All posts by Sam van Schaik

Columns, Inscriptions and Ritual Practices

The columns at Sondhni.

At the March seminar Peter Bisschop and Elizabeth Cecil (Leiden University) gave a joint presentation about the preliminary results of their research on inscribed columns and civic religion in Gupta India. They have recently returned from a fieldwork trip to Central India where they and Dániel Balogh (British Museum) visited Gupta and early post-Gupta sites. The findings of this trip were incorporated into their presentation in which they emphasised that the study of pillar inscriptions needs to take more consideration than before of the pillars as physical objects, as well as the monumental sites as they would have appeared to historical visitors.

Cecil discussed the social and religious context of columns in early India, accompanied by textual references collected by Bisschop. Though image and text, they showed that the columns could have been sites of ritual power, as well as conveying a political message. Discussing the material semantics of these structures, Cecil argued that they held multiple meanings for different audiences. In this light, they discussed three specific column sites studied in their fieldwork: the Sondhni column of Yaśodharman near Mandsaur (western Malwa), the Eran column of Mātṛviṣṇu and Dhanyaviṣṇu (of the time of Budhagupta, in eastern Malwa), and the Mahākūta column of Maṅgaleśa (in Karṇāṭaka).

As a different aspect of the connection of epigraphs to their monumental context (based on the same fieldwork trip), Balogh gave a preliminary report on the inscriptions of the late Gupta temple of Charchoma (near Kota, Rajasthan). One of these appears to consist of recipes for incense presumably for use in local ritual, while two others praise donation and temple construction without reference to any particular act, probably engraved with the intent to encourage donations for the maintenance of the temple and the community attached to it.

Early Buddhism in Central Asia

Statue of the translator Kumarajiva at the Kizil caves.

At the February seminar, we had three talks from distinguished academics of Buddhist Studies, focusing on the transmission of Buddhism through Central Asia during the first millenium CE.

First, Hannes Fellner presented his research on Tocharian Buddhism and Buddhist texts dating roughly from the fourth to the tenth century. He first discussed the Tocharian languages spoken especially in the northern Tarim Basin in Xinjiang, which are descended from an Indo-European ancestor spoken around eastern Ukraine about four thousand years ago and suggest an easterly migration of peoples displacing an Indo-Iranian culture before the common era. Ancient and later Tocharian B are found in the west of the Tarim Basin, and both are earlier than the eastern Tocharian A.

All documents written in this now extinct language are incomplete, lacking colophons, but recent work (especially by the CEToM) has brought together almost all extant Tocharian documents to compare them with each other and with correlates in works of other languages to describe the culture that once flourished around Kucha and Yanxi. Almost all Tocharian texts are Buddhist, with the exception a colloquial poem and a fragment of a Manichaean work. They include Sarvāstivāda sutras, monastic regulations (vinaya) and classificatory works (abhidharma), as well as non-canonical literature such as royal lineages, grammars, dramas and narratives.

The Tocharians were famous in China as players and musicians, and this seems to be confirmed by the amount of these latter types of work discovered. Hannes Fellner took us through the paleography, formal features and contents of a number of these works. He then described the linguistic shifts that occurred with the Tocharians’ conversion to Buddhism, and the trends of lexical borrowing, calque vs. free translation, and suggested that speakers of Tocharian B may have converted speakers of Tocharian A to judge from differences in their core Buddhist terminologies. He ended by arguing that scholars of Buddhist Studies have much to contribute to the identification of Tocharian works, contextualisation of linguistic, stylistic and terminological shifts evidenced therein, but that Tocharian texts also could reciprocate in future, as an archaic Buddhist tradition with a comparitively large corpus of extant texts and an especially interesting proclivity for Buddhist belles lettres.

The second speaker, Jan Nattier, provided insights into the second- and early third-century translators and translations of Buddhist works into Chinese. She identified the ethnocons, the Chinese names taken on predominantly by non-Chinese that indicate their ethnic group, as suggesting that most translators were of western Central Asian (Parthian, Yuezhi and Sogdian) heritage, though not necessarily immigrants themselves. These translators included An Shigao安世高, Lokakṣema / Zhi Loujiachen 支婁迦讖, An Xuan安玄 and Kang Mengxiang康孟詳, who displayed different translation styles.

For example, Lokakṣema and his Buddhist translation group (one of the first in China), many times favoured transcription of Indic terminology over translation. In contrast, An Xuan and Kang Mengxiang attempted to translate everything, even leading to some apparent innovations that only later became standard terminology through the popularity of their works. Nattier suggested that these styles reflected different audiences for the translated works, perhaps a polyglot expat group in the case of the former, and an indigenous Chinese elites in the latter case. She also described the evidence for Gandhari underlying the texts translated, rather than Classical Sanskrit as was presumed by earlier generations of scholars.

Finally, Jonathan Silk outlined his current research into eighth- and ninth-century translations of Buddhist works from Chinese into Tibetan. He indicated that such an analysis could help to unlock a certain Chinese understanding of their works, uncovered in the choices made when re-translating them (or translating in the case of Chinese compositions) into Tibetan. Most Tibetan translations carried out towards the end of the Tibetan imperial period (c. 600–850) were translated from Indic languages. However, catalogues of the royal library collections of the time show that many were not, and over thirty of the works translated can be found in Chinese in the Taishō Canon.

Silk went through these works, highlighting where some Chinese-Tibetan translations have become canonical themselves, or where they only exist in the Dunhuang corpus of texts (with or without a corresponding Indic translation in the Tibetan Kanjur Canon). Sometimes the Chinese basis of the translation is clearly indicated in the colophon, or in the transcription of the Chinese title at the beginning of the work. At other times, however, the dependence has to be gleaned from internal textual evidence, and Silk pointed out the types of evidence used to come to these conclusions. Furthermore, he gave some examples where the Chinese understanding of the underlying Indic terminology behind the work shone through the Tibetan translation.

These telltale signs suggest that Chinese speakers, perhaps with dictionaries or glossaries, could see enough of the Indic terminology in the Chinese text to be able to translate it into Tibetan calque terms that also correlated with the Indic original—that they understood the technical nature of these works on a fine-grained level. It is his intention to create multilingual collations of some of these works in the future, to help to unlock the shape of Buddhism at Dunhuang in the late first millennium.

Images of the Buddha

The Kanheri caves

At our January workshop, Robert DeCaroli discussed his research on the momentous move from an aniconic depiction of the Buddha before the common era to the first images of Śākyamuni in full, appearing from the second century CE onwards. He discussed the correlation between places and periods in which royalty were depicted and those in which the first Buddha images are thought to have first appeared, though he was careful not to suggest causation. Drawing on his recent book, Image Problems, DeCaroli outlined the cultural shift that occured away from hesitancy over depicting the Buddha in human form, which was perhaps linked to a widely held beliefs that creating effigies of living beings left them vulnerable to attack amd control through ritual. The earliest human images of the Buddha occur in areas controlled by the Kushan and Indo-Scythian dynasties, and spread into the Deccan, as evidenced at sites such as the Kānherī Caves. Kānherī Cave 3 exhibits on an outer pillar and on one of the pillars within the unfinished stūpa hall, images of the Buddha that resemble those of yakṣas from Mathura.

DeCaroli argued that the Kānherī Cave 3’s construction should be dated between 140–170 CE, contemporary with similar early Buddha imagery appearing at Amaravati, and proposed that this site shows the influence of northern Indian artistic models of iconism spreading down into the Deccan during Sātavāhana rule of the region. Living members of this dynasty at the same time began to be depicted at places such as Nāṇaghāṭ, and DeCaroli suggested that perhaps the Buddhist artists reappropriated royal art in making their religious images. Furthermore, these first tentative attempts at depicting the Buddha in human form seem to have gained favour, and slowly the Buddha image moved from a peripheral to a central position and more religious figures were added at sites such as Ajaṇṭā Caves 19 and 26—before the explosion of images witnessed in the fourth and fifth centuries.

This talk was followed by a short presentation by Lewis Doney on a passage in a Tibetan history, the dBa’ bzhed, wherein it is decided that the most beautiful members of the Tibetan nobility should act as models for deity statues in bSam yas Monastery. He illustrated with Himalayan art and this led to a discussion on the emergence of a “Tibetan” style distinctive from “Indian” and “Chinese” at the turn of the second millennium. Gergely Hidas then introduced his recent work on ritual instructions for the control of the weather from Buddhist dharani sutras, and finally, Michael Willis presented items from the British Museum collections thought to originate in Kānherī.


Wine and other intoxicants


At the December seminar our main speaker was James McHugh, author of “Sandalwood and Carrion. Smell in Indian Religion and Culture” (OUP 2012). In the talk he focussed on various sorts of intoxicants prevalent in South Asia around the Gupta Age. Drawing primarily on textual and art historical sources it was shown that the use of alcohol and betel was widespread at various strata of society and there were many types of intoxicating drinks in the region prepared with different technologies.

In the second half of the event some short presentations related to the subject were given. Firstly, Daniela De Simone showed archaeological evidence of South Asian wine containers and placed these in wider cultural and geographical context. Then Lewis Doney spoke about Central Asian drink trade and consumption based on written testimonies. This was followed by Csaba Dezső’s survey of South Asian literary sources with references to drinking. The seminar was concluded with thoughts by Michael Willis.

Research Trip to Burma

One of the sub-projects of our ERC grant that is specifically based at SOAS is the decipherment of Pyu language of ancient Burma. Nathan Hill (Reader in Tibetan and Historical Linguistics) is the SOAS principal investigator. He is working on the project with postdoctoral researcher Marc Miyake.

Early on the project benefited from the generosity of Prof. Janice Stargardt, an archaeologist at Cambridge University, who shared with us her collection of rubbings of Pyu epigraphical monuments. These rubbings were digitized by the British Library and are now available to project members.

We have joined forces with another project, funded by the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation and administered by the École française d’Extrême-Orient, also working on the decipherment of Pyu. In November the two projects took a research trip to Burma with photographer James Miles to get high resolution scans of the inscriptions. The trip took us up and down the country—Rangoon, Pegu, Naypyidaw, Mandalay, Myintha, Pagan, Halin, Beikthano, Prome, and Sandoway. Inscriptions were documented using three techniques: RTI (Reflectance Transformation Imaging) for relatively flat inscriptions, photogrammetry 3D modeling for round or curved objects, and normal photography for silver and gold objects. Currently 165 inscriptions have been identified; we have high resolution images of all but three.

Current work is focussed on transliterating inscription and converting the transliterations into XML. We are paying special attention to bilingual and multilingual objects. At the moment we are studying a Sanskrit-Pyu bilingual text. Each Sanskrit word is followed by a gloss in Pyu. For instance, the Sanskrit pronoun aham ‘I’ (cognate to English I) was glossed in Pyu as gayṁḥ, which must mean ‘I’.

Clockwise from top left: Photogrammetry of a Buddha statue at the National Museum in Naypyidaw (James Miles); RTI of a quadralingual inscription at the monastery in Myintha (James Miles); FTI of a quadralingual inscription at the Myazedi pagoda in Pagan (Marc Miyake and James Miles); Group photo at the Petaw monastery in Myintha (Arlo Griffith, Julian Wheatley, James Miles, Ashin Nyarna Daza (abbot), Bob Hudson, Nathan Hill, Marc Miyake, Wai Lin Thu, Ne Myo Win)

Buddhist monks and taxation

At our workshop in November, Ulrich Pagel talked about his research into the taxation of Buddhist monks and monasteries in ancient India. He began with a story from the Vinayavibhaṅga of the Mūlasarvāstivādins, about a group of monks travelling with merchants, who avoided paying customs duty on their goods. At the end of the story the Buddha finds out what has happened, and tells the monks that they must pay customs duty. But the story also suggests that monks carried private property, and were considered to be subject to taxes.

Reviewing several different sources on taxation, particularly the Dharmaśāstra literature, Pagel showed that Brahminical sources allowed certain categories of people to be exempt from paying tax, including women, children and ascetics. However, Buddhist monks seem not to have been included in the category of ascetics. In fact, in the Brahmin system, they were equivalent to the lowest of the four castes, the śūdra. Pagel also suggested reasons why rulers might want to tax Buddhist monks: monasteries were a significant source of tax revenue, and individual monks, who travelled with merchants, might often come under suspicion of avoiding customs, as the story in the Vinayavibhaṅga suggests.

Digital Humanities Workshop


Data visualisation of the charters of the Vicars Choral, from the ChartEx project

In September the project held a workshop bringing together three Digital Humanities projects: ChartEx, Traces Through Time and READ – the Research Environment for Ancient Documents. READ  is a software framework for the study of ancient texts and their supports. It is being designed to support editorial, paleographic and lexicographic work on documents from any part of the ancient world, with an initial focus on South Asian manuscripts and inscriptions. READ is being used by researchers in Munich working on Buddhist texts from Gandhara. Stefam Baums, lead researcher on the Gandhari project, and Stephen White, who is responsible for programming READ, talked about how the software framework is being developed as a collaborative process involving feedback between the software designer and scholars working on the manuscripts.

Roger Evans, from the University of Brighton, talked about his work behind interfaces for exploring and visualising digital records of old documents. In the ChartEx project, he used natural language processing to identify relationships between people and places appearing in medieval charters from the 12th to 16th centuries. He showed how the mapping of events recorded in the charters can then be used for visualisations of connections between people and places at specific points in history. In a similar way, on a larger scale, the Traces Through Time project at the National Archives is creating a system that will link related records from across the archives by identifying individuals and the records associated with them.

The Questions of Milinda

Coin featuring Menander I, from Bactria. British Museum, 1966,1104.1

For our June seminar, Harry Falk was unfortunately unable to come, so Michael Willis spoke about his work on a key Buddhist text, the Milindapañha, or ‘Questions of Milinda’. The text is a dialogue between a monk, Nāgasena, and a king, Milinda, identified as the Indo-Greek king Menander. It is an unusual work, in presenting a monk in dialogue with a king, and the Buddha not present at all, and for this among other reasons, it was never included in the Pali canon. Looking at the text from a historical perspective, Willis discussed how Oscar von Hinuber, Peter Skilling and others have shown how it was expanded over time. The earliest part seems to have been the sections on “Distinguishing characteristics” and “Cutting off dilemmas” an original core comprising, to the full Pali edition in seven books.

The original language of the Milindapañha may have been Gandhari, though no version in that language has been found. There was once a Sanskrit version, but this is also lost. Early Chinese translations no longer survive either, and only parts of the text remain in the Chinese canon. The first Pali version was created by 4th century, probably in south India, though the oldest manuscript containing the Pali text is much later: a Thai manuscript dating from the 15th century. The Milindapañha was never translated into Tibetan, suggesting that it was no longer popular in Northern India by the 8th century. Michael Willis showed how our understanding of Buddhism in the period over which the text developed can cast light on aspects of Buddhist practice, such as the emergence of rituals involving images of buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Bodhgaya Workshop


In May we had a workshop on Bodhgaya, the famous site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, which has been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries, though it fell into dilapidation with the decline of Buddhism in India from around the 14th century, before its renovation in the 19th century. The workshop took a multidisciplinary approach to the site, with papers on the archaeological explorations of Bodhgaya, objects that were left there by pilgrims, the oldest known Buddha image from Bodhgaya, inscriptions of donors and others, and descriptions of the site by Tibetan and Burmese visitors over the centuries.

The papers given at the workshop were:

  • Michael Willis: “Introduction to the Bodhgaya Archive and Cunningham Collections.”
  • Robert Bracey: “The Amulet Box from the Vajrāsana.”
  • Gergely Hidas: “Dhāraṇī seals in the Cunningham Collection.”
  • Dániel Balogh: “Pīṭhīpati Jayasena’s Pedestal Puzzle.”
  • Vincent Tournier: “The Conception of the Buddha’s Awakening in the Kattacheruvu plates of Pṛthivīśrīmūla.”
  • Sam van Schaik: “Tibetan Visitors to Bodhgaya.”
  • Tilman Frasch: “Burmese Records: Potential and Pitfalls.”

Spatial technologies for research on past societies


In April, Anne Casile (Institut de recherche pour le développement, Paris), Michael Willis and Jason Hawkes (The British Museum) introduced the use of spatial technologies in the study of past societies and discussed the value and applicability of spatial analyses for this project. The workshop commenced with a valuable introduction to Geographical Information Systems (GIS), which play an increasingly important role in research across the arts, humanities and social sciences. In its simplest sense, a GIS offers a powerful set of tools for the spatial analysis, interpretation, display and management of cultural, geographic and thematic data. A wide range of evidence can be integrated into a GIS; yet the analyses that can be carried out are defined by the scale and resolution of the data that are incorporated. As such, the most commonly used sources of spatial data, along with their potential and limitations were reviewed. Then, a number of issues were raised pertaining to the dissemination of this data using web-mapping and GIS-based interfaces.

Following discussion of these broad issues, the second part of the workshop focused on the use of a spatial approach and application of a GIS to the study of the Vidarbha region in India. This was one of many regions that witnessed the spread of a Sanskrit cultural package—embodied by the spread of copperplate inscriptions recording land grants to Brahmins—during the fourth to seventh centuries C.E. Preliminary surveys of the find spots of these inscriptions by Riza Abbas (Indian Institute of Research in Numismatic Studies) resulted in the discovery of a number of archaeological sites. This has highlighted the potential of examining their wider archaeological and geographical contexts. Building on this work, the different types and scales of data that we have for the study of this region (spatial, textual and archaeological) were reviewed. Consideration of this data, and the ways they can be managed and interpreted in a GIS framework, has formed the basis for the design of a programme of archaeological fieldwork in the region. This work was briefly introduced, before all of the issues raised were discussed.