The history of Indian art and architecture is essentially a history of evolution, whereby, be it the remains of the Indus Valley civilization or the monuments of the British period, each possesses its own narrative. Ancient Indian art and architecture, just like its other counterparts, echoes and bears witness to the emergence and decay of various civilizations, empires, invasion of foreign rulers, and their gradual indigenization, and thus the convergence of various styles and cultures. This article will be published in two parts. The first part focuses on the art and architecture Harappan, Mauryan, and post-Mauryan period.
One of the essential features of the Harappan civilization is the planned architecture of the various sites. Nevertheless, there is no such strict correlation between the size of the cities and the level of planning they exhibit. For instance, Lothal, despite being a much smaller settlement, reflects a much higher level of planning than the much bigger site of Kalibangan. Although contrary to popular conception, the Harappan cities did not always have a perfect grid system, and neither were the roads always straight, but the settlements were undoubtedly planned. One of the most notable features of the Harappan settlements is the presence of well-planned drainage system, which is noticeable not only in bigger towns but even the smaller ones and villages as well. Terracotta drain pipes have been unearthed from the sites of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, which directed the wastewater into the open street drains, that in turn were made of baked bricks. These were linked with the bigger drains located on the main streets, that in turn released its contents into the fields outside the city wall. Another significant feature of the various Harappan sites is that they have yielded the remains of various structures that clearly hint to the architectural skills of the Harappan people. The citadel mound of the site of Mohenjodaro consists of those buildings which are most often associated with the civilization. One of them is the Great Bath, one of the best examples of the excellent engineering skills of the Harappans. The eastern, northern, and southern sides have yielded remains of brick colonnades. Also, a series of buildings have been found on the eastern edge of the Great Bath, one of which has a well that might have acted as a source of water for the tank. The region north of the Great Bath has a large building consisting of eight small rooms having common bathing platforms. Another major building of the site is the ‘college of priests’, labelled so owing to its size and proximity to the Great Bath. Situated across the street from the Great Bath, it consists of several rooms, a 10m square courtyard, three verandahs, and two staircases that either led to the roof or upper storey. Another important structure of this site is the ‘great granary’ that was originally identified as a hammam or hot-air bath, while the southern part of the citadel mound has yielded what has been labelled as the ‘assembly hall’. The latter is roughly square in shape and is divided into five aisles by means of rows of rectangular brick piers. Another important site in terms of architectural significance is Lothal, located in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat. It has a burial ground in the northwest and the citadel, which was named the ‘Acropolis’ by archaeologists, is trapezoidal in shape. The site has also yielded various remains of residential buildings, streets, lanes, bathing pavements, and drains. Also, another building has been found, which it has been suggested probably functioned as a warehouse where goods may have been stored and packed. Indeed, many terracotta sealings and other objects have been found here. However, the most distinctive feature of Lothal is undoubtedly the dockyard, located on the eastern edge of the settlement. It had provisions for ensuring a regular level of water by means of sluice gate and a spill channel. A mud-brick platform has been found on the western embankment, which may have acted as the wharf for unloading and loading goods. Another essential feature of the Harappan civilization is the craft activity. Innumerable terracotta figurines have been unearthed from the various sites. These include animals like bulls, buffaloes, monkeys, dogs, and human figurines, including both male and female figurines. Seal making was one of the most important craft activities prevalent during the Harappan period. Mention may be made of the famous Pashupati seal, which depicts a male figure adorned with a buffalo horn headdress, who is seated on a dais and surrounded by four animals, namely elephants, rhinoceros, water buffalo, and tiger. Although originally concluded to be the figure of Shiva, who is also known as Pashupati, later historians have challenged this view on various grounds. They have variously identified him as a chieftain, a divine bull-man, etc. Another popular motif of the seals was the image of unicorn. As far as sculpture is concerned, mention may be made of the stone bust of a male figure that had been unearthed from Mohenjodaro and has been labelled the ‘priest-king’. However, one of the best examples of the skill of the Harappans in the field of sculpture is undoubtedly the bronze female figurine labelled the ‘dancing girl’ that was found in Mohenjodaro. It’s a thin woman in standing posture with her right hand placed on the back of her hip while the left hand is resting on her thigh just above the knee. There is a possibility that she may have at some point held something in the latter. Also, she is adorned with a necklace and 24-25 bangles on her left arm while the right one has only 4. The name ‘dance girl’ was given by John Marshall on the ground that she had the air of a nautch girl. Although this label still persists, but recently historians have argued that this might not have been a figure of a girl dancing, and even if it is, she may not have represented a professional dancer.
Following the decline of the Harappan civilization, there is a long gap, and it is only during the Mauryan period that we can notice the re-emergence of stone sculpture and architecture. This renewed interest may be attributed to myriad factors such as higher levels of political complexity as evident from the emergence of an empire, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the urban elites, and the increasing institutionalization of religious activities. It must be noted here that the art pertaining to this period cannot really be characterised as art created for the sake of art but rather essentially one that was linked with political ideology and religious practices which are clearly echoed in both the form and patronage of artistic activity. The Ashokan pillars are undoubtedly the most important examples of Mauryan architecture. While some of them have a set of six edicts inscribed on them, others have inscriptions. These include commemorative inscriptions such as Rummindei and Nigali Sagar. Again, there are some without inscriptions as well, such as the one with the bull capital located at Rampurva. The Ashokan pillars mostly have many resemblances among each other, both in form and dimension. For example, they are mostly made of sandstone quarried at Chunar; they are monoliths, have lustrous and polished surfaces, and do not have a base. The motifs on the Ashokan pillars range from floral ones such as the lotus to animal motifs such as the lion (e.g., capital at Vaishali and Rampurva pillars), bull (e.g., Rampurva pillars), elephant (e.g., Sankissa), spoked wheel (e.g., Sanchi and Sarnath), etc. The sculptural motifs were, in most cases, linked with the dhamma message. The lotus is a symbol of purity and fecundity in Indian tradition, but it had a specific connection with Buddha as well, for as per later Buddhist texts, lotus flowers sprang up where Siddhartha took seven steps soon after his birth. Again, albeit mentioned as a symbol of creation and time in the Vedic texts, but the wheel, in the case of Ashokan pillars, is usually considered the Dharmachakra, i.e., the wheel of dharma that represented Buddha’s first sermon. Some historians believe the Ashokan pillars clearly echoed Greek and even more significant Persian influence, as evident from their polished surface and animal capitals. However, another group of historians again have brought to fore the differences between Mauryan and Persian pillars, such as the fact that the Persian pillars stand on bases that are either shaped like a bell meaning an inverted lotus or a plain rectangular block; whereas the inverted lotus appears at the top of the shaft in case of Mauryan pillars. As far as other important specimens of Mauryan sculpture is concerned, mention may be made of the monolithic railing at Sarnath. One of the most important features of the Mauryan period is that it witnessed the initiation of rock-cut architecture. Mention may be made of the caves in Barabar and Nagarjuni hills, where while three of the former have dedicative inscriptions of Ashoka, three of the latter have inscriptions of his son Dasharatha. The caves are simple in terms of planning, having plain though highly polished interiors. The relief carving on the doorway of the Lomash Rishi cave is the sole instance of sculptural ornamentation. Another important feature of the Mauryan period, to be more precise, that of Ashoka’s reign, is the developments made in the field of stupa architecture. One of the most important examples is undoubtedly the stupa at Sanchi. Apart from this, as far as the sculpture is concerned, mention may be made of the yaksha and yakshi figurines found at various sites in and around Patna, Mathura, and other places. The worship of yakshas and yakshis was essentially a part of popular religion prevalent in different parts of the subcontinent. However, although initially these were attributed to the Mauryan period on the ground that most of them had polished surfaces, later historians have declined to accept this as substantial evidence and instead emphasized the need to focus on stylistic considerations for the so-called ‘Mauryan polish’ continued to be prevalent in the early centuries CE as well. For instance, the yaksha sculpture found at Parkham, though initially assigned to the Maurya period, but was later concluded as belonging to the period of 1st century BCE on stylistic grounds.
Post-Mauryan Period (200BCE-300CE)
The period between 200BCE-300CE witnessed the increasing institutionalization of religious activity and consequently its ability to gain patronage from different sections of the society, that in turn initiated the building of more permanent and elaborate structures. This period also bore witness to major developments in the field of Buddhist art and architecture, as evident from the rapid expansion in the number and scale of Buddhist monastic complexes that included dwelling places for monks, stupas, and shrines. The shrines were referred to as chaityas. Among the various sculptural specimens of this period, special mention may be made of the sculptures at Bharhut and Sanchi. The former can be placed between the period 3rd century BCE to end of 2nd century BCE. However, unfortunately, the Bharhut stupa has been completely destroyed, and only some parts of it have been stored in various museums, with a major portion being housed in the Indian Museum, Kolkata. The remains at Sanchi, on the other hand, include stupas, pillars, shrines, and sculptures that can be placed between the period 3rd century BCE to 12th century CE. Among all these, stupa number 1 is usually attributed to Ashoka’s time. Later in the 2nd century BCE, the stupa was encased in stone by means of dark-purple grey sandstone that was available locally. The Jaina rock-cut caves constitute another very significant portion of the architectural developments of this period. Mention may be made of the rock-cut caves in the Udaygiri and Khandagiri hills in Puri, Orissa, which is one of the oldest group of Jaina rock-cut caves. These caves can be divided into two groups, i.e., those having and those without pillared verandahs. Some of the caves are again two-storeyed such as the Ranigumpha cave. One of the most important developments of this period was undoubtedly the emergence of the Gandhara school of art that flourished between the 1st and 5th centuries CE in parts of Kashmir and Afghanistan. Most of the Gandhara sculptures are made of stone. While initially blueschist and green phyllite were more used by the sculptors, later they shifted to the use of stucco or lime plaster, that was again later completely replaced by stone by the 3rd century. The Gandhara school clearly echoed the signs of syncretism. For though having Indian themes, its style was essentially Graeco-Roman. The most common theme being the images of Buddha and the bodhisattvas; it is also popularly referred to as Graeco-Buddhist art. The Graeco-Roman influence is evident from various features such as curly wavy hair, muscular body, and facial features. There are certain seated Buddha images as well in various mudras, such as the Dharmachakra mudra and dhyana mudra. As far as the images of bodhisattvas are concerned, Maitreya seems to have been the most popular, the second being Avalokiteshvara. Apart from this, the Gandhara school produced a few metal sculptures as well, such as a metal reliquary found at the large destroyed stupa at Shah-ji-ki-dheri, located near Peshawar.
We will be continuing these discussions of ancient Indian art and architecture in our next article. The second part will focus on the art and architecture Gupta and post-Gupta period.
- Singh, Upinder. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India, From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. Delhi. Pearson, 2009.
- Singhania, Nitin. Indian Art and Culture. Chennai. McGraw Hill Education (India) Private Limited, 2020.