Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Gandhara: The Memory of Afghanistan

Book Review: Gandhara: The Memory of Afghanistan – by Berenice Geoffroy-Schneiter (Assouline Publishing, 2001)

This is basically an art book with beautiful color plates of Gandharan art. It was published when the Taliban were in control of Afghanistan and just after they blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in their fanatic hatred. There is not a whole lot of text to give more than a cursory introduction to the vast subject of Gandharan art. The plates are quite beautiful and the art depicted ranges in age from the 1st century C.E. to the 8th century C.E. The earlier art works seems to show more Greek influence. There is also clear Scythian and Persian influence in several of the artifacts.

The art of Gandhara is an art of what were originally Greek people that settled in the area after Alexander claimed the region in his conquests in the 300’s B.C.E. as well as people from India, greater Persia, and the Scythian steppes. Most of the art was made in the first century C.E., much of it during the reign of Kushan King Kanishka. By that time the culture was very mixed and called Indo-Greek by scholars. Buddhist Kings first appeared in the last century B.C.E. and they were depicted on coins. Since Alexander’s time the Persianized Scythians had come to rule the region in the first century C.E. Kushan Empire and the Persians in the 3rd to 7th century  Sassanid Empire. During these periods many Scythian and Persian influences entered the arts and artifacts. One is possibly the depiction of halos around the Buddha figures. Such were depicted on sun gods like Mithra and the Indian Surya. They were also depicted on Kushan and earlier kings on coins. In modern Buddhist icons the halos are referred to as full moons or suns. One sculpture showing the syncretism of the area depicts the Indian sun god Surya in the manner of Apollo. Another shows a club-bearing Heracles, thought to depict Vajrapani, with Buddha.
One thing that struck me in a few of the sculptures was the similarity to later Tantric art, especially to that of Nepal and Tibet. Indeed, the Swat valley of Pakistan, a part of the region of Gandhara, was likely an important place in the development of Tantra and Tantric art. In the pics below – one of a head looks very much like Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), the 7th century C.E. tantric master and bringer of Tantric Buddhism to Tibet. He was reputed to be from an area within the Gandhara region. The head is not dated here unfortunately. Back to the time of the Buddha there were thought to be students who traveled from Gandhara to India to meet him. Another depiction of a devata from the 7th to 8th century seems to show Indian Tantric style. One of the oldest pieces here from the 2nd century is of a Bodhisattva giving the mudra/gesture of protection. His jewelry is in the Scythian and Sarmatian styles and he has an Iranian-influenced halo. Another is a beautiful depiction of the Bodhisattva and future Buddha Maitreya.

The text gives some interesting information of the history of archaeological excavations in the region which began in earnest in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The state of the artifacts is compromised by the long-standing tradition in the region, although perhaps more prevalent in modern times, of purposely damaging the artifacts by fanatical Muslims who see the forms as idolatry, disdained in their own teachings. The last paragraph notes the destruction by explosives of the magnificent Bamiyan Buddhas by the fanatical Taliban in February 2001.

The whole Gandhara region encompasses large parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Bactria along the Amu Daria (Oxus in ancient times) River border areas of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The art objects are sculpted from schist and basalt, made of stucco and terracotta, and there are painted frescoes as well. The Bamiyan Buddhas and others were once painted and adorned with gold leaf. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang in the 632 described them as bright and magnificent. He also noted the dilapidated state of Buddhist monuments and stupas on the road through Gandhara.

Although a few disciples of Buddha were reputed to be from Gandhara, the practice of Buddhism began in earnest after the conversion of the Maurya Indian ruler Ashoka to Buddhism in 272 B.C.E. The famous story in Buddhism - The Questions of King Milinda, refer to Milinda, or Menander, a king of Bactria.

The author notes the modern (Taliban-influenced) state of Afghanistan’s antiquities such as the dilapidated state of the museum in Kabul. I suspect this situation has been improved in recent years. She recounts the history of the region, one of influence by Persians, Greeks, Indo-Scythians, Arabs, Chinese, and Tibetans, and the Silk Road caravans and the rising and falling of kingdoms and cities.
Alexander was reputed to start a Greek city somewhere in the region – the Alexandria of the Caucasus. Numerous ancient coins were found in the region: Bactrian, Indo-Scythian as well as Persian, Parthian, and Sassanian. One western adventurer in the 1830’s, Charles Masson, was known as the “stupa ripper’” ransacking coinage form stupas to end up at the British Museum. He also searched for the famed city but without success. By 1922 an agreement was forged that gave French archaeologists exclusive rights to excavate in Afghanistan. They explored the Begram plain, rich in ruins, but also in outlaws and skirmishes. Thus archaeology there and then was dangerous – a sport, as archaeologists Joseph Hackin and his wife Ria would call it. The “Bazaar Excavations” in 1936 revealed many new Greek treasures: painted translucent glass in Alexandrian style, Hellenic bronzes, plasters of Dionysian figures, and a large bronze of helmeted Athena. Sculpted ivory figures from India were also common. Hackin’s first expedition in the early 1930’s involved a hand-picked crew including famed father Teilhard de Chardin, responsible for paleontology. The haul of serene Buddha figures and Grecian nymphs was shared among the French and the newly-founded Kabul Museum in 1931. Another famous piece was a large very damaged statue of the Kushan emperor Kanishka.

The discovery of the Alexandria of the Caucasus is recounted: 

“While out hunting King Zaher Shah (today living in exile in Rome) saw what he first took to be the capital of a column jutting out of the ground in the midst of the plain. The French archaeologists who were informed and immediately set out to inspect this strange fragment, as yet unaware of the import of the discovery: for centuries, in the heart of this harsh and hostile territory, had slept one of the mythical Alexandrias the great Macedonian general had founded following his conquest. Of this there could be no doubt. Ai Khanum, as it turned out to be, was a “Greek city,” a Hellenic metropolis with, at the foot of its acropolis, its propylaea, gymnasium, palestra and theatre, all attesting to its “Greekness.” 

This city, Ai Khanum (which means “Lady Moon” in Uzbek) was found far north of the Begram plain, along the Amu Daria (Oxus) River at the border of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. This Eurasian city was elegant, with fountains and gargoyles and places set aside for the aristocracy. This was among the finest of the Alexandrian cities of greater Bactria. This was before the advent of Buddhist art. Ai Khanum was thought to have begun decline beginning around 100 B.C.E. The French were forced to leave in 1978 due to warfare in the region.  

There is some dispute whether the Greek-style depictions were the first depictions of Buddha. I believe the evidence suggests that they were. Some Indian factions claim that Indian depictions were first but in any case the earliest flowering of such depictions is certainly in Gandhara. In the lore of Buddhist doctrine it is said that Buddha stated that he should be depicted not by statuary but by a stupa. He was said to fold up his robe into a piled square and lay his begging bowl upside down upon it to demonstrate the shape. The Greeks, quite obviously, favored the anthropomorphic depiction of deities. Depiction of Buddha figures in Gandhara began in the first century C.E. There is no doubt that the styles of Greece, India, and to a lesser extent Persia and Scythia were blended. The development of the Mathura school of Buddhism in the first century C.E. is associated with depiction of Buddha in human form. This school was developed in India and is concurrent with the earliest Gandharan Buddhist art which begs the question – which came first? 

Ancient Indian writers mentioned these Yavanas, the Indo-Greeks of the central Asian kingdom. The art too is indeed Indo-Greek, blending elements from Greek and Indian art. The Gandharan-style would influence, or rather become the original model for the Buddhist art throughout all of Asia. That the later pieces very strongly resemble the Tantric style certainly suggests that early Tantra was developed in this region.

The book is full of color plates with minimal explanations and general dating of each plate. There is also a chronology that goes from the time of Buddha to the visit of the famed Chinese monk-pilgrim Xuanzang in 632 C.E. There is historical and archaeological evidence that Buddhism was popular in the region at least a few centuries before the main phases of the creation of the works of art. The spread of Buddhism under Mauryan King Ashoka in 272 B.C.E. is likely the first big phase of its development in Gandhara. Other Buddhist Indo- Greek kings are known in the region from coinage. Much later, the Kushan emperor Kanishka was a convert to Buddhism. He ruled from 125 C.E. to 140 C.E. and is credited with the strongest initial phase of the Buddhist works of art.    


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