Regular use of stone for sculpture and architecture commenced from the Maurya period, (c.325—184 BC) particularly from the time of the great king Ashoka (269—232 BC). From then a happy blend of art and architecture became a conspicuous characteristic of Indian art.
Sculptural images of the Shunga period (c. 184—72 BC) are characterised by low relief, bicornate turbans on male figures, the symbolic representation of the Buddha and narratives of his life. The stupas of Bharhut, Sanchi and Bodh Gaya are the great monuments of the age. The yaksha/yakshi (demon/demoness) statues of the Maurya and Shunga periods represent the influence of folk cult and the excellence of the Indian sculptural tradition.
Two great schools of art evolved and flourished simultaneously in the Kushana period (1st—3rd century), one using the spotted red sandstone at Mathura, and the other using the schist stone in the larger territory of the Gandhara region now in Pakistan and Afghanistan. While the former carved the images of the deities of all the pantheons (Hindu, Buddhist and Jain) the latter concentrated on Buddhist icons. Both are credited to have evolved the Buddha image. There was a good deal of interaction between the two styles in the 2nd and 3rd century.
Indian art reached its zenith in the Gupta period with the noble experiment of harmonising rupa and bhava. The schools of Mathura and Sarnath (near Varanasi) played a vital role in this respect. While Mathura represented garments on the human form with rippled pleats, Sarnath favoured “wet” or body-clinging drapery. The serenity of the face and refined treatment of the body are the hallmarks of the age. The sculptures and wall paintings created during the same period under the Vakatakas at Ajanta and other places followed the same trends and are similarly superb.
The political disharmony in the post Gupta period gave rise to regional artistic off—shoots. While the classical features of the preceding age were retained to a great extent, the religious and artistic inclination of the period saw the emergence of ornamentation, as well as sub-deities, family deities (parivaradevatas) and deities with multiple arms and attributes. The notable stylistic periods were those of the Pratiharas (c.900—1000) in the north, the Rashtrakutas (c.753—973) and Chalukyas (c.550—642) in the Deccan and the Pallavas (c.600—750) in the south. The temple was the great source of sculpture.
Remarkable specimens in dark basalt stone came onto the scene particularly in eastern India under the patronage of Pala and Sena kings (c.10th-l3th century) who favoured both Brahmanism and Buddhism. These are slim and slender figures with plinth—like projections (rathas), lotus cushions, flanking acolytes, decorative motifs like the leogryph (simhashardula), lion’s face emitting strings of pearls (kirtimukha), geese (hamsa) and mythical crocodile (makara). Temples in Orissa were also studded with beautiful sculptures and decorative motifs.
The late medieval (11th—l3th century) sculptures are known for mechanical stylisation, pointed and linear clarity, meticulous details of ornaments and further elaboration of subsidiary deities. Divine figures are dominant and the female becomes the focal point in this period. Amorous and sometimes erotic postures also emerge. The temples of Khajuraho, Orissa, Halebid and Mount Abu are known for intricate carving. In the south, monumental gateways (gopurams) and the towers of the sanctums were decorated with hundreds of beautiful sculptures.
For their excellent formation and beauty bronzes have a unique significance in the domain of Indian art. These have been handed down from the Indus period (c. 3rd millennium BC) to the present day. All the major early religions in India encouraged bronze casting to popularise their faith. Bronzes have been found in different parts of India. The most important ones are from Tamil Nadu and date from the Chola period (c.900-1035). Figures of Shiva Nataraja surpasses all bronzes in their exquisite treatment, rhythm and expression.
Clay, with its ductile nature and wide availability has provided ample scope for artistic expression from time immemorial. The Harappa sites have yielded figurines of a number of mother goddesses. These are hand-modelled and have attached limbs, ornaments and garments.