Monolithic pillars and capitols made during this period are prime example of Mauryan art.
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. the spotted red and white sandstone from the region of Mathura and 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. Bull capitol of Rampurva, Lion Capitol of Lauriya-Nandangarh, and Sarnath Capitol, found near Varanasi, are famous examples.
The best preserved of all Ashokan edicts stands at Lauriya Nandangarh (Bihar). This thirty-two feet tall column has an almost fifty ton seated lion capital placed on its top. Sarnath capitol, built in commemoration of the historical event of the first sermon or the Dhammachakrapravartana by the Buddha at Sarnath, is made from sandstone and has four lions, sitting on an abacus with four animals, inverted lotus as a base, a crowning wheel representing the Dhammachakrapravartana (which is now damaged) on a monolithic shaft. The four voluminous roaring lion figures firmly stand on a circular abacus which is carved with the figures of four animals proceeding clockwise around the drum, suggesting the movement of the wheel of dharma – 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. The capital without the crowning wheel and the lotus base has been adopted as the National Emblem of Independent India.
Mauryan Sculptural Art
In sculptures, one of the finest examples of popular Mauryan art is the Yakshi figure from Didarganj, Patna and Yaksha image from Parkam are examples of popular art (Yakshas and Yakshis were part of both pre-Buddha and post Buddha religions and tradition and they also made a place in Buddhism and Jainism). These monumental images are mostly in the standing position. One of the distinguishing elements in all these images is their highly polished surface. The depiction of faces is in full round with pronounced cheeks and physiognomic detail. It shows the popularity of Yaksha worship and how it became part of figure representation in Buddhist and Jaina religious monuments. A monumental rock-cut elephant at Dhauli in Orissa has also been found.
In architecture, influence of Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Yaksha worship and some sects like Ajivika can be seen. A rock cut cave – Lomus Rishi Cave carved at Barabar hills near Gaya in Bihar is another fine example of Mauryan art and architecture. 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. Due to the popularity of Buddhism and Jainism, stupas and viharas were constructed on a large scale. However, there are also examples of a few Brahmanical gods in the sculptural representations. Stupas were constructed over the relics of the Buddha at Rajagraha, Vaishali, Kapilavastu, Allakappa, Ramagrama, Vethadipa, Pava, Kushinagar and Pippalvina.
One of the best examples of the structure of a stupa in the third century BCE is at Bairat in Rajasthan.
It is a very grand stupa having a circular mound with a circumambulatory path. Another stupa was made at Sanchi which is made of bricks. As Buddha is depicted symbolically through footprints, stupas, lotus throne, chakra, etc only during early phase of Buddhism, it is shown through these symbols only in Mauryan architecture – for example Chakra in Ashokan pillars. It was only in later-Gupta period that narrative became a part of the Buddhist tradition. Thus events from the life of the Buddha, the Jataka stories, were depicted on the railings and torans of the stupas. The main events associated with the Buddha’s life which were frequently depicted were events related to the birth (lotus and bull), renunciation (horse), enlightenment (bodhi tree), dhammachakrapravartana (chakra), and mahaparinibbana or death (empty chair). Among the Jataka stories that are frequently depicted are Chhadanta Jataka, Vidurpundita Jataka, Ruru Jataka, Sibi Jataka, Vessantara Jataka and Shama Jataka. In Eastern India, burnt bricks were used for the first time during Mauryan period. Prohibition on rituals, sacrifices and absence of gifts made Brahmins averse to Dhamma of Ashoka. Ashokan Empire declined due to huge expenses on military, large gifts to Buddhists, heavy expenditure on building of Stupa, oppressive rule in provinces etc. Last Mauryan ruler Brihadratha was killed in public by his Brahmin general Pushyamitra Sunga. Sungas tried to revive Brahminic order and even persecuted the Buddhists.
From the second century BCE onwards, various rulers established their control over the vast Mauryan Empire – the Shungas, Kanvas, Kushanas and Guptas in the north and parts of central India; the Satvahanas, Ikshavakus, Abhiras, Vakataks in southern and western India. Shakas, Kushans and Pratihars (were collectively called Yavanas) were foreigners, but later assimilated themselves into the Indian caste system as Kshatriyas as they were from warrior creeds. Such instances of mass level social mobility in caste system happened only during post-Mauryan period. The period of the second century BCE also marked the rise of the main Brahmanical sects such as the Vaishnavas and the Shaivas which also led to building of Hindu temples and sculptures as well apart from Buddhist art.
Post Mauryan period is dominated by the rock-cut architecture. This period also witnessed painting forms which still survive. In early periods, Sunga in North and Satvahana in south contributed to post-Mauryan art. They embellished the stupas with features like stone railings. Some of the prominent examples of the finest sculpture of Post-Mauryan period are found at Vidisha, Bharhut and Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh), Bodhgaya (Bihar), Jaggayyapeta (Andhra Pradesh), Mathura (UttarPradesh), Khandagiri-Udaigiri (Odisha), Bhaja near Pune and Pavani near Nagpur (Maharashtra).It’s worth note that till the development of the Gandhara and Mathura art school, Buddha was depicted mainly as symbols. Year of Kanishka’s accession i.e. 78 CE also marks the beginning of the Saka era and Kushana art overshadowed Sunga art.
In south India, Satvahanas emerged as strongest power in post-Mauryan period. After Satvahanas declined, many small kingdoms emerged in South and the first among them was that of the Vakatakas. Kalinga (present Odisha) also emerged important cultural place under king Kharvela. After the Vakatakas came the Chalukyas of Vatapi and Kalyani. The Chalukyas kept fighting with the Rashtrakutas (towards the north) and the Pallavas (towards the south). The Chalukya rule came to an end in 753 CE when the Rashtrakutas defeated them. Further down south, Cholas, Cheras and the Pandyas were always at war with each other.