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Where Art Ruled

The north-western region gave way to an art form which made a lasting contribution to Buddhist art and merged Roman with Indian aesthetics

Some names are lent magic by history. Today, the Kandahar town of Afghanistan is but a pale rem-nant of the glorious Gandhara that flourished at the turn of this century. Gandhara was the ancient name of the entire region lying on the west bank of the Indus river which comprises the valleys of Peshawar, Swat, Dir, Buner and Bajaur. Today, most of this rich, area with well-watered valleys, clear-cut hills and a pleasant climate lies in Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. Its influence on art has, however, lived beyond national boundaries.

Five-six hundred years before Christ, this area formed part of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia. In the fourth century, Alexander from Macedona reigned over the region. Gandhara was not destined to be under any one ruler for too long, for soon after it came under the rule of Chandragupta Maurya. The Mauryan empire extended almost across the entire length and breadth of present-day India. This period was a significant period both in Indian history and the history of Gandhara art.

Quickly tracing the events in the region one finds the Bactrian Greeks (3rd and 2nd century BC), Scythians and the Parthians reigning over Gandhara. Once again in the 1st century BC and 1st century AD, it came under a dynasty ruling India, the Kushanas.

It is in a region exposed to such divergent influences that Gandhara art was born and developed. Gandhara art is primarily inspired by ">Buddhism. The form depicts images of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas and various scenes from the life of Buddha.

The great Buddhist emperor Ashoka, 3rd century BC, sent emissaries across the length and breadth of India to spread the message of Buddhism. At this time, Gandhara was still a part of the Mauryan territory. So his messengers reached there too.

The Gandhara school incorporated many motifs and techniques from classical Roman art, including vine scrolls, cherubs bearing garlands, tritons, and centaurs. And yet, what singled this form out was its strict adherence to the basic Indian iconographic details. Interestingly, this is a remarkable feature of the Buddhist art throughout the continent. It incorporates local elements to fuse into the local culture. Delightful results accrue. Buddha was represented with a youthful Apollo-like face, dressed in garments resembling Roman imperial statues. The Gandhara depiction of the seated Buddha was less successful. The Gandharan craftsmen made a lasting contribution to Buddhist art in their composition of the events of the Buddha’s life into set scenes.

The materials used for Gandhara sculpture were green phyllite and gray-blue mica schist, which, in general, belong to an earlier phase, and stucco, which was used increasingly after the 3rd century AD. The sculptures were originally painted and gilded.

Gandhara art flourished since Ashoka sent it there till the rule of the Kushanas. At the same time in Mathura, Kushana art was flourishing. A great intellectual debate that occupied many minds in contemporary times is the influence Gandhara and Kushana art exerted on each other. But historically speaking the Kushanas were patrons of art. Notwithstanding influences the two schools had on each other, the fact remains that it was the period of glory for both. Soon after the Kushanas, the white Huns came into Gandhara and a swift cultural change dealt a death blow to the reigning art forms.