Arts, Crafts and Architecture in Ancient India

The development of Indian art is the result of evolution which began with the Harappan culture. The study of the ruins unearthed during the excavations show that the buildings at Harappa and Mohenjodaro were constructed according to some definite pians. They were made of pucca bricks. The houses had floors, courtyards, doors, windows and narrow stairways. The city of Mohenjodaro had an imposing Great Bath. “It is a swimming bath on a scale which would do credit to a modem seaside hotel.” The solid nature of the structure is proved by the fact that it has been strong enough to last for five thousand years. The most remarkable building excavated at Harappa is the Great Granary. This large godown is divided into two blocks, each having six big halls. These godowns must be serving the purpose of government store houses. The above account shows that the art of building had reached a high degree of perfection. At the time when the citizens of Indus valley freely used kiln-burnt bricks, the people of Egypt were ignorant of it and that of Mesopotamia (modem Ixaq) very seldom used it. A large number of figurines of both males and females made of bronze, stone and clay have been discovered at many places. The Indus valley people were skilled in this art and fashioned these figures stylically. The image of a dancing girl and the terracota figure of a woman named as the Mother Goddess are popular pieces of art. The seals discovered in the Indus valley are most puzzling and most important. The seal named Pashupati unearthed at Harappa shows the figure of a male god with horns and three faces. It throws light on the religion of the Indus people. Another seal “Bull seal” shows a stout humpee rahami bull. The modelling of the fleshy limbs is remarkable for its artistic beauty. The seals give us much information about the culture of the Indus people. They tell us about their agriculture, animals, ids, dress, ornaments, hair style, arts and crafts, religious beliefs and their script.

The Mauryan Period

India witnessed a remarkable progress in the field of art during the Mauryan period. The first Mauryan ruler Chandragupta built a number of monuments and palaces at Pataliputra. They were built of wood and they have perished. But some monuments of Ashoka have survived the ravages of the time. They form the earliest artistic records of Indian civilization.

Founding of new cities

The traditions tell that Ashoka built two great cities. Kaihana in his famous work writes that Ashoka laid the foundation of the town of Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. He built 500 Viharas. The Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang who visited India in the seventh century A.D. mentions 100 Viharas which he saw there. In 250-24 B.C., when Ashoka visited Nepal, he built a city named Lalitpattam and constructed five stupas there.

The Palace of Pataliputra

Ashoka built a magnificent palace at Pataliputra. Chinese pilgrim Fahien who visited India in the 5th century AD writes that he found Ashoka’s palace and an assembly hail at Pataliputra. They were built by Asuras. They created stone walls and gates and engraved beautiful pictures on them which no other craftsman in any part of the world could make in those days.


Ashoka built stupas all over the country. The Buddhist traditions tell that he built as many as 84000 stupas in as many towns. They were situated at Taxila, Srinagar, Thaneswar, Kanauj, Mathura, Ayodhya, Prayag, Kausambhi, Kapilvastu, Benaras, Vaishali,Gaya etc. Some of his stupas were as high as hill tops. Only a few of them have been discovered. The be’t known is the Great Stupa of Sanchi near the ancient city of Vidisa (in modem Madhya Pradesh). It is 56 feet high with a diameter of 110 feet. At the top is a small stone umbrella, a symbol of royalty. There are carvings on the railings and gateway of the stupa which throw much light on the every day life, customs and dresses of the people of those days. There is another stupa of Ashoka at Bharhut (near Allahabad). It is about 68 feet high. The stupa was completely destroyed but some of its remains are preserved in theCalcutta (Kolkata) museum.


Ashoka also built beautiful pillars (Lats). He built a number of monolithic pillars to commemorate some special events of his reign. Some of them have been discovered at Rammendai, Sarnath, Sanchi and Nigliva. Each of these pillars consists of two parts, namely the shaft and the capital. The workmanship of the Sanchi pillar is a “masterpiece in point of both style and technique”. The artistic beauty of the figures of the four lions standing back to back and the smaller figurines of animals in relief on abacus, have envoked admiration of all critics of art. Dr. V.A. Smith observes, “It should be difficult to find in any country an example of sculpture superior to or even equal to this beautiful work of art”.


A number of caves belonging to the Mauryan period have been discovered in Barabara hills near Gaya. The one called Sudama Cave was dedicated by Ashoka to the monks of the Ajivika sect. The caves were cut out of solid rocks and are wonderful monuments of patient skill and hard labour. These caves were used by the monks for residential purposes. These also served the purpose of shrines and assembly halls.

Small Pieces of Art

Some small pieces of art belonging to the Mauryan period have been discovered at Parkham near Mathura. One of these is a male figure and is seven feet in height. Besides, a female figure from Besanagar and some figures from Didarganj arid Patna are notable. According to Dr. Kumara Swami, these peices of art are the specimens of folk art.

Art of Polishing

The art of polishing was highly developed during the time of Ashoka. The walls of the rock-cut caves in Barabar and Nagarjuna hills are still shining like mirror. The polish of Ashoka’s pillars has astonished even the thodern craftsmen. They are so shining that they seem to be made of brass. An English priest Bishop Herber wrote in the beginning of the 18th century that the “Topara Pillar of Ashoka which was brought to Delhi was cast of a black metal.”

Art of Engineering

The Ashoka monuments also reveal that the people had acquired much knowledge of engineering technique in those times. The handling of monolithic shafts weighing 50 tons and more than 30 feet in height involved great engineering skill. We learn that Feroze Shah Tughlaq removed an Ashokan pillar from Topra near Ambala and brought it to Delhi. Its transportation required the labour of 8400 men pulling at the 42 wheeled cart on which it was carried. It was also during the Mauryan Age that the construction of a remarkable lake called the Sudrashana Lake near Junagarh was taken up by artificially damming up some of the streams. Dr. Radhakumad Mukerji observes that the engineers of the Mauryan times were also expert town planners. Megasthenese’s account shows that Pataliputra city was built according to well thought out plan by the Mauryan engineers.

Art of making Ornaments and Coins

Some ornaments have been discovered in the excavations at Taxila which prove that the art of making gold and silver ornaments was much advanced in the Mauryan period. The Greek writers tell that art of ivory carving and making ivory ornaments also flourished during this period. But the art of making coins was not well-developed as the coins of this period are crude in form.

Thus, we see that art, crafts and architecture made tremendous progress during the Mauryan Age. According to Rawilson, Indian art in Mauiyan times “reached a standard of technical and artistic perfection unsurprassed save perhaps in Athens, anywhere in the ancient world up to
that time?” But unfortunately with the collapse of the Mauryan empire; the art also declined.