Bharhut is one of the prominent places of early Buddhist art. Bharhut sculptures are tall like the images of Yaksha and Yakhshini in the Mauryan period. Here, sculptures are carved out with features like – low relief, densely packed with objects, persons with folded hands as there was no scope of projections due to low relief etc.
Figures of yaksha-yakshinis along with natural settings were common themes apart from scenes from Jatak tales. Stories are depicted in terms of a narrative in form of multiple panels of sculpture. As relief was low, it was less refined style. ‘Queen Mahamaya’s dream’ is one of the most famous sculptures apart from scenes from Jatakas.
The sculptural at Sanchi Stupa (and also at Mathura, in UP and Vengi in Andhra Pradesh) shows stylistic progression from Bahruta. The stupa 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. Upper Pradakshina path is something which is unique to this stupa. Originally, the stupa was a small brick structure which expanded over a period and was covered with stone, vedika and the torana (gateways) which are profusely decorated. The Ashokan lion capital pillar with an inscription is found on the southern side of the stupa, indicating how Sanchi became a centre of monastic and artistic activities. In comparison to Barhut, the relief of figures is high and they fill up in the entire space. Buddhas continues to be prominently depicted as symbols rather than in form of human figures. The narratives get more elaborated; however, the depiction of the Mahamaya dream episode remains very simple showing the reclining image of the queen and the elephant at the top. There are also guardian images on pillars and the Shalbhanjika (lady holding tree branch).
Sunga Art was followed by Kushan Art. During Kushan period, first gold coins were also introduced, art of which was borrowed from Greek. Gandhara art of Kushans has more foreign influence as compared to Mathura art. Kushana art distinctively showed emperor in divine form.
The sculptural tradition in Gandhara had the confluence of Bactria, Parthia and the local Gandhara tradition. The local sculptural tradition at Mathura became so strong that the tradition spread to other parts of northern India. The best example in this regard is the stupa sculptures found at Sanghol in the Punjab.
Apart from Mathura, a school also developed at Sarnath and Kosambi. This image of the Buddha from Sarnath belonging to the late 5th century CE i.e. from Gupta period. It has been made in Chunar sandstone. The Buddha is shown seated on a throne in the padmasana. It represents dhammachackrapravartana as can be seen from the figures on the throne. Many Buddha images in Sarnath have plain transparent cloth covering both shoulders (while in Mathura only left shoulder is covered), whereas the Mathura Buddha images continue to depict folds of the drapery in the Buddha images and the halo around the head is profusely decorated. The hands are shown in dhammachakrapravartana mudra placed just below the chest. At Sarnath, there are also standing images of Buddha, but at Mathura and Gandhara predominantly only sitting Buddha is shown.
In south, Vengi was important Buddhist center of sculpture and architecture under Satvahana rulers in 200 BCE. Vengi in Andhra Pradesh has many stupa sites like Jagayyapetta, Amaravati, Bhattiprolu, Nagarjunkonda, Goli, etc. Amaravati was third important center of Buddhist art apart from Gandhara and Mathura during Kushan period. It had a mahachaitya and had many sculptures, out of which Amravati is one of the most important sites. Amravati stupa was started around 1st century BCE, but was finally completed in 1st century CE. Like the Sanchi Stupa, the Amaravati Stupa also has pradakshinapatha enclosed within a vedika on which many narrative sculptures are depicted. The domical stupa structure is covered with relief stupa sculptural slabs which is a unique feature. There were toranas also built on the stupa, but they disintegrated with time. In this stupa also events from the life of the Buddha and the
Jataka stories are depicted like Sanchi stupa. Like Sanchi, images of Buddha were also added in 3rd century CE. However, sculptures at Amravati are more complex and full of emotions unlike Sanchi which are simpler. Figures are slender, have a lot of movements, bodies are shown with three bents (i.e. in tribhanga posture). However, with the rise of Vajrayana Buddhism many Boddhisattva images like those of Avalokiteshvara, Padmapani, Vajrapani, Amitabha, and Maitreya etc were added as a part of the personified representations of certain virtues or qualities as propagated by the Buddhist religious principles for the welfare of the masses. Apart from stupas, Chaityas and Viharas were also made, but they didn’t survive over time.