• The Great Mauryan ruler Ashoka embraced Buddhism (as a part of shraman tradition) and the immense Buddhist missionary activities that followed during his rule paved the way for the development of Mauryan sculptural and architectural styles.
  • King Ashoka patronized the shraman tradition in the third century BCE.
    • The shraman tradition refers to several Indian religious movements parallel to but separate from the historical vedic religion.
    • It includes Jainism, Buddhism, and others such as Ajivikas, and Carvakas.


  • In 321 BC, Chandragupta Maurya, with the help of Chanakya (author of Arthashasthra) founded the Mauryan dynasty after overthrowing Nanda Dynasty.
  • The Mauryan Empire was the first most powerful Indian empire to bring the entire Indian subcontinent under a single rule.
    • The Mauryan empire under Chandragupta Maurya spread its boundaries into Central Asia and Persia.
  • Expansion of Mauryan Empire: Chandragupta Maurya was succeeded by his son Bindusara in 298 BC who expanded the kingdom over most of present-day India, except Kalinga.
  • Mauryan Dynasty under Ashoka: Bindusara’s kingdom was inherited by his son Ashoka the Great in 274 B.C.
  • Kalinga Invasion: During the invasion of Kalinga, Ashoka renounced bloodshed and adopted the policy of Ahimsa and adopted Buddhism.

Mauryan Art and Architecture

Mauryan architecture can be divided into Court Art and Popular Art.

Mauryan Court Art: Implies architectural works (in the form of pillars, stupas and palaces) commissioned by Mauryan rulers for political as well as religious reasons.

  • Palaces: Greek historian, Megasthenes, described the palaces of the Mauryan empire as one of the greatest creations of mankind and Chinese traveler Fa Hien called Mauryan palaces as god gifted monuments.
    • Persian Influence: The palace of Chandragupta Maurya was inspired by the Achaemenid palaces at Persepolis in Iran.
      • Material Used: Wood was the principal building material used during the Mauryan Empire.
      • Examples: The Mauryan capital at Pataliputra, Ashoka’s palace at Kumrahar, Chandragupta Maurya’s palace.
  • Pillars: Ashoka pillars, (usually made of chunar sandstone), as a symbol of the state, assumed a great significance in the entire Mauryan Empire.
    • Objective: The main objective was to disseminate the Buddhist ideology and court orders in the entire Mauryan empire.
    • Language: While most Ashoka pillar edicts were in Pali and Prakrit language, few were written in Greek or Aramaic language also.
    • Architecture: Mauryan pillars mainly comprise of four parts:
      • Shaft: A long shaft formed the base and was made up of a single piece of stone or monolith.
      • Capital: On top of shaft lay the capital, which was either lotus-shaped or bell-shaped.
      • Abacus: Above the capital, there was a circular or rectangular base known as the abacus.
      • Capital Figure: All the capital figures (usually animals like a bull, lion, elephant, etc) are vigorous and carved standing on a square or circular abacus.
    • Similarities with Persian (Achamenian) Pillars
      • Polished Stones and Motifs: Both Maurya and Achaemenian pillars, used polished stones and have certain common sculpture motifs such as the lotus.
      • Proclamations: Maurya’s idea of inscribing proclamations (related to Buddhist teachings and court orders) on pillars has its origin in Persian pillars.
      • Third Person: Inscriptions of both empires begin in the third person and then move to the first person.
    • Differences with Persian (Achamenian) Pillars
      • The Capital Figure: It was absent in Mauryan pillars of the Kumhrar hall whereas pillars at Persepolis have the elaborate capital figures.
      • The Shape and Ornamentation: The shape of Mauryan lotus is different from the Persian pillar.
      • Pillar Surface: Most of the Persian pillars have a fluted/ ridged surface while the Mauryan pillars have a smooth surface.
      • Architectural Scheme: The Achaemenid pillars were generally part of some larger architectural scheme, and bit complex and complicated, while the Ashokan pillars were simple and independent freestanding monuments.
      • Shaft: Unlike Mauryan shafts which are built of monolith (single piece of stone), Persian/Achaemenian shafts were built of separate segments of stones (aggregated one above the other).

Pillar Edicts and Inscriptions

  • Ashoka’s 7 pillar edicts: These were found at Topra (Delhi), Meerut, Kausambhi, Rampurva, Champaran, Mehrauli:
    • Pillar Edict I: Asoka’s principle of protection to people.
    • Pillar Edict II: Defines Dhamma as the minimum of sins, many virtues, compassion, liberality, truthfulness, and purity.
    • Pillar Edict III: Abolishes sins of harshness, cruelty, anger, pride, etc.
    • Pillar Edict IV: Deals with duties of Rajukas.
    • Pillar Edict V: List of animals and birds which should not be killed on some days and another list of animals which have not to be killed at all.
    • Pillar Edict VI: Dhamma policy
    • Pillar Edict VII: Works done by Asoka for Dhamma policy.
  • Minor Pillar Inscriptions
    • Rummindei Pillar Inscription: Asokha’s visit to Lumbini & exemption of Lumbini from tax.
    • Nigalisagar Pillar Inscription, Nepal: It mentions that Asoka increased the height of stupa of Buddha Konakamana to its double size.
  • Major Pillar Inscriptions
    • Sarnath Lion Capital: Near Varanasi was built by Ashoka in commemoration of Dhammachakrapravartana or the first sermon of Buddha.
    • Vaishali Pillar, Bihar, single lion, with no inscription.
    • Sankissa Pillar, Uttar Pradesh
    • Lauriya-Nandangarth, Champaran, Bihar.
    • Lauriya-Araraj, Champaran, Bihar
    • Allahabad pillar, Uttar Pradesh.
  • Stupa: Stupas were burial mounds prevalent in India from the vedic period.
    • Architecture: Stupas consist of a cylindrical drum with a circular anda and a harmika and a chhatra on the top.
      • Anda: Hemispherical mound symbolic of the mound of dirt used to cover Buddha’s remains (in many stupas actual relics were used).
      • Harmika: Square railing on top of the mound.
      • Chhatra: Central pillar supporting a triple umbrella form.
    • Material Used: The core of the stupa was made of unburnt brick while the outer surface was made by using burnt bricks, which were then covered with a thick layer of plaster and medhi and the toran were decorated with wooden sculptures.
    • Examples:
      • Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh is the most famous of the Ashokan stupas.
      • Piprahwa Stupa in Uttar Pradesh is the oldest one.
      • Stupas built after the death of Buddha: Rajagriha, Vaishali, Kapilavastu, Allakappa, Ramagrama, Vethapida, Pava, Kushinagar and Pippalivana.
      • Stupa at Bairat, Rajasthan: Grand stupa with a circular mound and a circumambulatory path.

Depiction of Buddha at Stupas

  • Symbols: In the early stages, Buddha was represented through symbols that represented the different events of Buddha’s life like footprints, lotus thrones, chakras, stupas, etc.
  • Jataka Stories: Later on, Jataka stories (stories associated with the previous birth of Buddha) were portrayed on the railings and torans of the stupas.
    • The Jataka stories that find frequent depiction are Chhadanta Jataka, Sibi Jataka, Ruru Jataka, Vessantara Jataka, Vidur Jataka and Shama Jataka.
  • The chief events from Buddha’s life which are narrated in the arts are birth, renunciation, enlightenment, the first sermon (dharmachakrapravartana) and mahaparinirvana (death).

Mauryan Popular Art

Apart from the court art or royal patronage, cave-architecture, sculpture, and pottery took the expressions of art by individual effort.

  • Cave Architecture: During the Mauryan period, caves were generally used as viharas, i.e. living quarters, by the Jain and Buddhist monks.
    • Key Features: The caves during the Mauryan period were marked by a highly polished finish of the interior walls and decorative gateways.

    • Example: The seven caves (Satgarva) in the Makhdumpur region of Jehanabad district, Bihar, were created by Mauryan emperor Ashoka for the Ajivika Sect:
      • Barabar Caves (4 caves): Karna Chaupar, Sudama Cave, Lamarshi (Lomas Rishi) Cave, Vishwamitra (Vishva Zopri) Cave
      • Nagaragunja Caves (3 caves): In Bihar were formed during the time of Dasharath, grandson of Ashoka , Gopi Cave, Bahayak Cave and Vedantika Cave.

Ajivika Sect

  • It was founded by Goshala Maskariputra (a friend of Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara of Jainism) and was contemporary of Jainism and Buddhism.
  • Ajivika sect is based on the philosophy that the affairs of the entire universe were ordered by a cosmic force called niyati (Sanskrit: “rule” or “destiny”) that determined all events, including an individual’s fate.
  • Sculptures
    • Two of the most famous sculptures of the Mauryan period are those of Yaksha and Yakshi.
      • They were objects of worship related to all three religions – Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
      • The earliest mention of yakshi can be found in Silappadikaram, a Tamil text.
    • The torso of the nude male figure found at Lohanipur at Patna.
    • Didargunj Yakshi was found at Didargunj village at Patna.

Pottery: Pottery of the Mauryan period is generally referred to as Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW).

  • Mauryan pottery was characterized by black paint and highly lustrous finish and was generally used as luxury items.
  • Kosambi and Patliputra were the centers of NBPW pottery.

Post Mauryan Art and Architecture

With the decline of the Mauryan empire several small dynasties rose to power. Among them, Shungas, Kanvas, Kushanas and Shakas in the north and Satvahanas, Ikshavakus, Abhiras, and Vakatakas in Southern and Western India gained prominence.

  • The architecture in the form of rock-cut caves and stupas continued, with each dynasty introducing some unique features of their own.
    • Similarly, different schools of sculpture emerged and the art of sculpture reached its climax in the post-Mauryan period.
  • Rock-cut Caves: The construction of rock caves continued as in the Mauryan period. However, this period saw the development of two types of rock caves – Chaitya and Viharas.
    • Chaitya was a rectangular prayer hall with a stupa placed in the center, for the purpose of prayer and Viharas were used as the residences of the monks.
    • Examples
      • Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha were patronized by the Kalinga king Kharavela and are also known for the Hathigumpha inscription (in Brahmi script).
      • Ranigumpha cave in Udayagiri is double-storied and has some beautiful sculptures.
  • Stupas: Post Mauryan period stupas became larger and more decorative and wood and brickwork were replaced by stone.
    • Torans: In the post-Mauryan period, the Shunga dynasty introduced the idea of torans (Torans reflect the Hellenisti influence) which were beautifully decorated gateways to the stupas.
    • Examples
      • Bharhut stupa in Madhya Pradesh.
  • Sculpture: Post Mauryan empire three prominent schools of the sculpture came into prominence in three different regions of India namely Gandhara, Mathura, and Amravati schools.

  • Gandhara: The Gandhara School of Art or Greco-Indian School of Art (First sculptural representation of Buddha in human form) has its origin in Greco tradition (Greek invaders brought with them the traditions of the Greek and Roman sculptors) which was further merged with the regional or local art of the time.
    • Initial Development: Gandhara school was developed in the western frontiers of Punjab.
    • Patronage: This school was patronized by both Shaka and Kushan rulers.
    • Major centers of Gandhara school of art were Jalalabad (Eastern Afghanistan), Hadda (ancient region of Gandhara),Begram (Parwan province of Afghanistan) & Taxila (Pakistan).
    • Key Features: Buddha was depicted in Gandhara Art, through four types of hand gestures called Mudras:
      • Abahayamudra: Indicates fearlessness
      • Dhyana mudra: Indicates meditative position
      • Dharmachakramudra: Means turning the wheel of law.
      • Bhumisparshamudra: Touching the earth with right hand and calling it to witness truth.

Mudras Related To Buddha of Gandhara School

  • Vitarka Mudra: It indicates teaching and discussion or intellectual debate.
    • The tips of the thumb and index finger touch each other, forming a circle.
  • Anjali Mudra: Indicates greetings, devotion, and adoration.
    • Both hands close to the chest, palms, and fingers joined against each other vertically (Namaste posture).
    • This is for Bodhisattvas (who aim and prepare to attain perfect knowledge).

  • Uttarabodhi Mudra: It means supreme enlightenment.
    • This Mudra is known for charging one with energy. It symbolises perfection.
  • Varada Mudra: It indicates charity, compassion or granting wishes.
    • Signifies five perfections: Generosity, morality, patience, effort and meditative concentration, through the five extended fingers.

  • Karana Mudra: It indicates warding off evil.
    • The energy created by this Mudra helps remove obstacles such as sickness or negative thoughts.

  • Vajra Mudra: It indicates knowledge.
    • This mudra signifies the importance of knowledge or supreme wisdom.

  • Mathura: The sculptures of the Mathura school were influenced by all the three religions Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism.
    • Initial Development: Developed in and around Mathura.
    • Patronage: This school was patronized by Kushan rulers.
    • Major Centres: Mathura, Sonkh and Kankalitila.
    • Key Feature: Symbolism in the images was one of the key features of the Mathura school of art like Shiva was represented using linga and mukhalinga, Halo around the head of Buddha was decorated geometrical patterns and Buddha is shown to be surrounded by two Bodhisattavas Padmapani (holding a lotus) and Vajrapani (holding a thunderbolt).
  • Amaravati: Unlike Gandhara and Mathura schools which focused on single images, Amaravati school laid more emphasis on the use of dynamic images or narrative art (like jataka tales).
    • Initial Development: Amaravati school was developed on the banks of the Krishna river.
    • Major Centres: Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda.
    • Patronage: This school was patronized by Satvahana rulers.
    • Key Feature: Tribhanga posture, i.e. the body with three bends was used excessively by Amaravati school in its sculptures.


  • Development of Art and Architecture: Mauryas made a remarkable contribution to art and architecture, and introduced stone masonry on a wide scale.
  • Polished Stone Pillar: High technical skill was achieved by Maurya artisans in polishing the stone pillars, which are as shining as the Northern Black Polished Ware.
    • The stone statue of Yakshini in the form of a beautiful woman found in Didarganj (Patna) is noted for its Maurya polish.
  • Pillars and Sculptor Development: Each pillar is made of a single piece of buff-colored sandstone. Only their capitals, which are beautiful pieces of sculpture in the form of lions or bulls, are joined to the pillars on the top.
    • The erection of the polished pillars throughout India shows the spread of the technical knowledge involved in the art of polishing them
  • Cave Architecture: The Maurya artisans also started the practice of carving out caves from rocks for monks to live in. Later, this form of cave architecture spread to western and southern India.
  • Development of Terracotta Art: In the central phase of the Northern Black Polished Ware around 300 BC, the central Gangetic plains became the center of terracotta art. In Maurya rimes, terracottas were produced on a large scale. They generally represented animals (elephants) and women (mother goddesses).