The Sanskritisation of Gandharan culture

This month we welcomed Ingo Strauch to speak about the Sanskritisation of central and northern India before and during the period of the Gupta empire. The focus of his talk was the greater Gandharan area, stretching from today’s Swat Valley in the north to what is now Islamabad in the south and including Bamiyan, Gilgit and Taxila in between. This area shared a common culture linked by language and script during the first millennium CE.


Original image by Asia Society. Uploaded by , published on 23 June 2015 under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. No changes made.

By the sixth century, what Pollock names the “Sanskrit cosmopolis” held sway over central India, but it affected different areas to various extents and in divergent ways. Different groups also held contrasting attitudes to Sanskrit, and these positons changed gradually over time. At the start of the millennium, Buddhists were generally hostile to the language, and Middle Indic dominated as their language, whereas Sanskrit was largely confined to ritual texts associated with Vedic literature, as propagated by the Brahmanical schools. The connected questions of why and how Buddhists adopted Sanskrit can now be investigated more thoroughly, at least in the northwest, with the benefit of important manuscript discoveries from 1994 onwards.

Strauch led us through the examples of Gāndhārī language to show that, on the level of the written word at least, biscriptualism was linked to bilingualism. Aśoka’s north-western edicts were written in Kharoṣṭhī (contrasting with his other, Brāhmī inscriptions). The evidence of the Bamiyan and Bajaur manuscript discoveries, among others, points towards the gradual adoption of Brāhmī in “Greater Gandhara,” and other evidence suggests the late-Kuṣāna period hegemony of this new script—to the extent that, even when Kharośṭhī was used, it began to reflect the language written in Brāhmī. Strauch argued for a gradual Sanskritisation (rather than a sudden conversion), in which for some time the Sanskrit of the Sarvāstivādins sat side by side with the Buddhist Sanskrit of the Mahāsāṃghikas (even in the same manuscript, for example the Bajaur Prātimokṣa sūtra). He also stressed the varieties of Sanskritisation taking place in different ways on coins, sculptures and reliquaries. Overall, though, it seems clear that the shift from Kharoṣṭhī to Brāhmī did not cause Sanskritisation, but rather that the latter was more suited to writing the complex ligatures necessary to reflect Sanskrit sounds. This pragmatic cause led to the loss of Kharoṣṭhī in “Greater Gandhara” by the end of the Gupta period, excepting for pockets of resistance in small outlying areas.

Strauch connected Sanskritisation itself to the rise of Hindus in Gandharan areas and in South Asia more generally. These groups used Sanskrit not only as a lingua franca and for administration, but also as a prestige religious language, and thus succeeded in convincing the Buddhists of “Greater Gandhara” of the necessity of accepting it as part of the spectrum of languages reflected in the Bamiyan and other manuscripts. Strauch cited Bronkhorst’s speculations concerning the reasons why the Buddhists eventually took up Sanskrit—the status of the language in mediating the important priest-patron relationship apparently led the Buddhists to use the same means to defend their own interests at the royal courts.

Michael Willis then showed some examples of similar shifts in language for the British Museum Collection, including sealings, coins and artifacts discovered at Sunet, near modern-day Ludhiana. Many of these resources will be put up on the research group’s Zenodo pages as part of the project’s important task of data collection and dissemination.

Finally, Robert Bracey discussed the coin-moulds at Sangdhol, a petty kingdom in the same area flourishing on the edge of the Gupta empire. These curious remains appear to correlate to no extant coins, problematizing Sangdhol’s description in other secondary literature as a mint site. Bracey speculated that the moulds, sometimes intended to cast multiple “coins” at once, may have fulfilled some very site-specific, folk ritual function and cast not metal but a material that has not survived in the ground.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s