Sanchi and Its Archaeological Landscape: Buddhist Monasteries, Settlements & Irrigation Works in Central India

By Shaw, Julia | Antiquity, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Sanchi and Its Archaeological Landscape: Buddhist Monasteries, Settlements & Irrigation Works in Central India


Shaw, Julia, Antiquity


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.

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