SOAS University of London

History of Art and Archaeology

Buddhist Art in a Cosmopolitan Environment: Gandharan Art and its Heritage

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2022/2023
FHEQ Level:
Taught in:
Term 1

The art flourishing in the historic region of Gandhara, present-day North Pakistan, from the first to the fifth century CE is the product of a complex interplay of different cultures, religions and societies prevalent in the region at that time. Well known for representing a ‘hellenistic’ branch of South Asian art, the predominantly Buddhist art of Gandhara is an expression of a cosmopolitan environment on the threshold of the South Asian cultural world. A hub on the South Asian branch of the Silk Road the region was widely connected, via the Persian world to the Mediterranean Sea, via Central Asia to China, and to a much lesser extent via the sea to the south of the Indian subcontinent.

Besides introducing Gandharan art and its contents, this course discusses these connections from the historic circumstances that led to the emergence of this distinctive art form in the first century CE to its South Asian heritage after its disappearance as a distinctive school of art. Key issues addressed throughout the course are the development of Buddhism as apparent in the art of the region, archaeology, the evidence of coins and inscriptions, networks of trade, and processes of adoption, adaptation and regionalisation.

This course will also make full use of the display of Gandharan art and its heritage at the British Museum.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  • Demonstrate a good understanding of the major historical developments that led to the emergence of Gandharan art, its flourishing, and demise.
  • Discuss in an informed manner what distinguishes Gandharan art from other branches of South Asian art and how it effected South Asian art. 
  • Show an awareness of the complex issues concerning the interpretation of Gandharan art and the variety of disciplinary approaches taken.
  • Identify the main subjects of Gandharan art in terms of its general subject.
  • Demonstrate the ability to evaluate scholarly interpretations of Gandharan art, and to take an informed position within a scholarly debate.
  • Evaluate the art of Gandhara and its hertiage in terms of its meaning and authenticity.


  • One hour lecture, one hour seminar

Scope and syllabus

  1. Introduction
    The name Gandhara; the discovery of Gandharan culture; early Archaeology; short historiography; the Kushana rulers, their relation to Buddhism, and the date of Kanishka; dating Gandharan art.
  2. Gandhara and the West
    From Alexander the Great to Gandhara; Indo-Greeks and their movements; material evidence of Greek culture; Dionysian scenes; Rome and South Asia; Parthian component; merging of cultures; cosmopolitanism; example Sirkap in Taxila.
  3. Stupa and Relic Shrine
    Gandaran stupa and its types; stupa relic and reliquary, shapes and filling; visible relic; relic shrine and its shape; example Butkara I, Swat.
  4. Gandhara and early Buddhist art
    Early Gandharan Buddha image; branches of early Gandharan art: Peshawar valley, Swat and Zar Dheri; the depiction of the life of the Buddha in Gandhara; chronological arrangement and ritual circumambulation; spiritual biography, example Saidu Sharif.
  5. Museum visit
    Gandharan art
  6. Maitreya and Changing Buddhism
    Bodhisattva depictions in Gandhara; early Maitreya imagery; Maitreya in Tushita heaven; triads and lotus seat; paradise imagery; Bodhisattvas as teachers; images from Loriyan Tangai and Shari Bahlol.
  7. Beyond Buddhism
    Coins and the Gandharan pantheon; brahmanic ascetics; nature deities and concerns of daily life; Hariti and Pancika; Brahmanic imagery; Brahmanism and Hinduism; Shiva and Skanda.
  8. Heritage in Afghanistan
    Gandharan art in Afghanistan; stucco images; Shotorak and Paitava; special imagery; Bamiyan; Fondukistan; usage of unfired clay in late Gandharan sites in Afghanistan.
  9. Gandhara’s Heritage
    Later regional developments, schools of Swat, Kashmir Smast, Gilgit and Kashmir; heritage in Central and East Asia; heritage in South Asia.
  10. Museum Visit
    Gandhara’s heritage in relation

Method of assessment

  • One 1,000-word review/report (worth 30%)
  • One 2,000-word essay (worth 70%)

Suggested reading

  • Allchin, Raymond, Bridget Allchin, Neil Kreitman, and Elizabeth Errington. 1997. Gandharan Art in Context. East-West Exchanges at the Crossroads of Asia. Cambridge/New Delhi: The Ancient India and Iran Trust/Regency Publications.
  • Brancaccio, Pia, and Kurt A Behrendt. 2006. Gandhāran Buddhism: archaeology, art, texts. Vancouver: UBC Press.
  • Errington, Elizabeth, and Joe Cribb, (eds.) 1992. The Crossroads of Asia. Transformation in Image and Symbol in the Art of Ancient Afghanistan and Pakistan. Cambridge: The Ancient India and Iran Trust.
  • Jongeward, David, Elizabeth Errington, Richard Salomon, and Stefan Baums. 2012. Gandharan Buddhist Reliquaries. Seattle: Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project.
  • Nehru, Lolita. 1989. Origins of the Gandhāran Style: A Study of Contributory Influences. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  • Rienjang, Wannaporn, and Peter Stewart, eds. 2018. Problems of Chronology in Gandhāran Art. Proceedings of the First International Workshop of the Gandhāra Connections Project, University of Oxford, 23rd-24th March, 2017. Oxford: Archaeopress.
  • Salomon, Richard. 2018. The Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhara: An Introduction With Selected Translations. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
  • Taddei, Maurizio. 2003. On Gandhāra. Collected Articles. Edited by Verardi, Giovanni, and Anna Filigenzi. 2 vols. Napoli: Università degli Studi di Napoli "L'Orientale".
  • Zwalf, Wladimir. 1996. A Catalogue of the Gandhāra Sculpture in the British Museum. 2 vols. London: British Museum Press.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules