Buddhist Art of Gandhara: A Melting Pot of Cultures

Posted on September 28, 2012 by


Quad Kilander

Buddhist Art of Gandhara: A Melting Pot of Cultures

The Asia Society Museum of New York is currently holding and exhibit of ancient pieces of art from Gandhara. A region today we know as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Over the past nine hundred years the region has seen many rulers such as Alexander the Great and the Romans, the Muryans, the Parthians, the Indo-Greeks, and the Kushans. Buddhism was introduced to the Gandhara by the ruler of the Muryan Dynasty, Ashoka. Buddhism was fortified as a relevant religion of Gandhara 350 years later by the Kushana Empire.  Ganadhara also was situated along the “silk road”, an ancient tradeing route that connected the Greek and Roman Empires to the mystical orient of India and China. This is where cultures and religions were crossed and traded as well as goods. All of these factors have left Gandhara a very culturally and religiously diverse region with Buddhism having a foothold in a region that is predominantly thought of as being Islamic.

This is the first time an exhibit featuring artwork from Gandhara has been in the United States in over 50 years. It is comprised of many stone and steel sculptures of Buddha, the creator of Buddhism, and Bodhisattvas, or enlightened beings. The prevalence of the Greek and Indian cultures was epitomized in the art of Gandhara. Utilizing the influence and styles of both of the regions gave it the unique art we see today. The busts and reliefs of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas clearly resemble those of the Greek artists of the similar time period. This was done while also keeping the ideas cultivated in India still remains intact in the artwork.

This stone sculpture of the Buddha holding a putra, or begging bowl, shows clear characteristics of Roman influence with its use of the curled ferns at the sides. This was a typical theme in the architecture and art of ancient Rome.

Busts such as this were not typical to the Buddhist culture, nor was showing the image of the Buddha a regular practice at all until the second century. The structure of the nose and lips are remarkably similar to those of ancient Greek and Roman busts of the time. The downward cast eyes depict a meditative state and the marking on the forehead has several interpretations in the Western culture but can be described as the Third Eye or the divine, all-seeing eye.

Maitreya Bodhisattva is believed to be the second coming of the Buddha and said to save the all the world, believers and non-believers, from hunger and suffering. This depiction of Maitreya has elements of the typical ancient Roman sculptures, most remarkably with its muscle structure, posture, placement of the hips and arms, as well as the detail of his flowing robes.

Gandhara’s role in connecting the ancient West and the Orient was crucial and shows us today through its art that its position was embraced.  The permeability and diffusion of beliefs and customs between the cultures is fascinating and the quality and diversity of the art produced from the region is unmatched.  This cross-road was the epitome of a melting pot of the ancient world, and this wonderful exhibit allows for this knowledge to be revered.











Posted in: Buddhism