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Earliest Buddhist artefacts have Maharaja Ranjit Singh connection

Earliest Buddhist artefacts have Maharaja Ranjit Singh connection

Former J&K Governor NN Vohra at the IIC in New Delhi. Manas Ranjan Bhui



Tribune News Service

Aditi Tandon

New Delhi, February 22

AA unique exhibition that opened in the national capital on Thursday reveals a little known fact of history - that the earliest discovered Buddhist relics have a connection with Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh empire.

It was Jean Baptiste Ventura, a French officer at the Maharaja's Punjab court, who led one of the earliest archaeological excavations in the subcontinent in 1830 at Manikyala, north-west of Rawalpindi.

Traditionally recognised as the resting place of Alexander's horse, Manikyala was an extensive Buddhist site on the Grand Trunk Road in present-day Pakistan. At the Buddhist stupa here, Ventura discovered Kushan gold coins bearing Buddha's figure, dating back to the second century CE. Although Ventura, after the excavation, informed Maharaja Ranjit Singh, in a note in Persian, that the resting place of Alexander's horse had been discovered, he later realised what he had excavated were precious reliquaries and relic deposits of the Buddha.

This and more rare glimpses into the world of Buddhist symbols, which also find place in the Indian Constitution, will be on display at the exhibition, "Travelling relics: Spreading the word of the Buddha", which opened at the Indian International Centre here and will continue till March 7.

Inaugurating the show curated by historian Himanshu Prabha Ray, former J&K Governor NN Vohra called it a fitting precursor to a two-day conference, "Asia on the Move", the IIC will host from Friday. "At the conference, we will talk not only of the early traders, explorers and pilgrims and how influences travelled from one part of Asia to the other but also of the politics of Buddhist relics, how they were worshipped 2,300 years ago and enshrined in the stupas never to be seen or touched," said Vohra.

Dwelling on the transformation of the meaning of Buddhist relics from the Mauryan religious practice to colonial archaeology, Vohra also spoke of how the Ashokan Pillar excavated at Sarnath in the early 20th century and the dharmachakra were accepted as the national symbols of independent India. "These markers of free India have been beautifully picturised in the great volume lying in Parliament House," he said on the Buddhist symbols featured in the first copy of the Constitution.

The exhibition is significant in its presentation of detailed archaeological evidence on relic enshrinement and political importance of the relics as a means of cooperation between newly independent nations of South and Southeast Asia. A particularly striking image on display shows U Nu, the first PM of independent Burma, carrying Buddhist relics in a procession, accompanied by late Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru and his Cabinet colleague and later Bharatiya Jana Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee.

Vohra saw the exhibition as an extension of the work IIC set out to accomplish through its Asia Project 30 years ago. "Evolution of the Asia Project led to the establishment of IIC's International Research Division which continues to make all possible efforts to promote a deeper understanding between India and the world," he said in the presence of IIC President Shyam Saran.

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