Gandhara was one of sixteen mahajanapada of ancient India. Located at a crossroads between various countries in mainland Asia, it formed part of many trade routes and, as a result, absorbed various cultural and religious influences. This was further increased by periods of Greek and Persian rule in the region. At different times, Buddhism, Islam, Vedic, and later forms of Hinduism were prevalent in the region. We also see a distinct Greek classical influence on the art created in Gandhara.
It is primarily believed that Gandhara was a kingdom shaped like a triangle, extending 100km horizontally and 70km vertically, west of the Indus River and south of the Hindukush mountains. ‘Greater Gandhara’ refers to the entire region where Gandhara had cultural and political influence – and this extended to the Kabul Valley, Potwar Plateau, and sometimes even the Sindh region.
The name Gandhara has various etymological sources, the most widely known of these being the Sanskrit word ‘gandha’ meaning perfume. This referred to the aromatic herbs and spices traded by the Gandhari people who anointed themselves. In Persian, the word ‘Gandara’ means ‘beyond the Hindu Kush’, referencing the trade route.
The first recorded civilization in Gandhara was Grave Culture, which emerged in 1400 BCE. Its name stems from the distinct funerary rituals practiced here.
The Gandhara kingdom emerged as one of the sixteen Buddhist mahajapadas, which included the cities of Peshawar, Taxila, Sialkot, and Pushkalavati. It attained its height during the 1st – 5th century CE under the Kushan Empire. During this time it was captured by Alexander the Great in 327 BCE and the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century. After, it became part of the extent of the Mauryan Empire.
A violent invasion by Alcon Huns in the 6th century CE started the decline of the region, which was conquered by Mahmud Ghaznavi.
The language in the region is written on the earliest manuscripts discovered in Asia. A Prakrit language, it appears on coins, inscriptions, and texts – most of which were written on the bark of birch trees and kept in labeled clay pots. Some of these texts are also the earliest discovered Buddhist texts – the Gandharan Buddhist texts.
Gandharan art dates back to the 1st century BCE, with painting, sculpture, coins, and pottery forming a large part of this tradition. It peaked during the Kushan era – particularly after Kanishka, the ruler at the time, introduced images of the Buddha as we see it now. In early Buddhist traditions, images of the Buddha were not created as the Buddha asked that learning and not images be spread through the world. This changed during the Kushan period.
Many images of Buddha and Bodhisattvas were produced during this era, ranging in size and scattered throughout the region. The Bodhisattva represents the life and state of the Buddha before attaining enlightenment. A distinction can easily be drawn between the two, as Bodhisattvas tend to be depicted with elements of luxury such as jewelry, clothes, sandals, etc. on the other hand, the Buddha was always depicted in simplicity, wearing monastic robes and hair ties in a bun. Many iterations show a halo around his head. Mythological figures, gods, demigods, royalty, guards or soldiers, musicians, etc. are also depicted in some scenes, usually with the Buddha in the center.
Different regions had distinct features which became markers for identifying the location in which an image was created. These were different laksanas (divine marks), mudras (hand gestures), and different robes.
Kanjur and Schist stone were used to carve out the shape before the sculpture was finished in plaster. It is believed that originally, the sculptures were painted using bright colors, but only the plaster remains. Some of these were also adorned with gold leaf and gemstones.
Gandharan architecture, similar to its art, was greatly impacted by the advent and spread of Buddhism. The stupa and associated religious establishments thus became one of the most prominent characteristics of architecture at the time. These were built to venerate the Buddha and monks that were held in high stature and esteem. Some were also built at the site where events related to the Buddha’s life took place.
Initially, Stupas had a modest size, but as the religion spread through the country, they became increasingly larger and more elaborate.
The Stupa also acted as a space for displaying and worshipping Gandharan art with sculptures, relief carvings, paintings, and others. These images either adorned walls or were located in courts, niches, chapels, etc.
While the Stupa was the central point of worship, the monastery developed as a support structure for the monks to live in. Over time, monasteries became individual self-sufficient units supported by their agrarian activities and donations. A monastery generally comprised a service hall, a kitchen, a secluded corridor, a bathroom, and medical and general storage.
We also find evidence of other religions – Jainism, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism – and architectural iterations of these. Some of these are the Zoroastrianism temple at Jandial and a Jain temple and temple of the Sun at Sirkap.
Other than religious structures, there was an understandable prevalence of civic buildings which varied and changed with region and era. Cities existed as both organic and planned settlements, with the older generally being organic while the newer was more planned and seem to take inspiration from the Hippodamian layout. Structures including residences, shops, promenades, sundials, pavilions, streets, roads, watchtowers, gates, and fortification formed part of the ancient fabric.
While Gandhara remained a prominent and known name after its decline, it was only during and after British Colonial India that it was rediscovered and excavated. Thus, Gandharan history, art, and architecture were discovered and studied in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
Taxila was excavated from 1912 to 1934. The discoveries made included Greek, Parthian, and Kushan cities and helped historians understand the timeline of the region and its art.
Around 1947, many discoveries were made by the University of Peshawar which prompted more excavation and studies in the region.
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