Barhut and Sanchi Sculptures

After the crumbling of Mauryan dynasty, the Sungas and Kushans came to power in the North and the Satvahanas in the south. Their period marked the beginning of sculptural idiom in the Indian sculpture wherein the physical forms were becoming more realistic, refined and expressive. The sculptors started mastering the art especially of the human body wherein it was carved in high relief and with vigour and heaviness.

The Ashokan stupas were enlarged and the brick and wood works were replaced with stone work. For instance the Sanchi stupa was enlarged and elaborate gateways were added. The sungas reconstructed the railings around the Barhut stupa. They also built Torans and gateways around the stupa.

There is an inscription at the Barhut stupa which states that the Toran was constructed by the Sungas. The Torans indicate the influence of Hellinistic school and other foreign schools in Sunga architecture.

During this rule of Kanva and Sunga dyansty, a plenty of cave-temples, chaityas and stupas were built. The stupas of Bharhut, Bodhgaya and Sanchi and the amazing cave art of Udaygiri and Khandagiri remind us of the heights reached in sculpture. Human figures, dakshas-yakshas, figures of birds and beasts, plants and creepers were done in wonderfully intricate patterns; the walls of Ajanta and Udaygiri are very smooth.

Comparison of Sunga-Kanva art with Maurya Art

Spiritually and formally the Sunga-Kanva art was opposed to Maurya art and stood for different motive and direction. The bas-reliefs of Bharut, Bodh Gaya, Sanchi, Amaravati, etc. provide an illuminating commentary on the contemporary Indian life and attitude to life. These bas-reliefs were charana-chitras translated into stone.

The artists of the Sunga-Kanva period seem to have a special knack in depicting figures in all conceivable shapes, positions, and at­titudes. If in Bharut the figures show the great efforts of the artists Bodh Gaya distinctly shows the figures as work of better skill, more free and lively. Gaya was a step forward from Bharut.

In the Sunga-Kanva period majority of the terra­cotta work consisted of female figures, richly dressed, well-disciplined body, magnificently modelled busts and elaborate hair-dressing.

Both sculpture and architecture witnessed a new efflorescence during the Shunga age. Art was cultivated at many a centre and the two great stupas of Bharhut and Sanchi give evidence of almost a continental planning.

Some other prominent examples of the finest sculpture of Post-Maurya period are found at Vidisha, Bodhgaya (Bihar), Jaggayyapeta (Andhra Pradesh), Mathura (Uttar Pradesh), Khandagiri-Udaigiri (Odisha), Bhaja near Pune and Pavani near Nagpur (Maharashtra).

It’s worth note that till the development of the Gandhara and Mathura art school, Buddha was depicted mainly as symbols.

Sculptures at Barhut

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 contributed by lay people, monks and nuns.

Bharhut sculptures are the best examples of Post Maurya sculptures. These mainly include the images of Yaksha and Yakhshini akin to the Mauryan period.

Barhut is basically known for its Stupa which is thought to have been originally established by Asoka in the 3rd century BC, but was improvised and beautified during the Sunga period.

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.

The sculpture was mainly done in low relief in the panels of the stupa along with narratives which are in few words. The artists are Barhut have used the small space available on reliefs to depict the pictorial language very effectively to communicate stories. One of such pictorial narrative is the “Queen Mahamaya’s dream”. Queen Mahamaya was mother of Gautama Buddha. In this image, the queen is shown reclining on the bed whereas an elephant is shown on the top heading towards the womb of Queen Mayadevi.

Similarly, other sculptures depict the Jataka tales, for example the Ruru Jataka where the Boddhisattva deer is rescuing a man on his back. The other event in the same picture frame depicts the King standing with his army and about to shoot an arrow at the deer, and the man who was rescued by the deer is also shown along with the king pointing a finger at the deer.

Sculptures at Sanchi

The sculptural at Sanchi Stupa shows stylistic progression from Barhuta.  The stupa-1 at Sanchi has upper as well as lower pradakshinapatha and four beautifully decorated toranas depicting various events from the life of the Buddha and the Jatakas.

In comparison to Barhut, the relief is high and filled up in the entire space. The depiction gets more naturalistic and rigidity in the contours gets reduced.  The techniques of carving also appear to be more advanced than Barhut, however Buddhas continues to be prominently depicted as symbols than human figures. The narratives get more elaborated; however, the depiction of the dream episode remains very simple showing the reclining image of the queen and the elephant at the top. Some of the historical details such as historical narratives of the siege of the Kushinagara and Buddha’s visit to Kapilavastu etc. have been carved in details.

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