Bharhut sculpture, early Indian sculpture of the Shunga period (mid-2nd century BCE) that decorated the great stupa, or relic mound, of Bharhut, in Madhya Pradesh state.
It has been largely destroyed, and most of the existing remains—railings and entrance gateways—are now in the Indian Museum in Kolkata (Calcutta).
The Bharhut style, though at times archaic and primitive in its conception, marks the beginnings of a tradition of Buddhist narrative relief and decoration of sacred buildings that continued for several centuries.
Sculptures similar to the Bharhut remains are located throughout northern India, suggesting that the Bharhut site was the main place for this style type.
The flat planes, rather stiffly posed figures, and precise, elegant detailing of the ornamentation suggest continuance in stone of an earlier tradition in wood.
Some of the uprights bear in relief standing figures of yakshas and yakshis (male and female nature deities) that have been pressed into the service of the Buddhist religion; a frequent motif is a woman embracing a tree.
The stone railing, which imitates wooden post-and-rail construction, is decorated with medallions and lunates, most of them filled with the lotus ornament and some of them centred by the head of a man or woman.
Other railing medallions and the coping depict Jataka stories (legends of the Buddha’s previous births) and events of the Buddha’s life.
Since these are labeled, Bharhut sculpture is indispensable for an understanding of Buddhist iconography.
As in all Indian sculpture before the 1st century CE, the Buddha is represented by a symbol such as a wheel, empty throne, or umbrella, never in human form.
Sānchi sculpture, early Indian sculpture that embellished the 1st-century-BCgateways of the Buddhist relic mound called the Great Stupa (stupa No. 1) at Sānchi, Madhya Pradesh, which is one of the most magnificent monuments of its time.
The region of Sānchi, however, like the great centres at Sārnāth and Mathura, had a continuous artistic history from the 3rd century BC to the 11th century AD.
Sānchi is the site of three stupas:
- stupa No. 1, an Aśokan foundation enlarged in succeeding centuries;
- No. 2, with railing decorations of the late Śuṅga period (c.1st century BC);
- and No. 3, with its single toran (ceremonial gateway) of the late 1st century BC–1st century AD.
- Other features of interest include a commemorative pillar erected by the emperor Aśoka (c. 265–238 BC);
- an early Gupta temple (temple No. 17), early 5th century, with a flat roof and pillared portico; and monastic buildings ranging over several centuries.
The four torans of the Great Stupa added in the 1st century BC are the crowning achievements of Sānchi.
Each gateway is made up of two square posts topped by capitals of sculptured animals or dwarfs, surmounted by three architraves, which end in spirals not unlike the rolled ends of scrolls. On the topmost crossbar were placed originally the trident-like symbol of the triratna and the wheel of the law.
The crossbars and the intervening square dies between them are covered with relief sculpture depicting the events of the Buddha’s life, legends of his previous births (Jātaka stories), and other scenes important to early Buddhism (such as the emperor Aśoka’s visit to the Bo tree), as well as auspicious symbols.
Inscriptions give the names of the donors of the relief; one commemorates the gift of the ivory workers of Vidisha and has given rise to the suggestion that there the tradition of working in ivory may have been translated into stone.
Gandhara art, style of Buddhist visual art that developed in what is now northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan between the 1st century BCE and the 7th century CE.
The style, of Greco-Roman origin, seems to have flourished largely during the Kushan dynasty and was contemporaneous with an important but dissimilar school of Kushan art at Mathura (Uttar Pradesh, India).
The Gandhara region had long been a crossroads of cultural influences. During the reign of the Indian emperor Ashoka (3rd century BCE), the region became the scene of intensive Buddhist missionary activity. And in the 1st century CE, rulers of the Kushan empire, which included Gandhara, maintained contacts with Rome.
In its interpretation of Buddhist legends, the Gandhara school incorporated many motifs and techniques from Classical Roman art, including vine scrolls, cherubs bearing garlands, tritons, and centaurs. The basic iconography, however, remained Indian.
The materials used for Gandhara sculpture were green phyllite and gray-blue mica schist which in general, belong to an earlier phase, and stucco, which was used increasingly after the 3rd century CE.
The sculptures were originally painted and gilded.
Mathurā art, style of Buddhist visual art that flourished in the trading and pilgrimage centre of Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, India, from the 2nd century BC to the 12th century AD;
Its most distinctive contributions were made during the Kushān and Gupta periods (1st–6th century AD).
Images in the mottled red sandstone from the nearby Sīkri quarries are found widely distributed over north central India, attesting to Mathurā’s importance as an exporter of sculpture.
The Mathurā school was contemporaneous with a second important school of Kushān art, that of Gandhāra in the northwest, which shows strong Greco-Roman influence.
About the 1st century AD each area appears to have evolved separately its own representations of the Buddha.
The Mathurā images are related to the earlier yakṣa (male nature deity) figures, a resemblance particularly evident in the colossal standing Buddha images of the early Kushān period.
In these, and in the more representative seated Buddhas, the overall effect is one of enormous energy.
The shoulders are broad, the chest swells, and the legs are firmly planted with feet spaced apart.
Other characteristics are the shaven head; the uṣṇīṣa (protuberance on the top of the head) indicated by a tiered spiral; a round smiling face; the right arm raised in abhaya-mudrā(gesture of reassurance); the left arm akimbo or resting on the thigh; the drapery closely molding the body and arranged in folds over the left arm, leaving the right shoulder bare; and the presence of the lion throne rather than the lotus throne.
Later, the hair began to be treated as a series of short flat spirals lying close to the head, the type that came to be the standard representation throughout the Buddhist world.
Jaina and Hindu images of the period are carved in the same style, and the images of the Jaina Tīrthaṅkaras, or saints, are difficult to distinguish from contemporary images of the Buddha, except by reference to iconography.
The dynastic portraits produced by the Mathurā workshops are of special interest. These rigidly frontal figures of Kushān kings are dressed in Central Asian fashion, with belted tunic, high boots, and conical cap, a style of dress also used for representations of the Hindu sun god, Sūrya.
The female figures at Mathura, carved in high relief on the pillars and gateways of both Buddhist and Jaina monuments, are frankly sensuous in their appeal.
As auspicious emblems of fertility and abundance they commanded a popular appeal that persisted with the rise of Buddhism.
Amarāvatī sculpture, Indian sculpture that flourished in the Andhra region of southeastern India from about the 2nd century BC to the end of the 3rd century AD, during the rule of the Sātavāhana dynasty.
It is known for its superb reliefs, which are among the world’s finest examples of narrative sculpture.
In addition to the ruins of the great stupa, or relic mound, at Amarāvati, the style is also seen in the stupa remains at Jaggayyapeta, Nāgārjunīkoṇḍa, and Goli, in Andhra Pradeshstate, and as far west as Ter, Mahārāshtra state.
The style also spread to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), as seen at Anurādhapura, and to much of Southeast Asia.
The Amarāvatī stupa was begun about 200 BC and underwent several renovations and additions.
One of the largest stupas built in Buddhist India, it was about 160 feet (50 m) in diameter and 90 to 100 feet (about 30 m) high, but it has been largely destroyed, much of the stone having been used by local contractors during the 19th century to make lime mortar.
Many of the surviving narrative reliefs and decorative plaques are in the Government Museum, Madras, and the British Museum. A depiction of the monument on a railing slab gives an indication of the appearance of the stupa at the end of the 2nd century AD.
The four cardinal points are marked by groups of five pillars, while free-standing columns topped by lions are set up at the four entrances, replacing the toraṇa (ceremonial gateway) of earlier stupas.
The reliefs, carved on the greenish white limestone characteristic of the region, mostly depict events of the Buddha’s life and his previous births (Jātaka stories).
The crowded yet unified compositions of the later period are filled with dynamic movement, a keen awareness of the dramatic, and a delight in the sensuous world. Overlapping figures and the use of diagonals suggest depth. There is an abundance of rounded forms and a richness so overwhelming that the frame is barely able to contain the sculpture.