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The First Classical Age
– Art and Architecture of the Guptas
|by Ashish Nangia|
Who were the Guptas? Was the period of this dynasty really a symbol of an Indian classical age? What were its accomplishments in terms of art and architecture? How did it carry on the heritage of the Buddhist era in India?
Perhaps the most durable contribution in terms of art and architecture during the Gupta period is the series of monasteries and caves at Ajanta and Ellora. Cut above the natural bed of a river through living rock, the Ajanta Caves are close to Aurangabad and were ‘discovered’ by a British officer in 1818. The caves were dug out through an iterative process roughly contemporaneous with the Gupta Empire, i.e. from the 2nd to the 6th century AD. There are a total of approximately 30 caves, with a substantial number being chaitya halls and viharas (discussed in an earlier piece).
Famous for their paintings, the cave art depicts tales from the Jatakas in a range of styles and forms, though as time goes by an increasing lack of quality is shown ranging from inferior materials to dull, lifeless forms. The earliest caves date from the 1 st century BC, with a second phase beginning in the 5 th century AD, which is when the art of painting during the Gupta era really comes into its own.
Apart from its art, the Ajanta and Ellora caves are significant works of architecture, even though rock cut, in their own right. Most of the monasteries, which take the form of vihara interiors, are rectangular in shape and surrounded by monk’s cells. Later viharas also have place for a small stupa at the end, which doubles as a sanctuary containing a graven image of the Buddha. The viharas are complemented, as in caves 9, 10, 19 and 26 by chaitya halls with a central space leading to the culminating stupa. The use of timber forms as inspiration continues in both viharas and chaityas.
As has been mentioned, the Gupta Empire was responsible, apart from the continuing tradition of Buddhism, for the initial development of Hinduism. The architecture of Hinduism demanded a different approach to its form than earlier Buddhist architecture. For one, the temple or place of worship was said to be in direct communion with the gods, and so an open place away from the cloistered existence of monkish life was required. Secondly, great emphasis was placed on the square and its permutations as far as formal vocabulary was concerned. This lead to early temples, though being simple in their interior plan, to have a form that reflected both: openness to the air as well as being open to the four cardinal directions. In addition, there was a requirement for height, with the main objective being to provide to the worshiper a sense of power as well as ‘closeness’ to the heavens. A superb early example of this philosophic typology is the Vishnu temple at Deogarh, as well as the brick temple at Bhitargaon.
A miracle of survival, the brick temple at Bhitargaon is one of the oldest surviving terracotta/brick buildings from the late Gupta age. Here too a square plan provides the base for a brick spire or shikhara. A possibly new innovation in this temple is found at its entrance, with a vaulted arch being constructed out of brick to mark the entry.
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