Fortified cities with stupas, viharas, and temples were constructed during the Maurya Empire (321–185 BCE). Buddhism and Jainism introduced the art of rock-cut caves. The caves were cut out of solid rocks and were in two parts, one called the hall of worship or Chaitya and the other the monastery for living of monks or Vihara.
Wooden architecture was popular in the earlier phases of rock cut architecture. The earliest viharas were made of wood, and then of brick. Guardrails – consisting of posts, crossbars, and a coping – became a feature of safety surrounding a stupa.
The Indian gateway archs, the torana, reached East Asia with the spread of Buddhism. Buddhist architecture blended with Roman architecture and Hellenestic architecture to give rise to unique blends – such as the Greco-Buddhist school during the time of Kushanas.
Sunga and Satvahana rulers (around 1st century BCE) also patronized Buddhist art and architecture. It is visible in the Bharhut stupa, stupas around Sanchi (originally commissioned by Ashoka, but later repaired by Sunga and other), Amravati etc. This mainly involved stonework along the railings. Their
works includes small terracotta images, larger stone sculptures, and architectural monuments such as the Chaitya at Bhaja Caves.
During Gupta period also many Buddhist shrines and sculptures were made. In East, post-Gupta, Palakingdom promoted Buddhist architecture starting from 8th century, while in West many Rajput kingdoms came up.
Bodh Gaya is one of the most important Buddhist centers in India with Mahabodhi Temple as prime attraction and it is a brick temple. The first shrine is said to have been made by Mauryan King Ashoka, the Vedika was added in post-Mauryan time and later additions were done by Pala rulers in 8th century. The design of the Mahabodhi temple is neither dravida nor nagara. It is narrow like a nagara temple, but it rises without curving, like a dravida one.
Nalanda is another example of Buddhist architecture and it was a Mahavihara as it housed many Viharas. Today, only a small portion of this ancient learning centre has been excavated as most of it lies buried under the existing human settlements. Most of the information about Nalanda is based on the records of Xuan Zang or ‘Hsuan-tsang’ which states that the foundation of a monastery was laid during Gupta rule by Kumargupta I in the 5th century CE and this was carried forward by the later monarchs before it was destroyed by Bakhtiyar Khilji and as a result Buddhists in India also migrated to East Asian countries. There is evidence that all three Buddhist doctrines – Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana – were taught here and monks made their way to Nalanda from China, Tibet and Central Asia in the north, and Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma etc. Monks and pilgrims took back small sculptures and illustrated manuscripts from here to their own countries and it had a decisive impact on the arts of all Buddhist countries in Asia.
The sculptural art of Nalanda, in stucco (a type of plaster), stone and bronze, and was a direct offshoot the Gupta Buddhist art of Sarnath and it later infused local elements to emerge as a unique style of its own leading to the formation of the ‘Nalanda school of sculpture’. The characteristic features of Nalanda art, distinguished by its consistently high quality of workmanship, are that the precisely executed sculptures have an ordered appearance with little effect of crowding. Sculptures are also usually not flat in relief but are depicted in three-dimensional forms. The back slabs of the sculptures are detailed and the ornamentations delicate. The Nalanda bronzes, dating between the 7th and 8th centuries to approximately the 12th century outnumber the discovery of metal images from all other sites of eastern India and constitute a large body of Pala Period metal sculptures. Like their stone counterparts, the bronzes initially relied heavily on Sarnath and Mathura Gupta traditions. The Nalanda sculptures initially depicted Buddhist deities of the Mahayana tradition (like Buddha and Bodhisattvas and other deities), but when Nalanda became important center of Vajrayana Buddhism in 12th century, it was dominated by Vajrayana deities such as Vajrasharada (a form of Saraswati) Khasarpana, Avalokiteshvara, etc. Depictions of crowned Buddhas also occur commonly only after the tenth century. Buddhist monasteries like Nalanda, thus, were prolific centres of art production that had a decisive impact on the arts of all Buddhist countries in Asia.
Odisha also witnessed growth of many Buddhist monasteries like Ratnagiri and port-town of Nagapattinam was also a major Buddhist centre right until the Chola Period. One of the reasons for this must have been its importance in trade with Sri Lanka where large numbers of Buddhists still live.
Laddakh Art also developed influenced initially by Kushan art and later infused local elements. This architectural style profusely uses wooden elements and is influenced by Tibetan architecture. In painting also a new style called ‘Thanka’ painting evolved.
Evolution of Buddhist Cave Architecture
I. It began with the construction of Lomarishi and Sudama caves in Barabar Hills by Asoka. These were simple caves and the cave ran parallel to the rock face after entry. There was one large rectangular room followed by a smaller circular room.
II. The second stage (100 BC) showed up at Konditve. The cave was cut perpendicular to the rock face and the inner room now contained a stupa and a circumambulatory path around it.
III. The next stage was when rows of pillars were built parallel to the walls creating a circumambulatory passage right after entering. The central roof was high, vaulted and side roof was low and half-vaulted. Bhaja, Pitalkhora, Bedsa caves are examples. Sometimes cells, rock cut beds were cut around the central hall. An example is Bedsa caves.
IV. During the Kshatrap-Satvahna kings, caves got royal patronage and became more elaborate and ornamented. The basic features of previous phase continued. A variety of mithun couples were carved on the gates, the pillars came to have elaborate capitals, the side roof became flat. Multi-storied caves came up. Double storied viharas came up at Karle and triple storied at Ajanta. Other examples are Nasik caves, Junnar, Kanheri caves, Pitalkhora.
Jaina Caves vs Buddhist Caves –
I. Jaina caves were cut in sandstone which is easy to cut but not good for sculpting. But Buddhist caves were cut into hard rocks and were better for sculpting.
II. The Jaina caves had no congregation halls or rock cut shrines. Later, however, some cells were enlarged into shrines. The Buddhist caves on the other hand had clear halls and the shrine area.
III. The Jaina caves were simple and reflected the asceticism of jina monks. The cells were tiny (not tall enough to stand, not long enough to stretch while sleeping, small entrances so as to bend very low). The only luxury was occasional shelves cut into rocks and sloping floor acting as a pillow but actually designed to keep of water from accumulating. Only the outer portions were carved sometimes. The Buddhist caves on the other hand were an elaborate and spacious affair.
IV. In terms of similarities, the sculptures use similar motifs like animals, plants. The honeysuckle style is similar too. Examples of such caves are Khandgiri and Udaigiri in Puri.
The word stupa means a mound. While there are several kinds of stupas, round and tall, big and small, these have certain common features. Generally, there is a small box placed at the centre or heart of the stupa. This may contain bodily remains (such as teeth, bone or ashes) of the Buddha or his followers, or things they used, as well as precious stones, and coins. Maximum numbers of Stupa were built by Maurya kings – more than 80, 000 of them. Sunga kings also built and refrubished the old ones.
General features of a stupa
I. Harmika – It is built on the top of the oval shaped stupa.
II. Medhi – It is an elevated circular path around the stupa used for Pradhikshina
III. Torana – It is the Gateway to the stupa. Sculptures can be seen on both Toranas and Medhi.
IV. Vedica – It is a railing meant for the protection of the holy place.
V. Chatras – They are umbrella like structures on top of a Stupa and are three in number representing ‘Tri-ratnas’ of Buddhism viz – Buddha the enlightened one, Dham or doctrine and Sangha or order.
VI. Pradakshina Path – Often, a path, known as the pradakshina patha, was laid around the stupa. This was surrounded with railings. Entrance to the path was through gateways. Both railings and gateways were often decorated with sculpture. Surface of the hemispherical body of Stupa was built with bricks and inner side had thick layer of plaster.
Famous stupas are
– Sanchi stupa by Maurya and later Sunga rulers, Bharhut (MP) constructed by Sunga rulers and Amravati Stupa by Satvahanas. Nagarjunkonda is another place that is famous for Buddhist architecture.
Bharhut Stupa was probably originally made by Mauryas in 300 BCE, but was later improved by later rulers like Sunga in 100 AD. Sungas added exquisitely carved railing around the Stupa which depicts scenes from Jataka. Relief in Bharhut is provided with inscriptions also which is not found in later stupas. Though art made progress over simple art of Mauryas, figures are too crowded and relief is low. Yaksha and Yakshi are recurring themes. Queen Mahamayas’ Dream is also shown. Queen Mahamaya, mother of Buddha has a dream of him on the night of his conception. She had a dream that a young white elephant entered into her womb, after which she became pregnant.
Sanchi Stupa was initially built by Mauryan kings, was later refurbished by other kings like Sunga kings who added Pradakshinapath, railing etc. It is a stylistic progression over Bharuht and relief is high in carvings than those in Bharhut. Earlier it has representation of Buddha only in symbolic form, as original Buddhism has, later Jatak tales and imagery of Buddha were also added. There are guardian images on pillars and Shalbhanjika i.e. a lady holding a branch of tree are prominent features of the sculpture work. Neither at Bharhut nor at Sanchi was Buddha depicted in Human form, it was only during Kushana period in 100 CE that he was depicted in human form.
Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh is a place where a magnificent stupa once existed. Amravati has a ‘Mahacahiatya’ and many sculptures. The Amaravati School developed under the patronage of the Satavahanas of the Andhra region.