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The Lost World of Buddhist Gandhara

The Kushans and the Peak of Gandharan Culture


Bamiyan Buddha

At 53 meters, this was the world's largest standing stone Buddha at the time of its destruction.

UNESCO/A. Levine

The Kushans

The Kushans (also called the Yuezhi) were an Indo-European people who came to Bactria -- now northwestern Afghanistan -- about 135 BCE. In the 1st century BCE the Kushans united under the leadership of Kujula Kadphises and took control of Gandhara away from the Scytho-Parthians. Kujula Kadphises established a capital near what is now Kabul, Afghanistan.

Eventually the Kushans extended their territory to include part of present-day Uzbekistan as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. The kingdom extended into northern India as far east as Benares. Eventually the sprawling empire would require two capitals --Peshawar, near the Khyber Pass, and Mathura in northern India. The Kushans controlled a strategic part of the Silk Road and a busy port on the Arab Sea near what is now Karachi, Pakistan. They became wealthy, and their wealth supported a flourishing civilization.

Kushan Buddhist Culture

Kushan Gandhara was a multiethnic blend of many cultures and religions, including Buddhism. Gandhara's location and dynamic history brought together Greek, Persian, Indian, and many other influences. The mercantile wealth supported scholarship and the fine arts.

It was under Kushan rule that Gandharan art developed and flourished. The earliest Kushan art mostly reflects Greek and Roman mythology, but as time went on Buddhist figures became dominant. The first depictions of the Buddha in human form were made by artists of Kushan Gandhara, as were the first depictions of bodhisattvas.

The Kushan King Kanishka I (127–147) in particular is remembered as a great patron of Buddhism. He is said to have convened a Buddhist council in Kashmir. He did build a great stupa in Peshawar. Archeologists discovered and measured its base about a century ago and determined the stupa had a diameter of 286 feet. Accounts of pilgrims suggest it may have been as tall as 690 feet (210 meters) and was covered with jewels.

Beginning in the 2nd century, Buddhist monks from Gandhara actively engaged in transmitting Buddhism into China and other parts of north Asia. A 2nd century Kushan monk named Lokaksema was among the first translators of Mahayana Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.

King Kanishka's reign marked the peak of the Kushan era of Gandhara. In the 3rd century the territory ruled by Kushan kings began to shrink. Kushan rule ended altogether in 450, when what was left of Kushan Gandhara was overrun by Huns. Some Buddhist monks gathered as much Kushan art as they could carry and took it to what is now the Swat Valley of Pakistan, where Buddhism would survive for a few more centuries.


In western Gandhara and Bactria, Buddhist monasteries and communities established during the Kushan era also continued to grow and flourish for the next few centuries. Among these was Bamiyan.

By the 4th century Bamiyan was home to one of the largest monastic communities in all Central Asia. The two great Buddhas of Bamiyan -- one nearly 175 feet tall, the other 120 feet tall -- may have been carved as early as the 3rd century or as late as the 7th century.

The Bamiyan Buddhas represented another development in Buddhist art. While earlier Kushan art had depicted the Buddha as a human being, the carvers of Bamiyan were reaching for something more transcendent. The larger Bamiyan Buddha is the transcendent Buddha Vairocana. Vairocana represents the dharmakaya, beyond time and space, in which all beings and phenomena abide, unmanifested. Thus, Vairocana contains the universe, and thus, Vairocana was carved on a colossal scale.

Bamiyan art also developed a unique style distinctive from the art of Kushan Gandhara. Bamiyan art was less Hellenic and more of a fusion of Persian and Indian style.

One of the greatest achievements of Bamiyan art has only recently been appreciated -- unfortunately, after most of it was defaced by the Taliban. Dozens of small caves were dug out of the cliffs in back of the great buddhas, and many of these were decorated with painted murals. In 2008 scientists analyzed the murals and realized that some of them had been painted with oil-based paint -- the earliest use of oil painting yet to be discovered. Before, art historians had placed the beginning of oil painting in 15th century Europe.

The Swat Valley: Birthplace of Tibetan Vajrayana?

Now we go back to the Swat Valley in north central Pakistan and pick up the story there. As stated earlier. Buddhism in the Swat Valley survived the Hun invasion of 450. It was said that at its peak of Buddhist influence, the Swat Valley was filled with fourteen hundred stupas and monasteries.

According to Tibetan tradition the great 8th century mystic Padmasambhava was from Uddiyana, which is thought to have been the Swat Valley. Padmasambhava brought Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet and built the first Buddhist monastery there.

The Emergence of Islam and the End of Gandhara

In the 6th century CE the Sassanian dynasty of Persia took control of Gandhara, but after the Sassanians suffered a military defeat in 644 Gandhara was ruled by the Turki Shahis, a Turkic people related to the Kushans. In the 9th century control of Gandhara reverted to Hindu rulers, called the Hindu Shahis.

Islam reached Gandhara in the 7th century. For the next few centuries Buddhists and Muslims lived together in mutual peace and respect. Buddhist communities and monasteries that came under Muslim rule were, with a few exceptions, left alone.

But Gandhara was long past its prime, and conquest by Mahmud of Ghazna (ruled 998–1030) effectively put an end to it. Mahmud defeated the Hindu Gandharan King Jayapala, who committed suicide. Jayapala's son Trilocanpala was assassinated by his own troops in 1012, an act that marked the official end of Gandhara.

Mahmud left the Buddhist communities and monasteries under his rule alone, as had most Muslim rulers. Even so, after the 11th century Buddhism in the region gradually withered away. It is difficult to pin down exactly when the last Buddhist monasteries in Afghanistan and Pakistan were abandoned. However, for many centuries the Buddhist cultural heritage of Gandhara was preserved by the Muslim descendants of the Gandharans.

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