Gandhara survived multiple conquests through the ancient and medieval periods. It was located on the Silk Road in the area that is now eastern Afghanistan and the northwest portion of Pakistan. Gandhara was a thriving center of trade and culture between the sixth century b.c.e. and the 11th century c.e.
In Buddhist and Hindu texts Gandhara is described as lying along the Uttarapatha (northern path) connecting a high road that followed the Ganges River and continued east through the Punjab and the Taxila Valley into Bactria.
In the Indian epic Mahabharata the kings of Gandhara are mentioned as being allies of the Kuravas in their wars against the Panduvas. The Greek historian Herodotus referred to the region as Paktuike and lists it as one of 20 provinces of the Persian Empire.
During the Persian Empire, at the end of the reign of Cyrus II (558–530 b.c.e.) and under Darius I (521–486 b.c.e.), Gandhara was part of the seventh satrap. It was under the Achaemenid’s control (roughly between 530 and 380 b.c.e.) that administration of the government became organized, aligning itself within the Persian system.
After 380 b.c.e. a series of small kingdoms arose in the region until the invasion by Alexander the Great in 327 b.c.e. Alexander’s control of the area was short-lived. The Mauryan Empire was launched from Gandhara.
The founder, Chandragupta II (r. 322–298 b.c.e.) was a young man living in Taxila during the conquest by Alexander. After successfully launching an assault on the kingdom of Magadha, Chandragupta defeated the Selucid Greeks in 305 b.c.e. and went on to become ruler over much of India.
For the next 150 years Gandhara was part of the Mauryan Empire. The great Mauryan ruler Ashoka, who lived from 304 to 232 b.c.e., was in his early career the governor of Gandhara. Under Ashoka, Buddhism began to flourish in the region.
After the fall of the Mauryans, around 185 b.c.e., Demetrius, the king of Bactria, invaded Gandhara but did not occupy it for long. The reign of Gandhara’s king Menander, who ruled from the cities of Taxila and Sagala until 140 b.c.e., marked a brief period of independence.
Following that period the kingdom came under the influence of Sakas, and by the beginning of the Common Era, the Parthians. Under the Parthians cultural and artistic ideas of the Greeks were brought to the centers of education and commerce. The famous Gandhara school of art began to apply Greek conventions to Buddhist figures. Gandharan artists were the first to depict the Buddha in human form.
Their emphasis was both on realism and the ideal beauty of the human form. While exquisite pieces of art from 50 b.c.e. to 400 c.e. survived, probably the most recognizable is the Fasting Buddha, which depicts a meditating Buddha whose bones are literally exposed due to his starvation.
The golden age of Gandhara took place during the rule of the Kushans. Countless remains of Buddhist monasteries, large statues, and various Buddhist stupas survived from this era.
The Kushan monarch Kanishka (128–151 c.e.) ruled his kingdom from Peshawar in Gandhara. The empire stretched from southern India to the border of Han China. From Peshawar, Buddhist culture, religion, and art were spread to the Far East.
After 241 c.e. Gandhara became a vassal of the Sassanians. Until the fifth century it remained a center of culture, artistic activity, and commerce. This period was marked by the production of giant statues of the Buddha that were carved into mountainsides and other large statues that were placed in monasteries.
By the middle of the fifth century the Huns invaded Gandhara, and the culture slid into a period of decay. Buddhism fell into decline, while some practice of Hinduism resurfaced. The Sassanids drove out the Huns in the middle of the sixth century.
Even though the Sassanid Empire came under the control of Islam after 644, the Arabs seemed to have little interest in Gandhara. Buddhism continued there under Turkish rule until the area’s conquest by Hindushahi around 870.
The Hindushahi capital was moved to Udabhandapura in Gand, and the kingdom once again prospered, at least through the early part of the Middle Ages. Around 1021 the region was taken over by Muslim leaders, and the kingdom of Gandhara was absorbed into the Islamic world. British archaeologists revived interest in the history of the region in the mid-19th century.