Post-Mauryan art has the following broad characteristics: (i) It is structural art, meaning that it was originally part of architectural structures like the gateways, railings and facades of stupas, chaityas, viharas and temples. (ii) It is by and large narrative, describing scenes from myths and legends to do with divine and semi-divine beings, and also depicting signs and symbols. (iii) It is regarded as popular art, representing the folk spirit of commoners, unlike Mauryan art which was royal and stately.(iv)It is overwhelmingly religious in nature and predominantly Buddhist.
It should be noted, however, that the earliest brahmanical stone temples and sculpture are also from this period. A Vishnu temple stood at Vidisha (Besnagar) from the third century BCE onwards in the vicinity of the famous Heliodorus pillar which was a Garuda column dedicated to Vishnu by a Greek ambassador called Heliodorus. Remains of a Vishnu shrine are also found at Nagari (third century BCE), of a Lakshmi temple (200-50 BCE) at Atranjikhera, a Durga temple at Sonkh (100-200 CE) and one Vishnu and five shiva temples at Nagarajunakonda (400 CE). A number of stone statues and reliefs depicting four armed Vishnu, Krishna-Balarama-Ekanamsha triads, Govardhana-Krishna, Shiva lingas, and Mahishasuramardini have been found from various sites, as already mentioned.
The post-Mauryan period is the take-off stage for Buddhist architecture. It was the establishment of a large number of stupas (dome-shaped funerary mounds preserving relics of the Buddha or special monks), chaityas (shrines) and viharas (monasteries) of varying size in every part of the subcontinent.
In the north-west a large monastic complex was revealed at Takht-i-Bhai while Taxila yielded a number of stupas and chaityas including the huge Dharmarajika stupa. The stupas at Sanchi and Bharhut in central India are the best known. These were equipped with a stone circumambulatory path (pradakshina patha), two flights of stairs (sopana) at the base, stone balustrades (vedika) at the ground and a stone umbrella (chhattra) on the summit. Four gateways (torana) and a stone railing enclosed the stupa compound. Sculptural decoration was confirmed to these parts and was not done on the stupa itself. It consisted of narrative scenes from the Jatakas and also symbols like the triratna, and figures like yaksha and nagas.
There are the rock-cut caves in the Western Ghats at sites like Bhaja, Pitalkhora, Nasik, Karle, Kanheri and Bedsa. These included chaityas, initially cut parallel to the rock-face and later perpendicular to the entrance facing directly the object of worship within, and viharas, some of these two-storeyed with cells arranged around a central hall and consisting of rockcut bed and pillow for the monks. A number of important Buddhistic establishments were also located in Andhra, for example at Amaravati (with its mahachaitya, now lost), Jaggayyapeta and Nagarajunakonda.
The profuse inscriptions found at most Buddhist sites of the period show that they enjoyed the support of not only royalty but, more so, commoners like artisans, merchants, guilds, yavanas, monks and nuns who appear as donors.
Mention may also be made of the Jaina caves at Udayagiri and Khandagiri in Orissa. These consisted of only tiny, stark and plain monastic cells cut into the sandstone caves. The outer façade sometimes bore ornamentation. They were patronized by the Chedis of Kalinga.
As regarding stone sculpture, two important schools developed in the post-Mauryan period. The Gandhara School flourished in the north-west from the first to the fifth century CE. It used blue schist stone and later limeplaster. Its themes were Indic, chiefly Buddhist, but its style showed a distinct Graeco-Roman influence. For instance both standing and seated images of the Buddha show naturalism in body forms, muscular physique, heavy, three dimensional folds of garments, sharp facial features and wavy or culry hair. Scenes from the Jataka tales were also depicted by this school including the famous Fasting Siddhartha statue from Sikri, Pakistan, that shows the prince in a striking state of emaciation.
The Mathura school flourished under Kushana rule. Its distinguishing feature was the use of local red, mottled sandstone. Images of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas are in a clearly indigenous style, showing a heavy, fleshy body, thin, clinging garments, stiff smile, and shaved head. Numerous other relief subjects in this school include Jataka tales, Hindu and Jaina images, amorous couples, yaksha-yakshis, etc.