The Mauryan Empire

One of the most powerful empires of the Iron Age Period, the Mauryan Empire (between 322 BCE and 185 BCE) was founded by Chandragupta Maurya in the Magadha Region in 322BCE. He along with the help of Chanakya overthrew the Nanda Dynasty in 322 BC by killing the unpopular King Dhana Nanda.

The Begining of the Mauryan Empire

Dhana Nanda once insulted Chanakya a Hindu Brahmin who had then vowed to overthrow the Nanda Dynasty. The people of Magadha was unhappy with the corrupt and oppressive rule of the King Dhana Nanda. Chanakya the author of “Arthashastra” encouraged Chandragupta to raise an army and also guided him on the strategy of war and administration.

Chandragupta gathered many young men from across Magadha and other provinces and built his powerful army. Chandragupta then made an alliance with many other kings including the Himalayan king Parvataka, popularly known as Porus. He gained the support of many other small kings in the region. The army of Yavanas (Greeks), Kambojas, Shakas (Scythians), Kiratas (Himalayans), Parasikas (Persians) and Bahlikas (Bactrians) then invaded and conquered Patliputra. It is believed that the war was a violent affair claiming several lives before Chandragupta Maurya could take over the throne of Magadha founding the mighty Mauryan Empire.

Golden Days of the Mauryan Empire

The Mauryan empire was centralized in the Indo-Gangetic plain with its capital located at Patliputra (modern-day Patna). Chandragupta then rapidly extended the empire in the Northwestern Region. He defeated Seleucus I Nicator, a Macedonian general of Alexander. Seleucus Nicator ceded these regions to Chandragupta along with a marriage treaty and received in return five hundred elephants.

Statue of Chandragupta Maurya at Laxminarayan Temple in New Delhi

During its peak time, the empire stretched from the Hindukush mountain in the west along the border of the Himalayas till modern-day Assam. Chandragupta Maurya is often called as the first Samrat of the Indian subcontinent, because of the huge kingdom he ruled.

Bindusara, son of Chandragupta Maurya succeeded the throne of Magadha in 298BCE. He further extended the empire in the South Indian region as far as the present-day Karnataka. Apart from the southernmost states, Kalinga (modern Odisha) was the only kingdom in India that didn’t form the part of Bindusara’s empire.

The great warrior Samrat Ashoka

Kalinga was later conquered by the third king of the Mauryan Dynasty, Samrat Ashok. He ascended the throne of the Mauryan Empire in around 272/268 BCE. The Mahavamsa states that when Bindusara fell sick, Ashoka returned to Pataliputra from Ujjain, and gained control of the capital. After his father’s death, Ashoka had his eldest brother killed and ascended the throne. Ashoka was predicted to become a Chakravartin (Universal Ruler).

Ashoka’s visit to the Ramagrama stupa Sanchi Stupa 1 Southern gateway

The predictions came true and Chakravarti Ashoka Samrat went on to conquer almost all of the Indian Subcontinent. As a king he was very ambitious and aggressive, he waged war against the Kalinga kingdom to project power over a large region.

According to Ashoka’s Major Rock Edict, he conquered Kalinga 8 years after his ascension to the throne. More than 100,000 men and animals were killed in this destructive war, and 150,000 men and animals were carried away from Kalinga as captives. Ashoka renounced war and violence after witnessing the massive destruction caused by the war.

Ashoka later embraced Buddhism and sent out missionaries to travel around Asia and spread Buddhism to other countries. He also banned hunting and violent sports activities and ended indentured and forced labor.

Decline of the Mauryan Empire

Mauryan empire saw a decline after the Samrat Ashoka period (272/268BCE to 232 BCE). He was succeeded by his grandson Dasharatha Maurya in 232BCE who was considered as a weak ruler. The empire lost many territories under Dasharatha, which were later reconquered by Samprati, his cousin.

Post Samprati, the Mauryas slowly lost many territories. The great Mauryan Empire ended in 180 BCE, when Brihadratha Maurya its 9th king, was killed by his general Pushyamitra Shunga, giving rise to the Shunga Empire.

Art and Culture

The mauryan rulers commisoned a large number of architectural work refered to as the Court Art.

Palace

The palace of Chandragupta Maurya at Kumrahar in Patliputra was inspired by the Achaemenid palaces at Persepolis in Iran. Archaeological evidences suggest that it was made of wood. Megasthenes a Greek historian described the palace as one of the greatest creation of mankind. Similarly, Ashoka’s palace at Kumrahar was a massive structure. It had a high central pillar and was a three-storey wooden structure.

Pillars

Pillars gained great significance during the time of Ashoka rule. He used inscription of pillars as a symbol of the state or to commemorate battle and victories even propagate imperial sermons. The Lion Capital of Ashoka at Sarnath pillar was adopted as the official Emblem of India in 1950.

Pillar at Vaishali
Lion Capital of Sarnath

Stupa

Stupas prevalent in India from the Vedic period were burial mounds where relics and ashes of the dead were kept. Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh is the most famous of the Ashokan stupas. Piprahwa stupa in Uttar Pradesh is the oldest one.

Sanchi Stupa

Caves

The period saw the emergence of caves which were used as viharas by the Jain and Buddhist monks. The caves of the Mauryan period had a highly polished finish of the interior walls and decorative gateways.

Barabar caves

Sculptures

It was primarily used to decorate the Stupas. Two of the famous sculptures of the Mauryan period are those of Yaksha and Yakshi.

Pottery

The pottery of the Mauryan period is painted in Black paint and had a highly lustrous finish. It is referred to as Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW) and were generally used as luxury items.

Edicts of Ashoka

The Edicts of Ashoka are a collection of more than thirty inscriptions on the pillars, as well as boulders and cave walls, attributed to Emperor Ashoka. These edicts are inscribed in the Dhamma Lipi.

The Edicts are divided into four categories

  • Minor Rock Edicts: Edicts inscribed at the beginning of Ashoka’s reign; in Prakrit, Greek and Aramaic.
  • Minor Pillar Edicts: Schism Edict, Queen’s Edict, Rummindei Edict, Nigali Sagar Edict; in Prakrit.
  • Major Rock Edicts: 14 Edicts (termed 1st to 14th) and 2 separate ones found in Odisha; in Prakrit and Greek.
  • Major Pillar Edicts: 7 Edicts, inscribed at the end of Ashoka’s reign; in Prakrit.

The Minor edicts are very religious in nature and the they mention extensively the Buddha. Whereas major edicts are essentially moral and political in nature.