Art and Architecture in Ancient India
Art of Sculpture
Cultural stonework in India – in the form of primitive cupule art – dates back to the era of prehistoric art of the Lower Paleolithic, around 700,000 BCE – see Bhimbetka Petroglyphs (Auditorium Cave and Daraki-Chattan Rock Shelter, Madhya Pradesh).
By the time of the Bronze Age, sculpture was already the predominant form of artistic expression throughout the Indian subcontinent, even though mural painting was also popular.
Sculpture was used mainly as a form of religious art to illustrate the principles of Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism. The female nude in particular was used to depict the numerous attributes of the gods, for which it was often endowed with multiples heads and arms.
There was certainly no tradition of individuality in Indian sculpture: instead, figures were conceived of as symbols of eternal values.
In simple terms, one can say that – historically – Indian sculptors have focused not on three-dimensional volume and fullness, but on linear character – that is to say, the figure is designed on the basis of its outline, and is typically graceful and slender.
The origin of plastic art in India dates back to the northwestern Indus valley civilization, which was noted primarily for its terracotta sculpture – mainly small figurines – but also for the pioneering bronze sculpture of the Harappan Culture. Other important milestones in the history of sculptureinclude: the Buddhist Pillars of Ashoka of the Mauryan period, with their wonderful carved capitals (3rd century BCE); the figurative Greco-Buddhist sculpture of the Gandhara and Mathura schools, and the Hindu art of the Gupta period (1st-6th century CE).
The Gandhara art, is a style of Buddhist visual art that developed in what is now northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan between the 1st century BCE and the 7th century CE.
The style, of Greco-Roman origin, seems to have flourished largely during the Kushan dynasty and was contemporaneous with an important but dissimilar school of Kushan art at Mathura.
The Gandhara region had long been a crossroads of cultural influences. During the reign of the Indian emperor Ashoka (3rd century BCE), the region became the scene of intensive Buddhist missionary activity. And in the 1st century CE, rulers of the Kushan empire, which included Gandhara, maintained contacts with Rome. In its interpretation of Buddhist legends, the Gandhara School incorporated many motifs and techniques from Classical Roman art, including vine scrolls, cherubs bearing garlands, tritons, and centaurs. The basic iconography, however, remained Indian.
The materials used for Gandhara sculpture were green phyllite and gray-blue mica schist which in general, belong to an earlier phase, and stucco, which was used increasingly after the 3rd century CE. The sculptures were originally painted and gilded.
The Gandhara’s role in the evolution of the Buddha image has been a point of considerable disagreement among scholars. It now seems clear that the schools of Gandhara and Mathura each independently evolved its own characteristic depiction of the Buddha about the 1st century CE.
The Gandhara School drew upon the anthropomorphic traditions of Roman religion and represented the Buddha with a youthful Apollo-like face, dressed in garments resembling those seen on Roman imperial statues.
The schools of Gandhara and Mathura influenced each other, and the general trend was away from a naturalistic conception and toward a more idealized, abstract image.
The Gandhara craftsmen made a lasting contribution to Buddhist art in their composition of the events of the Buddha’s life into set scenes.
In the art history of India, Mathura occupies a prominent place. The sculptural marvels excavated here provide an insight into Indian art from early times to the medieval period. However, the golden period of its art was from the first to the fifth century AD when the Kushan and Gupta kings were in power.
The Kushans, who were great patrons of art, ruled over a large empire in North India from AD 1 to AD 175. Two schools of sculptural art developed during this period-Gandhara and Mathura.
Although it portrayed Indian themes, the Gandhara School was based on Greco-Roman norms encapsulating foreign techniques and an alien spirit. On the other hand, the Mathura school was completely Indian.
The Mathura School of Art, noted for its vitality and assimilative character, was a result of the religious zeal of Brahmanism, Jainism and Buddhism. Although it was inspired by the early Indian arts of Bharhut and Sanchi, the influence of Gandhara arts was also manifested in its sculptures. Further, it amalgamated the features of old folk cults like Yaksha worship with contemporary cults, creating a style rich in aesthetic appeal.
There are few creations in the whole range of Indian art which can vie in elegance, delicacy and charm with the lovely feminine figures created by Mathura artists. The innocent but seductive damsels of the Mathura School display highly alluring sexual grace and charm. A Yakshi is usually portrayed nude with globular breasts invariably covered, smooth thighs and the lower garments either shown as transparent or suggestively parted. Her physical charms, combined with soft and pleasant facial expressions, make her extremely enticing.
The sculptures of the Buddha, on the other hand, radiate the religious feelings of gentleness and compassion. In fact, it was during the Kushan period that the Buddha was conceived in human form and sculpted in stone. Carved in bold relief, the features were given a three-dimensional effect, a concept that was probably borrowed from the West.
The faces of the statues [of the Buddha sculpted during the Kushan period] are characterized by an open radiant expression; the eyes are fully open, the cheeks round and full, the mount ample, with the lips drawn into a slight smile. This smile is probably the earliest appearance of the only possible device by which the Indian sculpture could indicate the inner contentment and repose of the Buddha.
The colossal sculptures of the Buddha, which portray a frontal stance, are fine specimens of the craftsmanship of the Mathura artists. Broad shoulders, masculine torso and right hand raised in abhyamudra are the typical characteristics. The drapery clings to the body in fine rhythmic folds while a big designed halo behind the head adds an extra aura of divinity.
Mathura art, reached its peak during the Gupta period (AD 325 to 600). The sculptures were marked by sharp and beautiful features, graceful and slim body, with many folds of transparent drapery and a new style of coiffure. The human figure reached its highest sublimation in the Gupta classical phase when the divine images conceived and rendered in the shape of a human being assumed a superhuman aspect and attained the true spiritual import.
In the period between the Mauryas and Guptas lot of wealth and energy were spent on Buddhist architecture and one of their major symbol was the stupa. The main sites of Buddhist stupas are Bharhut and Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh and Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh.
The stupa in Amaravati, which is larger than the more famous one in Sanchi, was originally built during the time of Emperor Asoka. It was completed in 200 A.D and is decorated with carved panels which tell the story of Buddha’s life.
This region between Krishna and Godavari was an important place for Buddhism from the 2ndcentury B.C and some ancient sculpture in low relief has been found here. During the Satavahana period (2nd – 3rd century A.D), Dharanikota near Amaravati was chosen as the capital. The stupa was then adorned with limestone reliefs and free standing Buddha figures.
During the period of the decline of Buddhism, this stupa was also neglected and it was burried under rubble. There is a 14th century inscription in Sri Lanka which mentions repairs made to the stupa and after that it was forgotten.
Art historians regard the Amaravati art as one of the three major styles or schools of ancient Indian art, the other two being the Gandhara style and the Mathura style. Some of the Buddhist sculptures of Amaravati betray a Greco-Roman influence that was the direct result of the close trade and diplomatic contacts between South India and the ancient Romans. Indeed, Amaravati has itself yielded a few Roman coins. The Amravati school of art had great influence on art in Sri Lanka and South-East Asia as products from here were carried to those countries. It also had influence over South Indian sculpture.