While the present nation-states of Pakistan and Afghanistan are Islamic Republics, there was a time when the religion of Buddha registered a strong presence in areas, now part of these states. Back in 2001, when the ‘Buddhas of Bamiyan’ were blasted by the Taliban in Afghanistan, the visuals were received with astonishment and horror across the world. These ancient, iconic carvings were UNESCO protected monuments and represented the classic syncretic style of Gandhara art. The Taxila Museum in Punjab province of Pakistan is home to the largest collection of ancient Gandharan artefacts in the country dating back to the time from the 1st to the 7th c. AD. Most of these were excavated at the nearby ruins of the ancient city of Taxila. The museum itself dates back to 1918.
John Marshall (1876-1958), was one of the most famous directors of the Archaeological Survey of India and excavator of the city of Taxila. Marshall began the excavations at Taxila in 1913, which carried on for another twenty years, apart from laying the foundation stone of the museum in Taxila. Later, he produced An Illustrated Account of Archaeological Excavation of Taxila in 1951. This 3-volume work details the Taxila excavations of 1913-1934 and opens with an apt description of the importance of topography in situating ancient Taxila:
‘The remains of Taxila are situated immediately to the east and north-east of Sarai-kala, a junction on the railways, 20 miles north-west of Rawalpindi. The valley in which they lie is a singularly pleasant one, well-watered by the Haro river and its tributaries, and protected by a girdle of hills – on the north and east by the snow mountains of Hazara and the Murree ridge, on the south and west by the well-known Margalla spur and other lower eminences. This position on the great trade route, which used to connect Hindustan with Central and Western Asia, coupled with strength of its natural defences, the fertility of its soil, and a constant supply of good water, readily account for the importance of the city in early times’.
While Buddha (5th-4th c. BC) did not venture to Gandhara, growth of Buddhism in this region happened under the Mauryan Empire (322-185 BC). Gandhara was a province of the Persian Empire under Darius I. In 327 BC, Alexander advanced as far as Taxila in his conquests, but shortly thereafter, the region was consolidated with the territorial reach the Mauryan dynasty. It was Chandragupta’s grandson, Emperor Ashoka, who converted to Buddhism in c. 263 BC, following the especially bloody Kalinga War.
It was under the Kushans’ (people of Scythian origin) rule that the Gandhara region assumed its important place in the history of Buddhism and especially its art. Under ruler Kanishka in the 1st c. AD, ‘Buddhist sages made Gandhara a sacred region by the compilation of texts associating local sites with previous incarnations of the Buddha’ (1956). The Kushans’ ‘greatest contribution of Gandhara to the art of Asia was the invention of the Buddha image. The first anthropomorphic representation of the Great Teacher was probably related to the emergence of the devotional sects of Buddhism and demand for the portrayal of the object of worship in an accessible human form in place of the entirely symbolic portrayals of the master in the art of early Hinayana Buddhism’ (1960).
Great Stupas were subsequently built in the region, of which some still survive and are preserved in the Taxila Museum. In Takht-i-Bahi (Mardan, KP province), there is a large Buddhist monastic complex, which forms an important site of this period in the region, representing the Gandhara school of art and architecture. Dating from 1st – 2nd c. AD, Buddhism flourished here, leading to a new, syncretic Greco-Buddhist art/architecture & culture. Mediterranean and Persian influences gave Gandhara sculpture characteristics, which distinguishes it from other Buddhist art notably the Mathura school (1956).
While the archaeological evidence of the extent and importance of Gandhara only came to light in early-20th c., textual evidence and knowledge about it was available through accounts by Chinese Buddhist pilgrims. They recorded and left behind incredibly detailed descriptions of their travels, for example, the stories of Fa Hsien’s journey in c. 400 AD, the journey of Sung Yun in the 6th c., and the most detailed of all, Hiuen Tsang’s Hsi Yii Chi, Records of the Western Countries, composed in early-7th c. (1960).
Marshall, John. Taxila: An Illustrated Account of Archaeological Excavations Carried out at Taxila under the Orders of the Government of India between the years 1917 and 1934. 3 Volumes. Cambridge University Press, 1951.
Rowland, Benjamin. Gandhara Sculpture from Pakistan Museums. Asia Society, 1960.
Gandhara Sculpture in the National Museum of Pakistan, published for the Department of Archaeology by The Department of Advertising, Films and Publications. Printed by Ferozsons, October 1956.
Asif H., Rico T. ‘The Buddha Remains: Heritage Transactions in Taxila, Pakistan’. In: Rico T. (eds) The Making of Islamic Heritage. Heritage Studies in the Muslim World. Palgrave Macmillan, (2017).
Van Aerde, M. E. J. J. ‘Revisiting Taxila: A new approach to the Greco-Buddhist archaeological record.’ Ancient West & East 2018 (2018).