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Archaeology of Buddhism: Recent Discoveries in South Asia

Archaeology of Buddhism: Recent Discoveries in South Asia
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Item Code: NAZ730
Author: Sanjay Garg
Publisher: Manohar Publishers and Distributors
Language: English
Edition: 2017
ISBN: 9789350981269
Pages: 569 (Throughout Color Illustrations)
Other Details: 10.00 X 7.50 inch
weight of the book: 1.57 kg
About the Book
The archaeology of Buddhism involves the recovery and scientific investigation of the material remains of past cultures that can illuminate the periods, events and other descriptions mentioned in the religious texts.

The geographical distribution of the adherents of Buddhism spread rapidly after the mahaparinirvana of the Lord Buddha - 'the Enlightened One'. India was the fulcrum of Buddhism in the ancient world, but today, the whole of South Asia - covering Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - is replete with innumerable material remains of the past which can be associated with the Lord Buddha and Buddhism. Many of these sites have been inscribed on the UNESCO's list of World Heritage properties.

This book contains 40 contributions by 55 leading archaeologists, historians and other experts in the field of South Asian art and archaeology. These contributions range from the country reports on recent discoveries of Buddhist sites and remains in South Asia, to in-depth studies in Buddhist archaeology, art and architecture of this region. Other topics included in this volume discuss the cultural geography of the Buddhist archaeological sites, their digital mapping using advanced ICT tools, the archaeology of the Buddhist monasteries as well as their relationship with contemporary society. These essays read together present a narrative that transcends borders and defies time.

It is hoped that this volume will underscore the imperative need for institutionalizing the archaeology of Buddhism as a specialized branch of the study of our shared heritage, and will promote a better appreciation of the archaeological heritage of Buddhism that binds the SAARC nations with a common historical and cultural thread.

About the Author
Sanjay Garg is an eminent scholar with extensive research experience in history of South Asia, with specialization on economic and monetary history, currency and coinage, architecture and archival studies. His research findings have been widely published in print and multimedia which include twenty-three books and over eighty research papers.

Dr. Garg has served as the first head of the Research Division of the SAARC Cultural Centre, Colombo (2011-14), and is at present Deputy Director in the National Archives of India, New Delhi.

South Asia is both the home of different cultures, and yet presents one of the finest examples of cultural continuum. It is home to the oldest civilizations known to humankind as well as the birthplace of four major religions - Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Adherents of all other religions of the world too have found a congenial abode in South Asia from ancient times. As a result, many strands of shared heritage can be witnessed throughout the South Asian region till today.

One of the strands of our shared legacy in South Asia is the material remains of Buddhism. With a view to sharing the results of the recent discoveries in the field of archaeology of Buddhism in South Asia, and also to discuss and debate new and emerging trends in archaeological methodologies, the SAARC Cultural Centre organized an International Conference in 2012. The title of this volume has been adopted from the said conference, since a majority of papers included here were presented at this conference.

Since its inception in 2009 the SAARC Cultural Centre has been making consistent efforts for bringing together academics, practitioners, and policy makers on to a common platform to discuss issues of common interest in South Asia and develop key strategies to promote cultural unity in the region.

I thank all the contributors, as well as Mr. Ramesh Jain of Manohar Publishers & Distributors, India in bringing out this volume, which, I hope will be welcomed as an important reference work for all concerned.

About two-and-a-half millennia ago a young prince left his palace in search of truth. He was 35 when he ultimately discovered a path that leads to peace and harmonious co-existence, love and respect, and fulfilment and bliss. He was one of the earliest apostles of peace known to human kind. He was Lord Buddha. His is perhaps the earliest persona, whose historical imprint can still be found on such a large tract of land, which covers almost the whole of Asia.'

Buddhism was the first world religion, and according to some estimates, it was the world's largest religion in the first half of the twentieth century with 520 million adherents in 1951 (as compared to 500 million adherents of Christianity) (Bush 1954: 228). Today it is the world's fourth-largest religion after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.

As with other religion, Buddhism has, from the earliest times, also manifested itself in an infinite variety of material forms, which include, but are not limited to, religious arts, architecture, ritualistic and ceremonial objects (including relics and coin inscriptions) as well as manuscripts. The archaeology of Buddhism is the study of these material forms - not only 'of stupas, monasteries, sculpture and epigraphy' but, beyond these 'art-historical' and 'monumental' remains of landscapes (Shaw 2007: 18).

There are four major sites that are associated with the life of Lord Buddha - the place of his birth, his enlightenment, his first sermon and his death or mahaparinirvana.2 While the exact location of the last three places is settled through archaeological discoveries and other pieces of historical evidence, the last few years have seen a counterclaim made by a group of historians regarding the real birthplace of Lord Buddha.

On the basis of the stone inscription of Ashoka discovered at Kapileswar - a small village close to Bhubhaneswar, the capital of the eastern Indian state of Odisha - coupled with various textual and circumstantial evidence, Chakradhar Mahapatra, claimed in 1977 that this place - Kapileswar - was `The Real Birth Place of Buddha' (Mahapatra 1977; Tripathy 2004). This inscription which was sold to the Ashutosh Museum of the University of Calcutta is reportedly missing now.

Without delving deep in this controversy, we find a very positive development that it resulted in, and this was the rediscovery of Buddhist heritage of Odisha. Several new sites have been excavated ever since and many of the old sites have been reworked there. Three of these sites may be mentioned here (for details, see Jha: 347-54).


Located in Cuttack district and first excavated in 1977, this site has yielded remains of a large number of stupas along with Gupta gold coins and Puri-Kushana coins. Later, extensive excavations carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) between 1985 and 1992, revealed that this site was the oldest Buddhist establishment in Odisha and was continuously occupied from c. second century BCE to c. thirteenth century CE.


This extensive site - covering an area of 325 acres - is located in the Jaipur district. It was first discovered in 1870, but excavated in two phases only from 1985 onwards. In the first phase, carried out from 1985 to 1989, a massive stupa, about 7 m from the ground and 4.6 m from the plinth, has a shrine chamber with ornate gateway, housing a colossal image of Buddha in the bhumisparsha-mudra. The second phase carried out from 1997 to 2003, led to the discovery of the remains of Simhaprashtha Mahavihara - a unique double-storied monastic complex. This site is dated between first-second century to thirteenth century CE.


Located about 80 km from the state capital, Bhubaneswar, this site was first excavated between 1996 and 2001. A very interesting feature of this site is the discovery of a series of rock-cut votive stupas. On the basis of the finds, the archaeological remains of the Langudi hill have been assigned from the first to the eleventh centuries CE. This place is also identified as Pu-Sie-Po-Ki-Li or Pushpagiri mentioned by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang. Even as the real birthplace of Lord Buddha was being debated by academics, another controversy surfaced in the 1970s - this time about Kapilvastu, the capital of the Shakya kingdom where Prince Siddhartha, spent the first 29 years of his life before setting out to seek enlightenment.

Countering the claim of Tilaurakot which was excavated between 1965 and 1971 (2023-9 vs) in Kapilvastu district of Nepal (Mishra 1977), fresh excavations were carried out at Piprahwa during 1971-4 by the ASI, during which inscribed seals and a relic casket were discovered (Srivastava 1980). The excavations at both the sites have once again been resumed in 2013, and at present, a straightforward answer, for or against the competing claims about the location of the real Kapilvastu, is very difficult.

The whole of South Asia is replete with innumerable material remains of the past which can be associated with Lord Buddha and Buddhism. Afghanistan, for example, for several centuries had been the home to some of the most remarkable Buddhist archaeological sites. However, the vagaries of time together with reckless and wanton destruction of some of these sites and archaeological remains have been a cause of concern across the world. The savage destruction of the two large statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001 immediately comes to mind in this connection. There is another important site in Afghanistan which is now facing extinction.

Mes Aynak, in the Logar Province of Afghanistan was an important settlement on the ancient Silk Road. There are believed to be twenty separate archaeological sites in this valley stretched over an area of around 400,000 sq. m.

According to Deborah Klimburge-Salter:

There are three reports from the Maldives - a general survey on archaeological research on Buddhism in Maldives by Shiura Jaufar (207-10); an account of the first scientific excavation conducted in the Maldives during 1996-8 that brought to light a Buddhist monastery at Kaashidhoo by Hawwa Shaheen, Aishath Sanya, Abdul Maniu Abdul Samad, and Aishath Ageedha Hassan (211-18); and on test excavations carried out during 1983-4 at Nilandhoo (Faahu Atoll) and Gan (Huvadhoo Atoll), by Ismail Nasru and Ahmed Zameer. All these reports not only firmly place the Maldives on the map of Buddhist historical landscape, but also underscore the potential for further archaeological investigations in that island country.

The solitary report from Nepal is by Prakash Darnal, who had explored various sites in the ancient Koliya kingdom in 1988, including Kanyamai, which is identified with Devadaha, the ancient Koliya capital. Prince Siddhartha was married to Princess Yashodhara, daughter of King Suprabuddha of Devadaha. Another important site described by Darnal is Bhawanipur, identified with Baghortappa, and believed to be the birthplace of Queen Mayadevi, the mother of Prince Siddhartha (223-38).

From Pakistan, we have two general surveys detailing the history of archaeological activities in the Gandhara region, one by Fazal Dad Kakar (239-44) and other by Tauqeer Ahmed Warraich (245-52), while another report by Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro traces Buddhist traditions in rock art of Sindh (253-70).

Finally from Sri Lanka, Senerath Dissanayake and Nimal Perera report about the recent archaeological excavation and conservation activities at Deliwala, Sandagiri and Neelagiri stupas (271-82), about which I have briefly commented upon in the preceding pages.

In the second group are thematic studies. Lamminthang Simte (285-98) and Prathapachandran S. (299-302) discuss the nature, role and antiquity of stupa in its geo-spatial setting; while in two complementary papers Leelananda Prematilleke (305-16) and Arjuna Aluwihare (317-26) describe the role played by the Buddhist monastic establishment at Mihintale and Polonnaruva (Sri Lanka), in providing health-care services to the society. The discovery of the remains of various hospitals together with medical and surgical instruments in this area vouch for the extent of these services offered by the Buddhist monks.

It is common knowledge that Buddhism received liberal patronage not only from kings and princes but also from merchants. On the basis of epigraphical sources, K.W.C. Tharangani traces the links of this patronage that the Buddhist monasteries received from various trade guilds, both in India and Sri Lanka (329-32). M. Dias also uses epigraphical records found on Buddhist caves and monastic mansions to present an overview of various types of dwellings of the Buddhist Sangha in Sri Lanka (341-4). Piyatissa Senanayake studies the structure of the famous Jetavana Stupa at Anuradhapura, and links its design to the Buddhist tradition of circumambulation not only of the stupa but also of the terrace. Thus, the circumambulatory pathway of the terrace too came to be paved with a large number of dressed stone slabs, many of which have revealed the names of the donors. On the basis of these stone inscriptions Senanayake delineates a social synthesis between the Sangha and the common people (333-40).

The sheer expanse of the historical landscape of Buddhism within South Asia and beyond has stressed the need for digital mapping of all Buddhist archaeological sites and remains, and place them in the overall schema of cultural cartography of the world. Pratapanand Jha's paper provides the essential backdrop to this discussion as he traces the tradition of mapping water bodies, mountains, religious centres, etc., to the Rgvedic period and then details the ongoing project on 'Cultural Mapping and Cartography' under the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), New Delhi (347-54).

Book's Contents and Sample Pages

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