Gupta Period: Temple, Sculpture, Art and Schools!

The Gupta period may be described as ‘classic’ in the sense of the degree of perfection it achieved—
something that was never achieved before and has seldom been achieved since— and in the perfect
balance and harmony of ail elements in style and iconography.

The Guptas were Brahmanical by religion with special devotion to Vishnu, but they showed exemplary
tolerance for both Buddhism and Jainism. Puranic Hinduism with its three deities—Vishnu, Shiva and
Shakti, as the consort of Shiva— came to the forefront.

While Shaivism developed in the south and south-east and Shaktism in eastern India and in some parts of
south-west Malabar, Vaishnavism, with its emphasis on Krishna as its main exponent, flourished mostly
in the northern and central parts of India. Popular worship was given formal sanction and temples and
images dedicated to each of these cults came up everywhere.

The art of the Gupta period is marked by a deep spiritual quality and a vision which tries to record the
higher and deeper truths of life. While the early Gupta period shows an emphasis on Hindu art, the climax
of Buddhist art, with all the previous tendencies combined into a classical statement, comes during the
later period.

Hindu art seems to have flourished in the Vidisha region during the reign of Chandra Gupta II. While
there were some striking cave architectural pieces (e.g. Udayagiri), the Gupta period is specially marked
for the development of new temple styles.

Gupta Temple Styles:
The setting up of sanctuaries for the images of gods goes back perhaps to the second century BC. The
devagrahas of the pre-Christian centuries which have been excavated are in an extremely fragmentary

But built of perishable materials they apparently afforded little scope for architectural principles. It was in
the Gupta period that building with lasting materials began, such as dressed stone and brick. The Gupta period marks the beginning of Indian temple architecture. Out of the initial experimentation two major
styles evolved.

The Gupta temples were of five main types:

  1. Square building with flat roof and shallow pillared porch; as the Kankali Devi temple at Tigawa and
    the Vishnu and Varaha temples at Eran. The nucleus of a temple—the sanctum or cella (garbagriha)—
    with a single entrance and a porch (mandapa) appears for the first time here.
  2. An elaboration of the first type with the addition of an ambulatory (pradakshina) around the sanctum
    and sometimes a second storey; examples being the Shiva temple at Bhumara (Madhya Pradesh) and the
    Ladh-Khan at Aihole.
  3. Square temple with a low and squat tower (shikhara) above; notable examples are the Dasavatara
    temple (built in stone at Deogarh, Jhansi district) and the brick temple at Bhitargaon (Kanpur district). A
    high platform at the base and the tower add to the elevation of the composition. [The second and third
    types—storeyed and shikara—underwent further developments to crystallise into two distinctive styles in
    the south and the north respectively.]
  4. Rectangular temple with an apsidal back and barrel- vaulted roof above, such as the Kapoteswara
    temple at Cezarla (Krishna district).
  5. Circular temple with shallow rectangular projections at the four cardinal faces; the only monument
    exemplifying the style is the Maniyar Matha shrine at Rajgir, Bihar. [The fourth and fifth types appear to
    be survivals/adaptations of the earlier forms and do not appear to have much influenced subsequent

At Eran (mentioned as ‘Airakina’ in Gupta and Huna inscriptions), a Vaishnavite site near Vidisha, a
great complex of temples and accompanying sculptures were produced during the Gupta period.

Inscriptions found at Eran document artistic activity there from the reign of Samudra Gupta to the period
of the Hun invasion around the beginning of the sixth century. A large sculpture of Varaha from Eran suggests sculptural ties with artistic developments at nearby Udayagiri during the early fifth century. The
power of the deity is expressed in the full, heavy form of the body and the solidity of his pose.

The mythological and epic reliefs from the Dasavatara temple at Deogarh, Jhansi district (5th century
AD) also reflect, plastically as well as spiritually, the impact of the best Gupta classical traditions. The
temple displays a full-fledged shikara in three tiers rising on the top of a square cella, and embellished
with an elegantly carved doorway on one side and three big panels placed outside the three walls.


The success of Gupta sculpture lies in its attaining a balance between the sensuousness of the Kushan
figures and the symbolic abstraction of the early medieval ones.

An enormous amount of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain sculptures have been found in several places, mainly in
Central India, which in quality can take their place along with the best from more famous centres.

From Besnagar a relief of the goddess Ganges, from Gwalior reliefs of flying apsaras, from Sondani the
slab representing a gandharva couple soaring in the air, from Khoh the Eka-Mukha Linga, and from
Bhumara a variety of sculptures reveal the same conception, poise and grace as are seen at Sarnath.

An approximately human-size representation of the god Hari-Hara (half Shiva-half Vishnu) from Madhya
Pradesh may be dated to the first part of the fifth century. Krishna, best known later as the eighth
incarnation of Vishnu, also appears in sculptures from the early fifth century. A representation of him
from Varanasi depicts him as Krishna Govardhanadhara, or bearer of Govardhana, in which the deity is
shown holding Mount Govardhana with his left hand, like a canopy, to protect the inhabitants of
Vrindavana from a deluge sent by Indra, who had been angered by the community’s inattention to him in
their devotion.

In the Gupta images, the Buddhist ideal of serenity finds a noble expression in the Buddha’s face, the
smile suggesting the ultimate harmony achieved by the enlightened one. In these images every aspect is
fashioned according to prescribed canons of beauty and meaning.

The position of the body, the hand gestures, and the attributes are all symbolic in nature. In fact, the
shapes of the different parts of the body are prescribed in the sculptor’s manual, with the head in the form
of an egg, the eyebrows like an Indian bow, the eyelids resembling the lotus petals, the lips with the
fullness of the mango fruit, the shoulders rounded like the trunk of an elephant, the waist like that of a
lion and the fingers like flowers.

The four Buddha images which were placed at the entrances of the Great Stupa at Sanchi during the fifth
century demonstrate the delicacy, grace and tranquility of the sculptural style that characterises the art of
the mature Gupta period. The smooth contours of the Buddha’s body with graceful modulations also mark
the development away from the more angular forms of earlier Gupta formulations.

Buddha statues have also been discovered at Mathura which continued to be a flourishing centre of
Buddhism. One of the earliest statues is a fifth-century figure which, although retaining the heavy solidity
and volume of the previous works, differs from Kushan prototypes in several respects.

The carved standing image of Sakyamuni is now entirely clothed in a monastic robe, the folds of which
persist as a net of parallel loops. There is a carved halo around the Buddha’s head, the ornament
consisting of a central lotus bordered by rings of leaf forms.

Another active centre of Buddhist sculpture in this period was Sarnath where both standing and seated
Buddha types were evolved. Sarnath records a greater advance of the new aesthetic ideal.

One of the noblest and finest creations of Gupta sculpture is the high-relief statue of the Buddha found in
the ruins of Sarnath. Carved from a light sandstone, it represents the Buddha enthroned and giving his
First Sermon, while below the pedestal two groups of kneeling monks are seen worshipping the Wheel of
the Law (Dharmachakra), the symbol of wisdom. Exquisitely carved halos are a feature of the Sarnath
Buddha as well.

Although the frescoes are the most important works at Ajanta, the architecture of the cave temples and the
carvings decorating the entrance portals are also outstanding. In these temples, forms which were originally developed in masonry or wood are carved out of living rock. The sculptures, both numerous
and varied, cover the entrance facades without any unified plan.

Pala School:
Under the Pala and Sena rulers of Bihar and Bengal (8th-12th both Buddhists and Hindus made fine
icons, local black basalt. The special characteristic of Pala e finish; figures are much decorated and well
en appearing to be made of metal rather than sculptures of the Pala school are found at Nalanda,
Rajagriha and Bodh Gaya. Iconographically three stages of Nalanda art are recognised—Mahayana phase
of Bodhisattva images, Sahajayana images, and finally the kalachakra of the Kapalika system.

Chalukyan Style:
The Vesara style of Indian temple architecture has been equated with what is known as the Chalukyan
style. The style is also known as Karnataka after the name of the territory in which it developed.
However, this style cannot be said to have an independent origin; it represents an outgrowth of the earlier
Dravidian style, so modified in its development as to have attained a separate style. The beginnings of this
development are to be found in the reign of the early Chalukyan kings of the 7th and 8th centuries AD. At
Aihole (ancient Aryapura), Badami and Pattadakal, Dravida and Nagara temples were erected side by
side. Thus an admixture of the two ideas took place, leading to the evolution of a hybrid style.
The Chalukyan temple, like the Dravida, consists of two principal components—the vimana and the
mandapa joined by an antarala. In course of time, the storeyed stages of the vimana got compres sed, and
the ornamental niche motifs one above the other up the tower simulate the vertical bands of the Nagara

Departing from the Dravida style, the Chalukyan temple does not have a covered ambulatory round the
sanctum. In the treatment of the exterior walls there seems to have been a blending of Nagara and Dravida

Ratha offsets break up the walls in characteristic Nagara fashion, further spaced at regular intervals by
pilasters in accordance with the usual Dravida mode. The Chalukyan temple is characterised by an
exuberant plastic ornament covering all its external surfaces. In the interior the pillars, door frames and
ceilings are again intricately carved.

The Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal, near Badami, was built about AD 70 in imitation of the
Kailashanatha temple and displays architectural excellence of a high order. The Rameshwara cave temple
at Ellora belongs to the Chalukyan period (7th century). Inside the cave is a four-armed dancing Shiva. In
the Dashavatara cave temple of the same century at Ellora is a very fine sculpture showing the death of

Rashtrakuta Art:
In AD 753 the Rashtrakutas established themselves in the Deccan as successors of the Chalukyas. The
Kailas temple at Ellora, built in the time of Krishna II and representing the boldest attempt in the field of
rock-cut architecture, reproduces all the details of a structural temple in the intricacies of rock excavation.
Probably in the second half of the eighth century, on an island near the west coast was built the cave
shrine of Elephant. It was dedicated to Shiva, whose image as Mahesha (popularly known as Trimurti)
counts amongst the most magnificent art creations of India.

Pallava Art:
In the south, the Pallavas created beautiful monuments in the seventh century AD. Mahendravarman (600-
625) and his son Narasimhavarman (625-670), popularly known as Mahamalla, were great builders.
These Pallavas created three rock-cut types of monuments.

At Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram), are rock-cut caves known as mandapas displaying splendid
sculptures. In one of these, the Adivaraha cave (first half of the 7th century) we have effigies of
Mahendravarman and his two queens, the latter typified by their slender forms. In the Durga cave is the
figure of Mahishasuramardini. In the Panchapandava cave there are two impressive reliefs—Krishna
lifting Govardhana and the other depicting him in a scene showing cows being milked.

The five monolithic temples known as rathams belong to the reign of Mahamalla. They are among the
earliest specimens of rock-cut temple art, illustrating different types of superstructure. The Dhanrtaraja
ratham is the highest and has a portrait of Mahanialla himself. The Draupadi ratham is an elegant piece,
its roof plainly a copy of a thatched structure.

The third type of Pallava monument is the tirtham or magnificent open-air carving in relief on a rock
surface. Seventh-century Pallava sculpture differs chiefly from that of the Gupta period in the great
slenderness and the freer movements of the forms, a more oval face and higher cheekbones. In the
representation of animals, this school excels all others, says Dr Coomaraswamy. A well-known tirtham is
the one called Arjuiw’s penance, in fact representing Gangavatarana (the descent of Ganga).

In the reign of Rajasimha (Narasimhavarman III) in the eighth century, the rock-cut technique was
abandoned and replaced by the structural temple of masonry and stone. The shore temples of Jalashayana
Swami at Mamallapuram is built of dressed stone of excellent workmanship.

Another remarkable monument of his reign is the Kailashanatha temple at Kanchipuram built about AD
700 and consisting of three separate parts, a sanctum with a pyramidal tower, a mandapa and a
rectangular courtyard showing a series of subsidiary shrines or cells. It may be considered as one of the
key monuments of the early Dravida style. In the early Pallava monuments, the Dravida temple may be
said to have attained its definite form and character.