Mauryan empire: Part-III

March 3, 2018

For Mauryan empire: Part-I (click here)

For Mauryan empire: Part-II (click here)




The Mauryan art was not "art for art sake", but it was an art linked with political ideology and religious practice. Many of the Mauryan falls under the category of "court art".

There are also stone sculptures and terracotta figures which might be classified as "popular art", one connected to the lives of the ordinary people.

  1. Sections of a wooden wall had been noticed in Patna.

  2. Bulandigarh excavations give a better picture of fortifications.

  3. The remains of a gateway were also found. A large wooden drain crossed the wall at right angles.

Traces of wooden wall fortifications have been found at sites such as:

  1. Gasain Khanda

  2. Rampur

  3. Bahadurpur

  4. Bulandibagh: a large spoked wooden chariot wheel with an iron rim was also found.

  5. Kumrahar in Patna

    1. A pillar fragment was discovered at Kumrahar in Patna.

    2. 72 pillars arranged in a neat chessboard pattern and 8 more were found later.

    3. The pillars were made of buff-coloured Chunar sandstone and had a smooth, polished surface.

Ashokan pillars:

  1. All of them had a hole on the top, clearly for metal dowels that connected the shaft to a capital which in turn supported the roof.

  2. Some of them had masons' marks on their base, including the crescent-on-hill, a symbol which occurs on many punch-marked coins of the time.

  3. Hall:

    1. The discovery of large quantity of ash and pieces of burnt wood indicated that the floor and roof were made of wood, and the structure had been subjected to fire.

    2. The wooden roof may have been covered by brick and lime plaster, pieces of which were found at this place.

    3. The discovery of 7 wooden platforms made of sal wood have been excavated. A canal may have been connected from this spot to the Son river.

    4. Similarity between the pillared hall at Kumrahar and Darius' Hall of Public Audience at Persepolis in Iran, but the Maurya structure is much less elaborate than the Persian palaces.

  4. The majestic free-standing Ashokan pillars may symbolise the axis of the world that separated heaven and the earth.

  5. Almost all the pillar have 6 edicts, except the Delhi-Topra pillar which has 7.

  6. The commemorative inscriptions at Rummindei and Nigali Sagar and the schism edict at Sanchi.

  7. Pillar with bull capital: Rampurva

  8. Pillar with lion capital: Vaishali

  9. Kosam pillar without a capital

  10. The Ashokan pillars are quite similar to each other in form and dimensions. They are made of sandstone, quarried at Chunar. They are considered to be monoliths, made of one single piece of stone.

  11. A cylindrical bolt joins the top of the shaft of the "capital"-a stone carved in the shape of an inverted lotus (referred to as "bell capital"). On top of this is abacus (platform) which supports the crowning animal or animals. The abacus is square and plain in earlier pillars and circular and carved in later ones.

  12. The motifs associated with Ashokan pillars have a rich and varied symbolism with resonances with different Indian religious traditions.

  13. Apart from floral designs such as the lotus and honeysuckle/palmette, the capitals have other, mostly animal motifs.

    1. Lion: Vaishali, Lauriya-Nandangarh, Rampurva pillars

    2. Quadruple lions: Sanchi and Sarnath pillars

    3. Elephant: Sankissa

    4. Bull: in one of the Rampurva pillars

  14. The Sanchi and Sarnath capitals were surmounted by a spoked wheel.

  15. The abacus of the Sanchi pillar has packing gheese, whereas that of the Sarnath pillar has a bull, elephant, horse and lion, separated by wheels.

  16. The emblem of the Indian nation has been based on the Sarnath pillar.

  17. Wheel: represents dharmachakra

    1. The chakra is also associated with sovereignty and is mentioned as one of the seven treasures of the chakravarti king in the Mahasudassana Sutta.

  18. Elephant representation: the future Buddha entered his mother's womb in the form of a white elephant, which appeared to Maya in a dream.

    1. Jaina tradition also includes white elephant, white bull and lion among the 14 significant dreams that Mahavira's mother Trishala had when he was conceived.

  19. Bull: is a fertility symbol.

    1. Can be taken to represent the asterism of Rishabha, under which the Buddha was born.

  20. Horse: symbolises the departure of Buddha from home.

Buddhist tradition refers to a mythical Anotatta lake in the Himalayas, with rocks in the shape of horse, lion, bull and elephant.

Many of these symbols occur on the punch-marked coins of early historical India.


Persian influence:

  1. Ashoka got the idea of inscribing proclamations on pillar from the Achaemenids.

  2. It has been pointed out that the words lipi and dipi occur in inscriptions of Darius as well as Ashoka.

  3. The pillars of the Kandahar hall do not have capitals.The Persian pillars do stand on "bases", either shaped like a "bell" (that is inverted lotus), or a plain rectangular or circular block.

  4. In the Maurya pillars, the inverted lotus appears at the top of the shaft.

  5. The capitals of the Persian columns are crowned with a cluster of stylized palm leaves and have two semi-bulls, lions, or unicorns seated back to back, or an upright or inverted cup, with double volutes on the top.

  6. The Maurya type abacus and independent animals carved in the round crowning the pillars are absent in the Persian context.

Sculptures in Mauryan court:

  1. A polished fragment of a monolithic railing at Sarnath.

  2. The vajrasana (throne of meditation) at the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya is a large stone slab under the bodhi tree. The 16.5 cm thick vajrasana is made of Chunar sandstone. Its top surface is decorated with a carved geometric pattern that looks like intersecting circles. On the sides are carved floral palmette designs and geese (hamsas), in a style similar to that of the carving on the Ashokan capitals.

  3. At Dhauli, Bhubaneshwar, Odisha: There is a rock sculpture of the front part of an elephant. His heavy trunk curls gracefully inwards. His right front leg is slightly tilted and the left one slightly bent, suggesting forward movement. It is a very naturalistic, powerful portrayal of the animal, and the whole effect is such that it looks as if the elephant is walking out of the rock. 

Beginning of rock cut architecture:

  1. The Barabar and Nagarjuni hills to the north of Bodh Gaya contain several caves that were inhabited by ascetics in ancient times.

  2. Three caves in Barabar hills have dedicative inscriptions of Ashoka, and three in the Nagarjuni hills have inscriptions of his son, Dasharatha.

The longer side of the cave runs parallel to the rock face. The only sculptural ornamentation is a relief carving on the doorway of a cave known as the Lomash Rishi Cave. The doorway is modelled after wooden ones: chaitya or govaksha arch with a carved finial, are two bands of relief carving.

The upper one has a latticework design, the lower one has a finely carved frieze showing elephants approaching stupas.


At both ends of the frieze is a makara (a mythical crocodile). The interior of the Lomash Rishi cave consists of two connected chambers. The rectangular one leads into a round, unfinished room which resembles a thatched hut.

The cave next door has an inscription found, which states that it was dedicated by Ashoka to the Ajivikas 12 years after his abhisheka.


The tradition of making stupas-originally funerary mounds-may be pre-Buddhist:

  • The Mahaparinibbana Sutta tells us that 8 stupas were built over the cremated remains of the Buddha and two others over the cremation vessel and the embers of the funeral pyre.

  • Mud stupas near Piprahwa and Vaishali may represent these mud stupas.

  • The Nagali Sagar inscription records this king's enlargement of the stupa of a Buddha named Kanakamuni when he had been consecrated 14 years and commemorates his visit to this site. Ashoka played a significant role in popularising the stupa cult.

  • Ashoka's reign marked an important stage in the history of Buddhist stupa architecture. Old mud stupas were rebuilt or enlarged with bricks, as evident from excavations at Vaishali and Piprahwa.

  • A fragment of an Ashokan inscription at Amaravati suggests the possibility that the stupa-monastery complex located here dates to Ashoka's time.

  • There is an Ashokan pillar at Sarnath and the Dharmarajika and Dhamekh stupas at this place seem to have originated in the Maurya period.

  • At Rajgir, Maurya-type bricks were found at the western part of the mound, marking the site of a stupa.

  • The origins of the Dharmarajika stupa at Taxila may also go back to this period.

  • Sanchi stupa:

    • In Raisen district, MP

    • Situated on the outskrits of ancient Vidisha (represented by the site Besnagar): the birthplace of Devi, Ashoka's wife.

Several large stone sculptures of human figures have been found at various sites in and around Patna, Mathura, and other places.

Many of them represent yakshas and yakshis, deities whose worship was part of popular religion in many parts of the subcontinent. The Yaksha sculpture found at Parkham was initially associated with the Maurya period. Its base has an inscription in Maurya Brahmi letters

  • Torso of a nude male figure: Lohanipur, Patna

    • It is carved out of Chunar sandstone and has a polished surface.

    • Antiquities of the Maurya type, including two polished sandstone pillar fragments, were excavated near the place where the sculpture was found. This figure might represent a Jaina tirthankara.

  • The Didarganj yakshi found at Didarganj village, Patna

  • A headless male structure found at Patna

  • Carved ring stones and disc stones found at sites such as Patna, Taxila, Mathura, the Purana Qila in Delhi, Kaushambi, Rajghat and Vaishali.

  • Terracotta art flourished with the expansion of urban centres.

  • The cave next door has an inscription found, which states that it was dedicated by Ashoka to the Ajivikas 12 years after his abhisheka.

  • An Ashokan stupa was discovered at Deorkothar.

Yakshas and Yakshis: Yakshas were deities connected with water, fertility, trees, forest and the wilderness.

Yakshis were their female counterparts and were originally benign deities connected with fertility.

Yaksha and Yakshi images of terracotta were found at many sites, indicating that their worship was an important part popular in ancient India.

Many Yaksha images were found near Mathura. The most celebrated of these is a colossal grey sandstone figure discovered next a tank at Parkham village, a village between Agra and Mathura. The Brahmi inscription on its pedestal suggests a 3rd century BCE date. The inscription states that this stone image was made by Gomitaka, a pupil of Kunika, and that it was set up by 8 brothers who were members of the Manibhadra puga. The inscription clearly indicates that this was an image of yaksha Manibhadra.

The colossal yaksha suggests gravity and massive strength and his broken right hand was probably raised in the protection-granting abhaya-mudra.


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