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date: 09 February 2023

The Archaeology of Gandhāralocked

The Archaeology of Gandhāralocked

  • Luca Maria OlivieriLuca Maria OlivieriCa' Foscari University of Venice


The cultural context in which the term “Gandhāra” is used initially refers to Vedic geography and then to the administrative limits of the homonymous Achaemenid satrapy.

The most reliable information referring to the Middle Holocene period, in which the Gandhāran region must have met a climatically optimal phase during which domesticated rice was introduced to Kashmir and Swat through the trans-Himalayan corridors (early 2nd millennium bce or earlier). Toward the end of the 2nd millennium, northern Gandhāra features a rather coherent settlement phenomenon marked by large graveyards, mainly with inhumations, which were labeled by previous scholarship as the “Gandhāra Grave Culture” (1200–900 bce). In this phase among the major cultural markers, the introduction of iron technology is noteworthy.

The historic phases in Gandhāra are marked by an initial urban phase in Gandhāra (500–150 bce), sometimes referred to as a “second urbanization,” on the evidence mainly from Peshawar, Charsadda I, Barikot, and Bhir Mound (Taxila I). Mature urban phases (150 bce–350 ce) are defined based on the restructuring of old cities, and new urban foundations during the phases of contact historically defined by the Indo-Greek and Śaka dynasties, followed by the Kushans (Peshawar, Charsadda II, Barikot, Sirkap, or Taxila III). The artistic phenomenon known as the Buddhist “art of Gandhāra” started toward the end of the 1st century bce and lasted until the 4th century ce. The beginning of this art is best attested in that period in Swat, where schist of exceptional quality is largely available. At the beginning of the 1st century ce, the iconic and figurative symbols of Indian Buddhism acquire a narrative form, which is the major feature of the Buddhist art of Gandhāra. The subsequent art and architecture of Buddhist Gandhāra feature large sanctuaries richly decorated, and monasteries, documented in several “provinces” of Gandhāra throughout the Kushan period, from the late 1st century ce to mid/end-3rd century ce. In this period Buddhist sanctuaries and urban centers developed together, as proved both in Peshawar valley, in Swat, and at Taxila.

After the urban crisis (post-300 ce)—which went hand in hand with the crisis of the centralized Kushan rule—stratigraphic excavations have so far registered a significant thinning of the archaeological deposits, with a few exceptions. Besides coins deposited in coeval phases of Buddhist sanctuaries and literary and epigraphic sources, archaeological evidence for the so-called Hunnic or “Huna” phases (c. 5th–7th century ce) are very scarce.

Around the mid-6th century, Buddhist monasteries entered a period of crisis, the effects of which were dramatically visible in the first half of the 7th century, especially in the northern regions of Gandhāra. It is after this phase (early 7th century) that literary sources and archaeology report the existence of several Brahmanical temples in and around Gandhāra. These temples were first supported by the Turki-Śāhi (whose capital was in Kabulistan; end-7th/early 8th century) and then by the Hindu-Śāhi (9th–10th century).


  • Archaeology

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