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Dionysus and drama in the Buddhist art of Gandhara*

  • Pia Brancaccio (a1) and Xinru Liu (a2)

This essay examines the relationships existing between Dionysian traditions of wine drinking and drama that reached the easternmost part of the Hellenistic world, and the Buddhist culture and art that flourished in Gandhara (Eastern Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan) under the Kushan kings between the first and third centuries CE. By piecing together archaeological, artistic and literary evidence, it appears that along with viniculture and viticulture, Dionysian rituals, Greek theatre and vernacular drama also became rooted in these eastern lands. Continuous interactions with the Graeco-Roman world strengthened these important cultural elements. At the beginning of the Common Era Dionysian traditions and drama came to be employed by the Buddhists of Gandhara to propagate their own ideas. The creation of a body of artworks representing the life of the Buddha in narrative form along with the literary work of Ashvaghosha, may be an expression of the same dramatic format that developed locally along with a strong Dionysian ritual presence.

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1 Paul Bernard, ‘Ancient Greek city in Central Asia’, Scientific American, 246, 1, 1982, p. 154.

2 The best summary of these events, including the destruction of Ai Khanoum, can be found in Craig Benjamin, The Yuezhi: origin, migration, and the conquest of northern Bactria, Silk Roads Studies 14, Turnhout: Brepols, 2007, pp. 175–215.

3 Ibid., p. 180.

4 Hackin, Joseph, Nouvelles recherches archéologiques à Begram (ancienne Kāpici), 1939–40, Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1954, no. 77.

5 Hackin, Joseph, Recherches archéologique à Begram 1937, Paris: Editions d’art et d’histoire, 1939, no. 203.

6 Greek jars having cone-shaped bases so that they could be secured in soil or in the hold of a ship.

7 Paul Bernard, ‘Maracanda-Afrasiab colonie grecque’, in La Persia e L’Asia centrale da Alessandro al X secolo, Atti dei Convegni Lincei 127, Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 1996, fig. 16.

8 Qian, Sima, Shiji, Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1959, vol. 123, p. 3173 .

9 Marshall, John, Taxila, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952, vol. 2, p. 406.

10 Thapar, Romila, Aśoka and the decline of the Mauryas, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961, p. 17.

11 Kangle, R. P., The Kautiliya Arthaśastra, Bombay: University of Bombay, 1972, sec 2.25.24–25.

12 Marshall, Taxila, vol. 2, p. 416.

13 Marshall, Taxila, pl. 125, no. 129a.

14 F. R. Allchin, ‘Evidence of early distillation at Shaikhan Dheri’, in Maurizio Taddei, ed., South Asian archaeology, Naples: Istituto Universitario Orientale, 1977, pp. 755–97.

15 Ibid., p. 774.

16 Ibid., p. 772.

17 Pierfrancesco Callieri, ‘Archaeological activities at Bir-Kot-Ghwandai’, in Maurizio Taddei and Pierfrancesco Callieri, eds., South Asian archaeology 1987, Naples: Istituto Universitario Orientale, 1990, p. 686.

18 Mulasarvastivada vinaya: Osadhivastu, ch. 9; Chinese Tripitaka, Tokyo, 17, 4, pp. 31b–35b. See M. J. Przyluski, ‘Le nord-ouest de l’Inde dans le Vinaya des Mula-Sarvastivadin et les textes apparentés’, Journal Asiatique, 11, 4, 1914, pp. 506–7.

19 Allchin, ‘Evidence of early distillation’, p. 792.

20 The tamgha was a specific mark, possibly one derived from the design of the brand that the Yuezhi-Kushan put on their livestock.

21 Allchin, ‘Evidence of early distillation’, pp. 759–65.

22 Behrendt, Kurt, The art of Gandhara in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007, p. 10, fig. 5. The caption identifies the piece as a ‘dish with drunken Herakles embracing two women’; however, there are no specific indications that support this identification.

23 Ibid., p. 67, fig. 51. The caption identifies this as a ‘head of Dionysus’; however, that god is generally represented in Hellenistic and Roman art as a young man. The figure represented here is probably Silenus, the teacher and companion of Dionysus.

24 Czuma, Stan, Kushan sculpture: images from early India, Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1985, p. 173, fig. 87.

25 Behrendt, The art of Gandhara, pp. 8–10.

26 Gandharan toilet trays have been objects of considerable discussion since the publication of the seminal study by Henry Francfort (Les palettes du Gandhara, Mémoire de la Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan 13, Paris: Diffusion de Boccard, 1979). More recently, Ciro LoMuzio reviewed the topic in ‘L’artigianato di lusso nel Nord-Ovest di epoca indo-greca, Saka e partica: i “piattelli per cosmetici”’, in Pierfrancesco Callieri and Anna Filigenzo, eds., Il maestro di Saidu Sharif, Rome: Museo Nazionale di Arte Orientale and IsIAO, 2002, pp. 77–84.

27 Zemaryalai Tarzi, ‘Hadda à la lumière des trois dernières campagnes de fouilles de Tapa-e-Shotor (1974–76)’, Comptes Rendus des Séances, Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 1976, pp. 381–410.

28 Martha Carter, ‘Dionysiac Aapects of Kushan art’, Ars Orientalis, 7, 1968, pp. 121–46.

29 It seems that festivities vaguely reminiscent of those represented on the Buddhist stair risers were practised in the region well before Buddhism and the Kushans became established. Strabo, basing his information on Megasthenes, talks about the Oxydrakai as the descendants of Dionysos and says: ‘the vine grew in their country, and their processions were conducted with great pomp, and their kings on going forth to war and on other occasions marched in Bacchic fashion, with drums beating, while they were dressed in gay coloured robes, which is also a custom among other Indians’ (J. W. McCrindle, Ancient India as described by Megasthenes and Arrian, London: Trübner, 1877, p. 110).

30 See above, p. 226.

31 Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale, Rome, Inv. MNAOR 4107, MAI S 418, Deposito IsIAO; Inv. MNAOR 4152, MAI S 704, Deposito IsIAO. Such friezes were originally affixed to small votive stupas, erected by individuals, close to the main stupa at the site.

32 Callieri and Filigenzi, Il maestro di Saidu Sharif, pp. 167–8, nos. 70, 71.

33 In most of the two-tier narrative friezes from Gandhara, the lower register is devoted to the representations of scenes from the Buddha’s life while the upper register depicts devotees, genre scenes, or ornamental motifs.

34 This topic is discussed by Marco Galli, ‘Hellenistic court imagery in early Buddhist art of Gandhara’, in Proceedings of the 19th international conference on South Asian archaeology, London: British Archaeological Report, in press.

35 Spineto, Natale, Dionysos a teatro: it contesto festivo del drama Greco, Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2005, pp. 82–3.

36 Ibid., p. 48.

37 Ibid., p. 58.

38 Mahe, Nathalie, Le mythe de Bacchus, Paris: Fayard, 1992, pp. 88–92.

39 Ibid., p. 89.

40 M. L. Varadpande, ‘Paragons of performances’, in Saryu Doshi, ed., India and Greece, Bombay: Marg, 1985, pp. 125–32.

41 Danielou, Alain, Shiva and Dionysus: the religion of nature and eros, New York: Inner Traditions International, 1984, p. 200.

42 Dahlquist, Allan, Megasthenes and Indian religion, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1977, p. 53.

43 Mahe, Le Mythe de Bacchus, p. 97.

44 Rostovtzeff, M., The social and economic history of the Hellenistic world, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941, vol. 2, pp. 1048–50.

45 Rostovtzeff, M., Caravan cities, trans. D. and T. Talbot Rice, New York: AMS Press, 1971 (reprinted from the 1932 Oxford edition), pp. 129–30.

46 Sartre, M., The Middle East under Rome, trans. Catherine Porter and Elizabeth Rawlings, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005, p. 293.

47 Rostovtzeff, Caravan cities, pp. 45–6.

48 Bourbon, Fabio, Petra: Jordan’s extraordinary ancient city, New York: Barnes & Noble, 2000, p. 57.

49 Sartre, The Middle East, p. 289.

50 Kennedy, David, The twin towns of Zeugma on the Euphrates: rescue works and historical studies, supplementary series, Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1998, p. 115, fig. 1.

51 Ibid., pp. 154–5.

52 Sarkar, H. and Misra, B. N., Nagarjunakonda, New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India, 1980, p. 22, pl. ii.

53 Saxena, Asha, Ancient Greek and Indian theatre, Delhi: Parimal Publications, 1997, p. 69.

54 Webster, T. B. L., Greek theatre production, London: Methuen, 1956, pp. 20–1.

55 The Cleveland Museum of Art holds a fragment of a large curtain from Egypt dating to c.300 CE (CMA.1975.6), probably used in theatrical performances, representing a satyr with a maenad under an arch supported by columns with Corinthian capitals. The layout of this image is surprisingly similar to the iconography of the couples depicted under arches in Gandharan art. See Pia Brancaccio, ‘Gateways to the Buddha: figure under arches in Gandharan art’, in Pia Brancaccio and Kurt Behrendt, eds., Gandharan Buddhism: archaeology, art and texts, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2006, pp. 210–24.

56 Silver, first century CE, Gandhara. Height 9.5 cm; diameter 12.8 cm; weight 165.2 g. Collection A.I.C. Illustrated in Elizabeth Errington and Maggie Claringbull, eds., The crossroads of Asia: transformation in image and symbol in the art of ancient Afghanistan and Pakistan, Cambridge: Ancient India and Iran Trust, 1992, p. 91, fig. 97.

57 Silver, first century BCE, Gandhara. Height 7.6 cm; length 30.4 cm. Collection A.I.C. Illustrated in Errington and Claringbull, The crossroads of Asia, p. 95, fig. 98.

58 See, for example, Lexicon iconographicum mitologiae classicae, 9 vols. (Zurich and Munich: Artemis Verlag, 1981–99), vol. III, part 2, figs. 136, 138, 180, 201a, 223, 235.

59 Gupta, S. P., Kushana sculptures from Sanghol, New Delhi: National Museum, 1985, fig. 22. This vedika pillar, carved in the Kushan style of Mathura is perhaps the most relevant example of the connection between Buddhism, Dionysian elements, and theatre coming from the site at Sanghol. There are a number of Buddhist sculptures carved in Mathura during the Kushan period that make reference to Dionysian practices: the most well known are the two examples illustrated by Stan Czuma in Kushan sculpture, nos. 41 and 42.

60 Maurizio Taddei, ‘Arte narrativa tra India e mondo Ellenestico’, in Giovanni Verardi and Anna Filigenzi, eds., On Gandhara: collected articles, Naples: Istituto Universitario Orientale, 2003, p. 377. This statement does not at all imply that Indic cultures lacked a sense of time and history but rather that, in the Buddhist art of Gandhara, artists showed a greater interest in representing the unfolding in time of life events.

61 A detailed analysis of different modes of narration in Indian art can be found in Vidya Dehejia, Discourse in early Buddhist art: visual narration of India, Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1997.

62 Taddei, ‘Arte narrativa, p. 377.

63 For a complete translation of all Chinese references to Asvaghosha’s relationship with Kanishka, see E. Zurcher, ‘The Yueh-chih and Kanishka in the Chinese sources’, in A. L. Basham, ed., Papers on the date of Kanishka, Leiden: Brill, 1968, pp. 384–5; also P. C. Bagchi, ‘Sangharaksa, the chaplain of Kanishka’, in Commemoration essays presented to Professor Kashinath Bapuji Pathak, Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1934, pp. 94–9.

64 Bhattacharji, Sukumari, History of classical Sanskrit literature, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1993, p. 35.

65 Pierfrancesco Callieri, ‘Buddhist presence in the urban settlements of Swat’, in Brancaccio and Behrendt, Gandharan Buddhism, p. 79.

* The two authors spent several years debating ideas and writing up this article. They would like to thank Lynda Shaffer, Professor Emeritus of Tufts University, and Carma Hinton, Professor at George Mason University, who read early versions of this article and offered valuable critique. All the remaining mistakes are solely the authors' responsibility. Thanks are also due to Kurt Behrendt, Ludovico Brancaccio, Paul Bernard, Sir John Boardman, Elizabeth Errington, Anna Filigenzi, Gherardo Gnoli, John Guy, Neil Kreitman, Umberto Sinatti, and the staff at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, who kindly facilitated the publication of the illustrations.

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