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Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas$

Romila Thapar

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780198077244

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198077244.001.0001

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(p.397) Appendix VI Mauryan Art

(p.397) Appendix VI Mauryan Art

Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas
Oxford University Press

THE ART REMAINS of the Mauryan period have been so overshadowed by their closeness in style to those of the Achaemenid period of Persian history, that they tend to be regarded more as ammunition in the battle between those art-historians who treat them as products of Persian craftsmen, and the opposing school which regards them as purely indigenous. It is not our intention in this appendix to enter into the debate which centres largely round the problem of artistic impulses, and which requires a detailed consideration of both Greek and Achaemenid art. We merely wish to point out the more relevant aspects of Mauryan art in relation to Mauryan society.

Art remains of the Aśokan period, are found in association with the inscriptions. The inscriptions were placed either in sacred enclosures or else in the vicinity of towns. The most commonly found remains are the animal capitals of the pillars. The significance of the pillars is not difficult to determine.1 The origin of the pillar as a structure goes back to the monolith of the prehistoric period. These were generally cut from a single block of stone and stood in an enclosure which was regarded as sacred. Sometimes they were worshipped as a phallic (p.398) emblem or liṅga. The advantage of inscribing a text on such a pillar was that of associating the text with a place of importance. Moreover, as Smith points out,2 the Sahasrām inscription states that edicts are to be inscribed on rocks and pillars, and of the latter, wherever a stone pillar is standing.3 This suggests that some of the pillars antedate Aśoka’s reign. Uninscribed pillars of this kind may have served a ritualistic purpose.

Coomaraswamy distinguishes between court art and a more popular art during the Mauryan period.4 Court art is represented by the pillars and their capitals. In these the stone is polished and cut with great technical skill. He describes this art as being advanced and of a late type with realistic modelling and movement.

Undoubtedly a tradition in wood or some other perishable medium existed previous to the stone work of the Mauryas. Since wood was used extensively for the building of cities,5 its use in sculpture and for decorative purposes generally would be normal. Excavations at the Mauryan level at Śiśupālgarh have revealed wooden remains. On examination the wood was found to be of the same species of trees as now found in Orissa.6 The decline in the use of wood may have been in part due to the influence of contact with Achaemenid Persia, but the more practical reason was probably the denudation of the forests in the Ganges plain.7

The pillars are of two types of stone. Some are of the spotted red and white sandstone from the region of Mathura, and others of buff-coloured fine grained hard sandstone usually with small black spots quarried in Chunar near Banaras. The north-western province was no doubt familiar with the use of stone for ornamental purposes owing to its having been in close association with Achaemenid centres. Taxila must have had its share of stone carvers, as a number (p.399) of stone objects of a decorative nature were found at Bhir Mound. With the establishment of the Mauryan empire and improvement in communications, it became possible to transport large blocks of stone from one region to another and also to send craftsmen to carve the stone. The uniformity of style in the pillar capitals suggests that they were all sculpted by craftsmen from the same region. The stone is similarly, only of the two above-mentioned types. It would seem, therefore, that stone was transported from Mathura and Chunar to the various sites where the pillars have been found and here the stone was cut and carved by craftsmen. The latter probably came from Taxila, and had had experience in handling stone. Remains of chippings from Taxila suggest that the sculpture was fashioned by local craftsmen.8

The stone elephant at Dhauli does not appear to belong to the same tradition as the animal capitals. It was probably carved by local craftsmen and not by the special craftsmen who were responsible for the animal capitals. The image of the elephant emerging from the rock is a most impressive one, and its purpose was probably to draw attention to the inscription near by.

The work of local sculptors illustrates the popular art of the Mauryan period. This consisted of sculpture which may not and probably was not, commissioned by the emperor. The patrons of popular art were the local governors and the more-well-to-do citizens. It is represented by figures such as the yakṣī of Besnagar, the yakṣī of Parkham and the chaurī-bearer from Didarganj. Whether or not these particular pieces are of a pre-Mauryan period, they appear to belong, artistically, to the same group as the Dhauli elephant. Technically, they are fashioned with less skill than the pillar capitals. They express a considerable earthiness and physical vitality.9

Wheeler has suggested that the Mauryan craftsmen employed by the state may have been unemployed Persians who had settled in India.10 This is feasible in view of the fact that Persians, or Indians (p.400)

Appendix VI Mauryan Art

Dhauli. Elephant carved from the rock at the site of the Aśokan inscriptions

(p.401) of Persian origin, were employed by the Mauryans in the western and north-western provinces, as for example, the governor Tuṣāspa. It is surprising, however, that if there was a large number of Persian craftsmen settled in these areas, objects of Achaemenid origin have hot been found in great quantity. In examining the court art of the Mauryan period, it is as well to keep in mind that the artistic expression of an imperial structure is seldom national. An empire is in its very nature more cosmopolitan than a small state, largely because it comprises areas which were foreign to one another previous to the establishment of the empire.

Smith has suggested that the Sārnāth lion-capital may have been the work of foreign artists, because a century later when the same type of sculpture was attempted on the south gateway at Sanchi, it failed.11 The argument here is that Indian craftsmen when left to themselves could not produce the same piece. In this connection it is important to remember, that the purpose of sculpture has much to do with its estimated success or failure. The sculpture on the south gateway if considered in isolation from the monument and compared with the lion-capital, may not be sculpturally as noble and imposing as the latter. Yet, if the gateway had been adorned with sculpture in the precise style of the lion-capital, the result would have been artistically a far greater failure. The purpose of the Sārnāth capital is to emphasize a finely proportioned pillar containing an imperial message, and therefore suits a mood of isolation and majesty. The sculpture at Sanchi represents a completely different idea and is consequently of a very different genre. It is the expression of a community wishing to revere a monument which it regards as sacred.

Terracotta objects of various sizes have been found at Mauryan sites. A continuation of the tradition of making mother-goddesses in clay, which goes back to the prehistoric period, is revealed by the discovery of these objects at Mauryan levels at Ahicchatrā.12 They are found more commonly at sites extending from Pāṭaliputra to Taxila. (p.402) Many have stylized forms and technically are most accomplished, in that they have a well-defined shape and clear ornamentation. Some appear to have been made from moulds, yet there is little duplication. Terracottas from Taxila consist of primitive idols, votive reliefs with deities, toys, dice, ornaments, and beads.13 Toys were mostly wheeled animals, the elephant being a particular favourite. Amongst the ornaments were round medallions, similar to the bullae worn by Roman boys, which were meant to act as a protection against the ‘evil eye’.


(1) We are not here considering pillars as a part of architecture, but free-standing pillars.

(2) History of Fine Art in India and Ceylon, p. 20.

(3) Bloch, Les Inscriptions d’Asoka, p. 149.

(4) History of Indian and Indonesian Art, p. 16.

(5) Arthaśāstra, II, 36.

(6) Chowdhury and Ghosh, AI, vol. viii, p. 28.

(7) Basham, The Wonder that was India, p. 348.

(8) Marshall, Taxila, vol. i, p. 103.

(9) Coomaraswamy, History of Indian and Indonesian Art, p. 17.

(10) AI, vol. iv, p. 94.

(11) History of Fine Art in India and Ceylon, p. 16.

(12) Ghosh, AI, vol. iv, p. 106; Coomaraswamy, History of Indian and Indonesian Art, p. 20.

(13) Marshall, Taxila, vol. ii, pp. 440, 454, 460.