Skip to main content

Gandharan Art and Architecture


GANDHARAN ART AND ARCHITECTURE Gandhara is the ancient name given to the region that today surrounds the city of Peshawar in northern Pakistan. Between the early second century b.c. and the eighth century a.d., active trade with the Mediterranean, South Asia, and China made this a multiethnic, wealthy area, and provided an economic foundation for the creation of many Buddhist centers. The word "Gandharan" is also used to describe sculptural finds from a series of culturally related areas beyond the Peshawar plains, such as the Swat valley, the Buner and Taxila regions, eastern Afghanistan, and even parts of Kashmir. This larger area has come to be described as Greater Gandhara.

Alexander the Great conquered Gandhara in the mid-fourth century b.c. Following his death, his generals divided the empire, initiating a period of Indo-Greek kingdoms known primarily through scattered numismatic evidence. The archaeological remains of the city of Ai Khanoum indicate that for a time a Hellenistic colony existed in Afghanistan. In the third century b.c., the North Indian Mauryan king Ashoka issued several edicts stressing nonviolence (ahimsa) and duty (dharma); these were carved on boulders in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is generally understood as the beginning of Buddhism in the region, even though the inscriptions do not explicitly refer to this religion. During the following two hundred years, different Central Asian groups, including the Parthians and Scythians, repeatedly invaded Greater Gandhara before the Kushans (initially known as the Yüeh-chih) began to move toward Afghanistan from the western Chinese borderlands. Kushan rule culminated under the kings Kanishka I and Huvishka in the second century a.d., by which time this dynasty had established a united and stable kingdom extending beyond the Hindu Kush and across northern India.

Gandharan architecture and its associated figurative sculpture offer a glimpse of the religious life of this region and a paradigmatic model for the study of the larger South Asian Buddhist tradition. The first Greater Gandharan Buddhist sites were probably established early in the second century b.c., Butkara I in the Swat valley and the Dharmarajika complex in Taxila. These early centers share many characteristics with contemporary Buddhist sites in India, including large hemispherical stupas (solid mounds housing relics of the Buddha). The dating of these first sites is debated; some scholars believe they were founded in the third century b.c. during the Mauryan dynasty, but enough numismatic evidence survives to place them with confidence in the second century b.c. Archaeological excavations of the city of Sirkap in Taxila provide valuable information for this poorly understood period, as this center was already established prior to Alexander's invasion and was occupied by various groups in succession until the time of the great Kushans. John Marshall's excavation of this city and the surrounding Buddhist sites of Taxila provided masonry evidence for determining a sequence for the architecture. Finds from Sirkap show that a broad range of Near Eastern and Mediterranean gods were popular, and they attest to the sophisticated and eclectic tastes of the multicultural elite. Of particular interest are the many classical foreign luxury objects that came from the West along a complex system of trade routes. Our understanding of this trade system is also based on an excavated hoard of trade goods, found at the site of Begram in Afghanistan, which includes Mediterranean objects as well as those from China and South Asia.

Early Gandharan Tradition

Although the origins of the Gandharan Buddhist tradition are obscure, it is clear that this new religion became popular in the late first and early second centuries a.d. Under the Kushans, many Buddhist sites were founded, notably Takht-i-bahi, Jamal Garhi, and Thareli in the Peshawar basin; Mohra Moradu, Jaulian, and Kalawan in Taxila; and the Swat sites of Saidu, Panr, and Butkara III. By this time both the layout of the sites and the embellishing sculpture were quite different from their North Indian counterparts, and a true Gandharan idiom can be recognized. A typical Gandharan sacred area of this period was founded with the fabrication of a main stupa and a quadrangular monastery, as can be seen at the Taxila site of Jaulian. A sacred area could not exist by itself; it relied on the care provided by a resident monastic community, and all the religious complexes in Gandhara invariably included one or more monasteries. Commonly, these took the form of multistoried structures, like the one at Jaulian, where monastic cells were organized around an open courtyard, with attached rooms for cooking, storage, and other such uses. When steep, mountainous terrain precluded the construction of quadrangular monasteries, the monks lived in groups of smaller multistoried structures (3–4 rooms per story). The main stupa was believed to contain powerful relics of the Buddha and was the primary devotional focus for both lay and monastic devotees. Surrounding the main stupa at the Jaulian site are heterogeneous subsidiary stupas that were added over time; Gregory Schopen has suggested that these small stupas contained the cremated remains of the monastic dead. The practice of erecting shrines that housed small stupas within the sacred area was widespread; in some instances, such shrines probably also were used to display relics of the Buddha.

Significant numbers of schist narrative sculptures that recount the Buddha's life were found in conjunction with an apparent surge in building activity in the second century a.d. Typically, these panels ringed small stupas and were read in conjunction with the ritual act of circumambulation (pradaksina). These reliefs placed great emphasis on the historic personage of the Buddha (Shakyamuni); sequential reliefs depict his miraculous birth, childhood, great departure, role as teacher of the Buddhist dharma, and performer of miracles, as well as his death and cremation and the ultimate distribution of his relics. The narrative illustrated in these sculptures appears to relate closely to early texts such as the Lalitavistara and the Abhiniskramana Sūtra. In some instances, the early narrative sculpture shows remarkable stylistic affinities to northern Indian sites such as Bharhut, especially those produced at early Swat sites like Butkara I, Saidu, or Marjanai. It is clear that in the earliest periods of Gandharan activity, the Buddhist traditions of northern India were vitally important to this provincial Buddhist community; this probably also explains the emphasis given to the above-mentioned texts.

The vast majority of narrative imagery produced in Greater Gandhara (c. 2nd century a.d.), however, shows clear affinities to Western Classical styles. It is important to remember that in the Greater Gandharan region by this time, Mediterranean Classical architectural features, such as Corinthian pillars, had been popular for nearly four hundred years. Early scholars attributed to the Hellenistic Greek contact the emergence in Gandhara of anthropomorphic images of the Buddha in the narrative and iconic images. This assumption led these scholars to date much of Gandhara's sculptural production to the first centuries b.c., and they suggested that this contact with the Greeks was the source for the anthropomorphic Buddha found throughout South Asia. Today it is clear that the exchange of styles occurred later, with the Roman Empire, leaving the origin of the Buddha image an open question. Gandharan sculptors appear to have selectively appropriated and recontextualized classical forms. For example, the Bodhisattva from Mekhasanda wears northern Indian garments and jewelry suited to a prince, but the drapery follows classical conventions and the body is quite naturalistic in style. The face, however, is more in line with the North Indian tradition of representing the Bodhisattva as an idealized being.

The emergence of iconic images marked a transition in Buddhist practice; they replaced the narrative panels that had been so popular in Gandhara during the second century (narrative imagery was also common in other parts of South Asia in this early period). Some scholars have seen this as an indication of the doctrinal shift from Nikāya (early) Buddhism to Mahayana (later, "Great Vehicle") Buddhism, but this has recently been called into question. In Gandhara the main stupa remained the central object of veneration, even as monumental imagery and depictions with complex iconography became popular. The identification of some of these complex panels has been much debated, as the Nikāya-Mahayana affiliation of the Gandharan Buddhist tradition rests in part on this interpretation. Alfred Foucher saw them as related to the early narrative and interpreted them as components of the life of the Buddha, specifically when he performed miracles at the city of Saravasti. More recently, other scholars have suggested that the panels represent Buddhist "pure lands" (heavens with living Buddhas) and thus are clearly Mahayana scenes. In a relief found in the village of Mohammed Nari, the Buddha sits on a lotus throne and preaches; he is flanked by standing bodhisattvas (pure land characteristics). The historic Buddhas, however, adorned the base, and at the top the Buddha is shown, prior to his enlightenment, in the palace and embarking on his great departure. The identification of the relief remains open, but it is clear that this representation marks a moment of transition, because a mix of early narrative and later iconic elements are present.

Later Gandharan Sites

Between the third and fifth centuries a.d., the patronage of Buddhist sites dramatically increased; old sites were expanded and many new centers were founded. This increase in patronage must have been economic, not dynastic; the Kushan empire was fading at this time, and only a vague idea of the political landscape can be formed on the basis of coin finds of the late Kushans, Kushano-Sassanians, Sassanians, and Kidarites. Relic monuments such as stupas and stupa shrines were augmented with free-standing Buddha and bodhisattva images placed in chapels that enclosed the sacred area. It was at this time that Jaulian's main stupa court was encircled by image shrines that would have housed life-sized Buddha and bodhisattva images. Schist remained an important sculptural medium between the third and fifth centuries a.d., but during this time sculptors began to produce images in stucco, probably because it was faster and cheaper. The tremendous wealth of patronage during this period is attested by the number of images found in the sacred areas, as can be seen in an 1890s photo of sculpture recovered from the site of Loriyan Tangai. By the fourth and fifth centuries a.d., iconic images became monumental in size, a trend that apparently culminated at the late sixth-century site of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, where a Buddha image more than 174 feet (53 m) meters tall was cut into a rock face. At this time, small image shrines with complex iconography began to appear in the monasteries, apparently for the private devotional needs of the monks. At many sites, pious donations of small stupas and image shrines filled the public sacred area around the main stupa. This proliferation necessitated the expansion or creation of additional sacred areas to accommodate donations; at Jaulian this was the lower sacred area, where three monumental image shrines were fabricated.

Between the fifth and seventh centuries a.d., Chinese Buddhist pilgrims began to visit Greater Gandhara to see famous relics, like the alms bowl or skull bone of the Buddha. These visitors included Fahsien (a.d. 401) and Xuanzang (a.d. 630), who both documented their trips. Their accounts reveal much about the late Gandharan Buddhist tradition and suggest a dramatic fifth-century decline in Buddhist patronage in the Peshawar basin (ancient Gandhara). The archaeological evidence supports these written records, for very few coins datable after the fifth century have been found in Gandharan sacred areas, and new construction seems to have stopped abruptly at most sites. The main stupas found at Bhamala and Shah-ji-ki-dheri are notable exceptions. Sparse numismatic evidence indicates that only a few isolated Buddhist centers, especially those in the Swat valley, remained active until the eighth century. In Afghanistan, it appears, Buddhism continued to flourish during this late period at sites like Hadda and Bamiyan.

Kurt Behrendt

See alsoAlexander the Great ; Buddhism in Ancient India


Behrendt, K. The Buddhist Architecture of Gandhara. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2004.

Errington, E. "Numismatic Evidence for Dating the Buddhist Remains of Gandhara." In Silk Road Art and Archaeology: Papers in Honour of Francine Tissot, edited by E. Errington and O. Bopearchchi. London: Strathmore Publishing, 1999–2000.

Faccenna, D. Butkara I (Swāt, Pakistan), 1956–1962. 5 vols. Rome: IsMEO, 1980.

Foucher, A. L'art Gréco-Bouddhique du Gandhâra: Étude sur les origines de l'influence classique dans l'art Bouddhique de l'Inde et de l'Extrême-Orient. 2 vols. Paris: E. Leroux, 1905.

Kuwayama, S. "The Buddha's Bowl in Gandhara and Relevant Problems." In South Asian Archaeology 1987, edited by M. Taddei. Rome: IsMEO, 1990.

Marshall, J. Taxila: An Illustrated Account of Archaeological Excavations Carried out at Taxila under the Orders of the Government of India between the Years 1913 and 1934. 3 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1951.

Rhi, J. "Gandharan Images of the Srāvastī Miracle: An Iconographic Reassessment." Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1991.

Rosenfield, J. The Dynastic Arts of the Kushans. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967.

Schopen, G. "Burial 'Ad Sanctos' and the Physical Presence of the Buddha in Early Indian Buddhism: A Study in the Archaeology of Religions." Religion 17 (1987): 193–225.

Taddei, M. "Oral Narrative, Visual Narrative, Literary Narrative in Ancient Buddhist India." In India, Tibet, China: Genesis and Aspects of Traditional Narrative, edited by A. Cadonna. Florence: L. S. Olschki, 1999.

Zwalf, W. A Catalogue of the Gandhara Sculpture in the British Museum. 2 vols. London: British Museum Press, 1996.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gandharan Art and Architecture." Encyclopedia of India. . 21 Sep. 2018 <>.

"Gandharan Art and Architecture." Encyclopedia of India. . (September 21, 2018).

"Gandharan Art and Architecture." Encyclopedia of India. . Retrieved September 21, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.