Maurya, Shunga and Satavahana Collection

The Mauryan Empire thrived from 322 B.C.E. to 185 B.C.E. and its first king was Chandragupta Maurya who ruled from Patliputra (present-day Patna). The expanse of the Mauryan empire was very large- from Himalayas in the North, to present-day Assam in the East, to Baluchistan in the West, stretching to the South eastern parts of Iran and much of what is now Afghanistan, including the modern Herat and Kandhar provinces.

During the Mauryan period, and particularly during the reign of the Great Emperor Asoka (270 to 232 B.C.E.) and with his embrace of Buddhism, which became the predominant religion during the time, Buddhist influence in the sculptures became visible. Asoka erected many Pillars topped by famous sculptures of animals, mostly lions, of which six survive around India, carrying his edicts. Mauryan art is represented both in court art as well as popular art. While the tall stone pillars and their decorative capitals represent court art, examples of popular art may be seen in sculptures like the Deedarganj Yakshi which now in the Patna Museum in Bihar. Mauryan sculptures were executed in red spotted sandstone (quarried from Mathura) and the close grained buff coloured sandstone (quarried from Chunar). Mauryan sculptures are significant for their large scale, robust and fully formed figures and the unique glaze like polish that provides a sophisticated finish to the sculptures.

The Mauryan period was followed by the Shunga period (2nd-1st century B.C.E.), during which a simpler style was adopted. The sculptures of Shunga period were used primarily to decorate Stupas ( mound shaped architectural edifices that usually housed the relics of Buddha or were erected in the memory of Buddha and great Buddhist teachers) at Bodh Gaya (in Bihar), Bharhut and Sanchi (in Madhya Pradesh). These depict life scenes of Buddha or the Jatakas- tales based on stories of Buddha’s previous births. Folk deities like Yaksha, Yakshi and Salabhanjika are also common figures found in Shunga art.

In the Deccan, the patronage of Satavahana kings supported by lay disciples produced a large number of rock-cut caves. Important structures like Stupas were built at Amaravati and Ghantasala, both of which are represented here through some remarkable specimens. The narrative quality of the stories and the creativity apparent in the fantastically sculpted capitals and cornices make these masterpieces of Buddhist art. The Satavahanas added four gateways to the railing of the Great Stupa at Sanchi, in present day Madhya Pradesh, which was enlarged during the Shunga period. Two sculptures exhibited in the gallery belong to the gateway of Sanchi, which convey the grandeur of the Sanchi Stupa and its importance in Satvahana society.

Kushana Collection

The Kushana gallery represents three overlapping styles of Indian art - Mathura, Gandhara and Ikshvaku. These styles flourished together from 1st to 3rd century C.E. This was a period of immense profusion of visual art, particularly under the influence of Buddhism. Buddha was represented in human form for the first time. Earlier to this he was depicted through symbols such as the Bodhi Tree and the Lotus.  Images of most of the Hindu and Jaina deities were also depicted in human form for the first time during this period.

The main centers of artistic activity under the Kushanas were the regions of Gandhara and Mathura, each of which developed its own distinct style. While Mathura art was indigenous, the art of Gandhara evolved under the Greco-Roman influence, as evident from the iconography, form and costumes of sculptures.  Mathura artists used locally available spotted red sandstone, while the Gandharan artists selected the local greyish schist. The artists of Mathura supplied images to all the prevalent faiths, in and around Mathura and also to distant places whereas artists from Gandhara concentrated mostly on Buddhist subjects.

At the far end of this gallery, a few Kushana sculptures in red mottled sandstone stand representative of this school. Among the Gandharan sculptures are the youthful Buddha and Maitreya (future Buddha) images, and a few sculptures depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life besides a large number of stucco images and portraits.

In the Mathura sculptures, the female figures are voluptuous and sensuous, as seen in the famous ‘Bacchanalian Scene’ from Maholi where the courtesan Vasantsena seems to have been portrayed drunk and losing control on her senses. The four faced (chaturmukha) Shivalinga and the pot-bellied image of Kubera from Ahichchhatra are noteworthy examples of Mathura art. Besides these, a large fragment of tympanum presents the Buddha in human form as well as his worship through symbols side by side.

Among the Jaina images, Ayagapata (stone tablet for offering homage), a fragmentary tympanum from Kankali Tila (a famous Jaina site in Mathura in present-day Uttar Pradesh), provide an overview of the Jaina art of Mathura.

The Ikshvaku artists of the 3rd century carried forward the legacy of the Satavahana art and created some of the most beautiful sculptures with the same greenish limestone to adorn Shaiva shrines and Buddhist Stupas and Chaityagrihas as the ones at Nagarjunakonda (present-day Andhra Pradesh).  A large number of casing slabs for covering the dome of the Stupa were carved. Since no Stupa has been found intact in South India, these serve as models to visualize the original stupa that once existed. The most important work on display is a casing slab depicting  scenes from the life of the Buddha – birth, casting of horoscope, child Siddhartha being welcomed by the guardians of four quarters, Saint Asita’s visit to King Suddhodhana and the visit of child Siddhartha to the tutelary deity.

Gupta Art Collection

The Gupta gallery takes us to the golden era of Indian art (4th - 6th century C.E.) in which, under the enlightened patronage of the Gupta rulers, Indian art attained classic perfection in human, faunal as well as floral forms and set the standard of artistic creation for the coming centuries. Highly animate, youthful and expressive, the divine beings are often represented with a circular halo and decorated with circular floral bands. The major centres of artistic activities during this period were Mathura and Sarnath.

Several new iconographic images emerged in the Gupta period, owing to the evolution and development of religious thought and iconography. For example, a Nataraja from Nachana appears to be the earliest image of dancing Shiva. Ekamukha Shivalinga from Khoh is another masterpiece of this gallery. Yet another rare image is of the Chaturmukhi Surya which is a Shivalinga with four figures representing Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Surya. The image of Vishnu, displayed in the gallery, is known for its  grace, beauty and artistic perfection. Also on display in this gallery are several panels from Deogarh in Uttar Pradesh, which depict stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Buddha images from Sarnath are remarkable for the diaphanous drapery, a major characteristic feature of the Sarnath School.

A large number of terracotta figures have been found in places such as Mathura, Ahichchhatra, Bhitargaon and Kaushambi. Like the stone sculptures, the terracotta figures are also notable for their suppleness of movement, benign expression and perfect proportion. Nearly life-size images of Ganga and Yamuna displayed in the Early Medieval Gallery are unparalleled in the realm of Indian terracotta art. Similarly, the terracotta plaques depicting stories from the Mahabharata present the most eloquent examples of this art in the gallery.

The legacy of Gupta art was adopted and further developed by the Maitraka rulers of Vallabhi in Gujarat (6th to 8th century C.E.) whose sculptures are delicately modelled in soft bluish green stone. A few of them are on display in this gallery.

Early Medieval Sculpture Collection

The disintegration of the Gupta Empire towards the end of the 6th century C.E. resulted in the growth of regional offshoots of art such as the emergence of local powers like the Palas in the East, Maitrakas in the West, Vardhanas and Pratiharas in the North and Pallavas, Chalukyas and Cholas in the South. The art of this period is characterized by elongation of the human form, a distinct sharpness in facial features, an increase in ornamentation and formal postures.

This gallery presents selected examples of various art-styles which flourished simultaneously in different regions during this period. A number of Pratihara sculptures are on view but the lintel from Chittorgarh, (in present-day Rajasthan) depicting the images of the Navagrahas (nine planets), shows the stylized depiction adopted during this period in wood carving. Vishwarupa Vishnu (Vishnu shown in his all-encompassing form) of the Maitrakas, though mutilated and completely weathered gives an impression of the monumentality of these sculptures. An image of the river Goddess Ganga, standing on a crocodile is a magnificent representation of Rashtrakuta art from the Ellora Caves.

Some magnificent and exquisite temples were built under the patronage of Western Chalukyan emperors at Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal (all in present day Karnataka). The plaques from Aihole depicting a pair of flying celestials are displayed in the foyer and the inner rotunda in the ground floor of the museum.

The Pallavas and the Cholas were great patrons of art and temple architecture. A number of Pallava and early Chola sculptures are on view here; Soma-skanda, the depiction of the Holy Family of Shiva, Parvati and their son Kartikeya and images of Vishnu are particularly noteworthy in their craftsmanship and expression.

Late Medieval Sculpture Collection

Regional powers like the Palas and the Senas in the East, the Cholas, Hoysalas, Vijayanagar rulers and Nayakas in the South and the Gahadavalas, Paramaras and Chandelas in the North continued to encourage the temple art and architecture in India.

A number of temples were built in and around the region of present day Bhubaneswar in Odisha. The famous Sun Temple of Konark was built during the 13th century C.E. by king Narasimhadeva. The sculptures of Konark are marked by intense movement, perfect sculptural rhythm and clearly defined features. A beautiful image of Surya is displayed in this gallery and the four portraits in stone of the king Narasimhadeva engaged in activities such as archery, worship and discussion with his courtiers are the prized exhibits in this gallery. These are particularly special since the art of portraiture was not very common in those days.

The Chandellas commissioned the construction of the outstanding temples at Khajuraho. A beautiful image of Yogasana Vishnu from the Khajuraho region (present-day Madhya Pradesh) on display is testimony to the superb skills of the artists.

The artists who worked under the patronage of the Paramars, Gahadavalas and Chahamanas also produced some delightful sculptures known for their wood-like carvings. An image of Durga on display here is a masterpiece of Paramara art. The bust of Vajra Tara is an excellent example of Gahadavala art.

In eastern India, the Pala and Sena artists adorned a number of stone slabs with minute, delicate and jewel-like carving of figures of gods and goddesses. A few of these sculptures done on dark basalt stone, mostly Buddhist stele, are on show.

In Western India, under the influence of Jain patrons, beautiful temples were erected. The best examples of their architecture are seen in the temples at Mount Abu and Ranakpur in Rajasthan. The exquisite marble image of Saraswati from Pallu, Bikaner belonging to the Chahamanas is on display in the foyer.

The temples with sculptural wealth of the South were built largely due to the patronage of the Hoysala kings at Helebid, Belur and Somnathpur in Karnataka. This gallery has some of the rarest and most admirable sculptures, belonging to the Hoysalas, including portrait of a huntress, an image of Kaliya Krishna and others which are as intricately detailed as if they had been worked in gold instead of stone. The highly decorative 12th century Hoysala sculpture of Lakshami Narayan is of superb sculptural quality.

The Cholas were great builders of temples in the South. Among the large number of Chola sculptures of 10th and 11th centuries C.E. on display in this gallery, one image of Shiva in Lingodhbhava form and another Jain deity of Parshvanatha are known for their unique concepts and form. Though the tradition continued during the Vijayanagar period, it emerged as an individual style and lacked the vivacity of the earlier styles.

Bronze Collection

A selection from the collection of bronzes of the museum is on show in the Bronzes gallery. The art of bronze casting reveals the high level of technical excellence of artisans in the field of metallurgy in ancient India. From the Harappan civilization, the lost-wax process (Madhucchista Vidhana) has been used in casting bronze artworks. A number of images belonging to Shunga, Kushana and Ikshvaku periods have been discovered. However, it was the Gupta period which witnessed the casting of metal images on a large scale and the art form spread to other regions.

Four Buddha images from Phophnar, Madhya Pradesh known for their excellence are on display here.  The Pala bronzes from 8th to 10th century, mainly Buddhist in theme are from Nalanda in Bihar. The bronzes from the Himalayan region, especially those belonging to Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, represent Northern India. While Svachchhanda Bhairavi introduces the skill of the metal smith of Chamba and Vishnu Vaikuntha testifies to the high level of craftsmanship of Kashmiri artists. Selected Nepalese and Tibetan bronzes are also on view. The image of Vasudeva-Kamalja (half Vishnu and half Lakshmi) displayed here is a superb example of Nepalese bronze art and iconography.

Bronzes from South India demonstrate the high level of development of the art form, and there are objects dating from the 6th to 18th century in the collection. A large number of images of Hindu gods and goddess were produced at this time. Shiva Nataraja is a unique creation, combining artistic vision and technical knowledge to perfection.  Many forms of Shiva such as Uma- Maheshwara, Alingana-murti, Chandrashekhara, Tripurantaka, Nandikeshvara were depicted and these forms have been displayed to enable a comparative study.   Pallava and Chola artisans also created diverse forms of Vishnu, the most popular being Kaliya Krishna, Balagopala and Nrityagopala.

Buddhist Art Collection

Moving beyond chronological or style based displays, the Buddhist Art Gallery was set up in 1990 as the first thematic gallery of the museum. All the three major schools of Buddhism – Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana - are represented here. The gallery presents a large number of images of Buddhist deities.

The development of Indian Buddhist art is reflected in the sculptures ranging from 2nd century B.C.E. to 12th century C.E. The Hinayana phase is covered by three sculptures presenting the worship of symbols and Jataka narrations, namely the adoration of the Turban, Buddha-pada and Chhadanta Jataka. The Mahayana phase produced some of the most beautiful Buddha and Bodhisattva images.

The bronze image of Buddha from Phophnar kept at the altar and Buddha head from Sarnath are magnificent examples of Buddhist art. Similarly, a slab depicting scenes from Buddha’s life is also of special interest in this gallery. The Vajrayana phase is marked with a number of tantrik divinities like Marichi, Chunda, Tara, Manjushri, Simhanada and Lokeshvara. Important Buddhist sites like Sarnath, Nalanda, Bharhut and  Nagarjunakonda are also represented  in the gallery.

Buddhism did not remain confined to India. While the beautiful silk paintings and stucco heads in the gallery remind us of the spread of Buddhism in Central Asia, the popularity of the Buddhist faith in South-East Asia is evident from the bronze images of Maitreya and Avalokiteshvara created in that region. The larger than life image of the Buddha head from Java is an impressive sculpture in this gallery. Tibet and Nepal are represented here by Thangkas (scroll- paintings) based on Buddhist themes. A modern Buddha image in wood with gold wash from Myanmar is an added attraction.

Objects from the monasteries of Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Tibet and Tawang are exhibited on a reconstructed altar of a Buddhist Shrine.   Some typical objects are charm boxes, prayer wheels, brass bell, bone trumpet ambrosia (ritual container) and the wheel of law. Since the works of art are mainly produced for offering at the altar by devotees, they reflect the superb workmanship of the devoted craftsman.

The focal point of this gallery is the display of the relics believed to be of Lord Buddha. In 1898, an excavation was carried out on a mound at Piprahwa, in Uttar Pradesh, which yielded caskets with fragments of bone, along with ornaments, figures and precious stones. The inscription on a casket speaks of the relics of Lord Buddha. The Archaeological Survey of India conducted further excavations at the site from 1971 to 1977, resulting in the discovery of two more caskets in soapstone, containing more sacred bone relics. The site has been identified with ancient Kapilavastu, the home town of Buddha Sakyamuni. These objects are of great reverence to Buddhist pilgrims, and the Museum gets hundreds of visitors of Buddhist faith from all over the world who come to this room to pay homage and venerate the relics.


5th century A.D. (Gupta Period)

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Vishnu Vaikuntha
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