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's First Sermon at ,  Period, ca. 3rd century  (ancient region of Gandhara)
Buddha's First Sermon at Sarnath, Kushan Period, ca. 3rd century Pakistan (ancient region of Gandhara)

Gandhāra (also Ghandara, Ghandahra) is the ancient name of a region in eastern Afghanistan and north-west Pakistan centered on the Swat River (see Udyana) and Kabul River, tributaries of the Indus River. Its primary cities were Peshawar and Taxila.



Gandhara's language, Gāndhārī, was a collection of related Prakrit or "Middle Indo-Aryan" dialects. Gāndhārī was written right-to-left in the Kharoṣṭhī script, which was ultimately adapted from the Aramaic alphabet. At the time of its adoption, Gandhāra was controlled by the Achaemenid dynasty of the Persian empire, which used a similar script to write the related Iranian languages of the Empire. This alphabet also sets Gāndhārī apart as a unique set of dialects of the Middle Indo-Aryan period; Semitic scripts were not used to write Indian languages again until the arrival of Islam and subsequent adoption of the Persian-style Arabic alphabet for New Indo-Aryan languages like Urdu, Sindhi and Kashmiri. This unique writing system died out about the 4th century, though descendants of these distinct regional dialects are still spoken today.

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Portraits from the site of Hadda, Gandhara, 3rd century.

Gandhāra is also thought to be the location of the mystical Lake Dhanakosha, birthplace of Padmasambhava, founder of Tibetan Buddhism. The bKa' brgyud (Kagyu) sect of Tibetan Buddhism identifies the lake with Andan Dheri stupa, located near the tiny village of Uchh near Chakdara in the lower Swat Valley. A spring was said to flow from the base of the stupa to form the lake. Archaeologists have found the stupa but no spring or lake can be identified.

The Gandharan Buddhist texts are both the earliest Buddhist texts ever discovered and the earliest Indian manuscripts ever discovered. Most are composed on birchbark and were found in labeled clay pots.

Gandharan proselytism

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The Kushan Lokaksema (Ch: 支谶, Zhi Chan), first translator of a Mahayana sutra into Chinese.

Gandharan Buddhist missionaries were active, with other monks from Central Asia, from the 2nd century CE in the Chinese capital of Loyang, and particularly distinguished themselves by their translation work. They promoted both Hinayana and Mahayana scriptures.

  • Lokaksema, a Kushan and the first to translate Mahayana scriptures into Chinese (167-186).
  • Zhi Yao (c. 185), a Kushan monk, second generation of translators after Lokaksema.
  • Zhi Qian (220-252), a Kushan monk whose grandfather had settled in China during 168-190.
  • Zhi Yueh (c.230), a Kushan monk who worked at Nanjing.
  • Dharmaraksa (265-313), a Kushan whose family had lived for generations at Dunhuang.
  • Jnanagupta (561-592), a monk and tranlator from Gandhara.
  • Shikshananda (652-710), a monk and translator from Udyana, Gandhara.
  • Prajna (c. 810). A monk and translator from Kabul, who educated the Japanese Kukai in Sanskrit texts.

See also: Silk Road transmission of Buddhism

Gandharan art

Gandhāra is noted for the distinctive Gandhāra style of Buddhist art, a consequence of the Greco-Buddhist syncretism which fused Indian influences with Hellenistic influences during the centuries following Alexander the Great's conquest of Central Asia in 334 BCE. The Gandhāran style flourished beginning in the 1st century CE under the Kushan dynasty until the invasion of the White Huns in the 5th century.

See also: Greco-Buddhist art



  • Beal, Samuel. 1884. Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, by Hiuen Tsiang. 2 vols. Trans. by Samuel Beal. London. Reprint: Delhi. Oriental Books Reprint Corporation. 1969.
  • Beal, Samuel. 1911. The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang by the Shaman Hwui Li, with an Introduction containing an account of the Works of I-Tsing. Trans. by Samuel Beal. London. 1911. Reprint: Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi. 1973.
  • Hill, John E. 2003. "Annotated Translation of the Chapter on the Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu." 2nd Edition.[1] (
  • Hill, John E. 2004. The Peoples of the West from the Weilue 魏略 by Yu Huan 魚豢: A Third Century Chinese Account Composed between 239 and 265 CE. Draft annotated English translation. [2] (
  • Legge, James. Trans. and ed. 1886. A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms: being an account by the Chinese monk Fâ-hsien of his travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414) in search of the Buddhist Books of Discipline. Reprint: Dover Publications, New York. 1965.
  • Watters, Thomas. 1904-5. On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India (A.D. 629-645). Reprint: Mushiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi. 1973.

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