Art and Culture under the Kushans

Suman Mathur

Bharatiya Kala Prakashan, 1998

Hardback, 138 pp, 43 black & white plates

Available from

This book intends to make a survey of art in the Kushan period. It is catholic in its interpretation, covering both Gandhara and Mathura, as well as architecture, terracottas and coinage. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular aspect and often resembles a catalogue, with a type by type analysis of particular sculptures or architectural features. There are a series of black and white plates (fairly clear but unfortunately not numbered).

Mathur is short on both a central argument and analysis in particular sections. This is at times frustrating, for two reason. Firstly, because some of the material is rather dated, secondly because there is little follow through on what are important issues.

On the first point a few examples will suffice: Kajula was not, as is suggested, a contemporary of the Greek King Hermaues (8) but in fact the two are separated by nearly a century. Contrary to Mathur's statement (11) there are ample inscriptions of Vasudeva from Gandhara and Kashmir. Kushan coins were minted in Gold and Copper but not as he suggests in silver (119). The Bimaran casket is not dated to the first century because it was found with coins of Azes (42). Two points there, finding an art object with coins never gives a date at which it was made, it only deposited after the coins were minted. Secondly the coins in question are actually imitations of Azes, produced half a century or so after his death.

On the second point, Mathur often raises what might be interesting aspects only to dismiss them summarily, often without proper analysis. As an example his discussion of the primacy of Mathura and Gandhara (84-7) is somewhat confused. This is an old debate, and a central one, over whether the Buddha was first represented in human form in Gandhara or in Mathura. The problem is that there are very few dated sculptures, and not close enough to the origin to settle the matter. However, we do know that by the time of Kanishka the Buddha was being depicted in both schools (the Mathura artists used Yaksha figures as prototypes, the Gandharan artists used Roman images of Apollo as their prototype). Since both are drawing on different prototypes, and it is clear the images were first made a fairly short time before Kanishka (a small enough time that neither school had yet developed an iconography specific to the Buddha and was having to draw on already existing models) it is not an easy question to resolve. Mathur ignores this, and despite having assigned the earliest Gandharan image to c.50 BC, and the earliest Mathuran to 150 AD, he still concludes that the Mathuran image comes first.

A second example is his treatment of narrative strategy:

"At Barhut and Sanchi, a long story was depicted in a single frame. At Mathura during the Kushan period, it was shown in a series of panels separated by either decorated bands, pilasters, or some such other devices." (73)

This point is not illustrated. All of the Buddhist scenes Mathur includes are from the pedestals of statues and therefore by necessity do not exhibit the frame by frame structure he talks about. Nor, for comparison, are any of the well-known continuous narratives which appear on the gateways at Sanchi shown. Nor does Mathur mention that scenes are divided by frames at Sanchi (Rosenfield illustrates such a scene in plate 155 of his Dynastic Art of the Kushans). This would have been an interesting point had it been discussed and expanded upon. In fact it is a point which Vidya Dhejia expands on very successfully in his recent book Discourses in Early Buddhist Art.

These two criticisms should not be taken to mean that the book is without merit. The black and white plates are very clear and fairly well chosen to show a range of Kushan material. The text itself is quite useful in providing a type by type guide to various aspects of Kushan art. And this is one of very few books which provides an overview of the full range of artistic work in the Kushan period, rather than a single school or medium. So as a basic primer in Kushan art it is of some value.

Contents Page The Crossroads of Asia  Silk Route Portraits From Gandhara Gandharan Art in Context Silkroad Coins

Robert Bracey.