Bhamala (Pakistan): The Death Scene of Buddha: Back from the dead

Shazia Mehboob

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980796 studentparticipantsinthebhamalaexcavationcopy 1446042984 309 640x480Student participants in the Bhamala Excavation 2014-15. PHOTO COURTESY: DIRECTORATE OF ARCHAEOLOGY & MUSEUMS, GOVERNMENT OF KHYBER-PAKHTUNKHWA

Archaeologists have made a peculiar discovery in Khanpur Valley, unearthing the Maha Pari Nirvana or The Death Scene of Buddha, a unique piece from the Gandhara civilization. This colossal image made of Kanjur stone is the sole example of its kind in Pakistan’s heritage history.

A team of archaeologists and researchers from Hazara University, Mansehra, in collaboration with the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Peshawar, discovered The Death Scene of Buddha and a cruciform stupa during the excavations at a UNESCO World Heritage site in Bhamala village of Taxila.

Maha Pari Nirvana

The image of Buddha is about 14 metres in length. Remnants of Buddha include the right leg, a portion of the left leg which is covered in drapery, feet, and fragments of the shoulder. The Death Scene is perched on a huge platform, 15 metres long in the North-West direction, facing the East. Some pieces of the image, such as the upper left leg and both arms, are damaged, while the head was also found missing.

The site of the newly found death scene of buddha in the village of bhamala khanpur copyThe site of the newly-found Death Scene of Buddha in the village of Bhamala, Khanpur. PHOTO COURTESY: DIRECTORATE OF ARCHAEOLOGY & MUSEUMS, GOVERNMENT OF KHYBER-PAKHTUNKHWA

The sculpture depicting the death scene of buddha after consolidation copyThe sculpture depicting the Death Scene of Buddha after consolidation. PHOTO COURTESY: DIRECTORATE OF ARCHAEOLOGY & MUSEUMS, GOVERNMENT OF KHYBER-PAKHTUNKHWA

The Buddha statue is an exception in the history of archaeological discovery in Pakistan, according to Dr Shakirullah Khan, Head of the Archaeology Department at Hazara University, Mansehra. The statue was probably damaged by illegal diggers even before the first excavation, which was carried out by Sir John Marshall in 1930-31, he said.

The Maha Pari Nirvana scene, made from stones in semi-ashlar masonry, was exposed from a long chamber, access to which is through three openings at regular intervals. The walls along the southern, south-eastern, northern, and north-eastern corners have ledges for placing large terracotta sculptures. The floor of the chamber is made of lime, mortar, and pebbles. The statue is also damaged due to material fallen from the roof and illegal operations of antiquarians in the early 20thCentury.

Terracotta head from bhamala 2 copyTerracotta head from Bhamala 2. PHOTO COURTESY: DIRECTORATE OF ARCHAEOLOGY & MUSEUMS, GOVERNMENT OF KHYBER-PAKHTUNKHWA

The Maha Pari Nirvana is located in the extreme Northern side of Khanpur Valley, on the right bank of the Haro River. The Buddha complex enjoys an important geographical position and is one of the very rare sites to have a cruciform stupa — the stupa that was usually reserved for Buddha or a Chakravartin.

Cruciform stupa

While excavating the Death Scene of Buddha, the team also brought to light another discovery in the form of a cruciform stupa with nine chapels which are rooms for placing sculptures. Fragments of the stucco sculpture can be noticed on the plinth of the stupa which has chapels to its eastern side. From the nine exposed chapels, five were excavated. Chapel one and two, which are located on the southern side, have been destroyed by illegal operations of antiquarians while the remaining two contain stucco sculptures of the most unique style. These sculptures in the chapels have double halos, which are very rare and do not exist in the rest of the Buddhist sites in ancient Gandhara. “These sculptures were cleaned and consolidated with [thermoplastic resin] B-72,” Dr Shakir Ullah Khan added.

The excavation revealed a total of 510 antiquities which include terracotta/stucco sculptures and other architectural elements. Iron objects, such as nails, hooks, door fittings, and hair clips, as well as copper artifices like the 14 coins of later Kushan, were also unearthed.

The main approach of the current excavation was to reconfirm the date assigned to the site by Sir John Marshall, said field director Bhamala, Abdul Hameed. For this purpose, samples were collected for scientific dating (Carbon 14), and the new date given to the site is 240 AD.