Bodhgaya: Buddhism’s most sacred site

The November seminar focused on textual, epigraphical and archaeological sources concerning Bodhgaya, the most sacred site in Buddhism where the Buddha was believed to have attained enlightenment.

The first presentation, by Sam van Schaik, concerned written accounts of the site by Tibetan pilgrims from the early 11th century to late 13th century CE, and the later revival of interest in the site. The earliest account is from Rinchen Zangpo who is said to have brought back the rituals of the Dharmapāla Mahākāla from Bodhgaya. Another account from later in the 11th century by Ra Lotsawa gave a more detailed account of the architectural arrangement and features. The final account from this period, in the early 13th century, by Chag Lotsawa Chojepal’s biographer reported that the Mahābodhi statue had been bricked in and presented as Maheśvara (an epithet of Śiva) to save it from destruction by the Karluks.

Plan from Cunningham, Mahâ-bodhi, plate XVII


In the 18th century, Tibetan and Nepalese pilgrims once again took to travelling to Bodhgaya. The first of these was Garshapa Sonam Rabgye who was sent to investigate the present condition of the site in 1752, with more to follow later in subsequent decades. Rabgye’s description suggests drastic deterioration: “But everything except the central gandhola temple was destroyed. We were depressed! The entry vestibule was three-tiered, and about half of the first story was extant; the upper two had fallen and were not there.”

A point of particular interest at Bodhgaya is the Vajrāsana, the stone throne in the Mahābodhi templebuilt at the precise site where the Buddha was believed to reached enlightenment. Copies of the temple in wood and stone were photographed by Cunningham in the 1930s and initially thought to be souvenirs, but in fact would be better thought of as mobilised worship sites that could be exported elsewhere for worshippers who could not make the pilgrimage.

Wooden model of Bodhgaya in Narthang monastery, photographed in 1936 by Rāhula
Sāṅkṛityāyana and published in “Second Search of Palm-Leaf Mss. in Tibet” Journal of the
Bihar and Orissa Research Society, 23.1 (1937): 1-57.


The second presentation, by Daniela De Simone and Daniel Balogh, considered some of the archaeological and epigraphical finds in and around the Vajrāsana in more detail.

The iconography which it bears is similar to that of Amarāvati in the 2nd century CE. It is also repeated at other significant sites from the life of the Buddha, including Saṅkīsa, Bansī, Rāmpūrvā, Sāñcī and Sārnāth. The slab that forms the seat of the throne is made from grey sandstone and covered in geometric patterns reminiscent of the façade of the Lomaś Rishi cave built in the 3rd century BCE, though the slab is considered much later.There are inscriptions in the southwest and northeast corners which would appear to read “seat established for the sake of worship of the Buddha,” likely made in the 1st century BCE – 1st century CE.

The Vajrāsana is clearly old as Aśoka’s VIII rock edict indicates he visited it in the tenth year of his reign. The Mahābodhi temple which surrounds it however must be a later addition with many modifications over the century. As also suggested by the Tibetan textual sources, the slab was likely to have been covered up from the 13th century when the site came under attack.

The Vajrāsana, from Cunningham, Mahâ-bodhi, plate XII


The third presentation, from Michael Willis, looked in more detail at archaeological finds from the site unearthed by Cunningham which are now at the British Museum. One of the more peculiar of these is a bottle labelled “coral fragments mixed with mud plaster of Buddha’s throne.” A new investigation has subsequently been undertaken of precious stone finds from the site.

Archaeological evidence from excavations of the site, combined with textual and epigraphical sources, reveal numerous changes over the centuries. One of the older finds is a 7th century CE Nepali coin. The outer Vajrāsana statue of the Buddha dates from c. 11th century CE, however an older statue located behind it is more likely the 8th century CE. With the outer statue was also found an inscribed copper plate, the epigraphical script variant of which would date from 900-1150 CE.

With reference to religious practices at the site, evidence again comes from tantric deities and vajras beneath the other Buddha statue. One other interesting fact is the question of the position of the original bodhi tree. Cunningham writes that during their excavation the tree was struck by lightning and a new one had to be replanted.

Pen and ink drawing, of the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya in Bihar, by Sir Charles D’Oyly, (1781-1845), dated 27th December 1824. (The British Library, WD2060).


The final presentation, by Marc Miyake, Michael Willis and Tilman Frasch, looked at a tablet inscribed in Old Mon which was donated to the British Museum by Cunningham. Dated at possibly 1086 CE, it is shaped like a tree leaf and bears an image of the Buddha performing the bhūmisparśamudrā (earth witness gesture). It is also engraved with 108 small stupas and the pratītyasamutpāda gāthā in 2 lines at the bottom. The inscription is written in Old Mon, the literary language of Burma at that time. It reads wo’ kyāk mhādew: “this sacred being, Mahādeva.” There is a parallel to this short, unstressed /m/ syllable in the Pyu language, also from Burma, in mhaṭhe, “Mahāthera” from c. 1112 CE.

According to Cunningham, the tablet was found in one of the small votive stupas around the main temple; another two were given by him to the India Museum in Calcutta. He said many more were found at the stupas but these are now unaccounted for. The tablet was made by rolling raw clay on a piece of cloth, as can be seen on the reverse of the tablet which preserves the patterned mark of the fabric. The easy mode of production and reported number of them found at Bodhgaya suggests that the tablet were made on-site for worshippers to offer. The tablet, along with the iconography depicted in the frieze around the Vajrāsana, and the textual accounts from Tibetan and Nepalese pilgrims, all point to a rich and complex array of religious practices at the site for over two thousand years.



In the first part of the October seminar Michael Willis looked at a range of archaeological and geological evidence pointing to seismic and climatic events at a number of sites in India. One example supporting a significant climatic event during the Paramāra dynasty comes from the Dandak cave in Chhattisgarh, in the Malwa region. The growth of stalagmites here points to a drought around 1051. Following research by Sinha et al. into indications of monsoon rainfall given by stalagmite growth in peninsular India that can be accurate to within a decade, the same methodology was applied at Dandak cave. The evidence from the stalagmites corroborates information given in the Nagpur inscription (c.1070-93) from the reign of king Udayāditya which reads “when the realm was overrun by floods…”

Another piece of evidence from the region comes from the Kakanmaṭh Śiva temple built by Kirtirāja c.1015-35 CE. Much of the temple is now ruined and a Sanskrit inscription from c.1393-94 CE says that the temple had been renovated around that time, though no indication is given of when the damage had occurred. Taken with the geological indicators from Dandak, and the archaeological evidence from Old Māṇḍū, there is a good body of evidence to suggest that an earthquake and its subsequent impact on the flow of waters from the river Betwā to the perennial valleys around Māṇḍū was responsible for the relocation of the capital city at some point within a decade or so of the mid-11thcentury CE.

The second part of the seminar focussed on the devasting earthquakes to hit Nepal in 2015 and archaeological findings that have resulted from post-disaster excavations. The excavations were undertaken at Hanuman Dhoka, Patan and Bhaktapur by the Nepali government’s Department of Archaeology and Durham University.

One of the most significant cultural heritage losses was the destruction of the Kasthamandap. Excavations revealed that the original mud mortar and brick core foundations of the temple were in fact highly resilient and had withstood numerous seismic events over the centuries. A dating technique known as Optically Stimulated Luminescence puts the laying of these foundations at 700 CE, some 500 years earlier than previously thought. The cause of Kasthamandap’s collapse seems in fact to have been the result of modern conservation to the building’s structure. One of the significant causal factors was a saddlestone at the northeast corner which had been tiled over during the mid-late twentieth century.

Image of the Kasthamandap site in Nepal (Photo: Durham University)

In addition to the important archaeological evidence elucidated by post-disaster excavation for the history of monuments in Kathmandu – such as the antiquity of the foundations and the fact that they appear to have been constructed as a nine-cell mandala – work like that undertaken by the UNESCO/Durham University team is also critical to improving the structural resilience of historic sites against future disasters. Given that the original mud mortar and brick building techniques had given the structure foundations which withstood many earthquakes over the centuries, it is now clear that modern conservation and restoration efforts should learn from these. While disaster relief and humanitarian efforts always take precedence in the face of such natural catastrophes, there is much to learn from archaeology in how to mitigate against the worst of damage in rebuilding.

In the final part of the seminar Janice Stargardt talked about the work she and colleagues have done in establishing the role that climatic change had played in the decline of Angkor in Cambodia and Sri Ksetra in Burma.

Central to understanding the archaeological sites and the role of climatic events over time is the development of the water management systems used to irrigate land. At Angkor, for instance, aerial photography and remote sensing reveal how phases 2 and 3 of the sites had an expanding hydraulic system used to irrigate the land. This can be considered indicative of the wealth and prosperity of the Khmer Empire at this time. By the 14thcentury however, decline was underway. Dendrology has been used to confirm that increasingly weak monsoons were experienced during this time, and this would have had a serious impact on the irrigation system which was dependent on single-season monsoons. In addition to this and its consequences for supporting the population, the weak eastern wall was a poor barrier for the reservoir and hydraulic system, but ultimately even more consequentially for military defence.

Politeness and etiquette in the Buddhist sangha


In our June seminar we welcomed Dr Christopher Handy, who spoke about his research on etiquette among Buddhist monks and nuns. Based on readings of the Buddhist monastics codes in the vinaya Handy pointed out that many of the rules for monks and nuns have little or nothing to do with ethics, and can be better characterised as rules of etiquette. Approaching the vinaya texts in the context of politeness, Handy drew on Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson’s politeness theory (itself based on the work of the sociologist Erving Goffman) to argue that many of the rules in the vinaya are primarily concerned with not losing face.

The rules concerning politeness are especially common in the śaikṣadharma or ‘rules for training’, which include, for example, prohibitions against making a smacking (capucapu) or slurping (surusuru) sound when eating. Some rules of politeness, Handy showed, are based on previously existing Brahminical customs, such as the rule against urinating while standing. On the other hand, the nature of politeness is different when Buddhist monks and nuns are among lay people. Ordinarily friendly acts such as smiling and making small talk are not allowed to be directed towards lay people, especially those of the opposite sex.

Furthermore, Handy pointed out cases where the rules that applied when monks and nuns went among the laity were different from the rules they had to observe when amongst themselves. For instance, one case in the vinaya tells the story of the Buddha sneezing in the course of giving a teaching. When a monk in the audience said “long life!” (the equivalent of “bless you”!), the Buddha explained that it was not necessary to say that to him, or to fellow members of the sangha. However, when monks observed this same rule and failed to say “long life!” when their lay supporters sneezed, those supporters were offended at the monks’ rudeness. When told of of this, the Buddha said that the monks could continue to use the usual polite response with lay people.

After this fascinating talk, Handy demonstrated the new ERC-funded OpenPhilology project for Buddhist scriptures, which he is involved with at Leiden University. Click here for details.

Buddhist and Hindu Practices in the Kathmandu Valley


By Gergely Hidas

At the May seminar we had two guest presenters from North America, both talking about the religious traditions of Nepal. Their research activities are based primarily on Sanskrit manuscripts along with extensive fieldwork in the Kathmandu Valley.

The first speaker, Alexander von Rospatt (UC Berkeley), discussed the importance of a work from ca. the 15th century, the Svayambhūpurāṇa, a complex text about the history of local Buddhism with a special focus on the Svayambhū Stūpa, a central landmark and pilgrimage site (tīrtha) in Kathmandu. This charter-like piece, rich in narratives, is seen as an attempt for Newar Buddhism to reinvent itself: with Nepal being the centre and India the periphery. The text starts with the famous legend of origins: the Valley was once a lake, the Stūpa stood on a lotus, and the bodhisattva of wisdom, Mañjuśrī, drained this lake by cutting a gorge into the surrounding mountain range. While the area dried up resident Nāga serpents were relocated to smaller ponds and streams with Karkoṭaka being the most important up to the present. With the course of time Svayambhū developed its many tantric connections, including links to the Yoginītantras, the deity Cakrasaṃvara and the goddesses Vajrayoginī and Guhyeśvarī.

While the Svayambhūpurāṇa is translated into Tibetan, Newari and Nepali, it still lacks a complete Western rendering and only some of its versions are edited. There are four distinct recensions with slightly different titles and the length of the metrical ones ranges from a few hundred to a couple of thousand verses. The various versions also contain prescriptions for religious observances (vrata) of the bodhisattva vow. The renovation of the Stūpa is regularly sponsored by different communities in the Valley and there are exquisite depictions of the buildings and related legends both as manuscript illuminations and mural paintings.

The second speaker, Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz (Univ. of Illinois), introduced a little researched tradition, the Hindu Svasthānīvratakathā or ‘The Story of the Ritual Vow to the Goddess Svasthānī’ from the 16th century. This ritual of high-caste Hinduism focusses on the performance of the Svasthānī vow, the succesful completion of which results in prosperity. Though this goddess is little known in other sources, a copy is kept in most Hindu households, and the text is recited in these households every winter in the month of Magh (January-February). The text survives in more than 700 manuscripts, the oldest dating to 1573 CE. From the 18th century onwards the Svasthānīvratakathā underwent a ‘Purāṇicisation’ process and became an established text along with other ones like the Paśupatipurāṇa or the Nepālmahātmya. The main religious observance (vrata) takes place primarily in the ancient town of Sankhu not too far from Kathmandu. An interesting point for comparison with the observance of the bodhisattva vow at Svayambhū is that it is overwhelmingly female lay devotees who participate in both kinds of ritual.

Revisiting the Traikūṭakas and historical problems in western India

The great caitya (Cave 3) at Kanheri. (Photo: Dániel Balogh, 2018)

By Robert Bracey and Dániel Balogh

The Beyond Boundaries team met for their monthly seminar, with many guests, to discuss several problems with the history of West India in the mid-first millennium. The problem which motivated discussion was the dating of one minor dynasty, the Traikūṭakas, who are known from a handful of copper plate inscriptions and a modest silver coinage – and the first three presentations served to introduce the problem.

Michael Willis began by talking about the use of imprecatory verses in copper plate charters. These verses, which warn any prospective malefactor who might seize the granted land that they risk 60,000 years in hell, are often attributed to the sage Vyāsa and sometimes specifically to the Mahābhārata. However, according to the critical edition of the Mahābhārata, they are only found in some southern manuscripts and not in any others. The verses are, as was shown in several slides, relatively common in fifth and sixth century charters, and are also known from a Traikūṭaka grant. If the Traikūṭakas were dated significantly earlier than the fifth century, and the seminar topic was chosen in part because they sometimes are, then this would make this the earliest usage and suggests a west to east transmission of the concept (rather than an origin in a North Indian Gupta context as is often assumed).

There followed a vigorous debate about whether it is reasonable to assume that the powerful dynasties who disseminated different aspects of court culture originated those ideas, and whether the copper plate charters are representative of the distribution of similar decrees written on more ephemeral material.

The second presentation, by Robert Bracey, presented the numismatic evidence, which since the 1960s has been accepted by numismatists as demonstrating an early date for the Traikūṭakas. A small number of their coins, and the handful of inscriptions, record dates ranging from 197 to 284. What is at issue is whether, as most numismatists believe, those dates are in Śaka era of 78 AD or, as most epigraphers believe, in the Kalacuri-Cedi era of 249 AD. Robert presented the four arguments that have usually been deployed and critically re-examined them. He concluded that the arguments that the coins used the designs of third century Western Satrap coins, or that they fitted in a supposed gap in the Satrap dynasty, were unsound, but that the arguments based on the weight of the coins were compelling and those on hoards were compatible with an early date even if not strong.

Prof. Hans Bakker then took the opportunity to perform the same role for epigraphic evidence. He presented V. V. Mirashi’s publication on the inscriptions of the Kalacuri-Cedi era which was prepared in the 1950s but not published until after Mirashi’s death. Taking the early inscriptions in turn Prof. Bakker demonstrated how each one could be attributed to either the Gupta era of 319 AD or the Śaka era of 78 AD, for all of the inscriptions before the year 200. He further pointed out that supposed references to the dynasty in the inscriptions were ambiguous, supporting both early and late dates depending on which reference you chose. However, two strong epigraphic arguments remained for dating the inscriptions in the fifth century and thus attributing them to the Kalacuri-Cedi era. The first is the palaeography, which epigraphers are unanimous in attributing to a late period. The second, which Prof. Bakker presented for the first time at the event, was in the prose passages which show a strong continuity of the scribal and courtly traditions from the Traikūṭaka inscriptions to those of the early Kalacuris.

There followed a lively debate over the relative merits of these two strands of evidence which both seem to strongly suggest contradictory dates.

There then followed several short presentations on related issues. Daniel Balogh began by speaking about the early Rāṣṭrakūṭas of the Deccan. If the Traikūṭakas employed the Kalacuri-Cedi era, and the dates frequently assumed for the Rāṣṭrakūṭas are in fact correct, then the latter would be the southern neighbours of the former. Daniel carefully laid out how the genealogical inscriptions have been used to reconstruct several generations of the dynasty.

Francesco Bianchini then spoke about the Maitrakas. More firmly dated than the Traikūṭakas or the Rāṣṭrakūṭas, they ruled in the sixth century after the collapse of Gupta hegemony north of the Namada river in Gujarat. Francesco discussed the vexed problem of the dynasties ‘overlords’ who are frequently referred to in their inscription but never named, and whether these are the Guptas, the Huns, the Aulikaras, the Vākāṭakas, or a more deliberately ambiguous reference.

Finally Gethin Rees spoke about the cave sites of West India and particularly Kanheri. Kanheri experienced several different phases of construction during which new caves were cut, structures were added and in some cases the existing caves were elaborated with new items. However, finding fixed chronological points to tie the relative art historical dating to is very difficult. One of those which has received much attention is a Traikūṭaka inscription found as part of a relic deposit in a brick built stupa at the site.

The seminar finished with a wide ranging discussion amongst the participants on the interconnections between these dynasties and the problems of chronology, cultural transmission, and political reality that the evidence presents. Though no firm conclusions were reached it was agreed that the complex West Indian states deserve more attention, preferably inter-disciplinary, than they have received up to now.

Jainism in the Gupta period


By Lucas den Boer

At our January workshop, we had two talks on various aspects of Jainism in the Gupta period. First, Andrew Ollett (Harvard) focussed on the Jaina languages. Beginning with a theoretical analysis, Ollett questioned several common assumptions about the character and history of the Prakrit languages that were used by the Jainas, i.e. Ardhamāgadhī, Mahārāṣṭrī, and Śaurasenī. He argued that the historical boundaries between these languages were fluid, and that our ideas of their differences are largely based on the reification of Prakrit varieties by 19th century scholars. These Prakrit languages were not continuous with demotic speech. Moreover, unlike the Buddhists, the Jainas didn’t have their own grammars for their Prakrit variants. This might explain why Jaina authors frequently go back to more archaic forms, which challenges the idea of a linear development of the Middle Indic languages. Ollett’s theoretical reflections were linked to his account of the history of Prakrit as described in his recent publication Languages of the Snakes: Prakrit, Sanskrit, and the Language Order of Premodern India, which is available for download from the University of California Press.

In the second half of the workshop, Paul Dundas addressed the social situation of the Jainas under the Guptas, focussing on the means by which the Jain renunciant community was supported. For this goal, he discussed the term ‘akṣayanīvī’, used in Haribhadra Yākinīputra’s Ṣoḍaśakaprakaraṇa, which refers to a permanent endowment for monks. By presenting several epigraphical and non-epigraphical sources from the Gupta period that mention such endowments and the ‘use’ (upabhoga) of these endowments, Dundas threw some new light on the dating of the domestication of Jaina mendicant life. In the last part of his talk, he discussed a story from the Āvaśyakacūrṇi, in which Gautama feeds some ascetics on Mount Aṣṭāpada with his magical powers. Pointing out the parallels with a story form the Mahābhārata in which the Sun enables Yudiṣṭhura to feed Brahmins in the forest, Dundas tentatively suggested that the story about Gautama might be a reworking of the story in the Mahābhārata. The background to the questions that Dundas raised during the workshop can be found in his earlier study on the social status of the Jains under the Guptas (“Floods, Taxes, and a Stone Cow: A Jain Apocalyptic Account of the Gupta Period.” South Asian Studies 30, no. 2 (2014): 230-244, doi:10.1080/02666030.2014.962341).

On Counting Coins

On 12 December Robert Bracey led a discussion organised by the Beyond Boundaries project on questions around Feudalism and money supply in sixth century India. This discussion included presentations by Gethin Rees and Daniel Balogh from the team and was one half of a piece of research work undertaken in the summer.

The other half of that work was a survey of coinage in the sixth century which was shared with the research team in advance. That covered the tri-metallic coins of the Alchons in Gandhara and the Punjab which seems to have ended in the mid-late sixth century; the small 1g local issues of Kashmir Smast, the transition from gold dinars to silver drammas in Sindh/Multan early in the century; the copper ‘Toramana’ coinage of Kashmir; and the debased gold dinar DNNVY series recently attributed to the Punjab; the silver ‘central provinces’ types issued by the Alchons, Maukharis, and then Harsha, from Kanauj; the gold dinars of the late Guptas and the ‘later’ Guptas; the gold dinars initially imitating Kushan and the Gupta types in Samatata which probably began in the late fifth century; and the silver coins of the Candras, Pyu, and Mon, issued along the coast east from Bengal whose inception different numismatists attribute anywhere from the first to the eighth century; then the silver dramma coins of Western India which include posthumous issues of Kumaragupta; Krishnaraja; the Maitrakas; and Nadol; and the copper and lead issues which seem to have accompanied them; the silver ‘Indo-Sasanian’ types of Rajasthan which seem to begin in the early sixth century and in the seventh and eighth dominate north India; the few attributed issues of the Aulikaras; and the Vakatakas; the widespread copper coins of the Vishnukundins; and the recently discovered small coins of the Chalukyas of Badami; the Pallavas; local anonymous issues of South India; and the Roman nummi and their imitations in Sri Lanka. And if that sounds like a lot then it will be understandable why the talk itself focused on a different aspect.


Silver Drachm of the Alchon Javukha, (3.53g, 21mm, BM 1894,0506.206)


Early Pratapa type coin attributed to Kanauj  (BM 1928,1018.12 7.26g, 21mm)


Pyu coin (BM 1983,0118.10)


Posthumous issue of Kumara Gupta (OR.9497 2.09g, 12mm)

How do you count those coins? A great deal of post-Gupta historical study is dominated by a theory known as ‘feudalism’. Propounded in the greatest detail by R S Sharma, he argues that after the Gupta Empire there were profound social changes. Specifically, for coins, that market exchanges (in the technical economic sense rather than the mundane physical location sense) diminished dramatically in favour of exchanges tied to land and social/political obligations. As a result there was markedly less need for money – and thus (the two are often conflated) coins.

So, assuming that you accept that coins represent the bulk of ancient money (that money of account, deposit banking, fungible loans, and commodity monies, are either modest or non-existent), how do you count the number of coins in circulation to test this? Do you count in absolute values or rates per year, the number of types, the number of hoards, coins in collections, or from archaeological sites, or the number of dies that were used to make them? And do you count the number of coins, the value they represent, or how frequently they were used?




Large gold dinar of Vainyagupta (9.37g, 21mm, BM MAR.1051) from NE India and a small copper/debased silver coin from W India, perhaps Nadol, (0.86g, 9mm, BM 1908,0702.45), what relative value in money do you assign these?

The talk tried to explore these different questions and also what sort of data you might be able to extract from the survey in order to answer the questions. One of the difficulties in this kind of research is trying to marry the detail which is where all of the useful analysis takes place with the broad sweep which is where all of the interesting questions are.



Charts showing counts of coins in collections and references to coins in inscriptions, earliest on the right.

Daniel Balogh illustrated this by talking about a fifth century inscription which has been read as involving a transaction using gold bars, but which has in fact been misread and probably does not mention money at all. The question of how you ensure large amounts of data are robust enough to answer big questions was an important part of the discussion.

Gethin Rees also spoke at the end about modelling that has been used to identify the degree of market integration in the Roman economy, and thus about how you can measure economic activity independently of coins.

This was very much research in progress, warts and all, and a somewhat experimental attempt to engage people from different disciplines with the details necessary to answer a larger problem. The presentation is now available on You-Tube with the comments section opened up to allow further discussion of the topics this link:

Data Management in Asian Humanities and Social Sciences

Our November event consisted of a two day workshop titled Data Management in Asian Humanities and Social Sciences. Speakers were invited from around Europe and North America to discuss the use of data in their projects and research.

Presenters were of three types:

  • Research assistants from the Beyond Boundaries project
  • Researchers working on collaborative projects based at SOAS and elsewhere
  • Experienced digital specialists managing web resources over the long-term

A playlist of presentation videos is available here:

The research assistants from Beyond Boundaries each outlined their research and how they use digital technologies before discussing plans for archiving their data. The data produced by the project is diverse but includes images, xml, spreadsheets, text and GIS files. is the primary repository for these data and the project is currently depositing in these communities, amongst others:

The presentations offered an opportunity for the research assistants to gain valuable feedback on the methods and processes they use for data management.

Speakers were invited from a variety of collaborative projects researching topics as diverse as multilingualism in modern Africa to the history of yoga. Although dealing with quite different subject matter, the projects encountered similar issues in the management of their data such as finding tools for organising and collaborating or ensuring that the archival formats used would have the greatest longevity. It was concluded that the difficulties in managing data effectively are often under-estimated and that forums for sharing experiences of working practices between projects like this workshop are valuable yet rare.

Finally, presentations by researchers working on the gSung-rten Database, the Endangered Languages Archive, Buddhist Digital Resource Center and the Chinese Text Project amongst others offered an insight into how data is managed at scale and over the long term. Understanding how the technical challenges facing these resources have been met was fascinating and helped stimulate discussion about the potential for the reuse and aggregation of data produced by Beyond Boundaries and other projects.


Language in Early Burma

By Marc Miyake, Beyond Boundaries Research Assistant

This month the seminar series took a break from its usual Indological focus and turned to Burma at the eastern edge of the Indic world.


Photograph by Tetsuya Kitahata, distributed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

It is an unspoken assumption in the modern world that there is a strong correlation between countries and languages. Of course there are well-known cases in the Western world such as Canada and Belgium (one country with two major languages) or Germany and Austria (one language in two countries), but awareness of linguistic diversity outside the Western world is low. The average person assumes Burmese is the only language in Burma. A more informed person might have heard of the states of Burma and be aware of the major languages of Burma: e.g., Mon in Mon State, Shan in Shan State, etc. Some might even know that those languages are sometimes not even related to Burmese. Mon is related to Khmer and Shan to Thai. But even those languages are but a fraction of the 118 languages spoken in Burma today. And there may have been even more languages spoken there in the past.

The best known of those lost languages was Pyu, spoken in the first millennium CE in what is now Upper Burma and surviving only in the form of inscriptions. The name Pyu is Burmese; the Pyu autonym is not attested in the extant Pyu corpus, though Chinese historical records tell us they called themselves something like 突羅朱 dwot la tsyu in Middle Chinese transcription. Gordon Luce equated that transcription with Old Mon tircul ‘Pyu’. But no similar name has ever been found in Pyu itself.

The seminar began with an introduction by Nathan Hill on the decipherment of Pyu by Arlo Griffiths of EFEO, Julian K. Wheatley, and myself, and on his own project, the reconstruction of Proto-Burmish, the ancestor of one branch of the vast Trans-Himalayan (a.k.a. Sino-Tibetan) family.

Of course, the most famous Burmish language is Burmese, which has a largely unexplored internal diversity. Patrick McCormick gave an overview of that diversity in his talk on Burmese dialectology. Trained as both a historian and as a linguist, McCormick is not only interested in the phonetic mechanics of languages but what languages can tell us about their speakers’ histories. McCormick is not confined by traditional family tree models of language. For instance, although the Karen languages and their neighbor Burmese are in distant branches of the Trans-Himalayan family, McCormick sees the possibility of Karen influence in the Tavoyan dialect which has Karen-like traits such as the presence of glottalized consonants and the attenuation of nasalized vowels.

Hideo Sawada introduced the northern branch of the Burmish languages which are spoken in southern China as well as Burma. Some Northern Burmish languages retain a set of glottalized consonants lost in Burmese, a Southern Burmish language: e.g., they have both glottalized p’- ts’- t’- k’- and aspirated pʰ- tsʰ- tʰ- kʰ- corresponding to Burmese aspirated pʰ- sʰ- tʰ- kʰ-. They also retain final consonants lost in Burmese. Although these languages have considerable historical value, they have small numbers of speakers, one (Hpon) is nearly extinct, and some remain undescribed: e.g., Maingtha, spoken by a Shan tribe despite the fact that the Shan language is not Burmish or even Trans-Himalayan. Cases like Maingtha underscore the potential disconnect between ethnicity and language.

Tilman Frasch brought the seminar full circle back to Pyu, which he hypothesizes was the source of Old Burmese terminology for agriculture, land use, and irrigation. Frasch posited a scenario in which Burmese speakers arrived in Burma which was not terra rasa: the Pyu had already been there for centuries. The newcomers learned agricultural technology and the words needed for it from the locals. There is no doubt that Pyu is a substrate of Burmese: i.e., a language that influenced a dominant intruding language which, in this case, ultimately replaced it. There is also no doubt that Burmese has borrowings from Pyu: e.g., Written Burmese ပြည် praññ ‘country, royal city’ from Pyu pringh. (One Burmese pronunciation of the spelling praññ is pyi as in the name of the Burmese capital Nay Pyi Taw.) The first Burmese speakers in Burma did not come from an urban civilization like that of the Pyu, so it would be natural for them to borrow a word for ‘city’ – a word that is the name of Pyay, a city near the ruins of the Pyu city now known as Śrī Kṣetra. (Pyay is another modern Burmese pronunciation of Written Burmese praññ.) It would similarly also be natural for early Burmese speakers to adopt local words for agriculture.

The trouble is that no specifically agricultural terms have been identified in the Pyu corpus so far. The inscriptions contain only about 1,700 distinct syllables which may or may not be monosyllabic words. It is thus certain that only a fraction of the Pyu lexicon has been preserved in stone and metal. Only a fraction of that fraction is currently understood. There are syllables in Pyu that sound like Old Burmese agricultural words, but it is not yet clear whether they are coincidental soundalikes or the sources of those words. Frasch’s hypothesis needs to be tested by seeing if Pyu texts make sense if the soundalikes are provisionally glossed as if they were agricultural terms.

The Bactrian Archives as a Source for the History and Historical Geography of Afghanistan

This month it was a pleasure to welcome Nicholas Sims-Williams to discuss the difficulties and benefits of the archives of Bactrian documents for the study of Afghanistan in the first millennium AD. These archives surfaced together in the 1990s and consist of legal documents and letters. Properly ordered, these have the potential to shed light on the administrative centres in Bactria which produced them. They also offer an insight into Bactrian language itself, hitherto only dimly understood from a limited number of coins and inscriptions. However, a central problems is converting the dates in the documents into AD equivalents and dating those documents which lack a date. Sims-Williams took us through some of the thorniest issues and the most heated of the debates surrounding the chronology of the Bactrian archives. He pointed out some ways forward by using internal references (to the Sasanian Peroz, the Hephthalites, or Arab tax documents) that helped set parameters for the dating. He then showed how the dated documents could give clues as to the period of the undated ones. Finally, he outlined some of the ways in which these documents contribute to the history and historical geography of the area between the Oxus and Kabul, such as modes of water-use, (co-)ownership of land, inheritance, as well as providing the first mention of the Afghan people in the second half of the fifth century. These Bactrian archives offer unparalleled access to the ancient centres of Rob and  Kadagstān as different ruling dynasties gain paramount authority in the region, the Kushanshahs, the Sasanians, the Hepthalites, Western Turks, and finally the Arabs. The last stages of the archives contain both Bactrian documents and Arabic tax records relating to the same local family.

Michael Willis then followed up this talk by showing some of the Bactrian artefacts housed in the British Museum. He contextualised the fine artwork on seals and coins in order to bring up questions surrounding worship, divinity and kingship, tying the works to later Vaishnavite wall carvings and inscriptions from Udaigiri and other sites.