Buddhist sculptures discovered in ruins of ancient Shrine

by Owen Jarus, livescience, April 30, 2016.

and carvings dating back more than 1,700 years have been discovered
in the remains of a shrine and its courtyard in the ancient city of
Bazira. The sculptures illustrate the religious life of the city,
telling tales from Buddhism and other ancient religions.

Also called Vajirasthana, Bazira is
located the in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. It was first constructed
as a small town, during the second century B.C., and eventually
developed into a city located within the Kushan Empire. At its peak,
this empire ruled territory extending from modern-day
to central Asia.

The Kushan Empire declined during the
third century A.D., at the same time that a series of earthquakes
ravaged Bazira. The damage caused by the earthquakes — and the
financial problems brought about by the decline of the Kushan Empire
— meant that Bazira gradually fell into ruin, with the city
abandoned by the end of the third century.

Today, the ruins of Bazira are located
near the modern-day village of Barikot. The Italian Archaeological
Mission has been excavating Bazira since 1978, gradually unearthing
remains of the ancient city.

The great departure

One of the sculptures, carved in green
schist, depicts a prince named Siddhartha leaving a palace on a horse
named Kanthaka. 

The sculpture likely form part of the shrine’s
decoration, the archaeologists said.

According to ancient Buddhist stories,
was a wealthy prince who lived in a palace in Kapilavastu, which
isinmodern-day Nepal. He lived a cloistered life, but one day he
ventured outside his palace and encountered the suffering faced by
common people. After this experience, he decided to leave his palace
to live as a poor man in order to seek enlightenment. He later became
Gautama Buddha

In the carved scene, two spirits known
as yakshas support Kanthaka’s hooves, wrote archaeologist Luca
Olivieri, who directs excavations at Bazira, in the Journal of Inner
Asian Art and Archaeology. Meanwhile, the town goddess of
Kapilavastu, who is shown wearing a crown, holds her hands together
in a sign of veneration.

An unknown man — maybe a deity,
Olivieri said — stands behind Kanthaka, with his left hand to his
mouth and his right hand waving a scarf-like garment called an

Goat’s head and wine

In the courtyard, archaeologists found
another carving, this one dating to a time after an earthquake had
damaged the shrine. The shrine had been rebuilt using perishable
materials, likely wooden posts, the archaeologists said. Also at
around this time, the courtyard was converted into a kitchen area
that serviced nearby homes.

The carving “pictures an unknown
deity, an aged male figure sitting on a throne, with long, curled
hair, holding a wine goblet and a severed goat head in his hands,”
Olivieri told Live Science, adding that the figure looks a bit like
images of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine.

Wine was widely produced in the Swat
Valley, and some people in the area, even monastic Buddhists, had
issues with drinking alcohol, Olivieri said. “We found dozens of
ancient winepresses and vats in the countryside,” Olivieri said.

From “texts, it seems that
Buddhist schools tried their best to curb the habit of consuming wine
and other ‘intoxicating drinks’ even amongst the monastic community,”
he added.

The goat’s head in the carving also
symbolizes a local passion, Olivieri said. “The goat is an
animal associated to the mountains in the cultures of Hindu Kush, the
local region,” Olivieri said, adding that it was used as an icon
in ancient rock art.

Stupa with lions

Another beautiful carving that once
decorated the shrine depicts a stupa, a structure shaped like a mound
that is used for meditation. Near the top of the stupa is a platform
known as a harmika, which is decorated with a rosette design. Above
the harmika, there are three parasol-like structures called
chattrasthat face up toward the sky.

Two columns, with lions on top, are
carved next to the stupa. The lions peer down at the stupa (which is
at the same height as the columns), as if they are watching over it. 

This scene could be based off of a
real, ancient stupa that existed in the Swat Valley, Olivieri said.
“Real stupas with four columns — topped by crouching lions’
statues—at the corners of the lower podium have been documented in
Swat,” Olivieri told Live Science.

One stupa like this was excavated in
the 1960s and 1970s. Archaeologists found that it was usedbetween the
first and fourth centuries A.D., the same time that Bazira