The Mauryan Empire was geographically the vastest empire of ancient India. This empire was ruled by the Mauryan Dynasty from 322 to 185 BCE. Chandragupta Maurya was the founder of the Maurya Empire and made Pataliputra (present day Patna) his capital. Pataliputra was one of the most amazing cities of that time because of its beautiful buildings and royal palaces, but as most of these constructions were made of wood they got damaged over a period of time. Apart from art and culture, there was complete social harmony and also some great developments were made in science and knowledge during this period in India. With the Maurya Empire came a change in art forms as well. Earlier, wood was the chief material for most art forms, but it was changed to stone during the Maurya Empire. Even the present day national emblem of India, the Lion Capital of Asoka at Sarnath belongs to the Maurya Empire.
Exemplary Work During the Maurya Empire
Pillars of Ashoka
One of the finest and most renowned examples of Mauryan art are the monolithic Pillars of Ashoka. Erected either in sacred places or vicinity of towns, these pillars were constructed out of a single stone and have Ashoka edicts inscribed on them. Spotted red and white sandstone was used to make these pillars. Each pillar consists of three parts – the support under the foundation (buried in the ground), the shaft of the column and the capital (consists of animal figure, either a lion or an elephant).
The Sarnath Pillar is one of the best examples of Mauryan art and sculpture. This consists of four figures of lions standing back to back, smaller figures of four animals, and an inverted lotus flower.
Other popular sculptures from the Mauryan period are the Yakshi of Besnagar in MP, the Yaksha of Parkham close to Mathura and the stone elephant from Dhauli in Orissa.
Stupas are other prominent art forms built by Ashoka. It is believed that there were 84,000 stupas that were built to protect the remnants of Buddha.
During the Mauryan Empire the art of pottery was at its zenith. The potters wheel has become universal by then. A special kind of pottery known as the Northern Black Polished Ware (NBP) is said to have been the trademark of Mauryan pottery. Made of fine alluvial clay, NBP was distinguishable from the other forms of pottery because of its unique sheen and brilliance. Most of the excavated Mauryan sites are full of terracotta objects of different sizes, including toys, primitive idols, ornaments and beads have been found in Taxila.
Copper and silver coins of different sizes, shapes and weights with punched symbols are specific to the Mauryan period. Elephant, mountains and tree in railing symbol were the most common symbols. Coins were often re-issued as some of these also had Shroff (money changer) marks on them.
The Barabar Caves are the most important legacy of the Mauryas. The caves are located at a distance of 19 miles from Bodh Gaya. The art of polishing was excellent during this period and the two sites having Barabar Caves have been polished just like glass mirrors.
Local sculptors who were not commissioned by the emperor had also created some of the most beautiful sculptures of that period. The female figure of Besnagar and the male figure of Parkham are examples of their art. The figures of stone elephant at Dhauli were again made by local artist.
Some more features of the Mauryan Empire
- There were seven castes in Mauryan society – philosophers, farmers, soldiers, herdsmen, artisans, magistrates and councillors.
- Roads were laid down during this period and royal highways were used to connect Taxila and Pataliputra.
- Widows were given an honorable position in the society. Overall complete freedom to women was given.
- Agriculture flourished during this period as farmers were liberated of tax. Also there was no burden of crop collection on them.
- A single currency across India was established by Chandragupta Maurya.
- Towns and urban culture was established during the Mauryan period.
- Strong central government and a large army was key to the Mauryan Empire.
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