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The Buddhist Art of Gandhara (The story of the early school: Its birth, growth and decline)

The Buddhist Art of Gandhara (The story of the early school: Its birth, growth and decline)
Item Code: IDC853
Author: Sir John Marshall
Publisher: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2000
ISBN: 9788121509671
Pages: 247 (B & W Illus: 152)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.8" X 7.4"
weight of the book:780 gms


When Alfred Foucher wrote his masterly work on the Graeco-Buddhist art of Gandhara, he laboured under one disadvantage: he had little external evidence to assist him in reconstructing the School's history and, though he was remarkably shrewd in his surmises, they sometimes went wide of the mark. Witness for instance his dating of the well-known statue of the Buddha in the Guides' Mess at Mardan (fig. 132 below), which he placed in the first century B. C.-two centuries before its actual date. Since Foucher's book was published, this dearth of chronological data has been in a large measure remedied by discoveries made in the course of my excavations at Taxila, which revealed many significant facts relating to the history of the School. Among the most important of these were the following: first, they established the fact that there were two distinct schools of art in Gandhara, the earlier of which was flourishing in the first and second centuries of our era, the later in the latter part of the fourth and fifth centuries; and they also showed that these two schools were sharply distinguished, not only by the widely different character of their art but by the different materials which their sculptors employed, namely, stone in the case of the earlier school, lime-stucco in that of the later. It is with the earlier only of these two schools that we are here concerned.

Secondly, my discoveries showed that in the late Saka period, to which the oldest examples of Buddhist carvings are referable, the old Hellenistic art in Gandhara had sunk to a lamentably low level, though better work appears to have been done by sculptors of the Early Indian School imported from down country.

Thirdly, the new evidence from Taxila proves that a strong revival of Hellenistic art took place under the philhellene Parthians, who succeeded the Sakas in the North-West in the first century A. D., and that this Partho-Hellenistic art played an all-important part in the subsequent evolution of the Gandhara School.

Fourthly, it is now abundantly clear that the Gandhara School passed through its adolescence and maturity under the Kushans, who overthrew the Parthians in circa A. D. 64, and that it came to an abrupt end in the reign of Vasudeva I, when the Buddhist monasteries throughout the North-West were overrun and reduced to ruin.

Fifthly, it has also been made clear that different varieties of stone were in use at different periods in the School's history, and that the nature of their stones can help materially in determining the age of the sculptures.

With these leading facts established, the story of the Schools' development automatically resolved itself into three main chapters: its infancy under the Sakas; its childhood and early adolescence under the Parthians; and its later adolescence and maturity under the Kushans. And when to this external evidence was further added the internal evidence of the sculptures themselves, the order of their sequence and the changing chapter of their successive styles at once became apparent.

This is the story that is unfolded in the following pages, and I am confident that in all essentials it will prove a reliable one. Let me make it plain, however, that I regard this little book as no more than a pioneer effort. I have laid the foundations and I believe them to be truly laid, but there is much to be done before the structure can be completed. Among other tasks, the stones used for these sculptures need to be examined and identified far more systematically than I have found possible. The quarries where the stones were hewn must also be located. Then the decorative patterns and other architectural features, as well as the fashions prevailing among celestials and mortals, need to be set out period by period. And these things cannot be done until the sculptures in the museums have been classified and catalogued afresh, and photographs in much larger numbers made available for study.

As to the scheme of the chapters, it should be noted (and I wish to emphasize this point) that the lines of demarcation between them are not to be regarded as clear-cut and precise. The process of evolution was continuous, and there are many sculptures which stand on the borderlines between two chapters and might justifiably be relegated to one side or the other. The problem, too, is complicated by the fact that the School of Gandhara comprised several groups of ateliers at varying stages of development and with distinctive traditions and styles of their own. Nevertheless, taking Gandhara art as a whole, I believe that the chapters into which I have divided its history will be found to be sufficiently accurate to fulfil their purpose.

For long I was hopeful that I should, myself, be able to carry out some of the tasks enumerated above, and I looked forward most of all to writing a companion volume which would deal with the Later School of Gandhara on the same lines as this one deals with the Earlier. Declining health, however, coupled with rapidly failing eyesight have compelled me abruptly to desists from my labours and I must console myself with the hoe that others may some time take up the threads of this research where I have had to drop them.

One other point. The main theme of this book is the history of Buddhist art in Gandhara from a chronological and aesthetic, not from an iconographic, point of view. It was not, therefore, essential that I should explain the meaning of the many Jataka and Life stories which occur among the reliefs and which occupy a substantial part of the text. I have done so, because I am well aware that relatively few readers are likely to be familiar with these stories and I believe that for the rest it will enhance the value of the illustrations if their meaning is explained. In this connexion I have made free use of the descriptions given in Alfred Foucher's work quoted above and in Harold Hargreaves's two catalogues of the sculptures in the Peshawar and Taxila Museums; and I welcome this opportunity of acknowledging my indebtedness to these two distinguished authorities of acknowledging my indebtedness to these two distinguished authorities on Buddhist iconography.

It is also my pleasant duty to record my thanks to the Musee Guimet in Paris and to the museums of Lahore, Peshawar, Simla and Calcutta for their generous gifts of photographs and for according me permission to publish them. And, finally, I have the rare privilege of thanking both the former Government of India and the Government of Pakistan for the generous help they have given in the production of this book-the former by enabling me to continue my archaeological work several years longer than would otherwise have been possible; the latter by making itself responsible for its publication.


For the information of those who may not be familiar with the word 'Gandhara' let me start by explaining that it was the ancient name of the tract of country on the west bank of the Indus river which comprises the Peshawar Valley and the modern Swat, Buner and Bajaur. It was a country with rich, well-watered valleys, clear-cut hills and a pleasant climate: a country where a Greek might well dream of being back in his homeland. Situated on the borderland between India and Western Asia, Gandhara belonged as much and as little to the one as to the other. I the sixth and fifth centuries B. C. it formed part of the Achaemenid empire of Persia. In the fourth it was occupied for a brief period by the armies of Alexander the Great. Thereafter it was conquered by Chandragupta Maurya, but after a century of Indian rule the West again asserted itself, and for another century (roughly, the second century B. C.) Greek dynasts took the place of Indian. Then came, early in the first century B. C., the victorious Sakas or Scythians, to be followed, after yet another century, by the Parthians and Kushans. And even then the tale of foreign con-quest was not ended. For in the third century of our era Gandhara again reverted to Persia, now under Sasanid sovereigns, and was again re-conquered by the Kidara Kushans in the fourth. Finally, the death-blow to its prosperity was given by the Ephthalites or White Huns, who swept over the country about A. D. 465, carrying fire and sword wherever they went and destroying the Buddhist monasteries.

With such a history behind them it is not surprising that the people of Gandhara were thoroughly cosmopolitan in their culture and their outlook. Of their physical appearance we get some idea from the old sculptures. Some of the men, with strikingly tall and dignified figures, closely resembled many present-day Pathans, and wore the same distinctive kind of baggy trousers and sleeved coat. Others were characteristically Greek; others just as characteristically Indian. And, no doubt, if we knew more about them, we should recognize other racial elements portrayed by the sculptors. The common speech of the people was an Indian Prakrit, but the script they used for the writing of this vernacular was not, as might have been expected, the current Brahmi of Northern India but a script known as Kharoshthi-a modified form of the Aramaic of Western Asia, which had been adopted for official use throughout the Persian Empire during Achaemenid times. Other languages and other script were also employed, on occasion, in Gandhara. The coins, for example, normally had Greek legends on their obverse, Kharoshthi on their reverse; but in rare cases the legends were in Brahmi. Brahmi, too, was the usual script employed in the sacred manuscripts of the Buddhists. Nevertheless it is true to say that Gandhara took its everyday speech from India and its writing from the West. This intimate fusion of widely divergent elements was equally apparent in the religious life of the people. As each successive conqueror added his quota to the local galaxy of deities and creeds, the number and variety went on growing. In the second century A. D. the coins of the Kushan kings Kanishka and Huvishka, whose capital was at Peshawar, exhibit a truly amazing gallery of gods and goddesses, unparalleled, I think, elsewhere in the field of numismatics. Most numerous are the Iranian types, including among others the sun (Mioro), the moon (Mao), the wind (Oado), fire (Athsho), war (Orlagno), victory (Oanindo). The names are given in corrupt Greek. The sun and moon also appear with the Greek labels of Helios and Salene [sic], the fire god with that of Hephaestos, while another Greek deity is Herakles. From the West, too, comes Anahita, the Babylonian Aphrodite, under the name of Nana or Nanaia; and from Egypt come Sarapis and Horus. Of Indian deities the most conspicuous are Siva (Oesho) and the war gods, Skanda, Kumara, Visakha and Mahasena (Skando, Komaro, Bizago, Maasena). To conclude that these multifarious deities were all worshipped at the heart of the Kushan empire in Gandhara would be rash; for they may well have been designed as a means of popularizing the new gold currency in distant parts of the Kushan empire and even beyond its borders, where it was hoped the currency might compete with the roman aureus. Indeed, the great predominance of Western Asiatic types on these coins suggests that the currency was intended for use in the West rather than in the East. But, however this may be, this gold coinage leaves us in no doubt that the attitude of the Kushans towards religion was as thoroughly cosmopolitan as it was towards other matters, as cosmopolitan indeed as that of the Romans or Alexandrians, and perhaps no less practical. Looking at this coinage one would never guess that in the time of Kanishka and Huvishka Gandhara and the greater part of the Kushan empire were overwhelmingly Buddhist.

The beginnings of Buddhism in Gandhara go back no further than the middle of the third century B. C. when the Maurya emperor Asoka sent one of his many missions to spread the gospel of his newly adopted faith among his subjects on the North-West frontier. Evidence of this mission's activities may still be seen in the fourteen Edicts of the emperor engraved on the rocks at Shahbaz-Garhi in the Peshawar Valley, which set forth the Buddhist principles of religion and ethic, and such simple rules of conduct as Asoka deemed most conducive to the welfare of his people. To Asoka also was due the outstanding importance of the stupa or funeral mound as an emblem and cultural object of worship among the Buddhists. For one of the many acts by which he sought to popularize the Sakya faith was the gift to each of the principal cities in his dominions of a portion of the body relics of the Buddha. These he obtained by opening seven of the eight stupas in which the relics had originally been enshrined and dividing up their contents. Along with the relics he also presented each city with a stupa worthy of housing them. In making these gifts the emperor may well have recognized the value of providing the worshippers with some visible and tangible object on which to focus their thoughts and prayers. But, whatever his purpose, the effect of these relic-stupas was profound and lasting. Not only did the presence of the relics make them cult objects of worship, but in after days the stupa itself, whether it contained a relic or not, worshipped for its own sake; so that the mere erection of a stupa, large or small and in whatever material, became an act of merit, bringing its author a step nearer salvation. This matter of the stupa cult deserves our particular attention because it was on the adornment of the stupa that the early Buddhists lavished the wealth of their sculpture, and stupas, sometimes richly decorated, figure prominently among the reliefs of Gandhara.

By the side of some of his relic-stupas Asoka also erected tall pillars of stone, crowned by lions or other symbolical animals and usually inscribed with one or more of his Edicts. These, too, came to be looked on as characteristic emblems of the Buddhist Church, and are frequently to be seen portrayed in the sculptured panels of the Early Indian and Gandhara Schools. The finest of the pillars were executed by Greek or Perso-Greek sculptors; others by local craftsmen, with or without foreign supervision.

How Buddhism fared under the Greek princes of the North-West during the second century B. C. is largely a matter of inference and surmise. For among the myriads of Buddhist monuments and antiquities that have survived until the present day there is not one that can be referred with certainty to Greek authorship in the second century before our era. Indeed, the only positive bit of information about this Greek period that we possess is the story told in the Milindapanha about king Menander and his conversion to Buddhism by Nagasena. Though the story may be largely apocryphal, there is no reason for doubting its substantial truth. The Greeks were very open-minded about religious matters; and the teaching of Sakyamuni, by its essentially ethical character, by its logical reasoning, and by the stress it laid on free will land the observance of the golden mean, was bound to make a strong appeal to the Greek intellect, notwithstanding that it was based on a view of life altogether more negative and joyless than the Greek. Moreover, from a political point of view Menander must have had the strongest reasons for identifying himself with the Buddhist Church in its struggle against their common enemy, the Sunga king Pushyamitra, and the violent Brahanical reaction championed by him, which had led to the whole sale destruction of Buddhist monasteries in the Eastern Panjab.

In spite, however, of the general dearth of monumental or other evidence in regard to the Greek period, we shall be safe in concluding that Buddhism was a flourishing and powerful religion under Greek rule and in all probability supported by the State. This seems evident from the fact that the ruling families of the Sakas, who made it their policy to follow, wherever possible, in the footsteps of their Greek predecessors, lost no time in adopting Buddhism as their official religion. On the other hand, there are no grounds for supposing that the Greeks demonstrated their sympathy for Buddhism by erecting more memorials in honour of the Founder or by employing the resources of Greek art to embellish those already existing. It may well be that, so far as their adhesion to Buddhism had any but a political significance, they were mainly interested in the abstract doctrines of the great teachers, and had little time or sympathy to spare for the cultural worship of a stupa or the adoration of a lion-crowned pillar.

As to the material culture of the Greeks in this region, the available evidence goes to show that it was on the same general level as that of the Hellenistic world of the West. Thus, the Greek city of Sirkap at Taxila was laid out on the same chessboard pattern and fortified with the same kid of bastioned stone-walls as were then in vogue among Hellenistic town-planners elsewhere. And the Greek temple at Jandial outside the north gate of the Sirkap city exhibits a surprisingly pure type of Ionic capital, which in the second century B. C. would have done credit to an Athenian architect. But the stability and continuity of Greek art in Gandhara and the North-West is best illustrated by the striking series of coins issued in those areas. These coins were not, be it said, up to the standard of the magnificent Greek coins of Bactria, unsurpassed by any in the ancient world, but they were well up to the average standard of contemporary Hellenistic coins in Western Asia, and they show that there were local coin engravers of ability capable of carrying on the art from generation to generation. That there were equally capable experts in other spheres of art need not be questioned.

When the Greeks were overcome by the Sakas, most of them doubtless stayed on, to live out their lives and bring up their families under alien rule. There could not, of course, be any question of their returning to the land of their forefathers in Bactria, since the Bactrian Greeks had long since been despoiled of their heritage by the Sakas. Doubtless it was some consolation to the Greeks in the North-West to know that their new masters had already come under the influence of Greek culture and familiarized themselves with the Greek way of life in Bactria, and that they could be counted on to continue the methods of administration established by the Greeks, to encourage Greek arts and crafts, imitate the local Greek coinage and in other ways follow their predecessors' example.

The Sakas themselves do not appear to have been a very artistic people Here and there among their ornaments are some attractive examples of Scythic and, particularly, Sarmatian designs, but, with these few exceptions Saka art in the North-West was nothing more than a perpetuation of decaying Greek art-so much so, indeed, that no one comparing, for example, the coins of the two peoples or taking note of the ornamental features of Saka buildings, can doubt for a moment that the Sakas continued to employ the same Greek artificers as their predecessors, or that these artificers and their descendants were responsible for carrying on the Greek traditions to the last days of Saka rule in the North-West. As the years went by, those traditions tended to grow weaker and the workmanship to deteriorate. That, indeed, was inevitable, seeing that the Sakas and their Greek subjects were almost entirely cut off by the Parthian empire from intercourse with the Western world. Later, when the Parthians themselves became masters of the North-West, Greek arts and crafts received a fresh and invigorating stimulus. For, like the Sakas, the Parthians were confirmed philhellenes and proud of their Hellenistic culture, and not only had they large numbers of Greek subjects in their empire but they were in a position to maintain close commercial contacts with the Mediterranean coasts. This revival of Greek arts and crafts is very noticeable at Taxila after its conquest by Gondophares, the Suren of Eastern Parthia. That an earlier revival had followed the transient victories of his predecessor Vonones is a possibility, but only a remote one. There is no evidence for it at Taxila. All the evidence from that site and all the evidence of the sculptures themselves go to show that at about the close of the last century before the Christian era there existed in Gandhara local artists capable of turning out work in a decadent Hellenistic style which served at first as a basis for the incipient Buddhist art of that region, but that after the Parthian conquest of circa A. D. 25 there was a notable revival of Hellenistic art followed by a striking change for the better in the character of local Buddhist art. All this I shall discuss in detail in a later chapter. But first we must take stock of some artistic influences other than Greek which contributed to the making of the Gandhara School, namely those of the Early Buddhist School of Central India and Hindustan.

About the Book:

About two thousand years ago, the land named Gandhara on the west banks of the Indus fell successively under the domination of the Greeks, the Sakas and the Parthians. This book gives an account of the school of art which formed itself under these widely divergent cultures. The early Gandhara school is chiefly notable in providing the earliest works of art in which the Buddha was represented in bodily form. Before this, he had always been shown symbolically; the characteristic and now familiar Buddha image was developed from the work of the early Gandhara sculptors.

Sir John Marshall begins by analyzing the formative influences of Gandhara art, its relationship to the early school of Central India and Hindustan, and the extent of its debt to the Greeks. He then traces the history of its development, in a remarkable and carefully chosen series of illustrations. The text is in the form of a commentary on these illustrations; the reader can thus share the author's extensive knowledge of the Gandhara school while observing for himself its growth and decline.

Since it deals with the birth of their religious art as it exists today, this book must be of interest to a great many people in Buddhist countries. It will also be of value to oriental historians and those concerned with Eastern art in general.


















  7. ADOLESCENCE (Continued)













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