By the first century c.e., distinct regional styles of Buddhist art, architecture, and literature had emerged on the northwestern Indian subcontinent. Buddhist materials from the borderlands of modern India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan reflect prolonged contact between Indian, Iranian, Central Asian, and Hellenistic cultural traditions. As a pivotal transit zone for the movement of people, practices, and ideas both into and out of South Asia, the northwestern frontier was a dynamic launching pad for the early transmission of Buddhism to Central Asia and China.
Numerous Buddhist centers in the Northwest were located on the "northern route" (uttārapatha), a major artery for trade and travel that connected the northwestern frontiers with the Buddhist homeland in northeastern India. Mathurā, a city located on the northern route south of modern New Delhi, was a significant node for trade and administration and an important center for Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain art and literature. Mathurā had close ties with Kashmir in the western Himalayas, where the Sarvāstivādin tradition of Abhi-dharma scholasticism developed. The northern route linked Mathurā with Taxila (Takṣaśīla), an ancient metropolis on the northern route near modern Islamabad in Pakistan, where extensive archeological remains of stūpas and monasteries have been excavated. Gandhāran art and the Gāndhārī language (written in the Kharoṣṭhī script) were transmitted together with Buddhism beyond the Gandhāran heartland in northwestern Pakistan to Central Asia. Buddhist art and architecture in Afghanistan at sites such as Haḍḍa (south of Jalalabad), Bagrām (north of Kabul), and BĀmiyĀn led French art historian Alfred Foucher to label paths across the Hindu Kush to Bactria and western Central Asia the Vieille Route (Ancient Route). Buddhist petroglyphs and inscriptions in the upper Indus River valley indicate that Buddhist travelers also followed capillary routes across the Karakoram Mountains of northern Pakistan to eastern Central Asia.
Buddhism was established in Northwest India during the late centuries b.c.e. and the early to mid first millennium c.e. Afghanistan, Gandhāra, and the lower Indus River valley were Achaemenid provinces until 327 to 326 b.c.e., when Alexander of Macedon attempted to conquer these areas. The Mauryan emperor AŚoka (r. ca. 268–232 b.c.e.) provided the impetus for the introduction of Buddhism in the Northwest. A devout lay Buddhist, Aśoka had two sets of major rock edicts in Kharoṣṭhī inscribed in northwestern Pakistan,
with shorter versions in Greek and Aramaic in eastern Afghanistan and Taxila. Foundations of large early stūpas at Taxila and at Butkara in the Swat valley probably belong to the Mauryan period, and may be connected with Aśoka's patronage. Menander, one of Alexander's Indo-Greek successors who ruled the Punjab around 150 b.c.e., was a patron of Buddhism, according to Pāli and Chinese literary traditions. Saka (or Indo-Scythian) and Parthian rulers of the Northwest continued to support Buddhist institutions, since the names and titles of these Iranian rulers appear on coins and in Buddhist inscriptions and texts of the first century b.c.e. and first century c.e.
During the Kushan period in the early centuries c.e., Buddhism began to expand beyond the northwestern frontiers of South Asia. The Kushan empire extended from Bactria to Bengal at the beginning of the second century c.e. during the reign of Kanishka, who is portrayed in Chinese and Central Asian Buddhist literature as the greatest Buddhist royal patron after Aśoka. In the post-Kushan period, local rulers and other patrons maintained Buddhist monastic communities where surplus resources for donations were available. Buddhist monastic communities in Bāmiyān in central Afghanistan and Gilgit in northern Pakistan evidently remained connected with Buddhist centers in Central Asia in the late first millennium c.e. Buddhism in the Northwest gradually declined as lay support diminished and Hinduism and Islam eventually became more prevalent.
Discoveries of inscribed reliquaries and archeological excavations of stūpas and monasteries provide material evidence for a wide spectrum of Buddhist practices in Northwest India. A growing number of Kharoṣṭhī inscriptions record the donation of reliquaries containing physical relics (śarīra). Stūpas built to enclose these relics replicated the presence of the Buddha. The primary stŪpa was typically surrounded by smaller stūpas and columns, which often contained secondary relic deposits. Permanent Buddhist monastic structures consisting of cells for monks and nuns around open rectangular courtyards were usually built near stūpas. Such Buddhist sacred complexes were often decorated with stone and stucco sculptures. Art produced by Gandhāran workshops incorporated Indian, Iranian, and Hellenistic elements in distinctive iconographic patterns. Gandhāran Buddhist art of the Northwest continued to have an impact on Buddhist artistic traditions of Central Asia and China, where worship of images played a prominent role in popular practice.
Several narratives associated with the Buddha's previous lives have Northwest India as their setting, although the historical Buddha did not visit this region during his lifetime. The earliest conversion of Kashmir, the Indus valley, and Gandhāra to Buddhism is attributed to a disciple of Ānanda named Madhyāntika (Pāli, Majjhantika). Mainstream Buddhist schools in Northwest India included Śrāvakayāna (or HĪnayĀna) sects that were active in the transmission of Buddhism to Central Asia and China. Kharoṣṭhī inscriptions record donations of relics, images, water pots, utensils, and other gifts to teachers of the Dhar-maguptaka, Sarvāstivādin, MahĀsĀṂghika, Mahīśāsaka, and Kāśyap ya schools. For example, a clay pot dedicated to the Dharmaguptakas contained early Buddhist manuscripts from the first century c.e.Another collection of Buddhist manuscripts from the second or third to seventh centuries c.e. may have come from the library of a Mahāsāṃghika monastery in Bāmiyān. Parts of the MŪlasarvĀstivĀda-vinaya are preserved among Buddhist Sanskrit manuscripts from the sixth to seventh centuries c.e. found near Gilgit in the 1930s. Manuscripts from Bāmiyān and Gilgit include several MahĀyĀna texts, which are apparently absent in earlier Kharoṣṭhī manuscript collections. Further research in the relationships between Buddhist manuscripts from the Northwest and Buddhist texts translated into Chinese and Central Asian languages should clarify patterns of textual transmission.
With new discoveries of Buddhist inscriptions and manuscripts and additional excavations of Buddhist sites in northwestern India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, it is becoming increasingly clear that the northwestern borderlands of Kashmir, Gandhāra, and Bactria linked older Buddhist communities in the Indian homeland with those developing in Central Asia during the first millennium c.e. Therefore, the Northwest played a critical role in the movement of Buddhist institutions, ideas, and practices beyond the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia and China.
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