The earliest Buddhist monuments in India are attributable to Ashoka, who exerted his energies and the resources of his empire towards propagation of Buddhism. The most widely known and eloborate ones are the stupas and accompanying viharas built from the timeof Ashoka (273-32 BC) right down to final days of Buddhism in India. By nature, the stupas is either funerary or commemorative or sometimes votive. Origanally, as tumulus, stupa gradually assumed an architectural shape, characterized by a dome raised over one or more terraces or circular platform and surmounted by a railing enclosing the shaft of umbrella. A stupa may be surrounded by a pradakshina-patha enclosed as at Sanchi and Bharhut, by one or more series of railings, origanlly wooden but later replacd by stone in imitation of wood work. The railing, where it exists, is pierced on one or all the cardinal sides by elaborately carved toranas. The circular medhi of the stupa in south-east India, as at Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda, was projected into plateforms on the for cardinal sides with a row of tall ayakastambhas. The stupas in north-west of India, viz.in the Gandhara reigon which belong to the first five centuries of the christian era, have hemispherical domes, while the later ones were raised on lofty terraces and crowned by multiple recedings umbrellas, sorrunded by small stupas, votive in nature and containing figures of Buddha in niches. The accompanying viharas in general, consists of a row of cells surrounding a courtyard. In monasteries of south-east India, The entrances was flanked on either side by apsidal shrines with a stupa inside and a pair of feet or the figure of Buddha in the other.
Many of the stupas contain relic-caskets, which, often are in the form of miniature stupas of gold, crystal or some other material. They are enclosed sometimes in bigger stone reliquaries at particular spots inside a stupa. The Piprahwa and Bhattiprolu relic-caskets are believed to have contained the relics of Buddha himself and are inscribed in the characters of about the third and second centuries BC, respecrively. Numerous chaityas or temples and viharas were excavated at Bhaja, Karla, Ajanta, etc., covering a period from second century BC to first half of the sixth century AD. While the earlier chaityas are apsidal with a stupa as the object of worship at the apse-end and the an elaborately carved facade in fornt, the later ones contain a figure of Buddha.
Fundamentally, a stupa is essentially made up of the following five constituent parts:
* a square base
* a hemispherical dome
* a conical spire
* a crescent moon
* a circular disc
Buddhist art originated in the Indian subcontinent following the life of Gautama Buddha, and thereafter it was evolved through contact with other cultures as it spread throughout Asia and the world.
It developed towards north through Central Asia and into Eastern Asia to form the Northern branch of Buddhist art, and to the east as far as Southeast Asia to form the Southern branch of Buddhist art. In India, Buddhist art flourished and even influenced the development of Hindu art, until Buddhism nearly disappeared in India around 10th century.
Buddhist architecture developed in the South Asia in the third century BC. Two types of structures are associated with the religious architecture of early Buddhism: viharas and stupas.
Viharas initially were only temporary shelters used by wandering monks during the rainy season, but later were developed to accommodate the growing and increasingly formalized Buddhist monasticism. An existing example is at Nalanda (Bihar)
The initial function of a stupa was the veneration and safe-guarding of the relics of Buddha. The earliest existing example of a stupa is in Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh). In accordance with changes in religious practice, stupas were gradually incorporated into chaitya-grihas (stupa halls). These reached their highpoint in the first century BC, exemplified by the cave complexes of Ajanta and Ellora (Maharashtra).