Mauryan Sculpture

The Maurya period is marked by an impressive progress in the Indian sculpture. Dr. Ananda Coomarswamy differentiates the Mauryan sculptures into Court art and the Popular Art. The Court art includes the pillars and their capitals while the popular art includes the works of sculptors such as the Yakshas and Yakshinis. The Yaksha image from Parkam and Yakshini Image from Besnagar are examples of popular art.

Influence of Religions on Maurya Sculptures

In those times, the religious practices had many dimensions and were not confined to just one particular mode of worship. At the same time, the Buddhism became the most popular social and religious movement during Maurya era.

Yaksha worship was very popular before and after the advent of Buddhism and it was well assimilated in Buddhism and Jainism. Thus, the concept of religious sculpture was predominant during the Mauryan Empire.

Influence of Foreign Countries on Maurya Sculpture

It is a well-known fact that the first three Mauryan emperors, Chandragupta, Bindusɑra and Aśoka, maintained friendly relations with the Hellenic West, particularly with the court of the great Seleucid kings who may be described as successors of Alexander, the Great and of the Achaemenids of Iran as well.

This may indicate the source of extraneous influences, and an adaptation of Achaemenids models has been recognised in the Edicts of Aśoka and in the remains of the Mauryan palace in the imperial city of Pɑtaliputra.

But the Mauryan pillars are different from the Achaemenid pillars. The Mauryan pillars are rock-cut pillars thus displaying the carver’s skills, whereas the Achaemenid pillars are constructed in pieces by a mason.

Maurya Court Art

During the Maurya era, excellent stone sculpture comes into full being all at once. The stone was now used all over the country for sculpture as well as architecture. Further, bright polish was imparted to the stone surface during Maurya era. Mauryan art is notable for bright mirror like polish as well as a huge variety of its creations. This art is visible in stone pillars, railings, parasols, capitals, animal and human sculptures and several other motifs besides.

However, the best specimens of Maurya court art are the huge number of monolithic columns with their majestic animal capitals. Generally speaking, each column consists of two parts, the shaft and the capital. The shaft, circular in section and slightly tapering, is made from a single block of stone and has a graceful and elegant proportion. The capital, monolithic like the shaft, was divided into three parts by an inverted lotus, often called ‘bell’, abacus and a crowning sculpture in the round.

The surface of both the shaft and the capital was chiselled with extraordinary precision and accuracy. The bell was decorated with highly stylized longitudinal lotus-petals with sharp and thin ridges in the middle and wide and roundish border moldings.

Stone pillars were erected all over the Mauryan Empire with inscriptions engraved on them. The top portion of the pillar was carved with capital figures such as bull, the lion, the elephant, etc. Every capital figure stands on a square or circular abacus. The abacuses have been decorated by stylized lotuses.

The important places where the pillars have been found are Basarah-Bakhira, Lauriya- Nandangarh, Rampurva, Sankisa and Sarnath.

These pillars were carved in two types of stone viz.

  • Spotted red and white sandstone from the region of Mathura.
  • Buff-coloured fine grained hard sandstone usually with small black spots quarried in the Chunar near Varanasi.

The uniformity of style in the pillar capitals suggests that they were all sculpted by craftsmen from the same region. They were inscribed with edicts of Ashoka on Dhamma or righteousness. The animal capital as a finely carved life like representation. Noteworthy are the lion capital of Sarnath, the bull capital of Rampurva and the lion capital of Laurya Nandangarh.

Examples of Maurya Court Art

Lion Capital at Sarnath
  • The Mauryan pillar capital found at Sarnath popularly known as the Lion Capital, which is now our national symbol, is considered to be the finest example of Mauryan sculptural tradition.
  • The capital originally consisted of five component parts:
  • The shaft, which is broken in many parts now
  • A lotus bell base
  • A drum on the bell base with four animals proceeding clockwise
  • The figures of four majestic lions
  • The crowning element, Dhammachakra, a large wheel, was also a part of this pillar. However, this wheel is lying in a broken condition and is displayed in the site museum at Sarnath. Chakras were also made on the circular drum under the feet of the lions.
  • The capital without the crowning wheel and the lotus base has been adopted as the National Emblem of Independent India.

The four voluminous roaring lion figures firmly stand on a circular abacus which is carved with the figures of four animals – a striding elephant, a galloping horse, a walking bull and a prancing lion. Four lions placed back-to-back face the cardinal directions, indicating the spread of dharma. These are formal and stylised and are reminiscent of the Persian tradition.

The four lions on the Sarnath pillar originally supported a large chakra, or wheel. The chakra is an important symbol of cosmic order in Upanishadic thought. In Buddhism, it represents the Dhammachakrapravartana (the first sermon by the Buddha), which has become a standard symbol of this great historical event in the life of the Buddha.

Four other animals were also shown proceeding clockwise around the drum, suggesting the movement of the wheel of dharma. Unlike the lions above, these animals are made in a highly naturalistic manner.

The precision with which this capital has been carved shows that the Mauryan sculptors had considerable mastery in the sculptural techniques.

Pillar at Vaishali

The Asokan pillar at Vaishali is different from the earlier Ashokan pillars because it has only one lion capital.  Location of this pillar is contiguous to the site where a Buddhist monastery and a sacred coronation tank stood. The lion faces north, the direction Buddha took on his last voyage.

Asoka Pillar at Allahabad

In Allahabad there is a pillar with inscriptions from Ashoka and later inscriptions attributed to Samudragupta and Jehangir. The pillar is located inside the Allahabad Fort. It is assumed that the pillar was first erected at Kaushambi an ancient town some 30 kilometres west of Allahabad that was the capital of the Koshala kingdom. The Ashokan inscription is in Brahmi and is dated around 232 BC.

Pillars at Lauriya-Areraj and Lauriya-Nandangarh

The column at Lauriya-Nandangarh, 23 km from Bettiah in West Champaran district, Bihar has single lion capital. The hump and the hind legs of the lion project beyond the abacus. The pillar at Lauriya-Areraj in East Champaran district, Bihar is devoid of any capital.

Critical evaluation of Maurya Court Art

The most important function of the Mauryan pillars was to impress and over-awe the populace with the power and majesty of its rulers. This is evident from the compactness of the solid animal figures, their exaggerated forms and their conventional appearances, also the most imposing stateliness of the columns. But this renders Mauryan court-art to be individualistic in its essential character and ideology. It lacked deeper roots in the collective social will, taste and preference and was, therefore , destined to have an isolated and short life, coeval and coexistent with and within the limits of the powerful Mauryan court. That is the reason that Mauryan court-art, with all its dignified bearing, monumental appearance and civilized quality, forms but a short and isolated chapter of the history of Indian art.

Maurya Popular Art

The popular art in Maurya period is represented by images of Yakshas and Yakshinis.  Yaksha refer to the nature-spirits, usually benevolent also known as fertility spirits. A yakshini is the female counterpart of the male Yaksha. Both Yaksha and Yakshini attend to Kubera, the Hindu god of wealth who rules in the mythical Himalayan kingdom of Alaka. Yaksha also refers to one of the Exotic Tribes of Ancient India. Yakshas and Yakshinis are the caretakers of the natural treasures. They have a prominent place in the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist literature and have become part of figure representation in Buddhist and Jaina religious monuments.

In India, large statues of Yakshas and Yakhinis, mostly in standing position, have been found at many places such as Patna, Vidisha and Mathura. Most common element among these images is the polished surface and clear physiognomic details.

Didarganj Yakshini

One of the finest examples of popular Maurya art is the Yakshi figure from Didarganj, Patna. This is a tall, well built, well-proportioned, free-standing sculpture in sandstone with a polished surface, reflecting the sophistication in the treatment of form and medium.

The Yakshini holds a chauri (flywhisk) in the right hand whereas the left hand is broken. The image shows sculptor’s sensitivity towards the round muscular female human body. Folds of muscles are properly rendered. The tightening of garment around the belly creates the effect of a bulging belly. The lower garment has been rendered with great care. Every fold of the garment on the legs is shown by protruding lines clinging to the legs, which create somewhat transparent effect. Heaviness in the torso is depicted by heavy breasts and impressive back.

Elephant sculpture at Dhauli

The rock cut sculpture of Elephant in Dhauli, near Bhubneshwar in Odisha represents the fore-part of an elephant carved over the Edicts of Aśoka, including the two specially meant for Kalinga.

In the modelling and execution of this elephant figure, one may recognise a note and feeling different from those manifested in the animal figures surmounting the pillar capitals. It represents a fine delineation of bulky volume and living flesh, natural to that animal, along with a dignified movement and linear rhythm that have no parallel except in the elephant figure in relief on the abacus of the Sarnath capital.

Facades of Lomus Rishi Cave

The rock-cut cave carved at Barabar hills near Gaya in Bihar is known as the Lomus Rishi cave. The facade of the cave is decorated with the semicircular chaitya arch as the entrance. The cave was patronised by Ashoka for the Ajivika sect. The Lomus Rishi cave is an isolated example of this period.

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