Cultures & Traditions

Gandharan Art

The region of Gandhara (an area that now includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern India) appears in writings dating from the time of the Achaemenid Persian empire (550-330 BCE). In one, the emperor Darius I claimed possession of Gandhara as the most easterly territory of the empire. With the conquest of the Persian empire by Alexander the Great in the 4th century, Gandhara was under the control of one of his officers for several years before he ceded it to the the Indian King Chandragupta, founder of the Mauryan empire. After the death of Chandragupta's grandson, the emperor Ashoka (r. 273-232 BCE), Gandhara was dominated by various foreign rulers, including Bactrians, Scythians, and the Kushan.

At the height of the Gandharan empire, from the 1st to the 4th century CE, the heartland centered on the tributaries of the Indus River and surrounding mountain ranges such as the Hindu Kush. The cosmopolitan character of Gandharan art reflects the breadth of the many trade routes known as the Silk Road, which extended from the Mediterranean to China. These ancient networks extended into northern India through the Hindu Kush and the Khyber Pass. The people along the Ganges River plain shared in this prosperous culture, especially in the area around the north Indian city of Mathura. The Kushan kingdom, established by nomadic tribes from Central Asia, included both Gandharan and north-central Indian territories during the first three centuries CE. Despite the invasion of Gandhara by the Sassanian Persian empire, which led to the decline of Buddhism there, late Gandharan art (4th-6th centuries CE) retained a multicultural character.

From the time of Ashoka onward, Buddhism was a powerful religion in Gandhara. Both the architecture and large-scale sculpture of the region reflected the monastic character of early Buddhism. As essential destinations and sites of exchange along Silk Road trade routes, the monasteries of Gandhara also served as major sources for Buddhist texts, which pilgrims brought back to their native lands. Many great stupas were built, although few survive today. Gandhara, along with the Kushan site of Mathura in northern India, produced the earliest figural images of the Buddha, a major landmark in the history of South Asian art.

In Gandhara, thanks to various Silk Road trade routes connecting the Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean with the Near East, Persia, Central Asia, India, and East Asia, a vast array of goods was exchanged across enormous distances. Classical and Persian styles were adapted to Buddhist art, producing rich multicultural art forms. Greco-Roman sculptural features, styles of clothing, and contrapposto (S-curved) poses are evident in a number of works. At the same time, the Indian character of the figures is also expressed in other details of idealized physiognomy, religious iconography, and jewelry and costume. Subject matter of Gandharan art includes Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, illustrations of the Buddha's major life events and teachings, and various bodhisattvas. Buddhist artists under strong Greco-Roman influence produced many masterworks of religious sculpture which impacted the growth of Mahayana Buddhism.

The head of Buddha [1993.7] is an example of the blending of the Mediterranean and Indic forms. The work is not about human splendor or power, but about transcending earthly ties. In the same way, the bust of a bodhisattva [1973.81] adapts details of Mediterranean art, such as the jewelry, which is based on classical models. Relief sculptures such as that of Buddha receiving alms [1992.41] demonstrate how Gandharan artists adapted Greco-Roman narrative compositions to enrich various stories about the life of the Buddha. Such small reliefs often decorated the bases of larger sculptures or surrounded stone stupas, where worshippers might study them as they circumambulated the stupas. Reliefs show the Buddha accepting alms, in a classic monk's begging pose, or departing his princely lifestyle. The realism of the scene recalls Hellenistic narrative sculpture. Gandharan artists in particular adopted and transformed popular foreign motifs in order to express Indian Buddhist ideals.

The period marking the height of the Kushan dynasty is the last time Gandhara appears in known historical accounts. In 1849, the region was annexed by British India and the name 'Gandhara' did not survive. However, the name again came into use to refer an artistic region rather than a political territory upon the recognition of the significance of the Buddhist artifacts found there.

Adapted from

  • Anne Bromberg, The Arts of India, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 29; 37.

  • Anne Bromberg, 'Attachment D: Gandharan Head of a Buddha.' In object file for Head of a Buddha [1993.7].

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