Noted for its precision and restraint, the iconography of Mauryan art is characterised by imperial and Buddhist symbols rendered with stylistic influences from Hellenistic and Persian art. Mauryan art takes the form of inscribed pillars and capitals, coinage freestanding and relief sculptures in terracotta and stone, ringstones, coinage, stupas, and to a lesser extent rock-cut architecture. The iconography provides insight into the patronage, culture and religious practices of the empire, which is particularly valuable as Mauryan art and style forms the basis for much of the Indian subcontinent’s pre-modern visual vocabulary.
The best known examples of Mauryan art are the Ashokan pillars, which are often considered significant iconographic elements themselves due to their symbolism as axis mundi. The edicts inscribed on the pillars — Ashoka’s messages on morality and ethics — as well as the placement of the pillars at sites of Buddhist significance such as Sanchi and Sarnath, have often been viewed as symbolising the merging of Buddhism with the law of the state.
The associations between Buddhism and the Mauryan empire were further reinforced through the animal capitals and the imagery on the abacuses of the pillars. The capitals of the Sanchi and the Sarnath pillar featured four lions seated back-to-back, facing the cardinal directions, symbolising the message of the Buddha or Ashoka being spread in all directions. Some abacus segments featured relief carvings of hamsa — a bird identified variously as the goose or the swan — which features in the Puranas, Vedas and other ancient Indian texts, and is seen in Indic religions as a symbol of wisdom and liberation from the cycle of rebirth, and by extension, moksha or nirvana, enlightenment.
Other common animal motifs in Mauryan art include the lion, which symbolises imperial authority — an association that likely has its origins in the Achaemenid period in western Asia, as well as the Buddha’s Shakya clan. The dharmachakra, or spoked wheel, similarly indicates the Buddha’s teachings and the turning of the wheel of the law, implying the commencement of a period of stability and fair justice. In this way, it also symbolises the values of a chakravartin, or ideal ruler — a title that was used for Ashoka. Another frequently occurring motif is the lotus, which represents purity and spiritual enlightenment in Buddhism as well as in other Indic religions.
Mauryan iconography has also provided a sense of the large trade and political networks maintained by the empire, which is evidenced in certain similarities between art styles of associated regions and their syncretic use in Mauryan art and architecture. The degree to which outside influences affected Mauryan art has been heavily debated, with scholars taking differing positions partially based on how the evidence is weighed, and partially on their own leanings. Factors that have affected the debate around individual images such as the Didarganj Yakshi and the Sarnath lions include colonial era biases, early nationalistic and nativist views and more recent Marxist historiography.
Certain objects, such as the Rampurva capital bull, are speculated to have been made as a continuation of the bovine motifs on Indus Valley seals, whereas the floral motifs on multiple capitals seem similar to plant species and decorative patterns found in the Mediterranean region. Motifs of possible West Asian derivation are also seen in ringstones, which feature images of female fertility figures, as well as floral and geometrical patterns; however, it has been suggested that since many of these motifs, such as the blooming Tree of Life, were already part of a shared cultural history across West and South Asia before Mauryan rule, they cannot be described as native to, or borrowed from, any specific region.
Mauryan terracotta sculptures found in the Pataliputra and Taxila regions have a distinct and bold iconography with a somewhat cruder execution. These include both human and animal subjects, notably several female figures adorned with large, elaborate headdresses, tunics and diaphanous skirts. Some were shown standing on lotus pedestals, while others were depicted with shoulder wings and a prominent pubic mound, indicating that they may represent female deities linked to fertility cults or may have served as votive tablets. Some scholars have suggested that such figures may predate the Ashokan pillars and the more standardised iconography that they introduced.
The deciphering of the edicts in the nineteenth century by European and Indian archeologists, and a renewed interest in Ashoka’s reign in recent years, has helped further an understanding of the Indian subcontinent’s ancient history. Ashoka became an important political symbol during the independence movement of the subcontinent, serving as a marker of the antiquity of Indian heritage and religious tolerance. Mauryan iconography associated with Ashoka was also carried forward into the political symbols of independent India. The dharmachakra was incorporated into the present form of the Indian tricolour in July 1947 as the twenty-four-spoked Ashoka chakra, and in 1950, the Sarnath capital was adopted as the state emblem.
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