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After the disintegration of the Mauryan dynasty in 185 BCE, the empire built by Ashoka once again dissolved into separately regions, the rulers of which were often threatened by invasion of border tribes that had formerly been held at bay. Within a hundred years the power vacuum left by the Mauryans had been filled in northwest India by a group of Central Asian nomads known as the Kushans, who established a summer capitol near Taxila (in present day Pakistan) and a winter capital at Mathura on the Yamuna river (see map in IAR, p.112). (It is during this same period that the Sañchi Stupa was renovated, further to the south.) The third and most important ruler of this Kushan dynasty was Kanishka the first, crowned in 128 CE; he established trade and cultural connections with Roman colonies in Central Asia, which participated in trade along the famous “silk route” leading all the way to China. Traders soon began to branch off to the south to distribute and acquire goods from northern India, and soon artisans trained in Roman styles began to work in the areas of Gandhara & Mathura.

Buddhist historians point to this period as one of strong support for Buddhist institutions in the Northwest. Whatever the particular interests of Kanishka himself, it seems to have been during this period of history that the first images of the Buddha in human form, which reflect clearly the influence of Roman styles in northwest India during this period, were made. Over the course of time, however, Buddhist iconography evolved clearly distinct features; and during this and the subsequent Gupta dynasty Hindu & Jain icons, depicting in human form the various gods linked to Vedic and Vaishnavite traditions, begin to appear as well. Although these images clearly pointed to very different unseen worlds for Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains, clearly the artisans creating such images used common methods & visual symbols.

early buddhist hindu icons 2nd 6th ce

Early Buddhist &Hindu Icons (2nd-6th CE)

Stone Buddha images made during the Kushana period seem to have been part of walls surrounding and adorning stupas (much like the attendants and nature spirits seen at Sañci) or rock-cut gathering halls used primarily by monks. Sometime during the period of the Gupta dynasty (early 4th - mid 6th CE), however, the images themselves became the focus of worship, just as abstract symbols had been in earlier periods. A much smaller number stone Hindu icons appear towards the end of this period as well, though again it is unclear when such images became the focus of worship as the fire-offering had been since early Vedic times. It may also be images made of wood or clay, which have not survived, preceded these stone images.

the first image
The first image?

This sandstone image is the earliest dated Buddhist icon made of stone, which its inscription claims was made in the third year of King Kanishka’s reign (131 CE). Actually the inscription calls it a “bodhisattva,” which may reflect the increasing emphasis in this region on would-be Buddhas other than Siddhartha Gautama. Like all other Mathura sculptures, this figure is made of locally available red sandstone; its color would not have mattered since the figure would have been originally painted. The cloth, interestingly, sticks to the body as if it were wet.

buddha icons at mathura
Buddha Icons at Mathura

The broad shoulders and well-rounded faces of these images, more clearly visible in these photographs, is characteristic of Mathura sculpture; as is the halo behind the head which is only partially preserved here. The threefold knotted hair at the top of the head will gain increasing importance in later Buddhist iconography, echoing the threefold umbrella which caps major stupas. The elongated ears are a standard physical feature of the Buddha described since the early days of the tradition as one of numerous traits that reveal his divine power.

This seated image could well be designed for worship following the patterns depicted in carvings at Sañci. The seated Buddha is flanked by two royal attendants and in the air above the intact halo (though difficult to make out in this figure) there hover two winged celestial beings. Below the figure, making the Buddha look as large as a stupa in comparison, are most likely disciples honoring the Buddha or some site associated with his teaching. The positions of right hand (only partly preserved) indicate reassures the worshipper, “have no fear.” This type of image became extremely popular and was imitated throughout Buddhist Asia.
roman influence at gandhara
Roman influence at Gandhara

Buddhist sculpture seems to have flourished somewhat later, towards the end of Kanishka’s reign, at Gandhara near the northern capital of the Kushana empire. Yet these icons reflect much more vividly the influence of the Roman artisans who had originally inspired the tradition. Most of the figure are bodhisattvas, which fits with the widespread influence of movements refering to themselves as “the Greater Way” (Mahayana) in this regions during later periods.


The hairstyle of these figures is reminiscent of the Greek god Apollo; the mustache may reflect Roman influence. The toga-like garments, sandals, and necklaces are clearly Roman. It may be that these objects, imported by traders, had become so familiar to Gandharans that it seemed natural that divine beings would wear them.


Gandharans clearly remained interested in the Gautama Buddha, however. The Gandharan style continues the earlier tradition of depicting important sites associated with the Buddha, but this times puts the Buddha in the picture (clockwise from lower left):• fasting (before his enlightenment)•  teaching• lying on his side preparing to die


As in the case of the seated Buddha at Mathura, a number of the stone Buddha sculptures that came into use during this period seem to be intended for independent worship. Although these Buddhas Roman robes, their faces remain clearly Asian.

The figure on the right once again is seated atop a scene depicting several seated figures. Although the exact context of the scene is not clear, the large size of the Buddha seated above it again echoes the disproportionate size of the monumental stupas popular in earlier periods.

amaravati buddhist icons in the south 50 320 ce
Amaravati & Buddhist icons in the south (50-320 CE)

While Kanishka & his successors ruled over most of northwest India, the Andhra kingdom prospered in the south, and Buddhist practice continued to flourish there as it had during earlier periods. The rulers of this dynasty were influenced by contact with Rome as well, as Roman traders came to ports on both western and eastern coasts, and may even have established a colony off the eastern coast. Though stupas remained popular during this period, icons of the Buddha appeared as well, especially in the east coastal capital of Amaravati. Whether the creators of these were influenced by Gandharan styles is an open question.

iconography during the gupta dynasty 320 550 ce
Iconography during theGupta Dynasty (320-550 CE)

When the first of the Gupta dynasty rulers began uniting many of the territories that had been part of Ashoka’s ancient empire--ruling from the same capital of Pataliputra, along the Ganges--their sponsorship of arts & sciences led to a new wave of development in literature, architecture, mathematics, & medicine. The sculpters of the period, likewise, refined and added to the artistic styles inherited from the Kushans, possibly also drawing on the Andhra culture of the South. It seems to have been the artists of this period who systematized the way that physical attributed said to reflect the Buddha’s divine status--e.g., the mole between the eyes, the bump on top of his head, wheels on the palms and soles--were portrayed in sculpture.


One of the most noticable changes is the intricate design of halos, which had originally been smooth in Kushana sculpture. Notice here once again the cloth sticking to the body as if wet, a feature of some Kushana period icons.


During this period Buddhas all over India come to resemble one another more and more; and these depictions of the Buddha’s features became the norm for representing him throughout Buddhist Asia.


It is during the Gupta period, interestingly, that we find the first free-standing structures used to house images for worship. The Sañchi temples pictured here and on the next slide are two of only a few surviving structures preserved from this period. Though Sañchi continued to be dominated by its stupas, Gupta dynasty monks clearly also incorporated images into their worship.


Although Roman influence was dwindling by this time in Indian history, certain distinctively Roman architectural features had become part of temple design, and would remain integral to Indian architecture. Note that the structure of these stone temples is much simpler than those that would come to dominate the landscape over the next thousand years: a porch, entryway, and inner shrine room.


Early Icons of Vishnu & ShivaThe Gupta rulers sponsored both Buddhist & non-Buddhist religious traditions, as had many other kings before them. Thus during the period of flourishing Buddhist iconography, one finds a smaller number of sculptures (many of which seem to be the remnants of small temples which have since been destroyed) depicting Vishnu and Shiva, the two major deities whose traditions were rapidly becoming influential during this time, both claiming some kind of continuity with ancient Vedic culture.

This sculpture, which most likely adorned the top of a temple column, shows Krishna (enlarged in the photo on the right) counseling Arjuna as he sits despondent in his chariot. The Greek sculptural style is evident here as in the bodhisattva sculptures of the Kushana period in the Gandhara region.


Also surviving from this period are images of Vishnu himself, and indeed the largest temple preserved from the Gupta period is dedicated to Vishnu. Unlike sculptures of Gautama Buddha and other bodhisattvas, Vishnu is often shown with multiple arms, each holding different symbols of his power, including the conch shell and the lotus, as seen in the two late Gupta period sculptures below. Such multi-limbed depictions may have been inspired by Vedic references to the cosmic being as having numerous heads, arms, & legs.

The bronze Kashmiri Vishnu on the right sports several wheel symbols, most likely reminders of Vishnu’s solar radiance; the one atop his head perhaps substituting for a halo (partly preserved in the other image). In mythological accounts Vishnu also uses his wheel as a weapon to cut down enemies.


Surviving sculptures at other locations reveal evidence of the growing importance of Vishnu’s other incarnations. On the left is depiction of Vishnu taking form as the celestial sage Narayana, instructing a pupil, with other deities gathered above to listen to his teaching (clearly similar to the deities depicted in some Buddhist sculptures). On the right is a depiction of Vishnu taking the form of a boar to rescue the earth (pictured as a naked woman) from the primordial flood, as the myriad of Vedic deities & sages look on.


Icons of Shiva are found during this period as well. The linga with faces in four directions actually dates from the Kushan period in the region of Mathura where the first Buddhist icons were made. The Gupta period figure in the middle (5th CE) depicts Shiva in the human form of a mountaineer and hunter, as described in the Mahabharata. Both of these contrast strikingly with the multi-armed form of Shiva that begins to appear during the late Gupta period (6th CE).

2 traces of early temple construction 2nd 8th ce

2. Traces of Early TempleConstruction (2nd-8th CE)

It is likely that artisans working for Buddhist, Hindu & Jain patrons built wooden structures to house many of the symbols & images sampled in the previous section. Although none of these structures have survived, we see much evidence of them carved in stone: a large number of caves in mountain cliffs, & some free standing structures carved out of bolders, were painstakingly made to be used as spaces for gathering and worship. Initially rock caves seem to have been Buddhist monastic residences; but gradually Hindus & Jains also began to hire rock-cutters. The forms cut into rock at these sites--most of them dating from the smaller kingdoms that formed once the Gupta dynasty dissolved in the mid-6th CE--clearly imitate earlier wooden structures. This suggests that wood carving & building techniques must already have been well developed by the time these rocks were carved; and indeed wood was widely used for buildings in India until the early twentieth century. Decorative sculptures preserved at these sites, furthermore, show icon styles continuing to evolve well beyond the early Roman-influenced forms of the Kushan & Gupta periods.


MamallapuramBoulder Carving: description of the heavenly river Ganges coming down from heaven due to the penance of an ancient sage (note the temple, probably Vaishnavite, depicted bottom right)

3 late medieval proliferation of iconic forms temples 8th 15th ce

3. Late Medieval Proliferation of Iconic Forms & Temples (8th-15th CE)

Over the next eight hundred years, Buddhist institutions gradually disappeared from most of India. Hindu stone temple construction and icon sculpting, on the other hand, flourished, with a number of important Jain temples being built as well (& indeed often leading the way in innovative design). These are the temples to which most people point when speaking of India’s religious heritage, which reflect most clearly the influence of the medieval Purana literature. Interestingly, though, the foundational events of both Hindu & Jain traditions had already passed by the time these later stone temples were built; and indeed, Hindu & Jain political power was in severe decline during most of this period, as Muslim rulers began to take over most of their territories. Briefly sampled here are two temple styles from the beginning of this later medieval period.