Discovery channels: How new finds are changing Buddhist history

Across Asia, geography is changing history. A slew of excavations and chance discoveries shows that the history of Buddhism, the belief system that flourished from 600 BCE until a decline in the 13th century CE, still contains many surprises.

Newly unearthed sites in Uzbekistan are evidence that it spread farther than previously thought. Stupas and sculptures dating back 2,000 years show that it flowed into new territories earlier. And magnificent monastery complexes are proof that the Buddhist institutions exerted greater influence over commerce, urban development, economic systems and everyday life than previously thought.

Emerging from the digs are stone structures, coin caches, copper plates, mantras punched on gold foil, inscriptions on palm leaf and ivory, colourful murals, and scriptures in at least 20 languages. How did Buddhism, which preached a renouncement of the material world, leave behind such a staggering wealth of physical evidence? KTS Sarao, former head of Buddhist Studies at the University of Delhi, says that a mingling of the sacred and non-sacred was inevitable. “Monks spreading the Buddha’s teachings would travel along the Silk Road with merchant groups for safety; merchants, in turn, relied on them for spiritual support on these risky journeys,” Sarao says. Over time, shrines sprouted at rest stops, becoming a constant in an uncertain landscape. “They grew to include storehouses, factories, banks, and guesthouses, allowing monks to benefit not only from royal patronage but from local commerce too.”

In Bihar, where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, efforts are on to unearth an administrative centre that until now only existed in texts. A monastery headed by a woman has been found there, and in Odisha, evidence of an unusual meditation complex open to both monks and nuns. In Afghanistan, monasteries located alongside copper mines reveal how rich monks wielded clout over the region.

Archaeology, then, is recreating parts of the story that aren’t found in the scriptures. Because of the Buddha’s renunciation of material possessions and the self — he told followers he shouldn’t be the focus of their faith — there are key questions that are still unanswered. Researchers are hoping to confirm whether Kapilavastu, the Buddha’s childhood home, corresponds to the town in Nepal or one of the same name, not far away, in Uttar Pradesh. They’re tracking how his teachings travelled clockwise out of central India, spreading through north-west Asia and then to China and further east over 1,000 years.

“Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar have done admirable jobs of preserving Buddhist monuments,” says Sarao. In India, however, unmarked Buddhist sites are often mistaken for Hindu temples by locals. Idols of Buddha are worshipped as Shiva, Ashokan pillars are taken for lingams. “We should work together to preserve the Buddha’s legacy,” says Sarao. “His teachings are more relevant than ever.”

In Ayutthaya, Thailand, the Wat Mahathat Buddhist temple site draws pilgrims from around the world. (Shutterstock)

For Buddhist pilgrims, a new global map

In Pakistan, a gem rediscovered

Across the arid Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which encompasses much of the north and northwest of Pakistan, lie some 150 Buddhist heritage sites. The area was a major centre for early Buddhist development under Ashoka’s reign 2,300 years ago.

Italian archaeologists were investigating the province’s northern Swat region as far back as 1930. But digs were abandoned before discoveries could be made. Local teams, back at the site last year, were luckier. They discovered a monastery and education complex, the largest found in the region, and believed to be between 1,900 and 2,000 years old.

Discovered thus far are stupas, viharas, a school and meditation halls, along with smaller cells higher in the mountains where monks could retreat into isolation. Also unearthed were a coin, helping date the site to the Kushan empire (30 CE – 375 CE), which spread across modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India and was instrumental in spreading Buddhist teachings. The bonanza: rare frescoes depicting figures in various poses, including the namaskar.

Pakistan’s Takht-i-Bahi site shows the early stops Buddhism made as it spread outside India. (Shutterstock)
Pakistan’s Takht-i-Bahi site shows the early stops Buddhism made as it spread outside India. (Shutterstock)

Afghanistan’s chance to make amends

It’s been 20 years since the Taliban destroyed the Buddha colossi in Bamiyan. They still couldn’t erase signs of Buddhism, which had a large following here until the 11th century. Cave networks, paintings and statuary have been found at six major sites.

In 2008, when the Chinese bought over the world’s second-biggest unexploited copper mine in Mes Aynak, the site of an ancient Buddhist settlement, archaeologists raced to document and salvage the 2,600-year-old monastery that stands there, before it was lost forever. Mes Aynak was a spiritual hub along the Silk Road from the 3rd to 8th centuries CE, a peaceful cosmopolitan pitstop run by monks who’d become rich from the copper ore. Researchers unearthed monastery complexes, watchtowers, walled zones, jewellery hoards, manuscripts and close to 100 stupas. One statue of the Buddha, twice as tall as a human, still bore traces of red, blue and orange on the robes. Several copper coins featured an image of the Kushan emperor Kanishka on one side, and the Buddha on the other.

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As a result of Afghanistan’s poor infrastructure, mining work has stalled. Archaeologists couldn’t be happier. Their initial three-year deadline for digs has stretched to nearly 13 years already, becoming the most ambitious excavation project in Afghanistan’s history.

For Uzbekistan, old connections and new

The Termez Mural in Uzbekistan.
The Termez Mural in Uzbekistan.

In 2016, when a mural was discovered in Termez in southern Uzbekistan, near today’s border with Afghanistan, few were surprised. Uzbekistan was, after all, once part of the Kushan Empire. Its residents were intermediaries as goods flowed west to Rome and east to China.

But the mural was unusual. It was discovered in a stone basement adjoining a pagoda and looked to have been made in the 2nd or 3rd century CE. Despite its age, its figures in blue and red were remarkably vivid, blending influences from East and West, its angled face shaded to mimic depth. It seemed to be part of a lost larger painting about the life of the Buddha. Researchers drew parallels with murals in Dunhuang, China, an eastern junction on the Silk Road. It was proof that the route didn’t just transfer things, it let art, religion and ideas flow in both directions too.

Nepal’s tryst with history

The Buddha disapproved of the idea of devotees focusing on him, and so little about him and his life is known. Followers believe that his mother, en route to her parents, went into labour and gave birth to him (grasping the branch of a sal tree) in the Lumbini garden in present-day Nepal. We know that Emperor Ashoka built the first Buddhist structure there — a pillar inscribed with his own name, the story of the Buddha’s birth, and a date corresponding to the 3rd century BCE.

That spot is now a UNESCO world heritage site. But in 2013, when British archaeologist Robin Coningham excavated inside the 3rd century BCE Maya Devi temple that also stands there, he found that the site (and Ashoka’s story) went deeper. Beneath the temple his team found a roofless wooden space, with signs of ancient tree roots over which a brick temple had once been built. Charcoal and sand fragments were carbon dated and found to be from 550 BCE, around the time the Buddha is said to have lived. If this was a Buddhist shrine, the timing would make it the first one ever built.

Indian archaeologists are sceptical, though. “Tree shrines have been part of Hindu worship much earlier than the time of the Buddha,” says KTS Sarao, former head of Buddhist Studies at the University of Delhi and a former classmate of Coningham at Cambridge. “It’s not unusual for temples to be renovated and there’s no proof connecting it to the Buddha.”

He adds a further blow: The government of India does not permit foreign archaeologists to dig here. So some scholars may exaggerate foreign findings to make them sound as important as the sites they can’t access, he says.

Meanwhile, work continues in Nepal. Coningham’s excavations in the Tilaurakot region, where the Buddha was believed to have lived as Prince Siddhartha, have unearthed the remains of an 1,800-year-old palace complex and walled city. There are courtyards, a central pond and stupas. But still no concrete connection to the Buddha.

In Bangladesh, monuments in a mango grove

When a storm tore through the village of Dalijhara Dhibi in south-western Bangladesh in 1988, it uprooted rows of trees in a mango orchard. The owners decided to plant banana instead, but found they couldn’t. Under the soil was a thick layer of brick. Thirty years later, they tried to plant mango again, and that’s when they decided to examine the bricks more closely. They unearthed a brick structure. The regional archaeological department was brought in.

Three months of excavation later, the orchard yielded an unusual harvest: a 1,200-year-old Buddhist monastic complex. Last year, continuing digs unearthed two temples and courtyards, and 18 residential cells. Fragments of ornamented bricks, terracotta plaques and clay pots show engravings of lotus flowers and geometric shapes.

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There are other sites of note in the country. In Nateshwar in central Bangladesh, a 1,000-year-old temple was excavated in 2015. Researchers say the revered teacher and saint Atish Dipankar probably spent time there before his travels to Tibet and China. His life, like the Buddha’s, left no known material evidence. Perhaps that’s changing.

Stone carvings at the Somapura Mahavihara in Bangladesh. (Shutterstock)
Stone carvings at the Somapura Mahavihara in Bangladesh. (Shutterstock)

Across China, a past that won’t stay buried

China is hardly short on historic treasures. Local traditions say that the first Buddhist temple there was established in 68 CE. The 339 Kizil cave temples in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region were built between the 3rd and 8th centuries CE and are the country’s oldest. They hold two kilometres of narrative murals, calligraphy and painted clay statues that borrow styles from across Asia.

And despite political efforts to minimise it, Buddhist history keeps popping up. Reservoir renovation work reveals a 600-year-old idol of the Buddha; ancient statues are discovered built into what are now the bedrock foundations of residential buildings; buried boxes in villages are found to contain cremated remains of scholars and monks — and these are just the biggest finds across the mainland from the last five years.

This year, researchers found that the artwork in Dunhuang’s famous caves isn’t 500 years old as believed but at least 700 years old, and it has an Indian connection. Text on an image from Cave 465 was found to be mistakenly pasted backwards. Researchers flipped it digitally. It turned out to be Sanskrit.

For Japan, a pillar of hope

Priests overseeing the renovation of a temple in the Shiga prefecture, north-east of Kyoto, found history hiding in plain sight last year. Two old pillars bore blurred, sooty images. Infra-red photography revealed images of eight Buddhist saints. Each pillar bears the images of four Bodhisattvas — monks who delay enlightenment to help others find salvation. The photographs indicate they were once painted in bright blue, green and vermilion. Researchers believe these could date to the Asuka period, which lasted from 538 CE to 794 CE, putting them possibly among the oldest known Buddhist paintings in Japan.

Across India: Buddha in your backyard, monuments on mountaintops

In Jharkhand, fortunes in the foothills

Idols unearthed during the Hazaribagh excavation. (Shutterstock)
Idols unearthed during the Hazaribagh excavation. (Shutterstock)

In Hazaribagh, 110 km from Ranchi, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) identified three mounds last year as having possible links to Buddhism. One yielded a 900-year-old shrine and two subsidiary structures, two metres below ground level. In January this year, digging into the second mound revealed another shrine and monks’ cells. The site’s six sandstone sculptures depicted a seated Buddha and five likenesses of Tara, depicted as the female Buddha in the tantric-influenced Vajrayana Buddhism.

Historians believe the area may have been a religious hub, a stop between Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bodh Gaya in Bihar. But site security is a problem – two of the Buddha sculptures were stolen, and recovered by the police only a week later.

Gujarat’s season of plenty

In the past decade, archaeologists have unearthed a nunnery (India’s first record of a shelter for women monks) and metal workshops in the village of Vadnagar; a massive 23-chamber monastery and a cache of artefacts on the banks of Sharmishtha Lake; and a stupa, capped with burnt bricks and a chipped-stone entryway, at Taranga Hill.

Last year, Vadnagar discovered that its roots ran deeper. Excavations near a grain godown revealed a well-preserved semi-circular structure resembling a chaitya or prayer hall, and two stupas. All were built or repaired between the 2nd and 7th centuries CE – meaning that Hiuen Tsang, who mentioned 10 monasteries in Anandpura (the town’s old name), may have been right after all.

For Telangana, the past stands tall

Archaeologists digging at Phangiri in Suryapet in 2019 knew the area was once a bustling Buddhist site. What they didn’t know was that they’d unearth the biggest stucco statue in India there. The life-size Bodhisattva, made from a brick base and covered with sand, lime and other materials, stands alongside stupas, meditation cells, prayer halls, and sculptural panels with Brahmi inscriptions, that date from the 1st century BCE to the 3rd century CE. Later explorations have yielded coin caches, beads, iron objects and storage jars. The finds indicate that the complexes supported commerce and religion.

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In Bihar, the Buddha’s legacy continues

The Lakhisarai site and hilltop cells. (HT Archive)
The Lakhisarai site and hilltop cells. (HT Archive)

Buddhism’s heartland made news this January, when digs at the administrative centre of Lakhisarai yielded the region’s first hilltop monastery and more evidence that the lost city of Krimila lay underneath. Clay seals from the 8th or 9th century CE bore inscriptions pointing to a Mahayana monks’ council, but shows, startlingly, that the vihara might have had a significant population of women too. The script on a previously unearthed sculpture indicates the monastery may have been headed by a nun, Vijayshree Bhadra.

There are plans to dig at 60 more sites in Lakhisarai. In Telhara, 100 km to the west, the remains of a university older than the 4th century CE Nalanda have been unearthed. One terracotta seal shows a chakra flanked by two deer and the university’s name. The government plans to open a museum there soon.

Across UP, change is underfoot

Workers building the Purvanchal Expressway in Mau district last year found a pocket of history along the way – a stone Buddha head, a hoard of coins, terracotta pieces and bricks that hadn’t seen the light of day since at least the 12th century CE.

The cache adds to the abundant evidence of the state’s Buddhist heritage. Scriptures mention the Buddha spending time in cities such as Sravasti and Saaketa. British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham’s surveys in the 1860s and 1890s, and AK Narayanan’s in the 1960s, corroborate the claims. The writings of Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang, who visited between 629 and 645 AD, record 3,000 monks and 100 monasteries in Ayodhya alone. Land-levelling work for the Ram temple in Ayodhya has revealed artefacts on-site too. Indian Buddhist groups have been petitioning the government to allocate a site for a vihara in Ayodhya too.

Andhra Pradesh is taking in the sites

The Thotlakonda, Bavikonda and Pavuralakonda complexes, discovered in the 1970s, have offered proof that the region was a hub of commerce and learning. More than 8,000 artefacts and antiquities have been found here in the last three years. In Guntur, 350 km to the south, locals found a polished cup, terracotta roof tiles and a broken parasol from the 1st century BCE. In the coastal town of Ghantasala, Buddhist-era remains have emerged from fields and school backyards. Locals say there’s enough to fill a small museum.

From Odisha, a twist in the tale

Buddhism was the state religion when the Bhaumakara kings ruled Odisha between the 8th and 10th centuries CE. Many believe that this was the home of the Buddha’s first disciples. But a surprise emerged in 2018 in Angul district, 120 km from Bhubaneswar. Archaeologists found a monastery dating from the Shunga-Kushan reign between 150 BCE and the 1st century CE. Bits of brick, sculptures, stupas and a sandstone pillar were found. The site is likely the monastery that is referenced in a copper plate found in the 19th century. The inscriptions mention a space for 200 devotees and habitation for monks and nuns.

In Jammu and Kashmir, they’re just getting started

Modern monasteries dot the state. The ruins of a Kushan-era temple and meeting hall at Harwan, on the outskirts of Srinagar, were discovered in the 1920s and lay forgotten. But in 2000, in Ambaran on the banks of the Chenab, archaeologists unearthed an even older Buddhist stupa. The site’s haul, dating from the 1st century BCE to the 4th-5th century CE, included monastery walls, decorative idols and ornaments. One casket at the base of the stupa contained ashes, charred bone, coins and part of a tooth believed to be from a saint.

Researchers concluded that the site may have been a transit camp for monks and pilgrims, and a spot from which the Buddha’s teachings were disseminated to local communities. It is believed to have been abandoned in the 7th century CE, after flash floods and the decline of Buddhism in the region.

In 2009, researchers cleaning the site discovered the stupa’s foundation featured fire-baked bricks, designed as eight spokes, much like the ones in Punjab and Andhra Pradesh — another indicator that it might have been built in the Kushan period. But there has been no further excavation since.

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