The late Vedic period in the Iron Age witnessed the rise of the kingdoms called the Mahajanapadas which were later brought under the rule of Shishunaga and then the Nanda Dynasty. By this period, Hinduism and the pantheon of gods and goddesses were a regular feature in the cultural ethos. In the 6th century BC, the lives of Mahavira and Gautam Buddha heralded an era of a changed philosophical thinking and one would find religion-based literature as the Hindu scriptures coexist alongside the contemporary philosophical Jain and Buddhist literature. One has to pay special attention to note that the artworks produced in this era were mainly for the propagation of the religious philosophies/ teachings. One could find the proof of the genesis of Aryan culture moving on to the Hindu philosophies in the Vedas and epics, the birth of Buddhism being depicted in the wooden Hindu architecture, and the stone stupas of Buddhism much later.
There are sculptures made in this era, which have survived the wrath of time, however the paintings haven’t been found. Some of the major art works of this time were the Buddhist stupas found at the royal burials in Lauria Nandangarh, near Nepal, the mother goddess, earth goddess ‘Prithvi’ figurines in terracotta in ancient Mathura, some monolithic stone stupas, and rock cut tombs found at Mennapuram in Malabar are believed to indicate the Dravidian art of that era.
(Mauryan Art – Ashokan Pillar, Buddhist Stupa, Sanchi and Yakshini images are used only for illustration purpose)
The Mauryan Empire Art: (340 BC – 232BC)
The Mauryan art refers to the art produced during the reign of the Mauryas from the 4th to the 2nd century BC, the very first empire to rule most of Indian subcontinent. The reign of the Mauryas began with its first charismatic king Chandragupta Maurya, and the areas his empire encompassed were from Northeast, east and central parts of India. The most important developments in this period were the political breakthroughs, especially the Greek influences during Chandragupta’s period attributed to the Indo-Greek rule. It was also the age of the rise of Buddhism and Jainism. Most of these developments had a direct impact on the art produced in this era and one of the most important transitions would be the use of stone instead of wood to make sculptures. Most of the art of that era was patronised by the Mauryan kings especially later by king Ashoka, (who died after having adopted Buddhism in 232BC after a 40 year reign), and the aristocrats of the times, who erected animal capitals, stupas and pillars as markers of that era’s art. Some of the monuments one could see even to this day are the monuments and decorated pillars of the Maurya palace in Pataliputra (Bihar), the naturalistic sandstone ‘yaksha and yakshini’ from Pataliputra and Didarganj, Ashoka pillars made in sandstone, like the lion capital in Sarnath, Varanasi and Laurie Nandangarh, the bull capital in Rampurva. The pillars and their symbolism are often compared to Persian sculptures and ‘Greco – Buddhist’ symbolism. Artistry also progressed with the rise of the Mathura school, which is considered the indigenous counterpart to the more Hellenistic Gandhara school of Afghanistan and Pakistan. There also are some gold relief figures, coins and seals found in Takshila (Takshashila) which display the artistic finesse. As far as paintings are concerned, there is no doubt that they did exist, as detailed in the descriptions by the Greek historian, Megasthenes, but somehow very little archaeological evidence exists to validate it.
The Mauryan era was followed by the Shunga dynasty from about 185BC to 1st Century AD by the ruler Pushyamitra who ruled eastern parts of the country and the central parts like Malwa, Sanchi, Bhopal, Barhut, Bodhgaya etc. This empire saw the strong focus of artworks on Buddhism, depicting life of Buddha, and erecting Buddhist Stupas. Some of the artworks, which survived the test of time from this era, are, stone relief panel works on Jatak Kahani’s (tales), life of Buddha, uniquely patterned gateways and railings in Buddhist Stupas at Sanchi, Bhopal and Barhut. Relief work and statuettes of Yaksha, Yakshi and other fecundity goddesses, Maatrikas and panels at Sanchi, and statues in Bodhgaya’s Mahabodhi temple.
As one looks at the evolution of the Aryans into Indo-Aryans, and the emergence of Hinduism and later Buddhism, it is quite obvious how such socio-religious and political changes impacted the making of Art in that environment. One has to then change focus to the Dravidian dynasties, which were pushed southward by the Aryan invasion. The Dravidian dynasties are mentioned from 72BC to 50AD and this time frame is referred to as the Early Andhra Period in art historical terms, locating their reign from south-eastern parts like Amaravati to south-western parts like Bhaja, Nashik etc. The Buddhist influences were abundant in these regions too, with stupas and relief work or statues of Hindu Gods, on the walls of Chaityas /prayer halls, which were rock-cut Buddhist sanctuaries as in Bhaja caves in about 100BC. A visual mix of Hindu gods and goddesses along with the Jataka tales, are found in relief works at Karla and Nashik as in the caves of Khandagiri and Udayagiri caves in Odisha.