MICHAEL WOOD’S VIEW
At the start of his novel Kim, Rudyard Kipling describes a scene in the old Lahore Museum. In the entrance hall the urchin boy Kim stands open-mouthed in front of “Greco-Buddhist sculptures done by forgotten workmen whose hands were feeling, not unskilfully, for the mysteriously transmitted Grecian touch”.
That scene came to my mind recently in Oxford at an event for Gandhara Connections ( carc.ox.ac.uk/GandharaConnections), a project about one of the most fascinating moments in the story of civilisation, which is finally attracting the international attention it deserves.
Gandhara was an ancient region in north-west Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. At the time of the Roman empire it was the crucible of an explosion of artistic and cultural ideas (a mix of Indian, Greek and Roman) that spread across half the globe.
The very existence of the lost world of Gandhara had been forgotten until Victorian explorers discovered ruined stupas, shrines, and exquisite sculptures that had survived medieval Muslim iconoclasm. It was a uniquely eclectic Buddhist tradition, created for wealthy Buddhist communities, that made wonderful figural art, including depictions of the Buddha with his toga and topknot.
Gandhara’s roots lay in the spread of Hellenistic culture in Asia after Alexander the Great. But its golden age was under the Kushan empire of the first to third centuries, especially under Kanishka, a contemporary of Hadrian. It was stimulated by direct contact with Rome as trade routes with the west opened up by land and sea, sponsored by the Kushan kings, and paid for by an affluent Buddhist mercantile class whose patronage ensured happier future lives.
How it came about is still something of a mystery. Some artists must have been as mobile as the Buddhist merchants who travelled between Afghanistan and China. But the key is the immersion in one tradition by artists of another. For it is not just a matter of general resemblance to Graeco-Roman art, but of uncanny, almost magical affinity. The Gandhara artists clearly knew exactly what they were doing and were in complete command of the language of classical art.
Edward Gibbon thought this age, of the Antonines in Rome, “the happiest time” in world history. As always in the history of civilisation, cultural growth was helped by a prolonged period of peace when connections could expand along the Silk Road and its offshoots into India. The Kushan empire (like other great Indian empires, the Mauryans, Guptas and Mughals) was open-minded towards all religions – essential in a huge multi-racial subcontinent where religious conflict has been, and still is, a blight on human progress.
So this tale is really about the first signs of the ancient globalisation predicted by the historian Polybius in the second century BC. Galvanised by contact with the Roman empire, Gandharan art is a phenomenon of global connectedness. And how topical is that today?! Some of the connections are so surprising you can hardly believe they existed: artistic traditions several thousand miles apart united in one place. Global contacts work in mysterious ways! And their shadow is still there today, in the themes, images and gestures of Indian culture, right down to Bollywood.
The Gandharan golden age was little known about until recently, except to specialists. One suspects this might be because it doesn’t fit into our usual compartmentalising of civilisations: our simple labels and cultural categorisations. You could cite other examples of such crossover and synthesis – not exact parallels – but think of the Hellenistic culture of Roman Egypt interacting with the indigenous Egyptian (where a brilliant tradition of portraiture went back long before the Greeks); or the fabulous interactions of the Andean and Mexican cultures with the Christian Spanish, which are still vividly alive today. Out of such moments new worlds are made, neither one thing, nor the other, but both. All of which, I guess, testifies to the many ways we human beings on this small planet have tried to create civilisation.