Buddhist Monasteries of South Asia and China

author: Sanjay Garg
edition: 2019, Manohar Publishers and Distributors
pages: 403
ISBN-10: 9350981602
ISBN-13: 9789350981603
Topic: History

Introduction by Sanjay Garg

About the Author:

Sanjay Garg is an eminent scholar with extensive research experience in history of South Asia, with specialization on economic and monetary history, currency and coinage, architecture and archival studies. His research findings have been widely published in print and multimedia which include twenty-three books and over eighty research papers.


Buddhism originated in ancient India around sixth-fifth centuries BCE. That was the period roughly coinciding with the spring and autumn period (770-476 BCE) in Chinese history when various schools of thought, such as Confucianism, and their exponents came to the fore. Politically India was divided into sixteen mahajanpadas (kingdoms), many of which were constantly contending for hegemony in Ganga-Yamuna doab. Finally, in this struggle for power Magadha emerged to prominence under a number of dynasties, peaking with the Maurya dynasty that unified most of the Indian subcontinent in the middle of third century BCE.

Buddhism began to spread to neighbouring countries during the reign of Mauryan King Asoka in the third century BCE. There existed two missions in opposite directions. Theravad sutras written in Pali language spread southward to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and Indonesia while Mahayan sutras spread northward to Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan. According to Chinese documents, Hinayan was fashionable in ancient Kucha.

Trans-border spread of the Buddhist scriptures was greatly facilitated by their translations in the local languages. Initially, up till about fourth century CE, scriptures in Prakrit language were used to spread Buddhism. Later, Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit became quite widespread, from which these were translated into the Central Asian languages and then into Chinese. The Chinese Tripitaka is the most complete collection of extant Buddhist scriptures; its influence reached beyond China to Korea and Japan as well as to Vietnam. During the seventh century CE Buddhism spread from India to Tibet and as Buddhist sutras were gradually and systematically translated into its local language, Tibetan Buddhism came into being.

Relics of Buddhism of different stages have been found in China in the shape of monasteries, stupas, Buddha images and ritual implements which present a good combination of Chinese and Western elements. Buddhist sculptures are in the form of cave carvings, painted clay figures, etc.

In the spread and propagation of the Buddhist doctrines the Buddhist monasteries played a major role. These monasteries not only promoted and patronized different architectural styles and art forms such as paintings and sculptures, but also served as major repositories of the sacred texts. In addition many monasteries also played a social role by hosting community kitchens and running hospitals for the common people.

This volume is a result of an international conference on Buddhist monasteries in South Asia and China that was organized by the Society for Buddhist Art and Archaeology in New Delhi in December 2015. The Conference invited papers on the following themes:

  1. Buddhist monastery and temple sites in South Asia,
  2. Buddhist monastery and temple sites in China,
  3. Design of the Buddhist monastery in South Asia and China: A comparative study,
  4. Stupas, paintings and sculptures discovered in the Buddhist monastery sites, and
  5. Documents and inscriptions related to the Buddhist monasiery and temple.

Select contributions presented at the said Conference have been included in this volume. While there is unanimity on the need to enlarge the ambit of studies on monasticism and monasteries in South Asia and China, there is still a wide chasm as far as sharing of research findings between the two regions is concerned. This is primarily due to the language barrier and it is hoped that by providing a common platform and through translations this gulf could be bridged to a great extent.

The consistent and dedicated endeavours by archaeologists in South Asia and China have brought to light many hitherto unknown or understudied Buddhist monastic sites. The results of excavations have altered our understanding of monasteries as mere residences for monks, and have simultaneously revealed the existence of many important Buddhist centres which were an integral part of the cultural and religious fabric of the society. Excavations at these sites have also brought forth the necessity of placing these sites in a wider religio-cultural landscape and network. Simultaneously, many of these excavations also make it evident that the construction of Buddhist monastic establishments was done at sites which have evidence of earlier settlements. This, in turn, reminds us of the need to analyse the role of the varied communities in the maintenance and continued support at the sites and the relations and also the links between various monastic sites. It also resurrects one of the much debated questions relating to the causes behind the decline of Buddhism in India. One of the reasons attributed is the decline in trade and urbanism. However, in the period of decline, a few monasteries that managed to survive were supported through land grants, turning them turned into landlords. Academic learning at these monasteries no longer remained the sole prerogative of the monks, but now the lay community could also become a part of academic pursuits at the monasteries. In the long run, however, these monasteries could not compete with the Hindu temples and suffered decline.

In developing a holistic understanding of the religious establishments and their relations with the contemporary society the material remains of the past invariably provide vital clues and leads.


Buddhist monumental remains and archaeological sites have attracted the attention of pilgrims, travellers, explorers, antiquarians, archaeologists, historians, coin-collectors as well as common people from a very early time. One of the most explored areas in this context is the Gandhara region that extended from the Swat Valley and Potohar plateau in Pakistan to the Jalalabad district of north-eastern Afghanistan. Three contributions included in this volume deal with different aspects of the Buddhist archaeology in this region.

Ifqut Shaheen has studied various approaches that were adopted during nineteenth century to understand the Gandharan stupa situated in the Taxila Valley. After contextualizing the accounts of travellers and explorers such as Charles Masson, Alexander Burnes, General Ventura, and Major Court in the study of stupas of this region, she makes an analysis of stupa exploration in Taxila Valley by Alexander Cunningham. During 1860s and 1870s Cunningham explored and documented as many as 27 stupa-sites in the Taxila Valley, including the famous Dharmarajika monastic complex, Bhir mound and Sirkap. The study presents an evolutionary perspective in understanding the archaeology of the region.

Another important Buddhist site in the Gandhara region is Aziz Dheri in the Swabi district in the - Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. It is one of the largest archaeological mounds in ancient Gandhara with a rich assemblage of cultural artefacts and well organized settlemerit pattern. M. Nasim Khan has been conducting archaeological explorations and excavations at this site since 1993 and he presents a report on the recent findings at Aziz Dheri and studies its impact on the overall history of the religious landscape in the region. Focusing mainly on the chronological sequence of the site, distribution pattern of its relics and iconographic discoveries, his study seeks to redefine the relationship between texts, images and architectural spaces.

Rafiullah Khan gives an ethno-archaeological perspective of the Buddhist sacred establishments of Gandhara vis-a-vis contemporary socio-cultural system. His study reveals that in terms of religiosity a crystal clear cultural continuity can be observed in Gandhara despite the fact that radical eschatological transformations have subsequently occurred in that region. Juxtaposing the socio-religious system of mosques and madrasas in the present-day Swat spanning over the-last four/five centuries with the Buddhist stupas and monasteries in the region, he analyses the data to show the system of property rights and its management regarding Buddhist sacred establishments and people's spiritual, political and economic engagements with these institutions.

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