Ancient History Notes for UPSC [Part 14] Art & Architecture

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Art and Architecture


Stupas design upsc
  • The period 200BCE-300CE saw the growth of Buddhist places of worship namely the Stupas, Chaityas and resting places called Viharas.
  • A Stupa represented many things in Buddhist tradition. It stood for the center of universe, Buddha’s Parinibbana, a repository of his relics and other monks, a place for veneration, worship and pilgrimage.
  • The Mahaparinibbana Sutta suggests the tradition of erecting funerary mounds was a pre-Buddhist tradition which was adopted by Buddhism.

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  • The Stupa architecture was popularised by Ashoka in 3rd century BCE. Earlier, symbols of Buddha like wheel, lotus, elephant, etc were used that got replaced by proper idols.
  • Stupas began to flourish under the shadow of royal patronage as seen from the fact that many stupas are located just in outskirts of big cities. Eg- Sanchi outside Vidisha, Mrigadeva outside Kashi, Amravati outside Dharanikota, etc. Stupas were also found on important trade routes.
  • Many Stupas were also rebuilt and expanded multiple times. This shows gradual transformation and development of religion. Eg- Sanchi

Stupas have been found in multiple regions, albeit with variations with local traditions. Bodhisattvas found in Sirkap Stupa near Taxila have Greek features. Stupas at Takht-i-Bahi vary from those found in Sanchi or Nagarjunakonda.

  • Main locations of Stupas- Bharhut, Sangol (Punjab), Amravathi, Hadda, Bamiyan, Nashik, Junnar, Kanheri, Nagarjunakonda, Ghantashala
  • Assimilating local traditions- Yaksha Yakshis, Heracles with folded hands behind Buddha in Gandhara 2nd century BCE, Dashsratha Jataka at Nagarjunakonda.

Sanchi Stupa

sanchi stupa upsc
  • Located in the Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh, the Stupa at Sanchi along with Bharhut stupa are one of the oldest Stupas dating to 3rd century BCE.
  • The site was known as Kakanava from the Brahmi inscriptions found at the site.
  • The Stupa records architecture right from 3rd century BCE to 12th century CE with the original brick structure built by Ashoka, railings by Shungas and Toranas by Satavahanas.
  • The Stupas, shrines and monasteries are many. Stupa 1 represents the oldest structure. Stupa 2 has relic box of bone fragmemts of 10 Buddhist monks while Stupa 3 has relics of famous monks like Mahamogalana.
  • Architecture- The Stupa is constructed on a platform called Medhi. It has staircases or Sopana leading to it. The main structure is an inverted hemispherical bowl called Anda. On the top, it has a quadrangular Harmika on which is the Chhatra or crown of the Stupa. Surrounding the Stupa is a railing called Vedikas and 4 entrances decorated with Toranas. There is a circumambulatory path called Pradakshina-Patha
  • Art- The sculptures and panels are found on the railing and Toranas. The sculptures look natural with no stiffness. The relief of the sculptures depicts confidence in stone art. The main themes of depiction are stories from Jatakas like the white elephant story and the birth of Buddha, seige of Kushinara, Buddha’s visit to Kapilvastu, etc. Even past Buddhas like Dipankar are depicted.
  • The stone construction is mainly in purple-grey sandstone that is available locally
  • There are traces of plaster and red paint found in stupa 1 that suggest their usage.

Stupas in Andhra Pradesh

  • Multiple Stupas, Viharas and Chaityas have been found in Andhra in places like Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda, Bavikonda, Sankaram, etc. with the oldest in Amaravati dating to Mauryan times as seen from the inscription.
  • The stupa at Amaravati was termed as Mahachaitya and was located near the Satavahana capital of Dharanikota near Krishna river. Hence, there is a possibility of royal patronage.
  • Stupa at Nagarjunakonda has over 30 monasteries dating to 3-4th centuries CE. The site has multiple stupas, chaityas, small votive stupas, etc.
  • H Sarkar has estimated that looking at the number of establishments, the monks who lived here could number to 450.
  • Rock cut cave with circular Chaityas and small Apsidals at Guntapalle. It belongs to 2nd century BCE.
  • Most of the Stupas in Andhra region are made up of solid brick or stone construction.
  • The plan of the Stupas i.e when viewed from top, looks like a spoked wheel which is an important symbol in Buddhism representing first sermon of Buddha. Such a style is also seen in Taxila, Shah-ji-ki Dheri and Mathura.
  • The base of the Stupa is also in shape of a wheel. Larger the Stupa, more spokes for the wheel. Some Stupas even have Swastikas as base.
  • A special feature of Andhra Stupas 5 free standing pillars on a raised platform called Ayakas. They depict 5 events of Buddha’s life- birth, renunciation, enlightenment, first sermon and death.
  • The panel carvings are also multiple and show skill. Dasharatha Jataka on Nagarjunakonda. Continuous and mono-scenic.

In other parts of south India, Sannati is where a Stupa has been found in Karnataka which is special for having a stone figure of Ashoka carved into it with a Brahmi inscription Ranyo Ashoka carved into it.

Relief on Stupas

  • Niharranjan Ray has pointed out to a sharp contrast between Mauryan and Poat Mauryan art saying the Mauryan art was more aristocratic in nature while post-Mauryan art reflected popular tastes and themes.
  • Thus, Buddhist art from 200BCE onwards became more of a reflection of local cultures and assimilation.
  • Different local Indian gods like Yakshas, Yakshis, Nagas and Nagis began to be depicted. In the Gandhara region, the Greek gods began to be depicted like Heracles. Pipal tree appears very commonly. In Sanchi stupa, birth of Buddha is shown in the form of Maya sitting on lotus. AK Coomaraswamy thought it was Gaja-Lakshmi. The possibility of adopting the theme in Buddhism is large.
  • The relief that was produced was intricate and elaborate. The shallowness of the relief indicates that the relief was a translation of woodcarver’s art into stone.
  • The stone relief in Amaravati shows maturity than any other region. The figures are more natural and graceful with lofty sizes.
  • The reliefs depict two kind of narrations- mono-scenic and continuous stories. The mono-scenic ones are single scene themes looking at which the entire episode is reminded. Continuous scenes were depicted one after the other in sequence without breaks.
  • The stories depicted are mainly from Jatakas. The 5 stages of Buddhas life are depicted. Sometimes, symbols are used for Buddha like Bodhi tree for enlightenment, wheel for first sermon, etc.
  • Different animals like lions, horses, elephants, etc are depicted. Even mixed animals like winged lion, elephant headed stag are depicted.
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Cave tradition in western India

  • Rock cut caves were dug in western India from 100BCE to 200CE. They show development in architecture over time
  • Vidya Dehejia has classified them in 2 time zones- 100BCE-20BCE where early caves like Pitalkhora, Kondivte, Bhaja, Nashik, Bedse were dug. The second phase was 20BCE till 200CE where additions made to Nashik, new caves at Karle, Kanheri, Mahad, etc.
  • The caves are mainly of 3 varieties- apsidal vault-roof type (Ajanta, Pitalkhora), apsidal vault-roof pillarless hall (Thana-Nadsur) and fall roof quadrangular hall (Kondivte)
  • First stage- The first stage is of simple rectangular hall in Kondivte leading to a round stupa chamber with a narrow circumabulatory path. The Chaitya was excavated perpendicular to the entrance due to which light would illuminate entire Chaitya. Further development was seen in caves like Bhaja and Pitalkhora where rows of pillars were added creating an aisle that acted as a circumabulatory path.
  • Second stage- There was elaborate construction, pillars had elaborate capitals, multiple idols like mithuna couples, of Buddha himself, Ganesh in Junnar, Indra, Shiva were added. This stage also marks donations by kings.

Eg- Chaitya of Karle has an inscription of donation by Nahapana Kshatrapa, Nashik cave of Gautamiputra Satkarni, etc. It also marks beginning of Murals in caves in case of Ajanta. Paintings included stories from Chhadanta, Shyama Jataka.

  • Viharas- The Chaityas caves inherently were followed by Viharas. Viharas are found at Bedse, Nashik, Ajanta, etc. They are simple cells with rock-cut beds and in cases, even rock cut pillows. Niches in walls were for lamps. Some Viharas also had reliefs carved like Ganeshleni in Junnar. New Viharas have been recently found at Kanheri with water cisterns and rainwater harvesting techniques.
  • Overall, the caves of western India show elaborate use of geography of hard rocky mountains for construction of Stupas, Chaityas and Viharas.

Ajanta Caves

  • These are 29 caves, some Chaityas, some Viharas dating from 2nd century BCE to 5th century CE showing a continuous tradition from Satavahana to Vakataka times.
  • There are evidences of royal patronage. Eg- Cave 16 patron was Varahadeva, minister of Vakataka king Harisena. This shows a presence of a booming monastic community under royal patronage.
  • Chaityas- Mainly are of apsidal-vault roof type. Cave 19 has a long rectangular hall with an apse in the end. A stupa with a high dome shaped roof with a standing Buddha sculpture exists. Similarly, cave 26 has a huge Stupa with a seated Buddha. Both of them are carved in high relief with Buddha figures, attendents, etc. Many Buddha images are in Mahaparinibbana story. Cave 26 also consists of a magnificent sculpture depicting Mara Vijaya of Buddha who is seated in his Bhumisparsha Mudra.
  • Viharas- They consist of pillared verandahs, a pillared hall and cells around the central hall. Their pillars are either plain or richly decorated with sculptures.
  • Murals- Cave excavation and paintings was a simultaneous process. At first, all caves were painted but murals in only few caves survived. Multiple colours were used derived from various sources. Blue from lapis lazuli, black from soot, white from lime, etc. The paintings are naturalistic with no over-stylization. Body colour merges with outer lines creating an effect of volume. Kramrisch believes that the paintings are not conceived in terms of depth but they project towards the viewer.
  • Themes- Various Avadana, Jataka stories are depicted like Chhadanta, Simhala, Mahajanaka Jataka. Various Bodhisattvas like Vajra, Padmapani, Chhadanta are depicted. Besides, many village scenes are also depicted.
  • Overall, Ajanta caves are excellent sites for viewing the continuous development in cave architecture, sculpture and mural traditions.

Eastern India caves- Udaygiri and Khandagiri

  • These caves are located near Bhubaneshwar, not far from the excavation site of Shishupalgarh. These caves are carved out on the sandstone hills where ever the rock permitted.
  • The caves were inhabited by Jaina ascetic which also throws light on spread of Jainism in Kalinga region.
  • Out of the multiple caves, crucial ones are Cave 1 or Ranigumpha and Cave 10 Hathigumpha.
  • Hathigumpha- It has an inscription on an overhanging rock ascribed to king Kharvela of Mahameghavahana dynasty. Details. Cave 9 has 2 such kings as donours- Vaduka, Kudapesiri
  • Ranigumpha is by far the best preserved cave. It has an ornamented facade and walls. It has a large courtyard with cells on three sides.
  • Description of cells- The cells were excavated where the rock permitted and not according to a plan. The cells are small with low roof. The passages within them are narrow. Rock cut steps lead to some cells. Rudimentary shelves are cut in the walls. Sloping floor might be acting as a pillow.
  • There are pillared Verandahs for some caves like no. 10. Some caves like Ranigumpha are two storied.
  • Traces of lime plaster can be seen on some walls. Rock cut reservoirs can be seen for rainwater harvesting.
  • Art- Symbols like Nandipada, Swastika and Srivatsa can be seen. Themes having trees, lotuses, animals like horse, lion, elephant are abound. In Ranigumpha, there is a scene od victorious march of a king, may be Kharvela. However, nothing much exists from Jaina perspective.
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Gandhara School of Art

  • Gandhara art flourished from 1st to 5th century CE starting from the Bactrian ages. The Kushanas were the major patrons of this art. Since they were Buddhists, most sculptures and panels are related to Buddhism
  • Most of the Gandhara sculptures are of stone mainly blue and green schist, stucco(earthen plasters), etc.
  • This art was possible due to the intermixing of the Indian, Graeco-Roman, Parthian and Bactrian styles of sculpting. Such an active intermixing happened during the times of Kushanas whose capital was Peshawar located in Gandhara. Thus, Gandhara was center of activity
  • The spread of this art is from Kashmir to Afghanistan. Art pieces have been excavated at Hastanagar, Begram, Shahji ki Dheri, Jalalabad, Swat valley, Taxila, Charsadda, etc.
  • The earliest influences have been that of Bactrians and later that of Parthians. A seated Buddha found at Swat Valley dating to 1st century CE has Parthian features like deeply incised lines, cgaracteristic facial features, etc.
  • The Graeco-Roman influences are seen like moustaches, halos, muscular bodies, clear folds of clothes and curly hair. The Buddha’s found are either standing or seated with various Mudras like Abhaya mudra, Dhammachakra mudra, etc.
  • Even the Bodhisattvas shown like Vajrapani, Padmapani, Maitraya are shown alongside Buddha with moustaches and Greek features. At a stone sculpture found in Gandhara, Buddha is also flanked by Greek god Heracles.
  • Indian influences- Ancient Kapisha region or Begram has yield a a standing Buddha flanked by Indra and Brahma. A metal box found at Shah-ji-ki Dheri, Brahma and Indra are shown alongside Buddha. Also, Yakshas, Yakshis and Apsaras are shown. Eg- Yaksha Panchika and Yakshi Hariti are frequently shown alongside Buddha.

Mathura School of Art

  • It is a completely indigenous art with no foreign influence and can be seen as a culmination of the artistic development seen at Besnagar, Sanchi and Bharhut. The art depicts Yakshas, Yakshis, Nagas, Nagis, Apsaras, Boshisattvas, etc.
  • It mainly uses red sandstone that is mined in nearby Sikri.

The popularity and spread of sculptures found at Kaushambi, Ahichhatra, Sarnath, Mahasthangarh, etc.

  • Mathura became a center of art due to it being the second capital of Kushanas.
  • The development of Mathura art coincides with growth of Mahayana Buddhism. Thus, we find profound depiction of Buddha in human form.
  • Mostly seated Buddha idols are found with shaved or curly hair with a knot called Ushnisha. He wears a transparent Dhoti, folds are clearly visible. He wears an upper garment that is over his left shoulder and taken below his right arm.
  • He is also flanked by Bodhisattvas like Maitreya, Vajrayana, Padmapami, etc or Gods like Indra and Brahma. There is a pipal tree in some cases.
  • Jain- Jain images have been found at Kankali Tila in Mathura. Pillar fragments having 4 Tirthankara images have been found. A head broken seated tirthankara image has been found. Common traits like long ear lobes exist.
  • Hinduism- Images of Shiva, Vishnu, Durga, Surya, Laxmi, etc have been found. Shiva has been found in anthropomorphic form like Harihara, Ardhanarishwara, with Parvati or Linga forms. Kankali Tila has yield a Surya image with a moustache, boots and crown. Vaishnava gods like Vasudeva Krishna, Balaram, Vishnu on Garuda, Vishnu as Varaha, etc have been found.
  • Apart from religious sculpture, a standing image of Kushana king Kanishka has been found headless. The image is draped in central Asian clothing and boots
  • Simple, inner emotions, less flashy but full, round and fleshy images are seen in Mathura. Most images have a simple smile on faces.
  • Depiction of females is special. Full breasts, round hips and overall greater physical plasticity shows the sculptures were meant to sensuous. A pillar has been excavated at Jamalpur which has an almost nude Apsara standing on a lotus.

Early Hindu Temple Architecture 2nd century BCE to 3rd century CE

  • The earliest Hindu temples were very simple in construction. Although no temple exists from this period, excavations have yield ground plans of temples

The earliest reference of a Vishnu temple is found at Besnagar near the pillar of Heliodorus dating to 3rd century BCE. Ground plan reveals simple elliptical structure and a protruding rectangular entrance.

  • Most were constructed in bricks and stones. 1st century BCE inscription at Nagari in Rajasthan shows a stone Vishnu temple existed there.
  • Many of them had raised platforms may be for preventing flood water from entering. Like the temple at Dangwada in central India has been made of mud plinth. A clay seal found there shows its a Shiva temple.
  • The shape was either apsidal or square. Probably, the apsidal shape was borrowed from Buddhist stupa architecture. Excavation at Atranjikhera dating to 200 to 50BCE has yielded an apsidal temple with a circumabulatory path just like a Stupa.
  • The development of temples also coincides with development of various sects within Hinduism. It can be seen from the fact that temples are dedicated to such sectarian Gods.
  • At an excavation at Sonkh near Mathura, a multi-temple urban complex has been found dating to 1st and 2nd century CE. Most are apsidal temples on raised platforms. Some have pillared gateways. Apsidal temple 2 is a Naga temple.
  • South India also saw development of temples- excavations at Parashurameshvara temple in Chitoor district have shown a Shiva temple existed since 2nd century BCE. Similarly, scores of temples belonging to Ikshavku dynasty of 2nd century CE have been found and submerged in the Nagarjunasagar dam in Andhra.
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Gupta Art and Architecture

Temple Architecture
  • This was the time when popular deities and their cults began to emerge like Vasudeva, Samkarshana, Shiva, Shakti, Skanda, etc. It was a contributing factor for development of temples.
  • Emergence of temple worship and start of formation of the standard architectural forms of temples. However, since it was just the start, structures were small and unimposing and ornamentation was simple.
  • Example- earliest 4th century temples like Temple 17 at Sanchi, Temples at

Tigawa and Eran are single-celled sanctums with flat roofs and plain walls.

The next stage of development came in the case of circumambulatory paths that can be seen in temples like Parvati temple at Nachna and at Baigram, Bangladesh.

  • The next stage came with development of big stone temples with Shikharas and raised platforms. Eg- Dashavatara temple at Deogarh temple and brick temple at Bhitargaon
  • The plans were in form of cruciform like Deogarh and Bhitargarh while rare case of Mundeshwari temple in octagonal shape.
  • This was also the start of ornamentation with Bhitargaon temple showing terracotta sculptures of Ganesha, Adi Varaha, Mahishasura-Mardini, etc. • Recent excavations at Lathiya near Varanasi have yielded remnant of a Vishnu temple dating to Gupta times. However, the site itself dates back to Maurya period.

Cave Architecture

  • It was the continuation of cave tradition of western and central India. Important caves include Bagh caves and Udaygiri caves in MP, Mandargiri caves in Bihar, etc.
  • Bagh caves are elaborately decorated especially the Pandava ki Guha and Rang Mahal
  • Udaygiri caves have an inscription of Chandragupta II but have plain interiors.
  • Overall, cave architecture was not focused much like the Satavahana, a few centuries before.


• One such Stupa is the Dhamek stupa which shows all architectural features of Stupa. But since the Guptas gave more patronage to Hinduism, Stupa architecture is quite less

Sculptural Art

  • The Sarnath School of art got its patronage in this era.
  • The art took its main Indianized features from Mathura school with an addition of high spiritual expressions and less focus on physical features
  • The art had some special features- It developed new Mudras for Buddha, especially the Dhammachakra-Pravartan Mudra. Similarly, various Asanas or styles of sitting were depicted that showed poise
  • Women are shown in multiple hairstyles while men were shown having curly hair.

In this art, the scenes of Buddha’s life took a backseat and those of Bodhisattvas became prominent.

  • Tall statues of Buddha made up of bronze and copper have been found in varied places like Sultanganj near Bhagalpur, Sarnath and Mathura.
  • Overall, the art flourished in the patronage of Guptas but was not as profound as Gandhara or Mathura school of art due to decreasing influence of Buddhism.
  • Buddha’s standing images each two meter tall have been recovered from Sultangunj.


  • This was the start of accepting paintings as a legitimate expression of social life. The most preferred locations of paintings were caves.
  • The importance to paintings can be seen from the references to paintings.

Kamasutra mentions painting as 64 art forms, Brihatsamhita mentions Vajralepa as a base to be applied for murals. The Vishnudharmottara Purana has a separate chapter on paintings.

  • The paintings exhibit high aesthetic sense and an effort to create a 3D effect.
  • Bagh caves paintings- elegant and contemporary life depicted. But they lack spiritual expressions. They are definitely of a lower quality than the Ajanta paintings of the same time.
  • Cave no.20 at Udayagiri consists of Jaina paintings.