Art under the Maurya dynasty is a treasure house which comprises the remains of the royal palace and city of Pataliputra, the stupas at Sanchi, Sarnath and Amaravati, pillars of Ashoka, potteries, coins and paintings. The Maurya Empire from fourth to second century B.C. is an important period in the history of Indian art.
The Maurya Empire was founded by Chandragupta Maurya and it reached its greatest moment of political, religious, and artistic development in the middle years of the third century B.C. The prologue to the foundation of the Maurya Dynasty was the invasion of India by Alexander the Great. The background of Maurya power, together with Ashoka's substitution of a kind of religious imperialism is important in considering the art of his period. The Maurya Empire indicates a significant transition in Indian art from use of wood to stone.
The ruins of the fabulous city of Pataliputra near modern Patna, is extremely important for an understanding of the whole character of Maurya civilisation which Ashoka inherited and perpetuated. Following not only Indian but ancient near eastern instance, the palace walls, the splendid towers and pavilions, were all constructed of brick or baked clay that has long since crumbled to dust or been swept away by periodic deluge of the swollen waters of the Ganga. Beyond the evidence of the authentic excavations at Pataliputra, an idea of the appearance of the city in the elevations of towns that form the backgrounds for Buddhist subjects in the reliefs of the early Andhra Period at Sanchi can be perceived. . The excavations of Pataliputra revealed that there is a presence of moat which is surrounded by a palisade or railing of the type developed in the Vedic period to the uses of urban fortification. It is assumed that all the super structures were built of wood.
The remains exposed in the actual palace area like a great audience hall was preceded by a number of huge platforms built of solid wood in log-cabin fashion. They formed a kind of artificial eminence, like the palace platforms of ancient Mesopotamia and Iran. Undoubtedly, these wooden structures were projected as foundations for the support of some kind of pavilions in front of the palace itself. In addition to a ground plan of the palace area, a single illustration of the remains of Pataliputra is reproduced to demonstrate the extraordinary craftsmanship and durability of the citys belt of fortifications. Pataliputra with towers and gateways rivaling the ancient capitals of Iran does give some slight suggestion, by its vast extent and the enormous strength of construction, of the great city of the Maurya Empire.
Buddhism flourished during the reign of Ashoka whose tolerance and generosity to religious sects were not limited to his patronage of Buddhism but is illustrated by his donation of cells for the habitation of holy men of the heretical Ajivika sect in the Barabar Hills near Gaya. The hermitage at Lomas Rishi cave is noted for its architectural magnificence. The carving of the facade of this sanctuary is completely Indian. It is an imitation in relief sculpture in stone of the entrance of a freestanding structure in wood and thatch, of repeated crescent shapes under an ogee arch that most probably represents the contour of the thatched roof. The principal decoration of the so-called "chaitya window" of the over door is a parade of elephants approaching a Stupa. The naturalistic depiction of the expression and gait of these elephants seems almost like a continuation of the style of the Indus Valley seals. The complete elevation of this small facade is repeated over and over again in the chaitya-halls of the Sunga and later periods, and is particularly significant in its showing that the forms of later Buddhist architecture were already completely evolved in the Maurya Period.
The proper picture of Maurya period is revealed in its sculpture. The existing monuments divulge the same imperialist and dictatorial character as Ashoka's rule in its essential structure; like so much of Maurya culture, they are foreign in style, quite apart from the main stream and tradition of Indian art, and display the same intimacy of relationship and imitation of the cultures of the Hellenistic Western powers and of Iran as the language of Ashoka's inscriptions and the Maurya court's philhellenic leanings. Side by side with this official imperial art, there existed a folk art, much more truly Indian in style and tradition and, in the final analysis, of far greater import for the future development of Indian art. Another fabulous sculpture is the Sarnath Pillar, which has four lions back to back at the top of the pillar. The extraordinary precision and beauty associated with these sculptures is a fine instance of the proficiency that the artisans of that period possessed.
It has often been pointed out that one of the tangible results of Alexander's invasion of India and the continuation of Indian contacts with the Hellenic and Iranian West in the Maurya Period was the introduction of the method of stone-carving and the first use of this permanent material in place of the wood, ivory, and metal that were used during the Vedic Period. The great Stupa at Sanchi is a stone monument erected as a part of Ashoka's imperialist agenda of spreading Buddhism throughout his empire.
Art in Maurya period is noted for its refinement in potteries which consisted of many types of wares. But the northern black polished ware is distinguished for its developed method and is the trademark of Maurya pottery. The coins are also an imperative part of Maurya art and were mainly made of silver and copper. The coins varied in shapes, size and weight and the common symbols that were used was that of tree, mountain and elephant.
After the Indus culture, the most primitive existing architectural heritage in India is that of the Mauryas. The sculptures and architecture during this period is regarded as the finest example in Indian art. The rock cut caves, stupas and palaces makes the art of Maurya period as a landmark in the history of Indian art.