Gandharan art, a Buddhist visual art inspired by Graeco-Roman, Indian, Iranian and Central Asian influences, developed between the 1st and the 4-5th century AD – with echoes up to the 8th century – in a crossland area of ancient Northwestern India, corresponding to modern Pakistan and partly to Afghanistan.
This production was sulptural, architectural and - based on the few surviving fragments - pictorial. The material used are mostly schist and stucco.
Due to its geographical position and historical tradition, the Gandharan region was the area of the Indian Subcontinent particularly exposed to the Western world’s culture.
The conquest of these regions by Alexander the Great left a deep impression and lasting effects; it also brought about an interesting contact – one of the most remarkable in the ancient world – between classical culture and the mixed cultures of this borderland influenced by trends from India, Iran and Central Asia.
Alexander’s political legacy was taken up by the Indo-Greeks who ruled in the ancient Northwestern Indian regions between the first half of the 2nd century BC and the first decades of the 1st century AD; few references remain in the classical sources, and only rare mention in the Indian sources, regarding these people known to us largely through the numismatic evidence.
The basic relationship between India and Greece was soon modified by the arrival of Iranian peoples – first Sakas and Indo-Parthians, later Kushanas – who introduced a further cultural element into the multi-ethnic society of the Northwestern region.
In the 1st century BC, during the rule of the Sakas, who disputed Northwestern India against the Greeks for several decades while, however, opening up to their cultural and political heritage, the Hellenistic component was so deeply rooted in the cultural tradition of these regions that it absorbed various formal, symbolic and philosophical languages without changing its origins. In this historical period, as the process of fusion between the different Northwestern cultures matured, Gandharan art flourished, as the excavations of the Italian Archaeological Mission of IsMEO (today IsIAO) in the Swat Valley (Pakistan) have shown; this new style of art embodied at the same time striking signs of profound Hellenization and a living witness to the ancient roots of integration between different worlds.
Although the development of this figurative style started under Saka rule, Gandharan art reached its highest splendor under the empire of the Kushana, the great dynasty of Iranian origin who ruled in Northwestern India between the second half of the 1st and the 3rd century AD. In this period the Hellenistic component was revived through new contacts with the Roman world.
The art of Gandhara is mainly a narrative art. It shows events from the historical Buddha’s life and from his past lives (jataka), which are described in Buddhist literary sources or drawn from the oral tradition, unfortunately not preserved (Figs. 7-14).
The reliefs were usually placed to decorate in a continuous series the circular wall of the stupa, the Buddhist monument intended to shelter the Buddha’s relics and linked with funerary, as well as cosmological and cosmogonic, symbolism.
The reliefs offer helpful support during the pradakshina rite, the circumambulation of the stupa performed walking clockwise around the sacred monument. Following this processional path, the worshipper contemplated the various depictions of scenes from the Buddha's life - from the conception to the parinirvana - in an attempt to draw into his own conscience the spiritual path represented by the Master’s model life, and with the aim to achieve awakening through constant repetition of the rite.
One of the most important contribution of Gandharan art is this new narrative representation based on the Master’s legendary biography and its scheme, providing a horizontal sequence of scenes separated by architectural elements. The origin of this scheme can, to our present knowledge, be traced to the second quarter of the 1st century of the Christian era, with the Saidu Sharif frieze, displayed at the Museum. This frieze consists of a sequence of panels depicting events in Buddha’s life and it was set to decorate the Main Stupa on the homonymous site excavated by the Italian Archaeological Mission of IsMEO. Domenico Faccenna regarded this example as the oldest frieze depicting the life of a personage through a continuous succession of scenes, separated by architectural elements.
Besides the overall unity of the iconographic language characterizing the sculptures from different areas of the Northwest, in Gandharan art several significant stylistic differences are to be noted: in some reliefs a classical tendency can be seen, studying the movements of bodies in space, with an eye to anatomy and drapery; on the other hand, some reliefs had a distinctly anti-classical style, with frontal images, rigid and stylized draperies and paratactic compositions.For these aspects the art of Gandhara cannot be considered a unitary phenomenon: it is divided between various stylistic currents showing different aesthetic guidelines. Among these subdivisions, the hand can sometimes be detected of artists who molded their works with a unique and personal style, as in the Saidu Sharif frieze, where Domenico Faccenna recognized the unitary conception of an anonymous artist, known as “the Master of Saidu Sharif".
The material from Butkara, another site of Swat excavated by the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan, evidences the existence of different figurative currents: three groups of reliefs are conventionally called “linearistic”, “naturalistic” and “stereometric”.
The “linearistic style" of Butkara is characterized by flattened images and draperies made in thick, parallel folds (Figs. 6, 16). In the “naturalistic style” the classic influence is more evident, with a strong sense of volume and form (Figs.7-14). The "stereometric style", which certainly developed in a later phase, presents more solid figures with ample volumes and simplified drapery (Fig. 15).
As from the earliest period stone cutting went side by side with stucco production. In fact the two techniques appear to have developed in parallel. It must be said, however, that between the 3rd and 4th century AD there came about a profound change which led to very widespread use of stucco. One of the reasons for this change is certainly economic. The use of this technique, no doubt less expensive than sculpture - promoted, in a period that saw Buddhism spreading among the lower class, the phenomenon of donations of sculptures and small votive monuments to the sacred area and to the monastery. These donations ensured the opportunity for far greater numbers of people to earn spiritual merits for the present life and future lives.
The artistic production of this phase is characterized by a renewed Hellenistic influence and a tendency to simplification: the lines show swifter execution, thanks to the flexibility of the material. Indeed with few rapid strokes it was possible to reproduce movements, expressions and characters (Fig. 18).