Between East and West: the Greco-Buddhist Art of Gandhara
Cross-cultural exchanges between East and West span millennia. The captivating Gandhara sculptures, merging Greek style with Indian iconography, stand as testaments to these connections.
Gandhara: A Crossroads of Civilisations
Located in present-day northwestern Pakistan, the ancient region of Gandhara developed in the plains of the Peshawar basin, opening on the Swat region and the Himalayan valleys. Over eight centuries, from Alexander the Great’s conquest to the Hun nomads’ intrusion in the 5th-6th centuries, Gandhara’s fertile and strategically alluring terrain drew the ambitions of rulers.
Positioned between the Levant coasts and the Ganga River banks, Gandhara became the theatre of the encounter of the Eastern and Western worlds, which culminated in the formation of an exceptional art blending a variety of influences. Despite its porosity to diverse influences, Gandhara preserved its identity, owing to its location far from the centres of temporal and religious power.
The Multicultural History that Formed the Greco-Buddhist Art of Gandhara
The history of Gandhara is marked by the passage of the various rulers seeking control over its prosperous and strategic expanse. To understand the origins of the unique art of Gandhara, a glimpse into its history becomes essential.
The cultural identity of Gandhara emerged after its conquest by the Macedonian king, Alexander the Great, in 327 BCE. Following his death, the territory transformed into the Indo-Greek kingdoms, guided by his generals. Later, in the early centuries of our era, Central Asian conquerors swept through one after another, subjecting the land to the rule of the Sakas, Scythians, and Kushans. This covetousness resulted from the prosperity rooted in Gandhara’s strategic position as a gateway and crossroads on the world’s trade routes, generating unquestionable economic success through the transport of goods from the Mediterranean to China and India. This multicultural melting pot gave rise to a blended culture, diverse cults, and a distinctive art.
Gandhara Greco-Buddhist Art: the Merging of Greek Influences and Indian Traditions
Gandhara’s representations bear an intriguing Western touch, owing to the influence of Greek artworks exchanged in a region immersed in commercial, diplomatic, religious, and military interactions. The artists of Gandhara incorporated Greek stylistic elements, evident in the balanced treatment of figures and sculptural techniques enhancing the separation of volumes from the backgrounds.
The sculptures also feature Indian Buddhist subjects, reflecting the spread of Buddhism in Gandhara in the last centuries BCE. This explains the label of “Greco-Buddhist” given to this art in retrospect.
The Greco-Buddhist Art of Narrating the Story of the Buddha
Theravada is an early form of Buddhism that centres around the veneration of the Buddha by enhancing episodes of its life. The narrative art of Gandhara expresses this through recounting stories by carving them into a local stone, the grey schist, in accordance with the religious texts disseminated at the time. These narrative reliefs adorned monuments known as stupa, believed to house relics of the Buddha. This type of monument originated in India and held a central role in the Theravada worship of Gandhara.
As worshippers circled around these sacred sites, episodes from the Buddha’s life unfolded before them. The representation below captures the first sermon of the Buddha to his disciples in Sarnath, India. The iconography, featuring a seated Buddha in meditation, turning the wheel of dharma, unequivocally reflects its Indian origin. However, the realistic pleated drapery of the clothing and the balanced posture of the figures is a remnant of Greek influence.
The Classic Gandhara Buddhas and Bodhisattvas
Around the end of the second century CE, a shift in artistic representation emerged in Gandhara, marking what is considered the classical age of the region’s art. The narrative reliefs give way to sculptures of deities, delicately rendered in facial details, ornaments, and attributes. These new representations coincide with the advent of a new Buddhist movement, the Mahayana, where the veneration shifts from the Buddha’s relics to the figures of bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are Buddhas who, having forsaken attaining nirvana, dedicate themselves to aiding humans on their path to enlightenment.
Bodhisattvas, as exemplified in the figure above, are identifiable by distinctive features such as the webbed fingers, cranial protuberance, and princely attributes like the turban and adornments. Here, the portrayal of the sacred being is influenced by Greek models, evident in the square jaw, straight nose, naturalism in the depiction of hair, and harmonious proportions of the body. As a land bordering the Persian territory, Gandhara also incorporates elements of Iranian style, notably in the decorative motifs adorning the sandals.
The Groundbreaking Techniques of Bamiyan’s Greco-Buddhist Paintings
Although most of the Gandhara artefacts which have survived the test of time and reached us are sculptures, some exceptional wall paintings remain in the region. Famous for its Buddha statues destroyed by the Talibans, the Afghan city of Bamiyan holds another treasure – frescoes dating back to the 7th century.
International scientists, coordinated by UNESCO, examined those well-preserved ancient murals in caves, and discovered that they were oil paintings. This makes them among the oldest oil paintings in history. The artists in Bamiyan used various organic substances like resins, plant-based glues, dry oils, and animal proteins to fix the paintings on the walls.
The artworks portray Buddhas, often in red robes, showcasing influences from India and China. The style of the paintings reflect Bamiyan’s strategic location along the Silk Road.
Beyond Greco-Buddhist Art: Representations of Hindu and Central Asian Divinities
While Buddhism is the predominant theme in Gandhara’s sculptures, the art of Gandhara also encompasses depictions of various deities and religions. Notably, Hindu divinities like Shiva are represented, as seen in the fresco above. It could also depict Oesho, a Central Asian deity assimilated with Shiva in the early centuries of our era. This type of artwork underscores that Gandhara was a true cultural melting pot, merging artistic and religious influences.
Gandhara’s Greco-Buddhist art unveils a production formed by the encounter of Indian religions and Greek aesthetics. Through the lens of these sculptures, one understands the enduring connection between the Eastern and Western worlds, as they stand as testaments to the permeability of cultures. Thus, each carving resonates with the idea that no culture exists in isolation, but rather, all nations are connected by threads of shared influences.
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Written by Léa Joshi-Sharma, a museum professional based in Paris, France who specialises in Indian arts and archaeology .