Hellenistic Elements in the Sculptural Art of Ganga Valley

By Dr. Vinay Kumar*


The Ganga valley is a large geographical area having immense human, cultural and economic significance that makes it the heart of India. A series of finds from all over the region indicates that the Gangetic valley was a resurgent center of artistic activity whose scope has yet to be properly investigated. The assessment of sculptural art of Ganga Valley hinges to some degree the evaluation of its indebtedness to Hellenistic and Greco-Roman world. In this regard, it may be mentioned here that the systematic study of Indian antiquity through objects recovered in archaeological exploration and excavations conducted by scholars would gradually alter the basis of our understanding of Indian art; but in the 19th century, a hostile intellectual environment stood in the way of unprejudiced aesthetic appreciation and impeded it for quite a long while. The love of Greco-Roman art, based upon a greater familiarity with actual works, reached its height during this period, and perhaps diverted attention from Asian art, particularly that of India, which was constantly denigrated. James Fergusson, a pioneering and perceptive lover of Indian art whose entire work was deeply rooted in objects, was greatly enthused about the sculpture of Amaravati, but was at a loss to explain its excellence except through the intervention of some kind of Greek influence.[1] The same opinion can be found in the writings of the indefatigable Alexander Cunningham, to whom the finest Indian sculpture was significant only to the extent that it resembled specimens of Greek art.[2] James Burgess, another important early scholar who worked with unswerving industry, could only state that “high art has never been with the Hindu, as with the Hellenic race, a felt necessity for the representation of their divinities”.[3] When we consider the art of lower Ganga valley, in the words of Sir John Marshall, “It was the Achaemenian art of Iran which served as the model for the Mauryan art through the intermediary agencies of the Hellenistic artists of Bactria.” Contacts with Greeks and Greek kingdoms were well established in the Mauryan periods, as we notice this fact mentioned in many inscriptions of Aśoka.  This contact with the Greece and Hellenism began from the days of Chandragupta Maurya the founder of the Mauryan dynasty in the closing decades of the fourth century BCE. “The military strength of Magadha, which under Chandragupta succeeded in hurling back the mighty battalions led by Seleucus of Western Asia, was unable under Aśoka’s descendants to check the onslaught of Greek rulers of Bactria. The Bactrians succeeded in penetrating through the plains of North India as far as Pātaliputra in the east.”[4] Under such a situation penetration of Hellenistic ideals of art into Mauryan art was also quite natural and it was especially due to the electric nature of Aśoka.  In his inscription there are clear mention of contacts with Greek rulers not only on 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 neighbouring Yavana kings.[5]  This Antiyoka has been identified as Antiochs II Theos (261-246 BC) the Greek king of Western Asia and was a contemporary of Aśoka.[6]  Then again, in Rock edict no. XIII (Shahbazgarhi Text) the four kings, the neighbours of Antiyoka are mentioned by names.  Their Greek names, however, been produced in Indianized forms.[7] Aśoka’s friendly relations with the states of Western Asia 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 arranged for the medical treatment of men and cattle, among others, in the dominions of Antiochus Theos and his neighbours; 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 Seleucid 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.

After the fall of Mauryas and before the rise of Kushana power Ganga valley doesn’t lose contact with Greeks and Hellenistic ideals. The well-known reference of the ‘Yavanas besieging Saketa’ is an important one, proving the existence of Greeks in Ganga Valley. The discovery of an inscription in 1981 from Reh mentions Menader and his dominions 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 atlantes figure, tritons, and garland bearing erotes. With the beginning of Kushana rule the repertoire of Indian sculptors widens farther and newer Hellenistic impacts are noticed in sculpture. Excavations at Hulaskhera in Lucknow district by U.P State Department of Archaeology has unearthed a good number of Kushana Coins minted here. Some bear Greek inscriptions and show Greek gods and heroes. A coin showing Heracles with Greek legend was found in good condition. Circulation of bilingual Kushana coins showing Greek gods and heroes made Indian sculptors of Kushan period more familiar with their Greek iconography as well as formed nudes showing Herakles, Selinus Posidon and other divines and semi divines on the coins. Hence, such coins served as models for sculpture as well as for iconography.[8]

After the fall of the Kushana power there is not only a political resurgence in 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 emerged 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 other alien origin.

Hellenistic Elements in the Sculptural Art of Ganga Valley

While tracing the Hellenistic elements in sculpture we have to start from Mauryan period itself.The animal figures appearing on the abacus of the Sarnath lion capital can hardly be taken as purely Indian as supposed by V.A. Smith (Fig. 1). The style of the four smaller animals on the plinth is quite different.  In them we can recognize at once a style related to Greek tradition. The treatment of certain details like cheekbones, moustaches and deeply imbedded eyes of the lions are clear Hellenistic influence according to Bachofer.

Fig. 1: Sarnath Lion Capital

The treatment of animals on the plinth, in particular the horse, has been compared with objects in Greek art (Fig. 2).  Benjamin Rowland relates their realistic manner to the style of a Hellenistic horse on a Bactrian silver bird. The animal figures convey a sense of internal structure of bones and muscles, which is unmistakably Hellenistic. In the words of Rowland, “these beasts are portrayed in a distinctively lively, even realistic manner. In them, we can recognize at once a style related to Greek tradition”.[9] 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.

Fig. 2: Horse on the abacus of Sārnāth Lion Capital

The stylistic aspects of the Sārnāth abacus as well as of the other Mauryan sculptures are considered Hellenistic enough to imply that they were executed by artists trained in Hellenistic- traditions and techniques. And in view of the cosmopolitan orientation of the Maurya regime, it is not improbable that, as proposed by Wheeler,[10] the Mauryan court employed foreign craftsmen. He is of the opinion that after the destruction of the Achaemenid Empire, Persian artists and craftsmen found a new place under the Mauryas. However it must be stressed that the implications of these circumstances should not be over-estimated.

Attention may also be drawn to a capital discovered at Pātaliputra by Waddell (Fig.3). “It has the stepped impost block, side-volutes and central palmettes of Persepolitan order, the bead and reel and spiral motifs on the lateral face are all of Western Asiatic origin. Although these elements are combined in a manner different from that of the Iranian capitals, they suggest not only this prototype but largely through the profile of the projecting volutes, also Greek Ionic. According to Rowland Benjamin, “it is a part of an architectural unit and was not designed as a free standing pillar like the many animal capitals and edict bearing columns erected by Aśoka for the propagation of his 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 Western Asiatic origin; and the rosette ornament of the abacus recalls the frame of the great friezes at Persepolis”.[11] Although these elements are combined in a manner different from that of the Iranian capitals, they suggest not only this prototype but largely through the profile of the projecting volutes, also Greek Ionic. But again, Rowland, sort of nullifies his own observation by trying to find out too much of Iranian and Western Asiatic elements in this very capital from Pātaliputra.[12] But according to U.P.Arora, “In this capital Western Asiatic motifs exist but the very shape and side volutes of the capital clearly betray a distinct Hellenic inspiration.  Even the row of rosettes on its abacus which Rowland links with Persepolis can be traced to a Greek prototype. Similar rows of rosettes appear as frames of Minoan and Mycenean wall paintings which are much older to Persepolitan examples (Fig.4). Thus the statement of Rowland that the capital is more properly described as Western Asiatic or Iranian and not an imitation of Greek ionic, cannot be accepted.”[13]  Herzfeld illustrates a series of wooden columns from Iran and recent date surmounted by an Ionic type of impost, which he considers survivals of Proto-Ionic forms.[14] More elaborate examples showing remarkable resemblance to the Pātaliputra capital and dated to about 7th century CE, as well as to modern times. The lions on the Sarnath capital have an ancestor in the sphinx-topped pillars of Greece of middle archaic period (c.580-40 BCE) and Delphi Museum at Delphi, Greece has an elegant winged sphinx figure sitting on an Ionic capital with side volutes. It was the Nxian sphinx pillar datable to about 575-560 BCE.[15]

Fig. 3:   Capital found at Pātaliputra
Fig. 4: Detail of painting from Minoan Crete in Greece. Hellenistic Bronze Age triad on a Sarcophagus

The implications of these affinities can only be inferred not conclusively demonstrated, in the light of the present evidence. It may be noted however that the so-called proto-Ionic capitals were executed in wood and thus a similar form may have spread to India where wood also appears to have dominated early architecture.

Among the many art motifs in Mauryan art in Ganga Valley, there are found honeysuckle motifs on the abacus of Mauryan pillar capitals and they are traced to Greek sources. Boardman is of the view that the flame-leaf palmette on Mauryan pillars was a Greek invention based ultimately on the old Mesopotamian motif of the straight leaved or fan palmette. The abacus of Allahabad pillar depicts a repeat of palmette and lotus buds which appears to be reminiscent of the Greek knop-and-flower motif. The abacus was edged at the base with a chain of bead-and-reel ornament equally familiar in Greek art. James Ferguson in 1876 suggested in the context of Allahabad pillar decoration, the necking (Abacus) of which is almost a lateral copy of the honeysuckle ornament familiar and used by the Greeks with the Ionic order (Fig.5). Regarding the honeysuckle ornament on the Allahabad column, Fergusson commented “… and it is almost a literal copy of the honeysuckle ornament we are so familiar with it used by the Greeks with the Ionic order. In this instance however, it is hardly probable that it was introduced directly by the Greeks, but is more likely to have been through Persia, from Assyria, from where the Greeks also originally obtained it.[16]

Fig.5: Honeysuckle Motif on the abacus of Allahabad Pillar Capital

The snake-hood like curls that characterize the ‘Aśokan’ palmettes are not found in identical form outside India. In a few examples in Greece, such as the one on a pilaster capital at the temple of Apollo in Didyma (310 BCE) (Fig. 6) or on the Doric entablature (the upper horizontal part of an order consisting of cornice, frieze and architrave from top to bottom)in the temple of Aesculapius, Epidaurus (330 BCE), we have the anthemion flower with inward curves.

Fig. 6: Pilaster capital at the temple of Apollo, Didyma

Similarly, the bud motif on SaÉkīsā and Allahabad capitals (Fig. 7) reflects the closest parallel with Greek conventions-half opened long petals.

Fig. 7:Nāgapushpa and bead-and-reel motifs on Allahabad Capital

In the category of terracotta art some terracotta heads and figures from 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.[17] 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. The Bulandibāgh terracotta has rightly been observed by Coomaraswamy as “one of the most sensitive and skillful productions in Indian art of any period[18] since indeed they are the outstanding examples of ‘smooth modeling and luminous bodies.’ A much more refined type of terracotta found at Pataliputra that of smiling child seems to belong to far more advanced school (Fig.8). 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.[19] The plastic quality of these images has been taken by Dhawalikar as the ‘handiwork of a Greek (Yavana) sculptor.[20] He is also supported by Rai Govinda Chandra who advocates that the sophistication, ornamentation and gracile features of these Bihar terracotta could not be achieved by Indian craftsmen.

Fig.8: Smiling Boy, Mauryan Period. 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. The Tanagra style was practiced during the Early Hellenic period (330-200 BCE) 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 terracotta of Pataliputra, Bulandibagh, Sonepur and Buxar had the source of inspiration from these styles of Greek art.

With the end of the Mauryan epoch Indian elements predominate sculptures in form, design and technology. Many motifs and design of Hellenic origins are found in the sculptural art of Sunga and subsequent Kushana period. From Sarnath the volute capital reveals its Hellenistic elements ultimately derived from the Ionic order. Such capitals have also been depicted in the great volume of Sunga reliefs from all important centres of Sunga art.

As we enter the Kushana period Hellenistic elements in the form of motifs and scenes are on increase. The phenomenon is most prominent in Mathura and its environs but very few examples have been found from the sculptural art of Ganga Valley.


The Ganga Valley, the cradle of Indian Art was open and accessible and hence artistic inspirations from far and near penetrated the region from the Mauryan age. This process of assimilation was possible due to prevalence of Buddhism. Hence diverse artistic ideals could assimilate in one body for such a religion. Non-Indian like Greeks could find access into Indian society through Buddhism. In their passion to serve their religion they also contributed their share of artistic ideals. Of all foreigners, Greeks were the most advanced and hence their artistic ideals dominated the art of Ganga valley for so many centuries. Their impact started waning gradually with the rise of Guptas. But even in Gupta art certain motifs like fantastic creatures and semi divines of Hellenistic origin were to stay forever in Indian art though changes occurred due to passage of time and absorption of Greeks into Indian Society. 


[1]  Fergusson, James.1971. Tree and Serpent Worship. Reprint. Delhi: Oriental Publishers, p.16.

[2]  Cunningham, Alexander. 1966. The Bhilsa Topes. The Bhilsa Topes. Delhi: Indological Book House,   pp.125-26.

[3] Burgess, James.1870. Memoir on the Survey of Architectural and Other Archaeological Remains. London, p.9.

[4]  Sircar, D. C.1957, Inscriptions of Aśoka, New Delhi: The Publication Division, p.24.

[5]  Ibid, p.40.

[6]  Ibid, p.78.

[7]  Ibid, p.54.

[8]  Ibid, p.84

[9]  Rowland, Benjamin, 1953, Art and Architecture of India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, London: Penguin  Publications, p. 40-41.

[10]  Wheeler, Mortimer1959, Early India and Pakistan,New York: Praeger, p. 173.

[11]  Benjamin Rowland, opp.cit.pp.42-43.

[12]  Ibid, p.43.

[13]   Arora,U.P. 1991, Graeco-Indica: India’s Cultural Contact with the Greek World. Delhi: Ramanand Vidya Bhawan, pp.4-5.

[14]  Herzfeld, E.E. 1941, Iran in the Ancient East, New York: Oxford University Press , pp.210-11.

[15]  Barron, J. 1965, An Introduction of Greek Sculpture, Athlone, London, p. 22

[16]  Fergusson, James, 1910, History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, London: J. Murray, pp. 58-59.

[17]  Coomaraswami, A.K.1972, History of Indian and Indonesian Art, New Delhi: Munshiram  Manoharlal Publishers, p.17.

[18]Coomaraswami, A.K., “Early Indian Terracottas”, in Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, No.152,1927,p.90.

[19]  Ibid, p.21.

[20]Dhawalikar, M.K., 1977, Masterpieces of Indian Terracottas, Mumbai, Mumbai: D.B.Tarapoorvala, p.27.

* 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: [email protected]/
Read also by the same author: Hellenistic Elements in the Sculptural and Terracotta Art of Mauryan Period, INDIKA 2018