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Topra Ashok Pillar (click on pic. to see larger image)

 One of the world's great religions, Buddhism, originated in India with Lord Buddha (556-486 BC), whose message of attaining 'nirvana' through truth and overcoming of physical desires, was carried far and wide in the world by his followers. Also born in India was Jainism, a religion founded on the teachings of Lord Mahavira (599 to 527 BC) a contemporary of Buddha. These two religions were the inspiration for some of India's major artistic creations. When Alexander the Great began the long series of intermittent invasions of the Indian subcontinent, from time to time it either plundered or added to the development of Indian art. In 326 BC, after Alexander's invasion and the subsequent departure of his weary and homesick forces back to Ionia, the political vacuum which was created as a result was taken up by the Great Indian Emperor Chandragupta Maurya. And, thus began the great Mauryan Empire. The expansions of his Empire over the Indian subcontinent were extended further by his son Bindusara and then by his grandson Ashoka. Ashoka's forty years' reign is marked by the battle of Kalinga towards the end of it(about 232 BC), the violent bloodbath of which introverted him religiously and converted him to Buddhism. The arts prospered on account of this move ! He raised several thousand stupas (84000 as legend has it) to commemorate various events of Buddha's life such as his enlightenment, miracles, his death, some sacred texts or even a footprint. Stone sculpting dramatically emerged as an art form in India at that time, reaching high standards of excellence. These stone stupas were finished with a special weather resistant surface gloss called Mauryan Polish which, along with the Chunar sandstone, is distinctive of that period. The elaborately carved capitals of these columns symbolize the victory of Buddhism through different depiction and the most beautiful and famous of them is the one at Sarnath which has been adopted as the emblem for the modern republic of India. Also, this period saw the early beginnings of carving chambers into living stone which later developed as a full fledged art form.