Tag Archives: archaeology

Bodhgaya: Buddhism’s most sacred site

The November seminar focused on textual, epigraphical and archaeological sources concerning Bodhgaya, the most sacred site in Buddhism where the Buddha was believed to have attained enlightenment.

The first presentation, by Sam van Schaik, concerned written accounts of the site by Tibetan pilgrims from the early 11th century to late 13th century CE, and the later revival of interest in the site. The earliest account is from Rinchen Zangpo who is said to have brought back the rituals of the Dharmapāla Mahākāla from Bodhgaya. Another account from later in the 11th century by Ra Lotsawa gave a more detailed account of the architectural arrangement and features. The final account from this period, in the early 13th century, by Chag Lotsawa Chojepal’s biographer reported that the Mahābodhi statue had been bricked in and presented as Maheśvara (an epithet of Śiva) to save it from destruction by the Karluks.

mahabohdi
Plan from Cunningham, Mahâ-bodhi, plate XVII

 

In the 18th century, Tibetan and Nepalese pilgrims once again took to travelling to Bodhgaya. The first of these was Garshapa Sonam Rabgye who was sent to investigate the present condition of the site in 1752, with more to follow later in subsequent decades. Rabgye’s description suggests drastic deterioration: “But everything except the central gandhola temple was destroyed. We were depressed! The entry vestibule was three-tiered, and about half of the first story was extant; the upper two had fallen and were not there.”

A point of particular interest at Bodhgaya is the Vajrāsana, the stone throne in the Mahābodhi templebuilt at the precise site where the Buddha was believed to reached enlightenment. Copies of the temple in wood and stone were photographed by Cunningham in the 1930s and initially thought to be souvenirs, but in fact would be better thought of as mobilised worship sites that could be exported elsewhere for worshippers who could not make the pilgrimage.

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Wooden model of Bodhgaya in Narthang monastery, photographed in 1936 by Rāhula
Sāṅkṛityāyana and published in “Second Search of Palm-Leaf Mss. in Tibet” Journal of the
Bihar and Orissa Research Society, 23.1 (1937): 1-57.

 

The second presentation, by Daniela De Simone and Daniel Balogh, considered some of the archaeological and epigraphical finds in and around the Vajrāsana in more detail.

The iconography which it bears is similar to that of Amarāvati in the 2nd century CE. It is also repeated at other significant sites from the life of the Buddha, including Saṅkīsa, Bansī, Rāmpūrvā, Sāñcī and Sārnāth. The slab that forms the seat of the throne is made from grey sandstone and covered in geometric patterns reminiscent of the façade of the Lomaś Rishi cave built in the 3rd century BCE, though the slab is considered much later.There are inscriptions in the southwest and northeast corners which would appear to read “seat established for the sake of worship of the Buddha,” likely made in the 1st century BCE – 1st century CE.

The Vajrāsana is clearly old as Aśoka’s VIII rock edict indicates he visited it in the tenth year of his reign. The Mahābodhi temple which surrounds it however must be a later addition with many modifications over the century. As also suggested by the Tibetan textual sources, the slab was likely to have been covered up from the 13th century when the site came under attack.

vajrasana
The Vajrāsana, from Cunningham, Mahâ-bodhi, plate XII

 

The third presentation, from Michael Willis, looked in more detail at archaeological finds from the site unearthed by Cunningham which are now at the British Museum. One of the more peculiar of these is a bottle labelled “coral fragments mixed with mud plaster of Buddha’s throne.” A new investigation has subsequently been undertaken of precious stone finds from the site.

Archaeological evidence from excavations of the site, combined with textual and epigraphical sources, reveal numerous changes over the centuries. One of the older finds is a 7th century CE Nepali coin. The outer Vajrāsana statue of the Buddha dates from c. 11th century CE, however an older statue located behind it is more likely the 8th century CE. With the outer statue was also found an inscribed copper plate, the epigraphical script variant of which would date from 900-1150 CE.

With reference to religious practices at the site, evidence again comes from tantric deities and vajras beneath the other Buddha statue. One other interesting fact is the question of the position of the original bodhi tree. Cunningham writes that during their excavation the tree was struck by lightning and a new one had to be replanted.

bodhgaya
Pen and ink drawing, of the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya in Bihar, by Sir Charles D’Oyly, (1781-1845), dated 27th December 1824. (The British Library, WD2060).

 

The final presentation, by Marc Miyake, Michael Willis and Tilman Frasch, looked at a tablet inscribed in Old Mon which was donated to the British Museum by Cunningham. Dated at possibly 1086 CE, it is shaped like a tree leaf and bears an image of the Buddha performing the bhūmisparśamudrā (earth witness gesture). It is also engraved with 108 small stupas and the pratītyasamutpāda gāthā in 2 lines at the bottom. The inscription is written in Old Mon, the literary language of Burma at that time. It reads wo’ kyāk mhādew: “this sacred being, Mahādeva.” There is a parallel to this short, unstressed /m/ syllable in the Pyu language, also from Burma, in mhaṭhe, “Mahāthera” from c. 1112 CE.

According to Cunningham, the tablet was found in one of the small votive stupas around the main temple; another two were given by him to the India Museum in Calcutta. He said many more were found at the stupas but these are now unaccounted for. The tablet was made by rolling raw clay on a piece of cloth, as can be seen on the reverse of the tablet which preserves the patterned mark of the fabric. The easy mode of production and reported number of them found at Bodhgaya suggests that the tablet were made on-site for worshippers to offer. The tablet, along with the iconography depicted in the frieze around the Vajrāsana, and the textual accounts from Tibetan and Nepalese pilgrims, all point to a rich and complex array of religious practices at the site for over two thousand years.

EARTHQUAKES AND CLIMATIC EVENTS IN ARHCAEOLOGICAL AND TEXTUAL SOURCES

Kakan_Math

In the first part of the October seminar Michael Willis looked at a range of archaeological and geological evidence pointing to seismic and climatic events at a number of sites in India. One example supporting a significant climatic event during the Paramāra dynasty comes from the Dandak cave in Chhattisgarh, in the Malwa region. The growth of stalagmites here points to a drought around 1051. Following research by Sinha et al. into indications of monsoon rainfall given by stalagmite growth in peninsular India that can be accurate to within a decade, the same methodology was applied at Dandak cave. The evidence from the stalagmites corroborates information given in the Nagpur inscription (c.1070-93) from the reign of king Udayāditya which reads “when the realm was overrun by floods…”

Another piece of evidence from the region comes from the Kakanmaṭh Śiva temple built by Kirtirāja c.1015-35 CE. Much of the temple is now ruined and a Sanskrit inscription from c.1393-94 CE says that the temple had been renovated around that time, though no indication is given of when the damage had occurred. Taken with the geological indicators from Dandak, and the archaeological evidence from Old Māṇḍū, there is a good body of evidence to suggest that an earthquake and its subsequent impact on the flow of waters from the river Betwā to the perennial valleys around Māṇḍū was responsible for the relocation of the capital city at some point within a decade or so of the mid-11thcentury CE.

The second part of the seminar focussed on the devasting earthquakes to hit Nepal in 2015 and archaeological findings that have resulted from post-disaster excavations. The excavations were undertaken at Hanuman Dhoka, Patan and Bhaktapur by the Nepali government’s Department of Archaeology and Durham University.

One of the most significant cultural heritage losses was the destruction of the Kasthamandap. Excavations revealed that the original mud mortar and brick core foundations of the temple were in fact highly resilient and had withstood numerous seismic events over the centuries. A dating technique known as Optically Stimulated Luminescence puts the laying of these foundations at 700 CE, some 500 years earlier than previously thought. The cause of Kasthamandap’s collapse seems in fact to have been the result of modern conservation to the building’s structure. One of the significant causal factors was a saddlestone at the northeast corner which had been tiled over during the mid-late twentieth century.

kasthamandappunjaweb
Image of the Kasthamandap site in Nepal (Photo: Durham University)

In addition to the important archaeological evidence elucidated by post-disaster excavation for the history of monuments in Kathmandu – such as the antiquity of the foundations and the fact that they appear to have been constructed as a nine-cell mandala – work like that undertaken by the UNESCO/Durham University team is also critical to improving the structural resilience of historic sites against future disasters. Given that the original mud mortar and brick building techniques had given the structure foundations which withstood many earthquakes over the centuries, it is now clear that modern conservation and restoration efforts should learn from these. While disaster relief and humanitarian efforts always take precedence in the face of such natural catastrophes, there is much to learn from archaeology in how to mitigate against the worst of damage in rebuilding.

In the final part of the seminar Janice Stargardt talked about the work she and colleagues have done in establishing the role that climatic change had played in the decline of Angkor in Cambodia and Sri Ksetra in Burma.

Central to understanding the archaeological sites and the role of climatic events over time is the development of the water management systems used to irrigate land. At Angkor, for instance, aerial photography and remote sensing reveal how phases 2 and 3 of the sites had an expanding hydraulic system used to irrigate the land. This can be considered indicative of the wealth and prosperity of the Khmer Empire at this time. By the 14thcentury however, decline was underway. Dendrology has been used to confirm that increasingly weak monsoons were experienced during this time, and this would have had a serious impact on the irrigation system which was dependent on single-season monsoons. In addition to this and its consequences for supporting the population, the weak eastern wall was a poor barrier for the reservoir and hydraulic system, but ultimately even more consequentially for military defence.

Revisiting the Traikūṭakas and historical problems in western India

Caves
The great caitya (Cave 3) at Kanheri. (Photo: Dániel Balogh, 2018)

By Robert Bracey and Dániel Balogh

The Beyond Boundaries team met for their monthly seminar, with many guests, to discuss several problems with the history of West India in the mid-first millennium. The problem which motivated discussion was the dating of one minor dynasty, the Traikūṭakas, who are known from a handful of copper plate inscriptions and a modest silver coinage – and the first three presentations served to introduce the problem.

Michael Willis began by talking about the use of imprecatory verses in copper plate charters. These verses, which warn any prospective malefactor who might seize the granted land that they risk 60,000 years in hell, are often attributed to the sage Vyāsa and sometimes specifically to the Mahābhārata. However, according to the critical edition of the Mahābhārata, they are only found in some southern manuscripts and not in any others. The verses are, as was shown in several slides, relatively common in fifth and sixth century charters, and are also known from a Traikūṭaka grant. If the Traikūṭakas were dated significantly earlier than the fifth century, and the seminar topic was chosen in part because they sometimes are, then this would make this the earliest usage and suggests a west to east transmission of the concept (rather than an origin in a North Indian Gupta context as is often assumed).

There followed a vigorous debate about whether it is reasonable to assume that the powerful dynasties who disseminated different aspects of court culture originated those ideas, and whether the copper plate charters are representative of the distribution of similar decrees written on more ephemeral material.

The second presentation, by Robert Bracey, presented the numismatic evidence, which since the 1960s has been accepted by numismatists as demonstrating an early date for the Traikūṭakas. A small number of their coins, and the handful of inscriptions, record dates ranging from 197 to 284. What is at issue is whether, as most numismatists believe, those dates are in Śaka era of 78 AD or, as most epigraphers believe, in the Kalacuri-Cedi era of 249 AD. Robert presented the four arguments that have usually been deployed and critically re-examined them. He concluded that the arguments that the coins used the designs of third century Western Satrap coins, or that they fitted in a supposed gap in the Satrap dynasty, were unsound, but that the arguments based on the weight of the coins were compelling and those on hoards were compatible with an early date even if not strong.

Prof. Hans Bakker then took the opportunity to perform the same role for epigraphic evidence. He presented V. V. Mirashi’s publication on the inscriptions of the Kalacuri-Cedi era which was prepared in the 1950s but not published until after Mirashi’s death. Taking the early inscriptions in turn Prof. Bakker demonstrated how each one could be attributed to either the Gupta era of 319 AD or the Śaka era of 78 AD, for all of the inscriptions before the year 200. He further pointed out that supposed references to the dynasty in the inscriptions were ambiguous, supporting both early and late dates depending on which reference you chose. However, two strong epigraphic arguments remained for dating the inscriptions in the fifth century and thus attributing them to the Kalacuri-Cedi era. The first is the palaeography, which epigraphers are unanimous in attributing to a late period. The second, which Prof. Bakker presented for the first time at the event, was in the prose passages which show a strong continuity of the scribal and courtly traditions from the Traikūṭaka inscriptions to those of the early Kalacuris.

There followed a lively debate over the relative merits of these two strands of evidence which both seem to strongly suggest contradictory dates.

There then followed several short presentations on related issues. Daniel Balogh began by speaking about the early Rāṣṭrakūṭas of the Deccan. If the Traikūṭakas employed the Kalacuri-Cedi era, and the dates frequently assumed for the Rāṣṭrakūṭas are in fact correct, then the latter would be the southern neighbours of the former. Daniel carefully laid out how the genealogical inscriptions have been used to reconstruct several generations of the dynasty.

Francesco Bianchini then spoke about the Maitrakas. More firmly dated than the Traikūṭakas or the Rāṣṭrakūṭas, they ruled in the sixth century after the collapse of Gupta hegemony north of the Namada river in Gujarat. Francesco discussed the vexed problem of the dynasties ‘overlords’ who are frequently referred to in their inscription but never named, and whether these are the Guptas, the Huns, the Aulikaras, the Vākāṭakas, or a more deliberately ambiguous reference.

Finally Gethin Rees spoke about the cave sites of West India and particularly Kanheri. Kanheri experienced several different phases of construction during which new caves were cut, structures were added and in some cases the existing caves were elaborated with new items. However, finding fixed chronological points to tie the relative art historical dating to is very difficult. One of those which has received much attention is a Traikūṭaka inscription found as part of a relic deposit in a brick built stupa at the site.

The seminar finished with a wide ranging discussion amongst the participants on the interconnections between these dynasties and the problems of chronology, cultural transmission, and political reality that the evidence presents. Though no firm conclusions were reached it was agreed that the complex West Indian states deserve more attention, preferably inter-disciplinary, than they have received up to now.

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)

Bodhgaya Workshop

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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

JH

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.