The Lost World of Buddhist Gandhara

An Ancient Buddhist Kingdom of the Middle East

Gandhara Seated Buddha
A Buddha sculpture from Kapisa Province, Afghanistan, dated 3rd-4th century CE. Michel Porro/Getty Images

In 2001, the world mourned the senseless destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Buddhas of Bamiyan are only a small part of a great heritage of Buddhist art that is being destroyed by war and fanaticism. Members of radical Islamic Taliban have destroyed many Buddhist statues and artifacts in the Swat Valley of Afghanistan, and with each act of destruction, we lose some of the heritage of Buddhist Gandhara.


The ancient kingdom of Gandhara stretched across parts of present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was a vital commercial center of the Middle East many centuries before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. Some scholars relate the name of current-day Kandahar to this ancient kingdom. 

For a time, Gandhara also was a jewel of Buddhist civilization. Scholars of Gandhara traveled east to India and China and were influential in the development of early Mahayana Buddhism. The art of Gandhara included the earliest oil paintings known in human history and the first--and some of the most beautiful--depictions of bodhisattvas and the Buddha in human form.

However, the artifacts and archaeological remains of Gandhara still are being systematically destroyed by the Taliban. The loss of the Bamiyan Buddhas gained the world's attention because of their size, but many other rare and ancient pieces of art have been lost since.

In November 2007 the Taliban attacked a seven-meter tall, 7th century stone Buddha in the Jihanabad area of Swat, severely damaging its head. In 2008 a bomb was planted in a museum of Gandharan art in Pakistan, and the explosion damaged more than 150 artifacts.

The Significance of Gandharan Art

Nearly 2,000 years ago, artists of Gandhara began to sculpt and paint the Buddha in ways that have influenced Buddhist art ever since.

Prior to this era, earlier Buddhist art did not depict the Buddha. Instead, he was represented by a symbol or an empty space. But Gandharan artists were the first to picture the Buddha as a human being.

In a style influenced by Greek and Roman art, Gandharan artists sculpted and painted the Buddha in realistic detail. His face was serene. His hands were posed in symbolic gestures. His hair was short, curled and knotted at the top. His robe was gracefully draped and folded. These conventions spread throughout Asia and are found in depictions of the Buddha to this day.

In spite of its importance to Buddhism, much of the history of Gandhara was lost for centuries. Modern archaeologists and historians have pieced together some of the story of Gandhara, and fortunately, much of its wonderful art is safe in the world's museums, away from war zones.

Where Was Gandhara?

The Kingdom of Gandhara existed, in one form or another, for more than 15 centuries. It began as a province of the Persian Empire in 530 BCE and ended in 1021 CE, when its last king was assassinated by his own troops. During those centuries it periodically expanded and shrank, and its borders changed many times.

The old kingdom included what is now Kabul, Afghanistan and Islamabad, Pakistan.

Find Bamiyan (spelled Bamian) west and slightly north of Kabul. The area marked "Hindu Kush" also was part of Gandhara. A  map of Pakistan shows the location of the historic city of Peshawar. The Swat Valley, not marked, is just west of Peshawar and is important to the history of Gandhara.

Early History of Gandhara

This part of the Middle East has supported human civilization for at least 6,000 years, during which political and cultural control of the region has shifted several times. In 530 BCE,  the Persian Emperor Darius I conquered Gandhara and made it part of his empire. The Persians would dominate Gandhar for close to 200 years, until the Greeks under Alexander the Great of Greece defeated the armies of Darius III in 333 BCE. Alexander gradually conquered Persian territories until by  327 BCE Alexander controlled Gandhara, also.

One of Alexander's successors, Seleucus, became ruler of Persia and Mesopotamia. However, Seleucus made the mistake of challenging his neighbor to the east, the Emperor Chandragupta Maurya of India. The confrontation did not go well for Seleucus, who ceded much territory, including Gandhara, to Chandragupta.

The entire Indian subcontinent, including Gandhara, remained in control of Chandragupta and his descendants for several generations. Chandragupta first bequeathed control to his son, Bindusara, and when Bindusara died, probably in 272 BCE, he left the empire to his son, Ashoka.

Ashoka the Great Adopts Buddhism

Ashoka (ca. 304–232 BCE; sometimes spelled Asoka) originally was a warrior prince known for his ruthlessness and cruelty. According to legend, he was first exposed to Buddhist teaching when monks cared for his wounds after a battle. However, his brutality continued until the day he walked into a city he had just conquered and saw the devastation. According to legend, the prince exclaimed "What have I done?" and vowed to observe the Buddhist path for himself and for his kingdom.

Ashoka's empire included almost all of present-day India and Bangladesh as well as most of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was his patronage of Buddhism that left the greater mark on world history, however. Ashoka was instrumental in making Buddhism one of the most prominent religions of Asia. He built monasteries, erected stupas, and supported the work of Buddhist missionaries, who took the dharma into Gandhara and Gandhara's western neighbor, Bactria.

The Mauryan Empire declined after Ashoka's death. The Greek-Bactrian King Demetrius I conquered Gandhara about 185 BCE, but subsequent wars made Gandhara an Indo-Greek kingdom independent of Bactria.

Buddhism Under King Menander

One of the most prominent of the Indo-Greek kings of Gandhara was Menander, also called Melinda, who ruled from about 160 to 130 BCE. Menander is said to have been a devout Buddhist. An early Buddhist text called The Milindapañha records a dialogue between King Menander and a Buddhist scholar named Nagasena.

After Menander's death, Gandhara was invaded again, first by Scythians and then Parthians. The invasions wiped out the Indo-Greek kingdom.

Next, we'll learn about the rise and decline of Gandharan Buddhist culture. 


The Kushans

The Kushans (also called the Yuezhi) were an Indo-European people who came to Bactria--now northwestern Afghanistan--about 135 BCE. In the 1st century BCE, the Kushans united under the leadership of Kujula Kadphises and took control of Gandhara away from the Scytho-Parthians. Kujula Kadphises established a capital near what is now Kabul, Afghanistan.

Eventually, the Kushans extended their territory to include part of present-day Uzbekistan, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The kingdom extended into northern India as far east as Benares. Eventually the sprawling empire would require two capitals--Peshawar, near the Khyber Pass, and Mathura in northern India. The Kushans controlled a strategic part of the Silk Road and a busy port on the Arab Sea near what is now Karachi, Pakistan. Their great wealth supported a flourishing civilization.

Kushan Buddhist Culture

Kushan Gandhara was a multi-ethnic blend of many cultures and religions, including Buddhism. Gandhara's location and dynamic history brought together Greek, Persian, Indian, and many other influences. The mercantile wealth supported scholarship and the fine arts.

It was under Kushan rule that Gandharan art developed and flourished. The earliest Kushan art mostly reflects Greek and Roman mythology, but as time went on Buddhist figures became dominant. The very first depictions of the Buddha in human form were made by artists of Kushan Gandhara, as were the first depictions of bodhisattvas.

The Kushan King Kanishka I (127–147) in particular is remembered as a great patron of Buddhism, and is said to have convened a Buddhist council in Kashmir. He did build a great stupa in Peshawar. Archeologists discovered and measured its base about a century ago and determined the stupa had a diameter of 286 feet.

Accounts of pilgrims suggest it may have been as tall as 690 feet (210 meters) and was covered with jewels.

Beginning in the 2nd century, Buddhist monks from Gandhara actively engaged in transmitting Buddhism into China and other parts of north Asia. A 2nd century Kushan monk named Lokaksema was among the first translators of Mahayana Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. Thus, the northern transmission of Buddhism into China was through the Kushan Grandhara Kingdom

King Kanishka's reign marked the peak of the Kushan era of Gandhara. In the 3rd century, the territory ruled by Kushan kings began to shrink, and Kushan rule ended altogether in 450, when what was left of Kushan Gandhara was overrun by Huns. Some Buddhist monks gathered as much Kushan art as they could carry and took it to what is now the Swat Valley of Pakistan, where Buddhism would survive for a few more centuries.


In western Gandhara and Bactria, Buddhist monasteries and communities established during the Kushan era also continued to grow and flourish for the next few centuries. Among these was Bamiyan.

By the 4th century, Bamiyan was home to one of the largest monastic communities in all Central Asia. The two great Buddhas of Bamiya--one nearly 175 feet tall, the other 120 feet tall--may have been carved as early as the 3rd century or as late as the 7th century.

The Bamiyan Buddhas represented another development in Buddhist art. While earlier, Kushan art had depicted the Buddha as a human being, the carvers of Bamiyan were reaching for something more transcendent. The larger Bamiyan Buddha is the transcendent Buddha Vairocana, representing the dharmakaya beyond time and space, in which all beings and phenomena abide, unmanifested. Thus, Vairocana contains the universe, and for this reason, Vairocana was carved on a colossal scale.

Bamiyan art also developed a unique style distinctive from the art of Kushan Gandhara--a style that was less Hellenic and more of a fusion of Persian and Indian style.

One of the greatest achievements of Bamiyan art has only recently been appreciated, but unfortunately not until most of it had been defaced by the Taliban.

Bamiyan artists dog dozens of small caves out of the cliffs gehind the great buddha statues  and filled them with painted murals. In 2008, scientists analyzed the murals and realized that some of them had been painted with oil-based paint--the earliest use of oil painting yet to be discovered. Before this, art historians had believed the beginning of oil painting occured in painted murals in 15th century Europe.

The Swat Valley: Birthplace of Tibetan Vajrayana?

Now we go back to the Swat Valley in north central Pakistan and pick up the story there. As stated earlier. Buddhism in the Swat Valley survived the Hun invasion of 450. At the peak of Buddhist influence, the Swat Valley was filled with as many as 1400  stupas and monasteries.

According to Tibetan tradition, the great 8th century mystic Padmasambhava was from Uddiyana, which is thought to have been the Swat Valley. It was Padmasambhava who brought Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet and built the first Buddhist monastery there.

The Emergence of Islam and the End of Gandhara

In the 6th century CE, the Sassanian dynasty of Persia took control of Gandhara, but after the Sassanians suffered a military defeat in 644, Gandhara was ruled by the Turki Shahis, a Turkic people related to the Kushans. In the 9th century control of Gandhara reverted to Hindu rulers, called the Hindu Shahis.

Islam reached Gandhara in the 7th century. For the next few centuries, Buddhists and Muslims lived together in mutual peace and respect. Buddhist communities and monasteries that came under Muslim rule were, with a few exceptions, left alone.

But Gandhara was long past its prime, and conquest by Mahmud of Ghazna (ruled 998–1030) effectively put an end to it. Mahmud defeated the Hindu Gandharan King Jayapala, who then committed suicide. Jayapala's son Trilocanpala was assassinated by his own troops in 1012, an act that marked the official end of Gandhara.

Mahmud allowed the Buddhist communities and monasteries under his rule alone to remain undisturbed, as had most Muslim rulers.

Even so, after the 11th century, Buddhism in the region gradually withered away. It is difficult to pin down exactly when the last Buddhist monasteries in Afghanistan and Pakistan were abandoned, but for many centuries the Buddhist cultural heritage of Gandhara was preserved by the Muslim descendants of the Gandharans.