The earliest extant stupas date from the Sunga dynasty (2d–1st cent. B.C.) and early Andhra dynasty (1st cent. B.C.). These relic mounds are surrounded by railings and gateways covered with carved ornament. One of the main stupas is at Bharhut, where the sculpture is archaic in character. Relief medallions of the Buddha's life or of the jatakas (tales of his previous lives) are shallow cut, with all the incidents of each story arranged within a single composition. The bodies of semidivine beings including yakshis (female tree spirits) are flattened against the pillar of which they form part; prana is still emphasized.
The important stupa at Sanchi shows a similar style. Important carvings on the gateways of another stupa at Sanchi date from the early Andhra period. The yakshis have acquired full, graceful forms, and high-relief compositions are frequently conceived in a continuous method of narration. The carved railing from Bodh Gaya, the place of the Buddha's enlightenment, and the earliest surviving wall paintings are also early Andhra; paintings in the rock-cut cave at Ajanta narrate the Buddha's birth as an elephant and the entire synopsis of historic life. In the far south, in the Deccan, the later Andhra dynasty continued to flourish into the 1st cent. A.D. Its greatest monument is the carving at the Great Stupa at Amaravati, c.A.D. 200. The complex but coherent composition, the chiaroscuro, and the liveliness of the crowded surfaces distinguish these bas-reliefs.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.