"Four Scenes from the Life of the Buddha" from Gandhara

“Gandhara” is a broad term that describes a region that existed over a relatively long period of time in the present-day Pakistani districts of Swat, Punjab and about 1,000 kilometers miles north of present-day Karachi. A hallowed centre of Buddhism and the cradle of the world famous Gandhara art, culture and knowledge, it embraces the archaeological remains found in Taxila, Peshawar, Charsadda, Shahbaz Garhi, Jamal Garhi, Takht Bahi, Swat and rock carvings along the ancient Silk Road (KKH) have well recorded the history of Gandhara. Lying in Haro river valley near Islamabad, Taxila, the main centre of Gandhara, is over 3,000 years old. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In addition to being a religious center, Gandhara was at the nexus of multiple major imperial expansions, including those of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, Alexander the Great, the Mauryan Empire of northern India, and Indo-Greeks from Bactria

Kingdoms in Gandhara lasted from the 6th Century B.C. to A.D. 6th Century. In the sixth to fourth centuries B.C. Gandhara was dominated under the Achaemenid Dynasty of Iran. The successors of Alexander the Great maintained themselves in Bactria and Gandhara from 322 B.C. to about 50 B.C.. Rejoined to India under the Maurya Dynasty, the Gandhara province became the object of intense missionary activity by the Buddhist emperor Asoka (reigned c. 273-232 B.C.). In the A.D. first century the Kushans, a tribe of Turkic-Scythian stock from western China took over Gandhara. Their rule, however, was interrupted by the invasion of the Persian King Shapur I in A.D. 242. The Buddhist civilization of Gandhara was finally completely destroyed by the White Huns, the Hephthalites, in the sixth century. After that the name Gandhara disapearred from the historical record. [Source: Glorious India]

Gandhara is perhaps best known for its very early Buddhist art and early Greco-Roman-influenced art. Many different schools of Buddhist art in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been labeled Gandhara. Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times: “The multilayered and time-obscured history of ancient Gandhara is particularly difficult to grasp. The area, which encompassed what is now northwestern Pakistan and a sliver of Afghanistan, was a crossroads for international traffic. If you had business that took you to or from the Indian subcontinent, you passed through Gandhara. If you were in the business of empire building, you made every effort to control it. Persia, under Darius I, colonized the area in the sixth century B.C. Two centuries later Alexander the Great, a Macedonian Greek and a conquest addict, charged in and charged out, leaving behind a Hellenistic occupation, which held firm even as Gandhara was absorbed into the Mauryan empire of India, South Asia’s first great Buddhist power. Over time Greco-Bactrians, Scythians and Parthians dominated the terrain. Then, around the first century A.D., the Kushans, originally nomads from the steppe-lands north of China, settled in, extending their reach down into the Indian subcontinent. They were genuine cosmopolitans, linked to the Mediterranean, Persia and China, and tolerant of religions. It was under their aegis that Gandharan Buddhist art, compounded of foreign and local ingredients, flourished. [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, August 10, 2011]

this region and, together with the Indo-Greek kings that succeeded him, introduced classical traditions that became an important part of Gandhara's artistic taste over the next seven centuries. This contact resulted in the establishment of overland trade routes through the Parthian empire and Indo-Greek cities like Ai-Khanoum 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. [Source: Kurt Behrendt, Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ]

Gandhara location in present-day Pakistan

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “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 “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 north India and northern Afghanistan (ancient Bactria and Nagarahara). About the middle of the fifth century, Gandhara was conquered by groups of people often identified as the Huns or Hephthalites, thus bringing this major period of Buddhist patronage to a close.”

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Location of Gandhara

A key center of trade between Persia, Central Asia and India, Gandhara was the easternmost region of the Persian Empire and the westernmost region of the Indian Empire. Gandhara is the name of an ancient Mahajanapada in northern Pakistan and parts of northern Punjab and Kashmir and eastern Afghanistan. Its main cities were Peshawar and Taxila. Sanskrit texts from which the term is derived do not even say where Gandhara was.

Gandhara was located mainly in the Valley of Peshawar, the Potohar plateau and on the northern side of the Kabul River. It embraced Mardan, Swat, Dir, Malakand, and Bajuaur agencies in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Taxila in the Punjab, and up to Jalalabad in Afghanistan. It is in this region that the Gandhara civilization emerged and became the cradle of Buddhism. It was from here that Buddhism spread towards east as far away as Japan and Korea.. [Source: Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation. ]

Gandhara extending on both sides of the Indus with Taxila (Rawalpindi district) and Puskaravatl (modern Charsadda, Peshawar) as its principal towns; the Kekaya territory lying between Gandhara and the Beas river; the Madras, whose country in Central Punjab corresponded to modern Sialkot and adjacent districts; the Matsya kingdom comprising parts of Alwar, Jaipur and Bharatpur; and the land of the UsInaras situated in Madhyadesa. These states were generally prosperous and well-governed, and the people were left free to pursue the arts of peace. At the same time, too much stress should not be laid on such a vain boast as that of Asvapati Kekaya, who, according to the Chdndogya Upanisad, claims that he had cleared his kingdom of all thieves, drunkards, debauches and illiterate men. Magadha and Anga were still regarded with aversion. For in a text of the M thurvcivsdu fever is wished away to the peoples of these lands. The Magadhas are also contemptuously described as Vra~ tjas y outside the pale of orthodox Brahmanism, and speaking a strange unintelligible language. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Gandara and the Persians

Because the Aryans were never strong enough to control the entire region, the area occupied by Pakistan was vulnerable to invasions, particularly from Persia. In 530 B.C., Cyrus the Great crossed the Hindu Kush to receive tribute and within a decade made Gandhara part of the Achaemenid Empire. By expanding down the Indus Valery into the Sind the Persians brought much of Pakistan under their control by 518 B.C.

By the end of the sixth century B.C., India's northwest was integrated into the Persian Achaemenid Empire and became one of its satrapies. This integration marked the beginning of administrative contacts between Central Asia and India. Much of what is now present-day Afghanistan and most of Pakistan was ruled by the Persian Achaemenid Empire from 520 B.C. during the reign of Darius I. The region of present-day Punjab, the Indus River from the borders of Gandhara down to the Arabian Sea, and some other parts of the Indus plain, became part of the empire later. [Source: Library of Congress, Glorious India]

Gandhara was the easternmost region of the Persian Empire and was a key center of trade between Persia, central Asia and India. Based on income earned from woolen goods, Gandhara became one of the richest satraps of the Persian Empire. Pushkalavati (modern Charsadda) and Taxili grew into prosperous commercial centers and centers of Vedic and Iranian scholarship.

According to PBS: “Darius I of Persia annexed the states of Sind and Punjab in northern India in 518 B.C. From then the people of the Indus valley ("Hindush" in Persian) paid tribute to the Persian king in textiles and precious local resources. After Alexander the Great overthrew the Persians and conquered the region in 326 B.C., Greek culture would be a major influence for over three hundred years, with Indo-Greek kingdoms founded in the North West Frontier, Afghanistan and the Punjab. But because of the close relation between Old Persian and Sanskrit, the influence of Persian language and culture in the northwest of the subcontinent never really waned until the collapse of the Persian-speaking Mughal Empire in the 19th century. [Source: PBS, The Story of India,]

Gandara and Alexander the Great and the Greeks

Taxila attracted the attention of the great conqueror, Alexander in 327 B.C., when it was a province of the powerful Achaemenian Empire. The Persian Empire fell to Alexander the Great in 330 B.C., and he continued his march eastward through Afghanistan and into India. Alexander defeated Porus, the Gandharan ruler of Taxila, in 326 B.C. and marched on to the Ravi River before turning back. The return march through Sindh and Balochistan ended with Alexander's death at Babylon in 323 B.C.

After Central Asia, Alexander then headed into present-day Pakistan because he wanted to add India to his empire. His army of 75,000 men (plus a retinue of perhaps 40,000 more people), now included Persian horseman and many subjects of other conquered kingdoms but only 15,000 Macedonians. With the Persians gone, Pakistan fell under the under the control of local rulers, none of whom dared to challenge Alexander. His army was able to advance easily and he was given a warm welcome in Taxila. The local ruler there gave him a generous tribute and provided him with fresh soldier

After conquering Gandhara and solidifying his supply line back to Bactria, Alexander combined his forces with the King Ambhi of Taxila and crossed the River Indus in July 326 BC to begin the Archosia (Punjab) campaign. Alexander founded several new settlements in Gandhara, Punjab and Sindh and nominated officers as Satraps of the new provinces:

Gandara Under the Mauryans

Greek rule did not last long in northwestern India and Gandhara, although a school of art known as Indo-Greek developed and influenced art as far as Central Asia. The region of Gandhara was conquered by Chandragupta (r. ca. 321-ca. 297 B.C.), the founder of the Mauryan Empire, the first universal state of northern India, with its capital at present-day Patna in Bihar. His grandson,Ashoka (r. ca. 274-ca. 236 B.C.), became a Buddhist. Gandhara reached a remarkable matured level of development under the great Ashoka.

Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan dynasty, is said to have lived in Taxila when Alexander captured the city. According to tradition, he trained under Kautilya, who remained his chief adviser throughout his reign. Supposedly using Gandhara and Vahika as his base, Chandragupta led a rebellion against the Magadha Empire and ascended the throne at Pataliputra in 321 BC. However, there are no contemporary Indian records of Chandragupta Maurya and almost all that is known is based on the diaries of Megasthenes, the ambassador of Seleucus at Pataliputra. [Source: Wikipedia]

After a battle with Seleucus Nicator (Alexander's successor in Asia) in 305 BC, the Mauryan Emperor extended his domain up to and including present Southern Afghanistan. With the completion of the Empire's Grand Trunk Road, the region prospered as a centre of trade. Gandhara remained a part of the Mauryan Empire for about a century and a half.

Ashoka, the grandson of Chandragupta, was one of the greatest Indian rulers. Like his grandfather, Ashoka also started his career in Gandhara as a governor. He built many stupas in Gandhara. Mauryan control over the northwestern frontier, including the Yonas, Kambojas, and the Gandharas, is attested from the Rock Edicts left by Ashoka.

Gandara Under the Indo-Greek Bactians

The decline of the Maurya Empire left the Indian subcontinent open to Greco-Bactrian invasions. Present-day southern Afghanistan was absorbed by Demetrius I of Bactria in 180 BC. Around about 185 B.C. Demetrius marched over the Hindu Kush and claimed much of Gandhara. Under Menander, (155-130 B.C.) the Bactria spread into the Punjab, the Swat Valley and the Hazara district. Menander converted to Buddhism but that didn’t stop him from trying conquer the Ganges Valley, which ultimately was unsuccessful and brought about the decline and downfall of Bactria.

Menander I was its most famous Bactian king. He ruled from Taxila and later from Sagala (Sialkot). He rebuilt Taxila (Sirkap) and Pushkalavati. He is remembered in Buddhist records for his discussions with the great Buddhist philosopher, Nāgasena, in the book Milinda Panha. Around the time of Menander's death in 140 BC, the Central Asian Kushans overran Bactria and ended Greek rule there. Around 80 BC, the Sakas, diverted by their Parthian cousins from Iran, moved into Gandhara and other parts of Pakistan and Western India. The most famous king of the Sakas, Maues, established himself in Gandhara. [Source: Wikipedia]

By 90 BC the Parthians had taken control of eastern Iran and, around 50 BC, they put an end to the last remnants of Greek rule in today's Afghanistan. Eventually an Indo-Parthian dynasty succeeded in taking control of Gandhara. The Parthians continued to support Greek artistic traditions. The start of the Gandharan Greco-Buddhist art is dated to about 75–50 BC.

Gandara Under the Kushans

The Kushan dynasty was established in about 50 AD. During the next 200 years, Taxila, Peshawar and Swat became a renowned centre of learning philosophy, art and trade. Pilgrims and travellers were attracted to Gandhara from as far as China and Greece. In 5th century AD, the White Huns snuffed out the last of the successive civilizations that held unbroken sway in this region for several centuries.

The Kushans rulers appear to have been Zoroastrians but they had a great many Buddhist subjects. Buddhism reached its peak in the region under King Kanishka in the A.D. 2nd century. Under him Pakistan and Afghanistan became a cradle of Mahayana Buddhism. Numerous stupas and monasteries were built in Gandhara. Attracting pilgrims from as far away as China, they were decorated with statues of Buddha and bodhisattvas and scenes from the life of the historical Buddha and his previous lives. As Mahayana Buddhism developed, Buddha himself became the object of worship.

The Swat Valley was a major center of Tantric Buddhism. Many tantras (manuals for mystical acts) were developed here. From Gandhara Buddhism was carried by traders and pilgrims along the Silk Road into China, Tibet and Central Asia. Buddhist engravings dating back to these period can be seen on rock faces along the Karakoram Highway. Buddhism took hold in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan where it remained strong until the A.D. 10th century.

Kushan art was a unique fusion of Indian, Central Asian, Buddhist and Greco-Roman styles. Particularly noteworthy were the representations of Buddha in the human form. The most famous of these is the famous Fasting Buddha—with its exposed rib cage, skeletal limbs and emaciated features—from Taxila. Earlier Indian styles represented Buddha in the forms of symbols such as a lotus, a tree, a footprint, a wheel or a stupa. Some Gandharan Buddhas have Western features.

Buddhist Temple in Pakistan — One of the World’s Oldest

In 2022, archaeology announced that they had found one of the world’s oldest known Buddhist temples atop the ancient acropolis of Barikot in the Swat Valley of present-day Pakistan. The complex, which is preserved to a height of over three meters (more than 10 feet), dates to the 2nd century B.C. It was built on a platform and features a cylindrical structure, a small stupa, and a number of small rooms. The site has a more than 3,000-year-long history and was purportedly besieged by Alexander the Great in 327 B.C. [Source: Archaeology magazine, May 2022]

Jarrett A. Lobell wrote in Archaeology Magazine: The region of northwest Pakistan known as the Greater Gandhara was a crossroads for the exchange of goods and culture among the civilizations of the Middle East, Central Asia, and India from around the sixth century B.C. to the sixth century A.D. One of the most significant belief systems carried across the region was Buddhism, which was founded in northern India between the late sixth and early fourth centuries B.C. [Source: Jarrett A. Lobell, Archaeology Magazine, January/February 2023]

In the Gandharan city of Barikot, archaeologist Luca Maria Olivieri of Ca’ Foscari University and his ISMEO team have discovered a Buddhist temple dating to at least as early as the end of the second century B.C. This makes it the oldest known Buddhist temple in the region and places its construction firmly during the period when Barikot is known to have been a center of Buddhist teaching and a sacred pilgrimage site. “We did not expect there to be Buddhist monuments in the city at such an early stage,” Olivieri says. “Until now, we have not excavated any evidence of Buddhist presence in Barikot dating to before the end of the first century A.D.” The remnants excavated thus far include a 10-foot-high apsidal structure on which a circular shrine was later erected. The building contains an iconic cone-shaped Buddhist stupa. Olivieri’s team was surprised by the building’s shape, which is well known from Buddhist structures in India at this time but is very rare in Gandhara. The team has also found Buddhist sculptures and inscriptions. “We are now beginning to realize that, in addition to its strategic importance,” says Olivieri, “Barikot had its own importance for Buddhist communities.”

Faxian in Gandhara

Between A.D. 399 and 414, the Chinese monk Faxian (Fa-Hsien, Fa Hien) undertook a trip via Central Asia to India to study Buddhism, locate sutras and relics and obtain copies of Buddhist books that were unavailable in China at the time. He traveled from Xian in central China to the west overland on the southern Silk Road into Central Asia and described monasteries, monks and pagodas there. He then crossed over Himalayan passes into India and ventured as far south as Sri Lanka before sailing back to China on a route that took him through present-day Indonesia. His entire journey took 15 years.

Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “Faxian was one of the first and perhaps the oldest Chinese monk to travel to India. In 399, when he embarked on his trip from the ancient Chinese capital Chang’an (present- day Xi’an in Shaanxi province), Faxian was more than sixty years old. By the time he returned fourteen years later, the Chinese monk had trekked across the treacherous Taklamakan desert (in present-day Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China), visited the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India, traveled to Sri Lanka, and survived a precarious voyage along the sea route back to China. [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006]

According to “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” Chapter X and XII: Gandhara: “The travellers, going downwards from this towards the east, in five days came to the country of Gandhara, the place where Dharma-vivardhana, the son of Asoka [the Mauryan emperor known as a great patron of Buddhism in the third century BCE], ruled. When Buddha was a Bodhisattva, he gave his eyes also for another man here [another jataka tale]; and at the spot they have also reared a large stupa, adorned with, layers of gold and silver plate The people of the country were mostly students of the Hinayana. Seven days journey from this to the east brought the travellers to the kingdom of Taxila, which means 'the severed head ' in the language of China. Here, when Buddha was a Bodhisattva, he gave away his head to a man [another jataka tale], and from this circumstance the kingdom got its name. [Source: “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” by Fa-Hsien (Faxian) of his Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414), Translated James Legge, 1886, /]

“Going on further for two days to the east, they came to the place where the Bodhisattva threw down his body to feed a starving tigress [the Mahasattva Jataka]. In these two places also large stupas have been built, both adorned with layers of all the precious substances. The kings, ministers, and people. of the kingdoms around vie with one another in making offerings a them. The trains of those who come to scatter flowers and light lamps at them never cease. The nations of those quarters call those (and the other two mentioned before) 'the four great stupas.'" /

Buddhism in Pakistan and Gandara

Enlightenment of Buddha, Kushan Empire, AD late 2nd or early 3rd century

Pakistan is where Buddhism survived between the time it evolved in India and the time it spread across Asia. Buddhism was brought to what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan in the third century B.C. by Asoka. Scattered around the Swat Valley today are ruined stupas, monasteries as well as rock carvings and statuary. Among the more important sites are the Butkara Shrine in Saidu Sharif, dated to 3rd century B.C. and consisting of a main shrine surrounded by 215 smaller stupas and fine carvings; the Seated Buddha at Jehanabad; and Calgain Cave, with some relief carvings.

Fragile birch-bark scrolls with Buddhist writing, dated to A.D. 1st century and written in the extinct Gandhari language, were found a region near the eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan border. "The worn-out texts were so sacred that they weren't discarded but were buried in clay pots," Richard Salomon of the University of Washington told National Geographic. Some have described them as the Dead Sea scrolls of Buddhism.

Gandhara came under strong Buddhist influence when it was absorbed into the Bactrian empire by King Menander, (155-130 B.C.), who converted to Buddhism. Between the 2nd century B.C. and the A.D. 7th century Gandhara was an important Buddhist learning center and the religion continued to be practiced there until the 16th century. There were over 1,400 monasteries in the Lower Swat alone. Gandhara was also a major center of Buddhist art. Great Gandhara reliefs and sculpture were produced between A.D. 1 and 400 A.D.[Source: Glorious India]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Buddhism probably reached Gandhara as early as the third century B.C.; by the beginning of the second century B.C., archaeological remains begin to appear. It is not until the first century A.D., however, that this new religion received significant local patronage. Typically, a Buddhist center was comprised of monastic housing adjacent to a public sacred area that had at its center a stupa (a solid domed structure) containing relics of the Buddha. A reliquary in the Museum’s collection has an inscription that records its donation by a local prince, Indravarman, who in 5–6 A.D. brought relics of the lord Shakyamuni in procession and established them in a deep depository. The inscription tells us that he did this to earn merit for named members of his extended family and himself as well as to secure the happiness and welfare of his kingdom. [Source: Kurt Behrendt, Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ]

“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 and were vital centers of pilgrimage; over time, they attracted donations that often took the form of sculptural imagery. Most of the major Buddhist centers of Gandhara were founded during the second century A.D. under powerful kings like Kanishka. Relics remained central to devotional practice and stupas came to be embellished with narrative reliefs that recounted the Buddha Shakyamuni’s miraculous life and emphasized his physical presence at the site. “

Gandhara and the Evolution of Buddhist Art

The very earliest examples of Buddhist Art are not iconic but aniconic images and were popular in the Sub-continent even after the death of the Buddha. This is because the Buddha himself did not sanction personal worship or the making of images. As Siddhatha Guatama was a Buddha, a self-perfected, self-enlightened human being, he was a human role model to be followed but not idolized. Of himself he said, 'Buddha's only point the way'. This is why the earliest artistic tributes to the Buddha were abstract symbols indicative of major events and achievements in his last life, and in some cases his previous lives. Some of these early representations of the Buddha include the footprints of the Buddha, which were often created at a place where he was known to have walked. Among the aniconic images, the footprints of the Buddha were found in the Swat valley and, now can be seen in the Swat Museum..

When Buddha passed away, His relics (or ashes) were distributed to seven kings who built stupas over them for veneration. The emperor Ashoka was later said to have dug them out, and distributed the ashes over a wider area, and built 84,000 stupas. With the stupas in place, to dedicate veneration, disciples then initiated 'stupa pujas'. With the proliferation of Buddhist stupas, stupa pujas evolved into a ritual act. Harmarajika stupa (Taxila) and Butkarha (Swat) stupa at Jamal Garha were among the earliest stupas of Gandhara. These had been erected on the orders of king Ashoka and contained the real relics of the Buddha..

At first, the object of veneration was the stupa itself. In time, this symbol was replaced by a more sensitive human image. The Gandhara schools is probably credited with the first representation of the Buddha in human form, the portrayal of Buddha in his human shape, rather than shown as a symbol.. As Buddhist Art developed and spread outside India, the styles developed here were imitated. For example, in China the Gandhara style was imitated in images made of bronze, with a gradual change in the features of these images..

Early Gandhara Buddhist Art

According to PBS: During the Kushan period, Gandharan art flowered by combining Buddhist and Greek artistic forms. What remains today is the Gandharan style of Buddhist art and sculpture, which shows evidence of Greek, Syrian, Persian, and Indian artistic influences, mainly from the great Kushan capital of Mathura. Some of the earliest representations of the Buddha in human form came from this period, and Gandharan artists created a lasting model for the depiction of Buddha throughout Asia, wearing a Greek toga. This creative epoch under the Kushans also strongly influenced art and sculpture during the Gupta Empire. [Source: PBS, The Story of India,]

On an exhibition of Gandharan art organized by the Asia Society in New York in 2011, Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times: There is “some monumental work, like the fantastic relief called “Vision of a Buddha’s Paradise.” (Dated to the fourth century A.D., it’s a kind of flash-mob version of heaven. But most of what’s here is neither dramatic nor grand: a chunk of a column; a head knocked from a statue; a panel sliced from some long-since-crumbled wall. Like most museum shows aiming for a big-picture view of a vanished world, it’s a scattering of small effects: precious scraps and remnants. For every stand-back-and-stare item, there are a dozen others that require close-up scrutiny and informed historical imagining to make their point. [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, August 10, 2011 |+|]

“There are Buddhas wearing toga-like garment look like a Greek god that a South Asian ascetic. “The culture mix thickens further. On a fragmentary stone panel we find in relief a Persian-style column with an Indian nature goddess posed in front of it. A squat stone figure in baggy Kushan pants turns out to be Skanda, the Hindu god of war. And a stele devoted mainly to sober scenes from Buddha’s life doubles as a playground for dozens of cupids. The point is, Gandharan art was all over the map. Yet confusion sparked innovation. The first known figurative images of the Buddha are thought to have emerged from this region. So did, despite all the crazy components, an instantly recognizable sculptural style” is “on persuasive display.” |+|

Birth of the Buddha, Gandhara, AD late 2nd or early 3rd century

In “Vision of a Buddha’s Paradise” “culturally everything comes together here. The big Buddha seated at its center wears an off-the-shoulder robe, South Indian tropical attire, while a couple dozen of mini-bodhisattvas around him mix and match international fashions, with no two outfits, or gestures, or poses, quite the same. Two figures gaze raptly up at the Buddha; another, chin propped on hand, looks daydreamingly away; far below, two tiny observers feed lotuses to fish in a stream. Was this really designed as a vision of Paradise? We don’t know, though we might if we had some clue as to the piece’s original setting, probably as one of several related panels in an architectural context. But, as is true of most Gandharan art collected before very recent times, such information went unrecorded, and an accurate sense of what this art meant to its makers and early viewers is lost. |+|

“For historians the value of an exhibition is in just such details, while for nonspecialists the main attraction is likely to be visual impact. Ordinarily, I’d rather look at Kushan-era Buddhist art carved farther south from rosy Indian sandstone than at sculpture made in cold, dark stone in Gandhara. But that’s just personal taste, and, besides, the show has changed my mind about this: it pulses with human warmth. That’s one of the things we go to great art for.” |+|

Early Gandhara Greco-Roman Art

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Some of the earliest examples of art in Gandhara “are brackets with volutes that would have been attached to the drums of stupas to support garlands of flowers; a mid-first-century A.D. garland holder with a winged celestial emerging from acanthus leaves can be directly compared to the Hariti plaque in terms of date and Parthian stylistic affiliation. 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; the figure on the far right is quite accurate, while the second from the left, with its exaggerated lumpy abdominal muscles, is more approximate. [Source: Kurt Behrendt, Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

satyr with women and a mountain goat from Gandhara

“Second- to the first-century B.C. luxury goods 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, which likely had a domestic religious function. Carved into the face is a representation of Daphne turning to look back at the approaching figure of Apollo, a composition that reveals the artist’s familiarity with Hellenistic motifs and narrative structure, and perhaps even the story itself. Related in format is a silver roundel depicting the goddess Hariti, a protector of children, only in this instance the linear treatment of drapery is stylistically akin to imagery of the Parthian empire. As is typical of many Gandharan compositions, Hariti wears jewelry and sits on a throne that has clear South Asian origins; this synthesis of foreign styles with Indian forms is typical of the multi-ethnic character of Gandharan taste.”

Gandharan Sculpture

Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times: “The first thing you see is a substantial female figure carved from the dark schist that was the common stone of the region. She has a funny look, familiar but not. She’s dressed in a sort of cocktail-dress version of a Roman stola; her hairdo is pure 1970s Charlie’s Angels, long but with back-flipped bangs. Because she wears a helmet, she’s been called Athena in the past, though she probably represents some regional genius loci modeled, at a remove of thousands of miles, on Greco-Roman prototypes. Another female figure with comparable features has more certain identity. Much as she resembles a Roman goddess of good fortune, the three clinging children she juggles mark her as the Buddhist deity Hariti, an infant-gobbling demon, who, after a little enlightenment, changed her ways. [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, August 10, 2011 |+|]

“Here we find the classic Gandharan Buddha. Dating from the second to fifth century A.D., he is a standing figure in an ankle-length tunic and a togalike cloak that falls in rhythmical folds, with hints at the shape of the body beneath. The facial features are symmetrical and crisply cut, and idealized, though on ethnic and aesthetic terms different from those of a Greek Apollo.On the whole the image is naturalistic in a way that the purely Indian equivalents being carved from sandstone farther south were not. And the naturalism is especially pronounced in Gandharan images of bodhisattvas, those evolved beings who postpone nirvana to aid struggling creatures on earth. |+|

Buddha Triad and Kushan Couple

“One example from the Lahore Museum suggests a leader-of-the-pack biker: slightly paunchy, with a handle-bar mustache, a cascade of curls and a challenging stare. Technically, he’s Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, though judging by his ornamental hardware — bicep bracelets, neck chains — he still has something to learn about the spiritual path of less-is-more. |+|

“Much Buddhist art from Gandhara took the form of carved narrative panels depicting episodes from the life of the Buddha; that these panels once appeared on the walls of sanctuaries or cylindrical stupa mounds; and that many of the artists were entertaining storytellers. Their skills are evident in the sequence of a dozen or so panels arranged around a stupalike structure in the gallery. In one, the Buddha’s mother, Maya, anticipates his birth in a dream, and the artist has made her look like a Roman matron en déshabillé and asleep on her couch. But in a second panel, carved by a different artist and showing the infant Buddha being examined by a sage, we’ve switched countries and cultures: now we’re in a land of turbans, boots and layered outwear.

“A third episode takes place after the Buddha’s enlightenment, as the lords of the four directions, essentially Vedic or Hindu beings, decorously offer him bowls of food. And a panel set next to that is packed with the figures of demons who had tried hard to prevent that enlightenment. The scene looks like a Wookiee convention. It’s very funny, but also rich with information about armor and weaponry in use centuries ago.” |+|

Gandhara Buddhist Art

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Most of the major Buddhist centers of Gandhara were founded during the second century A.D. under powerful kings like Kanishka. Relics remained central to devotional practice and stupas came to be embellished with narrative reliefs that recounted the Buddha Shakyamuni’s miraculous life and emphasized his physical presence at the site. For example, a schist sculpture depicts Shakyamuni teaching the first sermon to five ascetics who become monks and establish the monastic order. The Buddha reaches down to set the wheel of the law in motion; by this time, the wheel was a well-established symbol of the Buddhist teachings, or dharma. Shakyamuni’s death is the subject of another panel in the Museum’s collection, in which lay followers and monks are shown gesturing in grief. The Buddha’s last convert, Subhadra, seated with his back toward us, is the only one who appears calm as he realizes that Shakyamuni has broken free of the cycle of rebirth and has reached nirvana. [Source: Kurt Behrendt, Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Buddha Vajrapani and Hercules

“The narrative tradition rapidly gave way to independent images that were better suited to devotional practices. One of the earliest examples is a small bronze Buddha that can be dated to the first or second century A.D. based on similarities with Roman portraiture in the time of Nero. The Buddha sits in a yogic posture and holds his hand in the abhayamudra (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 and by the third century the sacred areas came to be populated with images of buddhas and bodhisattvas executed in schist. Maitreya was a prominent subject—readily identifiable by his north Indian princely garb rendered in a classical style and by the water flask held in his left hand. Maitreya is an enlightened bodhisattva who resides in Tushita Heaven waiting for the next Buddhist age, when, like Shakyamuni, he will be reborn on earth to spread the dharma as the next Buddha. The popular appearance of Maitreya marks a shift in Buddhist practice that emphasized the veneration of bodhisattvas; however, the Buddha’s relics remained the primary devotional focus throughout the Gandharan tradition.

“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, perhaps in response to the need to embellish these rapidly expanding centers. Stucco imagery, such as a head of a Buddha that is likely from Taxila, could be rapidly executed, molds could be employed, and the finished product was readily painted. Often such stucco imagery exhibits a spontaneous exuberance not seen in the more laboriously produced schist sculpture; a door guardian, or dvarapala, being a good example.

Spat-Kushan Buddha

“Toward the end of this intense period of patronage in the fourth to mid-fifth centuries, monumental images of buddhas and, to a lesser extent, bodhisattvas appear. A torso of a massive bodhisattva, which originally would have stood more than ten feet tall, gives us a sense of the sophistication and quality of work being done in this late period. The naturalistic treatment of the musculature and the drapery attests to the longstanding Gandharan taste for classical forms, even though such imagery had largely gone out of fashion in the Roman world. Stone sculptures of this scale are quite rare as such large pieces of schist were not readily available nor were they stable; this rock type easily broke along bedding planes. In this instance, the extensive losses have left us with little more than the figure’s torso. Because of these limitations, most monumental images were done in clay, with stucco being used for the hands, feet, and heads. Some of these Gandharan figures would have been more than forty feet tall.

“About the middle of the fifth century, Gandhara was conquered by groups of people often identified as the Huns or Hephthalites, 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. A late sixth-century Buddha is a good example of the perpetuation of Gandharan-style images. However, important adjacent Buddhist communities continued to thrive in the Swat valley, Kashmir, and Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, sculptural production seen in the Kabul valley of Afghanistan follows the artistic tradition originally established in Gandhara. Like the monumental Gandharan torso, the sculpture found at Afghan sites such as Hadda, including a head of a bodhisattva, is quite naturalistic. Still, the inset garnet eyes and elaborate hairstyle are elements not seen in Gandhara, but rather are an expression of Afghan taste. Ultimately, however, the stylistic roots of Buddhism in north India are reflected in another head from the site of Hadda that takes on the formal stylized features of Gupta-period images found in the Ganges River basin. The taste for classical forms eventually fades and by the eighth century, with the coming of Islam, the Buddhist tradition comes to an end in Afghanistan.”

Emaciated Buddha of Gandhara

Emaciated Buddha from Gandhara

One of the most well-known images of the Buddha is the Sikri Stupa — better known as the the Fasting, Starving or Emaciated Buddha — produced in Gandhara in the A.D. 2nd and 3rd centuries during the Kushan Period. Now in the Lahore Museum, it depicts the Buddha in meditation during a long period of fasting. His body is skeletal, reduced to a frame of bones over which the skin is tautly stretched, with veins and sinews protruding like a grotesque web. While the one is Lahore is the most famous, several such images of the emaciated Buddha, nearly all of them produced during a short time period in the Gandharan area in the A.D. first four centuries.

On a headless “Fasting Siddhartha,” from Kushan period, A.D. 3rd century, in its collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art reports: “After reaching enlightenment at Bodhgaya, Shakyamuni meditated and fasted for forty-nine days. Thus, showing him as an emaciated renouncer relates to his enlightenment and his status as a yogic ascetic who has ultimate control over his body. Other characteristics that relate to his enlightenment include the kusha grass on which he sits and the scene on the base, which shows the Buddha's first sermon, at Sarnath. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art ]

“After renouncing his luxurious existence in search of an end to the suffering caused by infinite rebirths, Siddhartha went through six years of profound austerity. At one point, he is said to have eaten only a few grains of rice a day. This subject originated with the artists of ancient Gandhara (an area encompassing parts of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan), who clearly emphasized Siddhartha's emaciated body; his visible ribs and veins are poignant testimony to years of spiritual trials. The theme was common in Gandhara and though it is not found in later Indian Buddhist sculpture, it reappears in Chinese and Japanese art of the Chan/Zen tradition.”

Giant Buddha Statues of Bamiyan

The giant Buddha Statues in the Bamiyan Valley of central Afghanistan were among the largest statues ever made and among the oldest surviving representations of Buddha before they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Carved into towering sandstone cliffs, they also represented a unique fusion of Buddhist and Grecian art and were Afghanistan’s greatest cultural site and its main tourist attraction.

Bamiyan — about 160 kilometers west of Kabul — is an isolated and breathtakingly beautiful high mountain valley in central Afghanistan. Located in the Silk Road, Bamiyan was part of the Buddhist Kushan Empire in the early centuries of the Christian era and has evidence of Buddhism that date to the 2nd century B.C. When the Chinese monk-explorer Hsuan-Tsang visited the region in A.D. 632, he described “more than 10 monasteries and 1,000 priests.” Today it lies in the heartland of the Hazara ethnic group.

larger Buddha of Bamiyan before the Taliban destroyed it

The smaller of the two Buddhas was 38 meters (125 feet) tall and was carved in the A.D. 2nd century. Known as Shahmama, “king mother,” it had breasts and was believed to be a representation of a woman. It had elements of a Greco Roman style and was badly disfigured. The larger of the two Buddhas was 53 meters (174 feet) tall and was carved in the A.D. 5th century. Known as Sosol meaning “year after year,” it was more sophisticated and was in better condition. It was also the tallest standing Buddha statue in the world. The ancient Chinese traveler Hsuan-Tsang described it as “glittering with gold and precious objects.”

The statues took decades to build. They were carved out of niches in the sandstone by Greek-influenced artists and then covered with mud and straw and a primitive cement, with the final designs carved on this. Chords were hung down and covered with cement to produce the folds in the clothing. Holes visible on the surface once held pegs that were used to hold the “skin” in place. The statues were once brightly painted and niches above the statues were lined with 5th century frescoes depicting the heavenly kingdom. The statues were visited for more than 1,600 years by Buddhist pilgrims. In the 9th century Arab soldiers destroyed the plaster faces. They survived Genghis Khan and Tamerlane and 20 years of war in the 1970s, 80 and 90s.

The Hazaras were proud of the statues but they didn’t worship them or consider Buddha as a god as they were accused by the Taliban of doing. During the war years the base of the statues was used as an ammunition dump. In 1998, the face and part of the shoulder of the smaller statue was blown off by the Taliban. The face of the large one was blackened with tires.

The half mile space between the two Buddha statues and the areas around them are honeycombed with around 750 caves connected by miles of tunnels . They were once inhabited by a thousand monks. Some are reached on rough hewn staircases carved into the rock. Many of these caves were filled with frescoes of Buddhas, Greek gods and goddesses such as Athena, Hindu deities such as Garuda and Surya, and noblemen in Persian clothes with pomegranate headdresses. The best caves were around the smaller Buddha. . Over the years they have been badly damaged, mainly by the people who lived in the caves. What remained was damaged by the Taliban.


Taxli (30 kilometers northwest of Rawalpindi in Pakistan on the Grand Trunk Road) is a ruined ancient city strategically located on a branch of the Silk Road that linked China to the West. Regarded as one of the most important archeological sites in South Asia, it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 327 B.C. and ruled by the great Buddhist emperor Ashoka. During the great Kushan dynasty established by Indo-Greek descendants of Alexander's warriors in A.D. 50 the city became a renowned center of learning, philosophy and art that attracted pilgrims and travelers from as far away as China and Greece.

According to traditional, St Thomas, the disciple of Jesus who was also known as Doubting Thomas, visited the court of the Parthian King Gondophares in Taxila in about A.D. 40. The city was its height from A.D. 1st century to the fifth century A.D. when it was crushed by White Huns. The name Taxila is said to be derived from Taksha, Prince of the Serpent Tribe.

According to UNESCO: “Buddhist monuments erected throughout the Taxila valley transformed it into a religious heartland and a destination for pilgrims from as far afield as Central Asia and China. The Buddhist archaeological sites at Taxila include the Dharmarajika complex and stupa, the Khader Mohra grouping, the Kalawan grouping, the Giri monasteries, the Kunala stupa and monastery, the Jandial complex, the Lalchack and the Badalpur stupa remains and monasteries, the Mohra Moradu monastic remains, the Pipplian and the Jaulian remains, and the Bahalar stupa and remains. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

Taxila is the home of many splendid Buddhist establishments. It was the main centre of Gandhara and is over 3,000 years old. It attracted Alexander the Great, who was welcomed by Taxila’s king, and brought Greek culture to this part of the world. During the Kushan era Taxila, Swat and Charsadda (old Pushkalavati) became three important centers for culture, trade and learning. Hundreds of monasteries and stupas were built . The Gandhara civilization was not only the centre of spiritual influence but also the cradle of the world famous Gandhara culture, art and learning.

The ancient city flourished both economically and culturally and reached its apogee between the 1st and 5th centuries AD. That Taxila was very famous can be deduced from the fact that it is mentioned in several languages. In Sanskrit, the city was called Takshaçila (Prince of the Serpent Tribe); in Pâli it was known as Takkasilâ; the Greeks knew the town as Taxila, which the Romans rendered as Taxilla; the Chinese called it Chu-ch'a-shi-lo. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

History of Taxila

From the ancient Neolithic tumulus of Saraikala to the ramparts of Sirkap (2nd century B.C.) and the city of Sirsukh (1st century A.D.), Taxila illustrates the different stages in the development of a city on the Indus that was alternately influenced by Persia, Greece and Central Asia and which, from the 5th century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D., was an important Buddhist centre of learning. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

The Bhir mound is the earliest historic city of Taxila and was probably founded in the 6th century BC by the Achaemenids, according to legend by a son of the brother of the legendary hero Rama. The first town was situated on a hill that commanded the river Tamra Nala, a tributary of the Indus. It was an important cultural centre and it is said that the Mahabharata was first recited at Taxila. Stone walls, house foundations and winding streets represent the earliest forms of urbanization on the subcontinent.

The archaeological sites of Saraikala, Bhir, Sirkap, and Sirsukh are collectively of unique importance in illustrating the evolution of urban settlement on the Indian subcontinent through more than five centuries. The prehistoric mound of Saraikala represents the earliest settlement of Taxila, with evidence of Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age occupation. The Bhir mound is the earliest historic city of Taxila, and was probably founded in the 6th century BC by the Achaemenians. Its stone walls, house foundations, and winding streets represent the earliest forms of urbanization on the subcontinent.

Bihr is also associated with Alexander the Great’s triumphant entry into Taxila in 326 BC. Sirkap was a fortified city founded during the mid-2nd century BC. The many private houses, stupas, and temples were laid out on the Hellenistic grid system and show the strong Western classical influence on local architecture. The city was destroyed in the 1st century by the Kushans, a Central Asian tribe. To the north, excavations of the ruins of the Kushan city of Sirsukh have brought to light an irregular rectangle of walls in ashlar masonry, with rounded bastions. These walls attest to the early influence of Central Asian architectural forms on those of the subcontinent.

Taxila Ruins: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Exploring Taxila is a multi-cultural experience, giving you a sense of being at the crossroads of great civilization. The Gandhara sculptures are reminiscent of Greco-Roman statuary. But they are far outnumbered by statues and base-reliefs of Buddha. The entire site covers an area of several square miles. It requires more than one day to visit the region properly. The ruins are set in fields with trees sprouting up from between some of the foundations. The serenity of the hill-edged valley is almost as inviting as the monuments from the past.

Taxila was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. There are over 50 archaeological sites scattered in a radius of 30 kms around Taxila. They span a time period beginning from the Neolithic Age (Saraikala) to the cities of Sirkap (2nd century B.C.) and Sirsukh (1st century A.D.). Some of the most important sites are; Dhamarajika Stupa and Monastery (300 BC - 200 AD), Bhir Mound (600-200 BC), Sirkap (200 BC - 600 AD), Jandial Temple (c.250 BC) and Jaulian Monastery (200 - 600 AD). Mohra Moradu, a monastery and stupa, contain exquisite stucco reliefs depicting the life of the Buddha.. Most of the archaeological sites of Taxila are located around Taxila Museum.

The ruins at Taxli cover a large area and are broken up into three distinct cities: 1)The Bhir Mound; 2) Sirkap; and 3) Sirsukh. The Bhir Mound, dating back to the sixth century B.C., features irregular streets, the ruins of cramped houses and public buildings and a pillared hall temple that some say is oldest known Hindu temple. Sirkap, from the second century B.C., was a well planned city with affluent houses on a wide streets and crowded slums on the other end of the town. The third city, Sirsukh, has not been completely excavated. In addition to the three ancient cities there are many important monasteries, stupas and palaces in the Taxila Valley.

Around Jaulian there are more stupas, chapels as well as baths and an assembly hall. Note the rows of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas supported by rows of stone lions and elephants. At Jundial there is a Greek style temple. After a three and mile hike to a high ridge you come to a fortress with two decorated stupas located in a cleft next to a spring. Nearby is the Healing Buddha, so named because pilgrims used to stick their finger in its naval in hope of being cured of various ailments. Near a monastery is a headless statue of a Buddha wearing Central Asian clothes. .

The Taxila serial site also includes Khanpur cave, which has produced stratified microlithic tools of the Mesolithic period, and a number of Buddhist monasteries and stupas of various periods.Buddhist monuments erected throughout the Taxila valley. The Buddhist archaeological sites at Taxila include the Khader Mohra grouping, the Kalawan grouping, the Giri monasteries, the Kunala stupa and monastery, the Lalchack and the Badalpur stupa remains and monasteries, the Mohra Moradu monastic remains, the Pipplian and the Jaulian remains, and the Bahalar stupa and remains. The Giri complex includes the remains of a three-domed Muslim mosque, ziarat (tomb), and madrassa (school) of the medieval period. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

Dharmarajika Stupa is the most impressive Buddhist sight. It looks like a walled off burial mound. It has been said that stupa dates back to the Ashoka period. Dhararaja is a title of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka. Raised in the middle of the 3rd century, the Dharamarajika Stupa, the oldest Buddhist monument in Taxila. The stupa contained the sacred relics of the Buddha and the silver scroll commemorating the relics. A wealth of gold and silver coins, gems, jewellery and other antiques were discovered here and are housed in the Taxila museum. The stupa is said to contains relics belonging to the Buddha himself. Archeological evidence indicates that original stupa was destroyed by an earthquake. The current structure date to the 4th century. Its relic chamber was robbed in the 19th century. Surrounding the stupa are ruins of monk huts and small chapels where sacred scrolls, Buddha relics and gold and silver jewelry were found. These items are now in the Taxila Museum.


Sirkap, meaning “Severed head,” was built during the Greek era. It features a fortification wall, over five kilometers long and up to six meters thick, and an impressive main street once lined with mansions and gold shops. The foundation of the Apsidal Temple are raised on a platform and cover an area almost the size of a football field. Its central location and the way houses seem to feed off it suggests to archaeologists it may have been a sun temple. Located in a small courtyard, the Shrine of the Double Headed Eagle boasts weathered base-reliefs of structures that look like dog houses and columns adorned with double headed eagles, hence the name.

Sirkap was a fortified city founded during the mid-2nd century BC. Taxila was the capital of a kingdom called Hinduš (Indus country) and consisted of the western half of the Punjab. It was added to the Achaemenid empire under Darius I the Great, but the Persian occupation did not last long. The many private houses, stupas and temples are laid out on the Hellenistic grid system and show the strong Western classical influence on local architecture. The city was destroyed in the 1st century AD by the Kushans of central Asia.

To the north, excavations of the ruins of the Kushan city of Sirsukh have brought to light an irregular rectangle of walls in ashlar masonry with rounded bastions. This wall attests to the early influence of Central Asian architectural forms on those of the subcontinent.

The city of Sirkap, chronologically the second major city of Taxila, is to be found spreading down the Hathial Spur and on to the plains of the Taxila valley. It is bounded by the Tamra stream and to the north and south by the Gau stream, which today has been almost completely obliterated by a modern road and water channel. The present layout of the city was established by the Bactrian Greeks sometime around 180 BC and takes the form of a wide and open grid system. In general, the city presents a better planned architecture than Bhir Mound. The city is encompassed by a mighty wall over 5 km long and up to 6 m thick. There may well have been an entrance on each of the four sides originally, but today the only one evident is the northern wall and it is through here that visitors normally enter the city. A number of temples and monasteries can be found here: Apsidal Temple, Sun Temple, Shrine of the Double Headed Eagle, Kunala Monastery and Ghai Monastery.

The major attraction in this city is the Great Stupa, one of the largest and most impressive throughout Pakistan, located just 2 km east of Bhir Mound and Sirkap. The chapels and chambers around the Great Stupa were built at various times from the 1st century BC to the post-Kushan period. These structures display a wide range of designs and probably were donated by pilgrims, possibly representing various schools of Buddhism.

Other sites of interest include the city of Sirsukh which is believed to belong to the Kushan period. To the north of Sirkap are four temples, all standing on earlier mounds and overlooking the city. They are all in the style of Greek temples. The best to visit is probably the one at Jandial, 1.5 km north of Sirkap.

Archeological Museum of Taxila

Archeological Museum of Taxila is a real treasure house, with perhaps the best pieces in Pakistan. There are cases filled with sculptures, stucco reliefs, terra-cotta figures, glass tiles, toilet articles, seals, bark manuscripts, silver utensils and surgical instruments. Off particular beauty are the gold wrist bracelets, gold and turquoise pendants, coins, rings and the Gandhara sculptures. For a small tip a guard will show you some erotic figures in an alcove. .

The museum has various sections with rich archaeological finds of Taxila, arranged in chronological order and properly labeled, has been established close to the site. Taxila Museum is situated between Sirkap and Bhir Mound. It has a fine collection of Buddhist sculptures and stupas, coins and ornaments unearthed from the site. Most of the archaeological sites of Taxila are located around Taxila Museum.

Hours: (8.30 am – 12.30 pm, 2.30 pm – 5.30 pm in summer; 8:00 am – 4:00 pm in winter. The museum is closed on the first Monday of every month and on Muslim religious holidays. Admission: Entry ticket costs Rs.4 per person for museum and Rs.4 per person for archaeological sites. Accommodation: PTDC has a Tourist Information Centre and a Motel with 7 rooms and restaurant facility, just opposite the Museum. There is a Youth Hostel nearby, offering accommodation for members of International Youth Hostels Federation (IYHF)..

Taxila University

Taxila University and Nalanda University were founded around 500 B.C., making them by some reckoning the oldest universities in the world. Some do not consider Taxila to be a university in the modern sense, in that the teachers living there may not have had official membership of particular colleges, and there did not seem to have existed purpose-built lecture halls and residential quarters, These were present later at Nalanda university in eastern India. Taxila's university was mention by Faxian, who visited Taxila around A.D. 400 and wrote that Taxila's name translated as "the Severed Head", and was the site of a story in the life of Buddha "where he gave his head to a man". [Source: Wikipedia]

Taxila became a noted centre of learning (including the religious teachings of Buddhism) at least several centuries B.C. and continued to attract students from around the old world until the destruction of the city in the 5th century. It has been suggested that at its height, Taxila held of "intellectual suzerainty" over other centres of learning in India. The university’s primary concern was higher education. Student generally entered at the age of sixteen and studied ancient and most scriptures, and received training in the Eighteen Silpas or Arts, which included archery, hunting, and elephant lore.

There was law school, medical school, and school of military science.]Students came to Taxila from as far away as Kashi, Kosala and Magadha. Taxila had great influence on Hindu culture and the Sanskrit language. It is perhaps best known for its association with Chanakya, also known as Kautilya, the strategist who guided Chandragupta Maurya and assisted in the founding of the Mauryan empire. Chanakya's Arthashastra (The knowledge of Economics) is said to have been composed in Taxila. The Ayurvedic healer Charaka and Palini, the grammarian who codified the rules of classical Sanskrit, also studied at Taxila. It is said the Mahāyāna branch of Buddhism took shape there.

No external authorities like kings or local leaders subjected the scholastic activities at Taxila to their control. Each teacher formed his own institution, enjoying complete autonomy in work, teaching as many students as he liked and teaching subjects he liked without conforming to any centralised syllabus. Study terminated when the teacher was satisfied with the student's level of achievement. In general, specialisation in a subject took around eight years. In most cases the "schools" were located within the teachers' private houses, and at times students were advised to quit their studies if they were unable to adapt to the social, intellectual and moral conditions at the school.

Knowledge was considered too sacred to be bartered for money, and hence any stipulation that fees ought to be paid was vigorously condemned. Financial support came from the society at large, as well as from rich merchants and wealthy parents. The number of students studying under a single guru sometimes numbered in the hundreds. Free boarding and lodging was provided, and students had to do manual work in the household, Paying students, such as princes, were taught during the day, while non-paying ones were taught at night. Students arriving at Taxila usually had completed their primary education at home (until the age of eight), and their secondary education in the Ashrams (between the ages of eight and twelve).

Examinations were treated as superfluous, and not considered part of the requirements to complete one's studies. The process of teaching was critical and thorough- unless one unit was mastered completely, the student was not allowed to proceed to the next. No convocations were held upon completion, and no written "degrees" were awarded. Since it was believed that knowledge was its own reward using knowledge for earning a living or for any selfish end was considered sacrilegious.


Takht-i-Bahi (130 kilometers north of Peshawar, 16 kilometers northeast of Mardan.) is regarded as one of most beautiful Buddhist monuments left from the Gandhara period. Situated on a slope above the plains and built between the 1st century B.C. and the A.D. 7th century, the monastery contains groups of structures called the Court of Main Stupa, the Assembly Hall, the Court of the Three Stupas, the Low Level chambers and the Open Courtyard.

According to UNESCO: The Buddhist Ruins of Takht-i-Bahi and Neighbouring City Remains at Sahr-i-Bahlol are one of the most imposing relics of Buddhism in the Gandhara region of Pakistan. The inscribed property is composed of two distinct components both dating from the same era. The Buddhist monastic complex of Takht-i-Bahi (Throne of Origins) was founded in the early 1st century. Owing to its location on the crest of a high hill, it escaped successive invasions and is still exceptionally well preserved. Nearby are the ruins of Sahr-i-Bahlol, a small fortified city dating from the same period." [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

Takht-i-Bhai stands 150 meters above a plain. The Buddhists selected this spot to construct a religious complex where the monks and students could pursue their rituals and studies. The main buildings here include the main stupa and two courtyards in different terraces surrounded by votive stupa and shrines, the monastic quadrangles surrounded by cells for the monks, and a large hall of assembly. The main stupa is surrounded on three sides by chapels in which images of both the Buddha and Buddhisattva were installed. In one of the stupa courtyard is a line of colossal Buddhas, which were originally 16 to 20 feet high..

The site's fragmentary sculptures in stone and stucco are a considerable wealth but its most remarkable feature is the peculiar design and arrangement of the small shrines, which surround the main stupa. These shrines stood upon a continuous sculptured podium and were crowned alternately with stupa-like finials forming an ensemble. The beauty and grandeur provided by the entire composition is unparallel in the Buddhist world.. Takht-i-Bhai had a wealth of ancient Buddhist remains. A long range of different sized Buddha and Buddhistavvas from Takht-i-Bhai fill many museums. Some of the best pieces of Gandhara sculpture, now to be found in the museums of Europe, were originally recovered from Takht-i-Bhai. .

Components of Takht-i-Bahi

The Buddhist Ruins of Takhi-i-Bahi are spectacularly positioned on various hilltops ranging from 36.6 metres to 152.4 metres in height, typical for Buddhist sites. The complexes cover an area of around 33ha. The Buddhist monastery was in continual use until the 7th century AD. It is composed of an assemblage of buildings and is the most complete Buddhist monastery in Pakistan. The buildings were constructed of stone in Gandhara patterns (diaper style) using local dressed and semi-dressed stone blocks set in a lime and mud mortar. Today the ruins comprise a main stupa court, votive stupas court, a group of three stupas, the monastic quadrangle with meditation cells, conference hall, covered stepped passageways and other secular buildings.

The second component, the Neighbouring City Remains at Sahr-i-Bahlol, is located approximately 5 km away in a fertile plain. The Sahr-i-Bahlol ruins are the remnants of a small ancient fortified town of the Kushan period. The town is set on an elongated mound up to 9 metres high and surrounded by portions of the defensive walls in “diaper” style characteristic of the first two or three centuries A.D. The area covered is 9.7 hectares.

The Buddhist monastic complex of Takht-i-Bahi (Throne of Origins) is situated on top of a 152 meter high hill, about 80 km from Peshawar and 16 km north-west of the city of Mardan. It was founded in the early 1st century AD, and was successively occupied and expanded from that time until it fell into disuse through the discontinuation of charitable endowments in modern times. Owing to its location on the crest of a hill, it escaped the invasions of the Huns and other antagonistic peoples, leaving it today with much of its original character intact. The name Takht-i-Bahi derives from the spring on the hilltop and is literally translated as 'Spring Throne'.

The complex, the most impressive and complete Buddhist monastery in Pakistan, consists of four main groups: 1) the Court of Stupas with a cluster of stupas beside the main stupa in the middle courtyard, embellished with a series of tall niches to enshrine Buddhist statues; 2) the early monastic complex with residential cells around an open court, assembly hall and refectory; 3) the temple complex with a main stupa in the middle of a courtyard adorned with statues niches similar to the earlier stupa court; 4) the tantric monastic complex with an open courtyard in front of a series of dark cells with low openings for mystical meditation, in keeping with tantric practice.

In 1871, many sculptures were found at Takht-i-Bahi. Some depicted stories from the life of the Buddha while others, more devotional in nature, included the Buddha and Bodhisattava. The Court of Stupas is surrounded on three sides by open alcoves or chapels. The excavators were of the view that originally they contained single plaster statues of the Buddha sitting or standing, dedicated in memory of holy men or donated by rich pilgrims. The monastery to the north was probably a two-storey structure consisting of an open court, ringed with cells, kitchens and a refectory.

Salt Range

The Salt Range runs from Jhelum city on the G.T. Road and west to Mianwali and Kalabagh along the Indus River. There are many places of historical and archaeological interest in the Salt Range. Salt Range seems to have formed part of a powerful Hindu Kingdom of Kashmir in 10th century AD. Most of the forts and temples concentrated in and around the Salt Range date from that period. Mahmud of Ghazni, in the early eleventh century and Mughal Emperor Babur in the 16th century visited the area after their invasion of the sub-continent. The Janjua tribe, the most important in the central parts of the Range, were then converted to Islam.

Salt Range and Khewra Salt Mine were nominated by to a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Rising abruptly from the Punjab plains west of the River Jhelum and ending equally precipitously on the Indus River, one hundred and eighty kilometres in the west, the Salt Range is a long linear formation of sheer escarpments, jagged peaks, rolling hills and desolate ravines. Nestling between these hills, are fertile valleys scattered with lakes and irrigated by spring fed streams. The Salt Range originated 800 million years ago when evaporation of a shallow sea followed by under thrusting of the Indian Plate formed a range that stretched for about 300 kilometres. The range derives its name from the occurrence of the thickest seams of rock salt in the world embedded in the Precambrian bright red marls of the Salt Range Formation. [Source: Government of Pakistan, Directorate General of Archaeology]

Within the Salt Range there is a dense clustering of historical sites and places ranging in date from the 4th c. when Alexander the Great fought his last battle with Raja Porus at the bank of Jehlum River, through the Hindu Shahi period, the Mughal Empire to the era of Sikh rule and the British Colonial occupation. Fortresses, monasteries and temple complexes such as Kafirkot and Malot (9th – 19th c.), Nandna, Tilla Jogian and the World Heritage site of Rohtas perch on high mountain platforms overlooking important passes through the Salt Range. Habitation sites and ancient centers of religious pilgrimage such as Katas Raj and Mari Indus, early Mughal sites such as Takht-e-Babri, the throne of Emperor Babar and his Bagh-e-Safa considered to be the first Mughal Garden in Asia, are found in Kallar Kahar in the middle of the Salt Range. Step wells, stone lined tanks, sacred ponds and banyans (Ficus indica) and groves spanning many periods are scattered across the landscape. However, the place which best illustrates the interplay between culture and nature, man and the geology of the Salt Range, is Khewra, one of the world’s richest salt deposits, where salt has been exploited for at least a thousand years. The Precambrian salt reserves at Khewra were known when Alexander the Great crossed the Jhelum and Mianwali region during his Indian campaign. During the Mughal era the salt was traded in various markets, as far away as Central Asia. On the downfall of the Mughal empire, the Khewra mine was taken over by Sikhs and then by the British who industriaized its running and it continues to function on a large scale today as a mine, research and tourism centre.

Khewra Salt Mines (154 kilometers from Rawalpindi) in the Salt Range were once the world's largest salt mines. On the southern slope of the Salt Range are located the largest deposits of rock salt in Pakistan, at Khewra, Warchha, and Kalabagh, in addition to the Salt deposits found in Kohat area. However, the main centre of mining is Khewra where the world's largest rock-salt deposits are found. Rock Salt was already in use of the local population when Alexander the Great and his army camped along the Jehlum river in 326 BC, about 35-40 kilometers away from Khewra waiting to fight a battle with Porus across the river. It is said Alexander’s horses started lick the rocks and thus the Greeks came to know about the Rock Salt deposits in this area. Since then, mining was done by the local Janjua tribes till the arrival of British in 1849.

Salt Range Temples: 1) Taxila, fifth-century encasement of Dharmarajika stupa; 2) Murti, stupa mound and Gupta-period temple-remains; 3) Katas, pilgrimage site, tank, and temples; 4) North Kafirkot, fortress, citadel, and temples; destroyed temple at Kanjari-kothi compared to temple B; the site of the newly discovered temple E is just south of temple A. 5) Bilot (South Kafirkot), fortress, citadel, and temples; 6) Mari-Indus, four temples and habitation site; 7) Kalar, brick temple; 8) Amb, fort and two temples; 9) Malot, temple and gateway; 10) Shivganga, grove, tank, and temple ruins; 11) Nandana, fort, temple, and platform

Located along the Indus river and in the Salt Range mountains, these temples datie from the sixth to the early eleventh century. survive in upper Pakistan. A joint project with Professors Abdur Rehman, past Chairman of the Department of Archaeology, University of Peshawar, and Farid Khan, founder of the Pakistan Heritage Society, has begun to analyse and document these important monuments in the history of South Asian temple architecture. A preliminary analysis of this tradition, "Temples Along the Indus," has appeared in the University of Pennsylvania Museum's journal, Expedition, 38.3 (1996): 41-54.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Asia Society Museum “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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