Mauryan Empire Architecture

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  • 0:04 The Mauryan Empire
  • 0:52 Ashoka and Architecture
  • 1:52 The Sanchi Stupa
  • 2:59 The Barabar Caves
  • 4:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Some of the first great examples of architecture in India come from the Mauryan Empire. In this lesson, we'll explore these structures and see how they reflected other changes that the Mauryan emperors sponsored in the subcontinent.

The Mauryan Empire

Throughout history, there's a common trend of great architecture coming from great rulers. It's not surprising; powerful leaders amassed lots of wealth, controlled well-organized societies, and tended to have enough hubris to enjoy seeing monuments built in their own honor. Let's be honest, can you blame them? Well, one place where we can certainly see a correlation between the power of a ruler and the quality of architecture is in ancient India. From roughly 321-185 BCE, much of the subcontinent was under the control of the Mauryan Empire. The most powerful of the Mauryan emperors, and one of the most famous rulers in Indian history, was Ashoka. How do we know that Ashoka was amongst the most powerful rulers in the history of this massive subcontinent? It's easy--we just look at the architecture.

Ashoka and Architecture

Ashoka expanded the borders and influence of the empire to its height. As he did, his architectural influence spread across India. Part of this was through his acumen for maintaining consolidated power. When Ashoka passed an imperial decree, he often had it carved into sandstone pillars that were erected across the empire. These pillars are the oldest examples of monumental sculpture in India, with more than 40 found across the subcontinent. They were often topped with expertly-crafted lion sculptures, as well.

A pillar of Ashoka

Ashoka's influence was seen throughout India in the form of these pillars, but also through another trait. Sometime before 254 BCE, Ashoka converted to the growing religion of Buddhism and dedicated his reign to spreading it across his empire. Ashoka's conversion set a long precedent of Buddhist rulers in India and has often been compared to Constantine's conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. It was through his support of Buddhism that Ashoka's architectural legacy was secured.

The Sanchi Stupa

We can begin to understand the impact of Ashoka's conversion through a few very important architectural sites in India. The first is the Sanchi Stupa. In the Buddhist tradition, great teachers were buried in mounds like little hills. These burial mounds represented mountains (a common symbol in Buddhist teachings for the struggle of life and path to enlightenment) as well as the shape of a person seated in meditation. The base of the stupa represents the crossed legs, the middle portion represents the body, and the top piece represents the head. They were important sites for Buddhists to come and meditate, and both visiting and building stupas were believed to have karmic value.

Ashoka was said to have built roughly 84,000 stupas across his empire and to have divided the ashes of the Buddha's earthly body amongst them. That may give you an idea of how dedicated he was to spreading Buddhism. The stupa at Sanchi, however, was the most important. Built near the birthplace of Ashoka's wife, Queen Devi, it was the center of much Buddhist activity in the Mauryan Empire and the nexus of a major spiritual complex that would develop around it.

The Great Stupa of Sanchi

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