Greco-Buddhist art

From Academic Kids

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Gandhara Buddha, 1st-2nd century CE.

Greco-Buddhist art is the artistic manifestation of Greco-Buddhism, a cultural syncretism between the Classical Greek culture and Buddhism, which developed over a period of close to 1000 years in Central Asia, between the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE, and the Islamic conquests of the 7th century CE. Greco-Buddhist art is characterized by the strong idealistic realism of Hellenistic art and the first representations of the Buddha in human form, which have helped define the artistic (and particularly, sculptural) canon for Buddhist art throughout the Asian continent up to the present. It is also a unique example of cultural syncretism between eastern and western traditions, which has been achieved by no other art to such a degree.

The origins of Greco-Buddhist art are to be found in the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian kingdom (250 BCE- 130 BCE), located in today’s Afghanistan, from which Hellenistic culture radiated into the Indian sub-continent with the establishment of the Indo-Greek kingdom (180 BCE-10 BCE). Under the Indo-Greeks and then the Kushans, the interaction of Greek and Buddhist culture flourished in the area of Gandhara, in today’s northern Pakistan, before spreading further into India, influencing the art of Mathura, and then the Buddhist art of the Gupta empire, which was to extend to the rest of South-East Asia. The influence of Greco-Buddhist art also spread northward towards Central Asia, strongly affecting the art of the Tarim Basin at the door of China, and ultimately the arts of China, Korea and Japan.


Hellenistic art in southern Asia

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Silver coin depicting the Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius I (200-180 B.C.) wearing an elephant scalp, symbol of his conquest of India. Back: Herakles, holding a lion skin and a club resting over the arm. Greek legend BASILEOS DIMITRIOU "King Demetrius".

Powerful Hellenistic states were established in the areas of Bactria and Sogdiana, and later northern India for three centuries following the conquests of Alexander the Great around 330 BCE: the Seleucid empire until 250 BCE, followed by the Greco-Bactrian kingdom until 130 BCE, and the Indo-Greek kingdom from 180 BCE to around 10 BCE.

The clearest examples of Hellenistic art are found in the coins of the Greco-Bactrian kings of the period, such as Demetrius I of Bactria. Many coins of the Greco-Bactrian kings have been unearthed, including the largest silver and gold coins ever minted in the Hellenistic world, ranking among the best in artistic and technical sophistication: they “show a degree of individuality never matched by the often more bland descriptions of their royal contemporaries further West”. (“Greece and the Hellenistic world”).

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Hellenistic decorative scrolls from Hadda, northern Pakistan.

These Hellenistic kingdoms established cities on the Greek model, such as in Ai-Khanoum in Bactria, displaying purely Hellenistic architectural features, Hellenistic statuary, and remains of Aristotelician papyrus prints and coin hoards.

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Stone palette of a Nereid sea-goddess riding a Ketos sea-monster, Sirkap, 2nd century BCE.
 Wine-drinking and music, , 1st-2nd century CE.
Wine-drinking and music, Hadda, 1st-2nd century CE.

These Greek elements penetrated in northwestern India following the invasion of the Greco-Bactrians in 180 BCE, when they established the Indo-Greek kingdom in India. Fortified Greek cities, such as Sirkap in northern Pakistan, were established. Architectural styles used Hellenistic decorative motifs such as fruit garland and scrolls. Stone palettes for aromatic oils representing purely Hellenistic themes such as a Nereid riding a Ketos sea monster are found.

In Hadda, Hellenistic deities, such as Atlas are found. Wind gods are depicted, which will affect the representation of wind deities as far as Japan. Dyonisiac scenes represent people in Classical style drinking wine from amphoras and playing instruments.

Greco-Buddhist artistic interaction

As soon as the Greeks invaded India to form the Indo-Greek kingdom, a fusion of Hellenistic and Buddhist elements start to appear, encouraged by the benevolence of the Greek kings towards Buddhism. This artistic trend then develops for several centuries and seems to flourish further during the Kushan Empire from the first century CE.

Artistic model

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A Corinthian capitol with a Buddha at its center, 2nd century CE, Surk Kotal, Afghanistan.

Greco-Buddhist art depicts the life of the Buddha in a visual manner, probably by incorporating the real-life models and concepts which were available to the artists of the period.

The Bodhisattvas are depicted as bared chested and jewelled Indian princes. The Buddhas as Greek kings wearing the light toga-like himation. The buildings in which they are depicted incorporate Greek style, with the ubiquitous Corinthian columns and Greek decorative scrolls. Surrounding deities form a pantheon of Greek (Atlas, Herakles) and Indian gods (Indra).

Stylistic evolution

Stylistically, Greco-Buddhist art starts by being extremely fine and realistic, as apparent on the standing Buddhas, with " a realistic treatment of the folds and on some even a hint of modelled volume that characterizes the best Greek work" (Boardman). It then loose this sophisticated realism, to become progressively more symbolic and decorative over the centuries.


The Greek-style  in .
The Greek-style stupa in Sirkap.
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The Greek god Atlas, supporting a Buddhist monument, Hadda.

The presence of stupas at the Greek city of Sirkap, built by Demetrius already indicate a strong syncretism between Hellenism and the Buddhist faith, together with other religions such as Hinduism and Zoroastrianism. The style is Greek, adorned with Corinthian columns.

Later in Hadda, the Greek divinity Atlas is represented holding Buddhist monuments with decorated Greek columns.

The Buddha

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One of the first representations of the Buddha, 1st-2nd century CE, Gandhara.

Sometime between the 2nd century BCE and the 1st century CE, the first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha are developed. This innovation, originally prohibited by the Buddhist faith, immediately reaches a very high level of sculptural sophistication, naturally inspired by the sculptural styles of Hellenistic Greece.

Many of the stylislic elements in the representations of the Buddha point to Greek influence: the Greek himation (a light toga-like wavy robe covering both shoulders), the contrapposto stance of the upright figures (see: 1st–2nd century Gandhara standing Buddhas [1] ( and [2] (, the stylicized Mediterranean curly hair and top-knot apparently derived from the style of the Belvedere Apollo ( BCE), and the measured quality of the faces, all rendered with strong artistic realism (See: Greek art).

There is some debate regarding the exact date for the development of the anthropomorphic representation of the Buddha, and this has a bearing on whether the innovation came directly from the Indo-Greeks, or was a later development by the Kushans under Hellenistic artistic influence. Greco-Buddhist findings are usually difficult to date, and strictly datable works of art are rather late, such as the c.120 CE Kanishka casket and Kanishka's Buddhist coins. These works at least indicate though that the anthropomorphic representation of the Buddha was already extent in the 1st century CE.

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Fresco describing Emperor Han Wudi (156-87 BCE) worshipping two statues of the Buddha, Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, c.8th century CE.

From an another direction, Chinese historical sources and mural paintings in the Tarim Basin city of Dunhuang accurately describe the travels of the explorer and ambassador Zhang Qian to Central Asia as far as Bactria around 130 BCE, and the same murals describe the Emperor Han Wudi (156-87 BCE) worshipping Buddhist statues, explaining them as "golden men brought in 120 BCE by a great Han general in his campaigns against the nomads". Although there is no other mention of Han Wudi worshipping the Buddha in Chinese historical litterature, the murals would suggest that statues of the Buddha were already in existence during the 2nd century BCE, connecting them directly to the time of the Indo-Greeks.

The Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius I (205-171 BCE) himself may have been the prototype for the image of the Buddha. He was king and saviour of India, as confirmed by his successors King Apollodotus I and Menander I, who were officially described as BASILEOS SOTHROS "Saviour King" in the bilingual Greek and Kharoshthi legends of their coins. Demetrius was named Dharmamita ("Friend of the Dharma") in the Indian text of the Yuga-Purana. Buddhism flourished under his reign and that of his successors, precisely as it was being oppressed by the Indian dynasty of the Sunga in the East.

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The earliest Hellenistic statues of the Buddha portray him in a style reminiscent of a king, where the traditional Buddhist symbols (the dharma wheel, the empty throne, the Bodhi tree, the lions) are absent. Demetrius may have been deified, and the first Hellenistic statues of the Buddha we know may be representations of the idealized Greek king, princely, yet friendly, protective and open to Indian culture. As they progressively incorporated more Buddhist elements, they became central to the Buddhist movement, and influenced the representations of the Buddha in Greco-Buddhist art and later.

Another characteristic of Demetrius is associated to the Buddha: they share the same protector deity. In Gandharan art, the Buddha is often shown under the protection of the Greek god Herakles, standing with his club (and later a diamond rod) resting over his arm (photo hereafter, also [3] ( This unusual representation of Herakles is the same as the one on the back of Demetrius' coins, and it is exclusively associated to him (and his son Euthydemus II), seen only on the back of his coins.

Soon, the figure of the Buddha is incorporated within architectural designs, such as Corinthian pillars and freezes. Scenes of the life of the Buddha are typically depicted in a Greek architectural environment, with protagonist wearing Greek clothes.

Gods and Bodhisattvas

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 depiction of  as the protector of the ,  Period, ca. 3rd century  (ancient region of ).
Heracles depiction of Vajrapani as the protector of the Buddha, Kushan Period, ca. 3rd century Pakistan (ancient region of Gandhara).

Deities from the Greek mythological pantheon also tend to be incorporated in Buddhist representations, displaying a strong syncretism. In particular, Herakles (of the type of the Demetrius coins, with club resting on the arm) has been used abundantly as the representation of Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha. Other Greek deities abundantly used in Greco-Buddhist art are representation of Atlas, and the Greek wind God. Atlas in particular tends to be involved as a sustaining elements in Buddhist architectural elements.

Particularly under the Kushans, there are also numerous representation of richly adorned, princely, Bodhisattva all in a very realistic Greco-Buddhist style. The Bodhisattvas, characteristic of the Mahayana form of Buddhism, are represented under the traits of Kushan princes, completed with their canonical accessories.

The Kushan contribution

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Scene of the life of the Buddha. 2nd-3rd century. Gandhara.

The later part of Greco-Buddhist art in northwestern India is usually associated with the Kushan Empire. The Kushans were nomadic people who started migrating from the Tarim Basin in Central Asia from around 170 BCE and ended up founding an empire in northwestern India from the 2nd century BCE, after having been rather Hellenized through their contacts with the Greco-Bactrians, and later the Indo-Greeks (they adopted the Greek script for writing).

The Kushans, at the center of the Silk Road enthusiastically gathered works of art from all the quarters of the ancient world, as suggested by the hoards found in their northern capital in the archeological site of Begram, Afghanistan.

Gold coin of Kanishka I with a  representation of the  (c.120 AD) and the name "BODDO" (The Buddha) in .
Gold coin of Kanishka I with a representation of the Buddha (c.120 AD) and the name "BODDO" (The Buddha) in Greek script.

The Kushans sponsored Buddhism together with other Iranian and Hindu faiths, and probably contributed to the flourishing of Greco-Buddhist art. Their coins however suggest a lack of artistic sophistication: the representations of they kings, such as Kanishka, tend to be crude (lack of proportion, rough drawing), and the image of the Buddha is an assemblage of a Hellenistic Buddha statue with feet grossly represented and spread apart in the same fashion as the Kushan king. This tends to indicate the anteriority of the Hellenistic Greco-Buddhist statues, used as models, and a subsequent corruption by Kushan artists.

Greco-Buddhist art expansion in Central Asia

Greco-Buddhist artistic influences naturally followed Buddhism in its expansion to Central and Eastern Asia from the 1st century BCE.


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The standing Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan
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Statue from a Buddhist monastery 700 A.D., Afghanistan

Bactria was under direct Greek control for more than two centuries from the conquests of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE to the end of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom around 125 BCE. The art of Bactria was almost perfectly Hellenistic as shown by the archeological remains of Greco-Bactrian cities such as Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum), or the numismatic art of the Greco-Bactrian kings, often considered as the best of the Hellenistic world, and including the largest silver and gold coins ever minted by the Greeks.

When Buddhism expanded in Central Asia from the 1st century AD, Bactria saw the results of the Greco-Buddhist syncretism arrive on its territory from India, and a new blend of sculptural remained until the Islamic invasions.

The most striking of these realizations are the Buddhas of Bamiyan. They tend to vary between the 1st and the 3rd century BCE. They style are strongly inspired by Hellenistic culture.

In another area of Bactria called Fondukistan, some Greco-Buddhist art survived until the 7th century in Buddhist monasteries, displaying a strong Hellenistic influence combined with Indian decorativeness and mannerism, and some influence by the Sasanid Persians.

Most of the remaining art of Bactria was destroyed from the 5th century onward: the Buddhist were often blamed for idolatry and tended to be persecuted by the iconoclastic muslims. Destructions continued during the Afghanistan War, and especially by the Taliban regime in 2001. The most famous case is that of the desctruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Ironically, most of the remaining art from Afghanistan is the one that was removed from the country during the Colonial period. In particular, a rich collection exists at the Musee Guimet in France.

Tarim Basin

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"Heroic gesture of the Bodhisattva", 6th-7th century terracotta, Tumshuq (Xinjiang).
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Head of a Bodhisattva, 6th-7th century terracotta, Tumshuq (Xinjiang).

The art of the Tarim Basin, also called Serindian art, is the art that developed from the 2nd through the 11th century CE in Serindia or Xinjiang, the western region of China that forms part of Central Asia. It derives from the art of the Gandhara and clearly combines Indian traditions with Greek and Roman influences.

Buddhist missionaries travelling on the Silk Road introduced this art, along with Buddhism itself, into Serindia, where it mixed with Chinese and Persian influences.

See also: Silk Road transmission of Buddhism

Greco-Buddhist influences in Eastern Asia

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Northern Wei Buddha Maitreya, 443 CE.

The arts of China, Korea and Japan adopted Greco-Buddhist artistic influences, but tended to add many local elements as well. What remains most readily identifiable from Greco-Buddhist art are:

  • The general idealistic realism of the figures reminiscent of Greek art.
  • Clothing elements with elaborate greek-style folds.
  • The curly hairstyle characteristic of the Mediterranean.
  • In some Buddhist representations, hovering winged figures holding a wreath.
  • Greek sculptural elements such as vines and floral scrolls.


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Buddha triad, Eastern Wei (534-550), China.

Greco-Buddhist artistic elements can be traced in Chinese Buddhist art, with several local and temporal variations depending on the character of the various dynasties that adopted the Buddhist faith.

Some Northern Wei statues can be quite reminiscent of Gandharan standing Buddha, although in a slightly more symbolic style. The general attitude and rendering of the dress however remain. Other, like Northern Qi Dynasty statues also maintain the general Greco-Buddhist style, but with less realism and stronger symbolic elements.

Some Eastern Wei statues (left) display Buddhas with elaborate Greek-style robe foldings, and surmounted by flying figures holding a wreath.


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A Buddha in Kamakura (1252), reminiscent of Greco-Buddhist influences.

In Japan, Buddhist art started to develop as the country converted to Buddhism in 548 CE. Some tiles from the Asuka period, the first period following the conversion of the country to Buddhism, display a strikingly classical style, with ample Hellenistic dress and realistically-rendered body shape characteristic of Greco-Buddhist art.

Other works of art incorporated a variety of Chinese and Korean influences, so that Japanese Buddhist became extremely varied in its expression. Many elements of Greco-Buddhist art remain to this day however, such as the Hercules inspiration behind the Nio guardian deities in front of Japanese Buddhist temples, or representations of the Buddha reminiscent of Greek art such as the Buddha in Kamakura.

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Left: Greek wind god from Hadda, 2nd century. Right: Japanese wind god Fujin, 17th century.

Various other Greco-Buddhist artistic influences can be found in the Japanese buddhist pantheon, the most striking of which being that of the Japanese wind god Fujin. In consistency with Greek iconography for the wind god Boreas, the Japanese wind god holds above his head with his two hands a draping or "wind bag" in the same general attitude. The abundance of hair have been kept in the Japanese rendering, as well as exaggerated facial features.

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Iconographical evolution from the Greek god Herakles to the Japanese god Shukongōshin. From left to right:
1) Herakles (Louvre Museum).
2) Herakles on coin of Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius I.
3-4) Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, depicted as Herakles in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara.
5) Shukongōshin, manifestation of Vajrapani, as protector deity of Buddhist temples in Japan.

Another Buddhist deity, named Shukongoshin, one of the wrath-filled protector deities of Buddhist temples in Japan, is also an interesting case of transmission of the image of the famous Greek god Herakles to the Far-East along the Silk Road. Herakles was used in Greco-Buddhist art to represent Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, and his representation was then used in China and Japan to depict the protector gods of Budhist temples.

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Temple tiles from Nara, 7th century.
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Vine and grape scrolls from Nara, 7th century.

Finally, the artistic inspiration from Greek floral scrolls is found quite literally in the decoration of Japanese roof tiles, one of the only remaining element of wooden architecture throughout centuries. The clearest one are from 7th century Nara temple building tiles, some of them exactly depicting vines and grapes. These motifs have evolved towards more symbolic representations, but essentially remain to this day in many Japanese traditional buildings.

Southern influences of Greco-Buddhist art

The art of Mathura

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A Buddha, 2nd century, Mathura

The representations of the Buddha in Mathura, in central northern India, are generally dated slightly later than those of Gandhara, although not without debate, and are also much less numerous. Up to that point, Indian Buddhist art had essentially been aniconic, avoiding representation of the Buddha, except for his symbols, such as the wheel or the Bodhi tree, although some archaic Mathuran sculptural representation of Yaksas (earth divinities) have been dated to the first century BCE. Even these Yaksas indicate some Hellenistic influence, possibly dating back to the occupation of Mathura by the Indo-Greeks during the 2nd century BCE.

In terms of artistic predispositions for the first representations of the Buddha, Greek art provided a very natural and centuries-old background for an anthropomorphic representation of a divinity, whether on the contrary “there was nothing in earlier Indian statuary to suggest such a treatment of form or dress, and the Hindu pantheon provided no adequate model for an aristocratic and wholly human deity” (Boardman).

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Greek scroll supported by Indian Yaksas, Amaravati, 3rd century CE.

The Mathura sculptures incorporate many Hellenistic elements, such as the general idealistic realism, and key design elements such as the curly hair, and folded garment. Specific Mathuran adaptations tend to reflect warmer climatic conditions, as they consist in a higher fluidity of the clothing, which progressively tend to cover only one shoulder instead of both. Also, facial types also tend to become more Indianized.

The influence of Greek art can be felt beyond Mathura, as far as Amaravati on the East coast of India, as shown by the usage of Greek scrolls in combination with Indian deities. Other motifs such as Greek chariots pulled by four hourses can also be found in the same area.

Incidentally, Hindu art started to develop from the 1st to the 2nd century CE and found its first inspiration in the Buddhist art of Mathura. It progressively incorporated a profusion of original Hindu stylistic and symbolic elements however, in contrast with the general balance and simplicity of Buddhist art.

Art of the Gupta

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Buddha of the Gupta period, 5th century, Mathura.
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Head of a Buddha, Gupta period, 6th century.

The art of Mathura acquired progressively more Indian elements and reached a very high sophistication during the Gupta Empire, between the 4th and the 6th century CE. The art of the Gupta is considered as the pinnacle of Indian Buddhist art.

Hellenistic elements are still clearly visible in the purity of the statuary and the folds of the clothing, but are improved upon with a very delicate rendering of the draping and a sort of radiance reinforced by the usage of pink sandstone. Artistic details tend to be less realistic, as seen in the symbolic shell-like curls used to render the hairstyle of the Buddha.

South-East Asian art

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A Cambodian Buddha, 14th century
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Bodhisattva Lokesvara, Cambodia 12th century.

The Indian civilization proved very influential on the cultures of South-East Asia. Most countries adopted Indian writing and culture, together with Hinduism and Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism.

The influence of Greco-Buddhist art is still visible in most of the representation of the Buddha in South-East Asia, although they tend to intermix with Indian Hindu art, and they progressively acquire more local elements.

Cultural significance of Greco-Buddhist art

Beyond stylistic elements which spread throughout Asia for close to a millennium, the main contribution of Greco-Buddhist art to the Buddhist faith main be in the Greek-inspired idealistic realism which helped describe in a visual and immediately understandable manner the state of personal bliss and enlightenment proposed by Buddhism. The communication of deeply human approach of the Buddhist faith, and its accessibility to all have probably benefited from the Greco-Buddhist artistic syncretism.

See also


  • "Religions and the Silk Road" by Richard C. Foltz (St. Martin's Press, 1999) ISBN 0312233388
  • "The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity" by John Boardman (Princeton University Press, 1994) ISBN 0691036802
  • "Old World Encounters. Cross-cultural contacts and exchanges in pre-modern times" by Jerry H.Bentley (Oxford University Press, 1993) ISBN 0195076397
  • "Alexander the Great: East-West Cultural contacts from Greece to Japan" (NHK and Tokyo National Museum, 2003)
  • "The Greeks in Bactria and India" W.W. Tarn, Cambridge University Press
  • "Living Zen" by Robert Linssen (Grove Press New York, 1958) ISBN 0802131360
  • "Echoes of Alexander the Great: Silk route portraits from Gandhara" by Marian Wenzel, with a foreword by the Dalai Lama (Eklisa Anstalt, 2000) ISBN 1588860140Template:Buddhism2

id:Seni Buddha-Yunani


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