Tag Archives: India

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.



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.

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.

Indian Philosophy Seminar

It was a pleasure to welcome to our workshop this month Prof. Larry McCrea of Cornell University, and Prof. Isabelle Ratié from the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle for a seminar on Indian philosophy. Larry McCrea talked to us about late-first millennium discussions of the opening phrases of Indian philosophical works. At stake in these debates was what constitutes the rational human agent who will decide whether or not to read such works based on certain criteria. The creation of gradually larger schema of criteria can help inter alia date certain commentaries ascribed to this period.

At first, within the Brahmanical commentarial tradition of the philosopher Kumārilabhaṭṭa (c. 650 AD), a tripartite set of criteria for judging the value of texts by their opening statement (ādivākya) was expressed, consisting of the text/topic (śāstra) itself; its purpose (prayojana); and the connection (sambandha) between the topic and its purpose. These three parts should motivate the reader to engage with the text at the very outset. These lively discussions suggest a mileu in which several authors and their works competed for readership within a busy philosophical and literary marketplace.

The eighth-century Buddhist philosophers took up this three-fold and unpacked its implicit consequences. Arcaṭa, for instance, in his Hetubinduṭīkā commentary on Dharmakīrti’s work criticized the claim that such criteria are sufficient for gaining even uncertain knowledge of the truth or falsehood of any work’s opening claim. Later, Vinītadeva’s commentary on Dharmakīrti’s Nyāyabindu added a fourth criterion, the purpose of the purpose (prayojanasyaprayojana): to learn epistemology in order to accomplish all human aims. Another commentator on the same text, Dharmottara (c. 750s), describes the fourth criterion instead as the purpose of the topic (abhidheyaprayojana), which he claims implies the first three criteria.

Finally, Jayantabhaṭṭa’s (c. 900) Nyāyamañjarī coins the term “opening statement” itself (with recourse to the above philosophers). However, Jayantabhaṭṭa broadens the scope of the opening statement, which he claims validates Nyāya epistemology / logic in order to ultimately validate the Vedas, out to apply to our criteria for deciding to follow any path. He argues, against Kumārilabhaṭṭa, that in the every-day world of choices, we can trust out “hunches” or “suspicions” (saṃśaya) without recourse to the intrinsic validity or otherwise of some claims. However, when approaching Vedic ritual the stakes are higher and the attendant sacrifices and responsibilities greater. Thus, McCrea suggests, the problem for Jayantabhaṭṭa’s philosophy is how one argues from the quotidian to the transcendent level of epistemology.

Isabelle Ratié presented her latest discoveries regarding the works of the grammarian-philosopher, Bhartṛhari (450–510). Among the works attributed to Bhartṛhari is the now lost work known as the Śabdadhātusamīkṣā or perhaps more properly the Ṣaḍdhātusamīkṣā, that is known only from later references and quotations. Bhartṛhari influenced both later Brahmanical and Buddhist philosophical traditions, but the content of this work, and so part of the content of his oevre, has long been in doubt.

It was assumed, given Bhartṛhari’s supposed concern with speech (śabda) in other works, for example the Vākyapadīya and Mahābhāṣyadīpaka commentary on Patañjali’s famous work, that this “investigation” (samīkṣā) also focused on language. However, Ratié has found evidence in quotations and criticism of his position in works by Somānanda (c. 900–950) and Utpaladeva (c. 925–975), who appear to be intimately familiar with this work, that it may instead have investigated the six elements (ṣaḍ-dhātu), most likely the five material elements of earth, fire, water, air and ether and the immaterial element of consciousness (cetanā) or self (ātman).

The surviving fragments of the Bhartṛhari’s text suggest that he attempted to unify these six elements as arising from a unitary consciousness or self in a similar way to the later Advaita Vedānta school. The existence of such an important antecedent to the Advaita Vedānta position of the eighth-century Ādi Śaṅkara has important consequences for the study of that school. The eighth-century Buddhist philosopher Śāntarakṣita and his disciple Kamalaśīla may also have been aware of it. Ratié notes, though, that the attribution of the Ṣaḍdhātusamīkṣā to Bhartṛhari is still not a certainty and so this position may not have existed as early as the fourth century. Nonetheless, Ratié’s investigation into the Bhartṛhari’s discussion of the six elements acts as a salutary reminder that modern philologists should not be too quick to discount the perspectives of medieval Indian exegetes in favour of a reductionist scepticism.

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.

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.

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.

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.