The geographical history of Gandhāra is explained and narrated in different ancient accounts and owing to these information the landscape of the area can be fairly understood. The important among these sources are the ancient Indian literatures, historical records, travellers’ accounts and the wealth of archaeological materials that are being found in the region. Beside other literatures the area is known to us from the time of the Rigveda, a religious book of the Hindu, which alludes to Gandhāri an ancient tribe who settled on the extreme western border of the region and has also been defined as a country on the North-Western Frontier of India.
In the Rigvedic tradition Gandhāra is referred to as the good wool producing country. While the Atharvaveda, the other holy book of the Hindus, mentions the Gandhāri tribe along with the Mūjavants, Angas and Magadhas. Similarly in the later period literatures, like Kashika on Panini (the scion of the area), Gandhāra occurred as the name of a country. Likewise, in the epic of Ramayana, Gandhāra is frequently mentioned and the position and the extent of Gandhāra is more explicitly stated and is placed on both banks of the Indus with its two royal cities Pushkalavati, the present day Charsadda, for the west and Takshashila or Taxila for the east.
In the Buddhist literatures, both canonical and non-canonical, the name Gandhāra is mentioned in different contexts and on various occasions. The Aṅguttara Nikāya includes Gandhāra within the sixteen Mahajanapadas (provinces) of India while the Jātakas, previous birth stories of the Buddha, even include Kashmira within the Gandhāra territory. Even reference to the fame of Taxila as a university town is given in different Jātakas where Taxila is placed in the Kingdom of Gandhāra.
The Chines travellers’ accounts are not far beyond the Indian sources in shedding light on the geography and cultures of the region. Faxian, a Chinese pilgrim, who visited the area in 4th century AD mentioned Gandhāra as the name of a country. According to Sung Yung, another Chinese traveller, Gandhāra was ruled by the Little Yueh-Chi who did not observe the law of Buddha and unlike Faxian who described Peshawar as a separate country, Sung-Yun even mentioned Peshawar as the capital of Gandhāra.
But the most important information, among all these Chinese travellers, are those given by Xuanzang, who, during his travel in Gandhāra, visited several different sites in the area including the site of Kashmir Smast, said to be the earliest Hindu University in the region. In his itinerary called the “Ta T’ang-His-yu-Chi” he give a graphic idea about the political, social, economic and religious conditions in Gandhāra.
In addition to the Chinese accounts, amongst the Arab sources is the description of Albīrūnī. He provided information about the region’s geographical position, origin of the ruling dynasties and the list of rulers who governed over the region and also gave a vivid description about the last struggle of the Hindu Śāhi rulers against the Muslim invaders and their final extinction.
Hundreds of inscriptions written in different scripts, including the recently discovered Kohi or Puṣkarasāri script, have been found in the region, some of which speak about the area of Gandhāra. The most specific and more important among these evidences is available in the Behistun Inscriptions of King Darius of the 6th century B.C. where Gandhāra is mentioned as a country as well as a people. While the Aśokan Rock Edicts located at Shahbazgarhi, near Mardan, mention Gandhāra janapada at the western end of the Mauryan Empire and is associated with Yonas and Kambojas.
Beside references to Gandhāra in ancient Indian literatures and inscriptions, the geography of Gandhāra is equally but sporadically written by ancient historians, diplomats, envoys, explorers, and modern historians who have tried to fix the geographical boundaries of Gandhāra. Beside the physical descriptions of the area, the cultures, religions and political geography of ancient Gandhāra are also available in these narratives.
The geostrategic position of the region and the cultural diversity and its formidable landscape are the mains reasons behind the so many developments that happened in the political, cultural and religious scenario throughout in the history of Gandhāra region. Its strategic position is attested by the literary sources and the wealth of archaeological remains which are to be found at the cross-routes, high passes, at the top of the mountains, deep valleys and plain areas which are making part of this wonderful Gandhāra Civilization.