Sculpture Traditions in Mauryan Phase

  • The earliest historical sculpture in India is of the Mauryan age in the 4th-3rd centuries B.C.
  • It is a bold and massive style marked by an absolute realism freely employing foreign elements from Achaemenid Persia. 
  • The Mauryan sculptures can be differentiated into Court art and Popular Art.
  • The Court art includes the pillars and their capitals, while popular art consists of the works of sculptors such as the Yakshas and Yakshinis.
    • Maurya Court Art includes the Ashokan Palace at Kumrahar, whose walls are decorated with carvings and sculptures.

Pillars During Ashokan Times

  • During Ashokan times, the pillars were built or inscribed as the symbol of the state or to commemorate battle victories or to spread sermons.
  • The most important function of the Mauryan pillars was to impress and over-awe the populace with the power and majesty of its rulers. This is evident from the compactness of the solid animal figures, their exaggerated forms, and their conventional appearances, also the most imposing stateliness of the columns.
  • Lion Capital at Sarnath, Pillar at Vaishali, Asoka Pillar at Allahabad, and Pillars at Lauriya-Areraj and Lauriya-Nandangar are some of the important pillars.

Lion Capital at Sarnath

  • The Lion Capital discovered more at Sarnath, near Varanasi, is generally referred to as Sarnath Lion Capital. It was Built-in 250 BCE and is made of polished sandstone.
  • It is now our national symbol, is the finest example of Mauryan sculptural tradition.
  • It is one of the finest examples of sculpture from Mauryan period and was builtby Ashoka in commemoration of ‘Dhammachakrapravartana’ or the first sermon of Buddha.
  • Originally it consists of five components:
    • The pillar shaft.
    • The lotus bell or base.
    • A drum on the bell base with four animals proceeding clockwise (abacus). The abacus has four wheels (chakra) with 24 spokes in all four directions. The wheel represents Dharmachakra in Buddhism (the wheel of dhamma/dharma). Between every wheel, there are animals carved. They are a bull, a horse, an elephant, and a lion. The animals appear as if they are in motion. The abacus is supported by the inverted lotus capital.
    • A figure of four majestic addorsed (back-to-back) lions on a circular abacus. The figures of the lions are grand and evoke magnificence.
    • The crowning element, Dharamchakra.
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Fig: Lion Capital of Sarnath

Pillar at Vaishali

  • Ashokan pillar at Vaishali is different from the earlier Ashokan pillars because it has only one lion capital.  The location of this pillar is contiguous to the site where a Buddhist monastery and a sacred coronation tank stood.
  • The lion faces north; the direction Buddha took on his last voyage. There is also a small tank here known as Ramkund.
  • Ashoka became a great follower of Buddhism after the massacre of Kalinga and erected his famous Ashokan pillar in Vaishali, which was to memorialize the last sermon of Lord Buddha that took place here.
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Fig: Ashokan Pillar, Kolhua Vaishali

Ashokan Pillar at Allahabad

  • The Allahabad pillar is also called Ashoka Stambha. There are three sets of inscriptions on the column from the three emperors, Ashoka Maurya, Samudragupta, and Jahangir
  • The Ashokan edicts are as follows: The pillar edicts include:
    • Major Pillar Edict I: Asoka’s principle of protection of the people
    • Major Pillar Edict II: Defines dhamma as a minimum of sins, many virtues, compassion, liberality, truthfulness, and purity
    • Major Pillar Edict III: Abolishes sins of harshness, cruelty, anger, pride etc.
    • Major Pillar Edict IV: Deals with duties of Rajukas.
    • Major Pillar Edict V: A 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. Describes the release of 25 prisoners by Asoka.
    • Major Pillar Edict VI: Dhamma Policy
    • Major Pillar Edict VII: Works done by Asoka for Dhamma Policy. He says that all sects desire both self-control and purity of mind.

Inscriptions on the Allahabad Pillar

  • Ashokan inscriptions on the Allahabad Pillar was pivotal to the decipherment of the Brahmi script by The Asiatic Society’s James Prinsep. It led to the rediscovery of the Mauryan emperor and the unearthing of the full extent of his empire.
    • The same six edicts that can be seen on the other pillars. the Allahabad pillar also includes what is known as the Schism edict (orders to the maha mantras or officials) and the Queen’s edict (refers to the charitable deeds of Ashoka’s queen, Karuvaki)
  • Samudragupta inscriptions on the Allahabad Pillar: A later inscription by Samudragupta is considered “the most important historical document of the classical Gupta age.” It is in excellent Sanskrit by his court poet, Harishena who mentions Samudragupta’s military and political conquests and his invasion of South India.
  • Jahangir inscriptions on the Allahabad Pillar: It was carved by his favourite calligrapher, Mir Abdullah Mushkin Qalam, and is in Persian. The Jahangir inscription overwrites the much older Ashoka inscription.
  • Pillars at Lauriya-Areraj and Lauriya-Nandangarh also contain the Ashokan edicts.

Sculpture During Mauryan Times

Yakshas & Yakshinis

  • The popular art in Maurya period is represented by images of Yakshas and Yakshinis. They have many different depictions:
    • Yaksha refers to the nature-spirits, usually benevolent, also known fertility spirits. A yakshini is the female counterpart of the male Yaksha.
    • Both Yaksha and Yakshini are said to attend to Kubera, the Hindu god of wealth who rules in the mythical Himalayan kingdom of Alaka.
    • Yaksha also refers to one of the Exotic Tribes of Ancient India.
    • Yakshas and Yakshinis are also said to be the caretakers of the natural treasures. They have a prominent place in the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist literature.
    • Large statues of Yakshas and Yakhinis are found at many places like Patna, Vidisha and Mathura. These monumental images are mostly in the standing position.
    • One of the distinguishing elements in all these images is their polished surface. The depiction of faces is in full round with pronounced cheeks and physiognomic detail.
    • One of the finest examples is a Yakshi figure from Didarganj, Patna, which is tall and well-built. It shows sensitivity towards depicting the human physique. The image has a polished surface.
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Fig: Yaksha, Parkham

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Fig: Yakshi figure from Didarganj, Patna,

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