One of the surprises of the visit to the museum today was the images of the Buddha and of bodhisattvas from Gandhara.

For those that are unaware of the history, Gandhara was a kingdom located in the Peshawar valley in Northwestern India (the modern Afghan/Pakistan border region). The name of that valley may ring some current bells.

Gandhara was a Greek kingdom originally and was created as an outgrowth of the Greek speaking armies of Alexander the Great. The Greco-Bactrian Kingdom conquered the region (Bactria is the lovely place where the Taliban blew up the giant statues of the Buddha a few years ago). Many people are seemingly unaware that this region was ruled by Greek speaking people and influenced by Greek culture for a significant period of time and that there was quite a bit of contact between Hellenic civilization and that of India.

What makes Gandhara especially notable is that it is home to two things:

  1. The oldest surviving writings of the Buddha.
  2. The earliest visual representations of the Buddha as a human being.

You can read about the Gandharan Buddhist texts on Wikipedia. There are very recent (just in the last three years or so) translations of sutras being done from these but there is at least one popular work that is affordable on the matter (see Amazon).

The visual representations are more interesting in a way because in the period pre-dating them, the Buddha was not typically personified or directly represented. Instead, the Buddha would be represented by other symbols, such as the Bodhi Tree, a Stupa, the Wheel of the Law, etc. With the advent of the the representation on Gandhara, you wind up with clearly Greek influenced imagery.

For example, you have images of the Buddha where he clearly looks like Apollo:


Several of the images that I took today fall into that category.

In this same period, the Gandharan and other Greco-Indo kingdoms are also still making traditional Greek images of Greek gods or mythological figures.

Then you have the evolution of other figures. Vajrapani, who is very important as the protector of the Buddha and as a later heroic figure, has images clearly derived from Heracles such as this (with Vajrapani on the right):


Buddhist missionaries were found in Alexandria and they were familiar to some degree in that area. Graves marked with Buddhist symbols have been found and Clement of Alexandia mentions Buddhists:

"Thus philosophy, a thing of the highest utility, flourished in antiquity among the barbarians, shedding its light over the nations. And afterwards it came to Greece. First in its ranks were the prophets of the Egyptians; and the Chaldeans among the Assyrians; and the Druids among the Gauls; and the Sramanas among the Bactrians ("Σαρμαναίοι Βάκτρων"); and the philosophers of the Celts; and the Magi of the Persians, who foretold the Saviour's birth, and came into the land of Judaea guided by a star. The Indian gymnosophists are also in the number, and the other barbarian philosophers. And of these there are two classes, some of them called Sramanas ("Σαρμάναι"), and others Brahmins ("Βραφμαναι")."

– “The Stromata, or Miscellanies” Book I, Chapter XV

The myth that many of us were taught as children is that East and West did not meet until Marco Polo and others following him. It is always nice to see the evidence that the world is far more interesting than that.

I’ve put up a set on Flickr of images from Gandhara or the surrounding area that I’ve found for those interested.