When in the frame of Europalia India, the exhibition The Body in Indian Art came to Brussels, I had the opportunity to go hunting for Greek elements in the Indian statues and friezes. The oldest sculptures dated from the 2nd century BC and the most recent with still Hellenistic traits were from the fourth century AD, i.e. more or less with the latest influences in the West under the Romans. The attentive visitor will easily recognize Hellenistic influence in the facial expression, the positioning of the body resting on one leg, the execution of the robes, the border elements with palmettos and four-leaved flowers familiar from caissons in Greek buildings, or even in the active Cupid or Amor figures on narrow decorative stone bands. This collection was a unique opportunity since it seldom travels outside India.
After the spreading of Hellenism, Buddha is being depicted in a visual way wearing a light toga-like himation and the Bodhisattvas are merely bare-chested Indian princes. The surrounding buildings are set up in Greek style with remotely Ionian and Indian-style Corinthian capitals. The figures are a mixture of Greek and Indian elements.
The real aficionados will find many magnificent examples of this unique style at the Musée Guimet in Paris, France. This museum has been entirely revamped and hosts a unique collection of Asian Art. In the traces of Alexander the Great, treasures from Afghanistan/Pakistan (roughly ancient Bactria and Sogdiana) and India have been gathered to be exhibited in an absolutely breathtaking collection. Besides major artifacts from Hada and Begram in today’s Afghanistan, there are beautiful examples of Buddha’s and Bodittsava’s among lovely genies from Gandhara worth the visit.
It was Cyrus the Great who first extended the Persian Empire eastwards to include the areas around the Indus River. Gandhara in the Peshawar valley of northern Pakistan fell under Achaemenid rule and was formally included as the seventh satrapy, that of the Upper Indus.
When Alexander the Great arrived in Taxila in 326 BC, Buddhism had not made its appearance in that region yet. Arrian, among others, mentions however that the king met members of the Indian sect of Wise Men who walk around naked. It is common knowledge that Alexander always kept an open mind for other religions, and these wise men must have intrigued him. One of them going by the Greek name of Calanus joined Alexander on his way back west and we can only guess their topics of conversation. Calanus had many pupils and friends inside Alexander's circle, where the only one mentioned by name is Lysimachos who received the horse that the dying man was supposed to ride on his way to the sacrificial pyre arranged at his request by Alexander in person.
Fact remains that the first statues representing Buddha are part of Alexander’s legacy. Hellenism contributed to the spreading of art, culture, knowledge and took root in Central Asia where the Bactrian kings proudly showed off their close ties. In India, on the other hand, this influence was much slower were it only because the Mauryan kingdom imposed itself shortly after Alexander passage, eliminating the Macedonians on their way.
It may not come as a surprise that the first images of Buddha were created in Central Asia during the rule of Greco-Bactrian kings. Before the spreading of Hellenism, no artist was allowed to show Buddha in human form, and symbols such as a footprint, a wheel, a tree, a stupa or some Sanskrit characters were used instead. By 180 BC, the Greco-Bactrian King Demetrius invaded India leading to the Indo-Greek kingdom that lasted until 10 AD. This is when the Gandharan Buddha was sculpted with straight nose and brow, classical lips and wavy hair – strong idealised and sensuous influences of Hellenism. A striking element was the introduction of the “diaphanous”, a toga-like robe that Buddha wears instead of the expected loin-cloth. Yet the heavy eye-lids, the elongated earlobes, and the oval-shaped faces are still very much Indian. In short, this form of art became a strong melting pot of eastern and western traditions.
Chandragupta of the Mauryan Empire took advantage of the confusion following the death of Alexander to take possession of the former Macedonian satrapies of Parapamisade (Gandhara), Arachosia (Kandahar) and Gedrosia after fighting Seleucos, Alexander’s successor in the east (305-303 BC). It was only when abovementioned King Demetrius defeated the Mauryas that the influence of Hellenism appeared in India.
It is clear that Alexander’s legacy through Hellenism was felt for many centuries, directly of indirectly, and visiting an exhibition even distantly related to the great conqueror is always very gratifying.