Style of Buddhist visual art that developed in what is now northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan between the 1st century BC and the 7th century AD. The style, of Greco-Roman origin, seems to have flourished largely during the Kushan dynasty and was contemporaneous with an important but dissimilar school of Kushan art at Mathura (Uttar Pradesh, India).
The Gandhara region had long been a crossroads of cultural influences. During the reign of the Indian emperor Ashoka around 3rd century B.C., the region became the scene of intensive Buddhist missionary activity; and, in the 1st century AD, rulers of the Kushan empire, which included Gandhara, maintained contacts with Rome. In its interpretation of Buddhist legends, the Gandhara school incorporated many motifs and techniques from classical Roman art, including vine scrolls, cherubs bearing garlands, tritons, and centaurs. The basic iconography, however, remained Indian.
The materials used for Gandhara sculpture were green phyllite and gray-blue mica schist, which, in general, belong to an earlier phase, and stucco, which was used increasingly after the 3rd century A.D. The sculptures were originally painted and gilded.
Gandhara’s role in the evolution of the Buddha image has been a point of considerable disagreement among scholars. It now seems clear that the schools of Gandhara and Mathura each independently evolved its own characteristic depiction of the Buddha about the 1st century AD. The Gandhara school drew upon the anthropomorphic traditions of Roman religion and represented the Buddha with a youthful Apollo-like face, dressed in garments resembling those seen on Roman imperial statues. The Gandhara depiction of the seated Buddha was less successful. The schools of Gandhara and Mathura influenced each other, and the general trend was away from a naturalistic conception and toward a more idealized, abstract image. The Gandharan craftsmen made a lasting contribution to Buddhist art in their composition of the events of the Buddha’s life into set scenes.
The Bamian valley, Afghanistan, showing the ancient caves of the Kushan Dynasty, the main town, located in central Afghanistan. It lies northwest of Kabul, the nation’s capital, in the Bamian valley at an elevation of 2,590 meters. The tourist traffic has prompted the building of a tourist centre and a government hotel in the town. Population (1988 est.) 8,700.
Bamian is first mentioned in 5th Century A.D. Chinese sources and was visited by the Chinese travelers Fa-hsien around 400 A.D. and Hsüan-tsang in 630 A.D.; it was by that time a centre of commerce and of the Buddhist religion. Two great figures of Buddha there date from this period; the larger is 53 m high and the smaller is 120 feet. These statues are carved from the living rock and are finished with fine plaster. When Hsüan-tsang saw the figures, they were decorated with gold and fine jewels. The two Buddha figures, together with numerous ancient man-made caves in the cliffs north of the town, have made Bamian a major Afghan archaeological site. The caves are of various forms, and the interiors of many bear traces of fine fresco painting that links them with contemporary caves in Sinkiang, China. The modern town lies below the caves. The town was ruled in the 7th century by princes, but was subject to the Western Turks. The rulers first accepted Islam in the 8th century. The Saffarid ruler captured Bamian in 871; after changing hands several times, it was destroyed and its inhabitants exterminated in 1221 by the Mongol invader Genghis Khan. Since that time it has never regained its former glory. In 1840 Bamian was the scene of fighting in the First Anglo-Afghan War.