What were the motifs and patterns used in the Mauryan period?

By Sunil Kumar

The Mauryan period is regarded as one of general affluence and a stable, unified empire in ancient India.

Stone sculpture and architecture was prevalent in vast swathes of the subcontinent since the Indus Valley Civilization. However; we see prevalence of similar creations on a widespread basis again in Mauryan times due to the reason mentioned in the first line.

Ancient Hindu practices amalgamated with a powerful cultural force, Buddhism as well as the Jains along with the patronage of Emperors like Ashoka who had extensive contacts with other civilizations; both West and East led to a distinctive effusive pattern in art and unique motifs. Among them; the symbols of the Indian republic derived from an adaptation of the Lion Capital at Sarnath etc.

Court art included royal buildings; a hall with numerous players in which 84 lithic pillars have been discovered. There are accounts of the Chinese pilgrim Fa Hien having visited and being impressed by the grandeur of the place 600 years after the collapse of the Mauryan empire.

Free-standing Ashokan pillars symbolize a world axis(Latin: axis mundi) which separated heaven and earth. Most motifs of the period are richly symbolic signifying a harmonious intermingling of the dominant cultural forces of the period; and have floral designs like the lotus and honeysuckle; apart from animals etc.

Yaksha worship was also common which was incorporated into Buddhist folklore and art.

A lion appears in Vaishali; Lauriya Nandangarh and one of the Rampurva pillars(West Champaran, Bihar close to Nepal). Buddha is apparently referred to as Sakya Simha(lion among the Sakyas(his clan). Similarly elephants, bulls and spoked wheels tie in with different Buddhist beliefs and a wider cultural narrative of the ancient Indic civilization.

Peacocks have been found in Indus Valley tribal art; Mauryan Buddhist sculpture; Gupta-period artifacts; Mughal miniatures to the present day. It is now India’s national bird and symbolizes immortality, courtship and fertility. Goose or “Hansa” motif was used in Mauryan times to signify spiritual purity.

Lotus has also been used widely as it is regarded as the flower of wisdom and abstract spiritual significance upto the present day. Currently examples include “lotus” pond in Maitrimandir, Auroville or the Baa’hai Lotus temple in New Delhi.

In West Asia; lions are used to adorn the gateways of palaces; and the parapet of fortifications and are ferocious and monstrous; in line with the more violent ethos of the region.

The Mauryan empire used the animals however for more religious and spiritual symbolism; representing the triumph of piety and dhamma throughout the kingdom. It was meant as inspiration for the Sangha to spread its message in distant parts unlike West Asia where it was used for personality cults of vain kings.

Indian rulers however are likely to have been impressed and coveted Western motifs including Hellenistic(Greek) sculpture and art; as well as some of the regal splendour of Achaemenid Persia. A cultural intermingling is likely to have taken place; with a consequent reworking of Indian art; thought and sculpture.

After the death of the Buddha; keeping in line with his injunction that he was only a spiritual seeker who had explored and preached about the path to nirvana; no statues or physical representations of Siddhartha Gautama were made. But Gandharan art(province of the Mauryan empire; present-day Afghanistan) represented the confluence of Indian(Hindu) art and Greek influences; which were used to catalyze the Buddhist revolution along the Silk Roads, South-East Asia and later China, Korea and Japan.

This was mostly an outlier; as stupas, viharas(monasteries) and rock-cut inscriptions were mostly found in Ashoka’s Mauryan empire. But due to the Greco-Indian kingdoms mentioned above; Indian art had a profound influence on the cultures of East Asia(which still survives in Buddhist iconography) and former West Asia.

Buddhist/Hindu universities like Taxila, Nalanda and Vikramshila also helped conserve texts, motifs and ideas from the Mauryan empire for more than a thousand years. Pre-Mauryan traditions like reliefs of Surya, Indra etc were preserved in Buddhist caves and incorporated in Indic tradition so that Hindu gods were artistically depicted as part of Buddhist theology as far away as Japan.

Main accomplishments of the Mauryan empire were Ashoka’s dhamma-spreading missions that kept alive some part of the traditions of his era alive centuries after they were lost in the country of its birth; India and restricted to a few “lost” and then rediscovered sites.

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