“Thus philosophy, a thing of the highest utility, flourished in antiquity among the barbarians, shedding its light over the nations”.
The long and winding road from Kabul to the Khyber Pass follows the River Kabul through a rich and fertile valley with Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan as its centre, and there, for centuries around the beginning of the first millennium, lived large communities of Buddhist monks. Hadda was one of the most sacred sites of the Buddhist world dating from the early part of the first millenium AD to the 7th Century. Countless pilgrims came from every corner of the earth to worship at its many holy temples, maintained by thousands of monks and priests living in large monastery complexes.
The Larger Bamiyan Buddha at Hadda, before and after demolition by the Taliban in March 2001. The Gandharan period saw the earliest figural depictions of the Buddha.
Almost entirely destroyed by religious extremists during the recent civil wars, throughout the period of Buddhism’s great flourishing, from the Kushans (1st–3rd century AD) into the 7th century AD, Hadda was a popular pilgrimage destination where, according to the accounts of famous Chinese pilgrims such as Faxian and Xuanzang, various relics of the Buddha’s body and belongings were preserved, each of them enshrined in a stūpa (a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics typically the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns that is used as a place of meditation) – a bone of the Buddha’s skull and uṣṇīṣa (cranial protuberance), an eyeball, the monastic robe and the ascetic staff.
Archaeological exploration of the site in the modern era began in 1834 with Charles Masson of the British East India company, who discovered Graeco-Bactrian, Indo-Scythian, Hunnic, Roman and Byzantine coins inside 14 stūpas in different sacred areas. The most important of these, Tapa Kalan, also yielded fragments of stone and stucco sculptures. Further minor investigations followed, until J. Barthoux of the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) carried out extensive excavations on various sites from 1926 to 1929.
Detail, central section of arcade on façade. Hadda. Monastery of Bagh-Gai. Painted stucco. Barthoux Expedition 1927-1928.
From a 21st century perspective the plundering of such an important archaeological site by the British and French during the imperial period may be frowned upon. However, in light of its recent destruction by Afghan forces the fact that many of the treasures had already been transported to the west means that much of the archaeological evidence from Hadda has survived, thus providing invaluable information on the exchange of cultural and spiritual ideas during this period in history.
Monk. Hadda. Monastery of Tapa-Kalan
(Barthoux expedition 1927)
Over 23,000 Greco-Buddhist sculptures, combining elements of Buddhism and Hellenism, have been excavated at the site. Although the style of the artifacts is typical of the late Hellenistic 2nd or 1st century BC, the Hadda sculptures are usually dated to the 1st century AD or later, which is explained by the preservation of late Hellenistic styles for a few centuries in this part of the world. However, it is highly possible that many of the artifacts were actually produced in the late Hellenistic period.
Buddha Shakyamuni. Hadda. Monastery of Tapa-Kalan
THE CELTIC BUDDHA
In the present context, one of the most significant artifacts to be discovered at Hadda was found during the French mission led by Jules Barthoux in 1926-1927. Among the ca. 15,000 artifacts recorded by Barthoux was the stucco head of a Celt (“Gaulois”) found at the Tapa-Kalan monastery.
Head of the ‘Barbarian Gaul’ from Hadda.
(Stucco – Height 0.1 m. Length 0.06 m; Depth 0.069 m.)
It is perhaps not surprising that an individual of Celtic origin may have found his way to such a famous place of spiritual learning; countless pilgrims came from every corner of the earth to worship at its many holy temples, maintained by thousand of monks and priests living in large monastery complexes. The fact that eastern philosophies had spread into Europe by this stage is also testified to by many ancient authors. For example, in the 2nd century AD the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria (Stromata), recognizing Bactrian Buddhists (Sramanas) and Indian Gymnosophists for their influence on Greek thought, writes:
“Thus philosophy, a thing of the highest utility, flourished in antiquity among the barbarians, shedding its light over the nations. And afterwards it came to Greece. First in its ranks were the prophets of the Egyptians; and the Chaldeans among the Assyrians; and the Druids among the Gauls; and the Sramanas among the Bactrians (“Σαρμαναίοι Βάκτρων”); and the philosophers of the Celts…”.
Indeed, also in the 2nd century AD, Origen in his Commentary on Ezekiel states that the teachings of The Buddha had spread as far west as the British Isles, and that Buddhists co-existed with Druids in pre-Christian Britain:
“The island (Britain) has long been predisposed to it (Christianity) through the doctrines of the Druids and Buddhists, who had already inculcated the doctrine of the unity of the Godhead”.
However, actual archaeological confirmation of this phenomenon has hitherto been very sparse, rendering the evidence from Hadda even more important. Notable about the portrayal of the “Hadda Celt” is that he is depicted in a naturalistic fashion, indicting that we are most likely dealing with a portrait of an actual person of Celtic origin who lived and studied at Hadda during the period in question. Perhaps most remarkable is that the man is depicted with elongated earlobes, which are of particular significance.
On both ancient and modern statues of The Buddha in all cultures the ear lobes are depicted in such a fashion, a powerful symbol in Budhist religious belief, and an intrinsic part of the portrayal of Siddartha Gautama as The Buddha, or “Enlightened One.” The fact that the Celt from Hadda is also depicted in such a fashion would therefore appear to indicate that, in the eyes of the monastic community, this man, as the Buddha himself, was perceived to have reached spiritual enlightenment.