According to the Greek writers, the Punjab in those days was full of towns which were no doubt the centres of industry and economic prosperity. Many of these figure as forts or centres of defense, such as the famous Massaga (Masakavati) or Aomos (Varana) in the country of the Asvakas already referred to.
The free clan called the Glaussai had as many as 37 towns in their territory, while there were as many as 5,000 towns in the territories of the other peoples, the Malloi, Oxydrakai, and others. “The smallest of these towns contained not less than 5,000 inhabitants, while many contained upwards of 10,000. Some of the villages were not less populous than towns”.
According to Strabo in the territories of 9 nations between the Jhelum and the Beas there were as many as 500 cities. Taxila was “a great and flourishing city, the greatest, indeed, of all the cities which lay between the Indus and the Hydaspes”.
Some of the cities were remarkable for the design shown in town-planning and architecture and for the strength of their fortifications. Message, for instance, was built up as a fort commanding great natural advantages on an eminence inaccessible on all sides against steep rock, treacherous morass, deep stream, and a rampart guarded by a deep moat to boot. The rampart was “35 stadia (=about 4 miles) in circumference, with a basis of stonework supporting a superstructure of unburnt, sun-dried bricks. The brick-work was bound in a solid fabric by means of stones”.
The fortress of Aornos was similarly constructed on a high hill, with its water-supply arranged by tapping a local spring, and food grown with the labour of a thousand men in an adjoining field to render the fort self-sufficient against a siege.
It is stated that these forts were possessed of fortifications and battlements which were so strong that Alexander had “to bring up military engines to batter down their walls” (Ib. p. 67). The Kathaians had a strongly fortified city called Sangala with its walls made of brick.
The Malloi had also many walled cities with citadels on commanding heights and difficult of access. Alexander had to apply scaling ladders on all its sides and to undermine its walls. The walls had towers at intervals. In scaling the walls, Alexander was assailed from every side from the adjacent towers.
Bars closed the gates of the wall between the towers. Megasthenes makes the following general statement on the cities of Maurya India- “Of their cities, it is said that the number is so great that it cannot be stated with precision, but that such cities as are situated on the banks of rivers or on the sea-coast are built of wood, for where they are built of brick they would not last long—so destructive are the rains, and also the rivers when they overflow their banks and inundate the plains. Those cities, however, which stand on commanding situations and lofty eminences are built of brick and mud”. The description of the above cities and also of Pataliputra bears out the truth of these remarks.
Further light is thrown on Town-planning by the Pali texts of the times. An older city of Magadha was old Rajagriha known as Girivraja which was the capital of emperor Bimbisara (C. 603-515). The Mahabharata refers to Girivraja as the capital of the much older king Jarasandha of Magadha, and describes it as being protected by five hills which are still traced, the hills called Vaihara, Varaha, Vrishabha, Rishigiri, and Chaityaka.
The famous Sattapanni cave where was held the first Buddhist Council in c. 543 BC was situated on the Vebhara hill. Ajatasatru helped in the meeting of this Council (Dhammasangiti) by building with expedition a large Hall at the entrance to the Cave, 2 platforms for the President and the speakers, and spreading costly mats on the floor for the seating of members (Mahavamsa, Ch. III).
Later, Bimbisara changed the capital to Rajagriha also known as Bimbisarapurl. The town-planning engineer and the palace architect is called Mahagcvinda. The gate of the city was closed in the evening to all, including the king (Vinaya, IV. 116 f.). The walls and fortifications of old Rajagriha are still visible, showing how they were built of rude and rough cyclopean masonry which made the structures so durable to this day.
The inscriptions of Chandragupta Maurya’s grandson, Asoka, make mention of the following chief cities of the Maurya empire, viz., Pataliputra, Bodh-Gaya, Kosambi, Ujjeni, Takkhasila, Suvarnagiri, Isila, Tosali, and Samapa. These cities were the capitals of the provinces, the headquarters of the local administrations, or centres of pilgrimage.
Other towns which were populous and selected for that reason for the location of his inscriptions by Asoka were Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra, Kalsi, Sopara, Girnar, Jaugada, Dhauli, Chitaldroog, Rupnath, Sahasram, Bairat (Bhabru), Maski, Govimath and Palkigundu in Kopbal District and Gooty in Kurnool district.
The names of these places are not Maurya but modem names and most of these are now out of the way and deserted places, and not the centres of population and civilisation as they were in Maurya India. The course of civilisation changes through the ages.
The structures known as Stupas formed an important part of the architectural inheritance and achievement of Mauryan India. The stupa literally means ‘something raised’, a mound. It came to be used at a Buddhist architectural term for a mound containing relics of the Buddha, his ashes, bones, or tooth, or relics of famous Buddhist saints or teachers. The oldest Stupa so tar discovered is that found in ruins at Piprahwa on the Nepal border.
It was built in brick round an urn bearing the following inscription- “This shrine for relics of the Buddha, the August One, is the pious foundation (sukriti) of the Sakyas, His brethren, in association with their sisters, their children, and their wives.” The Stupa was built as a solid cupola or domed mass of brickwork round and on a massive stone coffer. The bricks were huge slabs measuring up to 16 x 11 x 3 inches.
Vincent Smith thus describes the Stupa- “The masonry of the Stupa is excellent of its kind, well and truly laid; the great sandstone coffer could not be better made; and the ornaments of gold, silver, coral, crystal, and precious stones which were deposited in honour of the holy relics display a high degree of skill in the arts of the lapidary and goldsmith” (Imperial Gazetter, II. 102-3).
As the inscription on the Stupa describes the Sakyas as its builders, it may be taken to be one of the original Stupas in which, according to the Mahaparinibbana-suttanta, were enshrined relics of the sacred body of the Buddha, after its cremation at Kusinara, by eight contending claimants among whom figured the Sakyas of Kapilavastu.
We have also the testimony of Asoka himself to the existence of Stupas before his time. For in his inscription on the pillar at Nigali Sagar he himself states that he had enlarged to twice its original size the Stupa consecrated to the sacred memory of a previous Buddha, the Buddha Konagamana (Kanakamuni).
As to Art, it is seen at its best in the examples executed by Asoka. These are examples of different types of architectural activity for which Asoka is known to this day. He was the builder of cities, stupas, viharas or monasteries excavated in hard rocks, rock-cut caves, palaces and pillars of stone. The pillars are the master-pieces of Mauryan Art in the shining polish imparted to them which is supposed to be the despair of modem masons, and in the degree of perfection to which they were shaped, dressed, and decorated in accordance with the Emperor’s design.
They carried to perfection the art of the delineation of natural forms of animals and plants in stone. They are also notable as feats of engineering when it is considered that all these pillars weighing on an average 50 tons, and measuring a height of 50 feet, are all monolithic productions, showing how large masses of rocks were shaped into pillars, and also how these great weights were shaped into for the purposes of their transport over distances of several hundreds of miles to their appointed sites at which they were to be located in accordance with the imperial scheme of public welfare which they were intended to serve.
For instance, a chain of pillars was called for to indicate the Pilgrims’ Progress towards the holy lands of Buddhism from Pataliputra to the place of the Buddha’s nativity. Just as the Stupa was pre-Asokan, so also was the Pillar. Asoka himself refers to the existence of pillars before his time, and his utilising them for purposes of his Inscriptions (Asoka, p. 87).
But if Mauryan Art is admitted to have achieved so much progress in the days of Asoka, such progress could not have been achieved in a day. It must have been preceded by a long course of evolution from its origins and crude beginnings in earlier times. Fortunately, these beginnings of Indian Art are traceable in certain examples still extant. There is a class of colossal statues of stone which are admittedly pre-Asokan, and perhaps pre-Mauryan.
These statues represent the folk-art of the times inspired by the popular worship of certain minor deities. The religion of the masses centered round the worship of the minor gods and goddesses known as Yakshas and Yakshis, Nagas or Nagis, Gandharvas, Apsaras and even tree-and water-spirits.
Up to now eleven examples of these oversized figures of deities have been discovered, namely:
(1) Parkham (Muttra) Yaksha;
(2) Baroda (Muttra) Yaksha;
(3) Yakshi in another village at Muttra, worshipped as Mansa Devi;
(4) Another Muttra Yaksha newly discovered;
(5) Patna Yaksha, now in the Indian Museum;
(6) Another Patna Yaksha statue in the Indian Museum;
(7) Female chauri-bearer from Didarganj, Patna;
(8) Inscribed Manibhadra Yaksha from Pawaya (Gwalior);
(9) Besnagar female statue;
(10) A second Besnagar female statue;
(11) Fragments of a Yaksha statue found at Kosam.
Some of these statues bear inscriptions naming the deities they represent. Thus Nos. (1) and (8) represent Manibhadra, the Yaksha general of Kubera; No. (3) represents Yakshi Layava. One of the Patna statues is that of Bhagavan Akshata-nivika (Kubera), while the other is Yaksha Sarvatra Nandi. Nos. (1) and (3) are also stated to be works of a School of Sculptors represented by Kunika, his pupil, Naka, and his grand-pupil Gomitaka.
That this Art of statuary or portraiture in stone is very old is also demonstrated by the fact that it continued up to later times and also in imitations. While these statues stand by themselves as independent objects of worship, they figure as parts of a whole in the scheme of Bharhut sculptures of second century BC. The Bharhut sculptures are full of images of these secondary deities figuring in the religion and worship the masses.
The later examples of this type of Folk-Art are seen in the Bodhisattva images which are supposed to be the works of the Mathura School of Art. The colossal Bodhisattva image found at Sarnath bears an inscription which assigns it to the year 3 of Kanishka and describes it as a gift of Bhikshu Bala of Mathura. Thus the Bodhisattva images were the continuations of the Yaksha images in a different religious reference.
According to Dr. A.K. Coomaraswamy, even this supposed primitive or folk-art is not without its own artistic merits. It is no doubt primitive and crude as compared with the finished art of the time of Asoka, the art of the cultured classes, the official or Court- Art, as it may be called, which was meant to cater for the religious requirements of Hinayana Buddhism of those days.
Coomaraswamy considers these colossal statues to be “informed by an astounding physical energy not obscured by their archaic stiffness, and expressive of an immense material force in terms of sheer volume;” representing “an art of mortal essence almost brutal in its affirmation, not yet spiritualised, and without any suggestion of introspection, subjectivity, or spiritual aspiration.” “Stylistically, the type is massive and voluminous and altogether plastically conceived, not bounded by outlines.”
As regards the distinction between the primitive, rural, and the refined urban, art, we have some evidence in the grammar of Panini (c. 500 BC). Panini makes a distinction between the Gramasilpi and the Rajasilpi. The former represented the artists in the employ of the village community, while the latter refers to the court-artists catering for the cultured classes and the aristocracy.
It may also be noted that all these statues are marked in common by an ornament like the necklace or the torque for which Panini has the significant formation Graiveyaka, It may, therefore, be assumed that Asokan art had its earlier beginnings in the time of his predecessors in these statues representative of rural worship and folk-art of the times.