Evidence of Vaishali link in Buddha bowl

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  • Published 9.08.14

Patna, Aug. 8: Archaeologists claim to have found strong evidence to prove that the 400kg greenish-grey granite bowl kept at the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul was taken from Bihar’s Vaishali where it was supposedly used by Gautam Buddha.

The bowl is considered one of the most revered relics in Buddhism across the globe. Historians believe the artefact was used as an alms bowl (daanpatra) by Buddha.

Top sources in the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) have confirmed to The Telegraph that a swastika symbol has been spotted on the sixth line of inscriptions on the exterior of the bowl. The swastika is considered auspicious in the Mahayana sect in Buddhism.

The sources confirmed that the bowl was made in the 6th century BC at Vaishali. It was taken to Kandahar (then Gandhar) in Afghanistan by the first century AD Kushan emperor Kanishka.

“The bowl was built at a monastery in Vaishali, where Buddha stayed for a couple of years before going to Kushinagar to attain parinirvana (salvation). The bowl was later taken to Kandahar after the fourth Buddhist council organised by Kanishka in AD 78,” said the ASI source.

Buddha had visited Vaishali, about 70km north of Patna, several times and delivered his last sermon before his death around 483 BC.

The origins of the bowl became a matter of public discourse after then RJD MP from Vaishali, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, raised a strong demand in the Lok Sabha last year for bringing the artefact back to its place of origin.

Following the question raised in the Lok Sabha, a team of ASI officials — P.K. Mishra, director (heritage bylaws), Calcutta, and G.S. Khwaja, director (epigraphy, Arabic and Persian), Nagpur — was sent to Afghanistan on May 2 this year to study the inscriptions and other aspects related to the bowl’s provenance.

“Lately, two major wrong notions about the bowl kept at the Kabul museum have come to light. The first is about it not belonging to the time of Buddha. The bowl was made in the sixth century BC, when Buddha was alive, as clearly indicated by a swastika symbol found on the sixth line of inscriptions made over it. This very line was the only original one, the first to fifth lines are superimpositions,” said the ASI source.

“Swastika represents the dhamma chakra in Mahayana Buddhism. The swastika is inscribed as an auspicious mark in many Buddhist temples in countries such as Japan, Korea and China, which follow Mahayana Buddhism. Many Buddhist texts also start with this symbol,” said Kailash Prasad, professor of Buddhist studies at Magadh University, Gaya, and member of the governing body of Mahabodhi Society of India.

The bowl also has inscriptions written in the Persian language using Arabic script, which didn’t exist in the Buddhist era. The ASI source believes these inscriptions were done after the bowl was taken to Afghanistan. “It is true that Persian inscriptions were inscribed on the bowl but it was done after it was taken to Kandahar. In fact, it was the Persian inscriptions which prevented any damage to the bowl when the Taliban attacked the museum a couple of years ago,” the ASI source said.

In another finding by the ASI, white sandstone has been spotted on the interiors of the bowl, which has largely remained untouched. Experts say sandstone has always been uncommon in the Afghan region, but is found in plenty in eastern India. This, the experts say, indicate that the bowl was originally made in the Indian subcontinent and taken to Afghanistan thereafter.

Several untouched lotus petal leaves have also been spotted at the bottom of the bowl. The theory gaining currency now is that the arch designs at the bottom of the bowl, similar to Mughal architectural style, were superimposed over the original lotus petal carvings to give an Islamic shade to the bowl.

According to historical texts, Kanishka captured Magadh and took the bowl from Vaishali to his capital Purushapura (modern day Peshawar) around the 2nd century AD. Later, Gandhar was conquered by the Little Yuchi under Kitolo, who were against Buddhism, around AD 425-450. The followers of Buddhism hid the bowl in Gandhar. The artefact was kept largely unnoticed at the Sultan Wais Baba shrine on the outskirts of Kandahar for centuries. In the late 1980s, during the civil war in Afghanistan, then President Najibullah had the bowl taken to Kabul’s National Museum.

Early writings have mapped the journey of the bowl from Vaishali to Kandahar via Peshawar. A string of Chinese pilgrims reported seeing the bowl between the 3rd century AD and the 9th century AD.

“The authenticity of the bowl belonging to the time of Buddha is also proven by the diary of traveller Hieun Tsang (Chinese name Xuanzang), who lived between AD 602 and 664. Another Chinese pilgrim-traveller, Fa-Hien (or Faxian), has also given vivid details about the bowl, which he had seen at Peshawar shortly after AD 400.

The massive granite bowl has a diameter of about 128cm, height of 69cm and thickness of 8cm at its rim. The depth of the bowl from the interior measures around 69cm. At least 12 people are needed to move it.

RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad, who lost the elections from Vaishali this year, reiterated his demand that the bowl be brought back. “We have good relations with Afghanistan and the bowl can be brought back if this matter is persuaded properly,” he said.