Art forms which develop and emerge usually reflect the culture of the society at that point of time. Such form is not necessarily “high art” created for a privileged group or for a specific purpose.
Instead, the forms represent the day-to-day life, the experiences so gained and the many moods thus created. In course of time works of art created for exclusive purposes came to be produced.
In the Mauryan period there were remarkable pieces of works of art by the state. With the formation of social groups who could extend patronage to the creator of art forms new trends in art activities came about.
In the post- Mauryan period such patronage by various social groups was the reason behind the phenomenal development and growth of various art forms of the times when art activities spread all over India and beyond.
From the Mauryan period onward a shift is also perceptible towards the use of non-perishable material such as stone as the medium for creative expression.
It was also the time for interaction with those art forms which flourished beyond the frontiers of the country when various schools of art were formed. The schools of Gandhara and Mathura emerged as also the features characterising Saranath and Amaravati.
The general characteristics of art and architecture during 200 bc-ad 300 can be stated as below:
1. Art forms in this period are representations of the symbols, centres and units of the religions practiced by the people.
2. The Buddha images which are sculpted during the period are a departure from the earlier forms which were symbolic, such as a pair of footprints, the Bodhi tree, etc. Image worship became a common practice among all religions from this time on.
3. More stupas, chaityas and viharas were constructed than earlier times.
4. Symbols used in art forms were not exclusive to one particular religion. Yakshas, Yakshinis, Nagas and Naginis from the Brahmanical pantheon decorate the stupas of Bharhut and Sanchi along with scenes from the Buddha’s life.
5. Likewise, natural scenes along with religious symbols decorate the stupas. In fact, some of the scenes can be regarded as secular.
6. Elements of non-Indian art forms are used.
The architecture of the period is of two types, residences and religious monuments. However, none of the residential structures exist because these were made of perishable material like wood.
The religious monuments have either survived or their ruins have been found during excavations. In literary texts there are descriptions of cities and the residences there. For instance, the Pali text Milindapanha describes a city with moats, ramparts, gate-houses, well laid-out streets, gardens, markets and temples.
The residences are of several storeys with wagon-vaulted roofs and are of wooden construction. Archaeological evidences support some of the descriptions. There was however no change in the shape and construction of the huts in the countryside.
With regard to temples, excavations do not reveal much about their construction. In fact, temples with deities consecrated inside for worship became a common practice much later.
Anyway, Fa-hsien has given an account of a structure which existed several centuries before his visit to Taxila. It was a tall 13-storey structure supposedly built by Kanishka, and it had an iron column surrounding it with imposing umbrellas.
Nonetheless, the earliest known temples during this period are the temple atjhandial (Taxila); the Sankarshana temple at Nagari (Rajasthan); the temple at Besnagar (Madhya Pradesh); and an aspidal temple at Nagaijunakonda (Andhra Pradesh).
Actually, the Buddhist stupas are the only religious structure from this period which has survived.
The practice of preserving the remains of a person below accumulated earth was adopted by the Buddhists over which a particular type of structure known as the stupa was built Buddhist tradition says that the remains of Buddha were divided into eight parts and placed in stupas.
During Asoka’s reign these were dug out and redistributed leading to the construction of other stupas. The stupas have the shape of an inverted bowl the top of which is a bit flat, and is called the harmika, the abode of the gods.
The relics of the Buddha in silver and a gold casket are placed here and on the stands a staff with three umbrella of it like discs representing respect, veneration and magnanimity.
The -staff is called yashti, meaning a stick. The other distinguishing features of a stupa are the torana (gate), railings, and panels depicting the life story of Buddha and so on.
Chaityas and viharas are the places of worship for Buddhists and Jains alike. A chaitya is a shrine cell with a votive stupa placed in the centre. The viharas are primarily caves carved out of rocks to be used as shelters for monks.
Most of the chaityas and viharas of this period were excavated in western India in places like Bhaja, Karle, Kanheri, Nasik, etc.
In eastern India, such caves were excavated by the Jain king Kharavela at Udayagiri near Bhubaneswar.
The basic features of chaityas are: a long rectangular hall ending in a semi-circle at the rear end; the hall has a nave, an apse and two side aisles; two rows of pillars separate the aisles from the nave; and the votive stupa is placed in the apsidal part of the nave and the pillars go round it.
In the earlier caves, the plans are somewhat irregular. This is improved upon in the caves excavated later where the plans have a regular shape.
The viharas are the other types of rock-cut architecture of this period with the following features: a square or oblong hall in the centre; a pillared balcony in front of the hall; there are also a number of small square cells; and portions of the floors in the cells and hall are raised for the use of the monks as beds, etc.
The sculptures during this period occasionally formed a part of the architecture, as for instance a sculpted pillar in a rock-cut cave.
By and large, there developed in this period, a particular style of sculpture in a specific locality; in other words, there developed different schools of sculpture. In the North, distinctive styles of sculptural creations developed in the Gandhara and Mathura regions, while in the Krishna-Godavari region the Amaravati School of sculpture emerged.
The sculpture of this period is mostly seen in the Buddha images and reliefs carved on the railings, plinths and gateways of the stupas as also on the facades and walls of the chaityas and viharas.
Brahmanical sculptures in this period are very few. An important development is the sculpting of Buddha images both in the Gandhara and Mathura schools, following which Jain images and idols of Brahmanical deities were also made.
Sculptures on the round were also made during this period. These are large, well-modelled figures, not anatomically proportioned (they are not intended to be so) and mostly represent Yakshas and Yakshinis.
Icon or image worship among the Jains is traced to the Shunga period. A damaged nude, male torso from Lohanipur (Patna) is identified as a tirlhankara. The Hathigumpha inscription says that image worship among Jainas was prevalent before Mauryan times.
Jaina images with ashtamangalas (eight auspicious marks) from Mathura suggest that idol worship was common among Jainas in the first century ad. Seated and standing images of Buddha from Gandhara and Mathura indicate the beginning of worship of such forms by the Mahayana sect.
The bas reliefs of Bodhgaya, Bharhut and Sanchi representing the early phase of this form of sculpture show themes of Jataka stories or scenes from Buddha’s life in continuous fashion on the medallions or rectangular panels on the railings surrounding the stupas.