The Buddhist Sculptures - Part I
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Before about A.D. 1200, the main religions were Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. Training in the techniques of sculpture was passed down within the family. The Maurya Empire was India's first great empire, and extended over much of the subcontinent. In 261 B.C., the Maurya emperor Ashoka vowed to maintain his rule according to the Buddhist rule of piety. To publicize his laws, Ashoka had them inscribed on many stone pillars, some 12 metres high. On this pillar, a carved lotus flower symbolizes purity and the emergence of life from the primeval waters. Above it, representations of a lion, elephant, bull, and horse symbolize power, either of the king or of Buddha.

The chakra, or wheel, symbolizes either the teaching of Buddha, who is said to have set the wheel of law in motion in his teaching, or the king who was called the holder of the wheel in ancient India. On the top of the pillar, four gigantic lions roar out the power of Buddha and Ashoka. A huge wheel, now missing, once stood above the lions. Ashoka was also responsible for the building of many stupas and cave shrines, the two main kinds of Buddhist centres.

kalinga stupa Stupas.  Some of the most magnificent Buddhist sculptures decorate the gateways and stone railings that surround stupas (domed funeral mounds). These mounds were built to enshrine the relics of the Buddha or a Buddhist teacher. Relief carvings illustrate the life and teachings of the Buddha. Some of the best preserved early stupas stand at Sanchi in central India.

Cave temples.  From the 200's B.C., artificial caves were carved out of cliffs of solid rock to serve as shrines and monasteries. The 28 caves at Ajanta in western India were created between A.D. 100 and the A.D. 400's. Magnificent sculptures of the Hindu god Shiva were carved in a cave temple at Elephanta, near Bombay, in the 500's. Sculptors worked on the caves at Ellora, near Ajanta, until about 1000. They created Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain caves next to each other. The early stupas and caves are beautifully carved with scenes from the life of Buddha. The Buddha figure, however, is represented by symbols such as the wheel, footprints, or an empty throne.

The Buddha image.  Buddha was not represented in human form until the period from A.D. 1 to 99. Buddha images were first produced in large numbers in two areas of India around 100. One area was Gandhara in the northwest, now part of Pakistan. The other was the city of Mathura, near present-day New Delhi.


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