The origins of monumental stone sculpture and architecture in the Indian subcontinent go back to the Harappan civilisation. However, after decline of that civilisation, there is a long gap and it is only in the Maurya period that monumental stone sculpture and architecture appeared on the scene again.

Many of the surviving remains of art and architecture were the direct result of the patronage of Maurya kings specially Ashoka and fall within the category of court art. However, there are also stone sculptures and terracotta figurines, ring stones and disc stones which represent popular art i.e. the art connected to to the lives, activities and patronage of ordinary people.


1. Royal Buildings

the royal assembly building, situated in Kumhrar, was a hall with numerous pillars in which 84 lithic pillars were discovered. Its roof and floor were made of woods and its size was 140 feel long and 120 feet wide. A Chinese traveler Fa Hien visited the place after 600 years and was so much impressed with its grandeur and called it as God gifted. Even the Greek Ambassador Megansthenes mentions that town was surrounded by wooden wall where a number of holes were created to let the arrow passby. A ditch was dug with the size of 60 feet deep and 600 feet wide along with the wall. The town had 64 entrances and 570 towers.

2. Pillars

The majestic free standing Ashokan pillars symbolise the axis of the world (Axis mundi) that separated heaven and earth. Some of the pillars have a set of six edicts while a few are inscribed with other types of inscriptions e.g. the commemorative inscriptions at Rummindei and Nigalai Sagar and the schism edict at Sanchi. There are also pillars without inscription- the one with a bull capital at Rampurva, the pillar with line capital at Vaishali and the Kosam pillar without a capital.

Ashokan pillars are quite similar to each other in form and dimension. They are made of sand stone quarries at Chunar. They are considered to be monoliths. The pillars have a luxurious polished surface. They do no have a base and the plain smooth circular shaft tappers slightly to upwards to a height of 12 to 14 meters.

A cylindrical bolt joins the top of the shaft to the capital- a stone carved in the shape of an inverted lotus (bell capital). On top of this is the 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. All part of the pillars are carved in the round i.e. on all sides and where clearly meant to be viewed from the all around.

The motifs associated with the Ashokan pillars have a rich and varied symbolism which resonances in many different Indian traditions. Apart from floral designs such as the lotus and honeysuckle, the capilals have other, mostly animal motifs.

Motifs associated with pillars

(a) Lion:

It appears on the capitals of Vaishali, Lauriya Nandangarh and one of the Rampurva pillars, quadruple line on the Sanchi and Sarnath capitals and a bull on one of the Rampurva pillars.

The lion is a solar symbol in many ancient traditions but in Buddhist tradition, the Buddha is referred to as Sakya Simha (lion among the sakyas).

(b) Elephant:

An elephant capital was found at Sankissa. It symbolises the birth of Buddha.

(c) Bull:

A bull on one of the Rampurva pillars has been found. The bull is a fertility symbol in many ancient cultures and can also be taken to represent the asterism of Rishabha under which the Buddha was born.

(d) Spoked wheel:

Th Sanchi and Sarnath capital are surmounted by a spoked wheel. Wheels on the capitals are interpreted as the dharmachakra- the wheel of Dharma, representing the Buddha’s first sermon.

Taken together, all the symbols associated with the Ashokan pillars had a special Buddhist significance but they also blended into a wider fabric of cultural meaning.

3. Sculptures

  1. A polished fragment of a monolithic railing at Sarnath is usually assigned to the Maurya period.
  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 design and geese.
  3. At Dhauli, there is a rock sculpture of the front part of an elephant. It is very naturalistic powerful portrayal of the animal and whole effect is such that it looks as if elephant is walking out of the rock.

4. Rock cut architecture

The Maurya period saw the beginning of rock cut architecture. The Barabar and Nagarjuni hills contain several caves that were inhabited by ascetics in ancient times.

Three caves in Barabar hills have dedicative inscriptions of Ashoka and three in Nagarjuni hills have inscriptions of a son Dasharatha.

The caves are simple in plan with plain but highly polished interiors. The only sculpture ornamentation is a relief carving on the doorway of a cave known as Lomas Rishi cave. The doorway is modeled after the wooden ones. Over the entrance are two bands of relief carving. The upper one has a lattice work 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). These caves were dedicated by Ashoka and Dasaratha to the Ajivikas. 

5. Stupas

The tradition of making stupas- originally funerary mounds is pre-Buddhist. But with the passage of time the stupa became an object of veneration and worship. The stupa swiftly became an emblem of Buddha’s Dharma and an important part of Buddhist monasteries.

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

The Dharmarjika and Dhamekh stupas at Sarnath and the Dharmarajika stupa at Taxila belong to this period and an important stupa is located in Sanchi. The brick core of the  great stupa of Sanchi was built in Ashoka’s time. The stupa was about 60 feet in diameter at the base and was a low dome mounted on a low cylindrical drum. It was surrounded by wooden fence and had entrances at the four cardinal points. In the second century B.C this stupa was encased in stone and other additions were made over the next few centuries.

Foreign influence on Mauryan Art

Some art historians have emphasised foreign influence specially Persian (Achaemenian) influence on the court art of the Maurya Empire:

  1. It has been suggested that Ashoka got the idea of inscribing proclamations on pillars from the achaemenids.
  2. It has been pointed out that the words dipi and lipi occur in the inscriptions of Darius as well as Ashoka. 
  3. Inscriptions of both kings begin in the third person and then move to the first person.
  4. The foreign influence has been identified in the polished surface of the Ashokan pillars and the animal motifs. The stiff heraldic pose of the lions is seen as further evidence of western influence.
  5. Maurya columns and Achaemenian pillars, both used polished stones. Both have certain common sculpture motifs such as the lotus.

However, historians have also drawn attention to the many differences between the Mauryan and the Persian  arts:

  1. The pillars of the Kumhrar hall do not have capitals whereas those at Persepolis have elaborate ones.
  2. The Persian pillars stand on bases either shaped like a bell or a plain rectangular or circular block. On the other hand, in the Mauryan pillars, the inverted lotus appears at the top of the shaft.
  3. The shape and ornamentation of the Maurya lotus is different from the Persian ones, the bulge typical of the former being absent in the later.
  4. Most of the Persian pillars have a fluted surface while the Mauryan pillars are smooth.
  5. The Maurya type abacus and independent animals carved in the round crowing the pillars are absent in the Persian context.
  6. The Achaemenian shaft are built of separate segments of stone aggregated one above the other which is the work of mason. The shaft of the Mauryan pillar is monolithic which pertains to the character of the work of a skilled wood-carver or carpenter.
  7. The Achaemenid pillars were generally part of some larger architectural scheme, composed of much too many component parts looking complex and complicated. While the Ashokan columns were intended to produce the effect of an independent freestanding monument with simpler specimen, more harmonious in conception and execution and gives the feeling of greater stability, dignity and strength.

While there may be some similarities in specific features, the effect of the whole is completely different. Moreover while having pillars inscribed with his messages on Dhamma, Ashoka transformed them into epigraphic monument of unique cultural meaning.


1. Stone Sculptures

Several large stone sculptures have been found at various sites in and around Patna, Mathura and other places. Many of them represent Yaksha and Yakshis, deities whose worship was part of popular region in many parts of the subcontinent.

Other important examples of stone sculptures include the torso of the nude male figure found at Lohanipur at Patna. It is carved out of Chunar sandstone and have a polished surface. Didargunj Yakshi was found at Didargunj village at Patna. The figure actually seems to be attendent and not a yakshi. These sculptures suggest the existence of several centres of stone carving, serving royal and perhaps other patrons also.

2. Ring stones and disc stones

A large number of carved ring stones and disc stones have been found at various sites in North India. They occur at sites such as Patna, Taxila, Mathura, Kaushambi, Rajghat and Vaishali. They generally have a diameter of 5 to 6 cm with different sorts of carvings arranged within two or more concentric circles- animals such as lion, horse, dear, birds and crocodiles, female figures that may represent goddesses. trees and floral designs and geometric patterns.

3. Terracotta Arts

They flourished with the expansion of the urban centres. Terracotta of this period vary a great deal in terms of theme, style and possible significance but they do give an important insight into popular practices, beliefs and aesthetics. They include male and female figurines, animals and carts. Some of them may have been toys but others specially certain female figurines may represent religious icons.

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