Mauryan Art and Architecture

Mauryan rule marks an important phase in our cultural history. Mainly in the period of Ashoka, the art and architecture was at its zenith and fall within the category of court art. Ashoka embraced Buddhism and the immense Buddhist missionary activities that followed encouraged the development of distinct sculptural and architectural styles.

Mauryan Art and Architecture

  • The Mauryan art drew its inspiration both from the inner and the outer aspects of life. In this period, there were a shift towards non-perishable material, court art and monumental design.
  • In this period, apart from Stupas and Viharas, palaces, stone pillars and rock-cut caves were carved.
  • Megathenes left behind an eloquent description of a royal place at Palibothra.
  • Recent excavations at Kumrahar revealed a large pillared hall. The material used was wood which was probably damaged by fire.


  • Outstanding examples of Mauryan art are the Ashokan pillars and the capitals a top them which were more than 40 in number.
  • They were erected all over the empire with inscriptions engraved on them. Mostly their heights vary between 40 to 50 feet and each weighs nearly 50 tonnes. They vary in weight and height but they are monolithic and have no joints.
  • Most of these pillars were chiselled out of grey chunar sandstone and still have a lustrous polish. They have a graceful and slightly tapering shape.
  • The Achaeminid empire had known the use of pillars earlier than the Mauryas. However the Mauryan pillars are different from the Achaeminian pillars. The Achemenian pillars were fluted, not monolithic.
  • According to modern historians, the people of this vast area remained in constant touch with each other and thereby, influenced each other’s culture.
  • The Mauryan pillars were too distinctive to be considered a mere copy of the Persian columns. The topmost portion carries the figure of a crowning animal.
  • The Lauria- Nandagarh pillar is crowned with a single lion, Rampurva pillar is crowned by a bull and Sankisa pillar is covered by standing elephant.
  • Lion capital of Sarnath is considered the most magnificent. The four lion figures face the four cardinal directions. Abacus is carved with the figures of a horse, a bull, a lion and an elephant, placed between four wheels. Each of these wheels have twenty-four spokes. It is also our national emblem. It symbolised Dhammachakrapravartana ( the first sermon by the Buddha).
  • The components of a Mauryan pillar can be categorised as follows:
  1. Crowning animal
  2. Abacus
  3. Inverted lotus
  4. Long shaft
  • Examples- Basar Bakhira, Lauria-n andangarh, Rampurva, Sarnath, Sankisa.


  • Stupa in Sanskrit means pile-up or mound. Vedic literature also mentions the word stupas (Hiranya stupa). But the general meaning is – hemispherical dome that contains Buddha’s relic.
  • In Pali the word used is thuba. It is primarily associated with funerary practices.
  • It is said that when death verged on Buddha, his main disciple, Ananda asked him, how should we honour the body (relic bones) of the tathagat?
  • Just before he passed away, the Buddha is said to have enjoined upon Ananda to erect stupas on his mortal remains. But Buddha did not leave behind any instruction about the stupa’s shape and construction.
  • According to Buddhist sources, the remains of the Buddha’s body were divided into eight parts.
  • Emperor Asoka decided to construct 84,000 Stupas throughout his dominion (it is obviously an exaggerated figure to glorify the Mauryan emperor’s efforts in promoting the stupa architecture). Originally made of bricks, it is surrounded by a wooden railing.

Some of the Prominent Stupas

  1. Piprahwa Stupa (Uttar Pradesh)
  • It is considered as the oldest stupa, located near the border with Nepal.
  • It is a large round mud brick structure which is believed to have been built by the Sakyaclan.
  1. Sanchi Stupa (Madhya Pradesh)-Mauryan Art and Architecture
  • It has three stupas all with gateways around them.
  • The construction was started by Ashoka and it was elaborated during the Sunga period. In this period bricks of Asokan times were replaced by stones and a vedika was also constructed around it. The railing of Sanchi Stupa has the richest decorations.
  • There are four gates, one in each direction.
  • An inscription from the Southern gate suggests that it was donated by king Satakarni.
  • There are four gates, one in each direction.
  • An inscription from the Southern gate suggests that it was donated by king Satakarni.

(a) Mauryan (3rd century BCE) Coinage: Mauryan Schist and plaster

(b) Indo-Greek (2nd century BCE) Coinage: Menander I Schist and plaster Niches for figured panels or relief-work (Butkara I)

(c) Indo-Greek (2nd century BCE) Coinage: Menander I Schist and plaster

(d) Late Indo-Greek Indo-Schythian (End of 1st century BCE) Coinage: Azos II Soapstone and plaster

(e) Kushan (2nd century CE) Coinage:kushan Soapston and plaster

  • There are depictions of Jataka stories in the northern gate.
  • The prominent displays are- events of the Buddha’s life, birds, animals and lotus.

Bharhut Stupa (Madhya Pradesh)

Torahas (gateways) in stone.

Railings have carvings of Yakshas, Yakshins and other divinities.

Amaravati (Near Guntur)

It is magnificent (42 meter in diameter and 29 meteres in height).

It was built with white marble and it is known for carvings of garlanded Gods, Bodhi-tree and Dnarmachakra.

The entrance gate depicts four lions on the vedika.

Nagarjunakonda Guntur

It is located in the Guntur District.

Illustrations- Gods praying to Bodhisattva to take birth on the earth, Buddha’s entry into the womb in the form of a white elephants, birth of the Buddha under a flowering teak tree, etc.

Taxila (Pakistan)

Chir Tope stupa which was excavated by Sir John Marshall, a stupa at Shan-ji-kidheri which was probably entered by Kanishka and a stupa at Jhandial are all located here.

Bodha Gaya (Bihar)

Probably, Ashoka got a Bodhi-Manda constructed here.

There remains only some pillars which suggest the Jataka stories.

Important Topics Prelims 

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