Archaeology of Buddhism in Asia
Summary and Keywords
The eightfold path shown by the Buddha in the middle of the first millennium bce was founded on wisdom, morality, and concentration. Like other contemporary Indic religions, Buddha dhamma had no central organization, nor did it follow a single text as its guiding principle. Its core principle was refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, though as it expanded across Asia, it absorbed local traditions, responded to historical factors, and evolved philosophically. The physical manifestations of the dhamma appeared in the archaeological record at least two hundred to three hundred years later, in the form of inscriptions, stūpas, images, and other objects of veneration. Relic and image worship were important factors in the expansion of Buddhism across the subcontinent and into other parts of Asia.
This essay is framed. Four themes are significant in the archaeology of Buddhism: the history of archaeology in Asia with reference to Buddhism; defining a chronology for the historical Buddha and sites associated with Buddhism; identifying regional specificities and contexts for Buddhist sites as they emerged across Asia; and finally addressing the issue of interconnectedness and interlinkages between the various sites within the Buddhist sāsana. The active participation of learned monks and nuns in the stūpa cult and their mobility across Asia is a factor that is underscored in this paper.
Archaeology of Buddhism
In his study of Borobudur, published in 1935, Paul Mus emphasized the role of architecture as a material representation of religious doctrines of Buddhism.1 Writing more than five decades later, in 1987, Gregory Schopen argued that if the history of religions, which was text-bound, had instead been the archaeology of religions, “it would have been preoccupied not with what small, literate almost exclusively male and certainly atypical professionalised subgroups wrote, but rather, with what religious people of all segments of a given community actually did and how they lived.”2 Schopen, of course, goes on to state that this did not happen, and that even when archaeology was taken into account, for example, in Mus’s study of Borobudur, inscriptions were not considered.
The single unifying feature of Buddha dhamma is the image of the Buddha that continues to be revered across Asia, while his precepts provide an ideal for the life of the individual. Peter Skilling has convincingly shown that images of the Buddha are not merely “art objects”; they are products of complex ideologies. “Across Asia, images multiplied and played multiple roles—bringing rain, warding off disease, offering protection and victory in war, and acting as tribute in diplomatic missions.”3 Skilling assesses an extensive range of textual discussions of relics; he concludes that the “cult of relics is central to all Buddhisms” and links the history of Buddhism to the history of relics.4 Historians date the life of the Buddha from circa 563 bce to 483 bce; some scholars have proposed dates around 410 bce or 400 bce for his death, but there is little consensus on the latter view.5 This article defines the physical manifestations of Buddha dhamma as relic and image worship, which appeared in the 3rd and 2nd centuries bce archaeological record, several centuries after the “historical Buddha.”
How does archaeology help to unravel these multiple functions? Archaeology, as it has developed since the 1980s, has helped to define a context for both relic worship and image worship. Archaeology helps map Buddhist sacred spaces both horizontally, across the physical and natural landscape, and vertically, in time, highlighting the antecedents of religious sites and their subsequent transformations.
Texts dated to the beginning of the Common Era, such as the Apadāna, are replete with descriptions of stūpa construction and relic worship conceived within a cosmic soteriological framework. There are references to individuals, or groups of individuals, organizing festivals at the time the construction, expansion, or renovation of a stūpa was proposed and at the time it was completed. Jonathan Walters argues that texts relating to the Buddha’s biography were recited on these occasions, as well as performed. The setting up of a stūpa was an occasion when the king, the lay devotees, the stone-carvers, and the monks and nuns came together in celebration of the life of the Buddha.6
Buddha Dhamma was one of the ascetic movements that arose in north India, in the middle of the first millennium bce, by redefining karma and liberation. The eightfold path shown by the Buddha was founded on wisdom, morality, and concentration.7 Its core principle was refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, though as it expanded across Asia, it absorbed local traditions, responded to historical factors, and evolved philosophically. This article begins by tracing the history of archaeology across Asia and its role in defining the materiality of Buddhism as it emerged from the 18th and 19th centuries onward.
The Beginnings: History of Archaeology and Buddhism in Asia
It is significant that the Buddha and Buddhism are rarely mentioned in Graeco-Roman texts and that it was through early Christian writing that some information about Buddhism filtered into Europe.8 In the 16th and 17th centuries, as European missionaries traveled to Asia, they discovered a new religion that they labeled bauddhamatam, or “Buddha’s point of view.” Missions traveled to Tibet and Siam, and their resulting accounts, exposed Europe to the writings of Buddhism. For example, in 1687–1688, Simon de La Loubère published Descriptions du royaume de Siam, which contained translations of Buddhist texts in what he called balie or baly. By 1860, the large collections of Buddhist manuscripts and texts that were now available in the oriental libraries and institutions of the West ensured that Buddhism became “a textual object, defined, classified and interpreted through its own textuality.”9
In many ways, the histories of archaeological development in South and Southeast Asia overlapped, both through the personnel involved and also because large parts of the island and mainland Southeast were under British rule in the 18th and 19th centuries. The advance of European colonial powers in South and Southeast Asia had begun as early as the 16th and 17th centuries, largely through commercial imperialism, but from about 1750 to 1825 territorial empires had already been established.
In India, the idea of government-sponsored archaeology was largely the result of bold initiatives by Alexander Cunningham (1814–1893), who had served in the British military on the subcontinent. It is important to stress that Cunningham was guided in archaeological research by his quest to find the remains of Alexander the Great’s campaign in India and the historical Buddha, as he explicitly stated in the introduction to his first report:
I would follow the footsteps of the Chinese pilgrim Hwen Thsang [sic], who, in the 7th century of our era traversed India from west to east and back again for the purpose of visiting all the famous sites of Buddhist history and tradition. In the account of his travels, although the Buddhist remains are described in most detail with all their attendant legends and traditions, yet the numbers and appearance of Brahmanical temples are also noted, and the travels of the Chinese pilgrim thus hold the same place in the history of India, which those of Pausanias hold in the history of Greece.10
Cunningham’s abiding interest in the biography of the historical Buddha is evident in his book The Bhilsa Topes, in which chapters 2 to 12 are devoted to outlining the history of Buddhism in India; the life of the Buddha; and a discussion of the Maurya, Gupta, and Indo-Scythian dynasties. The history of Buddhism as narrated in the 5th-century Sri Lankan chronicle the Mahavamsa was used for an analysis of the building and dedication of stūpas.11
European travels into Asia and surveys conducted by military personnel and other officers often led to “discoveries” of monuments in Asia, and Cambodia was no exception to this. Portuguese and Dutch traders and missionaries traveled through Siam and Cambodia in the 16th and 17th centuries, and one of the earliest visitors to Angkor was Antonio da Magdalena, a Capuchin friar who explored the region in 1586.12 However, these reports were not followed up, and it was the French naturalist Henri Mouhot’s “discovery” of the temples at Angkor in 1860 that brought the architectural heritage of Cambodia to the notice of the Europeans. Henri Mouhot made accurate drawings of Angkor during his second journey to Cambodia, from December 1858 to April 1860.
In France, the study of Asian religion gained momentum with the establishment and expansion of Musée Guimet, in 1889, and the creation of École Coloniale in Paris, which signified the emergence of the career in colonial service. Founded in Saigon, in 1898, an initiative of the Académie des inscriptions et belle-lettres, the Mission Archéologique d’Indochine became the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) in 1901, and its seat was transferred to Hanoi. The original tasks of the EFEO included archaeological exploration of French Indochina, conservation of its monuments, collection of manuscripts, and research into the region’s linguistic heritage. In 1930, the Buddhist Institute in Cambodia was founded, and the 1860s to 1900 saw French attempts to procure and catalogue Cambodia’s Buddhist manuscripts and relics, efforts paralleled by indigenous movements to purify and reform Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhism.13
In the context of Java, the name of Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781–1826) stands out, first as a Malay translator to the Government of India and later, in 1811, as the lieutenant governor of Java who was soon promoted to governor of Bencoolen (now Sumatra) and continued his work until 1824, when Java was ceded to the Dutch. Raffles’s The History of Java, first published in 1817, remained the standard work until the end of the century and included a chapter on the antiquities and monuments of the region. Colin Mackenzie (1753–1821) was appointed chief engineer to the British expedition against Java in 1811, and his collection of Javanese and European manuscripts proved invaluable in Raffles’s endeavor. Colin Mackenzie is also known for the site plans and detailed drawings of sculptures, which he made as the surveyor general of India, of the Buddhist site of Amaravati in southeastern India.14 In 1817, Mackenzie removed a large number of sculpted stones from Amaravati, and several of them later found their way to the British Museum.
As the British and the French pursued their interests in mainland Southeast Asia, one region that was able to maintain its autonomy and avoid colonial rule was Siam (the kingdom’s name until 1939), or present-day Thailand. King Mongkut (reigned 1851–1868) was the architect of Thai suzerainty; he took positive steps to acquire Western knowledge and also granted diplomatic concessions to the Europeans so as not to give them with an excuse to impose foreign rule. This policy paid off and was continued by his son and successor King Chulalongkorn (reigned 1868–1910). In spite of this, a European challenge could not be entirely avoided, and Thailand had to cede territories that had been part of Thailand for over a century. Thus in 1907, Thailand relinquished its control over western Cambodia and Angkor, making Cambodia one of France’s prized possessions.15
A related issue is the extent to which the reforms of Prince Mongkut (1804–1868) had a bearing on the study of the archaeology of Buddhism. Thai Buddhism has three monastic lineages, the oldest and largest being the Mahanikaya, which traces its origins to the introduction of Buddhism into Thailand. The others are the Ramanyanikaya; the nikaya of the Mons, which was absorbed into the other two in 1902; and the Dhammayutikanikaya, founded by King Mongkut in 1824. These royal reforms were aimed at re-establishing the authority of the Pali Canon, rather than the commentaries. In keeping with this objective, the king invented the Ariyaka alphabet to replace the commonly used Khmer script for writing Pali.16 No doubt the revival of interest in historical Buddhism had far-reaching implications for a study of the past—a case in point being the restoration of Phrapathom Chedi, near Bangkok. As a monk, King Mongkut had visited the Phrapathom Chedi, which was in a state of disrepair in the jungle, though it was still considered a center of pilgrimage by the local communities. On his accession to the throne, the monarch not only restored the Chedi but also developed the surrounding areas. Two new canals were dug—the Mahasawas and Chedibooja (1853–1862), and these provided a link between Nakhon Pathom and the waterways of Bangkok.17
The complex dynamics of the survival of ancient relics, monuments, and religious architecture; their recovery and resuscitation through the discipline of archaeology in the 19th and 20th centuries; and imbuing them with new meanings are part of a process that has generally been neglected in historical discourse or else has often been subsumed under the overarching category of nationalism. These complexities of the creation of novel methodologies and transnational interests mark the study of Buddhism since the late 19th century.18 The question to be addressed at this stage is, How does archaeology help in working out local and regional specificities of monastic sites across Asia within the overarching aegis of the Buddha Dhamma?
Regional Characteristics of Monastic Complexes in South Asia
This section does not aim to provide an overview of either the sites associated with the life of the Buddha on the subcontinent or an exhaustive listing of monastic centers, because this information is available in Debala Mitra’s 1971 publication and in a more recent study by Lars Fogelin.19 The objective here is to highlight the cultural diversity of Buddhist sites and to interrogate the dominant model of a core region for the origin of Buddhism in the Ganga valley. Current scholarship in Buddhist studies focuses on the evolution of the Buddha biography, rather than continuing the 19th-century quest for the historical Buddha, and the locations of sites associated with his life and teaching.20 In any case, there was a proliferation of Buddhist monastic sites across the subcontinent from 2nd century bce to 3rd century ce—that is, before the Buddha’s biography was finalized.
An appropriate example to start with is the hill of Sanchi on the banks of the river Betwa in central India. The place is not connected to any incident from the Buddha’s life, yet the main stūpa was marked by an Ashokan pillar and is one of several groups of stūpas found within a 10 kilometer radius—namely, at Sonari, Satdhara, Bhojpur, and Andher. The number of inscribed relic caskets found at Sanchi is striking, and these have been identified as those of Buddhist monks and teachers of the Hemavata school.21
The earliest archaeological excavation of a Buddhist site is dated to 1830, and it brought Manikyala, an extensive Buddhist site in the vicinity of Taxila, located on the Grand Trunk Road in present-day Pakistan, into the limelight, also as the focus on what came to be termed Graeco-Buddhist art dated from the 1st to the 6th centuries ce. In the region around the Peshawar and Swat valleys termed ancient Gandhara, Buddhist religious centers were built outside the urban centers, and they included a sacred area for public worship and a private monastic section with viharas and small devotional structures. These served the needs of at least three distinct communities: lay followers, resident monks, and local and long-distance pilgrims.22
It has also been convincingly shown that relics were objects of veneration in early Buddhism, stūpas containing a relic being accorded higher ritual status, and that this was accepted by all nikāyas, the term often wrongly translated as “sects.” Within this framework, images of the Buddha had secondary status in Gandhara, as compared to the relic stūpa. In the majority of Gandharan monasteries in the Peshawar valley, for example, Buddha images were usually placed in a series of multiple chapels surrounding the court of the main stūpa. Juhyung Rhi has shown that one way to increase the value of a Buddha image was by installing a relic in it and that this was a practice followed in Gandhara, as is evident from a systematic examination of images.23 This feature perhaps distinguishes the region of Gandhara from other contemporary practices.
Archaeology also helps locate monastic sites in a multireligious cultural landscape, as is evident from a survey of sites at Mathura, in north India, and around Junagarh in Gujarat. Mathura is located on the river Yamuna, about 55 kilometers northwest of the city of Agra. At present it is considered to be the birth place of lord Krishna, but some excavations have brought to light ancient icons that show the importance of Naga and Yaksha cult as early as the 3rd century bce. Buddhist and Jaina antiquities are also particularly numerous in the early period and testify to the importance of Mathura as a Buddhist and Jaina center well into the 7th century ce.24 The coexistence of sites affiliated with several religions, and their interactions, is an underresearched theme that needs further attention.
The hill at Junagarh is another example of the sanctity of a site continuing well into the present. Junagarh is well known for the Ashokan edict carved in the rocky outcrop, and the Bawa Pyara Buddhist caves are located inside the present-day city limits. The 3rd-century bce Ashokan inscription was followed by one of the Kshatrapa king Rudradaman (2nd century ce), which was inscribed on the same boulder and refers to Sudarshana Lake, which is in the vicinity. A third inscription of the Gupta period (dated in the reign of King Skandagupta, 455–467 ce) records the construction of a Hindu temple on the banks of the lake, and by the medieval period, the Girnar hills had emerged as a major center for Jain pilgrimage. In the coastal regions of Gujarat, Buddhist caves were excavated from 2nd century bce to the 6th century ce. Rock-cut caves from Kateshwar are known, as are five from Siyot, in Lakhpat Taluka in the extreme northwest of Kachchh, just as bronze images of the Buddha have been found that are datable to between the 4th and the 7th century ce.25 Other coastal sites in south Gujarat include Talaja, in the Bhavnagar district, which has thirty rock-cut caves, and Kadia Dungar, near Bharuch. Compared to Buddhist sites elsewhere on the subcontinent, the monastic centers in Gujarat were austere and modest.
From modest beginnings in the form of apsidal caityas dated to the 4th to 3rd centuries bce, more than a thousand Buddhist caves were excavated in the hills of the Western Ghats and its offshoots, at about fifty centers in the western Deccan. Broadly, these sites are situated overlooking creeks and coastal settlements and at passes along overland routes. Of these, nineteen centers are significant in terms of providing inscriptional data and have yielded a total of more than two hundred inscriptions.26 The clustering of representations of Avalokitesvara as a savior of devotees from the eight dangers, including shipwreck in the western Deccan caves, is striking. Several renditions were made, and more than twelve painted or sculpted versions (or both) are known from Ajanta (caves 2, 4, 6, 10A, 11, 17, 20, 26),27 four from Kanheri (caves 2, 41, 66 and 90), one from Aurangabad (cave 7), one from Pitalkhora (cave 3), and two from Ellora,28 though nowhere is the composition so elaborate and the treatment so elegant as in cave 90 at Kanheri.29 Compared to this exuberance of rock-cut architecture, the majority of the monastic complexes in the Andhra region are structural and concentrated along the coast, with a smattering along the inland route in the Telengana area. Nearly 140 sites in the region are listed, and the distribution along the coast, from Srikakulam in the north to Ramatirtham and Nandalur in the south, is quite distinctive. Of these Buddhist centers, thirty sites have yielded stone inscriptions.
A 3rd-century ce Prakrit inscription from Nagarjunakonda in Andhra refers to the fraternities of monks at Tosali, Palur, and Puspagiri, identified as major Buddhist centers in Odisha.30 Recent archaeological research has brought to light several Buddhist sites in coastal Odisha, though the major expansion occurred between the 5th and 13th centuries ce, from when more than one hundred Buddhist sites in the region are known. Several sites have earlier beginnings, one of these being Langudi, which is on a low hill running from north to south, located in the plains of the Mahanadi Delta, about 90 kilometers from Bhubaneswar in the Jajpur district. The river Kelua, a tributary of the Brahmani, the second largest river system in Odisha, meanders across the northeast and eastern parts of the Langudi Hill. Thirty-four rock-cut stūpas on the northern spur of the hill have been dated to the 2nd to 3rd century ce, though most of the sculpture is dated from the 7th century to the 9th century ce. Archaeological excavations at Lalitagiri have provided evidence for a 2nd-century to 1st-century bce stūpa, an apsidal shrine built over the remains of an earlier structure, as also yielding a range of inscriptions. Relics in gold foil were found at the site.31 A distinguishing feature of Buddhism in Odisha is the lack of narrative sculptures, one of the few exceptions being the astamahāprātihārya sculpture, now in the Raghunatha Temple at Solampur.32 Tara was a popular deity in Odisha, especially at Ratnagiri, where she is found sculpted on ninety-nine niches of small monolithic stūpas.33 Ratnagiri has provided evidence for the presence of a very large number of female images, especially those of Cuṇḍā and Tara, which sets it apart from other monastic sites in Odisha—namely, Udayagiri and Lalitgiri. It is therefore important to study the development of Buddhism at specific centers rather than through the perspective of diffusion from a central homeland or place of origin in the Ganga valley.
One center of importance to this discussion is that of the Tabo monastery in the Lahaul-Spiti valley, located midway between the Tibetan plateau and Kashmir. Tibetan rock inscriptions have been found in the valley that date from between 700 and 900 ce.34 The routes along the lower Himalayan ranges pass through fertile valleys cut by the Ravi and Beas Rivers and their tributaries and are dotted with shrines.35 Tabo monastery, in the village of the same name, sits at an altitude of 3,280 meters near the Tibetan (Chinese) border in the secluded Spiti valley, just north of the Sutlej River in the present state of Himachal Pradesh, and is one of the oldest continuously functioning Buddhist centers in India. It is bounded by Ladakh in the north, the Lahaul and Kullu districts in the west and southeast, respectively, and by Tibet and the Kinnaur district in the east. It is located a distance of 275 kilometers from Kullu, and archaeological data indicate that four major routes traversed the region from the 3rd century bce onward. Inscriptions on boulders in Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts, coins, and temple remains have been found along the routes.
The complex at Tabo includes nine temples constructed over several centuries, from 996 to 1908 ce, and is dotted with twenty-three stūpas.36 The vihara, comprising a mukha-maṇḍapa, a main hall, and a square garbha-gṛha or sanctum was the earliest structure at the site, dated to 996 ce. Renovation and repair were undertaken in 1042 ce. The temple of Maitreya and the smaller temple of Brom-ston were added in the last quarter of the 11th century or the beginning of the 12th century ce. In the second half of the 15th century, Tabo was taken over by the yellow-robed sect, and it remains under its dominance in the early 21st century.37
An aspect of Buddhism that sets it apart in Sri Lanka is the coalescence of royal power and religious authority. Ashoka’s concept of dhammavijaya, or “conquest through dhamma,” is restated in the Sri Lankan chronicles the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa, leading to a symbiosis between the monarch and the Buddhist monastic institution.38 Not only did the Sri Lankan ruler adopt the title “devanampiya” used by Ashoka, but there are references to Devanampiya Tissa (250–210 bce) being reconsecrated by envoys of Ashoka, thus marking an integration of the concepts of the universal monarch (cakkavatti) and the great man (mahapurisa, the Buddha himself). This is a model that is known to have been replicated by several sovereigns in Sri Lanka, the most prominent being Dutthagamini (101–77 bce).
According to tradition, a branch of the holy tree of Gaya was brought to Sri Lanka by King Devanampiya Tissa and planted in the precincts of the monastery he had founded (Mahavamsa chapters 18, 19, Samantapasadika, pp. 34–35). The saplings from this tree were then distributed across the island. King Bhatikabhaya instituted an annual festival for the worship of this tree (Mahavamsa, chap. 35.5.89). In contrast to peninsular India, where the earliest evidence of Buddhist presence is generally provided by shrines, in Sri Lanka, the first phase of Buddhist activity was associated with the donation of caves as residences in the large outcrops of granite scattered in the north and east. A majority of these are slightly enlarged natural caves, and incised just below the drip ledge is the record of donation.39 Inscribed in the early Brahmi script, in the oldest Sinhalese language, these bear the stereotyped formula of dedication40 to the Buddhist monks. This brief survey of monastic sites in South Asia has underscored the role of teachers and monks in providing distinctiveness to Buddhist sites, which manifests itself through ritual practices and architecture.41
Buddhism across Asia
Textual and archeological sources indicate the presence of the doctrine and Buddhist monks in the Han capital, Luoyang, around the year 65 ce.42 Buddhism is known to have spread to China by the 2nd century ce, and images of the Buddha dated to the 2nd to 3rd centuries ce found in Chinese tombs at Mahao in Sichuan Province and at Hejiashan in Shaanxi Province are said to be connected with notions of immortality.43 The earliest Buddhist remains from places such as Kucha and Khotan in eastern Central Asia, however, date from the 4th century, and this has led scholars to suggest long-distance transmission of texts from South Asia, rather than through central Asia.44 By the beginning of the 6th century, over two thousand Buddhist texts had been translated and cataloged in China, and by the 11th century, multiple centers of Buddhism are known in China, Korea, and Japan. “The integration of Buddhist doctrines within Chinese culture and society and the subsequent creation of Buddhist pilgrimage centers within China, on the other hand, were important means through which Buddhism became recognized as one of the three main Chinese religions, and China emerged as one of the leading centers for the dissemination of Buddhist ideas, texts and images.”45
Recent archaeological research in Myanmar supports the presence of a complex cultural landscape known as the Pyu ancient cities, which provide the earliest testimony of the introduction of Buddhism into Southeast Asia. The best known of the Pyu sites are those of Beikthano, Halin, and Sriksetra, dated from 200 bce to 900 ce. Remains include excavated palace citadels, burial grounds, and manufacture sites, as well as monumental brick Buddhist stūpas, partly standing walls, and water management features—some still in use—that underpinned the organized intensive agriculture. The Pyu ancient cities provide the earliest testimony of the introduction of Buddhism into Southeast Asia. The monastery and stūpa at Beikthano show several similarities with those from the site of Nagarjunakonda in the Krishna valley in coastal Andhra.46
Archaeological research since the 1980s has also deepened the past of Thailand and challenged the notion of a unified, superimposed Dvaravati kingdom. Instead, it is apparent that there were several competing centers dating between 2000 bce and 200 bce based on rice agriculture and bronze and iron production. During the Iron Age, large settlements with extensive inland and transoceanic exchange and trade networks are known from central and northeast Thailand. Many of the sites provide evidence of burials, with an impressive array of grave goods followed by large settlements, which have in the past been termed “urban centers,” which led the emergence of the state. Especially relevant is the site of Ban Don Ta Phet in central Thailand that commands the eastern approaches to the Three Pagodas Pass, a route that linked the Chao Phraya plains with the Gulf of Martaban and the Indian subcontinent. Radiocarbon dating suggests a 4th century bce date for the beginning of the site.47 It is significant that several aspects of the material culture present similarity across the Irrawaddy, Chao Phraya, and Mekong river valleys.
Details available from recent archaeological excavations thus support a continuity of settlement in the river valleys from the Copper and Bronze Age to the Iron Age and the expansion of wet-rice agriculture from the middle of the first millennium ce onward. There is evidence of inter- and intraregional trade and exchange, and also of long-distance networks through the Gulf of Siam. Thai scholars have suggested that the Thai term “muang,” literally “coming together of communities,” best describes these economically, socially, and politically self-contained units.48 It is largely these communities that accepted and adapted Buddhism. As with other parts of the Indian subcontinent, the Buddhism that developed was suited to local requirements.
Travel, Interconnectedness, and Pilgrimage
In a presidential address in 2008 to the Association of Asian Studies, Robert Buswell explored Indian ascetic traditions of itinerant wanderers and suggested that the travel impulse was an integral part of Buddhism’s self-identity. He proposed that the motivation to travel was by no means restricted to the terrestrial world, but was deeply ingrained in Buddhist cosmology, as is evident from massive anthologies of spiritual journeys.49 The Gandavyuha, part of the Avatamsakasutra, is an important text for the study of pilgrimage in early Buddhism. It dates back, in all probability, to the early centuries of the Common Era and describes the attainment of enlightenment through pilgrimage—the primary aim of the scripture being to stress that constraints placed by fixed systems need to be overcome to attain full consciousness.50 The somewhat slender narrative provided by the text of the Gandavyuha has been profusely sculpted on the 8th-century Buddhist monument at Borobudur in central Java, though there are a number of variations between the sculpted panels and the textual data, and there is “no clear correlation between the iconography and location of the narrative scenes and the corresponding passages in the text.”51
Four places that acquired prominence in the Buddhist tradition, as mentioned in the Mahāparinibbāna sutta, are where the Buddha was born, where he achieved Enlightenment, where he preached his first sermon, and where he passed away.52 The lay devotee and the monk were motivated to “see,” or perform darśana of, these events or places, as this seeing was intimately linked to gaining merit, which would ultimately lead to rebirth in a higher realm.53 These philosophical concepts found physical expression in the dhammayātā, or religious travel, performed by the Mauryan king Ashoka, who erected stone pillars to mark some of the places. After the 6th or 7th century ce, the grouping of eight sites associated with the life of the Buddha in a single sculpture occurred, though there was no uniformity in the scenes depicted.54 In 1906, a stele depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha was found in the excavations at Sarnath, but it dates from the 8th century.
By the 2nd to 1st centuries bce, many of these sacred spots were widely known and were centers of pilgrim traffic, as is indicated by data from inscriptions. This is further supported by representations of these spots at other stūpa sites, such as Sanchi, Bharhut, and Amaravati.55 For example, the temple at Bodh Gaya has been identified in a relief at Sanchi stūpa I, dated to around 25 bce, on the railing at Bharhut of c. 185–173 bce and on a 4th-century terracotta plaque found at modern Patna.56 Another shrine depicted at Sanchi, Bharhut, and interestingly also at Bodh Gaya is said to be the apsidal temple marking the site of the first sermon at Sarnath. A 1st-century ce relief from Sanchi stūpa III shows that the Ashokan pillar itself had become an object of worship.57 Other pilgrimage sites represented at Sanchi and Bharhut include Sravasti and the Jetavana grove (north torana of Sanchi stūpa I of late 1st century bce), Sankasya, and Vaisali.
A stele that was discovered at the stūpa site of Amaravati further supports these identifications of sacred spots of early Buddhism in peninsular India. The three extant faces depict scenes relating to the last three months of the life of the Buddha and also provide explanatory labels. The label on the first face mentions the Bahuputa-caitya and other caityas at Vaisali, while on the second face, the legend Savathi or Sravasti occurs on one of the three stūpa-like structures. Another sacred site represented is that of Jetavana. It is significant that these depictions match in detail accounts of the life of the Buddha as narrated in the Dighanikaya and associate the site of Amaravati with sacred spots in the north.58
Communication across the Bay of Bengal was multidirectional, and the earliest evidence is for contact between Sri Lanka and central India. At Bodh Gaya, as early as the 1st century bce, a pilgrim from Sri Lanka donated a railing around the Bodhi tree. In the 5th century ce, Prakhyatakirti of the royal family of Sri Lanka performed acts of worship at the site.59 The connection with Sri Lanka continued, and donatory inscriptions dated to the 6th century ce record gifts by the Sri Lankan monk Mahanaman. Another region that has provided evidence of ties with Sri Lanka is that of the lower Krishna valley. At Nagarjunakonda Buddhists from Sri Lanka built a monastic establishment known as Sihala-vihara. An inscription at the site records that it had its own shrine for a Bodhi tree.60 In addition to this interconnectedness, Buddhist sites were marked by changes in teachings.
In Conclusion: Transformation and Change
Buddhism has come to be studied in chronological terms such as Hinayana/Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, which are often seen as exclusive blocs or sects, generally in chronological sequence. Skilling has shown that the term “Theravāda,” itself indicating a “kind of Buddhism,” was a 19th-century creation. Theravāda is a term rarely found in early Buddhist texts and histories or in early European writings. Pali and Sanskrit texts use the terms ācāryavāda or nikāyāntara when referring to other schools or religious affiliations. In the early 21st century, Thais, for example, define their religious identity as “Buddhist” rather than as “Theravādin.”61 This monolithic category of Theravāda and its overuse have obscured the fact that ordination lineages in different parts of the Buddhist world were autonomous and formed a part of the “independent system of self-production of monastic communities.”62 They invoked their credentials of ordination at well-known and established monastic centers to either establish hierarchies or to claim legitimacy. Although these lineages were linked in an interconnected, global Buddhist network, they continued to maintain institutional distinctiveness at the local or regional levels.
Janice Leoshko has shown that the formulation of Tibetan Buddhism as being degenerate and distinct from the original historical Buddhism of the first millennium bce was a complex process negotiated by colonial officials who traveled to the region and published papers on their discoveries.63 How does the Buddhism of Tibet—the much-maligned esoteric Buddhism of the 19th century—relate to that of other sites on the Indian subcontinent? Was the Buddha an avatar of Viṣṇu, or was he a historical figure? This question was constantly raised in the 19th century, as shown by Almond, though there were no unambiguous responses.64
Alexis Sanderson has written of the impact of the Tantric Śaiva canon on the Buddhist Yoginitantras, which incorporate several passages from the former with little modification. There is nevertheless an underlying belief in the superiority of the Buddhist system, and this is evident from the treatment of Hindu deities, such as the Buddhist deity Samvara trampling on Bhairava,65 and representations of several gods, such as Heruka and Vajrahunkara, trampling upon Hindu divinities. “As to whether the deities are conceived merely as being humiliated or as being dead, is difficult to determine.” The emphasis on magic spells would suggest that they are to be considered as corpses to be brought back to life through proper Buddhist rituals.66 Sanderson thus proposes the coexistence of Śaivism and Buddhism under royal patronage in India, as was the norm in Southeast Asia, especially the kingdoms of the Khmer, Cham, and the Javanese.67 Unlike in the kingdoms of Southeast Asia, however, in India, Śaivism emerged as the dominant religion.68
Scholars have stressed that the overlap between Buddha dhamma and Hinduism was a two-way process, with a reformulation of ideas from the former into the latter. One of the forms of Tārā, called the Mahācīnakrama Tārā, was adopted from an 11th-century Buddhist Tantric sādhanā into the 13th-century Hindu Phetkārinītantra as Ugra Tārā, a popular goddess in north India. In her Buddhist form, the goddess bears Tathāgata Akshobhya on her head, as she is considered to be one of his emanations, whereas in the Hindu context, the deity on the head is identified as Śiva.69
A different aspect of the dialogue between Buddhist and Hindu deities was explored by Holt in his study of the Buddhist Viṣṇu in Lanka.70 His study shows the transformation of the Hindu deity Viṣṇu within Sinhala Buddhist literature and ritual in the medieval and modern periods. The beginnings of this development may be traced to a mention in the Mahāvaṁsa that describes Viṣṇu as a protector of the people of the island. Medieval Sinhala literature is replete with references to the beneficial nature of the deity, and in present-day popular conceptions Viṣṇu is invoked at the start of public rituals.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Buddhism in several South and Southeast Asian countries underwent reform and a radical shift in the understanding of Buddhist philosophy and thought. There was emphasis on the learning of Pali as the language of the Buddhist canon; the rewriting and translation into vernaculars of the Pali Tipitika as the teachings of the Buddha; and enforcement of a strict monastic code for the monks as laid down in the Vinaya Pitaka. There were also attempts to relocate sites of cultural memory and to identify and restore ancient shrines associated with the life of the Buddha.
Historians of Buddhism accept that the Buddhist Sangha as it exists in Myanmar today is the result of transformations that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries. These changes resulted in two major shifts: one, to an emphasis on textual knowledge, especially Pali; and the second, a return to strict monastic rules as laid down in the Vinaya texts. These movements, though promoted by Burmese monks and kings, corresponded to an increased interest in the history of Buddhism in the region. King Bodawphaya, a usurper who ascended the throne in a palace coup on February 11, 1782, reigned for thirty-seven years. After consolidating his power, he started work on his new capital, Amarapura. In 1785, Bodawphaya acquired the colossal image of Gautama Buddha from the vanquished kingdom of Arakan and transported it to the north of his capital (in present-day Mandalay), where it remains enshrined. A synod was convened in 1791 at which the Vinaya Pitaka was recited and a new recension of the Tipitaka was prepared. In 1803, the King sponsored the ordination and training of six Sinhalese monks, and this exchange is said to have resulted in the foundation of the Amarapura nikaya in Lanka.
Monks were sent to preach the Dhamma in regions, such as the Arakan, where it was not practiced, and in this endeavor, the king saw himself as a worthy successor of the 3rd-century bce Mauryan king Ashoka, who had ruled in India. The revision and copying of the Tipitakas were integral parts of his reform program. In 1829, Bodawpaya appointed a committee of scholars, including monks, brahmanas, and ministers, “to write a chronicle of Burmese kings.”71 There are references to King Bodaw-phra (Bodawphaya) of Burma ordering the recovery of about six hundred old inscriptions so that they could be copied,72 and then making true copies or authorized versions of some of the originals but revised versions of others, thereby altering their meaning and in some cases also the content. The Sudhamma narrative portrays Bodawpaya in a long line of righteous kings who cleansed the Sangha and re-established Dhamma, such as Anawrahta, the 11th-century hero king of Pagan, or Dhammaceti, the 15th-century Mon king who purified the Mon sāsana by introducing a pure monastic lineage from Lanka. This need to clearly demarcate the proper transmission of knowledge also informed the Konbaung dynasty’s (1752–1885) other engagements with India.
In the middle of the 19th century, there were some fifty-four royal monasteries in Bangkok, which, by one count, housed eight thousand of the ten thousand monks in the city. By 1914, the numbers of royal monasteries had increased to seventy-seven in the capital and thirty-eight in the nearby countryside. A relevant issue is the extent to which the reforms of Prince Mongkut (1804–1868) transformed Thai Buddhism. Thai Buddhism had three monastic lineages, the oldest and largest being the Maha nikaya, which traced its origins to the introduction of Buddhism into Thailand. The others were the Ramanya nikaya, the nikaya of the Mons, which was absorbed into the other two in 1902, and the Dhammayutika nikaya, founded by King Mongkut in 1824. The boundaries between orders (nikaya) were marked by distinctive monastic practices, which had originally been justified by canonical interpretation. In most contexts, nikaya applied to monks who legitimized their monastic lineage by citing a prestigious teacher or a group of monks, but it could also apply to monks of a distinctive practice who shared the same ethnic identity, for example, monks who administered to Mon populations (Ramanya nikaya) or who belonged to the Sinhalese order (singhon nikaya).73
Prince Mongkut was born on October 18, 1804; ordained as a novice on June 24, 1817; and unfrocked after seven months. He ordained again on July 6–7, 1824, at the age of nineteen. Rama II became ill on July 14 and died on July 21 in 1824. Prince Mongkut chose to stay in the Sangha for twenty-seven years until Rama III, his half-brother born of a royal concubine, had died and the throne was offered to him. For a prince of such high birth to make such a long career in the Sangha was a rare event—what was also extraordinary was his study of the Pali Canon. Mongkut’s innovations in monastic practice distinguished his new chapter in a number of ways. He composed new verses in Pali for worship, which were eventually adopted by other monasteries and used in the daily routine of morning and evening chanting. Suttas were chosen from the Anguttara Nikaya to be given on holy days and special sermons given on the occasion of Buddhist festivals. One of the most exacting requirements of the reformed discipline was the proper pronunciation of Pali.74 In 1843, Mongkut requested copies of the Tripitaka that were unavailable in Siam from Sri Lanka, in order to compile an authoritative edition of the Pali scriptures. Thus prince Mongkut’s reforms within monastic discipline not only re-established the Vinaya but also led to improvements in Pali education, and by 1900, religious education for Siamese monks and novices had been vastly transformed. These royal reforms were aimed at re-establishing the authority of the Pali Canon rather than the commentaries. In keeping with this objective, the king invented the Ariyaka alphabet to replace the commonly used Khmer script for writing Pali.75 It is important to factor in these changes to Buddhist practice and precepts because they provide depth and dynamism to the archaeology of Buddhism across Asia.
Discussion of the Literature
It is often assumed that Buddhism originated in the Ganga valley and along the foothills of the Himalayas and then spread from this core area to other parts of the subcontinent and also to Southeast Asia. This is not supported by evidence, and there is increasing consensus among Buddhologists that the biographical traditions preserved in texts of the various Buddhist communities cannot provide much historically reliable information about the Buddha’s life.76
A second association often made is with the Mauryan king Ashoka (272–232 bce) and his zeal for spreading Buddhism, largely based on the Aśokāvadāna, dated to the early centuries of the Common Era, which credits Ashoka with enshrining the Buddha’s ashes in 84,000 stūpas. The association of the Dharmarajika stūpa at Taxila with Ashoka was first suggested by Sir John Marshall, then director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India, after his excavations at Taxila from 1913 to 1934. In terms of architecture, the earliest phase at Taxila is dated from 200 bce to late 1st century ce. It is at this time that there is evidence for the creation of public sacred areas and temples in and around the city of Sirkap, and also at the Dharmarajika complex, to where the earliest remains from this period date.77 The earliest coins found at any of the Buddhist sites in the northwest are those of the Indo-Greek ruler Menander I (155–130 bce), and these were found at Dharmarajika stūpa at Taxila. Mauryan period beginnings of stūpa sites thus remain debatable, though Peter Skilling has made a case for a 5th century bce date for Buddhist religious architecture in the Vindhyas based on a close reading vis-à-vis the cultural landscape of the Mahayana sutra, the Satyaka-parivarta, which is set in Ujjain and describes events related to the time of the Buddha.78
Nevertheless, archaeological evidence indicates that Ashoka played an active role in identifying places associated with the life of the Buddha and marking them with edicts containing Ashoka’s religious teachings, or dhammalipi. Scholars refer to two genres of inscription: those in the first person and those that refer to the king in the third person. The first category includes the two minor Rock Edicts, all the Pillar Edicts, the four Rock Edicts (3, 5, 6, 14), the two Separate Edicts, and the minor Pillar Edicts dealing with the Sangha. All the others, including a majority of the Rock Edicts and the Greek and Aramaic texts in the northwest are written in the third person. A distinction is also evident between the Pillar Edicts, which all open with the statement devānampiye piyadasi lāja hevam āhā (thus speaks devanampiya piyadassi), and the Rock Edicts, where there is no such uniformity.79 This perhaps explains the survival of the memory of Ashoka as a righteous ruler, or dhammaraja, across Asia and its the adoption of the model established by Ashoka by several later rulers in the region.
A third explanation that is provided is the adoption of Buddhism by the urban elite and its spread along trade routes. “Although there is relatively little archaeological evidence for Buddhist shrines within these cities during the early pre-Kusana periods, the proliferation of stūpas and monasteries located outside of cities close to transit routes or on hillsides above fertile agricultural zones demonstrates that regional Buddhist expansion was intrinsically linked to conditions of urban and agricultural prosperity.”80 This article argues for the prominent roles of monks and nuns in the expansion of Buddhism, aided no doubt by royal patronage, as is evident from royal inscriptions some of which are located in Buddhist monastic sites, as in the case of the Satavahana records at Nasik.81 This also explains regional diversity within Buddhist monastic sites across Asia.
The architecture and sculptures at monastic sites form the primary sources, and though many of them have been discovered and written about, many more remain to be unearthed. This is evident from the Archaeological Survey of India’s publication, Indian Archaeology: A Review,82 which regularly provides information on newly discovered sites. Archaeological reports and studies of the sites mentioned in this article are too numerous to be listed here and have been referred to in the appropriate places within the article.
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(37.) Thakur, 83.
(38.) Himanshu Prabha Ray, The Archaeology of Seafaring in Ancient South Asia (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 129–164.
(39.) Nearly 1,300 inscriptions, from 269 different sites dated from the 3rd century bce to the 1st century ce, are known.
(40.) The formula reads: agata anagata catudisa sagasa, that is, of the Sangha of the four quarters, present and not present. S. Paranavitana, Inscriptions of Ceylon: vol. 1, Early Brahmi Inscriptions (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Department of Archaeology Ceylon 1970), cxix.
(41.) Himanshu Prabha Ray, Archaeology and Buddhism in South Asia (London: Routledge, 2017).
(42.) Erik Zürcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China, 3rd ed. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007), 19–23. Originally published in 1959.
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(50.) Thomas Cleary, The Flower Ornament Scripture (Boston: Shambhala, 1993).
(51.) Jan Fontein, The Pilgrimage of Sudhana: A Study of Gandavyūha Illustrations in China, Japan and Java (The Hague: Mouton, 1967), 125.
(52.) Ratan Parimoo, Life of the Buddha in Indian Sculpture: An Iconological Perspective (New Delhi: Kanak, 1982).
(53.) John C. Huntington, “Sowing the Seeds of the Lotus: A Journey to the Great Pilgrimage Sites of Buddhism,” Orientations 16, no. 11 (1985): 47.
(54.) Janice Leoshko, Sacred Traces: British Explorations of Buddhism in South Asia (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003), 71.
(55.) Art historians such as Alfred Foucher had earlier identified these as aniconic (without images) representations, whereas John Huntington suggests that they represent sacred sites or tirthas associated with the life of the Buddha.
(56.) Huntington, “Sowing the Seeds of the Lotus,” 61.
(57.) John C. Huntington, “Sowing the Seeds of the Lotus: A Journey of the Great Pilgrimage Sites of Buddhism,” Orientations 17, no. 3 (1986): 34–35, fig. 14.
(58.) Mahaparinibbana Sutta, 5.8; A. Ghosh and H. Sarkar, “Beginnings of Sculptural Art in South-East India: A Stele from Amaravati,” Ancient India 20–21 (1964–1965): 168–177.
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(63.) Leoshko, Sacred Traces, 28.
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(68.) Sanderson, “Śaiva Age,” 117–123.
(69.) Gudrun Būhnemann, “The Goddess Mahācīnakrama-Tārā (Ugra Tārā Tārā) in Buddhist and Hindu Tantrism,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 59, no. 3 (1996): 472–493.
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(74.) Reynolds, “Buddhist Monkhood,” 89.
(75.) Venerable Phra Anil Sakya, “King Mongkut’s Buddhist Reforms.”
(76.) George Bond, “Theravada Buddhism and the Aims of Buddhist Studies,” in Studies in History of Buddhism, ed. Awadh Kishore Narain (Delhi: B. R. Publishing, 1980), 43–65. Papers presented at the International Conference on the History of Buddhism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA, August 19–21, 1976.
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(79.) Patrick Olivelle, Janice Leoshko, and Himanshu Prabha Ray, eds., introduction to Reimagining Aśoka: Memory and History (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012), 1–16.
(80.) Jason Neelis, Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 233.
(81.) Himanshu Prabha Ray, “The King and the Monastery: The Pandu Lena at Nasik,” in Living Rock: Buddhist, Hindu and Jain Cave Temples in the Western Deccan, ed. Pia Brancaccio (Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2013), 44–59.
(82.) Indian Archaeology – A Review 1953 – 54 to 2013 – 14, New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India.