The Gandhara Culture of Ancient India

The Gandhara culture of northern India was a fascinating episode in world history. Here was a location in space and time where two civilizations met: Ancient Greek and Ancient Indian. The result was a rich fusion of elements, which went on the have an impact right across Asia.



Historical overview

Government and Administration




Introduction to the Gandhara culture

The Gandhara culture arose from the mingling of Indian, Greek and Iranian elements in the region in either side of the Hindu Kush mountains, on the northwest borders of the Indian subcontinent. It emerged gradually over several centuries, between the 3rd century BCE and 2nd century CE, and then flourished until the Islamic conquests of central Asia in the 8th  century.

The northwest region of the Indian subcontinent is one through which foreigners from central and western Asia have passed into India since time immemorial. With them have come their ideas, religions and styles of art. Persian, Greek, central Asian, even Chinese influences arrived along the great trade routes of western and central Asia; and here, on the northwestern borders of India, they mingled with influences from the rest of the subcontinent to create a richly hybrid culture. This in turn spread out eastwards across northern India to form an important element within the complex melange of Indian civilization.

Historical overview of the Gandhara culture

Northwest India had a long history of being under foreign rule. The Persians conquered the region – then called Bactria – at least as early as the reign of Darius the Great, and possibly under Cyrus the Great – that is, from the earliest period of the Persian Empire (later 6th century/early 5th century BCE). Trade routes between India and the West ran through the region and enriched such cities as Taxila, one of the great cities of ancient India.

Alexander the Great and his successors

Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia in northern Greece, conquered western India as far as the Indus Valley in the mid-320s BCE, and planted Greek-style colonies for his veteran soldiers there. In fact, Greek settlement in the area – or at least in Bactria, the region to the west of the Hindu Kush – date back to Persian times, when the Achaemenid kings settled Greek exiles there (about as far away from their homeland as possible).

Some years after Alexander’s death in 323, the eastern provinces of his empire fell to one of his generals, Seleucus. Seleucus’ eastern frontier was threatened by the rising power of the Mauryan king, Chandragupta. There may have been a battle between them, but whether so or not, there was certainly a treaty, by the terms of which Seleucus ceded all of his Indian territories to Chandragupta. In exchange, Chandragupta gave Seleucus 500 war elephants. These would prove of great value to Seleucus in his wars with his western rivals, and for a time no self-respecting Hellenistic king could do without a force of elephants in his army.

The kingdom of Bactria

Even after the loss of their Indian possessions, Seleucus and his descendants had great difficulty in keeping hold of their eastern territories. In any case, they were more focussed on their struggles with their Hellenistic rivals in Egypt, Asia Minor and Greece. Bactria broke away from the Seleucid realm some time in the 3rd century BCE, when its governor, Diodotus, rebelled against the Seleucid king Antiochus. Subsequent efforts by Antiochus and his successors to reclaim their easternmost provinces (Parthia had also asserted its independence) were half-hearted and ineffectual.

Diodotus founded a line of Greek kings. The Greek-speaking ruling class of his kingdom was drawn from the Hellenistic cities founded by Alexander and Seleucus. These had flourished and expanded on the back of the trade passing through the region. They had originally been modeled on the classic cities of the Greek homeland, with their acropolis, temples, stoa, gymnasia, theaters, pillared promenades, greek-style statues and buildings embellished with patterned mosaic floors. Regular street layouts give evidence of urban planning, typical of the colonies established throughout the Hellenistic world in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquest. The city governments were based on the town councils and elected magistrates of Greece, and they nurtured a self-consciously Greek culture.

The Bactrian coins were excellent examples of Greek-style minting. They were of high aesthetic appeal (and in fact provide a main source of information for reconstructing the history of the region at this time), and complied with the Attic (or Athenian) standard of coins, which circulated widely throughout the Hellenistic world, including Bactria.

The Indo-Greek kingdoms

A generation or two after Diodotus, his successor Demetrius took advantage of the power vacuum created by the decline of the Mauyran empire by expanding the kingdom into the Indian subcontinent proper. He conquered south east of the Hindu Kush and acquired a large territory, covering southern Afghanistan, the Punjab and the Indus Valley. He and his successors also conducted forays into the Ganges heartlands of Indian civilization.

The best-known of all the Indo-Greek kings was Menander (or Milinda, as he is called in Indian sources – reigned c.150-135 BCE).  Menander converted to Buddhism, and figures in important Buddhist writings. He also extended the frontiers of his realm in India, conquering territory in the Ganges Plain. These conquests were, however, short-lived.

To what extent the Greek rulers of northwest India maintained the Hellenistic characteristics of the original Bactrian kingdom is hard to say. Greek apparently remained the language of the court. In the Punjab and Indus Valley, coins with bilingual Greek and Brahmi legends were common. They showed portraits of rulers and representations of deities, both Greek and Indian (portraiture on coins was an innovation in India, and did not catch on there).

The Indo-Greek kings were patrons of multiple religious sects, which show clear evidence for the intermingling of Hellenistic with Indian cultures. Greek cults, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and the new Hindu sects arising at that time, the Shaiva, Vaishnava and Bhagavata cults (the alien rulers and their kind were not attracted to Brahmanism, which regarded foreigners as outside the caste system (and therefore of Indian society) are all evidenced in Gandhara culture.

Sakas, Parthians, Kushanas and Kshatrapas

The Indo-Greek kingdom started to fragment into a number of warring kingdoms after Menander’s time. Bactria itself had already broken away. In the mid-2nd century, the Scythians, a nomadic people of the Oxus region of central Asian, migrated into Bactria and occupied the region. They did so under pressure from another central Asian people, the Yuezhi, who had originally inhabited a region much further east, in Mongolia.

The Scythians occupied not only Bactria but south-eastern Iran as well, which from then on became known as Sakastan (“Saka” is the Iranian and Indian name for Scythian), or Sistan. In the 80s BCE the Sakas began the occupation of the Punjab and the Indus Valley.

By c. 50 BCE all the Indo-Greek kingdoms had been extinguished. The Info-Greek culture which they had nurtured lived on, however. This period therefore formed the first, and most important, phase in the development of Gandhara culture.

The Saka rule over Bactria and northwestern India was short-lived. Internal dissensions within their ranks led to the rise of Parthian (or Pahlava) power in the region. This may have originally been the result of a conquest expedition from the Parthian empire, which had come to rule much of western Asia by that date; however, by the first century CE  a separate Indo-Parthian kingdom ruled in the Punjab and Indus Valley. Its most famous king was Gondophares, who appears (perhaps apocryphally) in the account of the first Christian mission to India, that of St Thomas.

The Yuezhi, who had ousted the Saka (Scythians) from the Oxus region of central Asia, had meanwhile been consolidating themselves into an organized kingdom under the rule of one of their clans, the Kushana. In the early first century CE, the Kushana conquered Bactria, and later swept down into India to conquer the Punjab and deep in the Ganges Plain. The Indus Valley remained under the rule of a number of Saka rulers, now freed from Parthian overlordship. These were known as the “Western Satraps” (Kshatrapas).

The period of the Kushana empire also retained – and probably expanded – its territory in central Asia. Its most famous king was Kanishka, under whom the empire apparently reached its largest extent. When he reigned is unclear: his accession could have been anywhere between 78 CE and 144 CE.

The Kushana empire saw Gandhara culture reach maturity. Under it, the Greek and Indian elements within it received a generous admixture of Persian(or Iranian) elements. In the Kushana period these all fused to create a distinctive and fascinating cultural mélange.

Government and administration in Gandhara culture

When conquering his huge empire, Alexander the Great essentially took over the Persian administrative structures he found already in place. These were based on large provinces, governed by satraps. These high officials enjoyed wide-ranging powers, including military, judicial and administrative responsibilities over the peoples of their areas. Nominally appointed by the Persian king, some of them had become virtuality hereditary rulers within their own provinces.

Each of these province was subdivided into districts under lesser governors. These also had wide powers within their own smaller areas. These officials often belonged to local dynastic families who had accepted Persian rule and been rewarded by keeping hold of their lands under Persian suzerainty.

The Indo-Greek kings, as successors of Alexander, continued this practice, as did their Saka, Parthian and Kushana successors. They did so with varying degrees of control, however. The Saka state seems to have been more or less a coalition of satraps. This helps to explain both its weakness in the face of Parthian invasion, and also its durability after the Kushana conquest if northern India, where a group of satraps continued to hold out in the Indus Valley.

The Kushana empire itself seems to have shown a mixture of central and local control. Some regions were directly administered by the royal power whilst others were under local satraps. Still others were governed by pre-existing rulers who had  accepted Kushana suzerainty.

The Persian influence can also be seen on the royal titles the rulers accorded themselves. The Saka kings took the title – “Great King, King of Kings” – derived from Achaemenid and Seleucid usage. Kushana kings also followed this usage. However they also used royal titles drawn from more distant regions: “Son of Heaven”, probably an imitation of the Chinese emperor’s title, and Kasaira, or Caesar, borrowed from the Roman Empire. Another borrowing from the Roman Empire seems to have been emperor-worship, as is indicated by sanctuaries built to deified kings after their deaths.

Gandhara Culture

It was in the Kushana period that Gandhara culture reached its full maturity.

As the royal titles suggests, cultural influences were being felt from China, Iran and the Roman Empire, as well as of course from the rest of the Indian subcontinent. By Kushana times the Silk Road across central Asia was well-established, and trade was flowing freely across Eurasia. It was probably in Kushana times also that an ancient version of the modern Karakorum Highway was constructed up the upper Indus Valley. At its northern terminus it linked up with the Silk Road at Samarkand. This boosted trade – and with it, cultural influences, coming into the region from far flung civilizations.

Just as in Indo-Greek times, the mingling of influences can be seen in the royal patronage extended to various religions – Buddhism, Jainism, the Bhogavata and Shaiva sects of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and various Hellenistic cults. Jewish communities began to appear in the region, and the first Christian churches were built at this time.

Kanishka himself was a patron of Buddhism. He is especially associated with the assembly known as the Fourth Buddhist Council. This was called to clarify Buddhist doctrines, in a context of growing confusion in some areas of belief. The council gave a stimulus to the rise of Mahayana Buddhism as a distinct tradition within the religion.

The council also authorized missionary activity within central Asia, and in was apparently in Kushana times that the first Buddhist missionaries reached China.

More generally, the Kushana period had a deep impact on the religious beliefs and practices of the people of northwest India and central Asia. Greeks converted to Indian sects while Indians began to worship western deities or convert to Iranian Zoroastrianism.

Gandhara Art

This syncretism is shown clearly in the art of Gandhara. Hellenistic deities such as Atlas, Herakles, the wind god Boreas, and cupids appear with Indian gods such as Shiva and Indra. Figures are shown in typical Hellenistic style – a relaxed pose with the weight on one foot, a fluid sense of movement, a measured quality of face, an idealized realism. They are depicted as in Greek festivities, drinking wine from amphoras and playing instruments.

In earlier times, Buddhist artists tended not to depict the Buddha, preferring to suggest his presence with symbols associated with him such as the Bodhi tree, the wheel, or the footprints. Under Greek influence, Gandhara art discards such reticence. He is shown as a human being in a form inspired by Hellenistic sculptural styles. Scenes of the life of the Buddha show a Greek architectural background, with Corinthian pillars and friezes, and figures wearing a light, toga-type cloak, its drapes and folds almost sensuously rendered.

Stucco, a medium of great plasticity, was widely used, enabling sculptors to achieve a high degree of expressiveness. It enabled such decorative motifs as vines and floral scrolls to be produced.

In Gandhara architecture, Greek motifs such as pillars topped with Corinthian capitals are used in Buddhist stupas.

As time went by, Hellenistic and Buddhist elements started to fuse. Early Gandhara art was extremely realistic, but it later became increasingly stylistic. Nevertheless, the idealized realism, the sense of movement, the sensuous drapery, the more relaxed posture remain, and pass on into later Indian art. This can clearly be seen in the art of the Gupta Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries CE.

Indeed, Gandhara styles of art became intimately associated with Buddhism, and followed Buddhist missionaries to China, Korea and Japan.  For example, some roof tiles from early Buddhist Japan show realistic figures wearing folded garments in a strikingly Hellenistic style.

The Decline of Gandhara culture

The power of the Kushana Empire waned as that of the new Sasanian Empire rose, from the mid-3rd century CE. Gandhara styles survived, but the urban civilization of the region was dealt a heavy bow by the tracks of the Huns, in the 5th and 6th centuries. The Sasanians regained control of the region in the 6th century, but in the 7th century the Islamic Caliphate started overrunning central Asia. This spelt the end of the Gandhara culture.

Further study

Articles on Ancient India:

Ancient India – an overview of the civilization of Ancient India

The Indus Valley Civilization of Ancient India

The Vedic Age of Ancient India

Ancient India at the time of the Buddha

The Mauryan Empire of Ancient India

The Gupta Empire

The Deccan empires of Ancient and Medieval India

History maps of Ancient India:

Ancient India and South Asia in 3500 BCE: Prehistory

Ancient India and South Asia in 2500 BCE: Indus Valley Civilization

Ancient India and South Asia in 1500 BCE: The Aryan Migrations

Ancient India and South Asia in 1000 BCE: The Vedic Age

Ancient India and South Asia in 500 BCE: India at the time of the Buddha

Ancient India and South Asia in 200 BCE: The Mauryan empire

Ancient India and South Asia in 30 BCE: India after the Maurya

Ancient India and South Asia in 200 CE: Fragmented India

Ancient India and South Asia in 500 CE: The Gupta Empire

External links:

For a newspaper article, Dawn’s treatment of Gandhara civilization is surprisingly informative.

And here’s an interesting take on Gandhara Buddhist culture.