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Mauryan Art and Culture

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  • Last Updated : 10 Mar, 2023
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The art and culture of the Mauryan period (322-185 BCE) contribute a significant part in framing ancient Indian architecture in history. The mighty kings of the Mauryan empire played an essential role in establishing and improving the art and culture of the age. Mauryan kings like Chandragupta Maurya, Bindusara, and Ashoka focused on establishing certain kinds of art and architecture in the Mauryan kingdom. This particular type of art and architecture had some unique features, known as Mauryan art and architecture.

Attributes of Mauryan art and architecture

  • Megasthenes’ Indica is a source of the details of Mauryan art and culture. The Greek diplomat mentioned the art forms and the societal pattern of the period in the book. 
  • The glossy texture was the main feature of the stone sculpture and pillars. And these were made with sandstone.
  • Wood was the main material used to build architecture like royal palaces. 
  • The monolith patterns of the Mauryan pillars looked almost like Persian pillars.
  • The architecture of the Mauryan era represents the period’s religious, social, and cultural status.  
  • Various architecture also revealed the languages spoken, like inscriptions on emperor Ashoka’s pillars. 
  • Common people were interested in creating and preserving art and architecture. 

Types of Mauryan Art and Architecture:

The emperors mostly did the establishment of architecture and art during the Mauryan period. These were known as court arts, indicating the art in the king’s court. And common people of the kingdom were also active in creating popular arts or folk arts. Sculptures, pottery, and cave art were such art forms.

1. Palaces:

The types of court art were mainly palaces, stupas, and pillars. Famous Mauryan palaces exist in Kumrahar, which is in modern Patna. Mauryan palaces were constructed primarily with wood, for example, Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka’s palaces.  

2. Stupa and Chaitya:

Buddhism and Jainism were two religious beliefs that were massively spreading during this period. The stupas, chaityas, and viharas were built during this time. Such stupas are mainly found in modern Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, and Nepal. The Sanchi stupa in Madhya Pradesh and Sarnath stupa near Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, are famous stupas built during Ashoka’s reign.

3. Pillars:

The pillars have three distinct parts: a shaft, an abacus, and a capital. The abacus lies on the inverted designed lotus shape in some pillars. Mainly animals are seen on the capital of the pillars. During Ashoka’s reign, Sarnath Lion Capital was built to honor the Dhammachakrapravartana. The capital of the pillar consists of four lions. The chakra in the pillar is the emblem of Dhammachakra in Buddhism.

  • Seven Pillar Edicts: Mauryan emperor Ashoka’s seven pillar edicts are found in different places, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, and Bihar. The first pillar edict carries inscriptions related to protecting the people of the kingdom. The second is about Dhamma. The third says about rejecting anger, pride, and other vices. The fourth depicts the duties of Rajukas. The fifth carries the message of protecting animals and not sacrificing them in rituals. The sixth edict is about his Dhamma policy. The seventh edict reveals Ashoka’s tolerance for all sects and religions.
  • Major and Minor Pillar Inscriptions: Major pillar inscriptions of Ashoka are found in the Sarnath Lion capital, Vaishali pillar, Allahabad pillar, Lauriya Nandangarh pillar, and Lauriya Araraj pillar. Minor pillar inscriptions are found in Sanchi, Allahabad, Sarnath, Nigali Sagar, and Rummindei. The language of inscriptions was in Prakrit. There are instances of Brahmi scripts here. The primary purpose of producing inscriptions was to spread the message of Dhamma.

4. Sculptures:

Sculptures of the Mauryan era had certain features like glossy polish and intricate patterns.  Didarganj Yakshini’s sculpture is an ideal example of Mauryan sculpture. This sculpture is a human size presentation of Yakshini, a religious emblem that Mauryans used to worship.

5. Pottery and Cave Art:

Pottery found from the Mauryan era was mainly from places in northern India, like Patliputra. The glossy black colored pottery is recognized as Northern Black Polished Ware. 
Caves like Nagarjuna cave and Barabar hill cave carry examples of cave art and architecture of the Mauryan period. Lomas Rishi Cave in Barabar hills in Bihar is famous for the decoration of the entrance.

6. Terracotta Representations:

Terracotta art flourished during the Mauryan era. Many terracotta figures and sculptures were retrieved from Bulandibagh. A sculpture of a woman in a dancing posture was found here. More terracotta representations were found in Patliputra and Taxila too. The style of terracotta art shows the infusion of Greek culture. Terracotta decors, toys, and structures were common terracotta works.

7. Mauryan Paintings and Jataka Stories:

  • The religious context of Buddhism and Jainism was a part of the Shramana tradition that influenced Mauryan art. Ashoka followed Buddhist philosophy. The inscriptions in his pillars and rock edicts carried the messages of Dhamma or Buddhism. 
  • Worshipping Buddha and honoring his ideology through lotus, footprints and other types of sculptures or pictures were common trends. Then the pictorial stories of Buddha became Jataka stories during the Mauryan period. These were seen in the stupas or worshipping areas. There is no proper example of a painting of this age apart from Jataka stories. Megasthenes’ book Indica mentions some paintings which did not survive later. According to some sources, some paintings of Ajanta cave may have a Mauryan art effect, but there is no proof.

8. Design of Coins:

Mauryan coins were known as Karshapana or Pana. These were made of silver and weighed around 3.4 gm. The coins had five punches. A symbol of six arms and the sun was mandatory, along with three other patterns. The meanings of punches carry ambiguous significance, and these could not be deciphered.

The art and culture of the Mauryan period were versatile. The unique features of art and architecture were born from religious, societal, and cultural traditions. The condition of the socio-religious status becomes more believable from the evidence of the architecture.

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