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.

Indic epigraphy in the digital era

backgrd img

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.