Its body now lost, this monumental head of a bodhisattva once graced a Buddhist temple or monastery in ancient Gandhara (modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan). Gandhara was located at the eastern edge of the empire of Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE), and the region remained a conduit between East and West for centuries. Local artists drew upon the area’s Greek legacy to create Buddhist images. This bodhisattva’s wavy hair, bridgeless nose, and naturalistic lips resemble those of a sculpted Apollo.
How was this made?
In ancient Gandhara (modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan), stucco was commonly used for sculptures and decorations on Buddhist monastic buildings. Heads were made of a solid mixture of clay and stucco (lime, sand, and water) and attached with dowels to the bodies. Stucco sculptures were often set into niches to protect them from the elements. But because the bodies were made of a softer mixture, they rarely survived.
The use of stucco in this region persisted for centuries. Even the two monumental buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which were made in the fifth century and destroyed in 2001, were coated with a layer of stucco.
Why did artists in Afghanistan and Pakistan draw on Greek imagery?
Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) led his army to the banks of the Indus River in modern-day Pakistan. When Alexander died, command of this eastern empire passed to his general, who was subsequently defeated by an Indian emperor, Chandragupta Maurya (321–297 BCE). This region thus became a center of contact and exchange between the Indian and Mediterranean worlds. Buddhism quickly spread into the area. This process is reflected in the Questions of Milinda, a Buddhist text that describes the conversion of a Greek king by an Indian monk.This Gandharan frieze, on view in Freer gallery 2, also features Greek-inspired imagery.