Greco-Buddhist Period (ca. 1 CE – 500 CE).

The next period of the ancient art of India is the Greco-Buddhist or “art of Gandhara,” a name that comes from Kandahar, the valley of the Kabul River in Afghanistan. The influence of the Greek aesthetic was a result of the dismemberment of the Maurya Empire, which allowed the Greek rulers of the colonies founded by Alexander the Great almost two centuries before to conquer the plains of northern India. One of these Greeks, Menander (called Milinda by Hindu tradition), came with his army to the Ganges around 150 B.C.E. His most remarkable feature was that he acquired a great reputation as a philosopher converted to Buddhism.

Left: Greco-Buddhist statue of standing Buddha, from Gandhara, ca. 1st–2nd century (Tokyo National Museum). Middle: Head of a Bodhisattva in terracotta, from Gandhara, ca. 4th century (Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore). Right: The Seated Buddha, ca. 300-500 C.E. (Asian Art Museum, San Francisco).

These Greek states lasted very little because they were destroyed by the invasion of nomadic peoples who entered India by the northwest. The history of India’s invasion by these Central Asian peoples called the Kushan is confusing, but what it is known is that they created an empire with its capital in Mathura. This empire dominated all of northern India and remained in power until the beginning of the third century of our era. One of its sovereigns, called Kanishka, became the great protector of Buddhism and his fervor favored its spread during the second century. But the end of the political Greek power didn’t imply the disappearance of its culture in the Indian subcontinent, on the contrary, the Kushan Empire quickly assimilated it and developed a very Hellenized civilization to which large part of the Greco-Buddhist works of art belong. This art, traditionally called art of the Gandhara, would be better called art of the Kushan. It was the easternmost focus of Greco-Roman art in Asia and represented themes of the Buddhist cult. The bodies of these statues are Greek, but their attitudes are Hindu. It was at this time that artists influenced by Hellenistic forms produced the first representations of the Buddha with a human form, in contrast to the symbolic allusions to Buddha used during the Mauryan Empire (His footprints, Wheel of the Law, empty throne, etc.). In the art of Gandhara, the Buddha was represented standing or seated with his legs crossed (in “lotus position”) to signify “meditation” in search of the truth. When the artists wanted to suggest “teaching”, the Buddha was represented with His hand in the “position of turning the Wheel of the Law”.

Left: Heracles depiction of Vajrapani as the protector of the Buddha, 2nd century from Gandhara (British Museum). Middle: Head of Buddha from Gandhara, ca. 3rd century C.E. (Guimet Museum, Paris). Right: The Bodhisattva Maitreya, from Gandhara, ca. 2nd century (Guimet Musem, Paris).
The symbolic allusions to Buddha. Left: Footprint of the Buddha, ca. 2nd–3rd century C.E. The footprint of the Buddha (or buddhapada*) was one of the earliest symbols used in Buddhist art. It stands for his former physical presence and is an object of profound veneration. The swastikas at the tips of the toes and the omega symbol on the heel are auspicious symbols. The central wheel represents the Buddhist doctrine. Middle: The wheel of the law or Dharmachakra*, one of the oldest known Buddhist symbols, in the ruins of the stupa of Kanaganahalli-Sannati in the Indian state of Karnataka. The Buddha is said to have set the “wheel of dhamma” (Dharmachakra) in motion when he delivered his first sermon. Right: A sun resting on an empty throne, an aniconic* representation of Buddha from the city of Mathura (Indian state of Uttar Pradesh).

While this was happening in the north of India, after the fall of the Maurya, in the south (exactly in the southeast of the Deccan), the kingdom of the Andhra was founded. This was a dynasty that lasted more than three hundred years (from 25 BC. to 320 AD.) and its capital was in Amaravati. The so-called “art of Amaravati” established a bond of continuity with the old schools of Bharhut and Sanchi and was in direct contact with the Roman world thanks to maritime trade routes. Pliny talks about this empire and calls it “The Empire of the Andarae”.

The stupas that existed in Amaravati have been destroyed and only beautiful fragments of bas-reliefs in marble have been preserved in some museums. Of the four periods in which the art of Amaravati is usually divided, the most characteristic is the third period, corresponding to the second century. It was a narrative art with scenes related to Buddha in which still appeared symbolic allusions to Him, although are also numerous direct representations of Buddha, generally under the figure of a monk with a cloak that leaves the right shoulder uncovered while with His right hand shows the palm in the ritual “position of absence of fear”. The reliefs are characterized by a “horror to the emptiness” that accumulates and multiplies the characters with a rhythm full of life. The human bodies have a slender flexibility, expressed in “escorzo*” technique and postures in three quarters* that denote the great technical skill of the Amaravati sculptors. Characteristic features of these sculptures are the smile (accentuating the corners of the lips), and the very free and cheerful attitudes that confer a provocative grace to women’s bodies, usually only dressed with a belt of rich jewelry.

Left: Depiction of the Amravati stupa. This was one drum slab carved in limestone ca. 1st century B.C. The relief shows the Great Stupa at Amaravati with the Buddha standing in human form in the entrance to the monument (British Museum). Top right: Buddha Preaching in Tushita Heaven, 2nd century C.E. (Indian Museum, Kolkata). Bottom right: Relief from the side of the stupa (Government Museum in Chennai, state of Tamil Nadu, India).
Top: The actual ruins of the Grand Stupa of Amaravati in  Amaravathi village, Guntur district (state of Andhra Pradesh, India). Bottom: A reconstruction of the Amaravati stupa.


Aniconism: (from the Greek for non-image). Refers to the absence of material representations of the natural and supernatural world in various cultures, particularly in the monotheistic Abrahamic religions. When enforced by the physical destruction of images, aniconism becomes iconoclasm.

Buddhapada: Or the footprint of the Buddha. An imprint of Gautama Buddha’s one or both feet. There are two forms: natural, as found in stone or rock, and those made artificially. These footprints are meant to remind that Buddha was present on earth and left a spiritual ‘path’ to be followed. They are special as they are the only monuments which give Buddha a physical presence on earth as they are actual depression in the earth. The footprints of the Buddha abound throughout Asia, dating from various periods.

Dharmachakra: Or the dharma wheel, it is one of the oldest symbols of Buddhism. Around the globe, it is used to represent Buddhism in the same way that a cross represents Christianity or a Star of David represents Judaism. “Turning the dharma wheel” is a metaphor for the Buddha’s teaching of the dharma in the world. In Mahayana Buddhism, it is said the Buddha turned the dharma wheel three times: the first turning was the sermon in the deer park, after the Buddha’s enlightenment. Here the Buddha explained the Four Noble Truths. The second turning was the introduction of the perfection of wisdom teachings on the nature of sunyata, emptiness. The third turning was the introduction of the doctrine of Buddha Nature. A traditional dharma wheel is a chariot wheel with varying numbers of spokes. It can be in any color, although it is most often gold. At the center sometimes there are three shapes swirling together, although sometimes at the center is a yin-yang symbol, or another wheel, or an empty circle.

Escorzo: (from the Italian scorciare)A resource of painting, drawing and photography that is used to give the sensation of depth. The term is used to refer to an object/subject in an oblique position or perpendicular to the visual level. In fact, any projection of an object implies escorzo, since all the parts of a represented object suffer a deformation of their proportions when they are translated from their three-dimensional form to the two-dimensional plane. Escorzo began to be used frequently in Hellenistic art (ca. 3rd century B.C.E.), and ceased to be used in the Middle Ages. It was used to give greater intensity of volume and perspective to the painting. Previously, painters could not successfully represent the third dimension in their works.

Three quarter view: A representation of a head or figure posed about halfway between front and profile views.