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The Lost World of Buddhist Gandhara

An Ancient Buddhist Kingdom of the Middle East


Gandhara Seated Buddha

A Buddha sculpture from Kapisa Province, Afghanistan, dated 3rd-4th century CE.

Michel Porro/Getty Images

In 2001 the world mourned the senseless destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Buddhas of Bamiyan are only a small part of a great heritage of Buddhist art that is being destroyed by war and fanaticism. This is the heritage of Buddhist Gandhara.

The ancient kingdom of Gandhara stretched across parts of present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was a vital commercial center of the Middle East many centuries before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad.

For a time, Gandhara also was a jewel of Buddhist civilization. Scholars of Gandhara traveled east to India and China and were influential in the development of early Mahayana Buddhism. The art of Gandhara included the earliest oil paintings known in human history and the first -- and some of the most beautiful -- depictions of bodhisattvas and the Buddha in human form.

However, the artifacts and archaeological remains of Gandhara still are being systematically destroyed by the Taliban. The loss of the Bamiyan Buddhas gained the world's attention because of their size, but many other rare and ancient pieces of art have been lost since.

In November 2007 the Taliban attacked a seven-meter tall, 7th century stone Buddha in the Jihanabad area of Swat, severely damaging its head. In 2008 a bomb was planted in a museum of Gandharan art in Pakistan. The explosion damaged more than 150 artifacts.

The Significance of Gandharan Art

Nearly 2,000 years ago, artists of Gandhara began to sculpt and paint the Buddha in ways that have influenced Buddhist art ever since. Earlier Buddhist art did not depict the Buddha. Instead, he was represented by a symbol or an empty space. But Gandharan artists pictured the Buddha as a human being.

In a style influenced by Greek and Roman art, Gandharan artists sculpted and painted the Buddha in realistic detail. His face was serene. His hands were posed in symbolic gestures. His hair was short, curled and knotted at the top. His robe was gracefully draped and folded. These conventions spread throughout Asia and are found in depictions of the Buddha to this day.

In spite of its importance to Buddhism, much of the history of Gandhara was lost for centuries. Modern archaeologists and historians have pieced together some of the story of Gandhara, and fortunately much of its wonderful art is safe in the world's museums, away from war zones.

Where Was Gandhara?

The Kingdom of Gandhara existed, in one form or another, for more than 15 centuries. It began as a province of the Persian Empire in 530 BCE and ended in 1021 CE, when its last king was assassinated by his own troops. During those centuries it expanded and shrank, and its borders changed many times.

You can find the general area of Gandhara on this map of present-day Afghanistan and part of Pakistan. The old kingdom included what is now Kabul, Afghanistan and Islamabad, Pakistan. Find Bamiyan (spelled Bamian) west and slightly north of Kabul. The area marked "Hindu Kush" also was part of Gandhara. This map of Pakistan shows the location of the historic city of Peshawar. The Swat Valley, not marked, is just west of Peshawar and is important to the history of Gandhara.

How Buddhism Came to Gandhara

Although this part of the Middle East has supported human civilization for at least 6,000 years, our story begins in 530 BCE. That year the Persian Emperor Darius I conquered Gandhara and made it part of his empire. Then in 333 BCE Alexander the Great defeated the armies of Darius III and gained control of Persia, and by 327 BCE Alexander controlled Gandhara also.

One of Alexander's successors, Seleucus, became ruler of Persia and Mesopotamia. However, Seleucus made the mistake of challenging his neighbor to the east, the Emperor Chandragupta Maurya of India. The confrontation did not go well for Seleucus, who ceded much territory, including Gandhara, to Chandragupta.

Chandragupta left the Mauryan Empire, which included the territory of Gandhara, to his son, Bindusara. When Bindusara died, probably in 272 BCE, he left the empire to his son, Ashoka.

Ashoka the Great

Ashoka (ca. 304–232 BCE; sometimes spelled Asoka) originally was a warrior prince known for his ruthlessness and cruelty. According to legend he was first exposed to Buddhist teaching when monks cared for his wounds after a battle. However, his brutality continued until the day he walked into a city he had just conquered and saw the devastation. "What have I done?" he cried, and vowed to observe the Buddhist path for himself and for his kingdom.

Ashoka's empire included almost all of present-day India and Bangladesh as well as most of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was his patronage of Buddhism that left the greater mark on world history, however. Ashoka was instrumental in making Buddhism one of the most prominent religions of Asia. He built monasteries, erected stupas, and supported the work of Buddhist missionaries, who took the dharma into Gandhara and Gandhara's western neighbor, Bactria.

King Menander

The Mauryan Empire declined after Ashoka's death. The Greek-Bactrian King Demetrius I conquered Gandhara about 185 BCE, but subsequent wars made Gandhara an Indo-Greek kingdom independent of Bactria.

One of the most prominent of the Indo-Greek kings of Gandhara was Menander, also called Melinda, who ruled from about 160 to 130 BCE. Menander is said to have been a devout Buddhist. The Pali Canon contains a dialogue, called The Milindapañha, alleged to be between King Menander and a Buddhist scholar named Nagasena.

After Menander's death Gandhara was invaded again, first by Scythians and then Parthians. The invasions wiped out the Indo-Greek kingdom.

Next page: The rise and decline of Gandharan Buddhist culture; the Buddhas of Bamiyan; Islam comes to Gandhara.

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