Afghanistan's epic history starts when it was an important region of ancient India called 'Gandhara'. One of its most frequently mentioned cities in the world today is 'Kandahar', made infamous by the Taliban. The earlier name of the city was 'Quandhar', derived from the name of the region of Gandhara. Erstwhile home to Al-Qaeda today, it was always a strategic site, being on main Persian routes to Central Asia and India. Hence, it has a long history of conquests. Kandahar was taken by Alexander in 329 B.C.E., was surrendered by the Greek to Chandragupta in 305 B.C.E., and is dignified by a rock inscription of Asoka. It fell under Arab rule in the 7th century C.E., and under the Ghaznavids in the 10th. Kandahar was destroyed by Genghis Khan and again by the Turkic conqueror Timur, after which it was held by the Mughals. Mughal Emperor Babur built 40 giant steps up a hill, cut out of the solid limestone, leading to inscriptions recording details of his proud conquests. In 1747 it became the first capital of a unified Afghanistan.
Besides early reference in the Vedas, Ramayana and Mahabharata, Gandhara was the locus of ancient Indian-Persian interaction, a center of world trade and culture. It was a major Buddhist intellectual hub for centuries. The giant Buddhist statues recently destroyed by the Taliban were in Bamiyan, one of the important Buddhist cities of ancient times. Thousands of statues and stupas once dominated its landscape.
Gandharvas are first described in the Vedas as cosmic beings. Later literature describes them as a jati (community), and the later Natyasastra refers to their system of music as gandharva. Gupt explains1:
"Gandharvas, as spoken of in Samhitas and later literature, had derived their name from a geographical people, the Gandharas… Most likely they belonged to Afghanistan (which still has a township called Kandhara)... It was perhaps at this time that the Gandharas raised the art of music to a great height. This region of the subcontinent at the time had become the locus of a great confluence of the musical traditions of the East and the Mediterranean. The very art, thus, came to be known by the name of the region and was so called by it even in the heartland of India. This name, gandharva, continued to be used for music for centuries to come. In the Vayu Purana one of the nine divisions of Bharatavarsa is called Gandharva."
During the Mahabharata period, the Gandhara region was very much culturally and politically a part of India. King Œakuni, brother of Gandhârî, fought with Pandavas in the famous epic Mahabharata. The battle was fought in Kurukshetra, in the heartland of India. Gandhârî was married to King Dhrtrastra. Exchanges between Gandhara and Hastinapur (Delhi) were well established and intense.
Mehrgarh, located in this region and part of the Indus Valley civilization, is the oldest town excavated by archeologists (8000B.C.E) in the world.
Gandhara was the trade crossroad and cultural meeting place between India, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Buddhist writings mention Gandhara (which included Peshawar, Swat and Kabul Valleys) as one of the 16 major states of northern India at the time. It was a province of the Persian king Darius I in the fifth century B.C.E. After conquering it in the 4th century B.C.E., Alexander encountered the vast army of the Nandas in the Punjab, and his soldiers mutinied causing him to leave India.
Thereafter, Gandhara was ruled by the Maurya dynasty of India, and during the reign of the Indian emperor Ashoka (3rd century B.C.E.), Buddhism spread and became the world's first religion across Eurasia, influencing early Christianity and East Asian civilizations. Padmasambhava, the spiritual and intellectual founder of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, was from Gandhara. Greek historian Pliny wrote that the Mauryans had a massive army; and yet, like all other Indian kingdoms, they made no attempt at overseas conquest.
Gandhara and Sind were considered parts of India since ancient times, as historian Andre Wink explains:
"From ancient times both Makran and Sind had been regarded as belonging to India… It definitely did extend beyond the present province of Sind and Makran; the whole of Baluchistan was included, a part of the Panjab, and the North-West Frontier Province."
"The Arab geographers, in effect, commonly speak of 'that king of al-Hind...'"
"…Sind was predominantly Indian rather than Persian, and in duration the periods that it had been politically attached to, or incorporated in, an Indian polity far outweigh Persian domination. The Maurya empire was extended to the Indus valley by Candragupta, laying the foundation of a great Buddhist urban-based civilization. Numerous Buddhist monasteries were founded in the area, and Takshashila became an important centre of Buddhist learning, especially in Ashoka's time. Under the Kushanas, in the late first century A.D… international trade and urbanization reached unprecedented levels in the Indus valley and Purushapara (Peshawar) became the capital of a far-flung empire and Gandhara the second home of Buddhism, producing the well-known Gandhara-Buddhist art. In Purushapara, Kanishka is supposed to have convened the fourth Buddhist council and to have built the Kanishka Vihara, which remained a Buddhist pilgrimage center for centuries to come as well as a center for the dissemination of the religion to Central Asia and China… in conjunction with Hinduism, Buddhism survived in Sind until well into the tenth century."
"Hiuen Tsang… was especially impressed by the thousand Buddhist monks who lived in the caves of Bamiyan, and the colossal stone Buddha, with a height of 53.5 m, then still decorated with gold. There is also evidence of devi cults in the same areas."
Shaivism was also an important ancient religion in this region, with wide influence. Wink writes:
"…Qandahar [modern Kandahar]…. was the religious center of the kingdom where the cult of the Shaivite god Zun was performed on a hilltop…".
"…the god Zun or Zhun ... shrine lay in Zamindawar before the arrival of Islam, set on a sacred mountain, and still existing in the later ninth century …. [The region was]… famous as a pilgrimage center devoted to Zun. In China the god's temple became known as the temple of Su-na. …[T]he worship of Zun might be related to that of the old shrine of the sun-god Aditya at Multan. In any case, the cult of Zun was primarily Hindu, not Buddhist or Zoroastrian." 7
"[A] connection of Gandhara with the polymorphic male god Shiva and the Durga Devi is now well-established. The pre-eminent character of Zun or Sun was that of a mountain god. And a connection with mountains also predominates in the composite religious configuration of Shiva, the lord of the mountain, the cosmic pivot and the ruler of time… Gandhara and the neighboring countries in fact represent a prominent background to classical Shaivism."
From 1st century C.E., emperor Kaniska I and his Kushan successors were acknowledged as one of the four great Eurasian powers of their time (the others being China, Rome, and Parthia). The Kushans further spread Buddhism to Central Asia and China, and developed Mahayana Buddhism and the Gandhara and Mathura schools of art. The Kushans became affluent through trade, particularly with exports to Rome. Their coins and art are witness to the tolerance and syncretism in religion and art that prevailed in the region. The Gandhara school incorporated many motifs from classical Roman art, but the basic iconography remained Indian