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.

Indic epigraphy in the digital era

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At the November seminar project researcher Dániel Balogh introduced the epigraphic database that is to be one of the outputs of the project and talked about the possibilities of exploiting information technology for such purposes. The preparation and web-based publication of searchable electronic versions of any text including epigraphic texts is in itself a tremendous aid for all scholars. In addition to the diplomatic edition of an inscription, an electronic version can contain practically unlimited meta-information. This may pertain to the inscription itself (legibility issues; palaeographic considerations), to the text as an abstract entity (clearly trackable editorial alterations; metrical, semantic and syntactic structure), and to the inscribed object as a physical entity (descriptive data; history).

The EpiDoc standard is a TEI-XML system for encoding such properties of epigraphs in a way that ensures compatibility and allows complex querying of the available texts. This standard was developed with Latin and Greek inscriptions in mind and only a few pioneer projects have applied it to South(-East) Asian texts. Adapting it for Sanskrit and Indic scripts poses a few hurdles on account of the fusion of word boundaries (saṃdhi) and to the syllabic nature of such scripts, but these hurdles can be overcome. The presentation also looked briefly into other current technologies and software to aid epigraphic work.

Śivadharma and Śiva liṅga

Kathmandu Changu Narayan 33 Shiva Lingam On Ground Next To Parijat Tree Platform On North East Side Of Changu Narayan

In October our seminar focused on the texts and practices of early Śaivism. Peter Bisschop spoke about the corpus of Śiva sacred texts known as the Śivadharma, which gives the rules and regulations for the worship of Śiva. The corpus addresses the community of lay worshippers, among whom the king is prominent. The two earliest and most widespread texts are the Śivadharmaśāstra, in which devotional worship (bhakti) is the key theme, and the Śivadharmottara, in which the figure of the king takes centre stage. A later work, the Śivadharmasaṃgraha contains the first Śaiva tantric texts.

These works have been long neglected but they are rich resources for studying the formation and development of early Śaivism. Bisschop introduced the various texts and manuscripts of the Śivadharma, and looked in particular on chapter 6 of the Śivadharmaśāstra, which consists of an elaborate mantra invoking a plethora of gods, all dependent on the great god Śiva. He showed how study of the names and iconographies of the various gods can help us to contextualise and date this early Śaiva literature. Following this, Nina Mirnig presented her recent work on the practices of the Śiva liṅga on the eve of the tantric period.

Buddhist spells, rituals and kings

Tibetan prayer flags
Tibetan prayer flags

The project’s seminar series resumed this September after the summer break. The speaker was project researcher Gergely Hidas, discussing his recent work on Buddhist ritual texts and practices. His research on this aspect of Buddhism focuses on dhāraṇī literature, a genre of text presenting spells and related ritual manuals composed in Sanskrit. These Buddhist practices can be traced back to at least the beginning of the Common Era with the earliest surviving example being one of the Gandhari manuscripts.

The main focus of these scriptures is protection and healing, with ritual practices that often include the making and use of magical items such as amulets, flags and coloured threads, forms of which are still seen in Buddhist cultures today. In the seminar, Hidas explored the ways that these practices are linked to royal power, where more grand-scale rituals like the defence of the state or magical weather control for agriculture are introduced.

Śaivism on the caravan trail

Statue of Śiva in Baroda (Vadodara), India

At the project’s monthly seminar in June, Hans Bakker spoke about his research on the Skandapurāṇa, an early Śaiva text composed between 550 and 650 CE. This is a key text for the Pāśupata tradition, recording how Śiva incarnated in a place called Kārohaṇa, identified with the modern village of Karvan, 20 km south of Baroda. It also mentions the places where the incarnation of the Lord subsequently initiated his four disciples: Ujjayanī, Jambumārga, Mathurā, and Kānyakubja (Kanauj).

Hans Bakker showed how the route between those places corresponds broadly with the caravan trail that connected the seaport of Broach with the Gangā-Yamunā Doāb during the fourth to six centuries, and he discussed the correlation between the spread of the Pāśupata movement and the major trade routes of western India.

New excavations at Sri Ksetra, Burma

Sri Ksetra Temple
Buddhist structure in Sri Ksetra.

At our last monthly seminar Janice Stargardt gave a fascinating talk about her recent archaeological excavations just outside the southern walls of the ancient city of Sri Ksetra, in Burma. The work was carried out in late December 2014 to the end of February 2015 Janice Stargardt, with a joint Cambridge-Field School of Archaeology team. The excavations have revealed significant new information about this city: for the first time in Burma, an ancient habitation site was identified and selectively excavated at the Yahanda mound. Excavations revealed stratified habitational debris, including hardened work surfaces, abundant potsherds, food spills, other compacted organic matter, cooking fires and iron nails. Immediately below rich habitational layers with traces of ancient postholes and pits, the fragmentary brick structure of a former burial terrace was found, containing one cremated burial (so far). Nearby at the Yahanda Gu, a ritual site with a standing monument reconstructed during the Pagan period, a sequence of brick platforms belonging to earlier phases of ritual buildings on that site was exposed, while below them were found dense layers of potsherds and iron nails. Both sites are unfinished but work so far will provide objective dates for major phases of activity at both sites and lay the foundations for the first ceramic typologies and chronologies of the first millennium at Sri Ksetra.