MICHAEL WOOD’S VIEW

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

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.

Michael Wood is pro­fes­sor of pub­lic his­tory at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester. He has pre­sented nu­mer­ous BBC se­ries and his books in­clude The Story of Eng­land (Vik­ing, 2010)

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