Presence, Power, and Agency: Donor Portraits in Early Gandharan Art
The aim of this paper is to shed light on locally constructed sculptural representations of donors and devotees from Butkara I in Swat valley – one of the earliest Buddhist sites in the Greater Gandhara region. The discovery of several sculptures and architectural elements depicting elaborately adorned male and female figures with distinctly individualizing facial features, and bearing varied Buddhist offerings, not only throws into relief the artistic phenomenon of portraiture in early Gandharan Buddhist art but also exemplifies the visual and material enactment of donative ritual and practice. The appropriation of a transcultural and widely legible visual vocabulary for constructing these essentially Buddhist figures underscores the complex cross-cultural interactions and encounters underpinning Gandharan art and Buddhist practice in the early centuries of the Common Era. The paper argues that, in addition to relic establishment and donative inscriptions, the ruling aristocrats used donor portraits for the material and metaphorical embodiment of their presence and piety within the Buddhist monastic space. Moreover, these images likely served as public performances for effectively navigating the broader political and socio-cultural currents. Speaking to diverse communities in the multicultural matrix of Gandhara, these donor portraits highlight the participation of visual imagery in constructing new forms of ritual and practice predicated upon the intertwined notions of power, patronage, and religiosity.