Buddhism is not something one commonly associates with the north western frontiers of Pakistan. But Pakistan's north west was part of the historical Gandhara region, where Buddhist culture and traditions flourished - especially between the 1st and 4th Century AD. Ruled at different times by the Persians, the Greeks, the Indian Mauryas and the Kushans, Gandhara was also open to various cultural influences. Ancient relics and artefacts from this period have been put on display at the Art and Exhibition Hall in Bonn, Germany.
The Bundeskunsthalle displays artefacts from the ancient Buddhist region of Gandhara in Pakistan
A haunting Buddhist chant greets your ears as you step inside the hall. A massive picture hanging high on the ceiling shows the snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush mountain range. The Art and Exhibition Hall in Bonn has been made to resemble a Buddhist monastery court.
Among the visitors to the exhibition is Abdul Samad from Pakistan. Samad is doing his Ph.D thesis on the Gandhara culture at the Freie Universität in Berlin, Germany. His area of interest is the influence of Indian mythology in the Gandhara art, and the coexistence of the Buddhist and Hindu religions.
Indian mythology in Gandhara
One of the stone sculptures in the display particularly fascinates him. It is an image of of Skanda Kartikeya, a Hindu god. ‘’He is shown riding on his ‘vahana’ or vehicle, which is the peacock. He is just sitting here, and you can see his armour dress. In Gandhara, Skanda was always shown as a warrior god with his spear in his right hand, and with his bird,’’ says Samad.
It is not just Hindu mythology that influenced Gandhara art. Just a few paces away is a statue of the Greek Goddess Athena, made during the 4th Century BC during the rule of the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great. As we walk along, Samad points out to grey stone palettes displayed on the wall. The palettes are carved with images of men and women wearing dresses that resemble the Greek toga.
‘’These are what we call toilet trays; these are decoration pieces, which you can see are most influenced by Greek art. One can see this couple in the drinking scene. The drinking and dancing scenes are typically Greek images,’’ explains Samad. Other elements borrowed from Greek art are the Corinthian pillars depicted in the carvings.
Buddhist art flourished in Kushan rule
Beyond the Indo-Greek display are the artefacts found during the period of the Kushan rulers from Central Asia. The Kushans patronised Buddhism in Gandhara, and during their rule Buddhist art flourished. One such Buddhist artefact is the standing stone statue of Bodhisattva or the Buddha as he is known before attaining enlightenment. The hair is intricately carved to depict curls that resemble snail-shells. There are other typical features, says Samad.
‘’In Gandhara most of the famous style of Bodhisattvas is heavy jewellery, he is wearing heavy jewellery, and the Kafur Style, his hair knot. From his water flask and his heavy jewellery, we can identify this Bodhisattva,’’ says Samad.
The Gandhara region once also extended up to Bamiyan in Afghanistan, known for the monumental twin stone statues of Buddha carved into the valley. The valley made headlines in March 2001 when the Taliban destroyed the two statues. At the exhibition, the up to 53 meter high statues have been recreated in a unique 3-dimensional virtual display.
Today, the only traces of Buddhism in Pakistan and Afghanistan are in the archaeological sites. But at the Bonn exhibition, Gandhara has been depicted as it really was: an artistic hub and a melting pot of different cultures.