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Graeco-Buddhist art

The Gandhara connection

The entanglement of Graeco-Roman and Indian Buddhist culture is well reflected in Gandharan art dating to the early centuries of our era.

Written by Branko van Oppen on

In the wake of the expedition of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) into the Near East, King Chandragupta (r. ca. 332/331-298 BC) was able to establish the Maurya Kingdom in India. After Alexander’s death, a power-vacuum left by the disintegrated Persian Empire allowed Chandragupta to bring the northern Indian subcontinent under his control.

When the kingdom reached its zenith two generations later under King Ashoka (r. ca. 272/271-232/231 BC), who converted to Buddhism, a Buddhist art style developed that was at least in part derived from contemporary Hellenistic art.

Perhaps the most important region for the interaction of Buddhist and Hellenistic culture was Gandhara, along the Upper Indus, the Swat Valley, and the Kabul River (present-day northern Pakistan). For centuries, Buddhist art flourished there, especially during the Kushan Kingdom (ca. 30-375 BC), as well as centuries beyond.

Prince Siddhartha Gautama

Buddhism originated from the teachings of prince Siddhartha Gautama (ca. sixth/fifth centuries BC). According to tradition, he attained spiritual enlightenment, for which he received the title of Buddha (“the Awakened One”). Siddhartha taught that spiritual awakening is achieved through meditation and that this enlightenment leads to the end of human suffering.

With the expansion of the Maurya Kingdom, Buddhism spread along the Ganges and Indus Valleys (esp. in the third to second centuries BC). Around 135 BC, peoples called Yuezhi, originally central Asian, settled in Bactria (north of the Hindu Kush) and adopted aspects of Hellenistic culture. One of the Yuezhi tribes, the Kushans, gained the upper hand, expanded their power and established a kingdom with royal capitals in Gandhara. The Kushan Kingdom engaged in trade to the East with China and to the West with the Roman Empire.

A good map of the Kushan Empire and the surrounding territories can be found on the website of the Asia Society. The kingdom reached its zenith during the reign of Kanishka the Great (ca. AD 125-150), who converted to Buddhism, presided over the Fourth Buddhist Council, and was patron of Graeco-Buddhist art.

It was in this period that the Buddha was first depicted in visual arts in human form – and the oldest literary tradition of Siddhartha’s life dates to this period, too. The direct and indirect influences of Greek, Parthian, and Roman art in Gandhara art are well illustrated in the representation of the Buddha figure himself.

Gandharan statues present Buddha dressed in a heavily pleated garment. The rendering of the drapery is reminiscent of Hellenistic, especially Parthian royal sculpture. The hair is worn in a Hellenistic wavy style. The facial features at times have an “Egyptianizing” severity. The bulging topknot on the crown of his head is called an ushnisha and symbolizes the attainment of spiritual enlightenment.

Standing Buddha, Gandhara, dated ca. first to third centuries AD. Museum of Asian Art, Berlin, inv. no. I.215.

The nimbus or aureole indicates the exalted or transcendent status of the Buddha. This disc-shaped attribute behind the head was associated with gods – especially solar deities – in ancient Persian and Greek, as well as Indian and Chinese art. From the Hellenistic period, deified rulers could be portrayed with a crown of sun rays. The dot on the forehead represents the spiritual third eye, called urna, that offers insight into the divine realms.

Graeco-Roman Inspiration

According to tradition, Prince Siddhartha was born in Lumbini (present-day Nepal) as son of king Suddhodana of the Shakya. In his father’s many palaces, the prince grew up surrounded by all conceivable earthly riches and pleasures.

Numerous Gandhara relief-scenes portray life at the royal court of Suddhodana. As such scenes were created centuries after the death of the Buddha, they better reflects the contemporary courts of either the Buddhist kings of the Hellenistic (ca. 335-30 BC) or Kushan (ca. AD 30-375) periods. The Hellenistic East participated in an international culture that, while derived from the courts of Alexander’s successor states, was adapted along local customs.

Kushan palace relief scene, Gandhara, ca. first to third centuries AD. Foundation Collection of the Dutch Museum of World Cultures, inv. no. TM 3665-5.

In the image above, King Suddhodana and Queen Maya are shown enthroned in the centre of a palace scene. The relief-scene is framed by Hellenistic floral motifs. The Queen tells her spouse about her dream, which prophesied the birth of their son Siddhartha. As the relief illustrates, wearing heavily pleated garments, inspired by Greek, Parthian, and Roman costumes, was considered a sign of sophistication in India. Even the hairstyles of the courtiers are influenced by western fashion.

Monumental Indian architecture in stone developed in the early-Hellenistic period, especially in the form of so-called stupa’s in which relics of the Buddha or of Buddhist monks were contained.

An often-employed ornament in Gandharan structures are friezes with relief-scenes, which could serve as riser of stairs or frame for niches. The frieze here illustrated (of which only the right side has been preserved) depicts four lovely Erotes (cupid-figures) who hold a large garland.

Eros-figures and with garland, Gandhara, ca. third to fourth centuries AD. Foundation Collection of the Dutch Museum of World Cultures, inv. no. TM 3954-2.

One of the Eros-figures is winged; to the left is an eagle with similarly outstretched wings. The floral garland is wound with festive ribbons of which the swaying loose ends reach to the ground. The scene is framed by a Corinthian column, a reference to ancient Greek culture. The eagle derives from the myth of Ganymede, the beautiful Trojan youth whom Zeus desired and abducted to Olympus in the shape of an eagle.

Despite the erotic overtones, the symbolism of the frieze is funerary. The myth of Ganymede offered relatives a comforting thought when their son or brother had died prematurely: he too had been abducted by Zeus and now lived among the immortal gods. The theme thus appears on Roman sarcophagi – and the Eros-figures were likewise adopted from Roman sarcophagi.

Such funerary themes are particularly suitable for the stupa (relic) architecture. The garland carrying Erotes were perhaps regarded as supernatural attendants or nature spirits in Gandhara. Graeco-Roman art, in short, was adapted to local symbolism in India.

Hariti and Panchika

Another interesting example of the adaptation of Graeco-Roman iconography in Gandharan art is illustrated below. The phyllite sculptural group shows a seated man and woman, who at first sight might be confused with Bacchus Dionysus and Agathe Tyche.

In his right hand, the man holds a staff adorned with a pine cone (called a thyrsus), which was known in Graeco-Roman antiquity as the attribute of the god of wine. For her part, the woman holds a horn of plenty (cornucopia) in her right arm, which was the attribute of the goddess of prosperity. (Agathē Tychē literally means “excellent fate”.)

Hariti and Panchika, Gandhara, ca. first to third centuries AD. Museum of Asian Art, Berlin, inv. no. I.1184.

The Kushan pair, however, does not depict Dionysus and Agathe Tyche, but Hariti and Panchika in richly draped dress of Hellenistic-Parthian fashion. As parental pair they offered a beloved theme in Graeco-Buddhist art. She was worshipped as the guardian deity of pregnancy, childhood and child rearing. Her spouse was considered the commander of nature-spirits called yasha (which may be compared to the nymphs and satyrs of Greek mythology, who are regularly encountered in the retinue of Dionysus).

According to Buddhist tradition Hariti bore Panchika five hundred children! This statuette thus further evinces the endurance of Hellenistic influences in the East as well as the local adoption of the international style.

The four Gandhara artefacts discussed and illustrated in this article are on long-term display in the Allard Pierson, the archaeological museum and special collections of the University of Amsterdam.