‘No political power lasts forever. Whether Persian, Indian , or Roman, every empire in history broke down for certain obvious causes.’ (Priyadarshini, n.d.) The decline of the Mauryan Empire occurred in the 2nd century BC after the death of Ashoka (232 BC). In Northern India, small monarchical, tribal, and city-states arose. The foreigners like Sungas, Indo-Greeks, Indo-Parthians, Sakas, and Kushanas came consecutively. The influence of Kushanas can be found from Afghanistan in the west up to Varanasi in the east. During this period, from the 1st to 3rd centuries CE, political, economic, religious, and cultural contact between South Asia and Central Asia accelerated. Archeological excavations, art historical evidence, coins, and inscriptions directly reflect long-distance trade and cultural transmission between the northwestern Indian subcontinent and the silk routes. The Kushan empire had a thriving trade with the Roman empire. 

In the 3rd century AD, a group of people ruled Magadh (Bihar). They were called Guptas. No one knows who they were and where precisely located. The progenitor of the empire captured Varanasi and Ghazipur. The Kushan Empire ended when Guptas attacked it from the east and Sassanians from the west. 

The Guptas were good in the textile industry. In the 2nd half of the 5th century, they exported spices, ivory, cotton, sugar, and precious stones to Rome and imported slaves from them. They imported Chinese silk called ‘Chinasunka’ from China and exported agricultural products, aloes, clovewood, and sandalwood to Sri Lanka. They traded with Arabia, Ethiopia, Persia, the Byzantine Empire, and islands of the Indian Ocean. As Gupta Empire was associated with two main rivers – Ganga and Indus, there was an inexhaustible supply of clay-made terracotta to deal in the pottery industry. The Harappan Civilization (3300 BC – 2600 BC) too expanded near the Indus river, manufacturing sun-dried and burnt bricks. 

Roman Civilization had a trade connection with Greeks and Tamils. People of Rome learned different techniques from the Greeks and then applied them in their own country to further develop the idea. They were the first to introduce fired brick to other regions of the world, using mobile kilns. The Theatre of Marcellus (completed in 13 BC) is the earliest dated building in Rome using fired brick. The Romans successfully implemented the use of concrete by 200 BC in the majority of their construction. 

Knowledge transmits from one place to another through trade relationships between two kingdoms or when one acquires the other. During the Gupta period, from caves, a free-standing Hindu temple came, and the form of Indian Temple Architecture developed. Temples were majorly constructed using sandstone, granite, and brick. A few examples discussed below will give an insight into the materials used by the Gupta empire.

Bhitargaon Temple, Uttar Pradesh (6 th Century) – Nagara Style

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Bhitargaon Temple before renovation_©2016-2022 Leiden University

The temple, facing east, was built on a square plan with double-recessed corners. There is a tall pyramidal spire over the garbhagriha. They decorated walls with terracotta panels depicting aquatic monsters, Shiva, and Vishnu. Bricks of size 18X9X3 inches were in use. It is a permanent building material, unlike the perishable materials bamboo or wood.

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Brick and Terracotta Panels in Bhitargaon Temple before renovation_©J.D Beglar

Demand for ritualistic terracotta art, driven by the myriad folk festivals and cult worships, was prevalent across the villages and towns of the time. The riverine plains provided a continuous supply of clay. It boosted the production and market of terracotta products.

Nalanda University, Bihar (3 rd BCE to 12 th century CE)

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Map showing various parts of Nalanda University_©Archaeological Survey of India

The university consists of 4 chaityas and 11 viharas with stupas and shrines in an area of 2 sq. km. Site Number 3, 1A, 1B, 1, 4-5, 6, 7 & 8 dates back to the Gupta period. (4th – 7th century CE). 

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Site Plan of Nalanda University_©Archaeological Survey of India

From Vihara no. 4, the site shows a systematic linear layout. The viharas (numbered 04 to 11) are on the east and chaityas (numbered 12, 13, and 14) to the west of the central pathway. The site broadly shows two zones, segregated by a path, 100 feet in width. The educational-cum-residential and spiritual facilities are located within the protected area, while ancillary facilities like water bodies and other resources are on the periphery.

Chaitya

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Chaitya at Nalanda University_©Archaeological Survey of India

Bricks (18” x 13” X 41/2’’) were used as a primary material between 3rd BCE – 3rd CE. As stucco was an inexpensive material, it had been used for decorative purposes – a relief giving an idea of the 3-dimensional effect. Concrete got used between the 4th to 5th centuries at Nalanda University. 

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Concrete Beam at Nalanda University_©Archaeological Survey of India

Vihara

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Vihara at Nalanda University_©Archaeological Survey of India

The enclosure of Vihara measured 10’ in length and 175’ in breadth. The average dimension of the rooms was 9’3” by 9, and a clear height of 11’. Its southwestern corner was a staircase leading to the upper floors. Earlier, perishable materials were in use to construct viharas. When Bhikshu’s life became one of education, the patrons donated facilities for the construction using permanent building materials. Along with brick as the primary material, lime as a finish was in use, less affected by water, and permeable. Concrete was in use on the floor because of its non-absorbent, durable, and good-wearing properties.

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Concrete floor on portico at Nalanda University_©Archaeological Survey of India
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Brick Podium of Gupta Period (Level-1) at Nalanda University_©Archaeological Survey of India

Dhamek Stupa, Uttar Pradesh (500 CE)

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Dhamek Stupa_©Tale of 2 Backpackers

The dome is of 28m dia with a height of 43.6m. The eight projections on the drum of the stupa are 21’6″ wide, placed 15′ apart from one another. The lower part of the structure (up to the height of 36’9″) is composed of stone. The upper part is of brick masonry. A shift from solid stone construction to brick masonry was due to time and finances. The lower portion in stone was made at the time of Emperor Ashoka (Mauryan Period) to create geometric patterns carved in relief.

Carving details in Dhamek Stupa_©Speaking Archaeologically

Apart from the building materials, other items that show the use of various metals are gold coins (since the time of Chandragupta I), silver coins, copper plates (since the time of Kumargupta I), copper coins of Ramagupta, and the inscription of Chandragupta II on the Mehrauli Iron Pillar. In Nalanda in Bihar in the 6th century BCE, figures became heavier and thus were made of metal. Gold coins were manufactured in large quantities and were used in trade by both – the Romans and the Kushans. Rome sent the coiled lead strips to Saravanans (who ruled present Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Telangana, between the late 2nd century BCE to the early 3rd century CE), who made lead coins out of them.

From the above discussion, it is clear that there were lots of materials in the palette of the Guptas, but for the building purpose, they majorly focused on brick, stone, lime, concrete, stucco, and terracotta. The reason could be trade. Romans were the ones who experimented while they built. And the other nations tried to learn about the materials and construction techniques from them. If Romans used metal in their construction, who knows if the parts of the world dealing with them also had structures made of metal?

References:
  1. Anon., n.d. Cultural India. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.culturalindia.net/monuments/dhamekh-stupa.html
    [Accessed July 2022].
  2. Anon., n.d. Hind Utsav. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.hindutsav.com/bhitargaon-temple/
    [Accessed July 2022].
  3. Dugar, N., 2021. Wix. [Online]
    Available at: https://dugarnisha02.wixsite.com/wwwhistday123/post/in-the-search-of-an-identity
    [Accessed July 2022].
  4. Foreign Trade in Ancient India/ R S Sharma. 2020. [Film] s.l.: Simplify NCERT.
  5. India, A. S. o., 2016. UNSECO World Heritage Convention. [Online]
    Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1502/documents/
    [Accessed July 2022].
  6. Khandalavala, K., 1991. The Golden Age. s.l.:Marg Publication.
  7. Priyadarshini, S., n.d. History Discussion. [Online]
    Available at: https://www.historydiscussion.net/history-of-india/5-major-causes-of-the-downfall-of-the-maurya-empire-explained/2431
    [Accessed July 2022].
  8. Shukla, A., 2019. Medium. [Online]
    Available at: https://medium.com/@cherrywalnut529/essence-of-civilisation-the-ancient-brick-temple-of-bhitargaon-kanpur-a-splendour-in-terracotta-3d1620ea1734
    [Accessed July 2022].
Author

Nisha Dugar is a recently graduated architect from Nirma University (2022). She has an ambition of generating knowledge of architecture among the general public through her words. With an inclination toward urban and historical research, she is interested in architectural journalism and criticism.

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