Mauryan Artefacts: Pillars, Rock-cut Architecture, Stupas and Other Details!
No significant architectural remains have been found corresponding to the period between the Harappans and the Mauryas.
This is probably because buildings were not made of stone in this period.
Mauryan rule marks an important phase in our cultural history. Though nothing remains of the cities built by the Mauryas, the splendour of power that the Mauryas tried to create is reflected in an account of the capital city of Pataliputra given by Megasthenes.
The city, occupying a parallelogram about 10 miles long and two miles wide, was girded by a stupendous wooden wall pierced with loopholes for the archers.
The wall was topped by over 500 towers and provided with as many as 64 gates. Within the enclosure was the royal palace, which, in plan and decorative treatment, appears to have been inspired by the Achaemenid palaces at Persepolis in Iran.
The imperial palace was still standing when the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa-Hien saw it around AD 400; he was so impressed by the walls, doorways and the sculptured designs that he felt sure that they could not have been executed by human hands.
Ashoka, grandson of Chandragupta, embraced Buddhism and the immense Buddhist missionary activities that followed encouraged the development of distinct sculptural and architectural styles.
The court art of Ashoka is best seen in the white- grey sandstone columns erected by him all over his empire either to mark a sacred site associated with Buddha’s life or to commemorate a great event. On many of these pillars are inscribed the famous edicts of Ashoka propagating the Dhamma ([Dharma or Laws of the Buddha) or the imperial sermons of Ashoka to his people.
Rising to an average height of about 40 feet, the pillars in their most developed state, are tall, tapering monoliths with sculptured capitals, incorporating a series of fluted petals in elongated shape, (which falling together take the form of a bell, commonly known as the Persepolitan Bell) surmounted by a circular abacus ornamented with animal and floral motifs in relief. There is a crowning animal sculpture on the round, which is usually the lion, bull or elephant, represented singly on the early capitals, and grouped on the later ones.
In the bull capital from Rampurva (now in the National Museum at New Delhi) the bull is rendered naturalistically in a manner reminiscent of seal carving from the Indus civilisation, suggesting continuity in tradition. The lion capital once stood at Sarnath from where Buddha preached his first sermon.
The animals around the drum of the capital—consecutively the bull, horse, lion and elephant between which are depictions of chakras (wheels)—almost appear to be pulling an invisible vehicle as if to perpetuate the wheel of Dhamma.
The pillar in its original form had a gigantic stone wheel crowning the top of the lions. The crisp carving, smooth polish and high quality of craftsmanship have earned this work, particularly the capital, a reputation as one of ancient India’s greatest artistic achievements.
Ashoka’s reign also saw the firm establishment of one of the most important and characteristic art traditions of South Asia—the rock-cut architecture. The series of rock-cut sanctuaries in the Barabar and Nagarjuni hills, near Gaya in Bihar, contain a number of inscriptions which show that they were donated for the habitation of certain Ajivika ascetics, perhaps followers of the Jain religion.
Architecturally, their main interest lies in being the earliest known examples in India of the rock-cut method. Also they represent a contemporary type of structure that combined wood and thatch. Sudama and Lomas Rishi caves are the two notable hermitages, each consisting of a circular cell with a hemispherical domed roof attached to a barrel-vaulted anteroom with side entrances.
The stupa was not unknown in India before the time of Ashoka. It was originally a simple burial mound of earth and bricks erected by the Vedic Aryans. There is no evidence of veneration paid to relic-mounds in the pre-Maurya period.
From the time Ashoka divided up the existing body relics of the Buddha and erected monuments to enshrine them, the stupas became objects of cult worship.
Gradually, in Buddhist art and religion, the stupa came to be accepted as a sort of architectural body representing the Buddha himself. The core of the stupa was of unburnt brick, and the outer face of burnt brick, covered with a thick layer of plaster. The stupa was crowned by an umbrella of wooden fence enclosing a path for pradakshina.
Several stone sculptures of human figures demonstrating characteristics of the Maurya period have been found. Of these, one is an extremely well-preserved statue of a female chowrie (fly whisk) bearer (now in the Patna Museum) which was found by villagers at Didarganj.
The technique, surface refinement and high polish undoubtedly relate it to the Maurya period. The figure wears a hip-hugging garment over her lower body; its diaphanous folds are depicted by double-incised lines across her legs. Heavy ornaments, including a jewelled or beaded girdle, anklets, armbands, necklaces and earrings adorn the figure.
This type of feminine attire will be seen throughout the development of Indian art with some variation, but essentially, the clinging lower garment, bare torso and abundant jewellery became the norm.