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Gandhara Civilisation: A Unique Confluence

August 9, 2023

Literary, historical, and archaeological evidence show that Gandhara Buddhist art was a unique blend of Greek, Syrian, Persian, and Indian styles. The strategic north-west position of Pakistan, rich harvests, abundant irrigation, and agreeable temperature made Gandhara a favorite destination for western invaders.

As a gateway between East and West, this territory hosted major trade routes from China to the Mediterranean coast and Turkestan to the subcontinent for almost two centuries.

Gandhara was part of the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great in the sixth century BC.

Alexander the Great seized it in 326 BC after two centuries of Persian dominance. This invasion was fortunate when the pagan Greeks recognized the greater theological logic of the East and built a new Buddha with Roman traits and an eastern halo.

The sculpture created by combining shapes and techniques deviated from the region’s conservative craftsmanship.

Greek dominance collapsed within two decades after Alexander’s army left in 317 BC, leaving the province to the Mauryans. Chandragupta Maurya, the dynasty’s founder, and his grandson Ashoka established Buddhism the state religion and extended it to neighboring states. Ashoka built around 84,000 religious buildings in the region, including the rock edicts at Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra.

The Ashoka dynasty collapsed quickly after his death. Greeks (Sakas or Scythians) retook Gandhara in 184 BC and ruled for about a century until the Kushans took it. Emperor Kanishka of the Kushan Empire promoted Buddhism with stupas and monasteries.

Gandhara art reached its artistic peak in the second century AD during the Kushan period from the first to the fifth century AD. The civilized West demanded carefully handled gold and silver jewelry, metallic artifacts, and ivory sculptures, which enhanced manufacturing during Kushan authority.

Emperor Kanishka used western mythology and Roman currency to issue gold coins as trade and prosperity increased.

Universities and elaborate monasteries appeared, and Gandhara became known for its holiness due to its association with Jataka tales about Buddha’s former lives.

Buddhism remained popular in Gandhara for 10 centuries despite several attacks and progressive kings. The locals adopted the Diaspora’s appearance, habits, and artistic skills, making the region cosmopolitan.

Buddhist art emerged from a healthy combination of eastern and western perspectives. This combination of cultures prompted local craftspeople to unleash astonishing brilliance with fervor.

The Gandharan people strengthened their unity via religion art. Gandharan sculptors decorated holy buildings with stucco and stone. The fluidity of stucco made creating figures and reliefs easy and expressive.

The material’s rich tactile behavior helped Gandhara art achieve its hallmark anatomical detail, delicate draping, and realism.

In Hinayana, the older style of Buddhism, Buddha was never worldly. He was symbolized by an empty seat, footprint, umbrella, or horse without a rider. In Mahayana Buddhism, the master dominates the panel and replaces the preceding shape. The continent’s greatest artistic achievement is this Buddha’s creation.

Gandhara art may have begun when Buddha’s image was mass-produced and installed in monastic structures for worship, as seen at the Peshawar Museum, Dir Museum Chakdara, Swat Museum, Taxila Museum, and Lahore Museum.

Skillful chiselling, regional individuality, realistic proportions, and beauty distinguish these schist stone sculptures.

The master’s first comprehensive artistic manifestation changed aesthetics, yet without a reference, the exact semblance was impossible. To depict Buddha realistically, new notions were needed from Roman iconography and art genres.

The mix that created an eastern style was boosted by Western artists and Roman artifacts during Kanishka’s flourishing reign. Pakistani Buddhist art is especially recognizable for its Roman-Buddhist style.

Gandhara art had a long prolific period, but it declined due to lack of experience, repetition, and ideas. Hindu renaissance and the use of stucco and terracotta instead of schist for sculpture eclipsed Buddhist art.

Buddhist art often reflected Gandhara’s sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and cultural aspects. Gandhara art depicted daily life as well as devout emotion.

There are panoramic vistas of people working, playing, and socializing. Dancers, wrestlers, musicians, and others are sculpted into cultural reliefs.

The artworks depict weapons, musical instruments, jewelry, utensils, etc. in detail, preserving Gandharan life. The craftsmen’ humorous dwarfs, Atlantes, and other artifacts show their humor.

Even after two centuries of study, Gandhara’s art development, high point of production, multiple alien influences, charisma of the classical representation of Buddha, reasons for its decline, and monument devastation remain unsolved.

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