Gandhara now Kandahar, Afghanistan

Ancient India - 600 BC

Ancient India – 600 BC

Gandhāra is the name of an ancient kingdom, located in parts of modern-day northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. Gandhara was located mainly in the Peshawar Valley, the Pothohar Plateau and the Kabul River Valley. Its main cities were Purushapura (modern Peshawar), literally meaning “city of men”, and Takshashila (modern Taxila) .

The Kingdom of Gandhara lasted from the early 1st millennium BC to the 11th century AD. It attained its height from the 1st century to the 5th century under the Buddhist Kushan Kings. The Hindu term Shahi is used by history writer Al-Biruni to refer to the ruling Hindu dynasty that took over from the Turki Shahiand ruled the region during the period prior to Muslim conquests of the 10th and 11th centuries. After it was conquered by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1021 CE, the name Gandhara disappeared. During the Muslim period the area was administered from Lahore or from Kabul. During Mughal times the area was part of Kabul province.

The name Gandhara is of Sanskrit origin, but its ultimate etymology is uncertain. The region was first mentioned in the Rig-Veda. One proposed origin of the name is from the Sanskrit word gandha, meaning perfume and “referring to the spices and aromatic herbs which they [the inhabitants] traded and with which they anointed themselves.”

The Gandhāri people were settled since the Vedic times on the banks of Kabul River (river Kubhā or Kabol) down to its confluence with the Indus. Later Gandhāra included parts of northwest Punjab. Gandhara was located on the northern trunk road (Uttarapatha) and was a centre of international commercial activities. It was an important channel of communication with ancient Iran, India and Central Asia.

The boundaries of Gandhara varied throughout history. Sometimes the Peshawar valley and Taxila were collectively referred to as Gandhara and sometimes the Swat valley (Sanskrit: Suvāstu) was also included. The heart of Gandhara, however, was always the Peshawar valley. The kingdom was ruled from capitals at Kapisa (Bagram), Pushkalavati (Charsadda), Taxila, Purushapura (Peshawar) and in its final days from Udabhandapura(Hund) on the Indus. According to the Puranas, they were named after Taksha and Pushkara, the two sons of Bharata, a prince of Ayodhya.

Evidence of Stone Age human inhabitants of Gandhara, including stone tools and burnt bones, was discovered at Sanghao near Mardan in area caves. The artifacts are approximately 15,000 years old. More recent excavations point to 30,000 years before present.

The region shows an influx of southern Central Asian culture in the Bronze Age with the Gandhara grave culture, likely corresponding to immigration of Indo-Aryan speakers and the nucleus of Vedic civilization. This culture survived till 1000 BC. Its evidence has been discovered in the hilly regions of Swat and Dir, and even at Taxila.

Gandhara had played an important role in the epic of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Ambhi Kumar was direct descendant of Bharata (of Ramayana) and Shakuni (of Mahabharata). It is said that Lord Rama consolidated the rule of the Kosala Kingdom over the whole of the Indian peninsula. His brothers and sons ruled most of the Janapadas (16 states) at that time.

In Mahabharata, the princess named Gandhari was married to Hastinapur’s blind king Dhritrashtra and was mother of Duryodhana and other Kauravas. The prince of Gandhara Shakuni was against this wedding but accepted it, fearing an invasion from Hastinapur. In the aftermath, Shakuni influences the Kaurava prince Duryodhana and plays a central role in the great war of Kurukshetra that eliminated the entire Kuru family, including Bhishma and a hundred Kaurava brothers. According to Puranic traditions, this country (Janapada) was founded by Gandhāra, son of Aruddha, a descendant of Yayāti. The princes of this country are said to have come from the line of Druhyu, who was a king of the Druhyu tribe of the Rigvedic period. According to Vayu Purana (II.36.107), the Gandharas were destroyed by Pramiti, aka Kalika, at the end of Kaliyuga.

Gandhāra is also thought to be the location of the mythical Lake Dhanakosha, the birthplace of Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. The bKa’ brgyud (Kagyu) sect of Tibetan Buddhism identifies the lake with the 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 primary cities of Gandhara were Purushapura (now Peshawar), Takshashila (or Taxila) and Pushkalavati. The latter remained the capital of Gandhara down to the 2nd century AD, when the capital was moved to Peshawar. An important Buddhist shrine helped to make the city a centre of pilgrimage until the 7th century. Pushkalavati in the Peshawar Valley is situated at the confluence of the Swat and Kabul rivers, where three different branches of the River Kabul meet. That specific place is still called Prang (from Prayāga) and considered sacred and where local people still bring their dead for burial. Similar geographical characteristics are found at site of Prang in Kashmir and at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna, where the sacred city of Prayag is situated, west of Benares. Prayāga (Allahabad) one of the ancient pilgrim centres of India as the two rivers are said to be joined here by the underground Sarasvati River River, forming a triveṇī, a confluence of three rivers.

When the Achamenids took control of this kingdom, Pushkarasakti, a contemporary of king Bimbisara of Magadha, was the king of Gandhara. He was engaged in a power struggle against the kingdoms of Avanti and Pandavas.

Great scholars such as Panini and Kautilya (Chanakya) lived in this cosmopolitan environment.


Coin of Early Gandhara Janapada: AR Shatamana and one-eighth Shatamana (round), Taxila-Gandhara region, ca. 600–300 BC

Coin of Early Gandhara Janapada: AR Shatamana and one-eighth Shatamana (round), Taxila-Gandhara region, ca. 600–300 BC

Chandragupta, the founder of Mauryan dynasty is said to have lived in Taxila when Alexander captured this city. According to tradition, he trained under Kautilya, who remained his chief adviser throughout his career. Supposedly using Gandhara and Vahika as his base, Chandragupta led a rebellion against the Magadha Empire and ascended the throne at Pataliputra in 321 BC. However, there are no contemporary Indian records of Chandragupta Maurya and almost all that is known is based on the diaries of Megasthenes, the ambassador of Seleucus at Pataliputra, as recorded by Arrian in his Indika. Gandhara was acquired from the Greeks by Chandragupta Maurya.

After a battle with Seleucus Nicator (Alexander’s successor in Asia) in 305 BC, the Mauryan Emperor extended his domains up to and including Southern Afghanistan. With the completion of the Empire’s Grand Trunk Road, the region prospered as a center of trade. Gandhara remained a part of the Mauryan Empire for about a century and a half.

Ashoka, the grandson of Chandragupta, was one of the greatest Indian rulers. Like his grandfather, Ashoka also started his career from Gandhara as a governor. Later he supposedly became a Buddhist and promoted this religion in his empire. He built many stupas in Gandhara. Mauryan control over northwestern frontier, including the Yonas, Kambojas, and the Gandharas is attested from the Rock Edicts left by Ashoka. According to one school of scholars, the Gandharas and Kambojas were cognate people. It is also contended that the Kurus, Kambojas, Gandharas and Bahlikas were cognate people and all had Iranian affinities, or that the Gandhara and Kamboja were nothing but two provinces of one empire and hence influencing each other’s language. However, the local language of Gandhara is represented by Panini’s conservative bhāṣā, which is entirely different from the Iranian (Late Avestan) language of the Kamboja that is indicated by Patanjali’s quote of Kambojan śavati ‘to go’ (= Late Avestan šava(i)ti). Gandhara was often linked politically with the neighboring regions of Kashmir and Kamboja.

Jayapala was the last great king of this dynasty. His empire extended from west of Kabul to the river Sutlej. However, this expansion of Gandhara kingdom coincided with the rise of the powerful Ghaznavid Empire under Sabuktigin. Defeated twice by Sabuktigin and then by Mahmud of Ghazni in the Kabul valley, Jayapala committed suicide. Anandapala, a son of Jayapala, moved his capital near Nandana in the Salt Range. In 1021 the last king of this dynasty, Trilochanapala, was assassinated by his own troops which spelled the end of Gandhara. Subsequently, some Shahi princes moved to Kashmir and became active in local politics.

The city of Kandahar in Afghanistan is said to have been named after Gandhara. According to H.W. Bellow, an emigrant from Gandhara in the 5th century brought this name to modern Kandahar.

By the time Gandhara had been absorbed into the empire of Mahmud of Ghazni, Buddhist buildings were already in ruins and Gandhara art had been forgotten. After Al-Biruni, the Kashmiri writer Kalhaṇa wrote his book Rajatarangini in 1151. He recorded some events that took place in Gandhara, and gave details about its last royal dynasty and capital Udabhandapura.


  • Legend: Bharat, the brother of Lord Rama of Kosala, ruled from Gandhara, his sons were Taksh and Pushkala, who inhabited new cities called Taksha-shila (Taxila), and Pushkarvati (Peshawar). Tentative timeline for this event is 5000 B.C. or before that.
  • Legend: Gandhari, the princess of Gandhara is married to Dhritrashtra, the king of Hastinapur. The Ancient Indian scripture Mahabharata dates this event to be around 3000 B.C.
  • c.2300–c.1900 BC Indus Valley civilization
  • c.1900–c.520 BC No records. Indo-Aryan migrations. Ramayana legend says Lord Rama’s brother Bharat ruled from Gandhara.
  • c.520–c.326 BC Persian Empire Under direct Persian control and/or local control under Persian suzerainty.
  • c.326–c.305 BC Occupied by Alexander the Great and Macedonian generals
  • c.305–c.180 BC Controlled by the Maurya dynasty, founded by Chandragupta. Converted to Buddhism under King Asoka (273–232 BC)
  • c.185–c.97 BC Under control of the Indo-Greek Kingdom, with some incursions of the Indo-Scythians from around 100 BC
  • c.97 BC–c. AD 7 Saka (Scythian) Rule
  • c.07–c.75 Parthian invasion and Indo-Parthian Kingdom, Rule of Commander Aspavarman?. Ambhi Kumar, king of Gandhara was a descendant of Lord Raghu and prince Bharat of Kosala Kingdom.
  • c.75–c.230 Kushan Empire
  • c.230–c.440 Kushanshas under Persian Sassanid suzerainty
  • c.450–c.565 White Huns (Hephthalites)
  • c.565–c.644 Nezak kingdom, ruled from Kapisa and Udabhandapura
  • c.650–c.870 Turkshahi, ruled from Kabul
  • c.870–1021 Hindushahi, ruled from Udabhandapura
  • c.1032–1350 Conquered and controlled by the empire of Mahmud of Ghazni.



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