Archive for the ‘Pre Historic and Pre Islamic Pakistan’ Category

Ever since the publication of my book ‘Indus Seals (2600-1900 BCE)Beyond Geometry: A New Approach to Break an Old Code’ I am often asked about the nature of the hurdles in the Indus seal research and about what has been my approach to decipherment of the enigmatic signs and symbols engraved on these seals. The answer is long and I have attempted to cover it in my book, however, for those who want a shorter version please read this blog.

Most cited difficulties in deciphering the seals are the brevity of the inscriptions and the absence of a bilingual dictionary such as the Rosetta Stone which helped in deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs. An average Indus seal has only 5 signs while the longest Indus text is composed of 26 signs. However, we cannot wait for the discovery of large volumes of textual material. Bearing in mind that the brevity of text might be a unique feature which cannot be judged by the yardstick used for ancient writing systems discovered elsewhere, we must continue to reconstruct the other aspects of Indus civilization which will eventually provide a larger socio-cultural and ideological context to examine and understand the seals.


According to Asko Parpola, methodological weaknesses have been a cause of failure in deciphering the script. “The most common approach has been this: Indus signs are equated with similar-looking signs of other, readable ancient scripts and the phonetic values of the latter are transferred to the Indus signs. However, this method works only when the two scripts being compared are closely related … In contrast, the Indus script has no obvious genetic affinity with any other known script.”

N.A. Baloch classifies the method of decipherment used by the researchers into two groups. “The first method has been of concentration entirely on the internal structure of the Indus script which has reduced the entire corpus of the signs, marks, and pictorial representations into writing and enumerating so much so that each and every sign has an identification number now. The second method has directed the research towards proving some sort of relationship between the Indus script and other scripts and languages of the contemporary civilizations.”

Apart from these reasons, I strongly feel that there have been a few detours in the long journey of decipherment which has derailed the Indus seal research. These detours have proved futile as they have misled the scholars to seek clues in distant cultures and languages. Perhaps, for a better understanding of the Indus seals and their languages, I would like to draw the attention to the route suggested by Baloch. According to him, “For the language of the (Indus) script, the scholars will have to abandon their wild-goose chase of looking for the proto-type in Turan and South India and look for the evidence within the land where the seals were made and discovered… this lock of the Indus script had apparently been prepared by the great smiths of yore that is not likely to yield to such foreign-made keys so easily.” Baloch further suggests that, “In order to resolve this problem on a rather firm rational ground, a third hypothesis can be presented based on the assumption that the key to the decipherment of the Indus script may be found right in the land where it had been lost— Indus Valley. The decipherment could, perhaps, be worked out looking into the words and phrases of the language of the Indus Valley, the language of the land itself, Sindhi of the peasants, as it has remained unaffected throughout the centuries.”

And yet Sindhi is not the only language to be considered for Indus seal research. I have used the Sindhi model in my book because of my familiarity with that language and because it has retained a larger percentage of the ancient words. However, there are other languages spoken in the Indus region which can be explored for ancient words, adages and legends that can be identified on the seals. It must be emphasized that seals are not only engraved with rows of signs and symbols but they are also imbued with images of animals, humans, deities, trees and unidentifiable objects. Hence beyond the calligraphic, geometrical and linguistic facets of ancient writing , the Indus seals also depict an assortment of social, cultural and ideological content which requires a holistic approach for its interpretation. This approach will certainly extend the seal research and help in a better understanding of the Civilization in general.

Indus Civilization is recognized as the fourth ancient civilization of the World, the other three were discovered in China, Egypt and Iraq; the fifth was discovered in Central America after the discovery of Indus. Indus is also the largest ancient civilization but it remains to be the least understood.  It must be emphasized that the failure to decipher Indus symbols and signs has contributed a lot to this lack of understanding.

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Sir Alexander Cunningham, the first director general of the Archaeological Survey of India, has contributed a lot to the Indian archaeology. His work on epigraphy and Buddhist monuments are noteworthy. Although Moen jo Daro was not discovered during his lifetime, but his observations on Buddhist history and the history of the Indian writing are of great value for the understanding of the Harappan or the Indus Civilization.

Cunningham had identified many common features between Buddhism, Brahmanism and the ancient western traditions of the Druids and he believed in a more ancient Buddhism which prevailed not only in India but in several other parts of the world. His book “Bhilsa Topes or Buddhist Monuments of Central India” published in 1854 is not only an account of Buddhist monastic complexes but it is a history of Buddhism. Years after writing the book when he arrived in the land of the Yusafzai tribals near Peshawar, he identified Shahbazgarhi with Po-Lu-Sha, recorded by Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang), the Chinese pilgrim who in mid seventh century had visited India and listed hundreds of Buddhist places.

Northwest of India, which is now Pakistan, had been a land of Buddhism. Shahbazgarhi is still marked with a rock engraved with the edicts of the Buddhist King Asoka Maurya (273-232 BCE). In Cunningham’s words, “The great inscription of Asoka is engraved on a large shapeless mass of trap rock, lying about 80 feet up the slope of the hill, with its western face looking downwards towards the village of Shahbaz-garhi.” The edicts, preaching the principles of Asoka’s Dhamma policy, were engraved on rocks and pillars throughout his empire. Asoka declared that he has got them written on the rocks so that they endure longer and the future generations can see them. Also, they are written in the vernacular dialects of their location so that the ordinary people can understand them.

Asoka’s edicts give a good insight in the social and moral code that the good king gave to his people but they are also valuable specimens of the earliest known scripts of the Indian subcontinent. Hence, Cunningham’s book on the inscriptions of Asoka is very important for the understanding of the history of Indian writing. While referring to the Shahbazgarhi inscriptions he writes, “The inscriptions of Asoka are engraved in two distinct characters, one reading from right to left, which is confined to the Shahbazgarhi …and the other reading from left to right.” Later, the Shahbazgarhi script was labeled Kharoshti and the script used for Asoka’s edicts elsewhere came to be recognized as Brahmi. In 1896, Georg Buhler while identifying the four varieties of Kharoshti, considered the Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra rock edicts (also in Pakistan) inscribed with the oldest variety of Kharoshti. Structurally Kharoshti and Brahmi are similar but Brahmi, originally used for Buddhist scriptures, became more widespread as it came to be used for a variety of Prakrits or the vernacular dialects.

Cunningham had rejected any influence of the hieroglyphs and the cuneiform system of the west on the Indian writing and was inquisitive about the origins of this indigenous script. He was aware that the ancient sites were not thoroughly explored and the older specimens were yet to be recovered, the only evidence of an earlier version of Shahbazgarhi writing he could think of was engraved on a tiny steatite seal “…I have , however, come across one monument which I believe to be a specimen of the archaic alphabetical writing. Its age is, of course, quite uncertain, but I do not think its date can be later than 500-400 B.C. This monument is a seal of smooth black stone, which was found by major Clark in the ruins of Harapa in the Panjab.” This was the only Indus seal unearthed during Cunningham’s times and yet his observation, based on a single seal, has turned out to be most logical. His idea that the Harappa seal script was a predecessor of the earliest known script of India is not fully lost. Though Kharoshti is sidelined and most of the research after him is focused on the more known Brahmi and its links with the Indus script.

It is ironic that half a century later when many more seals were discovered, clues to decipher their symbols were being sought in distant lands and cultures, first in Sumer and then in South India. These have been unnecessary detours in the journey of Indus seal research. Dr.N.A Baloch while taking note of the attempts made to relate Indus script with remote languages states “In order to resolve this problem on a rather firm rational ground, a third hypothesis can be presented basing on the assumption that the key to the decipherment of the Indus script may be found right in the land where it had been lost— Indus Valley. The decipherment could, perhaps, be worked out looking into the words and phrases of the language of the Indus valley, the language of the land itself, Sindhi of the peasants, as it has remained unaffected throughout the centuries.”

The largest number of seals, about 1200, were unearthed from the ruins of Moen jo Daro. Most of these had the format of the Harappa seal- a row of signs engraved above the image of an animal facing an unidentified object. The signs are considered to be an ancient script and like Shahbazgarhi inscriptions these too run from right to left. Some of the seals are also engraved with the symbols of Buddha. Towards the end of the urban phase, narrative seals were made, they seem to represent events and can very well be the precursors of Jatakas, which are engraved with stories of Buddha’s birth. Marshall’s observation of a narrative seal from Moen jo Daro, depicting seven female devotees facing a deity standing in the ‘pipal tree’ is revealing. According to him “This is the tree of knowledge (Bodhi or bo-tree) under which Buddha gained enlightenment.” Another seal depicting a ‘proto-Shiva’ image with two deer images under his ‘throne’ reminded Marshall of the deer motif in Buddhist imagery symbolizing the Deer Park where Buddha gave his first sermon. He also saw semblance between the floor pattern of the Pillared Hall and the Buddhist monasteries where the monks seated themselves on low benches. The Priest King, draped in a shawl with his right shoulder exposed, may have even reminded him of the Buddhist monks attired in the same fashion. There is more of this scattered in John Marhall’s three volumes of “Mohenjo Daro and the Indus Civilization.” These pieces of evidence would have been enough for Cunningham to trace the roots of his ‘ancient Buddhism’ in the Indus Civilization, but this is not what the new generation of archaeologists thought.

Moen jo Daro’s ruins are still crowned with a fragment of the stupa wall but this symbolism has always been ignored. Twenty first century, however, has begun with some hope as Giovanni Verardi of Naples University, Italy has casted doubts on the dating of the ‘so called stupa.’ Cunningham, through Buddhist scriptures had already surmised that stupas were existing before the advent of Buddha and people revered them, in fact, Buddha considered the ancient sages as his immediate predecessors. Buddha came to be represented in human image during the Kushan period, prior to that he was represented by symbols and the stupa image was one of the symbols.

Kirthar mountain ranges between Sindh and Balochistan are engraved significantly with the images of stupas and several other auspicious Buddhist symbols. This is yet another evidence suggesting the existence of an early Buddhism in the Indus region, therefore, it is very likely that Moen jo Daro stupa is a relic of a much earlier period. Michael Jansen of the the University of Aachen, Germany feels that it may not be of Kushan origin but might be Harappan.

We have to bear in mind though, that we cannot expect Buddhism to appear in its conventional sense in the Indus civilization but We can safely assume a peaceful way of life prevalent in the Indus Civilization. To label this non-violent characteristic of ancient Indus a philosophy, an ideology or a religion will be inappropriate because the civilization at that moment of socio-cultural evolution was at a stage where philosophy, ideology and religion were all rolled together. It was only in later times that the nonviolent traits of the region came to be defined with different labels-Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Gandhism and Sufism.

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Last week, at the Ohio State University, Columbus, during a presentation on Moen jo Daro I was asked a question which I have always asked myself, what was the status of women in the Indus Civilization? I have already given part of the answer in my book on Moen jo Daro, but still there is a lot that we need to know about the role of women in those ancient times.

Archaeological evidence gives us a limited answer. The discovery of the well-known bronze female statuette, the Nautch Girl of Sir John Marshall, has led to the belief that dancing girls existed in Moen jo Daro; There are also hundreds of terracotta female figurines unearthed from the site and some of these are considered to be the images of mother goddesses; female images are also carved on a few seals. Most prominent of these is a narrative seal carved with a ritual scene wherein a female deity stands exalted in front of her seven women worshipers. We have to bear in mind that there is no textual evidence available to confirm the authenticity of the labels assigned to them. Our common sense also says that between the dancing girls and mother goddesses there must be women ranging from potters and dyers to brick makers and builders and even scribes who engraved the tiny steatite seals with strange symbols and signs. In the absence of any tangible evidence of such women I suggest to consider a secondary source, the folklore.

Luckily, some of the sufi poets of the Indus region, especially of Sindh and Punjab have not marginalized women in their poetry. In fact, Shah Abdul Latif, Sindh’s most revered Sufi saint and poet, had retrieved seven women characters from the past and presented them in his poetry as great heroes. Though most of them were born in ordinary homes but out of love they are called the seven queens. Sohini, was a potter’s daughter; Sassui, a washer man’s daughter; Noori a fisher-woman and Marvi a desert girl. Their stories are of unrequited love and they ended up as victims of fate, but there was something extraordinary in their beauty and their craft which attracted princes.

Shah Latif’s poems also reveals a few places associated with these women; Bhanbhore where one of them (Sassui) lived, Umarkot where another (Marvi) was imprisoned and in a strange structure in the middle of the lake Noori is buried, these landmarks in the stories of Sindhi queens are worth exploring. If Moen jo Daro, is a window to the pre-historic past these three shed light on the historic periods.

Bhanbhore is located about thirty miles east of Karachi, in the province of Sindh. According to Latif: “Dark was Bhanbhore; Punhoon arrived and brightened it” Punhoon was a prince of Ketch Makran, who bought with his caravan many exotic items. Archaeologists, on the other hand, identify Bhanbhore with Debal, the first city of the sub-continent conquered by the Arab Muslims in the early eighth century. Excavations have revealed Bhanbhore’s origins to the first century BCE and it had been home to the Buddhists, Hindus, Sassanids, Parthians and Scythians before the Arab occupation. Further excavations might reveal older cultural levels bringing it even closer to the Indus period. Even the name Bhanbhore, which has come to the posterity through the poetry of Latif, is much older than the recorded name Debal.

Umarkot, located in the Thar Desert, is said to be a twelfth century fort of Umar the Soomra prince where he imprisoned Marvi an abducted desert girl. A deeper research in the history of Umarkot reveals that the fort is much older and belongs to a pre-Islamic era as suggested by its original name Amarkot after the Rajput Rana Amar Singh.

The third structure built in the middle of Keenjhar or Kalri lake looks strange due to the circular shape bordered with a short wall whose roof seems to be blown off. It is considered to be the grave of Noori but it also reminds me of the circular wall of the stupa that crowned the site of Moen jo Daro. Could it be the shell of another Buddhist stupa? If these structures are older than what is traditionally thought it brings them closer to the Indus period and they might be holding some links which can be connected to the ancient past.

So a part of the answer about the position of women in Indus civilization can come from reexamining the folklore. It is true that Latif’s poetry belongs to the mid seventeenth century, but poets, as I always say, can be avatars of ancient storytellers, hence, it is very likely that the versions of Latif’s queens may have very well lived and died in the ancient Indus cities. The connection is elusive, but ironically, for a clearer picture of the past we have to probe the murky realms of folklore. This approach of understanding the ancient Indus society will require collaboration between the mainstream Indus archaeologists and the scholars of indigenous languages and culture. For now, those who would like to hear some samples of folk stories and songs please check the links below.

Sohini Mahival’s story by Ashiq Jatt (Punjabi)
Sassui song by Muhammad Ibrahim (Sindhi)
Umar Marvi song and the fort of Umarkot (Sindhi)
Noori’s grave

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My book “Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900) BCE)” is now published as an eBook and is available online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, eSentral, Scribd and ePubDirect. It is an illustrated book with original pictures by Pakistan’s acclaimed photographer Amean J and artwork by Laila Shahzada ,the internationally renowned Pakistani artist. Below is a brief description of the book, enjoy the images and reading on your favorite device.

“Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900) BCE)” is a personal view book on the largest and the most elaborate city of the Indus Civilization, located in present day Pakistan. Beginning with the myths and legends surrounding the civilization, Moen jo Daro ends with an appeal for its 3-dimensional digital preservation in the modern age. In between it covers the accidental discovery of the city under the foundations of a Buddhist stupa, the life of its mysterious inhabitants, the unknown ideology they followed as well the strange symbols and script they left behind. The book is not a mere description of the architectural remains and the artifacts discovered in their ruins, it examines the theories of its rise and fall in the larger context of the Indus civilization. I have told the story of Moen jo Daro through conventional sources as well through the legends, folklore, and ancient words retained in the indigenous languages of the Indus region. Some of the interpretation comes from my understanding of the ancient signs and symbols I researched at the Cornell University, New York. Finally, the artwork and original photographs captured exclusively for this book, has infused life in the dead city (Moen jo Daro means the Mound of the Dead).

“Moen jo Daro : Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900) BCE)” is meant for general readers and the scholars and students, and is a must read for an international audience. Pakistan is on the center stage of global politics and the world is keen to know it beyond its typical day-to-day reporting.

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You can buy it from Amazon – click here.

The title is Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900) BCE). The text is interspersed with the original images specially photographed for this book by Pakistan’s well-known photographer Amean J. It is also enhanced by the artwork of internationally known artist Laila Shahzada. The book is reviewed by Dr. Subhash Kak, Regents Professor Oklahoma State University and Dr. Shoukat Shoro, the former Director of the Institute of Sindhology, Jamshoro Pakistan.

The idea of writing a book on Moen jo Daro for general readers was given to me by Dr. N.A. Baloch. At the same time he suggested that it should not be a handbook of the site but a work presenting Moen jo Daro in a wider historical and geographical context of the Indus region; it should inspire the future generations to seek clues in the languages, legends and folktales of Sindh, Balcohistan, Rajasthan, Kutch, Gujrat, Punjab and beyond. Later on he wrote the foreword of the book.

Indus civilization was spread over a vast area and archaeology allows crossing political boundaries; hence, I approached Dr. Vasant Shinde to write a second foreword of the book. Dr. Shinde is working on the Harappan sites discovered in the Indian Punjab and he is also the vice chancellor of the prestigious Deccan College deemed University. His foreword is most befitting as Moen jo Daro symbolizes the common heritage and history of Pakistan and India.
Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900) BCE) is now available on Amazon.com for purchase – Click here.

It is a personal view book and is divided in nine chapters, below is a brief description of these chapters.

The first chapter is about myths and legends thriving in the Indus region. Due to lack of direct references to Moen jo Daro legends can become one of the valuable sources of information. The chapter demonstrates how some of these can hold important clues for the understanding of Moen jo Daro and Indus Civilization.

The second chapter is about the Mound of Dead which is the English translation of Moen jo Daro. The Mound was crowned with the remains of a Buddhist stupa which led to the discovery of this ancient city. The chapter gives the history of the discovery of the stupa which was actually the major attraction for British officials. It also provides the background information on the Buddhist period and Buddhism in Sindh.

The third chapter describes the layout of the two parts of the city. It also lists the artifacts discovered from its ruins. Most of these are showcased at the site museum of Moen jo Daro and the National Museum, Karachi. With the exception of a few, the photographs of the architectural remains and the artifacts are by Amean J.

Chapter four describes the geographical extent of the Indus Civilization as well as its origins, its nature and its decline. Beginning from the Neolithic agrarian communities of Balochistan, it traces their socio-cultural evolution to a mature urban phase that bloomed in the Indus Valley. Moen jo Daro in this chapter is examined in the larger context of the Civilization.

Chapter five is an attempt to reconstruct the picture of the inhabitants and their life in Moen jo Daro and Indus Valley. It also refers to the views of various archaeologists and how their reconstructed pictures differ from each other according to their orientation and generation.

Chapter six describes the ideology of the ancient Indus society as reconstructed through a variety of evidence gathered from Moen jo Daro and a few other significant Indus sites. The chapter sheds some light on the possible links between the ancient Indus ideology and the later Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religions. It also examines the status of women and the role of mother goddesses in those remote times.

Chapter seven deals with the most striking finds – the enigmatic signs and symbols engraved on tiny steatite seals. It gives a history of their decipherment and the hurdles in research. In this chapter I also share my research on the signs and symbols engraved on the seals.

Chapter eight explores the reasons of the ‘sudden collapse’ of the urban phase of Indus Civilization. Beginning with the Aryan invasion theory and its rejection, it highlights a few other sites to explain a gradual deterioration of the urban centers and an eastward migration to Gujarat.

Chapter nine gives the background of the international campaign of saving Moen jo Daro from the threats of water logging and salinity. It includes the preservation measures recommended by Pakistani officials and experts from UNESCO member countries. In this chapter I also appeal to the readers to join me in my campaign calling for the three-dimensional digital preservation of Moen jo Daro. You can also see a related blog here.

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It has been quite a journey working on “Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization,” my forthcoming book on the ancient, mysterious city and its civilization. Moen jo Daro did not allow me the time to write a blog and demanded a lot of reading and rereading, researching, fact checking, writing and rewriting.

Often times my writing activity led me to several other sites of the Indus civilization, some of these being beyond political boundaries – in India, in Afghanistan, and one of them even almost touching the border of Iran. Sutkagen Dor, located in the Dasht River Valley, is also the westernmost site of Indus civilization. So while writing the story of the city I often found myself writing the story of the civilization.

On the way I came across archaeologists, artists and photographers whose expeditions were worth following. Sometimes they led me to detours and sometimes unexpectedly to destinations so relevant to Moen jo Daro. And then there are interpretations and arguments of various archaeologists that had to go in the book.

Sir John Marshall viewed life in Moen jo Daro as being peaceful and mercantile, similar to a working town like Lancashire. K.N Dikshit, reflecting on the cosmopolitan bazaars of Moen jo Daro and Harappa, where merchants from Persia, Mesopotamia, Gujarat and South India exchanged goods, found it closer to the cosmopolitan cities like Karachi and Bombay. Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s views were dramatic, as he saw the Indus civilization as an empire ruled by a theocracy seated on the citadel mound of Moen jo Daro. And since the rise of each empire is followed by a fall, he felt that the cities of Indus were finally destroyed by the Aryan hordes, led by their thunder God, Indra. George Dales, after rummaging through the streets of Moen jo Daro and finding no evidence of a massacre absolved Indra. But this has not resolved the issue of the decline of the city and its civilization.

There is yet another issue, the socio-cultural nature of the city, which remains mysterious. And this is because of the hurdles in the journey of Indus’ research; there are no references to Indus cities in later Indian texts and the inscriptions engraved on the seals discovered from these cities have not been deciphered. Hence, in the absence of any direct source of information, even a simple task of establishing Moen jo Daro’s chronology was accomplished by cross dating some of its objects discovered in distant Sumer. And this has led many experts to examine the civilization with the yardstick set for other ancient civilizations.

The fact is that Indus did not mature to a highly state-organized society like its contemporaneous Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations. Far from being an empire it is not even confirmed whether Indus civilization had a ruling authority or not and if it had, was it secular or theocratic; male or female. What is certain is that it lasted from 2600 to 1900 BCE and remained arrested in an urban phase. Its cities therefore lack imperial architecture such as the palaces, temples, pyramids, ziggurats and the royal tombs.

Perhaps, it is time to judge Indus on its own merit especially as the criterion to judge a civilization is beginning to change. In his book “Civilization: The West and the Rest,” Nial Ferguson, a historian of the twenty first century writes, “The success of a civilization is measured not just in its aesthetic achievements but also, and surely more importantly, in the duration and quality of life of its citizens. And that quality of life has many dimensions, not all easily quantified.”

Taking into consideration just a few important dimensions, my book places Moen jo Daro at a stage on the ladder of socio-cultural evolution where rigid classes had not yet been formed but where professional specialization had made distinctions between the brick makers and woodworkers, between weavers and dyers, between potters and scribes. The civilization was also at the stage where ideology had not yet given way to a religion. It took many centuries for Moen jo Daro water cults to evolve rigid rituals of purifying the soul, the likes of which are best witnessed at River Ganges.

The most intriguing finds of Moen jo Daro are the tiny steatite seals engraved with cryptic symbols, signs and human and animal images. More than 2000 of these had been discovered from various Indus cities, the largest number (over 1200) were discovered from Moen jo Daro. The seals have become a hallmark of Indus civilization and the symbols and signs engraved on these are believed to be an ancient form of writing representing an unknown language. Hence, many archaeologists believe that the story of Moen jo Daro is encrypted on the seals an for the last one century more than one hundred failed attempts have been made to decipher the script.

This leads me to believe that perhaps, Indus civilization existed in a period in pre-history where writing, in the conventional sense, had not yet taken birth but symbols that may have later evolved to alphabets were in the making. It was a period when images of animals and inscriptions, swastikas and circles, triangles and gammadions were all rolled into one. Distinctions between alphabets and numbers, between art and writing and between geometry and religion were yet to set. The value of Indus civilization, therefore, lies in the fact that it has preserved the first chapter of the origins of writing; overall, it is a rare snapshot of an urban boom which erupts before empires are formed. Moen jo Daro provides the most panoramic view of that boom.

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“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.

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