Incredible India – Part 2 – Gandhara Civilization

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Gandhara was the name given to the land and its associated civilization that existed in what is now northern Pakistan and Afghanistan from the mid-1st millennium BC to the beginning of the 2nd millennium AD and consisted of multiple dynasties which ruled over the same area but which were linked by their adoption of Buddhism as a religion for the most part and also of the Indo-Greek artistic tradition as its cultural identity.

The extent of Gandhara proper actually included the Peshawar valley, the hills of Swat, Dir, Buner and Bajaur, all of which lie within the northern bounds of the modern day nation of Pakistan. However the bounds of Greater Gandhara (or regions where the cultural and political hegemony of Gandhara held sway) extended towards the Kabul Valley in Afghanistan and the Potwar plateau in the province of Punjab in Pakistan, in close proximity to the capital city of Islamabad, and bounded off by the location of the grand Mankiyala Stupa on the outskirts of the capital.

Gandhara witnessed the rule of several major powers of antiquity as listed here:

  • Achaemenids (~600-400 BC)

  • Greeks (~326-324 BC),

  • Mauryans (~324-185 BC),

  • Indo-Greeks (~250-190 BC),

  • Scythians (~2nd Century to 1st  Century BC),

  • Parthians (~1st Century BC to 1st Century AD),

  • Kushans (~1st to 5th  Century AD),

  • White Huns (~5th Century AD)

  • Hindu Shahi (~9th to 10th Century AD).

Alexander left sizeable populations of Greeks in every region he conquered and Gandhara was no exception, with craftsmen, soldiers and other followers encouraged to inter-marry and blend with the locals and bring to them the fruits of Greek civilization.

The primary cities of Gandhara were Purushapura (now Peshawar), Takshashila (or Taxila) and Pushkalavati. The latter remained the capital of Gandhara down to the 2nd century AD, when the capital was moved to Peshawar.

Gandhara's language was a Prakrit or "Middle Indo-Aryan" dialect, usually called Gāndhārī. The language used the Kharosthi script, which died out about the 4th century. However, Punjabi, Hindko, and Kohistani, are derived from the Indo-Aryan Prakrits that were spoken in Gandhara and surrounding areas. However, a language shift occurred as the ancient Gandharan culture gave way to Iranian invaders, such as the Pashtun tribes from Central Asia that began settling the region.

Indo-Iranian includes two sub-branches: Indic and Iranian. Today these languages are predominant in India, Pakistan, Iran, and its vicinity and also in areas from the Black Sea to western China.

In 80 AD, the Kushans wrested control of Gandhara from the Scytho-Parthians. The main city at Taxila was again refounded at another site and the new name Sirsukh given to it. It resembled a large military base, with a wall 5 km long and no less than 6 metres thick. It now became a hub of Buddhist activity, and hosted pilgrims from Central Asia and China. The Kushana era is the high point of Gandhara art, architecture and culture and considered a golden age in the history of this region. The Kushans were a tribe that migrated to Gandhara around the 1st century AD from Central Asia and Afghanistan. The tribe selected Peshawar as its seat of power and later expanded east into the heartland of India to establish the Kushan Empire, which lasted until the 3rd century AD.

The tail end of the Kushan rule saw a succession of short lived dynasties taking over control of the Gandhara region, and this resulted in a situation where the region was constantly being raided, invaded or in some way or other in turmoil. Quick succession of rule by the Sassanids, Kidarites (or little Kushans) and finally the White Huns following the ebbing of Kushan rule led to day to day religious, trade and social activity coming to a standstill. In about 241 AD, the Kushans were defeated by the Sassanians of Persia under the kingship of Shahpur 1 and Gandhara became annexed to the Persian Empire. However, the Sassanians could not directly rule the region due to being taxed on their western and northern borders and control of this region fell to descendants of the previous Kushans who came to be known as the Kidarites or Kidar Kushans which literally means little Kushans.

As we can see, daily life in the cities of Gandhara was very diverse and due to its location at a crossroads near the Indus River, it constantly saw invaders, traders, pilgrims, monks, and every other type of traveler cross through its lands. Westwards from India or Eastwards from Persia, the route through the region of Gandhara made it the center of every traveler's route.

Part 3 - Gandahara Language

Part 1 - Ancient India

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