Bansi, Basti (now in the State Museum, Lucknow); a pillar from Prahladpur (now in the Sanskrit University, Varanasi); a pillar without capital from Meerut (now on the ridge near Delhi University); a fragment of a pillar reused as a Shivalinga (in the Nageshwaranatha Temple of Ayodhya); and part of a pillar shaft, later shaped as a Surya image (now in the State Museum, Lucknow).

In Madhya Pradesh: a lion capital at Sanchi; and a pillar reused in Umrao Dulla Garden near Bhopal.

In Haryana: a pillar without capital from Topra, Ambala (now at the Firoz Shah Kotla, Delhi); a fragment of a pillar now used as the base of a Minar at Fatehabad; and a fragment of a pillar (now used in Lat Ki Maszid at Hissar).

In Nepal: a pillar at Lumbini; a fragmentary pillar at Nigalisagar; and a fragmentary pillar at Gotihawa.

The erection of such monumental pillars was not only a remarkable aesthetic achievement but a demonstration of great technological and engineering skill, involving the transportation and installation of heavy materials at remote sites. The Ashokan pillars thus attested to India's power, while at the same time spreading the royal message of nonviolence and good conduct. The script used for most inscriptions was Brahmi, with some Kharoshti and Aramaic in the western border areas. The letters are beautiful, sharp and neatly incised, and reflect a meticulous handling and careful supervision. The Ashokan writing presents a highly developed stage of calligraphic art.

These tall, heavy columns were freestanding, requiring no platforms or additional support. The Mauryan sculptors seem to have resolved the problem of harmonizing the pillar shaft with the capital. The lion on the Basarh pillar sits on a square platform projecting from the capital; for this reason, it has been considered pre-Ashokan by some scholars. The Rampurwa bull, Sankisa elephant, and Lauria Nandangarh lion are integrated with the shaft. Further integration is noticed in the Sanchi, Rampurwa, and Sarnath lion capitals.

Sarnath pillar

The Sarnath lion (or wheel) capital pillar, the most remarkable specimen of Mauryan court art, was discovered in 1904. The elegance of its flawless rendering, its soft and lustrous surface, its perfect blend of shaft with abacus, and its majestically seated lions make it a supreme example of Indian sculptural art. The symbolism and rendering of the four lions, the presence of four animals below them (lion, elephant, bull, and horse), and the fluted lotus below the abacus have been universally admired. The "Wheel of Law" (dharmachakra) surmounting the four lions suggests the supremacy of dharma (right conduct, or Buddha's law) above royalty. It may also indicate the initial turning of the Wheel of Law (dharmachakrapravartana) by the Buddha when he first articulated his four noble truths at Sarnath. The four animals symbolize Vedic Brahmanical deities: the lion is Durgā; the bull, Shiva; the elephant, Indra; and the horse, Surya. These may also stand for the four divine guardians of the four quarters of heaven: the lion is Vaishravana in the north; the bull, Virupaksha in the west; the elephant, Dhritarashtra in the east; and the horse, Virudhaka in the south. The major life events of the Buddha may also be symbolized here: the elephant represents his birth; the horse, his renunciation of royal luxury; the bull, his preaching as munipungava; and the lion, his clan (Shakyasimha). The four animals may also represent the four wheels of the chariot of a paramount ruler (chakravartin, the title of the Mauryan emperors).

Didarganj yakshi

The life-size standing female statue—variously described as a yakshi (semidivine being), a queen, or a representation of feminine beauty (striratna)—recovered from the Didarganj locality of Patna and now exhibited in the Patna Museum is a superb specimen of Mauryan art. This piece may represent both court and folk styles. The female figure, carved in the round, has full and rounded features with prominent breasts, broad hips, and a narrow waist. She wears a head crest, large triple-looped earrings, a pearl necklace, a double-stringed chain stanahara (falling between the breasts), five stringed girdles, heavy anklets, and a waist garment (dhoti) with schematic pleats. In her right upraised hand, she holds a chamara (fly whisk); her facial expression suggests that she is keenly watching or supervising some event. The curves and contours are perfect, and the figure conveys a royal dignity and elegance. The Mauryan polish is noteworthy; the piece may be the product of the late third or early second century b.c.

Lohanipur torso

The torso of a Jina, standing in the kayotsarga or danda posture while performing penance, was recovered from Lohanipur near Patna, and is now displayed in the State Museum at Patna. This figure in the round bears the Mauryan polish. Some of the kings of the Mauryan dynasty, like Chandragupta, Dasharatha, and Samprati were inclined toward Jainism; hence the possibility of a Tīrthānkara (Jain pontiff) image by the sculptors of the age cannot be ruled out.

Foreign influences

To what extent Mauryan art, particularly its court art, reflected any foreign influence has been debated. The pillars and polish were supposedly derived from Persian (Achaemenid) imperial influence. An edict of Ashoka mentions the dispatch of his missionaries to the capitals of Antiogonus II of Syria, Ptolemy of Egypt, Antigonus of Macedonia, Alexander of Epirus, and Magas of Syria. With these cultural ties, and the likely exchange of artistic commissions, the services of skilled foreign artists in Mauryan employ may be surmised. Prior styles of Indian architecture had used timber; hence the introduction of stone required specially trained and seasoned Persian artisans. The Hellenistic plastic conventions followed by Greco-Bactrian sculptors may also be traced in some specimens of Mauryan art. There is, however, a basic difference between the Achaemenid and the Mauryan pillars. The former were generally part of some larger architectural scheme, while the Ashokan columns were freestanding monoliths.

Mauryan-Shungan Folk Sculpture

Late Mauryan and early Shungan folk art is represented by a group of yakshas, ring stones, and other pieces.


The term yaksha is derived from yaj, "to worship," meaning both "wonderful" and "terrible." These semidivine beings are both benevolent and malevolent. Sometimes, the yaksha is viewed as the possessor of supreme power, or as a subject of Kubera. The yakshas are generally heavy, dwarfish, and corpulent. With the passage of time, their independent status disappeared, as they became subordinates to the emerging new deities of Vedic Brahmanism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Much the same was true of the nagas (snake deities), which were assimilated into the Hindu mainstream. The installation of yaksha and yakshi statues became a national artistic phenomenon and something of a cult. These figures—of various sizes, from heroic to small—were installed on platforms outside villages as guardian deities. Yaksha statues stood at many different places, including Parkham, Basoda, Naglajhinga, Bharnakalan (all in the Mathura district); Rajghat (Varanasi); Noh (Bharatpur); Besnagar (Bhopal) and Pawaya (Gwalior); Patna; Shishupalgarh (Orissa); and Amin (Kurukshetra).

The 8-foot (2.4-m)-tall yaksha from Parkham, now in the Mathura Museum (No. C.1) is very important, since its pedestal bears a Brahmi inscription, which informs that it was carved by Gomitaka, the disciple of Kunika. This indicates that Indian sculptural art was practiced in the ancient Mathura tradition of teacher and disciple (gurushishya parampara) even before the common era. Similar information is furnished by the yakshi statue from Naglajhinga, now in the Mathura Museum (No. 72.5), whose carver is named Naka. Yakshas and nagas were frequently carved on the railings of early stupas.

Ring stones

Small circular brown alabaster or soapstone rings, measuring between 3 and 7 inches (7.6–18 cm) with minute carvings, are beautiful specimens of the Mauryan-Shungan period. These were found in India's northern belt from Taxila to Patna, including Ropar, Mathura, Kaushambi, and Rajghat. Specimens bearing a central perforation are known as ring stones; those devoid of holes are termed disks. More rings have been found in the west, more disks in the east, particularly near Patna.

The superb carvings on these specimens depict a female figure, almost nude, who stands majestically with splayed feet and somewhat outstretched arms. A wiglike coiffure, earrings, necklace, and bangles are conspicuous. The waist is narrow and the hips broad. In the complete circle, she is repeated several times, with a tree or honeysuckle motif (nagapushpaka), or a pillar, as a divider. Sometimes, the figure is surrounded by birds, animals, and acolytes. The female figure may be recognized as a Mother Goddess (mahimata). The pieces were most likely used for religious practicesmeant to ensure progeny, prosperity, and peace.


Other items of artistic value from the Mauryan-Shungan age are relic caskets made of soapstone or crystal. The handling of the crystal, shaping it as a fine pot with a lid, demonstrates a high level of craftsmanship. These objects were excavated from the stupa of Piprawah (Basti) on the India-Nepal border in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One of these (now in Kolkata's Indian Museum) bears an inscription in old Brahmi recording the deposit of the ash remains of the Shakyamuni Buddha.

Shungan Sculpture

Long after Ashoka, the crumbling Mauryan empire was smashed by Pushyamitra Shunga, who killed the last Mauryan ruler, Brihadratha, and seized power in 185 b.c., ruling for thirty-six years. Shungan art emerged as something of a negation of Mauryan art.

The distinguishing characteristics of Shungan sculptures are: a linear composition; the continuous narration of a story, with different scenes of an episode in one medallion; and an interweaving of religion and art. Shungan sculptors resolved the problem of spatial representation through overlapping figures, which all had a frontal orientation. The narrative sequence of the story was shown by repetition of the main figure at different stages of the episode; past, present, and future were combined in one medallion. An example is the depiction on the Bharut stupa railing of Anathapindaka's gift of the Jetavana monastery to the Buddha. The same formula was adopted in the Shungan depiction of Buddhist Jataka tales.

The major sites of Shungan period (2nd–1st century b.c.) sculpture are: Bharhut (Madhya Pradesh); Kaushambi, Bhita, and Mathura (Uttar Pradesh); and Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh), which is slightly later and may be called Shunga-Kanva. At the same time, there are several other sites from which Shungan sculptures have been recovered or are still seen in situ. These are: Bhaja, Karle, and Pitalkhora in Maharashtra; Jagayapeta, Amaravati, and Nagarjunikonda in Andhra Pradesh; and Udaigiri and Khandagiri in Orissa. Yaksha statues belonging to the Mauryan-Shungan phase form an independent group, as do the beautifully carved small ring stones or discs recovered from different sites.

Bharhut stupa

A great monument (stupa) once stood in the vicinity of the village of Bharhut, near Satna in Madhya Pradesh. Its ruins were noticed by A. Cunningham in 1874, and the following year most of the components were moved to Kolkata's Indian Museum. Other remains were later added to the collection of the Allahabad Museum. The Bharhut remains are the best specimens of the sculptural and architectural arts of the Shungan period. An epigraph on the gateway (torana) of the stupa states that it was erected in the Shungan reign.

A stupa generally contained some remains of the Buddha, or another venerable enlightened soul. These ashes were carefully kept in a small container (manjusha) of stone or metal, covered by earth or encased by bricks or stone. For the protection of the holy spot, a stone railing with gates was erected all around it, and this became a center of attraction for devotees. Though associated with death, the stupa was not a symbol of mourning or grief. It actually signified the enlightened soul's liberation from the bondage of the body and from the painful cycle of rebirth. The Buddha's release (nirvāna) from the perishable body was much rejoiced. There are, therefore, many joyful scenes of music, dance, and sports carved onto the railings of Bharhut's stupa. On certain occasions, they are lit with thousands of lamps, appearing as a beacon in the night.

The Bharhut stupa, when complete, was a counterclockwise cross with four gates; the distance between each was covered by sixteen monolithic pillars, which terminated in a return rail, allowing only an indirect entry into the sacred spot. Between the two rail posts, three crossbars were inserted into vertically cut sockets. The gateway (torana) in each direction had two tall pillars with a square base, octagonal shaft, and a bell- or vase-shaped capital with lions seated back to back. This motif must have come from Mauryan court art, with the addition of spiral ends representing crocodiles. The space between the two pillars of the gate was filled in by three architraves decorated with animals advancing toward an object of worship. Between the two architraves were set small pillar statues. The uppermost architrave was crowned by an ornamental honeysuckle surmounted by a spoked Wheel of the Law (dharmachakra), which was flanked by three-jewel (triratna) motifs.

The railing is profusely carved with depictions of a variety of flora, fauna, Jataka narrations, processions, humorous scenes, yakshas, nagas (serpent deities), and the Mother Goddess Lakshmī, anointed by two elephants. The Bharhut stupa served as an open-air museum or sculptural gallery, and a number of its scenes have been labeled in Brahmi script. The names of several donors of different components of the monument are also inscribed. The sculptural renderings and the inscriptional evidence suggest that the Bharhut stupa was a national project, supported by donors and pilgrims from distant quarters of the country and emblematic of their Buddhist faith.

Bodh Gayā

Being associated with the attainment of enlightenment (bodhi) by the Buddha, Bodh Gayā is held in high esteem in the Buddhist world. Ashoka visited the holy spot and presumably built a temple, but no remains of that shrine have been found. The present temple is the reincarnation of an earlier temple, the fragments of which date back to the late second and early first century b.c., just after Bharhut. A second group of sculptures there were probably created a century later. The original railing of the stupa contained 64 pillars, 10 feet (3 m) high. An inscription notes that it was the gift of Kurangi, wife of King Indragnimitra, and Nagadevata, wife of King Brahmamitra.

Sanchi stupas

In 75 b.c., the tenth king of the Shunga dynasty, Devahuti (also known as Devabhumi) was murdered through a conspiracy by the minister Vasudeva, who founded the short-lived dynasty of Kanvas. Four Kanva kings ruled for only forty-five years; their dynasty's end came at the hands of the Andhras in 30 b.c. The Sanchi stupas near Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh were built during this period, but it is not possible to trace the precise contribution of the Kanva rulers to this building complex.

The Sanchi region is full of stupas, which number 60 in all: 8 in Sonar; 5 in Satadhara; 3 in Andher; 37 in Bhojpur; and 7 in Sanchi. Most of these are miniature; only a few are large. The building of stupas commenced in the third century b.c., when Ashoka, then governor, married Devi, the daughter of a local businessman. He selected the site of the hillock, which after the construction of the great stupa was known as Mahachetiya. The dimensions of the original stupa are known, though the existing stupa was built two centuries later. A portion of the original Ashokan pillar can still be seen near the southern gate.

The Mahachetiya (Stupa I) is 54 feet (16.5 m) high and covers a circular area 120 feet (36.5 m) in diameter. The hemispherical dome has a truncated top, surrounded by a low railing (harmika) consisting of a stone shaft topped by umbrellas (chhatravali). The body of the stupa is made of bricks surrounded by stone balustrades. At the ground level runs the pathway for clockwise circumambulation around the stupa during worship. This path is surrounded by a railing with 9-foot (2.7 m)-high pillars, placed at an interval of 2 feet (.6 m), with three crossbars. Unlike the Bharhut railing, the Sanchi railing is uncarved.

The four gateways that provide access to the stupa, however, are of great aesthetic merit. An inscription on the southern entrance records that it was executed by the guild of ivory carvers of Vidisha. The minute, low-carved renderings vary from gate to gate, although some episodes have been repeated. The representations are of Jatakas (previous births of the Buddha), life events, yakshas, nagas, mythical beings, nymphs, flora and fauna, processions, and a number of decorative motifs. Like Bharhut and Bodh Gayā, Sanchi also suggests the presence of the Buddha through symbols. Similarly, Gajalakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, is standing on a lotus, anointed by two elephants. The number of Jataka tales narrated here is only four, while at Bharhut no fewer than thirty are depicted. Nevertheless, the stupa at Sanchi is one of the most impressive examples of ancient Indian art.

R. C. Sharma


Agrawala, V. S. Indian Art. Varanasi: Prithivi Prakasham, 1965.

Arthashastra of Kautilya. Chap. 2. Translated and edited by L. N. Tangarajan. New Delhi and New York: Penguin, 1992.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. History of Indian and Indonesian Art. New York: Dover, 1965.

Gupta, Swarajya P. The Roots of Indian Art. New Delhi: D. K. Publishers, 1980.

Lohuizen-De Leeuw, J. E. van. The Scythian Period: An Approach to the History, Art, Epigraphy, and Palaeography of North India from the First CenturyB.C. to the Third CenturyA.D. Leiden: A. J. Brill, 1949.

Ray, Niharranjan R. Maurya and Post Maurya Art: A Study in Social and Formal Contrasts. New Delhi: Thomson, 1975.

Raychaudhuri, Hemchandra C. Political History of Ancient India. Rev. ed. Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Saraswati, S. K. Survey of Indian Sculpture. New Delhi: Munishiram Manoharlal, 1975.

Sharma, R. C. Bharhut Sculpture. New Delhi: Abhinav, 1994.

——. The Splendour of Mathura Art and Museum. New Delhi: D. K. Printworld, 1994.

——. Buddhist Art: Mathura School. 1995.

——. "Development of Indian Sculpture from Mauryan to the Kushana Period." In Life, Thought, and Culture inIndia: From 600B.C. to c.A.D. 300, edited by G. C. Pande. New Delhi: Munishiram Manoharlal, 2001.

Smith, Vincent A. The Jain Stupa and Other Antiquities of Mathura. 1901. Reprint, Varanasi: Indological Book House, 1969.