Buddhist Sculpture during the Second Century BCE and its Evolution

Buddhist Sculpture during the Second Century BCE and its Evolution
Posted on 24-07-2023

Buddhist Sculpture during the Second Century BCE and its Evolution

From the second century BCE onwards, various dynasties asserted control over the vast Mauryan Empire, with rulers like the Shungas, Kanvas, Kushanas, and Guptas in the north and parts of central India, and the Satavahanas, Ikshavaku, Abhiras, and Vakatakas in southern and western India. Concurrently, the second century BCE also witnessed the rise of the main Brahmanical sects such as the Vaishnavas and the Saivas.

Among the prominent examples of exquisite sculpture are the sites of Vidisha, Bharhut (Madhya Pradesh), Bodhgaya (Bihar), Jaggayyapeta (Andhra Pradesh), Mathura (Uttar Pradesh), Khandagiri-Udaigiri (Odisha), and others.

Bharhut, known for its remarkable sculptures, features tall images of Yaksha and Yakshini, typical of the Mauryan period. In the relief panels portraying narratives, an illusion of three-dimensionality is achieved through tilted perspectives.

At Bharhut, the narrative panels initially depicted fewer characters, but over time, the picture space started accommodating additional figures apart from the main character of the story. Sculptors maximized the available space, and in the narratives, folded hands and single figures of Yakhshas and Yakshinis are shown flat, appearing to cling to the chest.

During this period, the sculptures exhibited a certain stiffness in the body and arms. However, as time progressed, sculptors developed a more refined visual appearance with deeper carvings, pronounced volume, and a highly naturalistic representation of human and animal forms. Examples of such evolved sculptures can be found in Bharhut, Bodhgaya, Sanchi Stupa-2, and Jagayyapetta.

The narrative reliefs at Bharhut stand as a testament to the artisans' skill in effectively communicating stories through a pictorial language. For instance, in one such narrative depicting Queen Mayadevi's dream (the mother of Siddhartha Gautama), a descending elephant is shown.

One distinct feature observed in male images from the first and second centuries BCE at Bharhut is the knotted headgear.

In conclusion, Buddhist sculpture during this period saw significant artistic evolution, from the early sculptures with flat appearances to the later ones characterized by deep carvings and naturalistic representation. The narrative reliefs at Bharhut exemplify the artisans' mastery in conveying stories through their artistry. The sculptures from this era continue to provide valuable insights into the cultural and artistic heritage of ancient India.


Buddhist sculpture is a significant form of art that developed as an expression of Buddhist beliefs and ideals. It emerged in India during the early centuries of the Common Era and subsequently spread to other parts of Asia as Buddhism expanded. Buddhist sculptures serve various purposes, including religious worship, education, commemoration, and inspiration for followers.

Key Characteristics:

  1. Iconography: Buddhist sculptures often depict figures and symbols central to the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha himself is a common subject, represented in various postures, such as the meditating Buddha (Buddha in the lotus position) or the teaching Buddha (Buddha giving a sermon). Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who vow to help others attain enlightenment, are also commonly portrayed.

  2. Mudras: Mudras are hand gestures that hold symbolic meaning in Buddhist iconography. Different mudras convey specific aspects of the Buddha's teachings and represent various qualities or states of mind.

  3. Postures: Buddhist sculptures can feature different postures, known as asanas. Each posture has its own significance and symbolic meaning, reflecting the Buddha's teachings or specific events in his life.

  4. Serenity and Compassion: Buddhist sculptures often convey a sense of tranquility and compassion, reflecting the peaceful and compassionate nature of Buddhist teachings.

  5. Materials and Techniques: Buddhist sculptures have been created using various materials, including stone, metal, wood, and even clay. The techniques employed by skilled artisans involve carving, casting, and modeling to achieve intricate and lifelike details.

Regional Styles:

Throughout history, different regions have developed their distinctive styles of Buddhist sculpture:

  1. Gandhara School: This style emerged in the region of Gandhara (present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan) and shows Greco-Roman influences. Gandharan sculptures are known for their realistic depictions of the Buddha, blending Hellenistic and Indian artistic elements.

  2. Mathura School: The Mathura region (in present-day Uttar Pradesh, India) produced sculptures known for their greater emphasis on sensuality and the spiritual qualities of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. These sculptures often display a deep inner contentment.

  3. Gupta School: The Gupta Empire (around the 4th to 6th centuries CE) saw the development of the Gupta school, characterized by elegance, naturalism, and an emphasis on spiritual serenity. The Gupta period is considered a golden age of Buddhist art in India.

  4. Tibetan and East Asian Styles: As Buddhism spread to Tibet, China, Japan, and other East Asian countries, it adopted unique regional characteristics in its sculptural representations. These styles often incorporate local artistic traditions while maintaining essential Buddhist iconography.

Buddhist sculpture has played a vital role in the preservation and dissemination of Buddhist teachings, providing a visual and tangible way for devotees to connect with their faith and find inspiration on their spiritual journey. Today, Buddhist sculptures continue to be admired and revered by people around the world for their artistic beauty and spiritual significance.

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