Centuries separate experts on ‘Buddha bowl’

Written by Sumegha Gulati | New Delhi | Updated: August 4, 2014 11:22 am
The bowl is 4.5 ft tall, has a diameter of 1.75 m and a rim 18 cm thick, and at least 12 people are needed to move it. The bowl is 4.5 ft tall, has a diameter of 1.75 m and a rim 18 cm thick, and at least 12 people are needed to move it.

A 400-KG black granite bowl of uncertain provenance has split the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Two ASI experts who travelled to Afghanistan this May to examine the so-called Begging Bowl of the Buddha are learnt to have submitted contradictory reports on the age and historicity of the artefact.

G S Khwaja, Director, Epigraphy Branch (Arabic and Persian), Nagpur, has concluded on the basis of his study of the inscriptions and carvings on the bowl that it was probably created around the 15-16th century AD in Kandahar — for use in a madrasa.

According to the other expert, Phani Kant Mishra, Director, (Archeology), Kolkata, however, the bowl is indeed the “bheekshapatra” of legend, dating back to the time of the Buddha himself.

Shown here is the Buddha's Begging Bowl at the entrance to the Kabul Museum. (Source: http://buddhistartnews.wordpress.com/) The bowl is quite big in size as shown at the entrance to the Kabul Museum. (Source: http://buddhistartnews.wordpress.com/)

Khwaja and Mishra travelled to Kabul on May 2. The Indian Express reported then that they would visit the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul to examine the artefact, and the possibility of bringing it back to its “original place”, Vaishali in Bihar.

The bowl is 4.5 ft tall, has a diameter of 1.75 m and a rim 18 cm thick, and at least 12 people are needed to move it. It is popularly believed that the Buddha left it to the people of Vaishali who worshipped it before Kanishka of the Kushanas, who lived in the 2nd century AD, took it away to his capital Purushpura, today’s Peshawar.

In his report, accessed by The Indian Express, Khwaja argued that the inscriptions on the bowl are in a style of calligraphy that is dateable to the 15th or 16th century AD, and that the belief that it belonged to the Buddha — who is thought to have lived in the 6th century BC — “seems to be a case of mistaken identity”.

“…It was found that the bowl bears a Persian inscription… in beautiful Thulth style of Islamic calligraphy, in relief. There is no other writing in Pali or Sanskrit in Brahmi or Nagari characters inscribed on it. There is also no trace of any earlier engraving or its omission for having the Persian inscription over-written on it, as has generally happened in many cases,” Khwaja wrote. The inscription, he said, describes the purchase of land by one Jalal-ud-Din opposite the Jama Masjid in Kandahar, on which a madrasa was built, and the bowl was created for the use of its students.

Another inscription in Persian verse on the inner surface of the bowl says the bowl was filled with “sweetened water at the order of the Shahryar, the Chief of the City” in the second decade of the 16th century, a time when Sikandar Lodhi — who is buried in Delhi’s Lodhi Garden — ruled north India.

“The chronogram in the inner inscription yields the date as 1513-1515 AD (AH 919) but even on the basis of its calligraphy, it is datable in the 15th-16th century AD. Moreover, the base of the bowl has 24 cusped arches, the popular motif of Islamic architecture used in Timurid buildings,” Khwaja wrote.

The Timurid style of architecture is a post-15th century phenomenon. The minarets of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, built by Shah Jahan in the mid-17th century, have similar ‘petal’ motifs.

Khwaja concluded, “The claim of it being the begging bowl of Lord Buddha, which belonged to Vaishali and was taken away by Kushan King Kanishka after the invasion, seems to be a case of mistaken identity. Otherwise also, the begging bowl of Lord Buddha which was carried by him for bhiksha must have been of terracotta, similar to North Indian Black Pottery, generally found at various Buddhist sites.”
Mishra, on the other hand, is learnt to have cited literary sources to argue that the legend of Kanishka taking away the bowl — to which Islamic inscriptions were added around the time of Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century — is historically accurate. Mishra declined to comment on his report.

Top sources in the ASI confirmed there were “discrepancies” in the reports submitted by the two experts. “The epigraphical source is quite clear that the bowl was used for storing water. The literary source suggests otherwise. We are now looking at all evidence available to us to ascertain whether such type of stone bowls were used earlier or not, whether there was a tradition of this kind to collect all alms in big bheekshapatras,” a senior ASI official said.

The official added that Khwaja’s report does not specify the year in which the bowl was made. “It only mentions that it was filled with water for the first time in a particular year. It is possible that the bowl was made earlier, and the inscriptions were added later,” the official said.

The matter of bringing the bowl to India would have to be discussed between the Ministry of External Affairs and the Afghan government, the official said. “We will examine the epigraphical and literary evidence without any bias, and submit our report to the Parliamentary Committee on Government Assurances.”

The former RJD MP from Vaishali, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, had raised the matter of the bowl in Parliament last year, and asked why India was not making an effort to bring it back.

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