The beginnings of the Buddhist school of architecture can be traced back to B.C. 255 when the Mauryan emperor Asoka established Buddhism as the state religion of his large empire. Buddhism spread rapidly throughout India and other parts of Asia. Buddhism was, as it were, a graphic creed, and correspondingly its expansion was accompanied by a distinctive style of architecture that expressed the teachings of the Buddha. In India this early Buddhist art was influenced to a large extent by Asoka. He was responsible for the construction of several stupas, which are sacred mounds of brick commemorative of the Buddha. Asoka also constructed stone pillars symbolizing his creed. These were lofty free-standing monolithic columns erected on sacred sites. The most famous of these is at Sarnath.
The Mauryan dynasty crumbled after Asoka’s death in 232 B.C; in its wake came the Sungas, who in turn were succeeded by the Andhras. Both these Brahmanical dynasties treated the Buddhists with toleration. The initial steps of the new architectural movement involved enlarging Asoka’s stupas. For instance, the stupa at Sanchi was enlarged to nearly twice its size and elaborate gateways were added.
At about the same time that the Buddhist communities were elaborating Asoka’s stupas, an entirely different form of architecture was developing in western India. These structures were not, however, built of stone or wood, but carved out of living rock. It is therefore unfortunate that these structures are now referred to as “caves”, as though they were natural grottoes in the mountainside, since they are actually large and well planned temples. Some of the finest specimens of this rock cut architecture are to be seen at Ajanta.
Under the reign of the 8th century ruler Lalitaditya, the central Kashmir valley became an important artistic site. A magnificent Surya temple was constructed at Martand. Though now ruined, this remains the masterpiece of Kashmiri architecture. Mahayana Buddhism flourished in the arid valleys of Ladakh, beyond the first high range of the Himalayas. The monasteries at Alchi, dating from the 11th century, have beautiful paintings depicting the Mahayana pantheon. Cave temples were constructed in the 13th to 15th centuries at Saspol and Karsha. The monasteries at Leh and Phiyang continue to be renovated even today, and the recent resurgence of Indian Buddhism, associated not only with the conversion of lower-caste Hindus to Buddhism under the influence of Ambedkar but with the establishment of Tibetan Buddhist communities, particularly in north India, has introduced a fresh chapter in the history of Buddhist architecture in India.
- Brown, Percy. Indian Architecture. Bombay: Taraporevala and co., 1959.
- Michell, George. The Penguin guide to the monuments of India, Vol I. London: Viking, 1989.
- Tadgell, Christopher. The History of Architecture in India. London: Phaidon Press, 1990.