Gupta period marked the real beginning of temple architecture in India and is known as the golden period of Indian art. Hindu subjects became focus of the art for the first time. The Gupta period marks the beginning of the construction of free-standing Hindu temples. For the first time they initiated permanent materials like brick and stone, instead of perishable materials like bamboo, wood etc in temple buildings.
Gupta temples were durable as they were made out of durable material.
Brics temples were started to be made during the Gupta period – Bhitragaon near Kanpur, Bhitari near Gazipur, Deogarh near Jhasi are some examples. The Bhitargaon Temple is a terraced brick building fronted with a terracotta panel. Built in the 6th century during the Gupta Empire, it is the oldest remaining terracotta Hindu shrine with a roof and a high Sikhara.
Temple style during Gupta period evolved in various phases. Earliest temples used to have flat roofs. Later, square temples emerged – such as Vishnu and Varaha temples at Eran in Vidisha. Example of square temples with pradakshina path include Shiva temple at Bhumara, Madhya Pradesh. They also had a covered ambulatory path and main building was on a raised platform. In third phase most of the earlier features were retained and new features were added – now low curvilinear shikharas were introduced and apart from main shrine, subsidiary shrines were also built and main temple was build on a crucified platform – this style is generally termed as ‘Panchayatan’ style. Examples include Dashavtara temple at Deogarh near Jhansi and Durga temple near Aihole in Karnataka. Later, circular temples with shallow rectangular projections were also made – for eample – Maniyar Math at Rajgir.
Gupta style of temple architecture is also said to have given birth to many sub-styles like – Odisha School (Konark, Lingraja, Jagannath Puri etc), Khajuraho School, Solanki School of Rajasthan and Gujarat etc.
In UP, Dashavatara temple from 6th century is there in Deogarh belonging to late Gupta period and due to presence of a curvilinear tall rekha-deol (or rekha-prasada) type shikhara, it is one of the earliest classical examples of Nagara style. This temple is in the panchayatana style of architecture where the main shrine is built on a rectangular plinth with four smaller subsidiary shrines at the four corners (making it a total number of five shrines, hence the name, panchayatana). There are three main reliefs of Vishnu on the temple walls – Sheshashayana (form of Vishnu where he is shown reclining on the sheshanaga) on the south, Nara-Narayan (shows the discussion between the human soul and the eternal divine) on the east and Gajendramoksha (is the story of achieving moksha, with an asura shown as an elephant) on the west.
In many forests of central India also, examples of Gupta art have
been found, especially in the Bundelkhand region. These include the one at Bhitargaon in Kanpur district.
Guptas were tolerant and encouraged other religions also. While early Gupta period Hindu architecture was largely promoted, later Bhuddhist and Jaina architecture was also promoted. In fact, Buddhist art reached its climax during Gupta period.
Gupta period is also marked by development of sculpture art. Buddhist, Hindu and Jain sculptures were profusely made. A new school called Sarnath School emerged. Cream colored sandstone was used in it. At Sarnath, Buddha is shown standing, seating as well as in other positions as well. Buddha here is shown in calm position smiling and eyes partly closed unlike Gandhar Buddha which is mainly only in seated position and is in somber mood. From Besnagar a relief of Goddess Ganga is found, from Gwalior flying Apsaras are found. From Khoh, Ekmukhi shivlinga has been discovered. Even metal sculptures were developed during this period, for example – Sultanganj Buddha. Majority of metal sculptures of Buddha in North are shown in Abhyamudra.
Cave architecture and paintings also reached their zenith – Ajanta caves, Ellora caves, Bagh caves near Bagh river in Madhya Pradesh, Junagarh Caves, Nashik Caves are examples. Junagrah caves have a uniqueness that they have a citadel called ‘uparakot’ apart from a lower prayer hall. Nashik Caves are also unique as they are primarily Hinyana Buddhist caves from around 1st century AD and Buddha is shown in form of symbols, there are 23 such caves and are termed as ‘Pandav Leni’. There are caves in Mandapeshwar caves also which are the only Brhamnical caves converted to Christian caves and these probably belong to rather post-Gupta period.
The artistic achievement of the age is also exhibited in the delicate workmanship and the variety of designs shown in different kinds of Gupta coins. The general scheme that was followed was to exhibit the portrait of the king on one side of the coin or an appropriate deity.