The Buddha was born in 563BC as Siddhartha Gautama, a
Shakya prince, but his life upto the time he was 29 remains largely
¤ Gandhara Architecture Gave Rise To Buddhist Architecture
to the river Indus which Alexander the Great used to invade India in
326BC. Gandhara architecture, the merger of Indian and Greek art, took
the form of Buddhist cult objects, Buddhas and ornaments for Buddhist
monasteries. Hindu icons were few. Monasteries were invariably made of
stone, and most of the sculpture (like friezes) was used to decorate
the lower levels of buildings.
The genesis of the first Buddhist stupa came about during this
period. The more decorative art was in the form of small votive stupas
illustrated with clay images of birds, dragons, sea serpents and
The most characteristic trait of Gandhara sculpture is the standing
or seated Buddha in the few hundreds of temples which have survived
out of thousands. The seated Buddha is always cross legged in the
traditional Indian way.
¤ Magnificent Buddhist Sculptors
The teachings of the Buddhism were adopted by Mauryan emperor Ashoka
in 255BC as the religion that he as well as most of his subjects would
follow. Towards this the king undertook steps to awaken and enlighten
his people about the teachings of the Buddha, and to make sure that
they would not forget how important it was for them to be Buddhists
Ashoka took certain measures. These are the most early Buddhist
sculptors, and were mainly of six types: stone pillars with
inscriptions on them called edicts; stupas; monolithic pillars;
shrines; a vast palace and a group of rock cut chambers. Out of these
the most important ones were the edicts and the stupas and can still
be seen today.
¤ Ashoka Edifices
The Construction of Pillars
Ashokas edicts were nothing but circular free standing
pillars rising upto to great heights so that they could be seen from a
distance, topped off with a stone lion.
Made of bricks, they carried declarations from the king regarding
Buddhism. There were probably thirty in all, but now only two still
stand. The pillars did not stand in isolation, and were usually found
near stupas in a spot either unknowingly marked by the Buddha himself
or along the royal route to Magadha, the capital. The pillars were
about forty feet in height, circular and rising straight out of the
ground without evidence of a base to hold it up. At the top space was
left for a Buddhist symbol to be placed, normally a lion. The pillar
itself would bear inscriptions from the king, or teachings of the
Buddha, upto a readable height and in large letters.
The stupas were large halls capped with a dome and bore symbols of
the Buddha. Their purpose was to instill awe into the minds of the
common people who, at that time, lived in small wooden houses. But the
stupa wasnt the only awe-inspiring monuments; it was associated
with a number of additional smaller structures such as pillared gates,
decorated railings, umbrellas and lion thrones. All these were first
made with brick, but when Ashoka realized that they wouldnt
stand the vigours of time and weather, he switched to stone.
The most famous of the stupas, the one at Sanchi, was originally
built by Ashoka. In 150BC, renovation work was undertaken and massive
additions were made to it. The stupa was made higher and broader, 120
feet in diameter and 54 feet high, as it is today. The timber railings
were replaced by stone ones, standing 11 feet high with entrances at
five cardinal point, forming a barricade. The emblem of protection,
this stone railing encompassed the entire area around the stupa and
the sacred tree (actually a branch from the holy tree in Bodh Gaya in
Bihar was planted here) under which the Buddha is said to have
attained enlightenment. The entrance to a stupa is through a stone
gate, intricately carved with images of daily Buddhist life and stone
lions guarding the images and the gate.
Palace of Ashoka- A 'Magnum opus'
Ashokas palace near Patna was a masterpiece. Made mostly of
wood, it seems to have been destroyed by fire. Enclosed by a high
brick wall, the highlight of the palace was an immense pillared hall
three storey and 250 feet high. Pillars were arranged at intervals of
fifteen feet, and the ceiling was adorned with stone images and
horizontally supported by wooden beams.
Construction of Monastries
The other all important Buddhist building is the shrine or the
Here the Gandhara style of architecture comes into play, following a
similar pattern for all buildings. Definitely religious in nature, the
construction of a monastery followed a somewhat irregular design.
Built on the patterns of a fort and defended by a stone wall, the
monastery evolved from the site of an ancient stupa. Living quarters
for monks were separated from that of prayer, with the former
consisting of houses, small votive stupas, solitary pillars and tiny
cells for low rank monks. The principle buildings were housed within a
rectangular courtyard with a stupa in the south and the monastery in
the north. The court was the most important building, surrounded on
three sides by a range of small chapels. A flight of stairs connected
the stupa with the monastery whose rooms were small and functional.
Called the sanghrama, these cells were located around the central
¤ Buddhist Temples
s While the stupas were places of religious learning, Buddhist
temples were used for dual purposes; prayers and teachings. Brick was
rarely used, and stone formed the base of most temple building. The
Hinayana sect concentrated in the southern and western sides of India
and excavated halls out of mountains, creating temples out of them in
secluded regions. The Mahayanas were more adventurous, as can be seen
from the Buddhist temples in Ajanta and Ellora. The Ajanta carvings
consist of viharas or halls, supported by pillars, all cut out from
one solid piece of mountain.
¤ Buddhist Cave Temples
The task of making a cave temple was a simple one. Wooden pegs were
driven into the mountainside and then watered so that they expanded,
breaking the rock face into manageable blocks. Huge sections of stone
were either moved or left where they were depending on the
requirement. The split rock face would then be dug into, carving
entire halls from it. After that, all that was left to be done was to
carve out intricate details into pillars, walls, ceilings and
doorways, which usually took years to complete.
Rock art of the Buddhists was not constricted to temples and stupas.
The Buddha himself was the inspiration behind massive statues of his
likeness made out of stone, brass and copper. Buddha statues know no
boundaries they can be larger than life, going upto great
heights (over 14 metres), reaching up into the sky or showing him
reclining. However, in stupas and places of worship, the Buddha is
almost never shown and is represented indirectly through foot
impressions, empty thrones and the chakra (wheel).