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Buddhism, Pax Kushana and

Greco-Roman motifs: pattern and

purpose in Gandharan iconography
CibeleAIdrovandi*^ & Elaine Hirata*
The authors show how the Gandharan art of earlyfirstmillennium Afghanistan used Greek and
Roman motifs to give an international context to Buddhist sculpture and reduce tension at home
and with the neighbours.
Keywords: Cj-A.nd,h:iTA, Greco-Roman Parrerns, Buddhism, iconography, Kushan

/ see the shadows which show that the sun must have distorted local colour,
I saw the lackeys announce the king, but I do not see the sun, I do not see the king.
' Paul Gauguin, 1900
The present Afghan and Pakistan landscape of Gandhara, largely devastated by recurrent
wars, would hardly be seen by modern readers as a quiet, peaceful and prosperous region
inhabited by pious Buddhist motiks and laity. Nevertheless, as we go back two millennia In
time, archaeological remains from the upper Indus valley, nowadays north Pakistan and from
the eastern parts of Afghanistan, have shown it to be a crossroad of cultures. Over many
centuries trade routes spread throughout the Gandharan valleys, and merchant caravans
connected the Mediterranean lands with the farthest regions of East Asia and the Indian
subcontinent (Allchin 1995). This created a highly populated and diverse milieu, a politically
and economically significant locus prone to many external influences.
Although chronologies still remain under dispute, this strategically located region that
had formerly been an Achaemenid satrapy was subjected to Mauryan rule during the
fourth century BC, becoming the Indian north-west frontier. Then followed the GrecoBactrian dynasties, which remained about one hundred years, and were defeated by the
Sakas (Scythians) and the Parthians around the beginning of the first century BC. During
the first century AD, the Kushans (Yueh-chi) from the Chinese north-west region arrived in
Bactria and then in Gandhara, and there reigned for many centuries, controlling its economic
network and political system. At the time Rome rivalled Parthian and later Sasanian empires
for supremacy over trading routes, while maintaining diplomatic contacts with the Kushan
and Han dynasties. Therefore, Gandharan Buddhist iconography emerged in very specific

Museum ofArchaeology and Ethnology, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.


Received: 6August 2002; Accepted: 12 Octoher 2004; Revised: 13 October 2004

ANTIQUITY 79 (2005): 306-315


Cibele Aldrovandi & Elaine Hirata

historical circumstances, conditioned by current social and political pressures (Tissot 1985;
Zwalf 1996). The artistic repertoire of this ritual landscape should be capable of revealing a
discourse which served the political as well as religious strategies of their patrons.
It has already been suggested that political conflict can be reduced by religion and ritual,
which are observable in the archaeological record (Hodder 1979: 450-2). Religion may
provide a neutral context for cross-cultural exchange, a mechanism for ensuring acceptance
and reducing conflict between the individual and society (Rappaport 1971: 26). As later
mentioned by Morris (1987: 42), 'changes in the form of material symbols by which social
groups define themselves might be the results of pressures on the group, or the desire to emulate
another group. As pressures within the group grow, an increase in the scale of consumption in
terms of the given symbolic order is expected, as pressuresfromoutside build up, material symbols
may be changed to preserve boundaries, in what has been called by Hodder (1982: 191-4) a style
During the Mauryan empire, and since the days of Ashokan rule, Gandhara has been
connected with Buddhism. Contacts between Mauryas and Hellenistic monarchs on official
levels might have been entrusted to Buddhist monks (Schopen 1988-9: 156-7; Karttunen
1997; 266). After the fall of tbis dynasty, the region was dominated by Bactrian-Greeks
who opposed and defeated the Shunga rulers of Brahmanic origin. As noted by Tarn (1951:
176), although there was not a .sto^^o/w'rtr between Buddhists and Brahmanists, it is possible
that a good level of tension arose from religious and political grounds. How was Buddhism
able to prosper and disseminate its beliefs throughout Gandhara and other regions in the
following centuries? When the outcaste Kushans - or mlecha as Brahmins would name all
foreigners (Auboyer 1961: 50) - arrived in Gandhara, it seems possible that their relation
might have been more easily settled with Buddhism, since it had no concern with caste
system as Brahmanism. Would it be possible then to speak of a Pax Kushana related to
the Buddhist religious system in Gandhara? Having secured power in the realm, Kushan
kings adopted Buddhism and realised the propaganda value of imagery, both political and
religious (Boardman 1994: 144). Such a cultic propaganda was effected in a systematic
fashion (Basham 1981; 30): on the one hand, reinforcing the proselytising power of the
message they conveyed (Bueno 2002: 123), and on the other, assimilating individuals from
originally diverse populations in a single society. Visual representations, which were publicly
disseminated, helped extend Buddhist ideals throughout the imperial region and beyond,
possibly referring to the religious resistance pointed out by Eisner (1997: 195). We might
be able to consider that in Gandhara, spiritual and political authorities directed a common
iconographic discourse to a heterogeneous population. Kushan rulers fomented Gandharan
art as a means of perpetuating and increasing their political frontiers until the time that they
were overcome by the Hcphthalite (Hsiung-nu) forces {c. AD 460).

The Gandharan survey

Buddhist art from the Gandharan region consists of a vast number of cult images and
reliefs in schist and stucco, mainly depicting the Buddha and the Buddhist pantheon.
The fragmentary pieces from such religious landscape belonged predominantly to stupas
and monasteries. The reliefs in Gandharan art are mainly divided between narrative or


Buddhism, VA-K. Kiishana and Greco-Roman motifi

cultic reliefs, and decorative reliets. In some cases they could be considered actual portraits
of daily life, reflecting society in the north-west region of India (Auboycr 1961; Tissot
Ever since Gandharan art was first studied, Greco-Roman influence has been put forward
as its major distinguishing element. More than a century ago, western scholars determined
a Greek origin tor the Buddha image (Foucher 1913) and along with it observed various
elements of the Greek styh.stic repertoire. Lohuizcn-de Lceuw(!949, 1979: 377) pointed out
that Foucher, the first to present this view, belonged to a generation that intensely admired the
Heilenised aspect of che art. The western patterns found in this art style appeased European
scholars, who were able to recognise Jamiliar features in the astonishing and at the same time
fearful I?idian Art. Indian scholars, however, were sceptical about this interpretation of the
Buddha origin (Gooniaraswamy 1927) and later showed it to be to be misleading. Recent
decades have witnessed a buddhological, historical and archaeological revision, whose aim
was to understand the ways by which rhe study ofthis specific iconography has been so largely
misinterpreted {Huntington 1985, 1990). Understanding specific aspects of social, political
and ideological systems that underlie Gandharan society and its art is certainly a more
complex matter than initially supposed by
researchers. Although hybrid features were
verified, the resulting Gandharan iconographic system has to be understood by its
own unique character: as an iconic grammar of representations with cultural meaning, and not through a framework based
in ethnocentric scntimentalism (Geertz
1983: 121-3, 150). If earlier hellenocentrie views claimed a strong influence of
(ireco-Roman art in the Gandharan school,
and considered it an inferior branch of
Hellenistic art, recent studies have shown
that it is necessary to undertake rigorous
analysis, looking at societies though their
own agency, since interaction processes do
not occur in one direction alone, as previously considered, but consist of multiple
and complex networks of cross-cultural
exchange. The assimilation of foreign
elements in the Buddhist repertoire would
probably be the result of responses to evolving religious, political and social forces.
Figure I. Giitya wmdow depietmgthelitrth ofSiddhanha.

^-'ven this framework of analysis we would

Great Renunciation and Great Departure (notice the

like to examine the extent to which Grecoacanthus leaves). Gandhara, Pakistan. Kushanperiod. Grey
Roman patterns of representation, as illus
schist. Ht. 18 in. National Museum. Karachi. Photo

, .


j -,

John C. Huntington. GourtesyofTheHuntinsto^i Archive

"^^^d m Figures 1 and 2, were incorpor-

ofBuddlmt and ReLned Arti.

ated into the iconography of Gandhara.


Cibele Aldrovandi & Elaine Hirata


Figure 2. Relief showing the Maravijaya, Victory over Mum (notice the remmns of a Corinthian capital). Gandharan
region. Kushan period. Schist. Ht.c.4 1/2 in. Peshawar Museum. Peshawar. Photo (c) John C. Huntingtori. Courtesy of The
Huntingtiin Archive of Buddhist and RehtU'd Aris.

A number of problems face scholars dealing with (iandharan iconography. Mosc of the
museums' collections consist of pieces with very little information, or even tione, regarding
their provenance and chronology. The surviving sites are often ruined and the sculptural
material was rarely found in its original position. The collections were also probably biased
by the choices made during excavations. This material was frequently removed from its
original context without any of the relevant archaeological data (Allchin 1995: 3-9; Zwalf
1996: 20,67). Among the exceptions are the Taxila (Marshall 1951) and Rutkara (Faccenna
1980) excavations. Most of the research developed so far has been based on stylistic aspects of
the iconography, which in some cases were used to establish relative chronologies. Although
some interesting incursions have been made in the Held of history of art (Shapiro 1994), we
shall not discuss them here, histead, we chose a different method, one that could provide
scholars with complementary information regarding the available framework of analysis,
that is, a quantitative approach. Although quantitative methods have become increasingly
important in archaeology in recent years, they have not been so common to art historians
as a tool for studying iconography. Archaeologists, on the other hand, are well aware of the
problems faced in quantitative analysis, since it has become clear that techniques used during
quantification will inevitably have an effect on the results obtained and on the conclusions
drawn from them (Shennan 1988; Drennan 1996). Considering the amount of available
information regarding the Cireco-Roman patterns in Gandharan iconography, we developed
a methodology that, as we shall see, is based on a quantitative survey of museum collections.
The preliminary results obtained were then taken into consideration when we reassessed the
Buddhist religious discourse.

Buddhism,Vzy. Kushana and Greco-Roman motifs

The material for study consisted initially of all the .sculptiire from the Gandharan region
that could be recovered from museum collections in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Europe
and the USA, a total of 1439 pieces. The first stage established categories to describe the
objects. During the design of the database, variables that were considered relevant for further
analysis were defined. After detailed description of all sculptures, reliefs and architectonic
elements, the analysis of iconographic patterns was narrowed to the Narrative Reliefs. This
choice required an extensive research conducted on the biography of the Buddha, and
all life events that were present in the database were studied and organised, allowing the
interpretation of a number of unidentified scenes. The narrative reliefs in the database
assemblage included 552 pieces and were all described in detail; each one of these pieces
contained one or more narrative scenes. The total assemblage of narrative scenes consisted of
766 representations of events in the life of Buddha and other scenes, among which 483 have
been identified. After description and identification, tbe Narrative Reliefs assemblage was
organised in seven narrative cycles. 1 bis enabled us to verify the number of occurrences in
each cycle, and study the relative quantities of each specific scene from Buddha's biography.
As stated by Boardman (1994; 1997), the continuing and stable character of Indian art
provided adequate ground for the borrowing of classical motifs, especially of Greco-Roman
elements which were assimilated and adapted by local traditions, losing along the way direct
contact with the original Hellenistic source. In a general explanation provided earlier by
Tarn (1951: 378), almost all borrowings from the Greeks were rather a matter of external
form., but very rarely of substance.
One of the difficulties in the organisation and description of the database assemblage was
the objective identification of foreign and, more specifically, Greco-Roman patterns in the
Gandharan iconographic repertoire. This has been a controversial matter since the beginning
of its study, and has not so far reached any acceptable solution among scholars. In this
research we have taken into account all possible Greco-Roman patterns studied by scholars,
regardless of their controversial origins, in order to observe how their frequencies behave
in relation to each other. The patterns that were chosen to be quantified were: 1. Corinthian
Capital; 2. Eros-Amorino; 3. Acanthus leaves; 4. Vines; 5. Palmette; 6. Ichthyocentaur;
7. Triton; 8. Atlas; 9. Tutelary Couple; 10. Cornucopy; 11. Costume; 12. Mourning Scene;
and 13. Others.
Among the controversially interpreted motifs, items 6 and 7 are most problematic (Tissot
1985: 65; Das Gupta 1991: 6; Boardman 1994: 136-7; Zwalf 1996: 56}. Costume is
another controversial element directly related to stylistic interpretations (Boardman 1994:
126-127, 317). Mourning Scene patterns received little attention on former studies. These
representations, depicted in the Buddha's Mahaparinirvana and related narrative reliefs,
show figures in mourning postures and a possible connection to a Greco-^Roman origin was
considered during discussions held in tbe course of this study, as the iconographic display of
lament might have been related to the representation o(prothesis presented mainly in Greek
vase paintings. They had become recurrent during Greek Geometric and later periods; it
seems possible that this motif might have appeared for the first time in Gandharan region,
and perhaps was later incorporated by other Indian Buddhist schools, as can be observed in
later northern Indian Buddhist iconography. Nevertheless, further studies are being carried
out in order to better evaluate this possibility.

Cihele Aldrovandi d" Elaine Hirata

Table 1. Occurrences of Greco-Roman patterns in the
overall database and Narrative Reliefs assemblages
Greco-Roman patterns



Corinthian capital
Achanrus leaves
Pal metre
Tutelary coupleCo rnucopy
Mourning scene






In the database, a specific field was designed to indicate which Greco-Roman patterns
were present in each piece, totalled in Table 1.

The Greco-Roman patterns of representation observed both in the overall database and
Narrative Reliefs assemblages were then verified and their freqtiencies arranged in histograms
to visualise the data (Figure 3). 1 aking account ofthese partial numbers, we wete able to arrive
at the following results: among the total database assemblage of 1439 pieces there are 648
Greco-Roman elements. Since more than one element can occur in a piece, we have found
a total of 481 pieces which have at least one of these patterns. This means that 33.4 per cent
of the pieces in the database assemblage show at least one Greco-Roman element. An index
of 33.4 pet cent could be considered a significant quantity of Greco-Roman presence among
the total database assemblage. On the other hand, this percentage increases significantly for
the Narrative Reliefs dataset. Among 552 narrative reliefs, the Greco-Roman patterns occur
368 times. In this assemblage there are a total number of 270 reliefs containing at least one
ofthese elements. This means that 48.9 per cent of the assemblage present these elements.
When compared to the frequencies shown in the database assemblage (Figure 4), the
higher occurrences found in the Narrative Reliefs assemblage (Figure 5) could possibly
indicate a significant presence of Greco-Roman patterns in this category of material culture.
It calls attention to the fact that it is probably in the narrative reliefs that the incorporation
of Greco-Roman patterns of representation is most clearly observed.
Observing each occurrence of the Gteco-Roman patterns, as seen in Figures 4 and 5,
we find three main typologies appearing most ftequently: Corinthian eapitals are among
47 per cent of the total database assemblage, while in the Narrative Reliefs assemblage they
comprise 57 per cent; Eros-Amorini features 17 per cent and 13 per cent of the assemblages;
Acanthus leaves, with 12 per cent and 1 5 per cent, is the third most freqtiently represented


Budc/hism.Pax Kushana tmd Greco-Roniiin motifs



O Corinthian Capital
D Acanthus leaves
G Grapevine
a Triton
D Atlas
Tutelary Pair
D Mourning Scene
D Costume

Narrative reHefs


/-/(jifjv 3. Histogrtim of (irno-Roiiiiui pattam otcurrcnces in the clatahiue and Nivnitii'e Reliep iinoiMages.

pattern. Among the less represented iconographic elements are: Vine patterns 5 per cent and
4 per cent respectively; Palmette patterns 2 per cent and 0 per cent; khthyocentaurs occur as
2 per cent and 3 per cent and Tritons as 1 per cent and 0 per cent; Atlas figures as 6 per cent
and 1 percent; lutelary Couple-AppcuvAS 1 per cent of the sctilpttires; CV^m^o/*]'comprises
also 1 per cent of the total assemblage; Costume is not represented; and Mourning Scenes
comprise 3 per cent and 5 per cent of" the assemblages.

Through the development of a quantitative approach, we have tried to evaluate some aspects
of C.ireco-Roman pattern frequencies in Gandharan sculpture. Although it should have been
an essential aspect of this research to show variations of these pattern frequencies in time
and place and explain them contextually, this more refined study is limited by the data.
Even though some pieces in the assemblage have information concerning provenance, these
are quite rare and not always reliable, and the chronology is still more elusive. In this
study, we abstained from using relative chronologies, based on stylistic analysis, to avoid the
reinforcement of unreliable assumptions. On the other hand, if researchers working with
iconographic representations have more precise data concerning these variables, it may yield
interesting results.
Although quantitative analysis of the assemblages so far undertaken do not include all
possible variables or examples, they made it possible to verify which Greco-Roman patterns

Cibele Aldrovandi & Elaine Hirata

Database Percentages
Cornucopy 1%

Mourning Scene

Tutelary Pair 1%

Costume 0%


Others 3%

Alias G<^
Triton 1 %
Corinthian Capital

Palmette 2%

Grapevine 5%

Acanthus leaves


Figure 4. I'cncnliigci of (iretii-Roman piittfr)ii in the database assemblage.

were preponderantly assimilated in the assembled iconographic repertoire. 1 he three

preponderant categories - Corinthian capitals, Eros-Arnorini and Acanthus leaves - seem to
have been undoubtedly considered by researchers as western patterns, originally assimilated
from Greco-Roman prototypes. Patterns of more controversial provenanee are underrepresented: the total amount of the three main recurrent patterns encompass 76 per cent
and 85 per cent of the assemblages, while the less frequent elements only comprise 24 per
cent and 13 per cent. The three main categories all basically belong to architectural or
decorative categories, mainly framing the narrative scenes.
Such framing procedures using recurrent foreign motifs may indicate which direction
Buddhist discourse turned during the Gandharan period. The use ot Greco-Roman framing
for Buddhist narrative scenes is an example ot intertextuality applied in art as opposed to
literature {Kristeva 1967). Since the incorporation of imported patterns in the development
of Gandharan art is directly related to contacts established among Indian, neighbouring
and distant civilisations, we shotild ask why some specific choices of foreign patterns were
adopted instead ot others. In this case, the incorporatitsn of the chosen pattern was probably
related to both its inner necessity ot ditterentiation from Brahmanism the creation of an
identity - and to its proselytising mission, the establishment of cross-cultural contacts with
other societies, particularly those lying further west. This could have included the intentional
appropriation of imported iconographic patterns - not main elements but framing ones,
which alluded to familiar motifs already known to the western visitor from his own cultural
milieu. Once a foreign pattern was incorporated into the Buddhist iconographic repertoire.

sfnJ\ix Ktishana iiti^ Creco-Rofriayi rnotifi

Narrative Reliefs Percentages

Comucopy 0%
Tutelary Pair 0%


Mourning Scene

costume 0%
Others 2%

Atlas 1%
Triton 0%

Corinthian Capital

Palmette 0%
Grapevine 4%

Acanthus leaves


higiire 5. Percentages of Cireco-Ronmn patterns in the Narraiive Reliefs assemhUge.

that is, once it became canonical, ics recurrence in the marerial record most probably
reflected a prior social acceptance and understanding. These recognisable and recurrent
foreign patterns possibly might also have caught the attention of prospective devotees - either
from the elite or lower classes - and eased visual links to the Buddhist fundamental discourse.
It is possible that the well known Gandharan emphasis on narrative reliefs depicting the
life of Buddha (Boardman 1994: 129, 318), which as have been shown were depicted with
recurrent Greco-Roman decorative patterns, might actually have been directed specifically
to foreign potential devotees, while reconciling tensions within the Kushan state. Far from
early primitive Buddhism, this more elaborate religion provided a silent iconographieal
peace-making. Visual strategies created sufficient homeostasis to allow what might be
called a Pax Kushana. Buddhism would in this way reinforce the integration of society
using common recognisable patterns, and avoiding inner ethnical conflicts. By assimilating
widespread foreign patterns, Buddhism would develop an iconographic repertoire that
could be understood by other cultures, assuring that its ideals would reach further Asian
and Western regions.
Considering the absence of detailed data as a major problem for the development of
interpretations in this study, we have not attempted an exhaustive examination, but we tried
to delineate a suggestive one. We have shown how a quatititative analysis of iconographic
patterns can be presented in order to allow a more explicit discussion about the interface
between the artistic repertoire and the conceptual framework within which religious, social
and political processes are embedded.

Cibele Aldrovandi & ELiirie Hirata

The authors would like to express their gratitude to Professors JoKn C and Susan [.. Huntington, at the
Huntington Archive of Buddhist and Related Arts - Ohio State University, USA; to Professors A, Bueno and
I,, Viegas for valuable insights and encouragement; and also to the editor and referees whose pertinent suggestions
are deeply appreciated. This research was supported by FAPESP - Funda^ao de Amparo i Pesquisa do Estado
de Sao Paulo.

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