Hellenistic influence on Indian art

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The Pataliputra capital, a Hellenistic anta capital found in the Mauryan Empire palace of Pataliputra, India, dated to the 3rd century BCE.

Hellenistic influence on Indian art reflects the artistic influence of the Greeks on Indian art following the conquests of Alexander the Great, from the end of the 4th century BCE to the first centuries of our era.[1] Hellenistic influence on Indian art was also felt for several more centuries during the period of Greco-Buddhist art.[1][2]

Historical context[edit]

The Greek conquests in India under Alexander the Great were limited in time (327-326 BCE) and in extent. Hellenistic influence on Indian art refer to the influences that came after Alexander and during a period when artists and ideas flowed through the northwest Indian region affecting the development of arts and architecture in India.

Numerous contacts have been recorded between the Maurya Empire and the Greek realm. Seleucus I Nicator attempted to conquer India in 305 BCE, but he finally came to an agreement with Chandragupta Maurya, and signed a treaty which, according to Strabo, ceded a number of territories to Chandragupta, including large parts of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. A "marital agreement" was also concluded, and Seleucus received five hundred war elephants, a military asset which would play a decisive role at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BCE.[3][4]

According to John Boardman, there were probably and in some cases likely Hellenistic influences on Indian art. However, the sites and sources of these influences are "not always properly identified or yet identifiable".[5] There are three competing scholarly views: one originated by early scholars such as Percy Brown where Indian architecture was due to immigration of western (Greek) craftsmen and literature into ancient India; second, by later scholars such as John Irwin who favor mostly indigenous inspiration for the Indian art, and third such as S.P. Gupta who favor a combination.[5][6] Persia, states Boardman, did not have a stone tradition of its own that can be traced. There is evidence, however, that "Persian bases of a plain half round torus" combined with Corinthian capitals existed there, and that India had an intricate wooden architecture tradition about the same time. It is possible that the difficult pass through the Hindu Kush and locations to the northwest of it such as Ai-Khanoum, a Greek city of Bactria in 3rd-century BCE and about 600 kilometres (370 mi) from Kabul, could have provided the conduit to connect the Hellenistic and Indian artists. Alternatively, the influence could have come from the ancient Persian Persepolis, now near Shiraz in southeast Iran and about 2,200 kilometres (1,400 mi) from Kabul. However, a major issue that this proposal faces is that Persepolis was destroyed about 80 years before the first Buddhist stone architecture and arts appeared. This leaves the question whether, to what extent and how knowledge was preserved or transferred over the generations between the fall of Persepolis (330 BCE) and the rise of Ashokan era art to its east (after 263 BCE).[5][6]

Pataliputra capital (3rd century BCE)[edit]

The Pataliputra capital is a monumental rectangular capital with volutes and Classical designs, that was discovered in the palace ruins of the ancient Mauryan Empire capital city of Pataliputra (modern Patna, northeastern India). It is dated to the 3rd century BCE. It is, together with the Pillars of Ashoka one of the first known examples of Indian stone architecture.[1]

One capital from Sarnath is known, which seems to be an adaptation of the design of the Pataliputra capital. This other capital is also said to be from the Mauryan period. It is, together with the Pataliputra capital, considered as "a stone braket suggestive of the Ionic order".[7]

Pillars of Ashoka (3rd century BCE)[edit]

Geographical spread of known pillar capitals.

The Pillars of Ashoka were built during the reign of the Maurya Empire Ashoka circa 250 BCE. They were new attempts as mastering stone architecture, as no Indian stone monuments or sculptures are known from before that period.[1]

There are altogether seven remaining capitals, five with lions, one with an elephant and one with a zebu bull. One of them, the four lions of Sarnath, has become the State Emblem of India. The animal capitals are composed of a lotiform base, with an abacus decorated with floral, symbolic or animal designs, topped by the realistic depiction of an animal, thought to each represent a traditional direction in India.[citation needed]

The horse motif on the Sarnath Lion Capital of Ashoka, is often described as an example of Hellenistic realism.[1]

Placing animals on top of a lotiform capital reminds of Achaemenid columns. The animals, especially the horse on the Sarnath Lion Capital of Ashoka or the bull of the Rampurva capital are said to be typically Greek in realism, and belong to a type of highly realistic treatment which cannot be found in Persia.[1] The abacus parts also often seem to display a strong influence of Greek art: in the case of the Rampurva bull or the Sankassa elephant, it is composed of flame palmettes alternated with stylized lotuses and small rosettes flowers.[8] A similar kind of design can be seen in the frieze of the lost capital of the Allahabad pillar. These designs likely originated in Greek and Near-Eastern arts.[9][1] They would probably have come through a Hellenistic city such as Ai-Khanoum.[10]

Decorative moldings and sculptures[edit]

Rampurva bull capital, detail of the abacus, with two "flame palmettes" framing a lotus surrounded by small rosette flowers.
Two lotuses framing a "flame palmette" surrounded by small rosette flowers, over a band of beads and reels. Allahabad pillar, circa 250 BCE.
Flame palmette on top of Bharhut east gateway. 2nd century BCE.

Influence on monumental statuary[edit]

Yaksha Manibhadra, Parkham near Mathura with detail of the dress with geometric fold of the hem.

Hellenistic arts may have been influential in early statuary (Mauryan and Sunga periods). A few monumental Yakshas are considered as the earliest free-standing statues in India.[11] The treatment of the dress especially, with lines of geometric folds, is considered as a Hellenistic innovation. There are no known previous example of such statuary in India, and they closely resemble Greek Late Archaic mannerism which could have been transmitted to India through Achaemenid Persia.[12]

First visual representations of Indian deities[edit]

Coin of Greco-Bactrian king Agathocles with Hindu deities: Vasudeva-Krishna and Balarama-Samkarshana.
Indian coinage of Agathocles, with Buddhist lion and dancing woman holding lotus, possible Indian goddess Lakshmi, a Goddess of abundance and fortune for Buddhists.

One of the last Greco-Bactrian kings, Agathocles of Bactria (ruled 190-180 BCE), issued remarkable Indian-standard square coins bearing the first known representations of Indian deities, which have been variously interpreted as Vishnu, Shiva, Vasudeva, Buddha or Balarama. Altogether, six such Indian-standard silver drachmas in the name of Agathocles were discovered at Ai-Khanoum in 1970.[13][14][15] Some other coins by Agathocles are also thought to represent the Buddhist lion and the Indian goddess Lakshmi.[16]

Direct influence in Northwestern India (180 BCE-20CE)[edit]

The Indo-Greek period (180 BCE-20CE) marks a time when Bactrian Greeks established themselves directly in the northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent following the fall of the Maurya Empire and its takeover by the Sunga.

Religious buildings[edit]

According to Callieri, "the diffusion, from the second century BCE, of Hellenistic influences in the architecture of northwestern India is attested in the sanctuary of Butkara I". The Hellenistic architecture is in the basal elements and decorative alcoves.[17]

Depiction of the Buddha in human form[edit]

Greek Buddhist devotees, holding plantain leaves, in purely Hellenistic style, inside Corinthian columns, Buner relief, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Numerous Greek artifacts were found in the city of Sirkap, near Taxila in modern Pakistan and in Sagala, a city in modern Pakistan 10km from the border with India. Sirkap was founded as a capital of the Indo-Greek Kingdom and was laid-out on the Greek Hippodamian city plan; Sagala was also a Indo-Greek capital. Individuals in Greek dress are can be identified on numerous friezes.

Gautama Buddha in Greco-Buddhist style, 1st-2nd century AD, Gandhara (modern eastern Afghanistan).

Although there is still some debate, the first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha himself are often considered a result of the Greco-Buddhist interaction. Before this innovation, Buddhist art was aniconic, or very largely so: the Buddha was only represented through his symbols (an empty throne, the Bodhi Tree, Buddha footprints, the Dharmachakra).[18]

Probably not feeling bound by these restrictions, and because of "their cult of form, the Greeks were the first to attempt a sculptural representation of the Buddha".[19] In many parts of the Ancient World, the Greeks did develop syncretic divinities, that could become a common religious focus for populations with different traditions: a well-known example is Serapis, introduced by Ptolemy I Soter in Egypt, who combined aspects of Greek and Egyptian Gods. In India as well, it was only natural for the Greeks to create a single common divinity by combining the image of a Greek god-king (Apollo, with the traditional physical characteristics of the Buddha).

Some authors have argued that the Greek sculptural treatment of the dress has been adopted for the Buddha and Bodhisattvas throughout India. It is, even today, a hallmark of numerous Buddhist sculptures as far as China and Japan.[20]


Gold coin of Kanishka, with a depiction of the Buddha, with the legend "Boddo" in Greek script;Ahin Posh.

Indo-Greek coinage is rich and varied, and contains some of the best coins of antiquity. Its influence on Indian coinage was far-reaching.[21] The Greek script became used extensively on coins for many centuries, as was the habit of depicting a ruler on the obverse, often in profile, and deities on the reverse. The Western Satrap, a western dynasty of foreign origin adopted Indo-Greek designs. The Kushans (1st to 4th century CE) used the Greek script and Greek deities on their coinage. Even as late as the Gupta Empire (4th to 6th century CE), Kumaragupta I issued coins with an imitation of Greek script.[21]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g A Brief History of India, Alain Daniélou, Inner Traditions / Bear & Co, 2003, p.89-91 [1]
  2. ^ History of Civilizations of Central Asia: The development of sedentary and nomadic civilizations: 700 B.C. to A.D. 250, Ahmad Hasan Dani, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1999, Paul Bernard, p.128 and sig. [2]
  3. ^ With Arrow, Sword, and Spear: A History of Warfare in the Ancient World, Alfred S. Bradford, Pamela M. Bradford, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001, p.125 [3]
  4. ^ Ancient Ethnography: New Approaches, Eran Almagor, Joseph Skinner, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013, p.104 [4]
  5. ^ a b c John Boardman (1998), "The Origins of Indian Stone Architecture", Bulletin of the Asia Institute, p.13-22
  6. ^ a b Swarajya Prakash Gupta (1980). The Roots of Indian Art. B.R. Publishing. pp. 1–30. ISBN 978-8176467667. 
  7. ^ "The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia: The Emergence of Cities and States"F. R. Allchin, George Erdosy, Cambridge University Press, 1995, listed in page xi [5]
  8. ^ "Buddhist Architecture" by Huu Phuoc Le, Grafikol, 2010, p.40
  9. ^ "Buddhist Architecture" by Huu Phuoc Le, Grafikol, 2010, p.44
  10. ^ "Reflections on The origins of Indian Stone Architecture", John Boardman, p.15 [6]
  11. ^ John Boardman, "The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity", Princeton University Press, 1993, p.112
  12. ^ "It has no local antecedents and looks most like a Greek Late Archaic mannerism" (John Boardman, "The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity", Princeton University Press, 1993, p.112.)
  13. ^ Alexander the Great and Bactria: The Formation of a Greek Frontier in Central Asia, Frank Lee Holt, Brill Archive, 1988, p.2 [7]
  14. ^ Iconography of Balarāma, Nilakanth Purushottam Joshi, Abhinav Publications, 1979, p.22 [8]
  15. ^ The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources, Peter Thonemann, Cambridge University Press, 2016, p.101[9]
  16. ^ The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources, Peter Thonemann, Cambridge University Press, 2016, p.101[10]
  17. ^ "De l'Indus a l'Oxus: archaeologie de l'Asie Centrale", Pierfrancesco Callieri, p212
  18. ^ South Asian Buddhism: A Survey, Stephen C. Berkwitz Routledge, 2012, p.29 et sig. [11]
  19. ^ Linssen, "Zen Living"
  20. ^ John Boardman, "The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity", Princeton University Press, 1993, p.112
  21. ^ a b Foreign Influence on Ancient India, Krishna Chandra Sagar, Northern Book Centre, 1992 [12]