Buddhist Art and Architecture-I


09:10 AM

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Prelims: History of India

Mains: Indian culture will cover the salient aspects of Arts forms, literature and Architecture from ancient to modern times


Indian Buddhist architecture includes a variety of styles, from the simple and austere designs of the early stupas to the more elaborate and ornate designs of later temples and monasteries.



         Image of Stupa

A stupa is a hemispherical or dome-shaped structure that contains relics of the Buddha or other sacred objects. Stupas are a fundamental element of Buddhist architecture and have been built across the Buddhist world for thousands of years.



  • Shape and size: Stupas come in various sizes and shapes, but they typically have a hemispherical or dome-shaped structure. 
  • History of stupa architecture
    • The stupa was originally a funerary mound in ancient India, but it gradually evolved into a religious monument associated with the Buddha and his teachings. 
    • The earliest stupas were simple hemispherical mounds of earth or brick, but they later became more elaborate and were decorated with carvings, reliefs, and sculptures.


                             Image of Bharhut Stupa


  • The symbolism of the stupa: 
    • The stupa is a symbol of the Buddha's enlightenment and his teachings. 
    • It represents the path to enlightenment, with the circular base representing the cycle of birth and death and the pinnacle representing the attainment of Nirvana.
    • They were constructed over the relics of the Buddha at Rajagriha, Vaishali, Vethadipa and Pava in Bihar, Kapilavastu, Allakappa and Ramagrama in Nepal, Kushinagar and Pippalvina in Uttar Pradesh.
  • Elements of stupa architecture: 
    • Stupas typically consist of several elements, including a circular base or platform, a hemispherical dome or Anda, a spire or Harmika, and a parasol or Chhatra
    • The base or platform may be decorated with carvings, reliefs, or sculptures, while the harmika may adorn the Buddha's eyes and other symbols.
  • Construction techniques: 
    • Stupas were constructed using various materials, including brick, stone, earth, and plaster. 
    • They were typically built in stages, with each stage representing a different aspect of the Buddha's teachings or his life. 
    • Builders used a variety of techniques to ensure the stability and durability of the stupas, including the use of sloping walls, buttresses, and niches for votive offerings.
  • Regional styles of stupa architecture: Different regions of India developed their own styles over time. 
    • For example, the stupas at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh are known for their elaborate carvings and reliefs. In contrast, the stupas at Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh are known for their intricate sculptures. The stupas in Ladakh and Tibet are often built in a distinctive Tibetan style, with a white dome and colorful banners.
  • Other Features:
    • Name of Artist: Very few inscriptions mention the names of artisans, such as Kanha at Pitalkhora and his disciple Balaka at Kondane caves in Maharashtra.






Mauryan Period

The Mauryan period (322 BCE-185 BCE) in India is considered a significant phase in the development of stupa architecture. During this period, stupas became more elaborate and were decorated with carvings, reliefs, and sculptures. 



                                    Image: Parts of Sanchi stupa


  • The early Mauryan stupas: 
    • They were relatively simple hemispherical mounds of earth or brick. 
    • The oldest known example is the Piprahwa stupa in Uttar Pradesh, which dates back to the 4th century BCE.
  • The development of stone stupas: During the Mauryan period, builders began to use stone to construct stupas. 
    • For example, Stupa at Sanchi, this stupa was built in several phases, with the earliest phase dating back to the 3rd century BCE. 
  • The elaborate decoration of stupas: The Mauryan stupas were decorated with carvings, reliefs, and sculptures that depicted scenes from the life of the Buddha, as well as other religious and secular motifs. 
  • The importance of stupas: Stupas were not only important as religious monuments but also served as symbols of imperial power and authority during the Mauryan period.
  • Regional variations: 
    • The stupa at Sanchi is known for its elaborate decoration and stone construction, while the stupa at Bharhut in Madhya Pradesh is known for its early Buddhist reliefs and carvings.
  • Transition: 
    • During the early phase of Buddhism, Buddha is depicted symbolically through footprints, stupas, lotus throne, chakra, etc. 
    • This indicates either simple worship or paying respect, or at times depicts the historicisation of life events. 
    • Gradually, the narrative became a part of the Buddhist tradition. 
    • Thus, events from the life of the Buddha, the Jataka stories, were depicted on the railings and torans of the stupas.

The Gupta period (320-550 CE)

It is considered a golden age in Indian history. It was marked by a flourishing of arts, sciences, and literature. During this period, stupa architecture continued to evolve and reached new heights of refinement and sophistication. 


  • Emergence of new styles: During the Gupta period, new styles of stupa architecture emerged, with more elaborate decoration and greater attention to detail. The Dhamekh Stupa in Sarnath, for example, is a fine example of Gupta stupa architecture, with intricate carvings depicting Buddhist themes and motifs.
  • Decorative elements: Stupas during the Gupta period were often decorated with ornate elements such as lotus petals, garlands, and various mythical creatures such as yakshas, kinnaras, and Gandharvas. These decorative elements were often arranged in a symmetrical pattern, creating a sense of balance and harmony.
  • Construction materials: Stupas during the Gupta period were often constructed using bricks and stone, with the outer surface covered in plaster or stucco. 
  • Influence on other art forms: Stupa architecture during the Gupta period had a profound influence on other art forms such as sculpture and painting. Many of the techniques and motifs used in stupa decoration were adapted and applied to other forms of art, resulting in a rich and diverse body of work.


Post-Mauryan period

The post-Mauryan period in India (around 200 BCE - 300 CE) saw the continuation and further evolution of stupa architecture. During this period, various dynasties and kingdoms emerged, each with their own distinct style and approach to stupa construction. 


  • The Satavahanas: 
    • They built several important stupas, including the Amaravati Stupa in present-day Andhra Pradesh. This stupa was known for its elaborate carvings and sculptures that depicted various Buddhist legends and stories.
  • The Kushanas: 
    • They were patrons of Buddhism and built Kanishka Stupa in present-day Afghanistan. This stupa was known for its large size and elaborate decoration, which included thousands of carved stone panels and sculptures.
  • The Andhras: 
    • The Andhras were a dynasty that ruled parts of southern India during the post-Mauryan period. They built Nagarjunakonda Stupa in present-day Andhra Pradesh. 
    • This stupa was known for its unique style, which featured a circular base and a square top. It was also decorated with intricate carvings and sculptures.


Major Stupas

  • Mahabodhi Stupa: It is located in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. This stupa marks the spot where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. It is one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Buddhists worldwide.
  • Jetavana Stupa: (Shravasti, Uttar Pradesh)
    • This stupa is said to have been built on the site where the Buddha spent 24 rainy seasons, teaching and meditating.
  • Dhamekh Stupa: (Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh)
    • It is believed to mark the spot where the Buddha gave his first sermon, known as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.
  • Sanchi Stupa: It is one of the oldest and most well-preserved stupas in India. This monument is located in Madhya Pradesh. It was originally commissioned by Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire in the 3rd century BCE. 
  • Vishwa Shanti Stupa:(Rajgir, Bihar)
    • It was built in the 1960s to promote world peace and is one of the tallest stupas in India.
  • Ratnagiri Stupa:( Ratnagiri, Odisha)
  • This stupa is believed to have been built by the Gupta dynasty in the 6th century CE. 
  • Amravati Stupa:  (Andhra Pradesh) 
    • It is believed to have been built by the Satavahana dynasty in the 2nd century BCE. 
    • It is known for its intricate carvings and sculptures, which depict scenes from the Buddha's life and teachings.


Previous Year Questions




Q) Highlight the Central Asian and Greco Bactrian elements in the Gandhara art. (2019)

Q) Early Buddhist Stupa-art, while depicting folk motifs and narratives, successfully expounds Buddhist ideals. Elucidate. (2016)

Q) Gandhara sculpture owed as much to the Romans as to the Greeks - Explain (2014)

Q) Taxila University was one of the oldest universities of the world with which were associated a number of renowned personalities of different disciplines. Its strategic location caused its fame to flourish, but unlike Nalanda, it is not considered as a university in the modern sense. (2014)




Q)  Which one of the following statements is correct?


a)  Ajanta Caves lie in the gorge of Waghora River.

b) Sanchi Stupa lies in the gorge of the Chambal River.

c) Pandu-Lena Cave Shrines lie in the gorge of Narmada River.

d) Amaravati Stupa lies in the gorge of Godavari River.



Q) The painting of Bodhisattva Padmapani is one of the most famous and oft-illustrated paintings at:


a) Ajanta 

b) Badami

c) Bagh

d) Ellora



Q) With reference to the Indian history of art and culture, consider the following pairs:

Famous work of Sculpture Site

1. A grand image of Buddha's Mahaparinirvana with numerous:  Ajanta

    celestial musicians above and the sorrowful figures of his followers below

2. A huge image of Varaha Avatar (boar incarnation) of Vishnu, as he rescues: Mount Abu

     Goddess Earth from the deep and chaotic waters, sculpted on rock

3. “Arjuna’s Penance”/“Descent of Ganga” sculpted on the surface of huge: Mamallapuram


Which of the pairs given above is/are correctly matched?

(a) 1 and 2 only    

(b) 3 only

(c) 1 and 3 only      

(d) 1, 2 and 3



Q) With reference to Buddhist history, tradition and culture in India, consider the following pairs: 

1. Tabo monastery and temple complex: Spiti Valley

2. Lhotsava Lhakhang temple, Nako: Zanskar Valley

3. Alchi temple complex:  Ladakh

Which of the pairs given above is/are correctly matched?

(a) 1 only                

(b) 2 and 3 only

(c) 1 and 3 only      

(d) 1, 2 and 3



Q) Consider the following historical places:

1. Ajanta Caves

2. Lepakshi Temple

3. Sanchi Stupa

Which of the above places is/are also known for mural paintings?

(a) 1 only         

(b) 1 and 2 only

(c) 1, 2 and 3    

(d) None


 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)


Q)  Who were the Yakshas?

The Yakshas were powerful nature spirits or deities in ancient Indian mythology. They played a significant role in stupa architecture, often depicted as guardians and protectors of the sacred space. 


Q) What does the fresco effect mean?

The term "fresco effect" refers to a painting technique used in ancient times where pigments were applied to wet plaster. As the plaster dries, the pigments bind with it, creating a durable and long-lasting painting.