The art and architecture of the Mauryan Empire constitutes the culminating point of the progress of Indian art. The period was marked by mature use of stone and production of masterpieces.
Classification: The Mauryan period art and architecture, except that of the relics of the palace of Chandragupta Maurya at Pataliputra, is mainly Asokan. It can be classified into Stupas, Pillars, Caves, Palaces and Pottery.
Mauryan Stupas: The Stupas were solid domes constructed of brick or stone, varying in sizes. Samrat Ashoka built numerous stupas scattered over the country. But most of the stupas have not survived the ravages of time. The Ashokan stupas were constructed to celebrate the achievements of Gautama Buddha.
The Sanchi Stupa as a hemispherical dome, truncated near the top, surrounded at the base by lofty terrace to serve as gate for procession.
The special point of stupa architecture was the dome. Inside the stupa, in the central hall was preserved some relics of Buddha in a casket. The inner wall of the stupas was built either by terracotta bricks or by sun-burnt bricks. The top of the dome was decorated by a wooden or stone umbrella denoting universal supremacy of Dharma. There was a parikrama encircling the stupa.
One of the most notable and vast stupa was built at in Ceylon. The Amaravati Stupa was built in the Lower Krishna Valley in 200 A.D. Besides there were Nagarjunakonda, Ghantasala stupas built in later ages in South India.
Mauryan Pillars: The most striking monuments of Mauryan art are the celebrated Pillars of Dharma. These pillars were free standing columns and were not used as supports to any structure. They had two main parts, the shaft and the capital. The shaft is monolith column made of one piece of stone with exquisite polish. The art of polishing was so marvelous that many people felt that it was made of metal.
Some of the Pillars mark the stages of Asoka’s pilgrimage to various centers of Buddhism.
The Sarnath: The Sarnath column has the most magnificent capitol. It is a product of a developed type of art of which the world knew in the Third Century B.C. It has been fittingly adopted as the emblem of the Modem Indian Republic. It is seven feet in height. The lowest part of the capitol is curved as an inverted lotus and bell shaped. Above it are four animals, an elephant, a horse, a bull, a lion representing the east, south, west and north in Vedic symbol. The four animals engraved on the abacus have been variously interpreted.
Mauryan Caves Architecture: The pillars are not the only artistic achievements to Ashoka’s reign. The rock cut caves of Ashoka and that of his grandson Dasaratha Maurya constructed for the residence of monks are, wonderful specimens of art. The caves at Barabar hill in the north of Gaya and the Nagarjuni hill caves, the Sudama caves, etc. are the extant remains of cave architecture of the Mauryan era. The Barabar hill cave was donated by Asoka to Ajivika monks and the three separate caves at Nagarjuni hills were by Dasharatha to them. The Gopi cave was excavated in the reign of Dasaratha in a tunnel like fashion. The caves are chaste in style and their interior is polished like mirror. The pillars inside these caves appear to be superfluous. They perhaps are legacies of wooden architecture that preceded the stone or lithic architecture.
Mauryan Palaces and Residential buildings: The gilded pillars of the Mauryan palace were adorned with golden vines and silver birds. The workman-ship of the imperial palace was of very high standard. Fa-Hien remarked that “no human hands of this world could accomplish this.”
Probably there were similar palaces in other cities. All towns were surrounded by the high walls with battlements and ditches with water, bearing lotuses and other plants and the whole was surrounded by railings.
Mauryan Pottery: The Mauryan pottery consisted of many types of wares. The black polished type found in North India is important. It has a burnished and glazed surface.
The centre of North Indian pottery manufacture is presumed to be Kosambi and Pataliputra.