What is Gandhara Art? – A Straight Forward Guide to Collecting Gandhara Art and its History

AS the Roman Empire rose and fell, the Kushan Empire in Gandhara was flourishing in what is modern day Pakistan.

The art that was created in this period has long been praised for its unique style and bold designs. Taking influence from a variety of different cultures, the pieces are stunning additions to any antiquities collection or standalone very successfully.

WHERE IS GANDHARA AND WHO WERE THE KUSHAN EMPIRE?

Gandhara is an ancient region in the Peshawar Valley, that has been home to various civilisations for thousands of years. However, when we talk about ‘Gandhara Art’ in the Antiquities trade we are normally talking about that which was produced between the 1st and 5th Century under the Kushan Empire.

The region was very wealthy, mainly due to the trade it facilitated. The cities in the Gandhara region were located at a crossroads in the ‘Silk Road’. Indeed, if you wanted to quickly travel from East to West an amicable visit was key as the Kushan controlled the Kyber Pass.

Seated Bodhisattva Maitreya

An Indo-European peoples, the Kushan Empire had lots of different influences on its culture and way of life. This was partially from the trade through the silk road, but it was also due to historic invasions. Alexander the Great invaded the region in 327 BC, and the Greeks invaded again in 184 BC. They brought Greek as the main language to the region and prompting the minting of Greek style coins. As an empire they also had many diplomatic ties, including the Roman Empire, Sassanian Persia and Han Dynasty China. In terms of local influences, the peoples of the empire adopted customs from Zoroastrianism, Greek cults, Buddhism and Hinduism.

WHAT IS UNIQUE ABOUT GANDHARAN ART?

Statues and figures made of schist or stucco are a key part of the Gandhara Art in this period. Schist is a metamorphic rock that is formed of layers often interspersed with layers of quartz. Very durable, many schist statues look remarkably intact for their age. Locally found, the stone was mined in two main regions of the empire – near Peshawar and the Kapisa Plain region at the south of the empire. On the other hand, some of the pieces were also made of stucco. This was a cheaper material but one that was easy to mould and shape into intricate forms.

Gandharan statue of a ganika (courtesan)

In terms of subject, it is perhaps not surprising that there is often a mix of styles and characters included. However, the Buddha and Buddhist figures such as Bodhisattva were a common theme. From 127 AD, the emperor Kanishka was a patron of Buddhism and hundreds of temples and monasteries were supported across the empire. Therefore, the creation of these statues represents a dominating religious culture as well as personal devotions to their religion.

However, in terms of style the pieces were inspired by the Greek Classical artistic tradition. With the Greek invasions came sculptors who taught local craftsmen their skills. Due to this, figures with Greek style idealised muscular bodies and flowing robes are common. We even see figures from Greek mythology included such as Hercules. Other styles can be identified, such as symbolic representations from Gupta Indian art. Indeed, Gandhara art had a distinct style that influenced art from Western Europe to Japan. However, like any large art movement parts of its style were always changing.

Buddhapadma Panel

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR

As with any art, ensuring a good condition is important when purchasing Gandhara art. Schist works are especially very durable so it is possible to get pieces that are in an excellent condition. Many statues were created during the Kushan Empire, so it’s also important to purchase a piece that has excellent craftsmanship. Choosing rarer figures and compositions is key to this – as the piece was less likely to have been made in a larger quantity.

Additionally, when you purchase Antiquities such as these Gandhara it’s important to consider the items provenance. This is more important than usual as there are some legal restrictions related to the sale of these items. However, this risk is mitigated if you purchase through a well-respected auction house such as Apollo. In general, it’s always advisable to research the history of a region and any laws that may be relevant to your purchase.

All of the ancient artefacts included in this article have been offered for auction by Apollo. Many are sold but please get in touch is you’re interested in purchasing similar pieces from us by emailing info@apollogalleries.com.

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