arrow graphic
Asia Society
Homeland Afghanistan

Geography and Destiny For centuries, scarce resources and difficult terrain have required people in the Hindu Kush region to develop unique solutions to survive. But while geography has brought challenges, it has also offered opportunities. In Afghanistan, geography is a multi-sided destiny.

Identity and Perception Local, tribal, and religious identities in the Hindu Kush region have always shifted depending on one’s point of view. As Afghanistan decides what it means to be Afghan, it faces a kaleidoscope of moving perspectives.

Tradition and Modernization Afghans have always had to be flexible. At times, this flexibility has brought people together, and at other times it has torn them apart. Reconciling tradition and modernization means making sense of what’s at stake when people change--and when they don’t.

Traces and Narratives History is not always written. Much of what we know about Afghanistan comes from scattered artifacts, symbols, and oral traditions. Understanding these traces means piecing together the narratives that history leaves behind.

Scroll through the timeline below to reveal events in selected theme (denoted by Theme Icon ).

Drag here for timeline

Timeline Timeline

Kushan Fusion

CIRCA 120 CE
THEMES:

Identity & Perception

Traces & Narratives

Reveal Source

"The Buddha, Made in Gandhara." Digital image. The British Museum. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://tinyurl.com/2bjzeeo.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

"The Buddha, Made in Gandhara." Digital image. The British Museum. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://tinyurl.com/36x78rj.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Buddhist Relics, Kabul. National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul, Afghanistan.

Dupree, Nancy. 65-M-62. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Dupree, Nancy. 65-M-78. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Dupree, Nancy. 70-76a. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Dupree, Nancy. A73-45. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Dupree, Nancy. A73-53. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Faravahar at Persepolis. Persepolis, Iran.

"Figure, Made in Gandhara." Digital image. The British Museum. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectId=223661&partId=1.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

"Gandhara Buddha." Digital image. Wik.

"Kanishka Coin." Digital image. The British Museum. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectId=3143230&partId=1.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

"Kushan Empire (ca. 2nd Century B.C. 3rd Century A.D.)." The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Metmuseum.org. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/kush/hd_kush.htm.

"Kushans." Afghanan.Net. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://www.afghanan.net/afghanistan/kushans.htm.

"Miscellaneous Buddhist Sculpture Fragments from Nullah, Sanghao, Peshawar District, 1883." Digital image. British Library. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/photocoll/m/019pho000001003u01125000.html.

Photograph by Henry Hardy Cole, courtesy of the British Library Board

Nguyen, Marie-Lan. "Athena of the Parthenos Athena Type." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Athena_Parthenos_Altemps_Inv8622.jpg.

Nguyen, Marie-Lan. "Head of Apollo." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Apollo_Palatino_Inv12456.jpg.

PHG. "Buddha-Footprint." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Buddha-Footprint.jpeg.

PHG. "SeatedBuddha." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SeatedBuddha.jpg.

Tokyo National Museum. Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

PHG. "TangBodhisattva." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TangBodhisattva.JPG.

"Seated Buddha." Digital image. Virtual Collection of Masterpieces. http://masterpieces.asemus.museum/masterpieces.aspx.

Musée National des Arts Asiatiques Guimet. Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.5/

UNESCO/Manoocher/Webistan. "Kabul Museum - Statue Restoration." Digital image. UNESCO. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://photobank.unesco.org.

Ustad Awalmir. Esta De Qasam Wi. Radio-Television Afghanistan Archive. 

"Virtual Art Exhibit - Kushans." University of Washington's Silk Road Exhibit." Accessed August 21, 2010. http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/exhibit/kushans/kushans.html.

World Imaging. "Buddha-Vajrapani-Herakles." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Buddha-Vajrapani-Herakles.JPG.
Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

World Imaging. "Gandhara Buddha." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gandhara_Buddha_%28tnm%29.jpeg.

World Imaging. "Kushan "Buddo" Coin." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KanishkaI.jpg.
GNU license: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNU_Free_Documentation_License CC license: creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/


Producer: Kate Harding

Reveal Transcript

The area known today as Afghanistan had flourished with trade and riches during the Greco-Bactrian empire. But its rich, urban settlements were continually under threat from nomads.

By the first century, these nomads consolidated their power and established the Kushan Empire.

That empire would make a profound decision, and that decision would revolutionize all of Asia.

The Kushan people who moved into Afghanistan in the 1st century AD … were originally a nomadic group found in Central Asia around the Ferghana Valley in central Asia then moved into Afghanistan. They brought with them a renewed love and adoration of Buddhism…

In the earliest days of Buddhism, the Buddha was only depicted through symbols such as wheels or footprints. But as Buddhism spread, more people believed that the Buddha’s miraculous life should be narrated using a human form.

In the year 130, the Kushan King, Kanishka, held a grand council to decide whether or not this new art should be permitted. He decided to officially sanction it, giving rise to a tradition of Buddhist art that has lasted almost 2,000 years.

The Kushans turned to the sculptors throughout their kingdom. These sculptors had been trained in the Greek tradition because of the previous Greco empires that had ruled the area.

They had learned the art of stonecutting, figuremaking, and drapery. And they set to work using this Greek style to produce Buddhist statues.

The statues are essentially made by Greek trained artisans. So when we look at these statues of the Buddha they look an awful lot like Apollo the Orator. They look like Greek gods. Why? Because they were made by the specialist in religious sculpture and given Buddhist robes, given Buddhist insignias.

The art flourished, and was especially concentrated in a region known at the time as Gandhara – an area that straddled what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan.

One would think that Buddhist art would reflect Buddhist figures and Buddhist decorative motifs but in fact, Gandharan art is really very similar to Greek art. The depictions of costumes, drapery, even the figures themselves are derived from Greek civilization.

The art of the Kushans stirred a revolution across Asia and figurines erupted all across the continent, spreading to China, Japan, and Korea.

Everywhere the style went, it merged with local traditions. Buddhist figurines were soon characterized by a fusion of Asian and Greek influences.

But the greatest Kushan achievement would be the Buddhas of Bamiyan – the colossal statues that announced the Kushan’s might to all who traveled along the Silk Road.

But the Kushans were not only Buddhists. They were also patrons of Zoroastrianism and they saw no reason why both religions could not coexist within their empire.

There was no discrimination against either religion. The result was a fusion society during this time as well, not just in the arts but in general.

The Kushans had learned to fuse differences together instead of driving them apart. 

Nomads adapted elements of Greek and Indian culture to create a hybrid society of their own.

Share