History has proven time and time again humans’ tendency to achieve the ultimate power, the ultimate wealth, the ultimate glory. All “Great” civilizations and empires gained their name mainly because of their foreign relations and conquests. The imperialistic tactics of those civilizations often united different cultures, if not practiced by excessive force and shear fascistic practices. Gandhara is such an example, where Greco-Roman cultural elements merged with the Indian local culture. More specifically,
Gandhara, placed in today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan, went through various rulers, one of whom was Alexander the Great from 326 to 324 B.
C.E. When passing through Pakistan and Afghanistan, he stopped in Gandhara, where he was received in a hospitable way by the ruler of Taxila, the capital. As in every other civilization he conquered, he left a number of his soldiers behind, as well as a Greek satrape, Phillipus. The establishment of Greek administration centres resulted in the introduction to Hellenistic
ideas. However, it has been proven that the Hellenistic influence on the Gandhara sculptures was not the immediate result of this encounter of the two cultures, since the first such sculptures are dated around 300 to 400 years later, in about 100 A.
C. and Alexander’s rule was very brief. It is certain, however, that it laid the foundation for Hellenistic ideas and cultural elements and thus prepared the local population for the second conquest by the Greeks. Following Alexander’s death was the partitioning
of his large empire and Gandhara was taken by the Indian Maurya dynasty, which retained power until 185 B.
C.E., and then by the Indo-Greeks, who once more brought Greek ideas and cultural aspects. Because of this twice contact of the two cultures, one can not wonder why Gandhara art is characterized by Greek styles and techniques and the local context, the main one being Buddha and the Bodhisattvas — individuals in the path to becoming Buddhas.
Another important contributor to the fusion of the two cultures is the vast trade that took place at that time. Commerce was flourishing both overland and through sea routes. Overland existed what was known as the Silk Road, since the most traded material was silk, which spread from Eurasia to Africa and passed through multiple cities, one of which was Gandhara. Therefore, its geographical position allowed it to become a central spot and a safe place for exchanging beliefs and material goods, as
well as spreading different languages. As a cosmopolitan city, it was no wonder it adopted certain cultural elements of other civilizations, as well as spreading the Buddhist religion. Since one of the most prominent cultures that traversed through the Silk Road was the Roman, which itself was influenced by the Greeks, it largely impacted their motifs in sculpting as evident by depictions of vine scrolls, cherubs, and mythological creatures, especially during the time of Augustus and his successors.
Since religion was a dominant aspect in Gandharans’ lives, it was the main subject matter of the Gandhara School of Art. The Mauryan emperor, Ashoka, brought Buddhism, a religion founded around the fifth or sixth century B.C.E. by Gautama Buddha, to Gandhara during the third century B.C.E. The Buddha taught people the dharma, the way to enlightenment, by talking about the Four Noble Truths and the Universal Truths, the main essence of which was that there is much suffering because of greed but it
can end by following the Eightfold Path of things to do to achieve the enlightenment, Nirvana. There are examples in art where that is shown, such as in Figure 1. An important practice to understand Buddha’s teachings and look within themselves was meditation, which often consists of sitting quietly and focused cross legged and is a common position in which Buddha is depicted. Another important belief is reincarnation, where it is thought that people are trap in a cycle of birth, death and rebirth shifting to various bodies and one can only escape by reaching Nirvana, thus in some pieces Buddha is depicted lying dead but with a person next to him calm knowing he achieved Nirvana.
Buddha was worshipped for slightly less than 500 years through symbols, such as footprints, the lotus flower, the body tree–under which the Buddha first experienced enlightenment–, and the wheel of dharma–a wheel with eight spokes symbolizing the Eightfold path shown in Figure 1–, since Nirvana, the enlightenment Buddha had reached, could not be captured and conceived by the human mind, nor in a human form. However, the arrival of the Greeks with their eidololatric religion and beliefs influenced
the native population. They began to depict Buddha in human form, as did the Greeks with their deities. Moreover, the number of Buddhist centers increased, especially during the Kushan dynasty from the first century A.D. to the fifth. Thus, Gandhara sculptures were made beginning more than 300 years after Alexander’s reign.
Hellenism’s impact on Gandhara art extended beyond the choice of religious themes, extending itself into the styles and techniques typically used in depicting the human body. As is evident in the two examples shown above, the left belonging to Gandhara art and the right to Hellenistic, there are numerous similarities. One is the realistic depiction of the human figure through careful attention to anatomical proportions, albeit more loosely in the former case, as is evident in the statue’s arms ,
which if straightened would reach the knees. Another point of similarity, and perhaps the most striking, is the intricate drapery of the clothes. Even though one is more stylistic and calculated and the other more natural, both follow a similar technique that offers realism. Characteristic of this technique are the folds of the robes which often take a rib-like shape, like in the torso of the Greek and in the fabric under the waist of the Gandhari sculpture.
Another similarity is that both statues give the viewer a sense of movement or life. In the Gandharan, this is accomplished by the position of the hands and the posture that is ever so slightly leaning forward, as if approaching the viewer. In the Hellenistic figure this is accomplished by the posture of the statue, with her weight apparently resting on one leg and the drapery unevenly dispersed, giving the impression of a living, breathing person. An additional similarity is reflected in the form
of the robes. Both sanghati and toga are used as a shield and a veil for the body without letting it affect the shape of the body. Furthermore, although Greek and Roman art mainly used marble as a medium, there were also statues made of stucco, which because of the vast trade and low cost of the material, became very common later on in Gandhara, along with the two more traditional materials, Green phyllite and schist.
Certain aspects and symbolism, however, were of Indian context, emphasizing the Buddhist religion. The halo that surrounds the Buddhist statue, as well as the rich detailed curly hair were derived by the idealistic portrayal of the Greek sun god, Apollo. The halo’s meaning, however, is very likely different from the symbolization of the sun, most likely representing the enlightenment of the figure. As for the intricate curly hair, it was influenced by Apollo’s reknown beauty and style, but the top-knot,
called ushnisha, was the initial feature of the Buddha in art and was an Indian symbol representing the crown of Buddha, the lotus flower–symbol for humans attempting to grow out of the mud to reach enlightenment–or flames, all of which symbolize Buddha and the enlightenment. It is possible to assume that this Buddhist statue wasn’t made in the beginning of the Gandhara School of Art, because of the exceptionally detailed hairstyle, objects, and fabric suggesting prolonged exposure to and practice
in the Hellenistic technique. All of these were also purposely made to show the transition and contrast between the princely life of the Buddha’s early time and when he converted to monastic life. Thus, Buddha is often depicted in a monk’s attire, while the Bodhisattvas in princely attire, like in the statue shown, with multiple jewelry.
Another common symbol is the elongated shape of the ears which showed the Buddha’s royal heritage, having worn heavy metal earrings that stretched his ears even after taking them off to convert to monastic life and are a symbol of being able to sense the world. Urna, or else the third eye was also of great significance in Buddhist beliefs representing the Buddha’s wisdom and ability of to see beyond that of normal eyes, not the mundane but the spiritual world. Many more religious symbols are observed
in Gandhara art, such as the umbrella, the dharma wheel, and the conch shells, all of which center around Buddha, his teachings, and enlightenment. Therefore, although certain styles are of Greco-Roman influence and there are cases where mythical Greek and Roman creatures appear, because of the Gandhara school’s purpose for art, there is also a strong relation to Buddhism and many symbols are correlated.
In conclusion, Gandhara School of art was largely influenced by the Greco-Roman techniques and culture. The frequent encounter through the city’s conquest and the Greek and Roman imperialism towards Asia, fused the two cultures despite their vast differences especially in religion and that is evident through the school of art that was created with Hellenistic techniques and styles, but Buddhist subject matter and symbolism.