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Extraordinary Buddhist Sculptures Unearthed in the Ruins of an Ancient City in Pakistan

Extraordinary Buddhist Sculptures Unearthed in the Ruins of an Ancient City in Pakistan

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Archaeologists excavating the ruins of a city of the Kushan Empire in Pakistan have discovered an ancient shrine with statuary depicting the Buddha’s entry into the world of suffering people. After he saw the pain and misery of the world, from which he had been shielded as a youth, Buddha went on to found a religion based in love, compassion, and mercy.

Italian archaeologists discovered the sculptures and carvings in the ruins of a shrine and courtyard in the long-abandoned city of Bazira in the Swat Valley. Some of the images depict the prince Siddhartha, the name of Gautama Buddha, astride his horse Kanthaka and leaving his father’s palace, says an article about the discovery on Live Science.

The Buddha founded Buddhism, a philosophical religion that started in northeast Indian and now has about 500 million adherents worldwide.

Bazira was a small town but became a city in the Kushan Empire. Alexander of Macedon besieged the fortified town in 326 BC, and catapult stones have been found in the ruins. The residents abandoned Bazira after earthquakes and financial troubles brought on by the decline of the Kushan Empire.

The ruins of Bazira, also called Vajirasthana, are near the modern town of Barikot, where the Italian Archaeological Mission has been excavating since 1978. Over the years archaeologists have excavated the ancient city to reveal palatial quarters and shrines. Bazira is an important center for the study of Greco-Buddhist art.

According to an article from Colorado State University, the word Kushan derives from the Chinese Guishang. This term is used in historical writings to refer to one branch of Indo-European tribes called Yuezhi that were driven out of northwest China between 176 and 160 BC and settled in Bactria around 135 BC. Bactria comprised modern Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Barikot Ghundai ruins.

Barikot Ghundai ruins. (CC BY SA 3.0)

“By positioning themselves at the center of the Silk Road, midway between China and India in the east and the Mediterranean world in the west, the Kushans became a world power second only to China and Rome and the first unified force in Afghanistan to dispense rather than receive authority,” the article states.

The empire lasted from about 20 to 280 AD. It made a push for conquest in 48 AD when Kujula Kadphises traversed the Hindu Kush and allied with Hermaeus, the last Greek king in the Kabul Valley. This alliance allowed Kujula’s son Vima Kadphises to defeat the Scythians in northern India. The successors of these two men enlarged the empire, whose borders eventually stretched from the Ganges River in the east to the Gobi Desert.

The statues depict Siddhartha’s departure from the protected, cloistered life his father the Sakya king had confined him to from a young age when sages told the king his son would be a great ascetic.

“As if playing out the archetypal refusal of the call for his son, the king decided he would rather that Siddhartha be a world monarch, and he provided him with sumptuous palaces, beautiful women and riches,” says The Oxford Companion to World Mythology.

Siddhartha eventually left his father’s palace and saw sick and dying people and others who showed signs of pain and imperfection. This inspired him to become an ascetic, and after much meditation and testing by Mara, he achieved enlightenment and began preaching mercy and universal love. His teachings caught on, and a beautiful philosophy entered the world.

‘Departure of Siddhartha.’ (1914)

‘Departure of Siddhartha.’ (1914) (Public Domain)

Another carving at Bazira shows a seated, aged male, possibly a deity, holding a severed goat’s head and a glass of wine. Luca Olivieri, the director of excavations at Bazira, told Live Science the figure resembles the ancient Greek god of wine and ecstasy, Dionysus.

The carving found at Bazira showing an unknown deity with a wine goblet in one hand and a goat's head in the other.

The carving found at Bazira showing an unknown deity with a wine goblet in one hand and a goat's head in the other. (ACT/Italian Archaeological Mission)

The Swat Valley had robust viniculture and winemaking, Olivieri said, and apparently there was some problem with drinking. “It seems that Buddhist schools tried their best to curb the habit of consuming wine and other 'intoxicating drinks' even amongst the monastic community,” he told Live Science.

The archaeologists also found a stupa decorated with carved lions near the shrine, a mound upon which Buddhists meditated.

Amlukdara stupa near Barikot, Pakistan.

Amlukdara stupa near Barikot, Pakistan. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Featured Image: A sculpture discovered in Bazira telling a Buddhist story involving Siddhartha, who later became the Gautama Buddha. Source: Aurangzeib Khan, ACT/Italian Archaeological Mission

By Mark Miller



Quick! Bury it before they blow it up. Half joking half serious.

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Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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