The Keeper of Buddha’s Bones
The Great Himalayan Complex as most must be aware includes the greatest Mountain Ranges which radiate from some point in Central Asia / Northern India. Looking at the historical context there have been few Rulers, infact not more than handful who have exercised control over this wildest of the wildernesses on the Planet.
One name which comes to mind is that of the Great Kushan Emperor Kanishka whose Empire ranged from Turfan in the Tarim Basin to beyond Bactria to Sodania. From Gandhara to Kashmir to Mathura to Patliputra and all the way to Gujarat. It was a massive enterprise with vast array of different people under their Rule. The Kushans actually originated from the Tarim Basin and were Central Asian nomads before they united and swept South and Westwards. They were said to have originated from the Yuezhi people who were nomadic pastoralists.
Emperor Kanishka is widely believed to be the most powerful of the Kushan kings who left impressive historical records which are being discovered even to this day. The famous Rabatak Inscription talks of the great lineage of the Kushana Rulers as well as talks of their conquests.
One of the most enduring legacy left behind by the Kushanas were their coinage and notably that of Kanishka. The Kushans created a syncretic culture and had elements from all the Cultures around them. Kanishka was based in Gandhara, the region around Peshawar and Peshawar was the Capital of the Kushan Empire. The Empire stood at the crossroads of where Greek culture and its influenced Bactrian and Gandhara culture met Indian culture. It was here in the foothills of the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas that great monuments were built in Gandhara as well as Kashmir which was at that time a part of Gandhara as well the Swat Valley.
Kanishka himself became an adherent of Buddhism but his coinage reflected the multi-cultural aspect of the people they ruled over. The coinage had Hellenic (Greek), Mesopotamian deities, Iranian/ Avestan (Zoroastrian) deities, Buddha and last but not the least Osheo which is said to represent Shiva. This Kushan coinage has been unearthed at various sites all over the realm of the Kushanas giving historians a true sense of the size of their Empire.
Kanishka has been credited with the spread of Buddhism to Central Asia and Gandhara itself became the center of the Buddhist world. It was under Kanishka’s rule that the Fourth Buddhist Council was held in Kashmir and 500 Monks went all over Central Asia to spread the message of what came to be the Mahayana school of Buddhist tradition. He also favoured the Gandhara School of Buddhist Art as well the Mathura School of Hindu Art just like he believed in Buddha but in certain Avestan deities as well.
Well coming back to the Bones of Buddha part now. In 1908 - 1909 Archaeologists while working on excavations at the Kanishka Stupa, which at one point of time was the tallest Stupa in the entire subcontinent came upon a Chamber. This was at a place called Shah-Ji-Deri near Peshawar under the shadows of the Hindu Kush in the Peshawar Valley. The excavators chanced upon a Gilded Copper Casket, a reliquary of sorts and this priceless find was named as the Kanishka Casket and it was dated to the Second century AD. The Interesting part was the depictions on the Casket which point out that this was the place where different cultures met and infused and also the part that the Kushans in general and Kanishka in particular played in the same process.
The lid of the casket shows the Buddha on a Lotus Pedestal and Indra and Brahma on either side will folded hands in reverence. The edge of the lid is decorated by a frieze of flying geese, or hamsa, symbolizing the travel of departing souls and the removal from samsara. Some of the geese have a wreath of victory in their beak.
The body of the casket represents a Kushan monarch, which is unmistakingly Kanishka as we are familiar with his likelihood and especially his big boots, with the Iranian Sun god and Moon god at his side. On the sides are two images of a seated Buddha, worshiped a royal figures, possibly a Bodhisattva.
A garland, supported by cherubs goes around the scene in typical Hellenistic style.
There are also inscriptions in Kharosthi which underline these facts.
And now the most interesting part. Inside the Casket were found 3 Bone fragments which are said to be of the Buddha himself. They were concealed in a Crystal which was hollowed from one side and then sealed up after the fragments were placed there. And it had the Emperor’s seal on it. There had been another case of discovery of Buddha’s similar bone relics in the Terai foothills of Nepal much closer to where the Buddha was born. So what about these ? Well we all know that Kanishka was a great proponent of Buddhism. And as per certain Buddhist literature after the cremation of Buddha his remains were divided into 8 parts to be buried under Great Stupas to be built at various places. It is entirely possible that Kanishka got hold of some of the relics in his time and took them to his capital Purushapura as Peshawar was called at that time and had them enshrined under a great Stupa. The Chinese pilgrim Huen Tsang remarked in his journey that this place indeed held the relics of Buddha and he described the Kanishka Stupa as 170 m tall.
Ok the Bone Relics of the Buddha were sent were sent to Burma by the British where they are supposedly kept somewhere in Mandalay. As for the original casket it was sent to England. And in England a number of copies of the same were made of the original. The real one was then apparently sent back to Peshawar. One copy of the same is on display at the British Museum. Another copy is supposed to be in Oxford. The one on display in Peshawar is also supposedly a copy of the original. At the time of the partition there was a tussle between India and Pakistan over certain treasures but mostly the Indus ones as no one really cared much about Gandhara as the mainstream narrative in India never took on the Kushans as their own and were looked upon as outsiders.
As a result as of today no one is really aware where the actual Casket is. Some say it was taken to Karachi. Out of all the Scholars engaged in work on the Gandhara / Kushanas none has seen the original and no one has any clue to where it is.
One of our most priceless Treasures is now nowhere to be found.