“In Mandalay, the capital of Burma, beneath a wonderful pagoda repose the ashes of the revered prophet of Buddhism. These relics were discovered in 1910…” This note, published in the Bay View magazine caught my attention as it continues the story of the discovery of Buddha’s ashes from Peshawar. I had already referred to the discovery in one of my blogs ‘Restoring Pakistan’s Buddhist Past.’ The news of the discovery was also reported by the New York Times. What follows is the story of the transportation of the sacred remains to Burma.
At the time of the discovery of the ashes, Gilbert John Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, the 4th Earl of Minto, was the viceroy of India. He was a man with a sense of religious demographics of the country he ruled. Having realized the strength of Muslim population in the Northwest and East of India he had been one of the major players behind the concept of a separate electorate and the formation of the All-India Muslim League. In the same measure he knew Burma was a stronghold of Buddhists hence he gave the Burmese the gift that they deserved. Minto is often accused of promoting the notorious British policy of divide and rule – but that is another story.
Minto also wanted to turn this opportunity into a big news, hence he personally handed over the ashes to the Burmese Buddhist monks in an impressive ceremony. The ceremony was held in Calcutta at the throne-room of the viceregal palace. The guest list was equally impressive and included British officials, Burmese high priests, Lady Minto, Sir John Marshall and the famous Anne Besant. A report by Frank G. Carpenter describes the ceremony which began with the speech of the viceroy: “The government of India has decided that the relics should remain within the confines of the Indian empire and that Burma, as a Buddhist province, and Mandalay as its capital, should provide for their safe custody. I am sure that the great honor done to Burma will be thoroughly appreciated by its people, and that the relics will be carefully preserved and cherished.” In conclusion the viceroy hoped that “a suitable shrine may be erected at Mandalay over these relics, where in future years devout pilgrims may gather from all parts of the world to do honor to the memory of the great founder of their religion.” In 1915 when James Bissett Pratt, not a devout pilgrim but a mere traveler, visited Mandalay the work on the pagoda was being done with great zest. He describes the enthusiasm of the Burmese in his book India and its Faiths: “At present a rather unusual wave of pagoda enthusiasm is passing over Burma. Nearly all the great pagodas of the land are being regilded and at Mandalay, the religious center, the entire hill that commands the town is being covered with statues, pagodas and other religious buildings. One of these pagodas is being built for the reception of the ashes of the Buddha recently found by Dr Spooner near Peshawar; and as I have said, the entire hill is being covered with pagodas of various sizes, shaded stairways and passages for the accommodation of pilgrims, rest-halls and mammoth Buddha images.” Millions have been flocking to the Pagoda ever since its completion, ignoring Buddha’s advice: “Do not hinder yourself by honoring my remains.”
During the ceremony, John Marshall, the director of the Archeology Department, gave the background of the ashes which were discovered from the ruins of a pagoda built by King Kanishka (78-103 CE) in Peshawar. The pagoda, once struck by lightning and thrice caught by fire, continued to survive for centuries and had been recorded by Fahien and Hiuen Tsang, the two well-known Chinese who traveled through India in two different time periods. When Hiuen Tsang, the later visitor, saw the pagoda, five centuries after Kanishka’s reign, it was still in good condition. Hiuen Tsang was no ordinary traveler; he was a scholarly Buddhist monk who arrived in India in 629 CE and walked through its land for seventeen long years. Rummaging through monastic complexes and collecting original Buddhist scriptures, it was his vivid description of the 13 stories high pagoda that caught the attention of a French archaeologist, Alfred Foucher, who was visiting India in the early 20th century. Hiuen Tsang had also mentioned that the pagoda stood not too far from the palaces of Kanishka, hence following his footsteps Foucher located its remains at a distance of half a mile East of Peshawer. By that time the structure of the pagoda had turned into a mound and it was not possible for Foucher to dig it out. However, he convinced David B. Spooner of the Archaeological Survey of India to do the job. The mound was dug and a great tower uncovered. It was ‘larger than any other known pagoda.’ John Marshall evaluated it to be ‘higher than the Washington Monument.’ He also surmised that the tower lasted for three more centuries after the visit of Hiuen Tsang.
Buddha’s ashes, enclosed in a bronze casket that consisted of four charred human bones and some ash, were unearthed from a highly secure chamber beneath the heavy foundation of the tower. “British archaeologists had to sank a shaft down through the stone floor to a depth of twenty feet to reach the chamber…and there in that little stone room, which had been buried from the sight of man for over 2,400 years, they found a bronze casket seven inches high five inches in diameter.” The imagery on its exterior was quite detailed. A frieze depicting flying geese above the images of Buddha and one image of Kanishka. The lid had lotus design topped with a Buddha statuette at the center.
The ash and the bones were given to the Burmese monks in a different container whereas the casket is showcased in the Peshawar Museum. Amidst colossal violence and bloodshed going around it day in and day out it is a reminder to the peaceful Buddhist past. Whether it symbolizes the ‘divide and rule’ policy or the Indo-Burmese oneness under the British administrative machinery, it is hard to say. George Orwell, working as an ordinary policeman in that machinery, declared it was “the dirty work of Empire.” Ordinary men and women living in the Empire simply enjoyed the moment, a Bollywood song from those days captures that moment.