Gandhara Civilization

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Muhammad Bin Naveed
published on 07 July 2015
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Bodhisattva Head, Gandhara (by Mary Harrsch (Photographed at The Art Institute of Chicago), CC BY-NC-SA)

Gandhara was the name given to the land and its associated civilization that existed in what is now northern Pakistan and Afghanistan from the mid 1st millenium BCE to the beginning of the 2nd millenium CE and consisted of multiple dynasties which ruled over the same area but which were linked by their adoption of Buddhism as a religion for the most part and also of the Indo-Greek artistic tradition as its cultural identity.

The Extent of Gandhara

Although Gandhara has been historically known since the Achaemenian Empire and more specifically during the reign of Cyrus the Great (558-28 BCE), it wasn't until the pilgrimage of XuanXang in the 7th century CE, at the tail end of the Gandhara civilization, that we first see a descriptive account of the region down to the extent of the area itself as well as the various places and sites which can be identified today.

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It has been speculated that Ganhara was a triangular tract of land about 100 kilometers east to west and 70 km north to south, lying mainly to the west of the Indus River and bounded on the north by the Hindukush Mountains. (1 li = 500 meters or 1640 feet)

The extent of Gandhara proper actually included the Peshawar valley, the hills of Swat, Dir, Buner and Bajaur, all of which lie within the northern bounds of the modern day nation of Pakistan. However the bounds of Greater Gandhara (or regions where the cultural and political hegemony of Gandhara held sway) extended towards the Kabul Valley in Afghanistan and the Potwar plateau in the province of Punjab in Pakistan, in close proximity to the capital city of Islamabad, and bounded off by the location of the grand Mankiyala Stupa on the outskirts of the capital.

Map of Gandhara
Map of Gandhara
by Asia Society (CC BY-NC-SA)

Origin of the Name Gandhara

The name of Gandhara may have several meanings the most prominent  theory relates its name to the word Qand/Gand which means "fragrance" and Har which means 'lands' hence the simplest definition being 'Land of Fragrance'. However, when analysed critically, the region known as the core of Gandhara around the Peshawar valley does not historically have any historically verifiable association or importance with regards to fragrance, either through flowers, spices, foods etc.

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Another more probable and geographically supported theory is that the word Qand/Gand is evolved from Kun which means 'well' or 'pool of water' and indeed the word Gand appears with many other place names associated with water i.e. Gand-ao or Gand-ab (pool of water) and also Gand-Dheri (water mound). Tashkand (stone walled pool) and Yarkand are also associated names and hence it holds to reason that the land could have been known as 'Land of the Lake(s)' as this signifies the region between the Indus and Kabul rivers which was a fertile region rich in water supplies and especially around Peshawar.

political History of Gandhara

Gandhara witnessed the rule of several major powers of antiquity as listed here:

  1. Achaemenids (~600-400 BCE)
  2. Greeks (~326-324 BCE),
  3. Mauryans (~324-185 BCE),
  4. Indo-Greeks (~250-190 BCE),
  5. Scythians (~2nd century to 1st  century BCE),
  6. Parthians (~1st century BC to 1st century CE),
  7. Kushans (~1st to 5th  century CE),
  8. White Huns (~5th century CE)
  9. Hindu Shahi (~9th to 10th century CE).

This was followed by Muslim conquests by which time we come to the medieval period of Indian History.

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Achaemenids & alexander

Darius I added Gandhara to the Achaemenid Empire around 556 BCE but his occupation of it did not last long. Later on it was instead known to be a tributary state of the Achaemenids (known as a satrapy) and later paid tributes and inferred hospitality to Alexander the Great who eventually conquered it (along with the rest of the Achaemenian empire).The Achaemenian hegemony in Gandhara lasted from the 6th century BCE to 327 BCE.

Alexander is said to have crossed through the area of what is called Gandhara to enter into Punjab proper (as indeed this region is still used today for the same function) and he was offered alliance by the ruler of Taxila Ombhi, against the king Porus, who was a constant source of agitation for Taxila and its surrounding regions. What happened after this at the Battle of Hydaspes is (quite literally) ancient history. Nonetheless, Alexander's stay here was short and he went south via the Indus River and crossed over into what is today Balochistan on the return journey.

Alexander left sizeable populations of Greeks in every region he conquered and Gandhara was no exception, with craftsmen, soldiers and other followers encouraged to inter-marry and blend with the locals and bring to them the fruits of Greek civilization. When Alexander died in June 323 BCE, his occupying Greek force, desperate to return home, started the journey back regardless of the orders to stay in the region and this left a large vaccuum in the already thinly spread Greek occupation force in Gandhara. Nonetheless, enough Greek centers were created in the region to affect its history for centuries to come.

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mauryan rule

By 316 BCE, King Chandragupta of Magadha (321-297 BCE) moved in and conquered the Indus Valley, thereby annexing Gandhara and naming Taxila a provincial capital of his newly formed Mauryan Empire. Chandragupta was succeeded by his son Bindusara, who was succeeded by his son Ashoka (who had previously remained a governor of Taxila for some time). Ashoka famously propagated the spread of Buddhism, and created a grand monastery to the east of the river Tamra at Taxila. This is the Dharmarajika Monastery, famous for its stupa, and it is said Ashoka buried several relics of Buddha there. However the Mauryan empire disintegrated after Ashoka's death and Gandhara was again up for grabs.

Maruyan Empire
Maruyan Empire
by John Huntington (CC BY-NC-SA)

indo greeks

In 184 BCE, the Greeks (who had remained strong in Bactria, modern North Afghanistan), invaded Gandhara again under king Demetrius and it was he who built a new city on the opposite bank of the river from Bhir Mound. This new incarnation of Taxila is known now as Sirkap (meaning 'severed head') and it was built according to the Hippodamaean plan following a gridiron pattern.

The Kingdom of Demetrius consisted of Gandhara, Arachosia (modern day Kandahar in Afghanistan), the Punjab, and a part of the Ganges Valley. It was a multi-ethnic society, where Greeks, Indians, Bactrians and Western Iranians lived together. Evidence of this is found all over 2nd century BCE Taxila, such as a Zoroastrian sanctuary at Jandial, directly north of Sirkap.

Graeco-Bactrian Empire
Graeco-Bactrian Empire
by John Huntington (CC BY-NC-SA)


The gradual takeover of the Punjab by the nomadic Scythians of Central Asia began around 110 BCE. These tribes had been accustomed to invading northern territories such as those in Bactia, but had been kept back by the Achaemenids in the past. They had settled in Drangiana, modern day Sistan in Iran and invaded Punjab, infiltrating through the southern Indus Valley, eventually taking over Taxila.

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In the first quarter of the 1st century CE, the Parthians moved in and began taking over the Greek Petty Kingdoms in Gandhara and Punjab. Gondophares, a Parthian leader who lived at Taxila is said to have been baptised by the apostle Thomas, not a wholly impossible claim since the city already hosted a number of religious faiths and might have accomodated a fledgling Christian one.


In 80 CE, the Kushans wrested control of Gandhara from the Scytho-Parthians. The main city at Taxila was again refounded at another site and the new name Sirsukh given to it. It resembled a large military base, with a wall 5 km long and no less than 6 metres thick. It now became a hub of Buddhist activity, and hosted pilgrims from Central Asia and China. The Kushana era is the high point of Gandhara art, architecture and culture and considered a golden age in the history of this region. The Kushans were a tribe that migrated to Gandhara around the 1st century CE from Central Asia and Afghanistan. The tribe selected Peshawar as its seat of power and later expanded east into the heartland of India to establish the Kushan Empire, which lasted until the 3rd century CE.

Kushan Empire & Neighboring States
Kushan Empire & Neighboring States
by John Huntington (CC BY-NC-SA)

The Greek philosopher Appolonius of Tyana also visited the city of Taxila and compared its size to that of Nineveh in Assyria. A description of Taxila (probably Sirsukh) can be found in the Life of Appolonius of Tyana by the author Philostratus:

I have already described the way in which the city is walled, but they say that it was divided up into narrow streets in the same irregular manner as in Athens, and that the houses were built in such a way that if you look at them from outside they had only one storey, while if you went into one of them, you at once found subterranean chambers extending as far below the level of the earth as did the chambers above. (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, 2.23;  tr. F.C. Conybeare)

The tail end of the Kushan rule saw a succession of short lived dynasties taking over control of the Gandhara region, and this resulted in a situation where the region was constantly being raided, invaded or in some way or other in turmoil. Quick succession of rule by the Sassanids, Kidarites (or little Kushans) and finally the White Huns following the ebbing of Kushan rule led to day to day religious, trade and social activity coming to a standstill. In about 241 CE, the Kushans were defeated by the Sassanians of Persia under the kingship of Shahpur 1 and Gandhara became annexed to the Persian Empire. However, the Sassanians could not directly rule the region due to being taxed on their western and northern borders and control of this region fell to descendants of the previous Kushans who came to be known as the Kidarites or Kidar Kushans which literally means little Kushans. 

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White Huns

The Kidarites managed to maintain a hold of the region, carrying on the traditions of their predecessors the Kushans up to the middle of the 5th Cent CE when the White Huns or Hephthalites, invaded the region. As Buddhism and by extension the Gandhara culture was already at an ebb by this time, the invasion caused both physical destruction and, due to the Huns' adoption of the Shivite faith (most especially of their ruler Mihirakula) and by extension the culture of the Hindu Gupta empire which at this time was ascendant, the importance of Buddhism began to wane with even more speed.

During the White Hun invasions, the religious character of the region shifted gradually towards Hinduism and Buddhism was shunned in the favor of Hinduism as it was deemed politically expedient by the White Hun rulers since they sought to make alliances with the Hindu Gupta Empire against the Sassanids to the West. The change in religious character (which was the basis of all social life) led to a decline in the prosperity of the Gandhara region as a whole.

The White Huns' alliance with the Gupta empire against the Sassanians also caused the culture of Buddhism to be subdued to the extent that eventually the religion moved north up through the northern passes into China and beyond. Hinduism hence took sway over the region and the people moved away from here, as the remaining few centuries saw constant invasions from the west, especially Muslim conquest, which allowed no prominent culture to develop or be sustained along the ancient lines. The old cities and worship places of importance hence fell out of memory for the next 1500 years until they were rediscovered in the mid 1800's CE by colonial British forces.

White Hun (Huna) Empire
White Hun (Huna) Empire
by John Huntington (CC BY-NC-SA)

Gandhara, then, has had multiple rulers over the centuries but archaeological evidence shows us the uniformity of its cultural tradition persisted during these changes in rule. Although the territories were spread over vast areas, the cultural boundaries of regions such as Mathura and Gandhara were well defined and allow us to identify it uniquely today.

Gandharan Art

The beginnings of Gandharan artistic tradition can be traced to the 1st century BCE with the waning of the tradition occuring approximately in the 8th century CE and included painting, sculpture, coins, pottery and all the associated elements of an artistic tradition. It really took flight during the Kushan era and especially that of the King Kanishka during the 1st Century CE who deified the Buddha and arguably for the first time introduced the Buddha image which went on to become so prolific as to define the entire Gandharan culture. Thousands of these images were produced and were scattered across every nook and cranny of the region ranging from minute hand held buddhas to giant monumental statues put in place in the most sacred worship sites.

Indeed it was during Kanishka's time that Buddhism saw its second revival after Asoka. The life story of the Buddha became the staple subject matter for any and all aspects of Gandharan art, and the sheer number of Buddha images ensrhined in chapels, stupas and monasteries continue to be found in great number to this day. The artwork was solely dedicated to the propagation of religious ideals to the extent that even items of everyday use were replete with religious imagery. The focus was on the life story of the Buddha and each piece of sculpture has something to say about the life of this personage.

The materials used were either kanjur stone finished with plaster and paint or Schist stone. Kanjur is basically fossilized rock which can be easily molded into shapes which are used as a base for various decorative elements in Gandharan art such as pilasters, Buddha figures, brackets and other elements. After the basic shape has been cut out of stone, this is then plastered with lime plaster to give it a finished look. Gold leaf and precious gems were also applied to select items of great performance and the quality of the artwork varied depending on its use. The maximum size that the schist stone was able to be crafted into was 2.5m square in order to have it be easily transported and hence the larger statues and reliefs are made of clay and stucco.

Gandhara Buddha, Taxila
Gandhara Buddha, Taxila
by Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)

The Buddha was worshipped through these sculptural representations which had a distinct style associated with them that remained largely constant with some changes owing to skill or craft being seen. The Buddha is always depicted in simple monastic robes, with his hair tied in a bun known as the Ushnisha and the expression on his face is almost always one of content. Whereas originally these sculptures were painted in bright colors, now only the plaster or stone remains and barely a handful of items have been found with their original colors intact. Various cult images of the Buddha were made for the varying cults in the region all of which had their own distinct identifying features namely the Laksanas (divine marks), Mudras (hand gestures) and various kinds of robes.

Whatever the case was, Buddha always had the central role in these pieces and can be immediately identified by the halo and his simple attire. Many mythological figures are also seen as a part of these scenes along with couples, gods, demigods, celestials, princes, queens, male guards, female guards, musicians, royal chaplains, soldiers and also common people. More so, Gandharan art recreates these scenes in such detail that architectural elements and items of everyday use such as beds and vases etc. can be clearly seen in them and also give a glimpse into the building culture of antiquity. Gandharan art can thus provide us with an insight not only one aspect of the ancient life of the region but also of the entirety of the ancient buddhist daily life.

One of the most enduring elements of Gandharan art besides the Buddha is the Bodhisattva, which is essentially the state of the Buddha before he attained his enlightenment. Multiple Bodhisattvas from the various previous lives of the Buddha are depicted in Gandharan art with Avalokatishvara, Matrya, Padmapani and Manjsuri being prominent. Compared to the austerity of the Buddha images, the Bodhisattva sculptures and images depict a high degree of luxury with many variations on the various elements such as jewelry, headdress, loincloth, sandals and so on and the various incarnations of the Bodhisattva are recognisable from their clothing and postures, mostly of the hands in the seven mudras.

Gandharan Architecture

Much can be said about the architectural tradition of Gandhara but the most prominent and unique characteristic of it was the proliferation of stupas and other associated religious establishments such as monasteries which formed the core of the regional identity for nearly 1000 years.

The Stupas were built mainly for the reverence of the remains of Buddhist masters and the most important ones held the remains of the Buddha himself. Besides the Buddha, monks of high stature were also venerated by having stupas built for them and these edifices also marked the places where certain legendary events related to the various lives of the Buddha were said to have occured. The proliferation of stupas across India is said to have been the hallmark of Asoka's rule who reinterred the ashes of the Buddha in multiple stupas all across his kingdom.

Even though it was mainly an architectural feat, the stupa nonetheless was a vessel for the display and worship of the prolific Gandharan art, encompassing sculptures, reliefs, paintings and other highly decorated elements that encased the structure and added immensely to not just its beauty but its veneration as a religious site. These images stood against walls, in courts, inside niches and chapels and stuccos adorned the walls of the stupa courts and monasteries.

Stupas were initially built with circular bases and were of modest size, but as the cult of the Buddha grew in importance in the region, these centers of worship were elaborately designed and adorned to boost the stature of the religion and to attract more worshippers. The original stupas at Kunala and Dharmarajika were small affairs which were later on expanded to grand proportions by rulers such as Asoka and Kanishka.

A base (medhi), either circular or square, would support a drum or cylinder on top of which the dome (anda) would be placed. Steps were used to surmount the platform and to begin the clockwise circumbobulation around the dome along the processional path (Pradakshina Patha) which was bounded by the railing (vedika). At times the base would have multiple circular stories raising the height of the stupa. The corners of the base were usually affixed with lion capital pillars and the top of the dome had first a harmika, an inverted square enclosure on which stood the yasti or pillar which had the various chattras or parasols diminishing sizes equally distributed along it.

Stupa - Labelled Isometric View
Stupa - Labelled Isometric View
by Muhammad Bin Naveed (CC BY-ND)
The stupas came to represent the zenith of buddhist architectural achievement in the region and of course, as with the artwork, they are also meant solely to promote the religious power structures. The stupas themselves were decorated with uncountable relief panels and friezes depicting religious stories and events further solidifying their role.

The stupa was the main center of worship and in support it had the monastery, a structure with its own fully contained living area for monks. The monastery or Sangharama became a huge part of the Buddhist tradition and over time came to be its own self-sustaining unit, with lands for growing crops and wealth showered on them by lay people and royalty alike for their blessings. In its final form the monastery had some defined elements which suited its basic functions and these were:

  • Refrectory/Service Hall: Upatthana-sala
  • Kitchen: Aggi-sala
  • Cloistered Promenade: Chankamana-sala (for walking/exercise)
  • Bathroom: Jantaghara next to the central water tank
  • Store room: Kotthaka
  • Medical and general storage: Kappiya-kuti

These buildings were usually rendered in mud plaster and this was then painted over either completely or like in some cases (as in the monastery of Jina Wali Dheri in Taxila) scenes of buddha's life.

Buddhist Monastery Plan (Gandharan)
Buddhist Monastery Plan (Gandharan)
by Muhammad Bin Naveed (CC BY-ND)

Aside from these religious buildings there was of course civic architecture as well which varied and changed with respect to the cultural prevalent in the region. Cities ranged from freely-planned organic settlements such as Bhir to the more rigid and planned out settlements like Sirsukh, with the city of Sirkap somewhere in between in terms of planning and layout.

The older cities tend to be more organically laid out while the newer ones seem to be very directly inspired by the Greek Hippodamian plan which surfaces later on in the 1st cent BCE. Shops, promenades, palaces, temples, sundials, hovels, huts, villas, insulae, pavillions, streets, roads, watchtowers, gates and fortification walls, all form part of the urban fabric which is true of most ancient cities as well. 

Although the religious landscape was dominated by the Buddhist faith, there has is nonetheless ample evidence of other faiths intermingling and thriving in the social fabric such as Jainism, Zoroastrianism and early Hinduism amongst the various other cults. The temple at Jandial is said to be Zoroastrian in nature whereas a Jain temple and a temple of the Sun is in evidence on the main street of Sirkap city along with various stupas.

One of the most well known remains is the Double Headed Eagle stupa in Sirkap which contains its namesake motif of the double-headed eagle affixed on three different type of decorative arches namely the classical greek, persian and indian style of arch. This shows the degree of intermixing of cultures in the region which we can deduce from the archaeological remains.

Double-Headed Eagle Stupa
Double-Headed Eagle Stupa
by Muhammad Bin Naveed (CC BY-NC-SA)


As we can see, daily life in the cities of Gandhara was very diverse and due to its location at a crossroads near to the Indus River, it constantly saw invaders, traders, pilgrims, monks and every other type of traveller cross through its lands. Westwards from India or Eastwards from Persia, the route through the region of Gandhara made it the center of every traveller's route. This is the same route through which Islam entered the region and probably struck the final nail in the coffin of Buddhism in the area. In fact the same route would be used for centuries even after Gandhara collapsed until the coming of the voyages of discovery and the prominence of naval travel via sea routes.

The riches of Gandhara, although well known to treasure hunters for centuries, would not be discovered again for over 2000 years until the era of British Colonial rule in the Indian Subcontinent, where the artistic traditions of this lost civilization were rediscovered and consequently researched and bought to light in the late 19th and throughout the 20th centuries CE, the study of which continues to this day.

Editorial Review This article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.
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About the Author

Muhammad Bin Naveed
Architect with a passion from Archaeology from Pakistan. Doing what I can to spread knowledge through this wonderful platform.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Naveed, M. B. (2015, July 07). Gandhara Civilization. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Naveed, Muhammad B. "Gandhara Civilization." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified July 07, 2015.

MLA Style

Naveed, Muhammad B. "Gandhara Civilization." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 07 Jul 2015. Web. 28 Mar 2020.

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