Lord Rama’s brother Bharata and his wife Mandavi, a cousin of Sita, had two sons named Taksha and Pushkal. Bharata conquered the Gandhara region and ruled it. Two cities emerged in the valley surrounding the Kabul and Swat rivers, named after Bharata’s two sons – Taxila, named after Taksha and Peshawar named after Pushkal. The early settlement of these two great cities later became the basis for the Gandhara civilisation.
Mentioned in the Ramayana (8th – 4th BCE) and the Mahabharata, Gandhara thus had ancient roots. Much before Buddhism was propagated in the kingdom, the region had a significant population. Lord Rama’s these two nephews, obviously must have lived in the ancient Hindu realm, and consequently so did the early Gandharans. With Buddhism came an evolution of thought which brought new rules of life to live with, a new philosophy to adhere to, a new religious order to abide by – thus bringing in a new paradigm for ancient artistic traditions.
The amalgamation resulted in a unique civilisation, rooted in the traditions of the Nanda, the Magadha and the great Achaemenid Empire
The Gandhara civilisation prospered in the northwestern region of the Indian Subcontinent, in areas which are now in present-day northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. Gandhara is mentioned in an even older text of the Rigveda (1500-1200 BCE) which has a whole poem deciated to the kingdom. Another sacred text, the Atharvaveda (1500-1000 BCE) mentions the region and its people as ‘Gandharis’. The pivotal documentation from these ancient times establishes the fact that Gandhara as a civilisation existed in at least the Bronze Age. Gandhara is also mentioned as a satrapy of the ancient Achaemenid Empire of Iran. The Behistun inscription lists Gandhara along with Bactria and Scythia as one of the twenty-three territories ruled by King Darius I (522-486 BCE). The Achaemenid palace of Darius I at Susa has an inscription listing all the satrapies and regions of the empire which contributed in the building of the palace. It says the timber to build the palace was brought from Gandhara. Herodotus mentioned Gandhara in his Historica as one of the regions that paid taxes to Darius the Great. Gandhara was part of the Achaemenid Empire during the reigns of Cyrus II and Darius I.
Most probably it was in Kanishka’s reign that Mahayana Buddhism from Gandhara traveled through the Silk Road into China
The geographical features of the region made it an optimal point to have human settlements. The Gandhara civilisation took root in a fertile region, one of surreal natural beauty. The rivers were of great religious significance. For instance, the Kabul river and the Swat river converge at a single point from where they flow into the mighty Indus river. The point of confluence of these rivers was a sacred point. Interestingly long after those philosophies have ceased to influence people’s lives, the importance of this place is still significant. The local population still holds the place in reverence and bury their dead at that point. It is not only the Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BCE) who in his groundbreaking compilation of history, The Histories, mentions Gandhara as a satrapy of Darius I. Ptolemy (90-168 CE) the Hellenic Egyptian scientist says Gandhara existed in the basin of the Kabul river, which is now in present-day Pakistan.
Gandhara is surrounded by high mountains, making the region difficult to access, but because the region is so strategically located, it did not hinder people from all over the region to come to Gandhara – for not only trade and commerce but also for exchange of ideas and learning. Taxila hosted one of the first universities in the world. The region became the gateway into the Indian Subcontinent, producing a uniquely eclectic culture, which in turn produced splendid art.
The earliest records of Gandhara as a specific region date from 6th century BCE.
By the end of the 4th century BCE, Gandhara was invaded by Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE). He captured Ora, near present-day Swat, and then he conquered Pushkalavati, the capital of Gandhara which is present-day Charsadda and then the Indus River basin area, Hund. Alexander stayed in Taxila for a month. He was seriously wounded thrice while he campaigned in the north-western region of the Indian Subcontinent. Finally, close to the Beas river, with no optimistic chances of winning, he finally gave up the campaign at the insistence of his troops. Some historians say that his injuries in India were the main cause of his demise later. Alexander’s sojourn on the outskirts of the Indian Subcontinent was shortlived. By 316 BCE another great empire, the Mauryan, from the east, had already established firm control on the Gandhara region. Chandragupta Maurya not only defeated the rulers of satrapies in the Gandhara region, but also the formidable Seleucus I, the Macedonian general of Alexander, thus establishing another glorious era for the arts of the Gandhara region. The Mauryans set up a magnificent empire stretching from the eastern Bengal region to Baluchistan and parts of Iran and to the Hindu Kush mountains and Afghanistan in the west. This was probably one of the largest Empires that the world has seen. Gandhara inherited syncretic traditions in arts and culture because of the influence of varied peoples and traditions. The amalgamation resulted in a unique civilisation, rooted in the traditions of the Nanda, the Magadha as well as the great Achaemenid Empire. Chandragupta created a secure and effective empire where trade and commerce flourished unhindered in a very large area of land, making it a unique giant body of commercial activity under a single emperor. Chandragupta provided security and opportunity to his citizens to travel vast distances and to trade not only goods but also ideas – without any fear. Such an environment of course created a magnificent diffusion of traditions and promoted a dialogue. Ancient Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism all coexisted in the same realm, resulting in great learning and development of the thought process. Thus the early Gandhara art has roots also in the ancient Hindu culture and tradition.
Asoka the Great (269-232 BCE) was Chandragupta’s grandson. Asoka expanded the Mauryan Empire even further, and thus earned the title of ‘the Great’. However, the violence, misery the wretchedness of war and conquest brought a new dimension to Asoka’s personality. The Kalinga war became the deciding factor, when he saw that the lust for conquest brought profound misery to people. That was the time when Buddhism was making inroads into the society. Asoka was aghast after winning Orissa: he contemplated more and more on the purpose of life. He saw what war did to Orissa: witnessing the ordeal and the savagery of war made him realise that conquest and power was not everything and that there was a larger purpose to his existence. Asoka thus converted to Buddhism. The Emperor then emerged as the main propagator of Buddhist philosophy in the Indian Subcontinent, including of course the Gandhara region. Asoka erected great edifices all over his vast empire, guiding people on the virtues of a peaceful life and the glory of Buddha’s teachings. Some of these edifices have survived in Gandhara, and more also elsewhere in the Subcontinent.
Thus, under Asoka the Great, began the Buddhist era of the Gandhara region. During Asoka’s rule in Gandhara another Greco-Bactrian dynasty emerged around the Oxus river. In around the 2nd century BCE, Demetrius of Bactria invaded the Gandhara region and again set up another Indo-Greek or Bactrian kingdom. Taxila became the capital. A later Bactrian king who came to rule over Gandhara was Menander I (165-130 BCE). King Menander also became a great patron of Buddhism: his dialogue with one if of the famous sages, Nagasena, became part of the important Buddhist work Milinda Panha. By the 1st century BCE, Scythian tribes were at the threshold of the Gandhara region and trying to invade the Empire – which they eventually did. By the 1st century CE, the Irano-Parthian tribes were vying for the control of Gandhara. One of the more significant among their rulers was Gondophares I, who ruled Gandhara for a substantial period. However in the 1st century CE, the Yuehzhi, a confederation of several tribes in present-day northeastern Afghanistan and southern Tajikistan were in a state of upheaval. In the Chinese chronicles on the history of the Han, General Ban Chao reported to the Chinese Emperor about the Prince of Badakhshan invading the Kabul region and sebsequently the Gandhara region and declaring himself the King. From this line, Kujula and Vima both ruled the Gandhara, however the glory of the Empire truly began when King Kanishka of the Kushans ascended the throne. The Kushans were overwhelmingly Zoroastrians, but they started adopting Buddhist and Hindu traditions too. King Vima had converted to Shiva-ism, later Kings believed in a variety of philosophical beliefs. The magnificence of the Empire came when Kanishka (127-151 CE) ascended the throne. Kanishka expanded the Empire and paid great attention to the arts and crafts, producing exceptional Buddhist sculptures, reliefs and statues. Kanishka moved his capital to Purushapura, present-day Peshawar, where he built the Kanishka Stupa and two more capitals to facilitate a large empire – Bagram in Afghanistan, and Mathura in UP, India. Kanishka became a patron of Buddhism and his wide-ranging conquests became a tool of promoting the Buddhist philosohpy. Most probably it was in Kanishka’s reign that Mahayana Buddhism from Gandhara traveled through the Silk Road into China. The city of Taxila was a centre of Buddhist learning. Monks from all over the empire and beyond would come to Taxila to learn the intricacies of Buddhist philosophy and way of life. The remnants of the great university at Taxila are still there to be seen, and also there are the many monasteries, like the Jaulian monastery where monks lived and taught Buddhism. Madhyantika, the famous monk who was instrumental in promoting Buddhism to far-flung regions especially in the Kashmir region, was himself proselytised in the Gandhara region. As Gandhara became famous as a place of learning, several Chinese monks visited to gain knowledge. Among other things, their chronicles become a vital source for the history of Gandhara. In 399 CE, Chinese monk Faxian (Fa-hsien in Wade-Giles Romanisation of Chinese) visited Gandhara. He stayed in the cities of Swat, Taxila, Shahbazgarhi and the Kandahar region.
Gandhara became a vassal state of the Sassanid Empire of Persia in 241-450 CE. The arch enemies of the Sassanids, the Hepthalite Huns, have an ambiguous identity: they are sometimes called the White Huns and sometimes described as a mixture of Turkic and Iranian tribes. They captured the Gandhara territory in around 450 CE. The White Huns did not adopt Buddhism.
Another monk Song Yun visited Taxila in 520 CE. He came across an incredible experience, when he met a Bodhisattva who cut his own head and offered it to another – or so he recorded in his chronicles.
By the time Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang in Wade-Giles Romanisation) 602-664 CE, another Chinese monk and traveler, arrived in the Kingdom of Gandhara, it was already in ruins. The great realm in which the kingdom existed was now a shambles – the villages were dilapidated the roads were shabby and unkempt. The Buddhist monasteries gave a forlorn look.