(Indian Art & Culture) The Mauryan, Gupta, Shunga-Satavahana-Saka Age, Contribution of Kushanas, Pallavas and Cholas


The Mauryan Age

The rise of the Mauryan dynasty ushers in a new era in the political and cultural history of India. It was in the Mauryan Age that India became the cultural ambassador of the world, sending out missionaries to spread out India’s civilisation and religion to distant parts of the globe. India under the Mauryas sought to build a new world based on peace, brotherhood and cultural unity.

The Mauryan period is a great Landmark in the history of the Indian Art. In fact, the history of Indian Art begins with the advent of the Mauryans. The stone monuments of Aśoka have defied the ravages of time and they form the earliest artistic record of Indian civilisation yet discovered. The perfection which the art of sculpture attained during this period suggests that it had a long period of continuous and steady developments. Tradition credits Asoka with building 84,000 stupas all over India and Afghanistan.

The monolithic pillars or lats set up by Asoka furnish, perhaps, the finest, the most beautiful and characteristic specimens of the remains of the Mauryan art. These Asokan pillars are a triumph of engineering, architecture and sculpture. The capital of the Sarnath Pillar is undoubtedly the most magnificent and has been declared the finest piece of sculpture.

Dr. V.A. Smith makes the following observation of the Sarnath capital, which is our national emblem. “it would be difficult to find in any country an example of ancient sculpture or even equal to this beautiful work of art, which successfully combines realistic modeling with ideal dignity and is finished in every detail with perfect accuracy”.

It would be an exaggeration of we call the mauryan age a brilliant period in Indian history. The world owes a huge debt to one of the Mauryan kings – Asoka. He is the only King in the history of world who gave up war after victory and attempted to banish warentirely from the world. He not only gave to the world the lessons of religious toleration but placed before the world the model of an ideal king. The century and a half of Mauryan rule witnessed a growth of civilisation, art and culture which entitled India to rank among the greatest countries of the time.

The Shunga-Satavahana-Saka Age

The Mauryan Emperous were succeeded in Magadha by the Sunga and Kanva rules, while the Greeks, the Parthians, the Sakas and the Kushanas ruled the north-west frontier. In the trans-Vindhyan India a new power was rising under the Satavahanas. The Satavahana rule Lasted for nearly three hundred years. Together with these kingdoms a large number indigenous states also flourished in northern India during the long period of approximately four centuries.

There was an outburst of activity in the realms of religion, literature and art. Under the liberal patronage of Kanishka, Buddhism spread far and wide especially in Central Asia and China. Bhagvata (the cult of Vasudeva-Krishna) and Saiva sects were growing in importance. Many foreigners were converted to Bhagvata religion. The famous Greek ruler Menander embraced Buddhism while Saka rulers embraced the vedic religion.

The alien rulers in India, the Greeks, the Sakas and the Kushanas were indianised. The missionary activities of the votaries of Buddhism and of Vedic religion outside India enabled the Indians to set up their cultural centres. The presence of aliens, especially the Greeks, restored India’s contact with foreign countries. Besides opening avenues for brisk foreign trade, india art and science were also influenced by the Hellenic culture. The rise of the Gandhara School of art testifies to the prevalence of foreign influence on the art of the country.

Inspite of the existence of a large number of sects and creeds, the votaries of different faiths were living in percept harmony. The national art of India underwent a rapid development in this period. The artists took considerable pain in carving and evolved perfect techniques of sculpture. This was probably on account of the natural growth of an aesthetic progress.

For the first time Indian art became conscious of the socio-economic structure of the society and in view of the social psychology learnt “to differentiate between the subtle and the violent shades and emotions of the human heart. The base reliefs of Bharhut, Sanchi, Amravati and other places serve the purpose of an illuminating commentary on the life of the age. They reflect spontaneous joy, emotions and movements of the life of the masses.

Contribution of the Kushanas to Indian Culture

The empire of the Kushanas proved a great civilising factor. It opened the way for the spread of Indian civilisation to central and eastern Asia. Trade and commerce flowed between China, India, Persia, Mesopotamia and the Roman-Umpire. The Kushana Ambassadors were dispatched to the great Roman Emperors. The sea-borne trade of India was Carried, Under the Kushanas, through the Persian Gulf and the Red Sen.

The Kushanas were patrons of literature and art. A large volume of Sanskrit lilterature of high standard, both religious and secular, was produced in the congenial atmosphere of royal patronage. The name of the Kushana Emperor, Kanishka is associated with several eminent Buddhist writers. Ashvaghosha, Nagarjuna, vasumitra and harak, the reputed count physician of Kanishkam was the celebrated author of the Ayurvedic Science.

An important event of the Kushana Empire is that it not only witnessed the extension of Buddhism but also the most serious dissension with the bosom of the Buddhist church itself. It was this changes in the Buddhist creed which permanently divided Buddhist church into two big camps – Hinayan and Mhahayan the former was the original Buddhism and the latter the new school of Buddhism.

In the Kushana Age, Buddhism in its new form spread rapidly to many countries beyond the borders of India to Tibet, China, Burma and Japan. Mahayanism is called the northern school of Buddhism and Sanskrit is the vehicle of its literature. To distinguish it from the old or Hinayan Buddhism which is called the southern school has Pali as the medium of its sacred texts.

Intimately connected with the Mahayana school of Buddhism was a new school of Indian sculpture, known as the Gandhara school. It flourished under the Kushanas, especially Kanishka, during whose time a vast number of Buddhist monasteries, stupas and statues were constructed. They bear a distinct influence of the old Greek school of art. The province of Gandhara, the centre of the new school of Buddhism, was so situated as to be the meeting ground of the Indian, Chinese, Iranian and the Greco-Roman cultures. Hence the art of the province could not but be a mixture of the west and the east.

The main theme of the Gandhara School of Sculpture was the form of Buddhism, and its most important contribution was the evolution of an image of the Buddha.

Kanishka was the founder of that reckoning which commenced in 78 A.D. and came to be known as the Saka era. Kanishka, though a Buddhist, continued to honour the Greek, Sumerian, Elamite, mithraic, Zoroastrian and Hindu Gods worshipped by various communities of his far-flung empire. On his coins the deities of different sects and religions are engraved, bearing testimony to his spirit of religious toleration.

The Gupta Age

The Gupta Age is described as the Golden Age of Indian History. The Gupta period really marks an epoch as it gave an impetus to the revival of national spirit which manifested itself in almost every aspect of the life of the nation. In the sphere of religion, the activities of the conspicuously free form any trace of religious tyranny, intolerance and persecution. It was in the Gupta period that India entered her most glorious phase of cultural expansion.

In this age, Indian talent blossomed and unprecedented intellectual progress was achieved. The Sanskrit language was revived and the Gupta emperors liberally encouraged its use. Several literary works of great merit were produced. World renowned poets like Kalidas, grammarian and statesmen like Viresen Sab, dramatists like Vishakhadatta and Shudraka, celebrated Buddhist philosophers and authors like Asanga, Vasubandhu, Aryadeo, Dignag and Jain philosophers like Siddhasen, Diwakar,Samantbhadra, etc. flourished in the Gupta period. Well-known works on astronomy and mathematics were produced and certain Puranas and epics were given the final shape in which they are available today.

It was a most reamarkable age from the artistic point of view. Architecture, sculpture, painting, terracotta, metallurgy, music dancing etc. - all attained unprecedented progress under the Guptas. Tantricism was a singnificant development in religion.

Great progress was made in the domain of scientific studies during the Gupta period. The formulation of the theory of zero and consequent evolution of the decimal system are to be credited to the thinkers of this age. Aryabhatta, Varahamihira and Brahmagupta were in their own days, “the foremost astronomers and mathematicians of the world” . in his famous work Surya Siddhanta Aryabhatta examines and explains the true causes of solar and lunar eclipses. His calculation of the size of the earth is very near that estimated by modern astronomers.

The art of casting metals reached a degree of perfection which may well be regarded as exceptional.

The Pallavas and the Cholas

The aryanisation of South India was complete during the rule of the Pallavas. They exercised their supremacy for nearly 500 years, from the fifth century to the ninth century are equal In fact, they preached the simple religion; of love and complete surrender to an imminent being who rescued His true and sincere devotees form their miserable plight.

The second legacy of these saints was their religious revival, the aim of which was to synthesise Hinduism and Islam to ensure communal goodwill and unity and to create an environment of toleration and cooperation. The third legacy of these saints was social and religious reforms. They exposed the futility of all external ceremonies and worship, emancipated the mind of the people from the domination of the priests and mullahs, minimized religious favouritism, fanaticism and intolerance which arrested the growth of rational life and self-knowledge. Their four legacy was that they safeguarded the Indian Hindu culture, life . their fifth legacy was that they promoted the growth of vernacular literature of provinces. They stimulated ecolutiion and enrichment of the literature of the spoken languages.

Though the two systems of art differed fundamentally in their ideals and techniques, they mingled together giving rise to a new type of Indo-Islamic architecture. It is difficult to ascertain how much the Indo-Islamic architecture owed to the Hindu style and how much to the Islamic system. Indo-Islamic architecture derives its character from both sources though not always in an equal degree. The Muslims had added to the Hindu architecture the special characteristics of spaciousness, massiveness, majesty and width. The new foreign rulers introduced mehrab or arch, dome, minar and tomb in the indigenous architecture. Patterns of subtle curves, intricate and geometrical designs were used for rich decorative treatment. The Hindu schemes of profuse ornamentation were applied to decorate the arches or mehrabs.


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