Drinking Scenes in Gandharan Art
Relief panels, carved stone dishes as well as objects such as metal and ceramic cups discovered in the Gandhara region and dated between the second century BCE and third century CE frequently depict banquets with inebriated figures and scenes of revelry. Made under the rule of the Kushan dynasty, these images show men and women holding wine cups, drinking, playing music and dancing. Since these are scenes of merriment accompanying the consumption of alcohol, these images have been referred to as ‘Bacchanalian’ or ‘Dionysian’, after the Roman and Greek gods of wine and ecstasy, Bacchus and Dionysus, respectively.
Such scenes appear carved in relief on the inside of some shallow stone dishes, which are among the earliest sculptural discoveries from the Gandhara region and depict subjects drawn from classical Greek mythology. Initially thought to be ‘toilet trays’, they are now understood to have been used for ceremonial rather than functional purposes within the domestic context. The relief panels, which were typically stair-risers to stupas, depict figures wearing Hellenistic, Egyptian and South Asian attires engaged in wine-drinking and merrymaking. The secular theme of these reliefs appears consistent with their placement in what was considered a ‘polluted’ context — one where people stepped on them barefoot.
The images on the dishes as well as the reliefs are non-narrative and depict a variety of subjects, including guardian couples, inebriated people being supported by attendants and, in one instance, rows of attendant figures around a man who some scholars interpret to be Dionysus. The central figure in some images is interpreted as Dionysus based on the grapes in his hair or the animal skin he wears, as well as his being offered wine, being flanked by wreathed male figures, or receiving a goat — an animal that is ritually sacrificed to him during festivals. Other scholars also consider this figure to be Indra, who was interpreted as a Dionysian figure in the Hellenistic context. The guardian couples have been variously identified as Panchika and Hariti or Ardoxo and Pharro.
Wine cups and grapes are recurring motifs in these images. Although wine-drinking is censured in Buddhism, textual and archaeological sources reveal the presence of well-developed pre-Buddhist traditions of viticulture and viniculture in the region. These are further corroborated by records such as Arrian’s Indica — which described India as abundant in grapevines believed to have been brought to the region by Dionysus himself — and Kautilya’s Arthashastra, which mentions imports of a special kind of wine from Kapisiyana (corresponding to Kapisa or the region around present-day Begram, Afghanistan). Archaeological finds such as soot-blackened vessels, round-bottomed flasks and condensers in industrial numbers in Taxila and Shaikhan Dheri also serve as evidence of wine production and distillation in Gandhara under the Kushan administration.
As with most Gandharan art, there is some ambiguity around the influences for the inebriated figures, which seem to simultaneously draw on Hellenistic, Roman, Egyptian or Ptolemaic, Hindu, Buddhist and Zoroastrian cultures in both style and subject matter. While some scholars consider the scenes to be an aspect of the cult of Dionysus — and therefore, a product of Hellenistic influence on Gandharan art — others highlight a more indigenous source for the images in the ancient cults of yakshas and yakshis, who were ritually offered meat and alcohol and were also custodians of amrita, or the elixir of eternal life, which was held in chalices.
These scenes thus indicate the tendency of Gandharan art to defy the binaries of Hellenism and Buddhism as well as of indigenous and foreign influences, to present multiple meanings and interpretations that would have been understood by the diverse and cosmopolitan audience of the region.
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