Hellenistic Elements in the Sculptural and Terracotta Art of Mauryan Period

Vinay Kumar*

Contacts with Greeks and Greek kingdoms were well established in the Mauryan period, as we find from many inscriptions of Ashoka. This contact with Greece and Hellenism began from the days of Chandragupta Maurya the founder of the Mauryan dynasty in the closing decades of the fourth century B.C.[1] Under such circumstances penetration of Hellenistic ideals of art into Mauryan art was also quite natural and it was especially due to the electric nature of Ashoka. In his inscription, there is clear mention of contacts with Greek rulers not only on the northwestern region of the then India but of much further beyond. In the Rock Edit no. II (Girnar text) the Yavana king Antiyoka is mentioned along with his neighboring Yavana kings.[2] This Antiyoka has been identified as Antiochus II Theos (261-246 B.C.) the Greek king of Western Asia and was a contemporary of Ashoka.[3] Then again, in Rock edict no. XIII (Shahbazgarhi text) the four kings, the neighbors of Antiyoka are mentioned by names.[4] Ashoka’s friendly relations with the Hellenistic world are much too well- known; the world that he claims to have contacted in pursuance of his policy of Dhammavijaya with the Hellenistic world. He dispatched dutas, or envoys to the realms of the five Greek frontages to initiate or encourage various works of piety and public utility, to inculcate the principles of Dhamma. This brief passage of arms initiated an era of more intimate cultural connections between India and the Greek Empire, as is attested by the accounts of the Greek ambassadors, such as Megasthenes at the Maurya court. These influences became more pronounced with the increase of social contacts, matrimonial alliances and trade between them.

In the Mauryan period, we find such Hellenistic elements in art that have been either accepted into or have been adapted to suit Indian aesthetic, belief systems, and socio-religious ideals. Even the vision of Ashoka, the great Mauryan kings regarding Indian art appeared to be absolutely clear from the very beginning as we can see from his various art creations which are in the consecration in Indian thought process and belief system. Thus, the artistic inspirations from far and near penetrated the region from the Mauryan age.

The traces of Greco-Roman and Hellenistic impact on Mauryan art and architecture can be gleaned from the huge stone pillar capital from Pataliputra.[5] It is a part of an architectural unit and was not designed as a freestanding pillar like the many animal capitals and edict bearing columns erected by Ashoka for the propagation of Dharma. “It has the stepped impost block, side-volutes, and central palmettes of Persepolitan order, the bead and reel labial and spiral motifs on the lateral face are all of the Western Asiatic origin; and the rosette ornament of the abacus recalls the frames of the great friezes at Persepolis. Although these elements are combined in a manner different from that of the Iranian capitals, they suggest not only this proto-type but, largely through the profile of the projecting volumes, also Greek ionic”.[6] The very shape and side volutes of the capital clearly betray a distinct Hellenistic inspiration. Even the row of rosettes on its abacus, which Rowland links with Persepolis, can be traced to a much older Greek prototype. Similar rows of rosettes appear, as frames of Minoan and a Mycenean wall painting that is well known are much older to Persepolitan examples.

Plate 1: Capital found at Pataliputra

Again in the Sarnath Lion Capital the prancing horse in bold relief shown on the abacus has been traced by Rowland as of Greek inspiration. In the words of Rowland himself, “these beasts are portrayed in a distinctly lively, even realistic manner. In them, we can recognize at once a style related to Greek tradition. The closest geographical parallel to the horse is the steeds on the silver bowls made in Bactria during the Hellenistic occupation-it is not unlikely that the workmanship was by actual foreign sculptors imported from Iran and the Hellenistic colonies on India’s northern and western frontiers[7]. Niharranjan Ray suggests a similarity with a horse in relief depicted on the “Sarcophagus of Amazons”.[8]

lionbasehorsePlate 2: Horse on the abacus of Sarnath Lion Capital

In the category of terracotta art some terracotta heads and figures from Mathura, Sarnath, Basarh, Bulandibagh, Kumrahar and other places with Greek motifs on their headdress and occasionally even with foreign facial types; prove that Greek motifs and types along with Hellenistic provincial art had migrated to Pataliputra.[9] Since Hellenistic contacts were potent and effective even after the fall of Mauryas, migration, adoption and adaptation of Hellenistic facial and physiognomic types and motifs cannot be ruled altogether out of consideration.

scan0016Plate 3: Smiling Boy, Mauryan Period. Patna Museum

female bust buxar,maurya pdPlate 4: Female Bust, Mauryan Pd. Buxar

scan0015=Plate 5: Dancing girl with a small drum, Bulandibagh. Patna Museum Maurya Pd.

The Bulandibāgh terracotta has rightly been observed by Coomaraswamy as “one of the most sensitive and skillful productions in Indian art of any period”[10] since indeed they are the outstanding examples of ‘smooth modeling and luminous bodies.’ Had they been made in stone, they may have competed in quality with the Sarnāth sculptures. A much more refined type of terracotta found at Pataliputra that of smiling child seems to belong to far more advanced school. A careful comparison with the less individualized types reveals an ethnic relation, and the refinement and sensitiveness that at first might suggest the working of some external influence may be only the result of local conditions.[11] The plastic quality of these images has been taken by Dhavalikar as the ‘handiwork of a Greek (Yavana)sculptor’[12]. He is also supported by Rai Govinda Chandra who advocates that the sophistication, ornamentation and gracile features of these Bihar terracottas could not be achieved by Indian craftsmen.

dancing girl patna museum maurya pdPlate 6: Dancing girl Patna Museum. Maurya Period.

smiling girl bulandibagh maurya-sunga pd patna museumPlate 7: Smiling girl in short skirt Bulandibagh, Maurya-Sunga Pd, Patna Museum

Daedalic style of Greek art can be seen in Pataliputra terracotta or even in the Mauryan and Sungan heads of mother goddesses. Daedalic style (named after a half-legendary artist and craftsman Daedalus, meaning ‘Skilled One’) is characterized by the inverted triangular face with a flat at the top, round chin, with the hair arranged in a fringe over the forehead and falling down on either side of the face like a modern judge’s wig. No fold is represented on the dress, which is fastened by a belt. Both standing and seated figures are in strict frontal view.

lady of auxerrePlate 8: Lady of Auxerre in Daedalic style
(Named after the little Museum of Auxerre, a small city in the vicinity of Paris.)

The Tanagra style was practiced during the Early Hellenic period (330-200 B.C.) Terracotta of this style is found in Athens, Tanagra, Alexandria and other places in the Hellenistic world. The commonest subject of this style is a woman standing in a statuesque and natural pose. The backs are frequently molded but not with many details. The figures usually stand on a thin rectangular base. The drapery is generally worn tightly stretched in opposite direction. The late Hellenistic style was known as Myrina style in which figures generally of women are elongated with very great charm in the face and delicate rendering in the pose in this style. The drapery clings to the body up to the legs in the looped folds. The terracottas of Pataliputra, Bulandibagh, Sonepur, and Buxar had the source of inspiration from these styles of Greek art.

Tanagra Terracotta figuresPlate 9: Tanagra Terracotta figures, about 250 B.C.

But according to late Dr. S.P.Gupta, there is no any Hellenistic influence in these Mauryan terracottas. He has doubted the question of this influence because of the reason that no any examples of terracotta housed in different museums in Western countries have been found which might have acted as the model for the Mauryan terracotta of Bihar. According to him the daedalic style of Greek art cannot be seen in the terracotta of Bulandibagh because of the enormous time gap. The types of skirt and dhoti used by the Bulandibagh and other area girls are never used by any Greek. The facial features, the pose, and the type are all different, only the use of pedestal is identical. In a nutshell, it may be conclusively said that the terracottas of Pataliputra, Bulandibagh, Sonepur, Rajghat, and Buxar present us with a group of figures which are the typical products of the Magadhan Empire and Magadhan social, cultural and economic life. Their source of inspiration may be foreign but the end products are totally Indian.


After the fall of the Mauryas and before the rise of the Kushanas’ dominion, Ganga Valley did not lose contact with Greeks and Hellenistic ideals. The discovery in 1981 of an inscription from Reh mentions Menander and his dominion in this region. Archaeological finds apart from coins also show that Indian sculptors had adopted and adapted motifs of Greek origin like the ‘centaur’ (Kinnara) the ‘Atlante’ figures and “Garland bearing Erotes” Tritons (Mahoraga) etc. to mention the commonest few. These are repeatedly used in Sunga -art of Bharhut, Sanchi, and Mathura. With the beginning of Kushana rule, the repertoire of Indian sculptors widens further and newer Hellenistic and Roman impacts are noted in sculpture and terracotta art. The often quoted Bacchanalian scenes in the Kushana sculptures of Mathura are many which show the impact of the worship of Dionysos and Bacchus of the Greeks which easily got mixed up within the Kushana art among the Indians.

Apart from these, purely Greek mythological characters like Heracles, also find a place in the railing pillars of Bhutesar, Jaisinghpura, and other sites. Recently an excavation at Hulaskhera in Lucknow District by U.P. State Department of Archaeology has unearthed a good many Kushana coins bearing Greek inscriptions that show Greek gods and heroes. A coin shows Heracles with Greek legend. Circulation of bilingual Kushana coins showing Greek gods and heroes also made Indian sculptors of the Kushana period more familiar with their Greek iconography as well-formed nudes showing Heracles, Selinos, Poseidon and other divinities and semi-divinities on the coins. Such coins served as the models for sculpture as well as for iconography.

After the fall of Kushana power, there is not only a political resurgence in the Ganga Valley under the Guptas but a cultural and artistic regeneration also results from the hegemony of an indigenous dynasty. In art, gradually, a new national style emerges in its own glory. Foreign elements recede to the background. They are either completely given up or are so much Indianised that they are beyond identification as of Greek or another alien origin.

Thus, in Mauryan art, we can see the elements of the Hellenistic world on the basis of mutually interacting levels of ideology, symbols, style, motif, and material-cum-technique and it depended largely upon Greek inspiration which is supported by our evaluation of this art as a whole. But, the Mauryan repertoire is not a random adaptation of foreign forms but illustrates a symbolism evolved of a long tradition. The migration and survival of artistic elements from the Hellenistic world are moved by deeper currents of convention and symbolism.

* Dr Vinay Kumar is an Assistant Professor at the Centre of Advanced Study, Department of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi India. He has authored the book West Asian and Hellenistic Elements in Indian Art (2015). Contact e-mail:


    1. 1. Sircar, D. C., Inscriptions of Ashoka, New Delhi, 1957,p.24
    1. 2. Ibid, p.40.
    1. 3. Ibid, p.78.
    1. 4. Ibid, p.54.
    1. 5. Rowland, Benjamin, Art and Architecture of India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Penguin Publications, 1977, pp.42-43.
    1. 6. Ibid
    1. 7. Ibid., p.40-41
    1. 8. Ray, Niharranjan, Maurya and Sunga Art, Kolkata, 1945, p.41.
    1. 9. Coomaraswami, A.K., History of Indian and Indonesian Art, New York, p.17.
    1. 10. Coomaraswami, A.K., “Early Indian Terracottas”, in Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, No.152,1927,p.90.
    1. 11. Ibid., p.21.
      1. 12. Dhawalikar, M.K., Masterpieces of Indian Terracottas, Mumbai, 1977, p.27.

      Read also:

        “West Asian and Hellenistic Elements in Indian Art” by Vinay Kumar