Southern Bactria and Northern India before Islam: A Review of Archaeological Reports

By Fussman, Gerard | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, April-June 1996 | Go to article overview

Southern Bactria and Northern India before Islam: A Review of Archaeological Reports


Fussman, Gerard, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Despite a huge and ever-increasing bibliography, the history of northern India from the death of Asoka to the first inroads of the Moslem armies is still imperfectly known. About its social history we can only state that new peoples kept coming from Iran and Central Asia and were, in the course of time, integrated into an Indian social organization about which we have very little incontrovertible data.(1) Its economic history is summed up by lists of commodities, some indications about currencies and monetary policies, and imprecise records of its trade with China and the Roman Empire. Thanks to recently discovered inscriptions and sculptures, the complex relationship between Buddhism and early Hinduism now appears in a new light, but this new data comes from widely separated Places (mainly Gandhara and Mathura) and its interpretation may be disputed.(2) The political history of northern India still consists of bare lists of names, with an often unsure relative chronology and a still more unsure absolute chronology. These chronological uncertainties cannot but have a bearing on the history of early Indian Art which, despite some advances,(3) has not yet been established on a sure footing.

The extant Indian, Western, and Chinese literatures have been so carefully sifted that new important revelations are not to be expected. New inscriptions and coins are published almost every year, but they are more often than not stray finds whose whereabouts are imperfectly known.(4) Thus, the only hope for the historian of early India lies in regular excavations. Indeed, as early as 1903, (Sir) John Marshall planned to start excavations in Taxila, partly because its location and history reminded him of ancient Greece, but mostly because he wanted to recover all kinds of data "on the political and religious history of the northwest ... and its material culture during lengthy periods between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500."(5) The trend was followed by (Sir) Mortimer Wheeler, who came to India in February 1944 with a plan of systematic excavations for recovering India's past.(6) But he had to leave India (now Pakistan) without being able to implement his plan fully. The Archaeological Survey of India and the Department of Archaeology of Pakistan did not follow in his steps. But his ideas were taken up by three archaeological missions whose heads had impressive academic backgrounds: the Delegation Archeologique Francaise en Afghanistan (DAFA), whose postwar director, Daniel Schlumberger, had the same taste for history as its founder, Alfred Foucher;(7) the Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente (IsMEO), whose chairman, Giuseppe Tucci, in 1955, earmarked places in the Swat valley of Pakistan for excavations with the specific purpose of unraveling the history of Buddhism in northwestern India and discovering the sequence of the Hellenized Buddhist art of Gandhara;(8) and the Archaeological Mission of the Museum of Indian Art (Berlin) which began to dig at Sonkh, near Mathura, in 1966 under the leadership of Herbert Hartel, then director of the museum, a pupil and heir of Professors Luders and Waldschmidt, to "collect material information on the early history of the once-flourishing State of Mathura, one of the most important cultural centres of ancient India."(9)

This was how, during the sixties, three large excavations were conducted in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Republic of India which should have helped to solve, but did not, the vexed questions of the origins of early Buddhist art, the creation of the anthropomorphic representation of Buddha, and the subsequent developments of early Indian art: Ai Khanum in northern Afghanistan (1964-1978), started by D. Schlumberger but almost entirely led by P. Bernard, which was to have given important clues to the Hellenization of northwestern India; Butkara I in Swat, "chosen by Prof. Tucci after careful study of historical sources continually checked by inspection of the ground,"(10) entirely dug out by Domenico Faccenna (1956-1962), where it was hoped that careful stratigraphical excavations could help to establish on a sure footing the chronology of Gandharan art; and Sonkh, excavated by Prof.

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