One of the glorious aspects of the Ancient Indian art and Architecture had been the creation of Monoliths which were hewn out of solid rocks. Though the presence of these monoliths could be traced in the Vedic and later Vedic texts, but no specimens beyond the Mauryan period could be traced. The Indra Sabha of Chandragupta Maurya at Kumrahar near Patna was credited with having eight-two monolithic pillars with the glazed polish. However, with Asoka’s ascending to the throne of Magadha, the art of chiselli8ng in India received a great boost. During his times a number of monolithic pillars with capitals including those at Sanchi and Sarnath were created.
The pillars of the Mauryan period were circular in their design but during the subsequent period the stress on circular monoliths was almost abandoned. In their place, the square, hexagonal, or octagonal monolithic pillars were patronized. In centuries that followed the artist besides continuing the activity of monolithic pillars, also started the chiselling of the monolithic cave stupas, which served the cause of Buddhism, followed by the creation of monolithic temples, like those at Ellora, Mahabalipuram and Masrur (Kangra). These Monoliths have their own importance in the Indian Art and Architecture. The present work deals with the subject in detail, highlighting the salient features of the Indian monoliths.
The author having served in the curatorial capacity in the Central Asian Antiquities Museum, New Delhi, the Nalanda Museum and Archaeological section of the Indian Museum, Calcutta, was credited wieth the scientific documentation of over fifty thousand antiquities comprising of sculptures, bronzes, terracottas, beads, seals and sealings, wood work, paintings, textiles and Pearce Collection of Gems, ranging from the earliest times to the late medieval period.
Besides publishing bilingually, three publications of the Archaeological Survey of India, he has also brought out the works entitled: (1) Mahishasuramardini in Indian Art, (2) The Universal Mother (3) The Composite deities in Indian Art, (4) The Temples of Himachal Pradesh, (5) Cult of Vinayaka, (6) Brahma in Indian Art and Culture, (7) Garuda-the Celestial Bird.
In addition to above, his works entitled (1) Jatakas in Indian Art, (2) Muslim Sanskrit Scholars, (3) The Svastika, (4) The Adi-Varaha, (5) The Cult of Surya in India (6) The Conservation of Cultural Heritage Through Ages, are in the pipeline.
(He alone is worthy and a commendable historian, whose narrative of the events of the past, like that of a judge, is free from passion, prejudice and partiality).
In the spirit of the above prescription of Kalhana, an effort has been made to deal with the subject of Indian Monoliths. While dealing with the subject of monoliths in Indian art, one comes across four types of such vestiges viz. pillars, temples, stupas and sculptures. Of these, the monolithic pillars are of considerable antiquity. A pillar has been defined as an upright member of circular, polygonal square, polygonal or shafts of other shapes erected independently or for the support of an arch or of a pediment etc. the monolithic pillar is made exclusively of a single piece of rock. The scholars have tried to trace the genesis of these pillars and the beautiful polish, over them, in the Vedic as well as the post Vedic literature.
The Mauryan period starts from 325 B.C., with the coronation of the great king Chandragupta Maurya on the throne of Magadha. He was a Chakravarti king ruling over a large part of Indian from Bengal in the east to Gujarat in the west and from Himalayas in the north to Mysore in the south. At Kumrahar, the site of old Pataliputra, a huge pillared hall of Mauryan date (known as Chandragupta Sabha), which is possibly the first structural building of the historical period, was discovered. This hall had eighty-two pillars with lustrous polish, some fragments of which are still available. Whether the palace was built by Chandragupta or by Asoka is a question having great significance. The available evidence overwhelmingly is in favour of Chandragupta as the author of the whole plan as well as its execution. The testimony of the Greek writer Megasthanese offers inconvertible proof that the city and the palace existed long before Asoka, because Megasthanese actually saw them and recorded a factual account of the magnificence of the structures. Besides, the bottom of the pillars of the hall was engraved with several symbols, including a set of three rows of three circles, taurine, triangle headed standard (Vai jayanti) and crescent on Chaitya, the last sign being associated, in great probability with Chandragupta Maurya, since it is commonly found on the Panchmarked coins of Mauryan date. Evidently, the bright Mauryan polish and the tall monolithic column without base were both evolved by Chandragupta Maurya. In some of the edicts, Asoka himself refers to the already existing pillars, over which the edicts were engraved during his regime. Patanjali writing only about one hundred and twenty five years after Chandragupta, refers to Chandragupta Sabha by which name the edifice became known to posterity.
This Chandragupta Sabha comprising of a large assembly hall, had eighty-two monolithic pillars and bright polished stones shining like gems (manimayi Sabha). The most characteristic feature of this Sabhn was its mirror like finish which has been described variously viz. Bhiisvara; Taijasi, Arka- Samaprabha, Rasmivatim Aprameya-prabha, Svayam-Prabha, and Sarvate jomayi. It was beautified with many decorative motifs like the bejewelled trees (Rama-maya-Vrikshai, golden plants, (Hema-maya-plidapas), studded shrubs (Gulma) and creepers (avatlima), laden with flowers and fruits (Phala- pushpa-prada) and blossoming springs (Pushpa-manjari), which were designed with gems of blue, yellow, red, white and black shades. On their dense foliage were birds of many forms and unknown shapes. This almost agrees with what the Greek writers have testified about the assembly hall of Chandragupta:- "The palace is adorned with gilded pillars, clasped all round with a vine embossed in gold, white silver images of those birds which charm the eyes most, diversify the workmanship."
Thus the .use of monolithic pillars had, possibly, been in vogue prior to Asoka and during his regime, their use was .made more popular and wide spread. Even the lustrous Mauryan polish had originated prior to Asokan times, as testified by Apastamba Srauta Siura and the pillars of the Chandragupta Sabha at Kumrahar near Patna. The question that has been baffling most is the methodology used in achieving such a high degree of finish and lustre in which one could see the reflection of his own face as in a mirror. According to Percy Brown, in completing their handiwork with glazed effect, the Asokan artists were following the procedure of early stone workers; and the lustrous finish of the crystal was achieved by laborious application of an agate burnisher and somewhat the same process was adopted in pillars and other sand stone objects. V.S. Agrawala on the other hand feels that the production of the glistening effect on the columns was achieved with the application of a recipe, the ingredients of which have been spelt out in the Apastamha Sraut Sidra. The views of V.S. Agrawala seem to be more appealing since, this lustrous polish has been found on many sculptures as well and the use of a liquid recipe for achieving lustre on uneven surface could be more practicable than the rubbing with agate burnisher.
Indeed the pillars upto the Asokan period were mostly circular in shape and design but the trend was changed during Sunga-Kushana and subsequent periods. These periods saw the advent of square, hexagonal, octagonal, sixteen-sided and even thirty-two-sided pillars, though the use of circular pillars was not discarded altogether.
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