The Hellenistic influence was nowhere more dramatic than in Gandhara, a term now used to describe the school of semi-classical sculptures of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the early centuries of our era. Gandhara is the name of an ancient province and kingdom, which in classical times, was limited to a small region in ancient India. The province Gandhara included roughly northwestern India between the Khyber Pass and the Indus River and the region of the Kabul Valley in Afghanistan. However, art and architecture from the Gandharean School had been found as far north as the Oxus River found in the Punjab.
In the sixth to fourth centuries BCE Gandhara was dominated under the Achaemenid Dynasty of Iran. The successors of Alexander the Great maintained themselves in Bactria and Gandhara from 322 BCE to about 50 BCE, however, as early as the second century BCE these Greek Dynasties were already overrun by peoples of both nomadic and Parthian-Iranian origin. Rejoined to India under the Maurya Dynasty, the Gandhara province became the object of intense missionary activity by the Buddhist emperor Asoka (reigned c. 273-232 BCE). He made Buddhism the state religion, enforced the Buddhist doctrine of nonviolence (ahimsa) and prohibited animal sacrifices. In the first century AD the Kushans, a tribe of Scythian stock from north China made themselves masters of Gandhara. Their rule, however, was interrupted by the invasion of the Persian King Shapur I in AD 242, and the Buddhist civilization of Gandhara was finally completely destroyed by the White Huns, the Hephthalites, in the sixth century. (see geographical map)
The disastrous invasion of the White Huns put an end to all further productive activity in the once flourishing Gandhara province. Little is known about this time period except from Chinese pilgrims who as early as the fifth century AD undertook the long and arduous journey to the Holy Land of Buddhism. Fa Hsien, who traveled through the Peshawar Valley shortly after AD 400 described that the Gandhara province flourished, and that Emperor Kanishka's successors "were well cared for." When his successor, Sung Yen, visited the region in 520, he reported that the country had been overrun by the Huns. A few years later he reported that the Huns had virtually expiated Buddhism, had destroyed monasteries and had slashed most of the population in Gandhara. A century later, when the famous Chinese pilgrim Hsuan-Tsang traveled through north-west India he found Gandhara in a ruined, depopulated state. He describes in his "Records of the Western Countries," that ruined monasteries greeted him everywhere in the Peshawar Valley and reports of the terrible desolation of the once flourishing Buddhist centers. However, the final chapters of the Gandharan school has its setting in Kashmir and in remote centers such as Fondukistan and Afghanistan where artistic activity continued as late as the seventh century. Excavations have produced many statues, other artifacts and some monasteries. Unfortunately, there are no architectural monuments left intact in Gandhara only some structural remains and sculptured fragments. However, there is ample proof of active trade and cultural exchanges between the Mediterranean and the Kushan territories into China.
Ganharan art is often referred to as the Graeco-or-Roman-Buddhist school. The founder of the School has been credited to the Kushan Emperor Kanishka (c. AD 129-160), because of his patronage to Buddhism, and his great artistic development. The character of Gandharan art is determined by the commercial relations between the Kushan and the Roman empires. The many archaeological discoveries of Alexandrian and Syrian workmanship at Taxila in the Punjab and Begram in the Kabul valley testify to the cultural and diplomatic connections with the Graeco-Roman West. Many artifacts, in particular sculptures, have survived and are now dispersed in major museums throughout the world.
Evidence of Hellenistic art in the form of architecture had been noted on a number of temples from the city of Sirkap at Taxila, and on the tumbled columns of Ay Khanum's administrative center....... (picture). Although the presence of this material provides a Hellenistic back ground for Gandhara art, it was the introduction of foreign workers from the eastern centers of the Roman Empire that led to the creation of the first Buddhist sculptures. It is not surprising that the Kushans, a nomadic people without a tradition of monumental art, requested the service of skilled artisans to meet the architectural and sculptural requirements for the many Buddhist establishments. It can be assumed that the practice of importing foreign artisans continued from the days of Kanishka's reign until the end of Buddhism in northwest India and the Punjab in the sixth to early seventh centuries. The majority of Gandharan art was, however, created by native craftsmen following the successive waves of foreign influences.
The subject matter of Gandharan art was unquestionably Buddhist, while most motifs were of western Asiatic or Hellenistic origin. Mesopotamian motifs can be found on Persepolitan capitals; or, forms such as the Atlantis, garland-bearing Eros, and the semi-human creatures as the centaur and triton are part of the repertory of Hellenistic art and introduced by Roman Eurasian artists in the service of the Kushan court. The fantastic monsters, however, the sphinxes and griffins had already been assimilated by the ancient Indian schools. Sculptures played a very decisive role in the Buddhist monasteries where they had been found in large quantities. Tall single statues were placed in chapels to be venerated by the monks and the faithful. Other large figures in high relief were placed with their back to the wall, and bass relief filled all manners of places and positions.
The Gandhara schools is probably credited with the first representation of the Buddha in human form, the portrayal of Sakyamuni in his human shape, rather than shown as a symbol. Perhaps the school intended to create a human Bodhisattva, a representation of Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha Sakyamuni while still as a Bodhisattva. All early Bodhisattvas are shown in wearing turbans, jewelry, and muslin skirts, a costume that was an adaptation of the actual dress of Kushan and Indian nobles. The jewelry of these royal statues were a duplication of Hellenistic and Samatian gold, created by Western artisans. A definite borrowing from Roman art was the method of representing the story of the Buddhas legend in a series of separate episodes and panels. This was accomplished in much the same way than the pictorial iconography of the Christian legends, based on the Roman methods. On portraying the careers of the Caesar's several distinct climactic events where shown on separate panels. Another example are the earliest Gandhara Buddha's, where Sakyamuni is portrayed with the head of a Greek Apollo and arrayed in a Roman toga. It is the same early representation of Christ which shows Him with the head of the Greek Sun-God but dressed in the garb of the teachers of the ancient Greek world.
The most frequently used material by Gandharan artists was a soft indigenous schist that varied in color from light to dark gray, and often contained sparkling mica particles. Many of these statues were covered with gold leaf to give them a luster in dark interiors. The most popular media, however, became an easy-to-work material terracotta and stucco. Because of the fragility of the material most statues were supported by attaching them to walls, giving them the appearance of a three-dimensional relief. Stucco sculptures were given a final coat of gesso, which was then painted. The most frequent subjects were representations of Buddha, Bodhisattwas, and attending monks or donors. The Buddha images display a variety of ethnic types and expressions. The human head usually has appears with a perfect oval face, regular features, with almond-shaped and slightly protruding eyes, with gentle arching eyebrows, a straight nose, and beautifully cut lips with a subtle smile. The Buddha's influence is evident in the half-closed eyes suggesting meditation. The face if often unbearded, but sometimes a mustache strikes a foreign note, most likely Kushan. The "usnisa" or cranial bump, a predestination the Buddha was born with, is usually seen in the form of the "chignon" a knot or a roll of hear wrapped in silk on the dome of Buddha's head. The elongated ears indicate the heavy, rich jewelry the Buddha wore.
The Kushans were able to establish a strong empire for a period of about three hundred years and produced works of art reflecting both indigenous traditions and external influences. The detection of Greek and Roman elements in the Gandharan School testifies to the active exchange of ideals among all the civilizations of the Classical and Central Asian worlds. The Gandhara School reached its peak toward the end of the second century with the production of the most significant large Buddha statues. Their style continued to flourish into the third century until after the Sasanian invasion, and continued until the seventh century in Afghanistan. The Gandharan School deserves our admiration for their unique contribution that extended far beyond the perimeters of their province.