Literary, historical and archaeological records indicate that Gandhara style of Buddhist art was a remarkable blend of Greek, Syrian, Persian and Indian art. Located in a strategic north-west position of Pakistan, with rich crops, abundant irrigation and pleasant climate, Gandhara played a significant role in history for being a preferred destination to western invaders.
Moreover, for over two centuries, the major trade routes from China to the Mediterranean coast and from Turkestan to the subcontinent passed through this land, which served as a gateway between the East and the West.
During the reign of Cyrus the Great in the sixth century BC, the Gandhara region was a part of the Achaemenid Empire.
After two centuries of Persian rule, it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 326 BC. This conquest proved to be fortunate when the pagan Greeks soon acknowledged the superior religious logic of the East and created a new Buddha with attractive Roman features and an oriental halo.
The sculpture resulting from the fusion of forms and techniques denoted a departure from the conservative style of the region’s craftsmanship.
With the exit of the Greek forces of Alexander by 317 BC, Greek rule disintegrated within two decades leaving the region to the Mauryan dynasty. Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the dynasty, and his grandson Ashoka made Buddhism the state religion and spread the faith to neighbouring states. Ashoka built almost 84,000 religious edifices in different parts of the region whereby the rock edicts at Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra stand testament to his missionary commitment.
With the demise of Ashoka, the dynasty eroded rapidly. The Greeks (Sakas or Scythians) regained control of Gandhara in 184 BC and were able to sustain rule for over a century and were eventually superseded by the Kushans. Emperor Kanishka of the Kushan Empire adopted Buddhist faith and spread the religion in the region by punctuating it with stupas and monasteries.
It was during the Kushan period from the first to the fifth century AD that the Gandhara art achieved its aesthetic heights with pinnacle performance in the second century AD. The intricately handled gold and silver jewellery, metallic objects and ivory carvings were in great demand in the civilised countries of the West which boosted production during the Kushan rule.
The increasing trade and resulting wealth necessitated the adoption of gold coinage by Emperor Kanishka utilising themes from western mythology and references from the Roman currency.
Universities and elaborate monasteries started to appear and Gandhara began to be recognised for its sanctity through the relationship of many of its locations with Jataka tales based on the previous births of the Buddha.
Despite numerous onslaughts and progressive rulers over 10 centuries, Buddhism remained a major choice for the inhabitants of Gandhara. The incoming Diaspora over the years transformed the region into a thriving cosmopolitan, with the locals adopting the foreigners’ physical appearance, customs and creative skills.
The emerging Buddhist art became a product of a healthy synthesis of the eastern and western perceptions. This convergence of cultures also inspired the indigenous craftsmen to unleash extraordinary genius with accentuated fervour.
The people of Gandhara fortified their sense of cohesion through artistic expression of faith. Stucco as well as stone was widely used by sculptors in Gandhara for the decoration of religious buildings. The fluid characteristics of stucco provided the artists ease and a high degree of expressiveness for sculpting statues and reliefs.
The rich tactile behaviour of the material was largely responsible for achieving the superior level of anatomical detail, delicate drapery and realism, which is Gandhara art’s chief characteristic.
Buddha was never portrayed in his worldly shape in Hinayana, the earlier form of Buddhism. His presence was symbolised by an empty seat, a footprint, an umbrella or a horse without a rider. In Mahayana Buddhism, the replacement of the earlier form, the figure of the master occupies the central position, commanding the entire composition of the panel. The creation of this Buddha is the supreme contribution of Gandhara art and the continent’s greatest artistic achievement.
The genesis of Gandhara art occurred perhaps when Buddha’s image was created in large numbers and placed in monastic buildings for worship, pieces of which are displayed at the Peshawar Museum, Dir Museum Chakdara, Swat Museum, Taxila Museum and the Lahore Museum.
These sculptures, manufactured in schist stone, are easily identifiable owing to skilful chiselling and their unique regional character, realistic proportions and beauty.
The first complete artistic expression of the master brought a radically aesthetic change but the exact semblance could not be achieved in the absence of a reference. To express realistic figure and features of Buddha, it became necessary to devise new concepts from the parallels that were available in the Roman iconography and art forms.
The influx of artists from the West and the import of artefacts from Rome during the prosperous reign of Kanishka gave a further boost to the fusion resulting in an oriental style. This style was Roman in form and Buddhist in motif and is the most distinguishing characteristic of Buddhist art of Pakistan.
Gandhara art enjoyed an exceptionally protracted productive period, which gradually disappeared owing to the diminishing expertise, insipid repetition and lack of ideas. The revival of Hinduism and the emerging trend of using stucco and terracotta instead of schist for sculpting also eclipsed the Buddhist art.
Religious concepts and beliefs were frequently depicted in the Buddhist Art with focus on socio-political, socioeconomic and cultural elements of Gandhara. The art of Gandhara, apart from devout expression, also indulged in depiction of activities of everyday life.
There are panoramic views of people at work and play and engaged in various social and domestic activities. A variety of common characters such as dancers, wrestlers, musicians, etc., are also sculpted into reliefs capturing the culture.
The artworks represent abundant details of weapons, musical instruments, jewellery, tools, etc., and serve as a valuable archive of what life used to be in Gandhara. The artisans were not devoid of humour which is manifested in the comical groups of dwarfs, Atlantes, and some other objects.
Today, even after two centuries of study, ambiguity continues to haunt the art of Gandhara leaving numerous unsolved riddles in its wake such as Gandhara’s art development, its high point of production, the multiple alien influences, the charisma of the classical representation of Buddha, the reasons for its decline and the devastation of its monuments.