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.”
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.
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.
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 firstŚaiva 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.
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.
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.
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.
The aim of Asia Beyond Boundaries is to reimagine the pan-Asian culture of the Gupta period (3rd to 6th centuries AD). The project team will examine the cultural constitution and configuration of the centres of political power, map the languages of political and religious discourse came to be used across Asia, and analyse how temples, monastic organisations and landed estates emerged as autonomous socio-economic institutions with stable endowments. For more on the project, see the About page.