Friday, June 5, 2020

COVID19 Lockdown – Vandalisation of the ‘Bhagwan Buddha ka Silapat’ in Sankisa

On the evening of 26th April, I received a news on Watsapp ‘Sankisa Buddha nagari mein aaj sadak nirman khudai mein bhagwan buddha ke do stambh nikle hain, jisme bhagwan buddha ki kalakriti bani hui hai, which translates as: ‘In Sankisa, the city of Buddha, during the digging for road construction, two Buddha pillars were discovered today. The pillars have the image of the Buddha on it.’  This message also carried four images of the ‘Buddha Pillar’.

Ancient red sandstone pillar unearthed accidentally from illegal digging in the vicinity of Sankisa archeological site. 
Pic Surinder Talwar
It was big news for me because I was right in Sankisa at the Youth Buddhist Society Center due to COVID19 lockdown when the discovery was made. This gave me the opportunity to see and document first-hand the reaction of the villagers (primary stakeholders) to the discovery and vandalisation of valuable antiquities in the period of restricted travel.
I was able to visit the site of the discovery not until two days later on the morning of April 28. Many villagers who were working in the nearby fields left their work and came to me out of curiosity. None of them had personally witnessed the vandalisation but of them, one had arrived at the scene within a few minutes of the incident. He told me that an earthmover was digging and piling earth on either side of the road. The Government had permitted the resumption of constructions all over the country at the end of the first phase of the Lockdown, hence the earthmover had been working for a couple of days already to widen the road.

The villagers told me that the pillar was unearthed within less than 20ft of the boundary wall of the ASI protected monument in Sankisa. This was a shocking piece of news for me because it is unlawful to undertake any sort of construction or digging in and around ASI protected monuments. Notice boards at ASI protected monuments clearly also state this. The villagers seemed to be aware of the rule - they told me that some of them had to obtain no objection certificates from the ASI office in Lucknow to construct even their houses in Sankisa. I found it all the more strange that villagers were aware of government rules pertaining to archeological sites and yet no one, not even the village head (Sarpanch), had taken notice or cared to inform the police that an earthmover had been digging away for more than a week close to the archeological site.

Myself standing inside the deep channel created by extracting earth illegally near the Sankisa archaeological site  - a major act of vandalisation. Pic: Rudraksha

The vadalisation happened inside the Archaeological Protected boundary.
Myself engaged in conversation with the  people of Sankisa who own the land where the vandalisation took place. Pic: Surinder Talwar

The illegal digging has exposed a layer of brick wall. Pic: Rudraksha
The only explanation for this could be that the contractor working for the road construction must have told the authorities that he would bring earth from some place far away but to save money, time and effort, he procured earth from fields neighbouring the archaeological site. These fields are clearly a part of the archaeological mound. The pits created by the earthmover were as deep as 10ft and 7 ft in width (see pictures). This is a serious offence. Layers and layers of ancient bricks have become exposed now. A guard deputed by the ASI was supposed to have been on duty at the archeological site and could have perhaps halted the earthmover or prevented the digging altogether but due to the Lockdown, he was off duty.

The locals further informed that when the pillar was spotted, it was intact, but due to the movements of the earthmover, it broke into two. A local boy who was watering his fields nearby at that time saw the pillar lying by the road and took it with him to use as a platform near his well. A few villagers approached him asking him to hand the pillar over to competent authorities but he declined and threatened them even. Fortunately, someone informed the police who seized the pillar from him and placed it in safety at the police station.

Our local friend, Shri Lalit Misra, who shares a good rapport with the local  police arranged for me to take a look at the pillar and film it at the police station. The police told me that they had already informed the ASI. The pillar would be collected by the ASI as soon as the lockdown is over. I sent pictures of the railing pillars to my archaeologist friends. One of them, Dr. Elora Tribedy, has made some remarks on the antiquity and significance of the find which I would like to share. 


Recent Recovery at Sankissa : Remains of Stupa, Art and Legacy

Dr. Elora Tribedy, Deccan College, Pune

The site of Sankissa (Sankisa, or Sankassa), located in the Farukkabad district of Uttar Pradesh has a great history and lineage in the Buddhist world. Buddha spent a good amount time here, imparted teachings and performed miracles at the holy city of Sankissa, on the bank of Ikhumati or presently Kalindi or Kalinadi river. There are detailed account of the city of Sankissa and gates opening to the settlement in the Buddhist literature where it is said that the city gate of Sankassa is one of the "unchangeable" spots of the world (avijahitatthānam). All Buddhas descend at that spot to the world of men after preaching the Abhidhamma. Once upon a time, a celebrated stupa on the site of Sankissa, bore the rings of commemoration to the enlightened one and His legends. It is said that the Stupa at Sankissa was commissioned by Ashoka who also contributed in construction of a Mauryan Pillar with elephant capital close to the legendary stupa. The famous Elephant capital of the Ashokan Pillar today stands on the site, bearing witness to the ravages of time. The elephant symbolises the legend of the pre-birth dream of Mayadevi. It is also known that a shrine was erected on the spot where the Buddha’s right foot had touched the earth. Whether it was the same spot where the stupa was built or not can not be ascertained. This legend of ‘Descent at Sankissa’ scene was repeatedly executed in early Buddhist art, as seen at Sanchi and Amaravati panels.

In 1842, Alexander Cunningham with his entourage make one of the earliest examination of the site and identified as Sankissa based on ven. Xuanzang’s account and carried out small-scale excavation.  During his exploration in 1843 and later, he noted the rampart of three and half miles in circuit. In the year 1917, the site was excavated under the supervision of Hiranandani Shastri. Excavation was conducted by Archaeological Survey of India which has resulted in recovery of various remains. The site was further excavated under the supervision of Dr. B.R.Mani during 1995-96 which brought into light different layers of cultural assemblages, ranging from droid with  Painted grey ware till the Kushana period.  Ceramics of Northern Black Ware is one of the noteworthy finds from the site.  Previous excavations have revealed sherds of Painted Grey Ware (PGW), Red Ware and Punch-marked coins, coins of Indo-Scythians and local rulers. Seals and sealings, terra-cotta figures, stone ware and beads were also recovered from Sankissa, some of which are housed at the Allahabad Museum.

Some remains were recovered recently which throw significant light on the antiquity of the Mauryan period Stupa at Sankissa and further affirm the continuity of veneration of this stupa during the Shunga period. First of these remains are two upright pillar fragments (Figure 1) made of sandstone. These appears to be part of a single pillar which belonged to the Vedika railing, (stambha/thamba or pillar) by its stylistic and architectural characteristics. The height of this upright pillar, now fragmented into two parts, is 4 feet 4.5 inches. This vedika pillar has a squarish dimension. The frontal surface has three sided projections, intersected by half lotus roundels on the upper and lower brackets, and two full roundels or medallions in central part.

Fig.1. Vedika Pillar (Stambha) found at Sankissa, Sandstone

Another stone fragment (Figure 2) with roundel or medallion containing fish-tail motif was also recovered. It appears to part of cross bar (suchi). The backside of this fragment is weathered and appears to be unadorned, indicating a recommended usage of frontal view only. This suchi fragment resembles the architectural design of a flat pillow, similar to Bharhut and Bodhgaya counterparts.

Fig.2. Stone fragment of Cross bar (Suchi) with Roundel depicting  motif. 
Fig.3. Architectural Elements of Vedika or Railings, Image source: V.S. Agarwal

The recovery of this upright pillar and fragment of cross-bar (suchi) with medallion of fish-tail motif, strongly suggest the existence of an early stupa at Sankissa by 250-200 B.C.E. The contemporary habitation might have eroded the projected volume of a stupa mound and as a result the remains of the Stupa and remains were deposited around the present day habitation as part of the site formation process. Both of the fragments appear comparatively earlier than the vedika fragments from Bharhut and Bodhgaya. Stylistically this pillar can be dated to approximately 250-200 B.C.E.

Fig.4. Side view of Vedika Pillar found at Sankissa, showing holes (Chulli

Stupa alongside
Vedika and Torana (gateways) complete the tetradic pattern of the Buddhist cosmology. A Vedika, enclosure or palisade is consisted of uprights ( thamba/stambha), cross-bars (suchi), and copings (ushnisha). Each of this stambha was fixed to the ground by inserting its lower part in the socket in the basement (alambanapindika) buried under the earth to help the foundation (Figure 3).

Present recovery of the above fragments adheres to the architectural facets, the thamba, suchi, alambanapindika. Side view of this pillar from Sankissa also shows three side-socket holes (chulli) to receive the tenons (chuda) of the cross- bars to be fixed (Figure 4). The weathered rectangular fragment belonged to one such cross bars of this pillar or one of the others.
Fig. 5.  Tenon on the top of Pillar Fragment for fixing into coping (Ushnisha)
Although, no fragment of the coping (ushnisha) is availed yet, present pillar has a stout tenon (chuda) on upper part to be fixed to the socket on the underside of the coping stone or Ushnisha (Figure 5).

Fig.6. Vedika or enclosure on Kalpa-Vriksha or Wish -fulfilling tree at Bharhut.
Image Courtesy: Alexander Cunningham; presently housed at Indian Museum, Kolkata.
Vedika pillar on the outer railing without coping at Bharhut, which possibly was of early Shunga period, is of 2’11’ in height. Vedika pillars belonging to later Shunga period at Bodhgaya with coping are of 6”8’ in height; The inner Vedika pillars with coping at Bharhut are of 7’1” in height; Sanchi Vedika pillars with coping are of 9’ in height. Thus, we see there was a gradual increase in the height of the vedika railing during 250-200 B.C.E.

The Sankissa vedika pillar without coping is of 4 feet 4.5 inches height and with coping it could be around 6 feet (in analogy to the length of alambanapindika). Hence, the height of the vedika pillar in addition to its simple yet stern architectural style indicates the possibility of earlier date than Bharhut and Sanchi vedika railing pillars.

In early Buddhism, the vedika railing played an important role in demarcating the scared space around Stupa. Initially Vedika railings were used for demarcating the sacred space from the profane in the worship of Yupa-Yasthi (Lakula and Stambha) and the Kalpa-vriksha or sacred tree (Figure 6). This concept was used in architecture of Stupa subsequently. In Bodhgaya, we see that Ashoka started the building the brick-enclosure around Bodhi tree which was converted into vedika or palisade in the 2nd century B.C.E.

Some early examples of Vedika with similar uprights belong to stupa site of Bharhut, Bodhgaya and Sanchi, these are ascribed to the late Mauryan and the Shunga-Kanva period of art (250-200 B.C.E). These squarish shafts with friezes, medallion and rosettes of lotus (Padma), Couples (Uttarakuru), crocodile (makara), winged animals, fish tailed human beings (nara-machcha), Jatakas, human faces narrates on the beautiful legacy of ancient Indian art.

In Sankissa pillar, the artistic significance of the motifs can be explored. We see, the use of prominent motifs here, popularly seen in early Buddhist art elsewhere;
1.   Lotus medallion (Padma) in upper and lower bracket: a symbol of transcendence of transcendental birth of Buddha (Figure 7)
2.      Lotus medallion with face of lady (Figure 8)
3.      Makara and maggara-machcha (fish-tailed alligator) motif (Figure 2, Figure 11)
4.      Winged lion (Figure 10)

Fig.7. Lotus Medallion on the Pillar found at Sankissa.
Fig.8. Lotus Medallion with face of a lady on the pillar found at Sankissa.

Fig.9. Lotus Medallion with Human faces, from Bharhut, Image Source: Wikimedia

These lotuses, also part of a wish-fulfilling vine on
vedika, were an auspicious symbol that alludes to the Buddha's enlightenment. In case of Bharhut, lotus medallion or vedika roundels bears representation of faces and upper halves, however such features become rare at Sanchi. In present case, it appears that the face of the lady is emerging out of the lotus, engaging us with a possibility, that she achieved transcendental state (Figure 8). Symbolically, it might indicate the lady was a member or patron of the Sangha. In Bharhut many of the faces on Lotus medallion, accompanied by inscriptions, were identified of representations donors (Figure 9 ).  Given by the thickness of facial features and style of ear-ornaments, the lady on medallion from Sankissa can be dated to late Mauryan and. Early Shunga art and she can be considered as one of the active members of Buddhist Sangha at Sankissa.

Fig.10. Vedika Pillar-roundel with Winged Lion, found from Sankissa

Fig.11. Vedika Pillar roundel with Makara or Maggara-machcha motif, found from Sankissa
Figure 12. Vedika Pillar roundel with Makara or Maggara-machcha motif, found from Bharhut, currently housed in Indian museum, Kolkata, Image source: Wikimedia commons

Figure 13. Vedika Pillar roundel with Makara or Maggara-machcha motif, found from,
Stūpa 2, Sanchi, Image copyright : Robert Linrothe, NWU

The winged lion as appears in the vedika roundels of Sankissa (Figure 10) and is considered as one of the Ihamriga or fabulous animals alongside winged horse and winged elephants. It has been very interesting to notice a very early stage of appearance of the maggara-machcha motif in the vedika fragments found at Sankissa (Figure 2,11). The fish tailed alligator or Makara or maggara-machcha motif has been a very crucial art motif in Buddhism and was encounter at several sites such as Bharhut (Figure 12), Sanchi (Figure 13), Ajanta and many other Buddhist sites.  With gradual development, the maggara-machchha motif became a combined representation of trunk of an elephant, the feet of a lion, the ears of a pig, the body of a fish living in water with the teeth turned outwards, it later evolved into the dragon in East Asian Buddhist art. Architecturally this motif developed into the Makara-Torana.

The above discussion shows important chapters of Buddhist faith awaits future endeavour of excavation and preservation at Sankissa. There can be important revelations on the Buddhist heritage and early-historical settlement of Sankissa with proper geo-archaeological investigations and systematic documentation. The available bits of information, as discussed above, show that art at Sankissa was the result of combination of early historic trends and local tradition. The preference of lotus, human-face and maggara-machcha motif and apparent absence of Jataka scenes shows more orientation to folk art which was emblematic of Mauryan period, possibly indicating a late Mauryan to early Shunga transitional stage in the art medium of Sankissa.

References and Web-links :
Agrawal, V.S., Studies in Indian Art, Prithvi Prakashan, Varanasi , 1965

Al-Jafri, Nazim Husain, Geography of proto_historic cultures in India, Unpublished PhD thesis at Aligarh Muslim University, 1998, p. 147

Allchin, F.R. &  Erdosy, G.,  The archaeology of early historic South Asia : the emergence of cities and states, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p.297

Cunningham, A. Archaeological Survey fo India , Four Reports Made During the Years  1862-65, Government Central Press, Shimla, 1871, p.


                                Some  pictures of the Sankissa Vedika Railing

The damage from the earthmover can be seen

Broken sculptures kept in Sankisa village

Screenshot of the Whatsapp message

Acts of heritage vandalisation do not make news as they are all too common in villages throughout India. Fortunately for Sankisa, the many communities who have embraced Buddhism are aware and concerned about the ancient Buddhist remains of the region. Only because of this, this instance of vandalisation went viral on social media forums. Youth Buddhist Society, a Buddhist NGO based in Sankisa, has taken a further step of reporting the incident to higher authorities for proper reprimand.

The newspaper clipping 

Local police station where the railing is currently kept.

   Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami

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