Gandhara Art

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The Gandhara region had long been a crossroad of cultural influences. Being an Indian region of the ancient past, Gandhara is now in northwestern Pakistan. Gandhara art, one of the most prized possessions of Pakistan, flourished for a period of 500 years (from the first to the fifth century AD) in the present valley of Peshawar and the adjacent hilly regions of Swat, Buner and Bajaur. During the reign of the Indian emperor Ashoka around 3rd century BC, it had already become the striking scene of intensive Buddhist missionary activity. Gandhara Art in its early stages received the parronage of Kanishka, the great Kushan ruler, during whose reign the Silk Route ran through Peshawar and the Indus Valley, bringing great prosperity to the whole region.

Since the Ist century AD, Gandhara became the center of a flourishing school of sculpture and architecture. The origins of this school have been much disputed, but it contained both Indian and Hellenistic (or Roman) elements. The former were largely associated with the spread of Mahayana Buddhism, while the later owed their introduction to the extensive trade of the Parthians with the Mediterranean, and their development to the Kushans. The earlier view that the art style arose from the Greek dynasties in Bactria and northwest India appears to be incorrect. On the whole, however, it may be articulated that it was the product of a blending of Indian, Buddhist and Graeco-Roman sculpture.

Gandhara art presents some of the earliest images of the Buddha. Earlier at Bharhut and Sanchi, the Buddha’s presence was represented by symbols, such as the pipal tree, the wheel of life, footprints, and an empty throne. The Gandhara style was profoundly influenced by 2nd-century Hellenistic art and was itself highly influential in central and eastern Asia. Ivories and imported glass and lacquer-ware attest to the cosmopolitan tastes and extensive trade that characterized the period. Stupas and monasteries were adorned with relief friezes, often carved in dark schist, showing figures in classical poses with flowing Hellenistic draperies.

The Gandhara School lasted at least locally until the Muslim invasions in the 7th and 8th centuries. The architecture is mainly of stone, frequently adorned with sculpture in either schist or stucco. The monuments take the form of Buddhist stupas and monasteries. The sculptures are almost entirely Buddhist: many of the details and motifs find close parallels in the contemporary art of Rome. The schools of Gandhara and Mathura influenced each other, and the general trend was away from a naturalistic conception and toward a more idealized, abstract image. The Gandharan craftsmen made a lasting contribution to Buddhist art in their composition of the events of the Buddha’s life into set scenes.

This article was last updated on Monday, Jan 03, 2005