Kanishka’s Reign Brings Flowering of the Arts Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Emperor Kanishka, the third in a line of Kushān rulers, was a prominent patron of art and scholarship.

Summary of Event

The Kushān Empire lasted from the late first to the third century c.e. and reached its greatest extent during the reign of Kanishka. The Kushāns were eastern Iranian people of Central Asian origin who established a large territory that extended from Varanasi on the river Ganges, through modern-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and Bactria, up to the Oxus River. They adopted Buddhism as their official religion and became active patrons of art and learning. During the early years of the reign of Kanishka, the first representations of the Buddha image in anthropomorphic form appeared. In addition, the emperor sponsored a great Buddhist event, the Fourth Buddhist Council, at which attending scholars wrote commentaries on the canon, and Kanishka became one of the vigorous supporters of the Mahāyāna doctrine. Kanishka

Because of the strategic location of their empire, the Kushāns were at the crossroads of all main trade routes and had access to ports on the Arabian Sea, a vital trade link between the Roman Empire and China. Therefore, it is not surprising to recognize different religious and cultural influences in their visual art. They issued golden coins depicting Iranian and Hindu deities, Greco-Roman gods and goddesses, and images of Buddha, all accompanied with relevant inscriptions in variants of Aramaic, occasionally Greek, and predominantly Sanskrit.

Kanishka, a devoted Buddhist, was especially interested in establishing monasteries and stupas, many of which were destroyed later. Originally, the stupa was a small mound of earth sheltering a part of the relics of the Buddha. The emperor commissioned a stupa that originally rose more than 295 feet (90 meters), or according to some records, even 690 feet (210 meters), built of wood with a copper mast and thirteen copper umbrellas. Only its foundations, some 286 feet across (87 meters), can be seen today in Shahji-ki-Dheri near Peshawar. Unfortunately, none of the Kushān architecture survived intact.

The greatest achievements of Kanishka’s patronage are in the area of sculpture. There are two basic styles of anthropomorphic images of Buddha produced in two distinctive art centers, Gandhara and Mathura. Artists of the Gandhara school (in present-day Pakistan) were influenced by Greco-Roman models or, more precisely, Roman sculptural and relief works created during the reign of Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 c.e.). Accordingly, Buddha is represented as tall and slender with broad shoulders and a narrow waist, dressed in a monastic robe draped in heavy folds reminiscent of a Roman toga. He is depicted as youthful, with an expression based on classical features typical for the Apollo type of Hellenistic style, with a classical nose and curly hair. Several typical physical attributes of the Buddha image are noticeable: the urna (tuft of hair between the eyes), the ushnisha (wisdom protuberance on the crown of the head), the lotus outline on the soles of the feet, the elongated earlobes caused by the weight of earrings he wore as a prince, and the mudra (a symbolic hand gesture). In addition, the figure has a halo, an accepted conventional sign of divinity and kingship in India and Central Asia. Favorite media used by Gandhara masters were gray-blue and gray-black schist and stucco.

In addition to freestanding sculptures, a new conception and organization of the biography of the Buddha appeared. The earlier symbolical presentations of major events from his life such as his enlightenment, the first sermon, and his death were replaced with entire narrative cycles based on Western models, typically adorned with classical motifs of garlands, colonnades, Corinthian capitals, and figures of cupids.

On the other hand, the purely Indian version of the anthropomorphic image of Buddha appeared in the holy city of Mathura in the southern winter capital of the Kushān Empire, 100 miles (150 kilometers) south of New Delhi. Sculptors preferred red sandstone and the stela form over schist and freestanding statues. These sculptors produced a seated figure in the traditional pose of a yogi, with a halo carved into the rock behind the head. In these artworks, the Buddha is dressed in a traditional monk robe, with one shoulder bare, revealing his robust body beneath. He has a smiling face with gentle expression and bears recognizable physical attributes. This style emerged around 80 c.e., and it derived from earlier visual representations of popular male fertility spirits.

The reliquary from Bimaran in Afganistan and now at the British Museum, London, is an excellent example of Gandhara-style metalwork. It is cylindrical in shape, made of gold with inset of garnets, and originally was used as a relics container. It is 2.75 inches (7 centimeters) high and executed in repoussé technique. It has two standing images of Buddha flanked by divine worshipers and separated by two devotees. The actual date of this work is still controversial, ranging between c. 50 c.e. and the early third century c.e., but it is most likely to have been produced c. 60 c.e.

There are a number of statues representing Kushān emperors in their native, non-Indian costumes. A typical example is the Portrait Statue of Emperor Kanishka, from the early second century c.e., made of red sandstone, 64 inches (163 centimeters) high, at the Archaeological Museum, Mathura. What makes this work exceptional is that although headless, it represents a portrait, quite rare in Indian art. Kanishka is depicted in the Scythian type of dress, consisting of padded boots and a heavy woolen cloak, posing fully armed with his right hand resting on a mace and the left clamping the hilt of the sword. There is an inscription identifying this statue as the emperor himself. The overall style of the work differs from the two distinctive styles originated in the Gandhara and Mathura schools. An impression of authority and power is conveyed by the hieratic rigidity of the forms. The figure is based on geometric, almost abstract shapes with rather angular and straight lines that are strikingly detached from any realism. This portrait is very similar to another portrait of Kanishka depicted on the golden coin, minted between in the second century c.e., on permanent display in the British Museum, London. On the obverse, the emperor is depicted standing in an act of sacrifice before a small altar, holding out a small elephant goad. He wears a long coat, loose trousers, a cape, and a shawl billowing out on either side. He has a sword and a spear upright in his left hand. Kanishka’s bearded head is presented in a profile with a pointed hat (crown?). The inscription in Bactrian reads “Kaniska Kushāna king-of-kings.” On the reverse of the coin, a local Irano-Bactrian hybrid divinity is executed.

Another work is the Bodhisattva of Friar Bala from Mathura, red sandstone, 8.5 feet (2.5 meters) in height, at the Archaeological Museum, Sarnath. The inscription on the image is that of bodhisattva, a future Buddha—essentially a Buddha image—dedicated by the monk Bala. The actual date-range of this monumental sculpture is between 81 and 123 c.e. The figure of Buddha is represented frontally, dressed in a monastic garment with the right shoulder bare. His right arm is missing, and his left arm is resting on the hip. The body is a robust type with wide shoulders, prominent breasts, and a deep navel. The Buddha stands with his feet well apart and with the figure of a lion symbolizing his royal origin and indicating his status as a “lion among men.” In addition, a tall shaft standing behind the figure originally supported a stone parasol that has survived and can be seen in the museum. It is decorated with signs of the zodiac and the symbols of the celestial mansions. More than any other example, the basic style of this image derived from the earlier visual representation of male fertility deities.

Because there is no consensus among scholars regarding the absolute date and provenance of the first human image of Buddha, it seems plausible that both styles, European and native, appeared at the same time but under different influences. The Gandhara masters created images modeled on typical Greco-Roman examples, while the sculptors of Mathura created an indigenous style based on local traditions.


The reign of Kanishka marked the height of Kushān dominance in the cultural history of Central Asia. The emperor was a protector of art and learning, and under his patronage, the most important iconographic theme in sculpture was the creation of anthropomorphic image of Buddha.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Czuma, Stanislaw. Kushan Sculpture: Images from Early India. Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1985. An excellent survey of Kushān sculpture. Numerous images and details of selected works. In addition, useful chronological charts with relevant examples are included.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dehejla, Vidya. Indian Art. London: Phaidon Press, 1998. A comprehensive survey of all periods and styles in Indian art, including numerous color images. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goetz, Hermann. The Art of India. New York: Crown, 1964. Very good discussion of selected works of Indian art. Bibliography, index, and line drawings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harle, J. C. The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994. A comprehensive survey of the art and architecture of India. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karetzky, Eichenbaum Patricia. “Hellenistic Influences on Scenes of the Life of the Buddha in Gandhara.” Oriental Art 35 (1989): 163-168. A brief discussion of the Western concept of narrative in the Gandhara school of sculpture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krishan, Y. “The Emergence of the Buddha Image, Gandhara Versus Mathura.” Oriental Art 34 (1988): 255-275. An excellent analysis of differences in the Gandhara and Mathura styles of depicting the human form of Buddha. Recommended selected bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mookerjee, Ajit. The Arts of India. Oxford, England: Oxford and IBH Publishing, 1966. Focuses on developments in Indian art from prehistory to modern times.
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