The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) on Wednesday (September 28), reported 26 Buddhist caves in Madhya Pradesh’s Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, after a month-long exploration conducted this summer. Besides the caves, which date back to the 2nd-5th century BCE, other archaeological remains of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism, such as chaitya-shaped doors and cells containing stone beds, were also reported by the ASI team.
We look at the findings, what they signify, and how it does (or doesn’t) change our understanding of the region:
The exploration was conducted between May 20 and June 26 this year by the ASI’s newly formed Jabalpur Circle, under the direction of its Superintending Archaeologist, Shivakant Bajpai and a dozen team members including archaeologists, archaeological analysts, photographers and forest guards. The team covered nearly 170 sq km within the reserve’s core area.
“In the exploration, remarkable archaeological remains came to light, adding a new chapter in the history of Baghelkhand,” said the ASI. Baghelkhand, which is said to derive its name from the Vaghela Rajput kings of the 14th century, covers the northeastern regions of Madhya Pradesh, and a small area of southeastern Uttar Pradesh.
The 26 caves that were found are associated with the Mahayana sect of Buddhism, ASI said, adding that these date back to the same time as the Ajanta caves in Aurangabad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Besides the caves, the team also found the remains of 26 temples, two mathas, two stupas, 46 idols and sculptures, 26 fragments and 19 water bodies, according to the report signed by Bajpai. It also mentioned a Buddhist pillar fragment containing a miniature stupa carving, dating to the 2nd-3rd century CE, and 24 Brahmi inscriptions from the 2nd-5th century CE.
The temples are from more recent times — the Kalachuri period (9th-11th century), while the water bodies range between 2nd-15th centuries CE. The report says that the places Kaushami, Mathura, Pavata (Parvata), Vejabharada and Sapatanaairikaa are mentioned in the Brahmini inscriptions, while the inscribed names of kings include Shri Bhimsena, Maharaja Pothasiri and Bhattadeva.
Other explorations at the reserve
This was the first phase of the current exploration by ASI, which covered the expanse of the Tala Range. In the coming phases, the ASI will survey the remaining ranges of the Bandhavgarh forest, Khitauli and Magadhi. Tala, Khitauli and Magadhi comprise the three main zones of the national park, which together cover an area of 716 km.
Bandhavgarh was declared a national park in 1968 and became a tiger reserve in 1993. The ASI stated that explorations in the region had been undertaken for the first time since 1938, under the command of ASI archaeologist NP Chakravarty.
It has recently been claimed that the findings of another historian, Professor Nayanjot Lahiri of Ashoka University, predate those of the ASI, and were not acknowledged by the agency.
“The work of Professor Nayanjot Lahiri of Ashoka University precedes the claims of ASI as evidenced in a peer-reviewed publication appeared in Current Science. Prof Lahiri’s findings were communicated in February 2022 and were accepted for publication in June 2022. It was published online on June 20, 2022, and came out in print on September 25, 2022. Prof Lahiri and her students, who worked very hard to discover various archaeological sites in Bandhavgarh, including several caves which have Buddhist footprints, wish that ASI had duly acknowledged their work,” said a statement by the university on Thursday (September 29).
In the article titled ‘Exploring the forest and mapping its archaeology: Bandhavgarh National Park and Tiger Reserve, India’, published in Current Science, Lahiri and co-authors MB Rajani, Debdutta Sanyal and Samayita Banerjee write: The archaeology of historical India has usually been perceived through the lens of cities and states, leaving forest tracts to a large extent unexamined. This article considers the historical signature in a segment of the Bandhavgarh National Park and Tiger Reserve… in order to understand how histories of occupation in jungles and wilderness where no settlements presently exist can be studied.”
They write that their survey — done in four phases, from March 2021 to June 2022 — involved a combination of ground-level investigations using GPS devices along with an analysis of satellite images, and added that “the earliest archaeological markers in Bandhavgarh are cave shelters of the 2nd century”.
Announcing the findings, the Ashoka University website states: “About 81 rock-cut shelters were located by us in an area of 5 kilometres – as the crow flies. Of these, 44 caves bear the numbers of the Forest Department while 37 caves are unnumbered. About 26 caves have inscriptions, with a few of them having more than one epigraph. A few also had carvings in their interiors and occasionally, on the cave exterior… The caves can be dated to the 2nd Century CE as can be gleaned from the inscriptions etched on their walls. These inscriptions, written in Brahmi script, in the Prakrit language, also tell us that they were built as resting spaces for merchants and traders.”
The significance of the findings
Officials in the ASI stated that while the remains were visible to anyone visiting the specific regions of the reserve, the exploration is nonetheless significant because it is the first time that all remains have been officially documented by the agency. They add that while digital documentation and videography has been done, metal signs cannot be placed for visitors as they may be harmful for animals living inside the tiger reserve.
NP Chakravarty, “mainly focussed on exploring and documenting the inscriptions”, the ASI report says, adding, “because of which, not much is known about the architecture of the caves”. While smaller expeditions have been conducted in this region since then, no significant report is available in the public domain, the agency claims.
The new Bajpai report clearly lays out all that has been added to the Chakravarty report — as many as 35 temples have been documented in the reserve, of which 26 were done during the latest expedition. Also, the number of documented caves has increased from 50 to 76, two mathas and two stupas have been reported, another 24 inscriptions have been found (50 in total), the number of reported sculptures have increased to 56 from the previous 10, 20 additional fragments and another 19 water bodies have been found, above the eight previous ones.
Additionally, a Votive Stupa has also been reported for the first time, adding a new chapter to Bandhavgarh’s history, the ASI said, claiming that the reported temples are also important from an architectural point of view.