The oldest, dateable depiction of the Buddha in human type I Curator’s Nook Season four Episode 6

published on July 3, 2020

I'm going to be talking to you about one

of the most important objects in the

entire British Museum and that's really

saying something given the kind of

collections we have here but it's true

I'm doctor Sushma Jan sorry I'm the

creator of the Asian ethnographic and

South Asia collections here at the

British Museum welcome to my corner this

is the boomerang casket and on the front

you can see an image of the Buddha and

it's actually the earliest dateable

image of the Buddha in human form

previously the Buddha was shown in

symbolic form so maybe footprints thrown

with the parasol on top and it wasn't

until this object was discovered and it

had some coins with it which date to

about the 1st century AD that we

realized that actually this shows the

Buddha as a man in human form for the

first time that we can date it was found

in gandora which is a region sort of

firm based on the Peshawar Valley in

northern Pakistan it's a region on the

Silk Roads and it connected East Asia

with Western Asia and South Asia so

there are lots of pilgrims merchants

following these routes Buddhism arrived

in the Gandhara region in around the mid

3rd century BC it came from the Ganges

Valley where the Buddha preached and it

was soon afterwards that the first

stupas and monasteries were established

there by about the 7th to 8th centuries

ad Buddhism was in decline and by the

very start of the 11th century AD it was

essentially vanished from the area

although a lot of the stupas and

monasteries which were beautifully

embellished or sculpture i have to say

although most of them were ruined a lot

of them were actually incorporated into

other structures for example villages

and some of the stone and sculpture was

reused so it's not as if all of these

sites were entirely abandoned and sort

of left to wrack and ruin they played a

longer role in the history and the lives

of people the local people living there

moving back to this particular object so

these were found in stupid number 2 of I

think 4 or 5 stupa so a father

the village of boomer and the person

chose Masson who actually discovered

this object he had opened up his stupor

and and inside he found this object with

four coins next to it and this object

the boomerang casket was found inside it

so I'm gonna talk about the boomerang

casket itself first its cylindrical as

you can see it's gold and really

intricate and the size and the intricate

decoration really set it apart from all

of the other small gold and silver relic

words not very many of them which are

found in Gandhara and relic deposits

their tiny maybe like a centimeter in

size this isn't a suspect Acula you can

see the Buddha doing the gesture of

dispelling fear so when you have the

hand raised

it's called a mudra which as a hand

gesture and on either side he has two

Hindu deities you have brahma on this

side and you have indra on the other

side how can you tell the difference

so brahma is usually shown as an acetic

so he's wearing the very traditional

unstitch clothing the draped clothing on

the lower body and the upper body

he has his hair up in a topknot and and

he's also carrying a small water pot in

his hand there on the other side you

have Indra and he's dressed in the

clothing of a prince he's wearing a


he has his drape clothing on again and

he has armbands bracelets and he is

praying to the Buddha there you might

think it's unusual to find Hindu deities

alongside the Buddha it's really not

unusual in gandara

one of the most standard sort of

iterations of having them side-by-side

is when the gods Brahma and Indra and

treating the Buddha to preach the Dharam

the Buddhist Dharma there's one rather

more mysterious figure here as well it's

this figure and he's got his hands in

Anjali mudra which is that the matter of

respect paying respect it's really not

clear who this figure is it's generally

assumed that he's a bodhisattva possibly

matreya which is the bodhisattva of the

future but who knows one day we might be

able to identify him one thing that most

people don't normally get

but I think it's probably well the most

beautiful parts of this reliquary is the

bass hold it very carefully and you can

see it's a full-blown Lotus with eight

petals and it's absolutely beautiful so

we've talked about identifying Brahma

and Indra how on earth could I tell this

is the Buddha well in later

representations he's often shown in this

form with his hands in this gesture with

these two deities to either side he also

has a cranial bump if you look closely

it's called the Ashley Jie and it's it

sort of symbolizes his spiritual prowess

and you'll find it on most later

representations of the Buddha so we're

going to move on now to the stone relic

with casket it was originally in three

parts you can still see a small sort of

indentation here and this would have had

a lid on top of it but once again that

was also missing and when the deposit

was opened so this object may well have

had a separate life before it was

included in this deposit around the top

and around the bottom you can see

letters engraved into the surface and

those are in crushed theme script in the

Procrit language and Prakrit is a

vernacular and everyday language spoken

in the region at the time the

inscription on the lid reads for relics

of the Lord donation of Shiva rakshita

son of Moreh father the base inscription

reads donation of Shiva rakshita son of

omoro father given for relics of the

Lord in honor of all Buddha's it's

interesting that the name of this of the

donor of this Buddhist and deposit he

had a show vite name he you know you can

tell he's got the name Shiva in his in

his name and it may be surprising to

find that actually it's not unusual to

have the names of shaivite or even

fortune of i'ts donating attaced relic

wares at this time the early centuries

ad if I open it up carefully you can see

the remains of four little parts on

either side and it would originally have

been divided up inside but those were

scraped out so that you could fit

this relic right inside it and it was

also inside that you had all those tiny

little beads and tiny gold ornaments as

well only about I think six reliquaries

like this with the compartments inside

have actually ever been found so this is

actually quite a rare object so at the

start of this video I made quite a big

claim which was that this is one of the

most important objects of the British

Museum I hope you agree with me not only

is it the earliest dateable image of the

Buddha in human form it's actually one

of the biggest and that sorry the

biggest and most intricately made gold

reliquary of this size of this date from

Gandhara as well and it's in an

inscribed stone relic cream and you know

what it's just very very beautiful to

look at as well so if you want to see

these important objects all you have to

do is come to the British Museum

and come down to the South Asia section

of the Houghton gallery and you'll be

able to see this in the flesh lots of my

wonderful colleagues have done other

episodes of craters corner and if you'd

like to subscribe to the British

Museum's and YouTube channel please do

so here

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