Presentation of the Buddhist civilization of Gandhara

By PKBalachandran/Daily Mirror

Colombo, November 30: The remnants of the Buddhist civilization of Gandhara in Pakistan are a sight to behold, not only for Buddhist pilgrims but also for art lovers. Towering stupas with intricate, realistic carvings depicting various events in the Buddha’s life and past births abound in the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan.

It is amazing that an openly Islamic country, where idols are considered haraam (prohibited), has conscientiously preserved these masterpieces, and that, against all odds. Fortunately, the icons escaped President Zia ul Haq’s Islamization campaign (1978-1988).

In 2006-2007, when the Taliban banned the keeping of these objects because even the existence of idols among Muslims was “haram”, President Pervez Musharraf negotiated the withdrawal of the Taliban from his destructive project. In 2016, when Pakistani archaeologists discovered an ancient site at Bhamala in Swat in which there was a 48ft long, 3rd. Century AD, the ‘Sleeping Buddha’ statue, Imran Khan, who was then a leader of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (and Chairman of Pakistan’s Tehreek-i-Insaaf Party) said: ‘It is a World Heritage Site and at because of this, people will come for religious tourism. The majority of the Pakistani population wants these sites to be restored.

Besides the government, Pakistanis have also helped to preserve and protect Buddhist sites from depredations by the Taliban, idol thieves and smugglers. There is the case of Osman Ulasyar who stopped local boys from playing cricket in a field full of first-century AD Buddhist stupas (burial sites containing relics). Then, at his own expense, he built a 300-foot wall to protect the stupas.

Documentary on Gandhara

The Pakistan High Commission in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Ministry of Buddha Sasana recently produced a documentary on the civilization of Gandhara. The documentary, of Hollywood quality both in its grandeur and its technical finesse, was produced by a joint team of Pakistanis and Sri Lankans and was launched by the Prime Minister of Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Sri Lankan production partner was Kaushalya Wickramasinghe of Siddhivinayak Cine Arts (Private) Limited, an India-trained filmmaker. The manager was Mateen Saherai from Pakistan and the production controller Sajjad Mohommad was a Pakistani from UK. Fri. Agrahera Kassapa Thero was the senior content advisor, and the concept and script were prepared by the project’s consulting director, Vidyajothi Prof. Nimal Silva. The famous Lankan manufacturer Chandran Rutnam was an adviser and some major Lankan companies were among the sponsors.

Significantly, there were no reservations among Pakistani collaborators about the display of the Hindu Siddhivinayak Cine Arts logo which was an image of Lord Ganesha (or Gana Deviyo in Sinhalese). The commentary did not obscure the belief that the Hindu gods, Indra and Brahma, had supported the Buddha from birth to death.

The documentary took viewers on a continuous journey through various heritage sites in Gandhara. The key events in the life of the Buddha were told effectively with the carvings providing appropriate visuals. The panoramic views of the stupas in the scenic Swat Valley were breathtaking.

In the stupas of Gandhara, the Jataka (birth) stories of the Buddha and his previous incarnations are depicted in “imaginative detail and with a warmth of feeling”, comments Dr. Ihsan H. Nadiem, author of Buddhist Gandhara. Some of the stories depicted in the sculptures are: Dipankara Jataka; Visvantara Jataka; Dream of Queen Mahamaya; Dream Interpretation; Birth of Siddhartha; Seven stages of child; Horoscope; Marriage of Siddhartha and Yasodhara; Life at the Palace; Siddhartha’s First Meditation; Waiver; Great departure ; Farewell Chandaka and Kanthaka; First Meeting with the Brahmins; Fasting for Salvation; Temptation and Attack by Mara’s Host; Great Light; first sermon; Miracle of Sravasti; Death of the Buddha; Incineration; and distribution of Buddha relics. Gandhara art recreated life in detail.

It clearly shows objects of daily use such as beds and vases, etc. The art of Gandhara provides insight into all aspects of life in the region at that time.


Gandhara finds mention in 5 th. Greek stories from the century BC. BC had then become a melting pot of Persian and Hindu Vedic traditions. In 327-326 BC. AD, it was conquered by Alexander the Great who introduced Greek art. In 321 BC, the region came under the sway of Chandragupta Maurya of Magadha in Bihar. His grandson, the Buddhist Emperor Asoka, brought Buddhism to Gandhara. However, the Buddhist civilization of Gandhara reached its peak under the Kushan ruler Kanishka, who took power between 78 and 144 AD. Converted to Buddhism, Kanishka built countless stupas containing relics of the Buddha and Buddhist scholars. “Fascinating works of architecture and art were produced in Gandhara under Kanishka,” Nadiem points out.

“In the second century BC. BC, Taxila (Thakshashila) had become a multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-religious society, where Greeks, Indians, Bactrians and Western Iranians lived together. Remains of a Zoroastrian temple from this period still exist at Jandial, directly north of Taxila,” says Brigadier (R) Agha Ahmad Gul, former Vice Chancellor of Balochistan University. Unlike today’s religious groups who kill each other, the people of Gandhara lived in harmony despite ethnic and religious variations,” noted Brig.Gul.

The Gandhara civilization should be a model for countries today where intolerance is growing, Dr Abdul Samad, director of archeology and museums at Khyber Pakhtunwala, told Reuters. “Gandhara was the center of religious harmony. It is here that we find Greek, Roman, Persian, Hindu and Buddhist gods in the same panel”, he underlined.

However, in 460 AD, an invasion by the White Huns crippled civilization. Subsequently, waves of iconoclastic Islamic raiders from the West and North-West plundered and set up a new order. Still, many valuables survived.

Gandharian sculptures kept in a Pakistani museum. Photo. Dawn

Greek influence

On Gandhara art, Nadiem says that in light of the Kushan rulers’ contacts with the West, there was a development of a style quite distinct from the mainstream Indian tradition and in some ways inclined towards the Western form, although the subject throughout remained local and Buddhist.

“The Kushans associated with foreign artists probably because they themselves were foreign to the land. They therefore could not be brought back to the fold of Hinduism. Their status led them to embrace Buddhism and favor foreign culture,” adds Nadiem.

According to Brig. Agha Ahmad Gul: “Alexander’s stay in Gandhara was short (327 BC), but he left a large population of Greeks in all the regions he conquered, including Gandhara. Craftsmen, soldiers and other followers were encouraged to marry and blend in with the local population, introducing Greek civilization to the conquered regions which affected their history for centuries to come.

Buddha image

One of the greatest contributions of Gandhara Buddhist art is the depiction of the Buddha as we now conceptualize him, showing Greco-Roman influence. Nadiem says the Buddha was first depicted in human form (and not just symbolically) in the second and third centuries AD, which followed the emergence of devotional Buddhism during the era of the “Great Buddhist Council” of Kanishka. And it is also in Gandhara that we find the only statue in the world of a fasting Buddha.

Pakistan assiduously uses its Buddhist heritage to build cultural ties with Buddhist countries and also promote religious tourism. Buddhist relics were brought to Sri Lanka for display and trips were arranged for Buddhist monks to visit Gandhara. And now a documentary about Gandhara has been made.

Currently, Buddha images and relics are safe in Pakistan and the museums there are well maintained. But Islamic iconoclastic groups inspired by the Afghan Taliban or ISIS do exist and could strike at any time. The attempt to project Pakistan as a tolerant multicultural country could suffer a serious setback if Islamic fanatics are not checked.