Centuries removed from the prehistoric Indus Valley Region, the Mauryan and Kushan dynasties are among the most significant cultural and artistic regimes in Indian history. The prominence of the Mauryan’s longest leader, and the interactions of the Kushan with their Persian, Chinese, and Greek neighbors creates distinctive visual narratives that have shaped the culture of India as it is today.
Art in the Mauryan Dynasty
The Mauryan dynasty can be considered the first official empire in India, dating to approximately 321-185 BC. Art during this period altered when the third emperor, named Asoka (also sometimes referred to as Ashoka), adopted Buddhism and aided in its growth throughout the previously Hindu country. Asoka is responsible for incorporating the Buddhist stupa into Indian art, transforming it into a primary aspect of India’s artistic history. Monumental stone sculpture became a pertinent aspect during this period and these stupas were erected as commemorations for the Buddha. Though they initially began as symbolic funeral mounds for the Buddha, they were eventually erected as prominent focal points of the Buddha’s worship.
The “Great Stupa” at Sanchi, India. (Gérald Anfossi/ CC BY SA 2.5 )
In similar fashion, large stone pillars were built near these stupas, also believed to have been incorporated initially by Asoka. (This is debated as the earliest stambhas that survive are dated to Asoka’s period, but that does not necessarily mean that they originated under him.) These pillars were raised with edicts transcribed on them, and these columns were often topped with ornately carved lions, not unlike the Ionic columns of ancient Greece. These pillars are called stambhas, however, unlike the Greek columns they were notable for their singularity. They are defined, that is, as single, monumental columns, that were often associated with locations Asoka and later rulers believed the Buddha visited during his travels.
Kirti Stambha, Chittorgarh, Rajasthan, India. (Shakti/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
In Mauryan art, images of lions were very common and widespread, indicating the power the new dynasty had over the Indian region. Asoka himself began a tradition of stambhas carved with four stone lions, back to back, seated above an inverted bell-shaped lotus, with a horse, a bull, another lion, and an elephant carved around the base of the capital—each animal significant in Indian culture. The base Buddhist symbolism would have been evident in Asoka’s time as indicative of the Buddha’s “Four Noble Truths”, and the lotus would have been seen as symbolic of the moment the Buddha reached Nirvana (or Enlightenment). Thus, though Asoka’s introduction of these pillars is uncertain, the symbolism contrived under his reign became paramount in the representation of Buddhism in this new Indian dynasty.
1911 photo of Ashoka lions at Sarnath. ( Public Domain )
Though Asoka is credited with beginnings the integration of Buddhist traditions in Indian culture, these influences continued after his reign and dynasty ended. Buddhist art encapsulates four hundred years of Indian history, overlapping with various other regimes. During this Buddhist central period, sculptors’ skills in stone-work are credited as having improved greatly. While the Buddhist stupas were often decorated with depictions of the Buddha’s life in relief, sculptors eventually learned to create free-standing statues to be seated inside or outside the structures. It is likely that these artistic advances were due to the coinciding decision of a more prominent use in stone, rather than due to the religion itself.
A rock cut image of Buddha at Bojjannakonda Cave Monastic ruins site near Anakapalle in Visakhapatnam district, Andhra Pradesh, India. (Adityamadhav83/ CC BY 3.0 )
Kushan Dynasty Art
The Kushan dynasty followed Asoka’s Mauryan regime as an artistically vivid and powerful empire due to its prominent role in securing India’s position within the wider Asian context. This period dates approximately from 30-375 AD and is known best for various cultural influences. It was during this period that Indian sea trade expanded and the Silk Road in China began to affect commerce both going into India and coming out of it. Further, sources indicate that the Kushan were in rather consistent communication with the ancient Greeks, adopting Greek coins, language, and even religious aspects. In conjunction with the firm holds Hinduism and Buddhism already had in India, along with the rising Zoroastrianism faith stemming from the Persian region, the Kushan Empire was a distinct cultural melting pot. Thus, the art of this period was highly unique.