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Sanchi and its archaeological landscape: Buddhist monasteries, settlements & irrigation works in Central India.

The Buddhist monastic complex at Sanchi in Central India, a recently designated `UNESCO World-Heritage' site, was established during the 3rd century BC as part of the westerly expansion of Buddhism from its base In the middle Gangetic plains. The distribution of other stupas, monasteries and `Asokan' edicts throughout the Mauryan empire illustrates the degree to which early programmes of Buddhist propagation conflated with the expanding boundaries of the state. Although the link between Buddhism and ancient trade has been studied (Ray 1986), understanding of the socio-religious mechanisms which enabled early Buddhist monks to establish themselves in new areas has been hampered by the `monumental' bias of Buddhist archaeology. Despite a rich body of art-historical and epigraphical scholarship on Sanchi (notably Marshall 1940) and 4 neighbouring monastic complexes (Cunningham 1854; Agrawal 1997), little attempt has been made to relate these monuments to wider aspects of the landscape.

With the aim of articulating these relationships, an extensive archaeological survey was carried out in the Sanchi area in 1998-2000. Covering an area of c. 100 sq. km, this survey has enabled the first integrated study of settlement archaeology and Buddhist history in Central India (traditionally treated as disconnected currents of research). The area was surveyed on a `village to village' basis, whereby modern settlements occurring at a ratio of 2 per sq. km formed the foci for following up local leads and carrying out systematic exploration in the surrounding fields and hills. This method is popular in India because of a tendency towards settlement continuity, and the practice of reinstalling archaeological material as objects of worship within the village itself. Unlike other surveys which have focused on settlements at the expense of other dimensions of the landscape (Erdosy 1988; Lal 1984), my own study breaks ground by treating the landscape as a series of archaeological complexes comprising a range of different types and periods of sites.

The discovery of over 35 `new' Buddhist sites enhances current knowledge regarding the internal dynamics of Buddhism in the local landscape (Willis 2000; Shaw 2000). Around 120 settlements (Chalcolithic to late Medieval) were also documented. All sites were plotted on 1:50,000 maps and, where possible, sketchplans and sampled pottery collections were made. This was relatively straightforward on ploughed mounds formed from decomposed mud-brick, whilst erosion gullies and artificial cuts had to be relied on for archaeological information at sites with on-going occupation. Sculptural fragments, of which over 500 were recorded, were valuable for establishing `terminal' dates, and for drawing on Sanchi's multilayered religious geography. A third type of settlement situated on densely forested hillsides was dated through comparative typologies and contextual analysis. Chronological analysis continues, but this new data provides a rural backdrop to our understanding of Early Historic urbanization in the area as represented by the ancient city site, Basnagar. The relative configuration of monasteries and settlements also provides an archaeological basis for assessing theories regarding the dialectical relationship between Buddhism and surrounding lay populations. It also has a bearing on hypotheses regarding the possible role of Buddhism in changing settlement trends between the Chalcolithic and Early Historic periods. A large number of prehistoric painted rockshelters, many of which show evidence for Buddhist reoccupation, lend a deeper insight into trajectories of cultural evolution (Indian Archaeology: a review 1963-4: 16-17).

Massive irrigation dams were also discovered, datable to c. 2nd century BC by in situ pottery and associated sculpture. Preliminary hydrological analysis suggests a connection with the introduction of new agrarian patterns based on wet-rice cultivation. This new data provides an empirical basis for assessing the link between Buddhism and agrarian systems of production in ancient India, a subject which has been overlooked largely because of the prohibitive attitude expressed in early Buddhist texts. By contrast, a body of inscriptional and textual scholarship in Sri Lanka attests to monastery-owned irrigation works as instruments of lay patronage during the 2nd century BC (Gunawardana 1979). Whilst this has challenged received models of Buddhist monks as passive mendicants and social parasites, there is a paucity of archaeological evidence relating to the early period. The Sanchi dams therefore provide important evidence for filling in the archaeological `gap'.


Acknowledgements. Grateful thanks to officers of the Archaeological Survey of India and Madhya Pradesh State Archaeology for generous advice and support whilst carrying out fieldwork. I am indebted to R.C. Agrawal, Raymond Allchin, D.K. Chakrabarti, Meera and Ishwar Dass, Santosh Kumar Dwivedi, Derek Kennet, John Sutcliffe and Michael Willis for valuable contributions, and to Students Awards Agency for Scotland, Smuts Memorial Fund, Nehru Fund and INTACH for funding this project.


AGRAWAL, R. 1997. Stupas and monasteries: a recent discovery from Satdhara, India, South Asian Archaeology 1995 1: 403-15.

CUNNINGHAM, A. 1854. Bhilsa Topes. London: Smith, Elder & Co.

ERDOSY, G. 1988. Urbanisation in early historic India. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports. International series S430.

GUNAWARDANA, R.A.H. 1979. Robe and plough: Monasticism and economic interest in early medieval Sri Lanka. Tuscon (AZ): Association for Asian Studies.

LAL, M. 1984. Settlement history and the rise of civilisation in the Ganga-Yamuna Doab. Delhi: B.R.

MARSHALL, J. 1940 (1982). The monuments of Sanchi. London: Delhi: Swati Publications.

RAY, H.P. 1986. Monastery and guild: commerce under the Satavahanas. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

SHAW, J. 2000. The sacred landscape, in M. Willis, Buddhist reliquaries from ancient India: 27-38. London: British Museum Press.

WILLIS, M. 2000. Buddhist reliquaries from ancient India. London: British Museum Press.

JULIA SHAW, Darwin College, Cambridge CB3 9EU, England.
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Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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