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Approach:

  1. Intro on Gandhara region.
  2. Mention the socio-cultural aspects period-wise (timeline).
  3. Include descriptions of Buddhist architecture.
  4. Conclusion – decline of Buddhist culture in Gandhara region.

Gandhara is the ancient name of a region in northwest Pakistan bounded on the west by the Hindu Kush mountain range and to the north by the foothills of the Himalayas. In 330 B.C., Alexander the Great conquered this region and, together with the Indo-Greek kings that succeeded him, introduced classical traditions that became an important part of Gandhara’s artistic vocabulary over the next seven centuries.

Socio-cultural aspects : This contact resulted in the establishment of overland trade routes through the Parthian empire and Indo-Greek cities in northern Afghanistan. Starting about 50 B.C., this trade dramatically increased with the introduction of ocean routes employing monsoon winds to cross the Arabian Sea. These sea routes supplied an expanding overland trade network that passed through Gandhara and continued on to Central Asia and China. Gandharan control of the high mountain passes vital to this international commerce made the region wealthy; the resulting cosmopolitan elites became some of the most powerful Buddhist patrons in all of South Asia.

Luxury goods from the second to first century B.C. found in ancient fortified cities constitute some of the earliest remains from Gandhara attesting to contact with the Mediterranean world. Typical of this production is a stone dish that likely had a domestic religious function – a composition that reveals the artist’s familiarity with Hellenistic motifs and narrative structure, and perhaps even the story itself. As is typical of many Gandharan compositions, this synthesis of foreign styles with Indian forms is typical of the multi-ethnic character of Gandharan taste.

Buddhism probably reached Gandhara as early as the third century B.C. It is not until the first century A.D., however, that this new religion received significant local patronage. The physical presence of the Buddha’s holy relics were the primary focus for Gandharan lay and monastic veneration. These sacred areas empowered by relics served the local population as vital centers of pilgrimage; over time, they attracted donations that often took the form of sculptural imagery.

Also from around the first century A.D. is a stair riser with marine deities or boatmen that shows connections with Greco-Roman art of the Mediterranean. The artist focused on the anatomy, though in a rather free manner.

Following Alexander’s invasion, Gandhara’s early history is characterized by political instability as successive groups took control of the prosperous region; they included the Indo-Greeks, Shakas, Parthians, Scythians, and ultimately, in the first century A.D., the Kushan dynasty, which captured this area as well as much of northern India and northern Afghanistan (ancient Bactria and Nagarahara). Most of the major Buddhist centers of Gandhara were founded during the second century A.D. under powerful kings like Kanishka.

One of the earliest examples is a small bronze Buddha that can be dated to the first or second century A.D. The Buddha sits in a yogic posture and holds his hand in the Abhay mudra (a gesture of approachability). Traces of gold in his robe and serrated radiating halo indicate that originally this figure would have had quite a different appearance, one that would have equated his enlightenment with light streaming out from these reflective gold surfaces. Such devotional imagery became immensely popular. Maitreya was a prominent subject—readily identifiable by his northern Indian princely garb rendered in a classical style and by the water flask held in his left hand. Maitreya is an enlightened Bodhisattva, who, like Shakyamuni, will be reborn on earth to spread the dharma as the next Buddha. The popular appearance of Maitreya marks a shift in Buddhist practice.

The third to mid-fifth centuries witnessed an incredible surge in the patronage of Buddhist sacred areas and monastic institutions, and most of the extant Gandharan architecture dates to this period; this includes the sites of Taxila as well as the massive monastic institutions of Takht-i-Bahi, Sahri-Bahlol, Jamal Garhi, Ranigat, and Thareli. The use of stucco largely replaces schist as the medium for sculpture. Often such stucco imagery exhibits a spontaneous exuberance not seen in the more laboriously produced schist sculpture. Toward the end of this intense period of patronage in the fourth to mid-fifth century, monumental images of Buddhas and, to a lesser extent, bodhisattvas appear. Some of these Gandharan figures have been more than 40 feet tall.

About the middle of the fifth century, Gandhara was conquered by groups of people often identified as the Huns, thus bringing this major period of Buddhist patronage to a close. Still, a handful of objects attest to an ongoing Buddhist presence in Gandhara during the following centuries. The taste for classical forms eventually faded, and by the eighth century, with the coming of Islam, the Buddhist tradition came to an end in Afghanistan.

 

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