Image Gandhara is a digital publishing framework to broaden and deepen access to Gandharan art. The art of Gandhara has long fascinated scholars and the general public due to its status as one of earliest forms of Buddhist art in which the Buddha was represented in human form (iconic). Its unique synthesis of Indic and Hellenistic features, its aesthetic appeal, and the visual language it established influenced depictions of the Buddha for centuries to come. However, access to study and appreciate these objects can be limited. Not all Gandharan objects in museum collections are available to view online and a significant number of Gandharan pieces are held in private collections. The Image Gandhara project explores innovations in digital publishing as a way to provide scholars with new interactive capabilities to study Gandharan art and expands opportunities for wider audiences to immerse themselves in these pieces.
The pilot phase of the Image Gandhara project focuses on four objects: Schist Buddha Triad (The Met), Schist Lintel, Buddha and Attendants (CCWM), Buddha head (NGA), and the Kanishka Casket (Peshawar Museum). Each of these objects is studied and presented in a digital framework that comprises a 3D model, an annotated image, a scholarly article on the art historical features and an edition of any accompanying inscription. These components synthesize scholarly knowledge of the object in accessible formats. The 3D model allows viewers to rotate the image and zoom in on specific features from different angles. The image annotation feature provides tags for the different elements of the image linked to a scholarly vocabulary, the Digitization of Gandharan Artefacts (DiGA) Thesaurus, and includes detailed references about individual elements in previous scholarly publications. Those interested in the historical and cultural significance of the piece, its provenance and previous scholarship can read the image article and, if the object is inscribed, explore the text in a digital edition.
The objective of the Image Gandhara project is to make these objects accessible to scholars who want to engage in a detailed study of these pieces in ways that were previously not possible, to students and teachers who want to learn more about Gandharan art, and a to broad audience who want to appreciate these hugely significant pieces from nearly two millennia ago.
Schist Buddha Triad (The Met)
The Schist Buddha Triad (year 5), previously referred to as the “Brussels Buddha”, is currently on display at The Metropolitan Museum of New York, USA. The piece depicts the Buddha flanked by Maitreya (presumably) on his right and Avalokiteshvara on his left. Hovering above the two Bodhisattvas and on the Buddha’s shoulders are Brahma (right) and Indra (left). An inscription on the pedestal states this image was a donation of Budhanada made in year 5. This year most likely aligns with the second century of the Kaniskha era, which commenced in 127 CE and can be dated to 232 CE.
Schist Lintel, Buddha and Attendants (CCWM)
This carved schist lintel is in the Gandharan Art collection at the Chau Chak Wing Museum, University of Sydney, Australia. The scene carved on the lintel depicts the Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath. Although the exact provenance of this piece is unclear, the donor Herman Huyer stated he acquired the piece in either Taxila or Lahore. Taxila was a prominent Buddhist centre in the early historical period, and this lintel might have been an architectural feature from one of these sites. The bottom rim of the lintel contains an inscription; however, this is most certainly a forgery.
Boddhisattva Head (NGA)
This detached head of a Bodhisattva has a very distinctive turban crowned by a lion holding a garland of pearls in its mouth and winged lions on either side. This object was recently repatriated from the National Gallery of Australia to Pakistan as part of a larger effort to return Gandharan art to its historical place of origin and address issues of the acquisition of unprovenanced material and colonial appropriation.
Kanishka Casket (Peshawar Museum)
The Kanishka Casket is a Buddhist reliquary from Peshawar, Pakistan. The reliquary is made of brass and was originally a perfume canister. It was interred in a stupa with relics of the Buddha inside. On the lid of the canister are three standing figures. The middle figure is the Buddha, with deities depicting the sun and moon standing on his left and right. An inscription is etched between the motifs on the cylindrical canister. The text associates the stupa with the Kushan king Kanishka and identifies the donors of the reliquary.
Historically, art historians and scholars who wish to study an art object only have access to 2D images reproduced in publications, which are often small and of poor quality, or if lucky enough to view the actual object, must do so through a protective (and often reflective) glass casing. A high-resolution 3D model allows a researcher to inspect previously inaccessible features and dimensions and to do so in previously unimagined detail. Including a 3D model of the item provides an unparalleled capability to engage and interact with the item. For art historians, detail and context, previously obscured, are made discoverable. For the general public, the 3D model creates an immersive and engaging experience that draws the viewer into close and detailed interaction with the item and piques interest in its significance and scholarly analysis.
The framework supports the annotation of 2D images. This process involves tagging the features of each image with terms from the DiGA Thesaurus. Annotated components of the object are able to be viewed and analysed individually. This annotation allows for a finely detailed study of each part of the object. A key feature of image annotation is its collaborative capabilities. Scholars can study tagged items individually and provide comments or export an image to compare characteristics from other objects. The adoption of the open-source International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) in emergent digital humanities projects in the GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) presents the opportunity for seamless collaboration in analysing and documenting image components. Researchers can apply tags from discipline or research specific taxonomies on images stored across multiple institutional repositories and publish these updated annotations.
A peer-reviewed item article provides a succinct overview of the historical background and cultural significance of the item. Found within the article is an overview of the provenance and summary of scholarship of the object, an explanation of its features and a discussion of any controversial issues or divergence in scholarly opinion concerning the object. The item article is positioned for an interested and informed audience rather than a scholarly specialist and serves as an ideal ‘on-ramp’ for undergraduate students to familiarise themselves with the piece and then further explore the scholarship on it cited in the Bibliography.
The peer-reviewed inscription edition utilises the READ platform to provide a transcription and translation of the text. In the transcription the letters are linked to those in the image, allowing for a palaeographic study of the text. Also, along with the translation is a detailed glossary. The inscription edition is a tool for epigraphists and philologists interested in the more technical features of the inscriptions while at the same time informing non-specialists about the content of the donative record.
Digital scholarship is a rapidly developing field that can facilitate the study of items that were once only accessible by visiting the museum that held the piece, gaining access to an archive, or viewing a published photograph. The 3D image provides a much enhanced and privileged view of the object, the image annotations enable exploration of the individual components of the object, the image article gives a summary of scholarship on the piece, and the inscription edition offers a detailed translation and analysis of the text. When encapsulated as a digital framework, these constitute a powerful tool for the study of Gandharan art. Items within the Image Gandhara project can be accessed as individual nodes with their own DOI or embedded in museums and galleries’ collections systems and websites.
Their pedagogic applications are already being explored and integrated into classes such as art history and religious or cultural studies.
Ideally, this digital approach can be incorporated by museums to foster cross-institutional relationships. The information about the objects in these publications are also accessible to scholars of all disciplines, and when new interpretations about an object arise, the digital publication can be updated. For educators, they can use the 3D models and image annotations to show students elements within a sculpture and make learning more tangible and engaging. Moreover, the Image Gandhara project enables all to view the treasures of Gandharan art.
People and Partnerships
Our work has benefited greatly from input from John Guy, Curator of the Arts of South and Southeast Asia at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Juhyung Rhi, Professor of Art History, Department of Archaeology and Art History, Seoul National University, Korea.
The digital frameworks for item aggregates, annotated images, item articles, and the publishing of digital editions have been developed with the support of Prakaś Foundation. Funding for the studies of the initial pilot objects has been generously contributed by the Power Institute at the University of Sydney and Prakaś Foundation.