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Tope Kelan and the Stupa Cult in Hadda.

WHAT HAPPENED IN GANDHARA after the decline of the Kushans? Who were the subsequent patrons and what kind of establishments did they support? Tope Kelan is the principal stupa in Hadda, approximately 8 kilometres southwest of Jalalabad, or ancient Nagarahara, in eastern Afghanistan (figure 1). It is situated on the route that connects Gandhara proper--that is the Peshawar valley, in the east--to the Kabul valley in the west. It is a valuable site that can help ascertain the nature of the shifts in patronage and art styles in the region from the late 5th to the 7th centuries.

While the site of Nagarahara has not been excavated as it is covered with modern settlements, coin finds from the Hadda stupa deposits suggest that the stupa cult in this region began at least from the early 2nd century AD and continued in practice to at least the late 5th century AD. (1) That Hadda and Nagarahara were important Buddhist pilgrimage sites which attracted visitors from afar is attested from accounts of Chinese pilgrims from the 4th through to the 7th century. (2) The sites appear to have been renowned as places which the Buddha and bodhisatvas visited, but what seemed to have attracted most people, particularly the Chinese pilgrims, must have been relics of the Buddha. These relics were described as being of different forms: tooth, staff and robe in the case of Nagarahara and skull-bone (ushnisha) in the case of Hadda. They were so important that they were kept and guarded inside stupas during the night and brought out for veneration during the day, and often kings of this region and from afar participated in the worship of these relics. (3)

Some information on the political environs of Hadda may be gleaned from numismatic evidence. Coin finds north and south of the Hindu Kush suggest that during the latter half of the 4th century the area south of the Hindu Kush including Nagarahara and Hadda was ruled by the Sasanians, while Bactria in the north of the Hindu Kush was controlled by a group of Iranian Huns called the Kidarite Huns until the mid-5th century AD. (4) Coins of the Kidarite Huns found in Gandhara (Peshawar valley) and Punjab suggest that they also controlled these areas during the latter half of the 4th century. (5) Towards the end of the 4th century, another group of Iranian Huns called the Alchon Huns, (6) appeared to have taken over the land south of the Hindu Kush from the Sasanians, and Gandhara and the Punjab from the Kidarite Huns. (7) The Hephthalites, a third group of Iranian Huns who ruled in Bactria towards the end of the 5th century, appeared to have never crossed into the area south of Hindu Kush. (8) The stupa of Tope Kelan is important in that, apart from being the principal stupa in Hadda, it also contained 4th- and 5th-century coins including ones of the Kidarite and Alchon Huns, which provide us with chronological context for the Buddhist practice during the period of the Huna presence in this part of Afghanistan.

Tope Kelan Stupa and Its Deposit

Tope Kelan stupa is situated to the west of the present village of Hadda. The stupa was first excavated in the 1830s by Charles Masson, a British East India Company soldier and explorer. (9) In searching for the relics, Masson dug a tunnel vertically from the top of the stupa, and another horizontally from the west. When the two tunnels met, he dug further down the centre of the stupa until the relic deposit was reached. (10) This proved to be one of the most elaborate relic deposits found inside Gandharan stupas. (11) Placed inside a small square chamber, the relic deposit of Tope Kelan comprises five relic caskets, one nested inside another with the smallest gold casket being the innermost. The largest casket is in the form of a globular vase, made of copper that was gilded. (12) The casket placed directly inside this largest one is a cylindrical gilt copper vessel, while two remaining caskets are also in cylindrical forms but made of silver, one of which has an elaborate pinnacle. (13) The lid of the innermost gold casket is decorated with emerald and sapphire. (14) Placing a smaller relic casket inside a larger one, whereby the innermost is often made of the most precious material, is a practice common across Gandharan stupa relic deposits since the 1st century AD. The use of precious and semiprecious stones to decorate these caskets is, however, limited to a small number. Two exceptions are the famous Bimaran casket found with coins of late 1st century AD in a stupa west of Jalalabad (figure N), and the Ahinposh casket found in a stupa north of Hadda. (15) Likewise metal outermost relic caskets are found in a limited number; the majority of outermost Gandharan relic caskets, particularly during the 1st to late 2nd century AD, are made of stone. (16)

While Masson reported seeing minute bone relics inside many Gandharan relic caskets that contained coins of the 1st and 2nd centuries ad, he did not seem to find any bone relics inside the Tope Kelan caskets. The absence of bone relics is also a common feature amongst stupa relic deposits after the 2nd century AD. Instead of bone relics, the Tope Kelan relic deposit contained personal ornaments including over 100 rings made of gold and silver, hairpins, and beads of precious metals, semiprecious stones and glass. It also contained four intaglio seals and over 200 coins of the 4th and 5th centuries AD. (17) Approximately 180 of these coins are Sasanian silver issues, including those of Varhran IV (388-99 AD), Yarzdagird II (438-57 AD) and Peroz (457-84 AD). There are also coins of Roman emperors, Theodosius II (408-50 AD), Marcian (450-57 AD) and Leo I (457-74 AD), and one gold coin of a Kashmir king Shailabavirya (c. 464 AD). Found with these coins are also four coins of the Kidarite Huns and approximately 14 of the Alchon Huns. Kidarite coins include those in the name of Peroz (c. 395-425 AD), Kidara (c. 380 AD), and Kidara Kushanshah (c. 425-57 AD). Those of the Alchon Huns comprise coins imitating issues of the Sasanian ruler Shapur II (c. 309-79 AD), Khingila (c. 440-90 AD) (figure 2) and an anonymous Alchon king. (18) Since there is no sign of the Tope Kelan stupa being accessible, which would have allowed coins to be added in the relic deposit, the relic deposit together with the coins found inside the Tope Kelan stupa would have been enshrined during, or slightly after, the 5th century, thus providing a terminus post quem for the monument.

It is interesting that amongst the earrings in the Tope Kelan deposit is a large silver hoop earring of the same type depicted on some coins of the Alchon Huns, including those of Khingila. (19) Equally interesting amongst the finds of this deposit is the garnet intaglio depicting the bust of a man facing a symbol of the same type used on coins of the Alchon Huns including those of Khingila (20) (figure 3). As the latest coin in the Tope Kelan deposit belongs to Khingila (c. 440-90 AD), it is tempting to surmise that the relic deposit of Tope Kelan was possibly enshrined during the reign of this Alchon king.

Associated Structures and Sculptures

The excavations at the site of Tope Kelan were renewed by the Afghan Institute of Archaeology between 1965 and 1979 and this time revealed associated structures and several sculptures, mostly stucco. (21) The excavations show that the Tope Kelan stupa has a square base which is adorned with stucco images of a seated Buddha flanked by bodhisatvas and deities. These images are located inside panels which are divided by pilasters with pseudo-Corinthian capitals. The excavations also show that the Tope Kelan stupa is centred in a square courtyard enclosed by seven chapels, with a monastery attached to the courtyard on the northeast (figure 4).

The excavation led by Zemaryalai Tarzi during 1978 and 1979 revealed that in the centre of each of the excavated two chapels is a small votive stupa, their bases adorned with niches whose traces of sockets suggest that once images were attached here. (22) Along the wall of each of the two chapels is a bench and associated with the bench are fragments of sculptures modelled in clay and covered with stucco. The finds led Tarzi (23) to believe that the bench was used as a base for images. The courtyard, where the main stupa (Tope Kelan) is centred, has a portico running around the four sides. Tarzi (24) records that under the portico is a long bench that was also used to support images. He remarks that each of the chapels is separated by niches, which housed clay figures. Examples of stucco images resulting from Tarzi's excavations are illustrated here (figures 5-7 and 9). One of these images is a stucco bust, probably of a male deity (see figure 5), which shares stylistic resemblance with those from the site of Fondukistan, usually dated to the 7th century AD. (25) This stucco image might suggest that the commissioning of sculptures for the Tope Kelan stupa may have continued until the 6th-7th centuries AD.

As mentioned above, no sign of accessibility to the stupa of Tope Kelan was reported by Masson. The same is true in reports from modern excavations of Tope Kelan, which suggest that during or slightly after the 5th century AD, Buddhism still received patronage in Hadda. This accords with the Chinese records. The worship of Buddha's skull-bone, tooth, robe and staff relics in Nagarahara and Hadda as mentioned by the Chinese pilgrims of the 4th-7th centuries also shows that by the 5th century veneration of relics was not confined to relics enshrined within a stupa. As opposed to minute relic bones of earlier periods, which were generally placed inside caskets and permanently sealed inside stupas, these 5th-century relics are larger in size and were intended to be seen and even touched. (26) According to Faxian, Song Yun and Xuanzang these novel types of relics were kept inside stupas, guarded at night and brought out during the day for worship. (27) This also involved the participation of kings of the country and from afar. It may appear that the Tope Kelan stupa did not house the Buddha's skull-bone, as there is no access to the relic chamber. However, regardless of where the skull-bone was kept, this and other relics in Hadda and Nagarahara must have attracted visitors from afar, providing one means of revenue to the monastery. The rich deposit of the Tope Kelan stupa and Roman coins found within also show that Hadda was on the trade routes that connected the Roman Empire to the subcontinent. (28) Merchants, artists and pilgrims travelling along these routes must have played important roles in the transmission of ideas, knowledge and skills. The sculptures that adorned the stupa and its complex clearly resulted from this contact and interchange.


Who could have supported the stupa cult in Hadda during the 5th and perhaps the 7th century? According to some scholars, the Iranian Huns, referred to as the Hephthalites, were not disposed well towards Buddhism. (29) However, as mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the Hephthalites seem to have never ruled the areas south of the Hindu Kush including Taxila. Rather the Iranian Huns who ruled in these areas were the Kidarite and Alchon Huns. Coin finds in the Dharmarajika stupa complex, the principal Buddhist establishment in Taxila, show an uninterrupted sequence from the early 2nd century BC through to early 9th century AD. (30) Coins of the Kidarite Huns were also found inside a relic deposit of a votive stupa at the Dharmarajika complex. The 5th- to 7th-century cave painting in the nearby Buddhist site at Tepe Shotor (31) (figure 8) also attests to the continuity of Buddhism in Hadda during the Huna period. Further west in Bamiyan, monumental Buddha images were carved not long after the 5th century AD. (32) The Kidarite and Alchon Huns during the 4th to the 6th century, therefore, do not appear to have been hostile towards Buddhism. Rather, Buddhism seems to have flourished under their sovereign, particularly in the areas south of the Hindu Kush.

The large quantity of earrings, finger-rings and beads offered to the stupa relic deposit of Tope Kelan suggests that a considerable number of people participated in and supported the stupa cult. It may not be possible to know who took part in this collective patronage, but to some degree the Alchon Huns may themselves have been involved in this ritual activity. Tarzi (33) notes that the crescents on the diadem of some stucco heads found at the site, including those that adorned the main stupa, are reminiscent of the crescent used on the coins of the Iranian Huns (figure 6). This crescent is found on coins of the Sasanians, and those of the Kidarite and Alchon Huns (see figure 2). As the latest coins belong to those of Khingila, an Alchon king, the crescent used on these stucco heads may in fact have been modelled to reflect the patrons of this Huna group. The name Khingila was also found engraved on a Buddhist copper scroll dated to the 5th century AD, which recorded the dedication of a stupa. (34) Although this Huna king may not have been directly involved in the stupa cult of Tope Kelan and elsewhere, his presence was unlikely to have been hostile towards this ritual. (35) Barthoux (36) argues that the Buddhist monuments in Hadda were not destroyed but decayed, while Tarzi (37) believes that a fire destroyed Hadda's Buddhist sites sometime after the mid-8th century and before the accession to the throne of the Ghaznavids in the 10th century. Whatever the cause of the abandonment of the Buddhist sites may have been, it is clear that the many immediate successors of the Kushans, whose remains are found in the Tope Kelan stupa deposit, demonstrate that Buddhism and these sites still apparently received collective patronage in Hadda during the late 5th century.


I would like to thank Professor Zemaryalai Tarzi for sharing his thoughts on sculptures from Hadda and for providing photographs from his excavations at the Tope Kelan stupa site. I am grateful to Dr Elizabeth Errington, former Curator of the Masson Project, the British Museum, who gave me access to and guidance on how best to study the Tope Kelan stupa relic deposit. I am indebted to Joe Cribb, former Keeper of Department of Coins and Medals, the British Museum, and Robert Bracey, Curator of Kushan Coins, Department of Coins and Medals, the British Museum, who continue to inspire me and educate me on many aspects of coins, including those of the Alchon Huns. I also thank Piers Baker for providing photographs of the Tope Kelan stupa and the cave painting at Tepe Shotor taken when he visited the sites back in 1979.


(1) E. Errington, Charles Masson and the Buddhist Sites of Afghanistan: Explorations, Excavations, Collections 1833-1835, London: The British Museum, 2017, pp. 126-99. See also W. Rienjang, "Honouring the Body: Relic Cult Practices in Eastern Afghanistan with Comparison to Dharmarajika Taxila, Pakistan", PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2017. For numismatic evidence on Gandharan Buddhist sites see E. Errington, "Numismatic Evidence for Dating the Buddhist Remains of Gandhara", Silk Road Art and Archaeology, 6,1999/2000.

(2) J. Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms: Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Fa-hsien of Travels in India and Ceylon (a.d. 399-414) in Search of the Buddhist Books of Discipline, Oxford: Oxford Clarendon Press, 1986, pp. 36-40; S. Beal, Si-YuKi: Buddhist Record of the Western World, London: Trubner, 1884, pp. cvii; L. Rongxi, The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions, Berkeley, California: bdk America, Inc., 1996, pp. 66-69.

(3) Ibid.

(4) J. Cribb, "Numismatic Evidence and the Date of Kaniska I", in Problems of Chronology in Gandharan Art, edited by Wannaporn Rienjang and Peter Stewart, Oxford: Archaeopress, 2018, p. 29; K. Vondrovec, Coinage of the Iranian Huns and their Successors from Bactria to Gandhara (4th to 8th Century CE), Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2014.

(5) Cribb, "Numismatic Evidence", p. 29.

(6) The terms "Alchon/Alchano/Alkhan/Alkhano Huns" refer to the issuers of coins south of the Hindu Kush in the period following the Kidarite Huns. The terms came from the coin inscription in Bactrian, [phrase omitted] which can be transcribed as Alchano or Alkhano. In this article, "Alchon Huns" is used, for it is the most conventional term used in numismatics. See examples of coins with [phrase omitted] inscription in Vondrovec, Coinage of the Iranian Huns, pp. 230, 235-37.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Ibid., pp. 399-418.

(9) C. Masson, "A Memoir on the Buildings Called Topes", in Ariana Antiqua: A Descriptive Account of the Antiquities and Coins of Afghanistan, edited by H. Wilson, London: East India Company, 1841, pp. 180-210; Errington, Charles Masson and the Buddhist Sites, pp. 174-81.

(10) Masson, "A Memoir", pp. 180-210.

(11) For a comprehensive compilation of Gandharan Buddhist reliquaries see David Jongeward, Elizabeth Errington, Richard Salomon and Stefan Baums, Gandharan Buddhist Reliquaries, Seattle: Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project, 2012. For the analysis of the practice of relic cults across Afghanistan see Rienjang, "Honouring the Body".

(12) Jongeward et al, Gandharan Buddhist Reliquaries; Errington, Charles Masson and the Buddhist Sites, fig. 277.

(13) Errington, Charles Masson and the Buddhist Sites, pp. 179-80, figs. 278.35,287.37.

(14) Ibid., pp. 180-90, fig. 278.38.

(15) Although I have considered them both in previous studies (Rienjang, "Honouring the Body" and "The Chronology of Stupa Relic Practice in Afghanistan and Dharmarajika, Pakistan and Its Implication for the Rise in Popularity of Image Cult", in Problems of Chronology in Gandharan Art), for a background to the discussion on the Bimaran stupa relic casket, see: Masson, "A Memoir", pp. 52-124; E. Errington, "Reliquaries in the British Museum", in Jongeward et al., Gandharan Buddhist Reliquaries, pp. 111-63; J. Cribb, "The Bimaran Casket: The Problems of Its Dates and Significance", in Relics and Relic Worship in Early Buddhism: India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Burma, edited by Janice Stargardt and Michael Willis, London: The British Museum Press, 2018; N. Kreitman, "Relic Casket", in The Crossroads of Asia: Transformation in Image and Symbol, edited by Elizabeth Errington and Joe Cribb, Cambridge: Ancient India and Iran Trust, 1992, pp. 189-92. For the Ahinposh reliquary see W. Simpson, Buddhist Architecture in the Jellalabad Valley, London: Royal Institute of the British Architects, 1879-80, pp. 37-58; Errington, "Reliquaries in the British Museum", pp. 111-63.

(16) Rienjang, "The Chronology of Stupa Relic Practice"; Jongeward et al, Gandharan Buddhist Reliquaries.

(17) Errington, Charles Masson and the Buddhist Sites, pp. 174-81.

(18) E. Errington and V. Curtis, From Persepolis to the Punjab, London: British Museum Press, 2007, pp. 85-102; Errington, Charles Masson and the Buddhist Sites, pp. 174-91.

(19) Errington, Charles Masson and the Buddhist Sites, p. 188, fig. 283.6.

(20) Ibid., p. 182, fig. 279.19.

(21) Now known by its more current spelling, as Tapa-e-Top-e-Kelan (ttk), the excavation reports are published by Z. Tarzi, "Tapa-e-Top-e-Kelan (ttk) of Hadda", South Asian Archaeology 1987, Vol. 11, Rome, 1990, pp. 707-26.

(22) Ibid., figs. 9-11.

(23) Ibid., p. 715.

(24) Ibid., pp. 717-18.

(25) Z. Tarzi, "Fondukistan Excavations", Afghanistan (Kabul), 28(2), pp. 1-7; B. Rowland, The Art of Central Asia, New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1974.

(26) Rienjang, "The Chronology of Stupa Relic Practice", pp. 98-100.

(27) Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, pp. 36-40; Beal, Si-Yu-Ki, p. cvii; Rongxi, The Great Tang Dynasty, pp. 66-69.

(28) A. Foucher, La vieille route de l'Inde de Bactres a Taxila, 2 vols., Paris: Les Editions d'art et d'histoire, 1942.

(29) See for example J. Marshall, Taxila: An Illustrated Account of Archaeological Excavations Carried Out at Taxila Under the Orders of the Government of India between the Years 1913 and 1934, 3 vols., Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1951.

(30) Errington, "Numismatic Evidence", appendix 1.

(31) Z. Tarzi, "Hadda a la lumiere des trois demieres campagnes de fouilles de Tapa-e-Shotor (1974-1976), communication du 25 juin 1976", Comptes rendus des seances de l'Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Vol. 3, pp. 1381-410.

(32) D. Klimburg-Salter, The Kingdom of Bamiyan, Buddhist Art and Culture of the Hindu Kush, Naples and Rome: Istituto Universitario Orientale, Dipartimento di Studi Asiatici, 1989, pp. 12-16, 90-91; Errington, Charles Masson and the Buddhist Sites, p. 65.

(33) Tarzi, "Tapa-e-Top-e-Kelan (ttk) of Hadda", p. 724.

(34) G. Melzer, "A Copper Scroll Inscription from the Time of the Alchon Huns--In Collaboration with Lore Sander", Buddhist Manuscripts, Vol. 3,2006, pp. 251-314.

(35) Vondrovec, Coinage of the Iranian Huns, p. 224.

(36) I. Barthoux, Les Fouilles de Hadda, I. Stupa et Sites, mdafa, iv, Paris, 1933, p. 64.

(37) Tarzi, "Tapa-e-Top-e-Kelan (ttk) of Hadda", p. 723.

Caption: 1 The stupa of Tope Kelan as in 1979. The hole seen in the photo was made by Charles Masson during his search for relics in the 1830s. PHOTOGRAPH: PIERS BAKER.

Caption: 2a and b Silver coin of the Alchon king, Khingila (c. 440-90 AD), the obverse showing a bust of the king facing an Alchon tamgha (seal or stamp) to the right. [C] THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM. 1894, 0506. 1164.

Caption: 3 Garnet intaglio showing the head of a man facing an Alchon tamgha (seal or stamp). [C]THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM. 1880. 3560.

Caption: 4 Plan of the "Tapa-e-Top-e-Kelan" from the excavation led by Z. Tarzi in 1978 and 1979. The Tope Kelan stupa (marked GS) is located in the centre of the courtyard (see note 21 below: Tarzi 1990, fig. 7).

Caption: 5 Stucco image, probably of a male deity, from Tope Kelan. PHOTOGRAPH: Z. TARZI.

Caption: 6 Stucco head of a bodhisatva from Tope Kelan, showing a diadem with a crescent. PHOTOGRAPH: Z. TARZI.

Caption: 7 Stucco head, probably of Indra, from Tope Kelan. PHOTOGRAPH: Z. TARZI.

Caption: 8 Cave painting on meditation at Tepe Shotor. PHOTOGRAPH: PIERS BAKER.

Caption: 9 Stucco head of the Buddha from Tope Kelan. The head also preserves traces of gilding (gold leaf) in place. PHOTOGRAPH: Z. TARZI.

Caption: R Vishnu as Varaha, Bannu, probably 4th-5th century AD. Limestone; 92(h) x 5o(w) cm. [C] NATIONAL MUSEUM OF PAKISTAN, KARACHI. PHOTOGRAPH: NAMAN P. AHUJA.

Hindu sculptures began to become the focus of worship around the 5th century AD. Bannu, on the road between Ghazni and Kohat, has revealed some of the most significant early Hindu images. They testify to yet another shift in religious focus. One of these remarkable statues is this Varaha (found along with an ekamukhalinga). The statues were part of a brick temple discovered in Wanda Shahab Khel, a village in Lakki Tehsil.

Caption: S A set of four painted Kushan-period panels, Bactria, c. 3rd century AD. Terracotta and gouache. [C] THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART.

a Panel with the god Zeus/Serapis/Ohrmazd and worshipper. 56.8(h) x 52.3(w) x 5.4(d) cm. Acc. No. 2000.42.2.

b Panel with god Pharro and worshipper. 57.5(h) x 52.7(w) x 6(d) cm. Acc. No. 2000.42.1.

c Panel with god Shiva/Oesho and worshipper. 57.2(h) x 53-3(w) x 5.7(d) cm. Acc. No. 2000.42.3.

d Panel fragment with the god Shiva/Oesho. 57.2(h) x 4i.6(w) x 5.7(d) cm. Acc. No. 2000.42.4.

This set of painted panels depicts a variety of Hindu, Zoroastrian, Greco-Roman and Egyptian deities, each being approached by a worshipper. One depicts Shiva/Oesho who is four-armed and three-headed, with a prominent third eye, wearing a diaphanous garment, an animal skin and belt, and holding a trident In the other, a majestic figure with a full beard and long wavy hair (may be identified as the supreme deity Zeus/Serapis/Ohrmazd) receives a supplicant in the characteristic Iranian short tunic and leggings, hands clasped in adoration. These panels have holes at the corners and were probably set up on the interior walls of a sanctuary. Their variety reveals how deities of different religions were worshipped simultaneously.

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Title Annotation:Hadda, Afghanistan
Author:Rienjang, Wannaporn Kay
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Jun 1, 2019
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