British Association for South Asian Studies

Research Groups

Relics and Relic Worship in the Early Buddhism of India and Burma

Principal Convenor, Janice Stargardt, University of Cambridge
Joint Convenor, Karel van Kooij, International Institute for Asian Studies

This project is international in membership and brings together a group of senior and early career scholars, who approach the central problems of relics and relic worship from a range of perspectives, especially linguistic, iconographic and archaeological. The Project’s annual meetings and exchanges of new research and interpretations are currently moving towards publication in book form. Below are some sample images and research summaries that will form chapters in the book, followed by a list of Project members and their research interests.

The Bimaran casket (refer to top right for image), made of gold and garnets, was deposited in a Buddhist monument near Jalalabad, Afghanistan in the second century CE. The inscription with it states that it was buried containing a relic of the Buddha. The image of the Buddha on it is among the earliest known representations of the Buddha, made during the period of Kushan rule in ancient Gandhara. The dating of this reliquary has been controversial and continues to be central to the debate on the chronology of Buddhist art. The outstanding quality of the reliquary raises the question of its possible use as a display reliquary before it was deposited in the monument. A correct dating of the reliquary and its associated finds will provide fresh insights into its iconography, its relationship with other forms of representation of the Buddha and the early history of the use of this precious relic of early Buddhist cult. The reliquary was found by Charles Masson in 1834, in Darunta district, west of Jalalabad and is now housed in the British Museum.

Photo credit: Janice Stargardt (Fellow and Director of Studies, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge)

The great silver reliquary of Sri Ksetra in Burma, made of a thin sheet of silver (detail above), is one of the largest known. It is a cylinder with movable lid and hollow body, decorated with four large seated Buddha images gilded and modelled in high relief, flanked by four smaller standing disciples in lower relief. It must once have formed a precious sheath over reliquary in wood of the same dimensions. Standing almost 50 cm high, it has a diameter of c. 35 cm, but was originally c. one metre high as it was surmounted by a silver bodhi tree with silver branches and leaves which were found in pieces with the reliquary. It dates from the fifth or sixth century CE and was the centerpiece of a brick-lined relic chamber containing a treasure of objects in gold and silver. The Pali inscriptions on the reliquary lid rim relate to a gold manuscript with twenty leaves in canonical Pali found in the same relic chamber. The inscriptions, elaborate art of the reliquary and precious metals throw a vivid light on the levels of Buddhist culture present in a Pyu royal city of Burma at this date. The Pali inscriptions are among the oldest in the world and are at present the longest of this date, while the Buddhist art is among the earliest in South East Asia. In view of its exceptional size and quality it too may have been displayed before being deposited in the relic chamber.