The well known art historian A.K.Coomaraswamy divides Mauryan art into two: indigenous art and official or court art. The best examples of indigenous art are two freestanding stone figures a yaksha image from Parkham and a yakshi sculpture from Besnagar . These figures are of archaic aspect and designed from a frontal view-point. A more perfect example of this style is a large female cauri-bearer from Patna. A fourth specimen is represented by a male yaksha. Though the original figure must have been over twelve feet in height, only the upper part of the figure survives today. This group of sculptures shows that the indigenous school was well developed and established during the Mauryan period.
Official art under Ashoka is represented by the monolithic pillars on which the king's edicts were engraved. These pillars are the finest examples of a highly developed technique for cutting and polishing stone surfaces. The shine and finish imparted to the stone can still be seen and is a hallmark of Maurya Art. The capital of these pillars were realistically modelled and consisted of groups of animals. The finest extant example is that of Sarnath. It consists of four addorsed lions which originally supported a dharma-chakra. These rest on an abacus bearing in relief an elephant, horse, bull and lion separated by four small dharma chakras. Another remarkable animal figure of the Mauryan period is the elephant at Dhauli. However, it belongs to a very different tradition and has little in common with the animal capitals. The main purpose of the elephant emerging from the rock was probably to draw attention to the inscription nearby.
Two types of stone were used for Mauryan pillars, the spotted red and white sandstone from the region around Mathura and the buff-coloured Chunar sandstone obtained from the region around Varanasi. There is a uniformity in the pillar capitals suggesting that they were all sculpted by craftsmen belonging to the same region. As a result of improved communications between different parts of the sub-continent, it is likely that the stone was transported from Mathura and Chunar to the various sites where the pillars were then cut and sculpted by the craftsmen. A majority of the Ashokan pillars occur in the Ganga basin. An interesting exception is the pillar fragment from Amaravati in Andhra. It is made of locally available quartzite and seems to have been cut, shaped, modelled and even polished locally. Some scholars have argued that the Mauryas employed Persian craftsmen who worked in stone. In support of the presence of foreigners, they give the example of Governor Tusappa who is referred to as a yavana. It is surprising, however, that the Persian craftsmen settled in the Mauryan empire did not produce many more objects of Achaeminid origin. Very few of these have been found so far.
Ashoka is credited with the construction of a large number of stupas. But many of these are now covered over by later additions and so, it is not possible to form any idea about them. But several caves were excavated by the Mauryas in the Barabar Hills, Bihar for use by the Ajivikas. These were all exquisitely finished and polished, like glass on the inside. What is fascinating is the extent to which these caves, cut into hard rock, imitate contemporary wooden structures. The entrance to the Lomash Rishi cave is carved in complete imitation of wooden forms.
In addition to the architectural remains, a large number of fragmentary sculptures are also dated to the Mauryan period. Most of these are heads, presumably of donor figures. What is striking about them is the range of head-dresses depicted and the individuality of the expressions. The material used is mainly polished buff sandstone. No less important is a group of terracottas which have been found at several Mauryan sites during archaeological excavations. These are usually made from moulds and depicts a standing female divinity with an elaborate coiffure. This figure has been identified as a Mother-Goddess associated with fertility. Terracotta was also used for making toys and these consist mainly of wheeled animals, a favourite being the elephant.
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