200 BCE- 300 CE : Religious Architecture and Stupas - Part 4

April 9, 2018

In the previous lectures of this series, we have covered all other aspects of the given time period. In this last lecture, we will look at the religious architecture and Stupas created between 200-300 BCE. 

For previous lectures refer to the following links

Part -1 (Click here)

Part -2(Click here)

Part -3(Click here)

 Buddhist Architecture and Stupas:

  1. Chaitya: Chaitya refers to a sacred space but is more specifically used to refer to Buddhist shrines.

  2. Stupa: It represented many things in Buddhist tradition.

    • It stood for the axis mundi (the centre of the universe).

    • Symbolized the Parinibbana of the Buddha.

    • It was a repository of the Buddha and the other monks.

    • It was a place of veneration, worship and pilgrimage for monks and laity.

  3. Stupa monastery complexes were located close to urban centres and along major trade and pilgrimage routes.

    • Mrigdava outside Kashi.

    • Dharmajika Stupa outside Taxila.

    • Sanchi outside Vidisha.

    • Amravati outside Dharnikota (Satvahanas capital).

    • Nagarjunakonda outside Vijaypuri (Ikshvaku capital)

    • Bharhut.


  1. Stupa-Monasteries of the North West:

    • Names:

      • Takht-i-Bahi in Pakistan.

      • Guldara in Afghanistan.

      • City of Sirkap in Taxila.

    • Architecture of City of Sirkap in Taxila:

      • It contains "Shrine of the double eagle".

      • Stupa consisted of a low circular plinth surmounted by a hemispherical dome.

    • In contrast to Stupas of Central India, those of north-west had a tower-like appearance with sculptural decoration on the base and dome.

  2. Central Indian Stupas

    • Names:

      • Bharhut

      • Sanchi

      • Satdhara

      • Andher

      • Sonari

      • Bhojpur

    • Architecture of Sanchi Stupa.

      • It was referred to as Kakanava or Kakanaya in early Brahmi inscriptions found at the site.

      • It is not associated with any event in the Buddha's life.

      • The stupas had a stone circumambulatory path (Pradakshina path).

      • Two flights of stairs (Sopanas) at the base.

      • Stone railings (vedikas) at the ground.

      • Berm (the ledge located between the base and the dome).

      • Summit level.

      • Stone umbrella (chhatra) on the summit.

      • Stone railings and 4 gateways (toranas) at the cardinal points enclosed the entire sacred space.

      • Stupa no. 3 had the relics (bone fragments, beads) of the famous monk Sariputta and Maha-mo-galana.

      • Probably was covered with a layer of plaster and red paint.

      • Sanchi, have revealed ancient dams made of mud, faced with dressed blocks of stone. These created reservoir for storing rainwater, suggesting that the monks were involved in water harvesting, not only for providing drinking water but also for irrigating the surrounding fields.

    • In central India, the surface of a stupa was not embellished with sculptures. Sculptural decoration if any was reserved for the railings and gateways.

  3. Stupas of Andhra Pradesh:

    • Names:

      • Amravati: Also known as Mahachaitya.

      • Jaggayya-peta.

      • Nagarjunakonda.

    • Architecture of Andhra Stupas:

      • There is great variety in the architecture and arrangement of Buddhist complexes.

      • Stupas had a solid brick or stone construction. Some stupas consisted of a spoked-wheel plan made of bricks, the spaces in between filled with mud.

      • Amravati Stupa had a solid brick core. Bhatti-prolu stupa represented an intermediate stage that had a mostly solid core with a wheel plan in the central portion.

      • Nagarjunakonda stupas mostly had wheel-shaped bases. Number of spokes ranging from 4 to 10 as per the size of the stupa. 

      • A few stupas had a svastika instead of a wheel inset into their base in Nagarjunakonda.

      • In Andhra Stupas we observe that raised on a platform at the four cardinal points were five tall free-standing pillars known as ayaka pillars. They represented the five important events in Buddha's life- birth, renunciation, enlightenment, first sermon and death.


Early Relief Sculpture at Buddhist Stupa Sites:

  1. Sanchi, Bharhut and Amravati represented a translation of the woodcarver's art into stone.

  2. These sites offer the earliest sculptural representations of important episodes in the Buddha's life and of the Jataka stories.

  3. There are two kinds of narrations:

    1. Mono-scenic: Narration depicts a single major episode, which reminds the viewer of the entire story.

    2. Continuous: Several different scenes of the story were depicted in sequence, usually without any break or partition in between, one scene simply merging into the next.

  4. At Bharhut, Pauni and Amaravati, Jataka scenes are labelled.

  5. Symbols and meanings of Buddhist Art:

    1. Birth: Maya seated on a lotus or only lotus.

    2. Enlightenment: Bodhi tree variously combined with an umbrella over it, a throne in front of it or a railing around it.

    3. First Sermon at Sarnath: Wheel.

    4. Death: Stupa.

    5. Conception: Maya asleep on a couch with a white elephant at the top of the panel.

    6. Departure into homelessness: Bridled horse and a groom holding an umbrella over the head of the invisible rider.

  6. Sanchi sculpture depicted yakshas, yakshis, nagas, nagis. Animals included lion, elephant, horse, bull, deer, stag etc. Monkeys are absent at Sanchi.

  7. Triratna stands for Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

 Buddhist Caves in the Western Ghats:

  1. Names:

    • Kondivte

    • Nadsur

    •  Bhaja

    • Tulja

    • Pitalkhora

    • Kondane

    •  Ajanta

    •  Nashik

    • Bedsa.

    •  Karle

    • Kuda

    • Mahad

    • Karadh

    • Shelarvadi

    •  Kanheri.

  2. Features:

    • A few caves show relief carving.



Jain Caves at Udaygiri and Khandagiri

  1. Udaygiri and Khandagiri hills in Puri district, Odisha are located near Bhubaneshwar.

  2. These caves are connected to Maha-megha-vahana or Chedi dynasty of Kalinga and are dated to 1st century BCE.

  3. Unlike Buddhist caves, Jain caves have no congregation halls or rock cut shrines.

  4. Cells are there are Jain monks.

  5. Interior of the cells was stark and plain, but the outer facade and brackets sometimes had carved ornamentation.

  6. Two main types of caves are seen- with and without pillared verandahs.

  7. Some caves are two storied.

  8. Ranigumpha cave is the best preserved. It is two storied and consists of a larger rectangular courtyard with cells on three sides.

  9. They have arched and convex ceilings.

  10. None of the relief can be conclusively interpreted as depicting scenes from the lives of tirthankaras or from the Jaina mythology.

 Gandhara and Mathura school of Sculpture:


Gandhara School:


  • Most of the sculpture are made of stone.

  • In the beginning blue schist and green phyllite were the main material used by sculptors. Stucco began to be used later by 1st century CE and almost replaced the previous materials by 3rd century CE.

  • Themes were Indian but its style Greco-Roman. 

  • Images of Buddha and Bodhisattvas were main themes.

  • Greco-Roman influence is visible in the facial features, curly or wavy hair, muscular body and fine deeply delineated folds of the robes.

  • Standing Buddha is very common. Buddha stands barefoot, with one leg slightly bent. Heavy robes cover both shoulders. Left hand is by his side and seems to be holding his robe while the right one is bent and has the palm raised in the protection granting abhaya mudra. Curly hair is piled on top of his head in a knot (ushnisha). Elongated earlobes recall his life as a prince. Halo encircles his head.

  • Also seated Buddha are found. Mudras include dharmachakra mudra (teaching pose) and the dhyana mudra (meditative pose).

  • Some figure show Buddha with a moustache.

  • Bodhisattva Maitreya is depicted the most.

  • Bodhisattva are heavily ornamented, have elaborate hair does and/or turbans and wear sandals. Many have moustache.

  • They depict scenes from the life of Gautama Buddha.

Mathura School

  • Completely indigenous and shows no sign of foreign influence.

  • Themes varied from yakshas, yakshis, nagas, nagis, Buddha, Bodhisattvas, Jaina tirthankaras and Hindu deities.

  • Buddha usually sit cross legged on a throne with his right hand raised in the abhaya mudra. His head is shaved or has curly hairs and he has a coiled ushnisha ( a protuberance or a top knot of hair) which looks like a seashell. He wears a transparent dhoti, one end of which is draped across his chest and goes over his left shoulder. 

  • Head is surrounded by a halo with scalloped edges, above which is the carving of a pipal tree.

  • Buddha is flanked either by two Bodhisattvas or by Indra and Brahma.


Note: Earliest recording of land grant belongs to the Satvahanas.


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