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Gandharan Art In Focus: The Origins and Development of Kushan-Era Sculpture

The region of Gandhara, located in the Peshawar basin in the north-west of the ancient Indian subcontinent, was first mentioned in the Bisitun inscription of Darius, Ca. 516 BC as part of the Achaemenid Empire. The region has provided the stage for a range of important cultural and military conflicts and confluences involving Alexander the Great, Seleucus I, the Mauryan, Sunga, Kunva, Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian, and Kushan Empires. Other influential neighbouring cultures include the Bactrians, Parthians, and Sassanids. [1] 

The diverse nature of Gandhara’s rulers and population, combined with the region’s strategic location on the Silk Road and proximity to the Arabian Sea, meant that Gandhara became an intricate blend of artistic languages. [2] These cultures coalesced wonderfully during the Kushan Empire and thereafter as the region was transformed into a hive of sculptural activity. By exploring the religious and geo-political developments that affected the region during its long history, we can ascertain how the magnificent sculptural output of the Kushan Empire came to be.

stone stele with seated buddha recessed. with vegetal motifs and people around
Figure 1. Gandharan Schist Panel Depicting Buddha Shakyamuni with Attendants. Ca. 2nd-3rd Century AD.

The Mauryan Empire: The Beginnings of Imperial Buddhism

Chandragupta, the founder of the Mauryan empire, established control over much of India during the late 4th Century BC, driving Seleucid sovereignty back beyond the Hindu Kush in 305 BC. [3] His grandson, Asoka, was the earliest imperial patron of Buddhism, with accounts of his devotion to the religion reaching semi-mythical status. Asoka sent Buddhist envoys far and wide for the purpose of spreading Buddhist worship and practices, creating a long-lasting effect on the religious landscape of India. His famous inscribed pillars, some of which were built in the Gandhara region, form some of the oldest evidence for stone sculpture in India, which replaced the wood, ivory, and metals used in earlier periods. These stone sculptures are the antecedents to the stone schist sculpture prominent under the Kushan Dynasty. [4]

Mahayana Buddhism: The Changing Landscape of Buddhist Thought

The rise in prominence of Mahayana Buddhism is generally dated to the 1st Century BC-2nd century AD, based on the appearance of a series of affiliated texts. Before this, Buddhism had become rather restricted in terms of access, largely becoming the preserve of monks. Mahayana Buddhism reversed this trend, presenting a religious doctrine that was once again open to the community. [5]

Another important change associated with the doctrine is the deification of Buddha Gautama, who moves from a historical, mortal man concerned with guiding other Buddhists in working towards their own salvation to a divine, transcendent figure who advocates for the search for enlightenment chiefly to benefit others. [6] Mahayana Buddhism also stresses the concept of Bhakti, which emphasises the devotee’s personal relationship with the deity. These factors, combined with the more visual nature of the worship (Mahayana stresses the ability to see Buddhas through meditation), had a significant impact on Buddhist art in Gandhara and the region at large. [7]

Previous to this, the Buddha had been represented in art by a range of symbols, including the tree, wheel, or an empty throne. These were interspersed when needed into continuous friezes depicting the life of Shakyamuni. [8] With the advent of Mahayana Buddhism, the anthropomorphic image of the Buddha became more popular and depicted with certain traits that emphasise his divinity, such as the halo and ushnisha, a chignon located on the skull that signified supra-spiritual knowledge. His elongated earlobes also suggest the past presence of large jewels, a biographical nod to the early life of Prince Siddhartha. [9]

Another artistic development linked to Mahayana Buddhism is the birth of the Bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas are beings who can achieve enlightenment but delay this process to help others to achieve the same goal. [10] In terms of composition, the sculptors of Gandhara drew from the existing iconographical language of pre-Buddhist yaksha cults for the visual construction of the Bodhisattva. Directly opposed to the simplistic construction of the Buddha, the Bodhisattva was intricately embellished with jewellery, long hair, and a mustache, which perhaps presented a more appealing form for the merchant and non-monastic classes to whom Buddhism was now more readily available. [11]

The most popular of these mystical beings was Bodhisattva Maitreya, the Buddha of the future. Gandharan renditions of this figure depict him with a strong, youthful body that is intricately adorned. His spiritual advancement is denoted by the longer earlobes, halo, and wheel design frequently present on the palm, while his ascetic lifestyle is emphasised by the inclusion of long, wavy locks. [12] Like the other Bodhisattvas, he wears the turban, elaborate jewels, and muslin skirt associated with the nobility of the Kushan Empire. [13]

The Kushan Empire: Patronage and Proliferation of Buddhist Art

The Kushan dynasty began as a tribe involved in the Yuezhi confederation. Having been pushed out of their homeland in Northwest China in Ca. 165 BC, the Kushans grew extremely wealthy and came to rule much of the territory of modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Northern India by the 1st Century AD, displacing the Indo-Scythians and Indo-Greeks. [14] Kanishka I, the grandson of Kujula Kadphises, ruled the Kushan empire at some point during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, the dates of his reign being hotly debated. He was remembered on a similar level to Asoka for his promotion of Buddhism. Under his rule, many foundational texts were composed by the Buddhist monks living in Gandhara, transforming the region into the veritable holy land of Buddhism, with many sites being apocryphally associated with the life of Sakyamuni. [15] Kanisha’s reign and artistic patronage also bore a strong multicultural streak, with his coins displaying the Buddha but also various Hindu, Greek, Iranian, and Roman deities as advertisements of his diplomatic and commercial connections. [16]

A combination of these factors led to an explosion and diversification of Buddhist sculpture under the Kushan Empire. This can be split into the more traditional works of the southern capital of Mathura, and the sculpture of Gandhara, which stands apart from the corpus of Indian art for the nexus of artistic influences that make up its output. [17] Figures from the earlier period under Kanishka are characterised by their rounded facial features and flapping, apron-like drapery. Branching out from the continuous narratives of the pre-Kushan era, standing and seated Buddha statues were made in huge numbers and were arranged in long rows at shrines or stupas. They have been variously interpreted as representations of Shakyamuni, symbols of the achievement of enlightenment, or relating to the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism and representing innumerable celestial Buddhas. [18] Other later developments in the 3rd to 4th Century AD and the post-Kushan era include large scenes featuring a Buddha sitting on a lotus pedestal surrounded by diminutive supporters, and statues of the emaciated Buddha suffering the deprivations of the ascetic lifestyle. [19]

Gandharan Style: A Cultural Melting Pot of Artistic Influences

Gandharan sculpture is notoriously difficult to date, which is largely due to the nexus of cultural influences at play in the sculptural corpus, sometimes even on the same statue. The visual language of the Graeco-Roman and Iranian worlds were particularly key to understanding the origins of Gandharan style art, which indeed may have been influenced by the long-standing traditions of anthropomorphic god worship present in both cultures.

gandharan schist head of buddha with wavy hair
Figure 7. Gandharan Schist Head of Buddha. Ca. AD 200-400. £2000.

The Near East

Near Eastern art has had a long-standing impact on the Indian region from as far back as the 3rd Millennium BC, exemplified in the close visual conflagration of the Mesopotamian and Indus Valley Civilisations. [20] The architecture of the Mauryan empire was also clearly influenced by Achaemenid models and potentially artisans, for example, the capital of Asoka at Sarnath which bears Persian lions. Other artistic borrowings from the 2nd and 1st Century BC include the sphinx, chimera, and griffin. [21]

It is unsurprising therefore that artistic motifs from the Near East continue to influence Gandharan art during the Kushan period. The use of the halo to indicate divinity on Buddha and Bodhisattva statues has its roots in the Near East, and the splaying turbans of the latter originate from Sassanid culture. The motif was incorporated following the Sassanid conquest of the western Kushan empire. Gandharan-style friezes from the 3rd Century AD even depict figures worshipping a flame, indicative of the incorporation of Zoroastrian practices into the religious practices of the region. [22]

The Graeco-Roman World

There is a long-standing debate on whether the style of Gandharan art owes more to the conquests of Alexander the Great and his Successors in the region, or to the later travels of Greco-Roman artisans working in the furthest reaches of the Roman empire. [23] Indeed Alexander’s conquests of Northern India in 326/5 BC must have exposed the peoples of Gandhara to Hellenic art and temples and sculptured fragments from the city of Sirkap at Taxila are testament to the endurance of Graeco-Roman influence during the Indo-Scythian / Parthian period (Ca. 3rd-2nd Century BC). One cannot deny the Greco-Roman influence on Gandharan art, as almost all the figures possess organic, naturalistic drapery and proportions associated with more Western art forms. [24]

Rowland, among others, argues passionately that the art of Gandhara under the Kushan dynasty was more closely related to Roman sculpture than Greek. Kujula Kadphises had established intimate commercial relations with 1st Century AD Rome, which only intensified when worsening relations with Parthia during the course of the century meant that the mountain passes of India became one of the only routes to East Asia. [25] The design forms and use of arcades to frame figures on Kushan-era sculpture surely betray strong links to Roman sarcophagus production of the 1st-2nd centuries AD, yet Rowland goes further than this, seeing in Gandharan sculpture across the centuries a direct link to the sculptural styles of the Flavians, Antonines, and the Late Antique. [26] While no school of thought has triumphed as of yet, it is unmistakable that Gandharan sculpture of the Kushan period and beyond stands out from the majority of Indian art for its highly Classicising forms.


The sculptural arts of Gandhara during the Kushan period are therefore a product of a network of influences that all coalesce and interact in a myriad of different ways. The heavily Buddhist subject matter and intricately worked iconography of Gandharan sculpture can be seen as a product of the gradual promotion of Buddhism across the region, which persisted and was catalysed by the change in religious emphasis brought about by Mahayana Buddhism. The style and artistic language with which these Buddhist pieces were rendered reveals a patchwork of cultural influence indicative of the storied and often chaotic history of the Peshawar basin. This diverse and deliberate sculptural tradition would not have occurred in such volumes without the patronage and belief of the Kushan dynasty, who leveraged their considerable wealth and geopolitical connections to transform Gandhara into the seat of Buddhism in Central Asia.

Written by Ella Wakefield


Explore our carefully curated collection of Gandharan statuary and ancient art from around the world by clicking the link below.



Coomaraswamy, A. K., 1927, History of Indian and Indonesian Art. London

Craven, R. C., 1976, A Concise History of Indian Art. Thames and Hudson.

Leidy, D. P., 2008, The Art of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its History & Meaning. Shambhala Publications.

Rowland, B., 1977, The Art and Architecture of India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain. Penguin Books


[1] Rowland 1977, 20-73.

[2] Leidy 2008, 38.

[3] Strabo 15.2.9.

[4] Rowland 1977, 39-42.

[5] Craven 1976, 81; Rowland 1977, 32.

[6] Craven 1976, 81; Leidy 2008, 32.

[7] Leidy 2008, 31-2.

[8] Coomaraswamy 1927, 45; Leidy 2008, 31.

[9] Craven 1976, 83.

[10] Craven 1976, 90; Rowland 1977, 33; Leidy 2008, 36.

[11] Coomaraswamy 1927, 47; Craven 1976, 90.

[12] Leidy 2008, 45-6.

[13] Craven 1976, 92; Rowland 1977, 81.

[14] Coomaraswamy 1927, 49; Leidy 2008, 33.

[15] Craven 1976, 92; Rowland 1977, Leidy 2008, 33.

[16] Crave 1976, 83; Rowland 1977, 76

[17] Coomaraswamy 1927, 52.

[18] Craven 1976, 95-6; Leidy 2008, 43-7.

[19] Leidy 2008, 41-48.

[20] Rowland 1977, 20.

[21] Craven 1976, 41; Rowland 1977, 20.

[22] Leidy 2008, 37, 46.

[23] For Greek origins see, Coomaraswamy 1927, 51; For Roman, Rowland 1977.

[24] Rowland 1977, 78; Leidy 2008, 43. For Indian influence over Indo-Greek and Bactrian peoples see, Coomaraswamy 1927, 49.


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