The ancient region of Gandhara, straddling the Khyber Pass in what now spans eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, was for many centuries an important center of trade and commerce. Its position at the crossroads of Central Asia meant that it was exposed to goods and ideas from India, China and the Mediterranean world.
In the centuries before the Common Era (CE), the region came under Hellenistic control after Alexander the Great annexed Gandhara to his expansive empire; following his death, the region was controlled by a succession of kings of mixed Greek and Central Asian descent. Buddhism was already well established during this time, with the Indo-Greek King Menander and the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka both noted proponents of the faith.
It was not until the reign of the Kushan dynasty in the first centuries CE that profound changes in the religious art of the region were realized. The Kushan were nomadic horsemen from the steppes of Central Asia, pushed out of their homeland in Western China circa 160 BCE. After more than a century of migration, the Kushan seized power in the regions of Gandhara and Northern India. Astute rulers, the Kushan allowed religious freedom for their subjects and adopted local Hellenistic and Indian traditions, including the Buddhist faith. Prior to their rule, the presence of Buddha was depicted in art through aniconic symbols such as the dharmachakra (wheel of law) or buddhapada (footprints of the Buddha); upon their ascension to power, however, the first images of Buddha in anthropomorphic form began to appear.
In the ancient region of Gandhara, the sculptural tradition was strongly influenced by the Hellenistic style left in the wake of Alexander. Local artisans favored the principles of figural naturalism, in particular the athletic and heroic idealized body. The depiction of the Indian dhoti and sanghati, like that of the Greek chiton and himaton, presented an opportunity to reproduce voluminous folds of drapery with wondrous aplomb, as is evident in the present work.
This magnificent standing Buddha figure—nearly life-size in scale at almost two meters in height—exemplifies the mastery of the artist and the medium at a time when Buddhist stone sculpture in the region was at its most refined. The monastic raiment is draped across both shoulders with considerable backthrow, hanging naturalistically in u-shaped folds that reveal the contours of the powerful body. The faithful rendering of the deeply carved folds of the garment, the face, and the ripples of the hair are particularly exquisite and are a testament to the skill of the sculptor.
This masterfully-carved figure embodies an idealized and transcendent male form. The heavy sanghati delicately models the muscular shoulders, torso, soft belly and rounded thigh; the elegant neck is slightly elongated and the left knee bends in preparation to step forward. This subtle gesture, along with the undulating folds of the robe, allows one to imagine the fabric fluttering as the Buddha moves. Heavy eyelids frame the almond-shaped eyes, the forehead remains perfectly unlined, and there is no tension in the rosebud mouth. While activated with energy, movement and life, the Buddha is simultaneously in a state of otherworldly tranquility.
Compare this masterwork with a contemporaneous standing Buddha in the Peshawar Museum, illustrated by H. Ingholt in Gandharan Art in Pakistan, New York, 1957, p. 111, fig. 207, in which the body is modeled with thick contours as seen in the deep folds of the robe, and stocky form beneath. In the present work, the drapery is softer, allowing the body’s slender shape and elegant posture to emerge, enhancing the meditative mood.
Also compare the face of the Buddha with that of another standing figure also in the Peshawar Museum (ibid., p. 113, fig. 223). In both examples, the artist has skillfully carved and polished the stone to imbue it with lifelike rather than idealized appearance, and the simulacrum of finely woven cloth. While the face of the published image has been carved in a rather formulaic manner, the present work has been carved by a master of naturalism. The quiet contours and gentle shadows model the flawless structure of the face, encapsulating the eternal youthfulness of the Buddha. For a further comparison, see W. Zwalf, A Catalogue of the Gandhara Sculpture in the British Museum: Vol. II, London, 1996, p. 10, pl. 3, wherein the physiognomy of both works is similarly executed; the proportions of the facial features are alike and the legs are modeled in the round beneath the drapery. Also note the comparable widow’s peak hairline, the stylized undulations of the hair, and the heavily pleated u-shaped neckline of the robes with distinguishable backthrow.
The effect of the monumental carving of the current work provides tremendous sculptural presence, and together with its beautifully preserved condition, it stands as a significant and rare masterwork of Gandharan art.