Gandhara & Gandharan Art

Gandhara was the name of a region located in the present northwestern part of Pakistan. In the north it was extended into Swat valley while the valley of Peshawar was making is southern territories. In the west it included Jalalabad in Afghanistan. River Indus including Taxila marked its eastern boundary line.

Ancient Gandhara is mentioned in Rig Veda 1500-1200 BC when the Aryan migrations happened in the region. It is also mentioned in Avesta as one of the most beautiful land created by Ahura Mazda. It was part of Achaemenian Empire in 5th century BC, Darius the Great mentioned it as a subject nation. During the invasion of Macedonian army led by Alexander the Great in 326 BC, asserted their claim over the lost provinces of Achaemenian Empire. Alexander the Great had left a huge territory which was inherited by his generals and one of them being Seleucus Nicator founded his own Seleucid Empire. After the consolidation of power in the western territories, Seleucus Nicator started waging war against the Mauryan emperor Chandragupta who had occupied territories beyond Indus. But continuous failure of Seleucids in stopping the Mauryan forces, made Seleucus Nicator, enter into an agreement with Chandragupta Maurya, with Indus river marking as boundary line between the two empires. Gandhara came under direct rule of the Seleucids in 312 BC – these were the times when Greek art and culture started to take place in the territories and beyond under Seleucids. The later Seleucid King Antiochus Soter 280 BC, founded the city of Ai Khanoum in northern Afghanistan. These along with other cities under the control of Greeks became vibrant in their culture, affecting all the territories in their administration of which Gandhara was an important part. People followed Zoroastrian and Hindu faith along with Greek mythology by people of Greek descent while Buddhism may have reached Gandhara in 3rd BC. After the dismemberment of Seleucid Empire, the Mauryan Empire expanded deeper into the territories held by Seleucids.

During the reign of Ashoka the Great who came to Taxila in 230 BC then after attaining kingship and after his conversion to Buddhism he sent monks throughout his kingdom whereas Gandhara is concerned saint Mahyantika, came to reorganize Buddhist monasteries. Also it is said that Ashoka sent Buddha relics to Taxila and as well to Swat.  After the death of Ashoka in 232 Mauryan Empire, gradually came to an end and divided among smaller rulers in Gandhara. Around 180BC the colonizing Greeks from Bactria, commonly known as Indo-Bactrian Greeks expand eastwards, occupied Gandhara and promoted their culture which can be seen in the local sculpture. This turned out to be more of a mixed presentation where the sculptor’s identity is reflected in the work produced. The local sculptors who were involved in the production of theocratic art work reflected their love of faith with the best execution of their masterpiece produced. Like human anatomy plays a vital role in a Greek or Roman work it also affected Gandharan sculpture which initially copied the Hellenic form then transformed it into a more vernacular form. A Buddha image with an Apollonian face wearing Toga is soon to be seen with well-defined moustaches and elaborate jewelry aristocrat men wore in those days. The sandal was typically copied from a Hellenic sculpture. Then flying angels and Greek mythological elements have greatly been reflected with Indian interaction which successfully developed into a more realistic work to be known as the Gandharan Art.

We see numerous monasteries throughout Gandhara formed factories producing the great art work which kept maturing with the passage of time. Gandhara Art enjoyed patronage of the state and became an important propaganda tool of the local rulers who sent their masters to various lands. From Northern Pakistan to Afghanistan and into Central Asia, Buddhism flourished and travelled on the Great Silk Road as we can see the effects of Gandharan art as far as Longman Grottoes in China, into Korea and even Japan. Peshawar Valley became the center of Buddhist art where the first anthropomorphic form of Buddha originated and during the reign of Kushan King Kanishka, Peshawar city boasted of having one of the greatest Buddhist Stupa as mentioned by Huen Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim who visited the site in 7th century AD. This was after the onslaught of White Huns with devastating effect of ransacking and burning of monasteries. He mentions the presence of hundreds of Buddhist stupas and monasteries throughout Gandhara and alone in Uddiyana(Swat Valley) there were more than fourteen hundred of such religious establishments. The grip on Gandharan state had already weakened after the fall of Kushanas and then invasion of White Huns greatly disturbed the local culture. With the rise and fall of Hindu Shahiya dynasty art and culture came to an end after the invading Muslim ruling class of mixed Persian and Turkic race was forcibly brought to an end to iconoclastic culture. Ghaznavids were responsible for the end of Hindu Shahi rule in Gandhara which started in 4th AD till 873 AD. Afterwards local Buddhist and Hindu believers could not resist the continuous onslaught of Muslim invaders. The Hindu Shahi rulers tried their efforts to revive but the onslaught was so intense that in the absence of any help they could not resisti and made their way into Kashmir. Gandhara by then had fallen into various fragmentary rule but finally came under the Muslim invasion by 1011 AD.    

Written by: Zia Ul Haque

Leave a Reply