At first glance, it doesn’t seem all that grand, just over 19 cm in height, with a diameter of slightly more than 10 cm. It’s deceptively simple for something that once held the relics of the Buddha.
The site where it was found is even more nondescript. Today, it’s just a mound in present-day Peshawar, Pakistan. But this was once the heart of archaeological activity on the Indian subcontinent. The search and discovery undertaken here told such a thrilling tale of interconnected trade and cultural exchange, of the history of Buddhist art and the mighty Kushana Empire (1st to 3rd century CE), that more than a century on, scholars are still studying it and arguing over the details.
First, a little perspective. The casket was found buried in the remains of what is believed to have once been a stupa so tall that its copper peak acted as a lightning rod; a stupa so grand and so high that travellers in ancient times referred to it as the tallest structure in the world.
It was built during the reign of Emperor Kanishka (78 - 144 CE), the greatest of the Kushana emperors. His was an empire that extended from the Aral Sea through present-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan into northern India, as far east as Bhagalpur now in Bihar and as far south as Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh. A territory so large, it was administered from two capitals: Purushapura (in present-day Peshawar) and Mathura in northern India.
The Kue-shuang or Kushanas had come to India from what is now Turkmenistan in Central Asia. They had been expelled from their homeland by a rival tribe, the Hiung-Nu, who would later become famous as the Hunas.
Chased out of their lands in the early 2nd century BCE, the Kushanas settled in the Amu Darya region of present-day Uzbekistan. About a century later, a Kushana prince named Kujula Kadphises (15 – 70 CE) conquered vast parts of present-day Afghanistan as well as Gandhara and the lower Swat Valley, both in present-day Pakistan. This marked the beginning of the Kushana Empire.
Kanishka was a great patron of Buddhism, and his reign saw the emergence of the Gandhara and Mathura schools of Buddhist art. While the Gandhara School is characterised by sculptures with Greek features, the Mathura school of art has sculptures with more indigenous features. The Gandhara school flourished in Northwestern India while the Mathura school flourished in the Gangetic plains, their styles were influenced not only by their geography but also the material available locally, grey schist in the case of Gandhara and spotted red sandstone in the case of Mathura.
Kanishka was also known to have created a great stupa, the location of which was unknown in modern times. Chinese travellers’ accounts mention it as the great Tower of Kanishka. The most definitive description comes from the Chinese traveller Sung Yun, who visited it in 520 CE. He describes it thus: “…the foundation of the Great Tower [is] 300 paces and more. To crown all, he placed a roof-pole upright and even. Throughout the building he used ornamental wood, he constructed stairs to lead to the top....there was an iron-pillar, 3-feet high with thirteen gilded circlets. Altogether the height from the ground was 700 feet.”
According to Yun, the tall stupa with a copper top acted as a lightning rod. He noted that the tower had been struck by lightning at least three times, and been rebuilt after each strike. Other records too mention that it was destroyed and rebuilt time after time. One reason for this could be that it was situated in a Himalayas region prone to earthquakes. Buddhist historian Huu Phuoc Le, in his book Buddhist Architecture (2010), suggests that the stupa was rebuilt four times between the 2nd and 6th centuries CE.
Slowly, Buddhism declined in the region, as it did in the rest of South Asia, and with the advent of Islam from the 9th and 10th centuries CE, even disappeared from public memory here. It saw a revival only in the 18th century, as a result of growing European scholarship around the faith.
By now, all that remained of the location of the stupa was a mix of legend and myth. But, intrigued by the accounts left behind by Chinese travellers such as Yun and Fa-Hien (early 5th century CE), around 1,300 years earlier, archaeologists and historians in colonial India went on a quest to find it.
The French historian Alfred Foucher identified the Shah-ji-ki-Dheri mound just outside the Ganj Gate of Peshawar as a potential site. Excavations began, and went on for two years until, in 1908, the archaeologist David Brainard Spooner struck gold. He found a small gilded bronze casket with a tightly fitted lid, sitting on a coin issued during the reign of the Kushana Emperor Kanishka.
On the lid of the casket were etchings of the Buddha surrounded by the Vedic deities Indra and Brahma. On the edge of the lid, a frieze of geese in flight, a very Greek motif. The casket as a whole displays many features of Greek art that are typical also of Gandhara art, and the Gandhara region where it was found. However, art historian Mirella Levi d'Ancona of New York University has suggested that the casket may have been made in Mathura, another centre of Kushana art.
The casket bears four inscriptions in Kharosthi which confirm it was made during Kanishka's reign. According to D B Spooner the language of the inscription is a Sanskritised Prakrit. The first two inscriptions are Buddhist dedications, the third one states that it was made in the first year of the reign of Kanishka. The fourth inscription is particularly interesting, it states: "The slave Agi'ala, the Superintendent of works at the Vihdra of Kaniska in the Monastery of Mahisena." Which has been understood to refer to a Greek artist Agisala who was involved in the making of the Kanishka’s Vihara suggesting that Agisala may also have been the maker of the casket.
Interestingly Art Historian Prudence Myer of the University of California, Santa Barbara reads the word as Agnisala i.e a hall of fire, putting a question on whether or not the Greek artist Agisala was involved in or not. Even after discovery and study by countless scholars, there are still many unanswered questions about the casket.
Three bone fragments were discovered within the casket. They are believed to be relics of the Buddha and have been preserved at the Mandalay Hill in Burma, where they were sent by the British for safekeeping soon after the discovery, in 1910.
Scholars have now been studying these precious artefacts for over a century. And still there are so many unanswered questions about the casket. For one, there isn’t much clarity on where the original one is. Most official accounts, including those of the Peshawar Museum and the British Museum, state that the casket in the Peshawar Museum is the original and the one in the British Museum, a copy. Some scholars argue that both are copies. The British Museum has said that it made two copies of the casket when it conserved the original for the Peshawar Museum, keeping one for itself and sending one to Peshawar along with the original. So it is unclear which one you see when you visit the Peshawar Museum.
The stupa, meanwhile, is forgotten once again. The site of such excitement, drawing global archaeological attention in the early 20th century, is today a neglected ruin once more, part of the urban sprawl of Peshawar. You could be right beside it and never know that there once stood a towering shrine from an ancient world.