Mauryan Architecture

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Mauryan Architecture (c.322 – 185 B.C.):

Apart from the Harappan findings, the Mauryan Empire (c. 322 – 185 BCE) is the source of some of the earliest surviving architectural heritage in India. The Mauryan rulers were great patrons of art and architecture, and the remaining buildings and pillars stand as testaments to their achievements. Megasthenes, a Greek ethnographer and author of “Indika,” was impressed by Mauryan art. He described Pataliputra, the capital city, as a vast, well-planned metropolis.

While wood was a common building material, particularly for houses and palaces, the Mauryans also employed stone and fired bricks, especially for public buildings and fortifications. Megasthenes mentions the extensive use of wood in the city, including the royal palace. However, it’s important to note that most wooden structures have perished over time.


During the Mauryan era, city planning became a specialised discipline. The reign of Ashoka (c. 268 – 232 BCE) marked a significant shift towards using cut stone as a building material for religious architecture and sculpture. He is often referred to as the “first Mauryan emperor to think in stone.” Ashokan stonework included free-standing pillars, railings around stupas, lion-capital thrones, and other colossal figures.

The Mauryan period is credited with the foundation of Buddhist architecture in India, with the construction of rock-cut caves, pillars, and stupas. Several cave shrines from this era have been found in the Barabar and Nagarjuni Hills and Sitamarhi in Bihar. These sanctuaries are generally simple in design with minimal interior decoration. Inscriptions within the caves suggest they may have initially served as residences for monks of the Ajivika sect, though their use might have changed over time.


Rock-Cut Elephant at Dhauli

The earliest rock-cut sculpture in India is the Ashokan rock edict at Dhauli, near Bhubaneswar, featuring an elephant on top, symbolising Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism after the Kalinga War. The monolithic Ashokan pillars are impressive freestanding columns erected at significant religious sites. Originally, there were about thirty pillars, but only ten remain today. Two of these, with their lion capitals, stand in good condition at Sarnath. The Sarnath pillar is another excellent example of Ashokan period sculpture. Two of Ashoka’s edicts have also been found at Laghman, near Jalalabad in modern Afghanistan, showcasing the extensive cultural contacts during his reign.

Ashoka is credited with sponsoring the construction of several stupas, including those at Bharhut, Bodhgaya, Sanchi, Amaravati, and Nagarjunakonda. He likely also built numerous palaces, though most have not survived.


Archaeological excavations at Kumrahar, near Patna, have revealed evidence of a large wooden pillared hall, possibly part of a Mauryan palace complex.

Mauryan architecture, in its entirety, represents a monumental stride in Indian architectural history. Ashoka’s patronage, the transition towards stone, and the creation of pillars, stupas, and rock-cut caves laid the foundation for the majestic tradition of Indian architecture that continues to captivate us today.



Sanchi Stupas
: The early stupas had plain and simple structures having hemispherical shapes with low bases. The later stupas assumed an increasingly cylindrical form. The early stupas were known for their simplicity. Apart from the ruins of stupa at Piprahwa (Nepal), the core of stupa No.1 at Sanchi can be considered as the oldest of the stupas. Originally built by Ashoka, it was enlarged in subsequent centuries.


Amaravati Stupa: Amaravati Stupa built in second or first century B.C. was probably similar to the one at Sanchi, but got transformed from a Hinayana shrine to a Mahayana shrine in the later centuries. The diameter of the dome of the stupa at ground level was about 48.76 metres and its height was about 30 metres. Amaravati stupa had free-standing columns surmounted by lions near the gateways. The dome was covered with sculptured panels.

Gandhara stupas: The Gandhara stupas are a further development over the stupas at Sanchi and Bharhut. In Gandhara stupas the base, dome and the hemisphere dome are sculpted. The stupa tapers upward to form a tower like structure. The stupas of Nagarjunakonda were very large, having brick walls at the base forming wheel and spokes, which were filled with earth. The ‘Maha Chaitya’ of Nagarjunakonda has a base in the form of a ‘Swastika’.

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