Gandharan Art and Architecture from Ancient India

Patrons of Gandharan Art and Architecture
Ancient Chinese sources claim that the early Kushanas came from the Kan-su region in China but were forced southwest by the Han dynasty.

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The Kushana royals arrived in modern day Pakistan in the 2nd or 1st century BCE and had little influence in the region until the 1st century CE when Kujula Kadphises I conquered a great deal of land extending from Central Asia into the Indian subcontinent. The third major king in the royal Kushana dynasty, Kanishka I, further extended the kingly boundaries and firmly established an empire. It is likely Kanishka I lived in the early 2nd century CE, but his precise dates have yet to be determined. During his reign, Kanishka patronized Buddhism and funded the construction of new Buddhist worship centers. Within the Buddhist tradition itself Kanishka is regarded as one of the greatest royal patrons and rivals the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka in devotional lore. Kanishka’s support for the religious institution led to new forms of art and architecture to be developed in the Gandharan region in what is now called the Northwest territories of the Indian subcontinent.

During this period, the reliquary mound built at Kanishkapur, not far from modern Peshawar, is one of the largest ever constructed in South Asia. Kanishka was likely the instigator in the construction of many stone steles, an artistic medium seldom used before his reign. Like Emperor Ashoka before him, Kanishka was fond of other religions as well, aside from Buddhism. Under his patronage was Zoroastrianism and local forms of Hinduism. Zoroastrianism arrived along the silk road before the Common Era with the Greeks and Persians. Kanishka thought of himself as a cult figure, having his image installed as the worship focus at several sites. Much of the art and architecture in Gandhara was Greek and Persian influenced, representing the cultural diversity invested over the years in this unique region. The extent of this style spread throughout northern India and may also be seen as far as Mathura, a major urban center in ancient India south of modern Delhi. The style may be easily distinguished from the other styles existing in northern India at the time since the Hellenistic influence shapes the stone reliefs and building blocks of shrines in a distinct way. Looking very closely at any Buddhist relief image will reveal small iconographical tells of this stylistic influence as well. From the clothing to the shapes of faces and hairstyles, it is likely that the artists were not only drawing what they saw, namely a people whose heritage is a mix between Indian, Greek, and Persian, but also in the style that they had learned over the centuries. Kanishka I’s influence on art and architecture in the region continued long after his death. His successors Vasishka, Huvishka, and Vasudeva I continued their reign over the same region and persisted the patronage of religion, especially Buddhism. By 320 CE, the Guptas in central India were threatening the Kushana dynasty, politically, economically, and stylistically in art and architecture.

Buddhist Artistic Innovation at Gandhara
Tradition asserts that the Buddha never went to Gandhara. However, that does not mean that Buddhism did not strongly inhabit the region. By the 1st century CE, Buddhism had spread all over Asia and enjoyed the patronage of numerous kings and rulers throughout. In Gandhara, the Kushana dynasty in particular created new innovations in how Buddhism was practiced by introducing the Buddha image for perhaps the first time. Why the Buddha image was never constructed in India before this time period is unclear and why the Buddha image was introduced in Gandhara can only be theorized to be a contribution from the Greek-Persian artistic style existing in the region.

Most of what remains from the region during early centuries of the Common Era is Buddhist rather than Zoroastrian or what might be considered Hindu. However, due to a lack of preservation through the past two millenniums, much of the sculpture is sadly preserved out of context either in museums or private collections. Part of the reason for this is Kanishka’s emphasis on steles, which could be seen as individual works of art that exist without the need for specific context. As a result of the widespread stone stele construction, throughout the centuries, steles were cut from architectural units and moved. By the time the British and others became interested in the religious art of India, the steles could be found all throughout India and central Asia. A perfect example of this situation is the preservation of standing Buddha images, a very popular subject for sculptors from the 1st through 6th centuries in Gandhara.

Interestingly, the standing Buddha images show a great deal of conformity in their depiction, often being sculpted with similar poses, clothes, hand gestures, and markings on the Buddha, such as the bumps on his head. One seated Buddha image in particular deserves some attention. The fasting Buddha found in Sikri, Pakistan is a remarkable piece famous throughout the world. In the sculpture, the bearded Buddha, a Hellenistic influence, sits in meditation with his hands folded. He is evidently fasting as part of his attempt to find out just what enlightenment is as his rib cage and bones are showing through his skin. Through his deeply sunken stomach one can see his spine. According to legend, before reaching enlightenment, the Buddha-to-be Siddhartha fasted on only several grains of rice per day. Sometime after this episode he is said to have discovered the Middle Way between extreme forms of asceticism such as this and extreme forms of material consumption, such as living in a palace as he did when he was a young man growing up in Nepal.

Buddhist Architectural Innovation at Gandhara
The Gandharan landscape is dotted with Buddhist architecture and also contains a rich tradition unlike that which is found throughout the rest of India. Like the artistic innovations attributed to this region, the architecture also features new forms not found in the Indian subcontinent before Kanishka I. Several sites deserve special mention. At Guldara in modern Afghanistan, the stupa and monastery survived mostly in situ. Oriented to the east, a large stairway up to the stupa shrine is quite elaborate and elevated. Around the plinth of the raised platform are individual niches which would have housed stone steles, likely of standing Buddhas. The arches of the niches are oblong and each has an inverted widow’s peak, a feature taken from the earlier forms of Buddhist architecture commonly found at cave sites. Large sockets can still be seen in the brick which would have been used to bracket the sculptures in to the niches so that they could not easily be removed or fall out. The stupa itself consists of a diaper-masonry style undoubtedly influenced from the Parthians. Sedimentary rock was piled evenly in horizontal rows. Each row is gradually accentuated as the structure rises vertically, giving the illusion of size. The masonry styles on the outside of the stupa itself were elaborately carved in ornate patterns, which also served to accentuate the height and prominence of the structure. The base of the site likely dates to the 2nd century CE.

Takht-i-Bahi in Pakistan is one of the largest monastic sites in Gandhara and perhaps in all of the Indian subcontinent. Its archaeological excavation revealed many courtyards and monastic cells. The sculpture from the site was not documented well and thus is difficult to place within its proper context. The monastery itself was built on a hilltop and contains several levels. Like monastic and stupa sites throughout India, the hilltop offers a splendid view of the valley below, which likely contained a village or villages whose residents supported the monks of the monastery through various means. What is striking about Takht-i-Bahi is the prominence of stupa-shrines within the courtyards of the monastic residences. The stupa-shrine mimics the same pattern as at Guldara, but the monastic cells surround the shrine in a square or quadrangle. By the time Buddhism reached Gandhara and these new innovations were added to the corpus of Indian Buddhist worship, the monks likely spent less time meditating and more time worshipping images in a traditional fashion. The stupa itself likely did not house relics of the Buddha but rather represented the Buddha symbolically, as did the images of the Buddha which would surround the stupa in the plinth’s niches as aforementioned at Guldara. Possessing such a stupa-shrine inside the monastic residence would have allowed the monks easier access to their ritual object without having to come in contact with the laity. It also gave the monks power over the laity who would have liked to have performed worship to the stupa and its images as they would have controlled access to the monastery completely. Some votive stupas found within such monastic residences were ornately decorated as artistic pieces themselves, containing scenes of the Buddha’s life around their base. Even large stupas, as at Dharmarajika at Taxila in modern Pakistan were enlarged with brick and mortar so that a band of such images could be added. As a result of the changing ritual focus of monks and laity in Gandhara, so too did the architecture and art of the region change to accommodate the new ideas.


  1. S. L. Huntington and J.C. Huntington: The Art of Ancient India (Boston and London, 1985).
  2. F. H. Wilcher: ‘Report on the Exploration of the Buddhist Ruins at Takht-i-Bai, January to April 1871’, Punjab Govt Gaz (6 Aug 1874), suppl., pp. 528–32

Author: Eric Jogga

I am a PhD candidate at a top American university. I study Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit languages. My interest is primarily in: Ancient India, art, archaeology, architecture.


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  3. Good info about ancient architecture in India. Please also write about South Indian Dravidian Temple architecture also.

  4. This is truly amazing, I don’t know why they built these type of architecture so many years back without any modern technology.

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