Mauryan Empire Art & Culture Video

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  • 0:04 Location & Stone
  • 0:36 Culture & Religion
  • 1:56 Art & Architecture
  • 4:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever tried to carve stone? Artists in one ancient Indian civilization were undoubtedly experts at it. In this lesson, we explore the culture and art of the Mauryan Empire.

Location & Stone

Stone is one of the hardest substances on Earth. It's not easy to work with, and carving it requires a great deal of skill. Artists in the ancient Mauryan Empire mastered this difficult art and created beautiful, impressive works from stone.

The Mauryan Empire was a political and military empire that existed from roughly 322 to 185 BCE. Located in large parts of eastern and northern India, it was founded by a leader named Chandragupta Maurya. Many scholars consider it one of India's greatest empires.

Culture & Religion

The Mauryan Empire was a highly organized network that covered a vast area of present-day India. Its king was head of state and also led the military and judiciary. He ruled over an efficient bureaucratic system with many government divisions. It was a culture with a single currency, one where both the state and individuals could own businesses and be engaged in commerce.

Many people in the Mauryan Empire were involved in agriculture, while others worked as tradespeople in a guild system, or a method where groups of craftspeople and merchants oversaw standards and trade in specific locations. Over time, the Mauryan Empire developed an effective network of roads that crisscrossed its vast territory.

One of the Mauryan Empire's most renowned leaders was Chandragupta's grandson, Ashoka, sometimes known as Ashoka the Great. He ruled during the time period around 273 to 232 BCE. While Chandragupta had been a Hindu, Ashoka championed Buddhism, though both religions continued to coexist in the empire.

Influenced by his religion, Ashoka brought many reformed to society. He banned hunting and violent sport, ended indentured servitude, and developed diplomatic relations with neighboring states. Ashoka ruled over a largely peaceful and prosperous state. He was known for erecting stone pillars, many of which were inscribed with his rules and accomplishments.

Art & Architecture

The pillars commissioned by Ashoka are some of the Mauryan Empire's best known works of art. They're also masterful examples of stone carving. The pillars are monoliths, or large objects carved from a single block of stone. Unlike pillars used to support buildings, these pillars are freestanding and made of highly-polished stone.

Each pillar is made of a polished shaft, sometimes, but not always, inscribed with writing. At the top of the pillar is a decorative part called a capital. On most pillars, it's in the shape of an upside-down lotus flower, a prominent symbol in Buddhism that looks like a flattened bell. Resting above the capital is a stand called an abacus. The abacus sometimes has figures carved on it. It then supports an even more elaborate carved sculpture. Often the sculpture is of one of more animals, including lions, elephants, and bulls.

One of the most famous examples of these sculptures is the Sarnath Lion Capital of Ashoka, where four lions with their backs to each other sit on an elaborately carved abacus. The animals, with fully-detailed manes, are expertly carved. The image is so famous in India that it's used on the country's state seal.

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