Sculptures - Sarnath and Sanchi, Gandhara and Mathura
next golden chapter of Indian sculpture opens in the
3rd century BC, when the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka adopted
Buddhism and set out on a mission to spread the teachings
of the faith as far and wide as possible. He had 85,000
stupas or dome-shaped monuments constructed with the
teachings of Buddhism engraved on rocks and pillars.
These inscriptions which served as edicts can be seen
in Buddhist monuments in Gujarat, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh
and Tamil Nadu. The famous Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath
in Madhya Pradesh gleams in polished sandstone representing
the hieratic art under the Mauryan Empire. The lion
capital of the pillar is now the official emblem of
the Indian Republic and the sacred wheel of law or the
dharmachakra is symbolic of the first sermon that Buddha
delivered at Sarnath.
Great Stupa at Sanchi is perhaps the finest surviving
relic of the Mauryan Empire and is a renowned Buddhist
monument. Its finely carved gateways depict Buddhist
legends and lifestyles of two thousand years ago. The
foundation of the Stupa was laid by Ashoka and he set
up monasteries here as a retreat for the Buddhist monks.
The Great Stupa is fifty-four feet high and is surrounded
by a stone railing and four elaborately carved gateways
on each side. The gateway reliefs depict tales of Buddha's
incarnations, his life as a prince, his moment of enlightenment,
his sermons and his worshippers. This site at Sanchi
also includes remains of smaller stupas, pillars and
In the 1st century AD, the position changed somewhat
radically in art and sculpture. The human figure replaced
the symbolic representation of Buddha and his teachings.
Though Buddha opposed the idea of idol worship, his
cult image was established and became essential for
acts of worship. The Mathura and the Gandhara schools
of sculpture imparted human form to Buddha's image.
To emphasise his divinity, this human form was depicted
with features like a halo around the head, the dharmachakra
engraved upon his palms and soles of his feet, and the
lion throne representing his royal ancestry. These early
stone images of Buddha are awe-inspiring in terms of
size and magnificence.
The Buddha statues of the 5th century exhibit a unique
sensibility with human figures that are meditative and
serene, a body that is subtly modelled and a face that
glows with enlightenment. Here, the ultimate definition
of the divine is indicated in the soft folds of the
dress, the exquisite curvature of the hands and the
half-closed eyes of the Buddha.