The ancient civilization of Gandhara thrived in
the region encompassing modern northeastern
Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. Situated
at a confluence of trading paths along the Silk
Route, the area was flooded in diverse cultural
influences ranging from Greece to China.
Gandhara flourished under the Kushan Dynasty
and their great king, Kanishka, who is
traditionally given credit for spreading the
philosophies of Buddhism throughout central
Asia and into China. This period is viewed as the
most important era in the history of Buddhism.
After the conquests of Alexander the Great, the
creation of Greco-Bactrian kingdoms, and the
general Hellenization of the subcontinent,
Western aesthetics became prominent. Greek
influence began permeating into Gandhara. Soon
sculptors based the images of the Buddha on
Greco-Roman models, depicting Him as a stocky
and youthful Apollo, complete with stretched
earlobes and loose monastic robes similar to a
Roman toga. The extraordinary artistic creations
of Gandhara reveal links between the different
worlds of the East and West.
Carved out of schist, this dish depicts a man
riding on a fantastical marine creature. Similar
dishes have been dated to the 1st century B.C.
and represent some of the earliest surviving
Gandharan sculpted artifacts. Mostly found in
domestic contexts their exact purpose is unclear.
One suggestion is that they were cosmetic
palettes. More recently it has been argued that
these shallow dishes were used for the ritual
offering of wine, possibly to ensure a blissful
afterlife for the dead. Many of the surviving
examples, including this one, show a man or
woman holding a wine cup and riding a hybrid
mythological creature. This may be intended to
suggest the idea of travel to a heavenly realm as
a result of intoxication. This supports other
evidence of the significance of Dionysian ritual in
the area. Imported from the west, such practices
were adapted to suit local circumstances. The
lack of wear and tear supports the idea that the
function of these bowls was ritualistic.
The quality of the carving is remarkable. The
scaly hide of the marine creature has been
expertly rendered by the ancient Gandharan
sculptor. The male figure has been finely
modeled as well, particularly the form of his leg.
In Greek mythology, Poseidon, the god of the
sea, as well as other sea and river deities rode
upon the backs of these creatures. It is possible
that this figure represents such a god. The waves
of the sea have been indicated by a series of
engraved lines that curve progressively outwards
in opposite directions from a central axis marked
by a straight line. The lip of the rim has also
been decorated with a rope pattern. The dish is
in excellent condition and would make a
wonderful addition to any collection.
For examples of the same type with a similar
motif, please see the catalogue to the exhibition:
“Afghanistan: une histoire millenaire,” Editions
de la Reunion des Musees Nationaux, (Paris,
2002), p. 107 and ‘The Art of Gandhara in the
Metropolitan Museum of Art,’ (New York, 2007),
p. 9, fig. 4.