Archeologists and historians from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan who participated in an international seminar on the Gandhara civilization organized by the Pakistan High Commission and the Buddhist and Pali University in Homagama on March 11, extolled the virtues of the ancient Buddhist and Hindu Gandhara civilization in Northern Pakistan, saying that it was a golden era of ethnic and religious harmony, and a model for today’s strife torn world where people of different ethnic and religious groups are going at each other’s throats.

Although Pakistan is now an Islamic country, it had been the home of four civilizations in the past, pointed out Brig.(R) Agha Ahmad Gul, former Vice Chancellor of Balochistan University.

The earliest is the Mehrgarh civilization of the neolithic period which spanned from 7000 BC to 2000 BC. The Mehrgarh civilization was located west of the River Indus 100 miles south of present-day Quetta. It is believed to be the earliest known farming and herding area in South Asia, Brig.Gul said.

The Mehrgarh civilization was succeeded by the more famous Indus Valley Civilization which comprised two ancient civilizations, namely, Harappa and Moenjo Daro.

Harappa and Moenjo Daro were the earliest urban settlements of the Bronze Age, which existed between 2500 BC and 1500 BC. Then came the Gandhara civilization (500 BC to 900 AD).

Gandhara lay around the Indus and Kabul rivers and Swat in present day Southern Afghanistan and Northwestern Pakistan. It was bounded on the North and the West by the Hindu-Kush and Suleiman Mountains, and the Safed Koh range in the South. Pakistan’s capital Islamabad is in the Gandhara region. It was a fertile area as evident from the Gandhara which meant “Land of Lakes.”

Buddhism Was Focal Point

Gandhara was ruled by many dynasties, but nearly all were linked to Buddhism for the most part, Brig.Gul said. In fact, Buddhism and the Indo-Greek artistic tradition became Gandhara’s trade mark.

The Archaemendis ruled from 600 BC to 400 BC; the Greeks from 326 BC to 324 BC; the Hindu Mauryans from 324 to about 185 BC; Indo-Greeks from about 190 to 110 BC; Scythians/Parthians from 110 to 80 AD; Kushans from about 100 AD to 450 AD; White Huns from 450 AD to 850 AD; Hindu Shahis from 850 to 990 AD and Muslims from 1025 AD onwards.

Around 556 BC, during the reign of the Iranian ruler Cyrus the Great, Gandhara was added to the Achaemenids Empire. In 327 BC Alexander the Great conquered it.

“Alexander's stay in Gandhara was short, but he left sizeable population of Greeks in every region he conquered, including Gandhara. The craftsmen, soldiers and other followers were encouraged to inter-marry and blend with the locals, introducing the Greek civilization in conquered regions which affected their history for centuries to come,” Brig.Gul said.

About seven years after Alexander, the Hindu ruler, Chandragupta Maurya of Magadha, in what is now Bihar in India, conquered Gandhara and named Taxila (Thakshashila) as a provincial capital of his newly formed Mauryan Empire. In 268 BC, Chandragupta’s grandson, Emperor Asoka, extensively propagated Buddhism not only in Gandhara but all over the Indian subcontinent. The Mauryan Empire lasted some 130 years.

In 184 BC, the Indo-Greeks, an ethnic group left-behind by Alexander in Bactria (modern North Afghanistan) captured Gandhara under King Demetrius. He built a new city near Taxila known now as Sirkap (meaning 'severed head'). His Kingdom consisted of Gandhara, Arachosia (modern day Kandahar in Afghanistan), the Punjab, and a part of the Ganges Valley in India.

“By second century BC, Taxila had become a multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-religious society, where Greeks, Indians, Bactrian’s and Western Iranians lived together. Remains of a Zoroastrian Temple from that period still exist at Jandial, directly north of Taxila,” Brig.Gul said.

By 110 BC, the Scytho-Parthians , a nomadic people from Persia, had begun to takeover Gandhara and the Punjab. They ruled for about a hundred years. In the first quarter of the 1st century AD, the Parthians moved in from Persia and took over the Greek petty kingdoms in Gandhara and Punjab.

Kushan Period High Point of Buddhism

Then in 80 AD came the Kushans, a tribe from Central Asia who wrested control of Gandhara from the Scytho-Parthians. Taxila was destroyed but a new city was built nearby, and renamed Sirsukh (Happy Head). Taxila became a hub of Buddhist activity and hosted pilgrims from Central Asia and China.

But the capital of the Kushan Empire was Purushapura (modern day Peshawar). The Kushan empire later expanded eastward into the heartland of India. The Kushan era, which lasted until 3rd Century AD, is considered the high point of Gandhara art, architecture and culture.

“The second century BC Taxila was a multi-ethnic, racial and religious society, where Greeks, Indians, Bactrian’s and Western Iranians lived together in peace, mutual tolerance in a culture, which allowed human development and finer arts,” Dr.Gul said.

Kushan rule from 80 AD to Third Century AD is considered the high point of Gandhara Civilisation, with developed finest arts, architecture and culture. Imposing stupas with gold plated minarets, precious stone work were built as were monasteries. There were edicts on rocks carrying the message of Lord Buddha. There were monasteries with students living on campus and there were beautiful Indo-Greek sculptures decorated with gold leaves and colorful paints, Brig. Gul said.

Enter Hinduism

Around 450 AD came the White Huns or Hephthalites, a nomadic people from Central Asia. The Huns adopted Hinduism and the culture of the Hindu Gupta Empire which at that time was ascendant in India.

“The religious character of the region gradually shifted away from Buddhism in favor of Hinduism. Buddhism moved up through the northern passes into China and beyond. The change in religious character, which was the basis of all social life, led to a decline in the prosperity and steady erosion of Buddhism in the Gandhara region as a whole,” Brig. Gul observed.

The White Hun period beginning in 450 AD was noted for the development of Hinduism in the region, but it led to migration of Buddhists.

“With migrations started the fall of Gandhara Civilisation. A golden period which existed for some 800 years thus ended. And what was left of Gandhara thereafter, was put to sword and fire by the succeeding Muslim conquerors who mercilessly sacked, burnt and razed to the ground numerous stone built cities, monasteries, monuments and sculptures. Gandhara was forgotten, even by the story tellers,” Brig. Gul said.

During Hindu rule from about 850 AD and the Muslim conquests which followed from about 1025 AD, the Gandhara region saw constant invasions from the North-West which did not allow culture to develop. Cities and places of worship fell into disuse in the next 1500 years. The Gandhara civilization lay buried until it was discovered by Colonial British archeologists.

Buddha’s Image Conceived in Gandhara

The Gandhara artistic tradition can be traced to the 1st century BC and it started declining in about the 8th century AD. It included painting, sculpture, coins, pottery and all the associated elements of an artistic tradition.

During the Kushan era in 1st Century AD, King Kanishka deified Lord Buddha and for the first time introduced the Buddha image which went on to proliferate so much that it defines the entire Gandhara culture. Thousands of these images small to giant monumental sizes, were produced and placed across every nook and corner of the region, especially in sacred worship sites, Brig. Gul said.

“Indeed, it was during Kanishka’s time that Buddhism saw its second revival after Ashoka. The life story of the Buddha became the staple subject matter for any and all aspects of Gandhara art. The images of Lord Buddha enshrined in chapels, stupas and monasteries continue to be found in great number to this day.”

“Gandhara art recreated life in detail. Items of everyday use such as beds and vases etc. can be clearly seen in them. Gandhara art provides us with an insight into all aspect of life of the region at the time,” Brig.Gul said.

Stupas were built to house the remains of the Buddha, Buddhist masters and monks of high stature. Besides being an architectural feat, the Stupa was a vessel for the display of the prolific Gandhara art. It encompassed sculptures, reliefs, paintings and other highly decorated elements that encased the structure which added to its beauty and its veneration as a religious site.

The Stupa was the main center of worship. In support it had the monastery, a structure with its own fully contained living area for monks. The monastery or Sangha-rama, became a huge part of the Buddhist tradition. Over time, the Sangha-rama became a self-sustaining unit, with lands for growing crops and wealth showered on them by all.

There was civic architecture as well. Some of the cities were not well planned, like Bhir near Taxila. But some were planned settlements like Sirsukh. Sirkap was somewhere in between.

Religious Tolerance Under Buddhism

Brig.Gul drew attention to the fact that although the religious landscape was dominated by Buddhism, there is evidence of other faiths intermingling and thriving in the social fabric such as Paganism, Greek religion, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and early Hinduism amongst the various other cults.

“A Zoroastrian and a Jain temple and a temple of the Sun, are in evidence on the main street of the ruins of Sirkap city along with various stupas,” he pointed out.

“In contrast to present day religious groups which go for each other’s throats, the people of Gandhara lived in harmony despite ethnic and religious variations,” Brig.Gul noted.

Prof. Dr. Ghani-ur-Rehman of the Taxila Institute of Asian civilizations, explained the symbolism of the sculptures found in the Stupas of the Gandhara era and identified the seven most important “treasures” that a Bodhisatva (a Buddha to be) should have to qualify to get that exalted status. He rationalized his choice of seven from the ten which were represented in Gandhara art.

Dr.Rahman said that there are more than 200 students in all in his institute, indicating great interest in Pakistan’s pre-Islamic past.

As testimony to the tolerance of the people of that era, Dr. Safdar Ali Shah of the Pakistan Higher Education Commission said that there are Buddhist vestiges in some mosques which were built later when the Muslims took over the Gandhara area.