What were the unique features of Religious Architecture of the Mauryan period?

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It is in the field of religious architecture that most new activities are recorded. It is often stated that the post-Mauryan, Shunga period was one of Brahmanical reaction against Buddhism, and this might be expected to be reflected in a reduction of Buddhist structural activities, but the archaeological evidence hardly supports this view. The same styles and structures seen in embryo in the late Mauryan period continue to flourish.

At Sanchi, Bharhut, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Amaravati, Pauni and Bairat, there are important developments. At Sanchi and Bharhut (Ashokan) the main stupas were enlarged and stone railings and gateways were added to them. Soon thereafter both of them were adorned with relief carvings and inscriptions.

At Bodh Gaya the Mahabodhi temple was rebuilt many times. Around 100 BC it was surrounded by an elaborate and beautifully carved railing, dated by a Shunga period inscription. In the first or second century AD it was completely rebuilt. This time it assumed the form of a tower temple, represented on a terracotta relief plaque from Patna.

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At Amaravati (Ashokan foundation) the main stupa was given a distinctive railing and gateway complex in the first two centuries AD. At Pauni a great stupa was adorned with stone relief carvings and inscriptions in the second century BC. The Dharmarajikastapa at Taxila (Ashokan) underwent several reconstructions at different times. Around second century AD this was ornamented with the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

An extensive renovation of the original monument took place in the Shaka-Kushana period when many of the surrounding structures were erected. The great stupa at Manikyala in Punjab was erected around the beginning of the Christian era. The stupas at Taxila, Chakpat and Manikyala show that the characteristic tendency in post-Mauryan period was the elongation of the stupa.

The Gandhara stupas were richly adorned all around with sculptures set in niches between pilasters, and this arrangement forms the characteristic mode of ornamentation of the Gandhara stupas of the Shaka-Kushana period. Similarly, the Kunal stupa at Taxila, though traditionally ascribed to Ashokan period, represents a monumental type that is particularly associated with the Shaka-Kushana period. At Jhandial a stupa built in Scytho-Parthian style was found.

Fa-hien, a Chinese pilgrim furnishes us with graphic accounts of the great stupa erected at Purushapura by Kanishka. It had ‘a basement in five stages (150 feet), a superstructure {stupa) of carved wood in thirteen storey’s (400 feet)- surmounted by an iron column with thirteen to twenty-five gilt copper umbrellas (88 feet), making a total height of 638 feet’.

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Because of its graceful proportions Fa-hien describes it to be of incomparable beauty and adds, “Tradition says that this was the highest tower in Jambudvipa.” Identified with Shah-ji-ki-Dheri where a basement of 286 feet in diameter has been found, may have been the largest of its kind in India. Koomaraswamy holds that the monument represented a transitional form between the simple stupa and the Far-Eastern Pagoda.

Another form of religious architecture is represented by rock-cut architecture i.e. fashioning shelters and shrines out of the rock, either by enlarging a natural cavern or by new excavations (cutting and shaping to give desired shape and space).

In rock-hewn architecture, no new architectural forms were evolved; instead the forms of structural building were adjusted and adapted. Around the end of the second century BC this form of architecture grew rapidly and we find two main groups of such work: the first is on some of the main routes through the Western Ghats, between

Bombay and such centres as Pune and Nasik; and the other is in eastern India, i.e. Orissa and Andhra. The earliest caves in the west, for example at Bhaja, are all Buddhist and include chaitya halls, some containing stupas and monastic complexes. The height of the early rock-cut architecture may be seen in halls at Karle and Kanheri (AD 75-150).

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The Karle cave is regarded as the finest specimen, on account of the beauty of the sculptures on the front wall, the remarkable rows of pillars inside the hall, and the fine proportion of the different parts of the building. These were cut out during the Satavahana phase. However, the Nagarjunikonda prospered most under the patronage of the Ikshvakus.

It contains, apart from the Buddhist monuments, the earliest brahmanical brick temples. Overall, this place appears to be the richest in structure in the early centuries of the Christian era where Hinayana rock-architecture reached its culmination. Other important stupa structures now known are those at Bhattiprolu, Gudivada, Amaravati, Ghantasala, Jagayyapeta, Goli, Pedda Ganjam etc.

There is also a small but significant body of evidence for the development of monumental architecture belonging to the Vaishnava and Shaiva movements. The excavations at Vidisa revealed that the inscribed pillar of Heliodorus was the sole survivor of an original row of eight which were contemporary with the later period of construction of what was evidently a shrine of Vasudeva.

A similar temple with a massive stone railing bearing several copies of an inscription was discovered at Nagari near Chittor. The inscription belongs to a king called Bhagavata and claimes to have made a stone wall around the Narayana enclosure, dedicated to Vasudeva and Samkarsana.

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At Mathura, during the first century AD, there are a number of Brahmanical icons indicating the existence of temples which have so far not been discovered. In South India, the shrine at Gudimallam was probably built during the second- first century BC, and provides the earliest evidence to date of an actual Shaiva shrine.

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