Sunari – Buddhist Antiquities

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Sunari (सुनरी) is a small village in the Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh. The site is popular among archaeologists and historians for its Buddhist antiquities. These antiquities were first reported by Alexander Cunningham in 1951 after he carried out exploration and small-scale excavation here along with the other Buddhist sites in the vicinity.1 Cunningham spelled the name of the village as Sonari telling it was a spoken form of Suvarnari, or the “golden wheel”, a symbol of Buddhism.2 Discovery of relics, belonging to multiple Buddhist missionaries who were sent to the Hemavata (Himalayas) regions after the Third Buddhist Council, at Sunari suggests that it was an important center of the Hemavata school. The other Buddhist sites in the near vicinity of Sunari – Sanchi, Satdhara, Murel Khurda, and Andher – have also revealed relics belonging to the teachers of the Hemavata school, suggesting this Buddhist circuit was linked to a single school, the Hemavata School. Willis suggests that the Hemavatas arrived at Sanchi just after the mid-second century BCE and took over the older sites of Sanchi and Satdhara, and also established new monastic centers at Sunari, Morel Khurda, and Andher.3 Conservation activities at Sunari were taken up by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) from 1978 onwards. Stupa 1 and 2 were partly collapsed, and ASI carried out debris clearance and resetting of the displaced masonry in 1978-79.4 The conservation of the monastery attached to Stupa 1 was taken up in 1979-805, 1980-816, and 1981-827. Stupa 3 & 4 were taken up for conservation in 1986-87.8

Stupa No 1

Stupa No 1 – This is the largest stupa on the site and is situated in the midst of a square courtyard measuring 240 feet on each side. It is raised above a 6.5 feet high terrace supporting a 4 feet high cylindrical plinth leaving a 5.5 feet wide space for circumambulation. Over this plinth rises the hemispherical stupa of 48 feet in diameter. The stupa was once adorned with railings composed of pillars and horizontal bars, however, it has survived with a few fragmentary remains. The railing pillars were ornamented on the outer faces with full and half lotus medallions, similar to the ones we find at Sanchi. Inscriptions over the pillars suggest those were erected with support from the gift of many individuals. Two inscriptions on the serving pillars read, “Gift of Dharma Gupta, the new man (i.e. the regenerated), the pupil of Aryya Prasannaka”, and “Gift of Sangha Rakshita, the pupil of Aryya Prasannaka”.9 As an inscription mentioning Aryya Prasannaka has been found at the Sanchi stupa, this suggests the railing at the Sonari stupa was contemporary to that of Sanchi. Cunningham inserted a shaft from the middle of the top, and at a depth of 5 feet, he found a large slab beneath which was the relic chamber. Stone boxes were found in fragments however these did not contain any body relic.

Monastery in the SW corner of the enclosure

A monastery was constructed in the southwest corner of the enclosure. Only the ground floor of this monastery has survived however looking at the other contemporary monasteries at other sites, it is very probable that the monastery at Sunari was a multi-story structure with residential quarters. An entrance is provided via a flight of stairs at the northeast corner of the monastery. A perennial stream down the western side of the hill would have supported the water needs of the residents at the monastery.

Stupa No 2

Stupa No 2 – This is the first stupa a visitor sees after entering the complex. It is situated in an enclosure measuring 165 feet square. The terrace is 12 feet high and supports a 4.5 feet high cylindrical plinth leaving a 6 feet-wide space on the top of the terrace for circumambulation. Over the cylindrical plinth rises a hemispherical stupa of 27.5 feet in diameter. Fragments of a railing have been discovered suggesting the stupa was adorned with a balustrade at some time. As the most important relics have been discovered in this stupa therefore it must have been the most venerated and decorated stupa at the site. This balustrade and railing can be dated to the post-Maurya period of 80 BCE to the end of the first century CE.

Pen and ink and wash drawing of the relics from Stupa no.2 at Sonari by Frederick Charles Maisey dated 1847-1854 | British Library
Reliquary vase from Stupa 2, Sonari, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (IM.219-1921) | Wikimedia

A shaft inserted from the middle of the top by Cunningham resulted in the discovery of a relic chamber at a depth of 7 feet. A large steatite vase in the shape resembling a lotus bud was found in the chamber. It was turned on the lathe and then carved in low relief with bands of lotus petals on the shoulder and lower part of the body, whilst on the upper body there is a broad zone divided into eight rectangular compartments in each of which is an elephant, horse, deer or winged lion, typical motifs of the Mauryan period. Inside the vase were five relic caskets, one of crystal and four of steatite. All the caskets contain a portion of bone together with beads, a small quantity of bone ash, and a piece of wood (possibly sandalwood) and inscriptions referring to whom these belong. These specimens were in possession of Cunningham who later donated a few to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and a few to the British Museum. The Victoria and Albert Museum handed over the ash and the piece of wood to Professor M.S. Sundaram, representing the government of India in 195810 however, the present whereabouts of these relics are unknown.11

Inscribed globular reliquary in two parts, lathe-tuned in steatite, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Accession No – IM.221-1921), the inscription reads ‘Sapurisasa Majhimasa Kodiniputasa’, ie, the relics of the worthy Majhimasa Kodiniputa | © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Inscribed globular reliquary in two parts, lathe-tuned in steatite from Sonari, now in the British Museum (Asset No – 111256001), Inscription translation: [Relics] of Kotīputa of the Kāsapagota, teacher of all the Hemavatas | © The Trustees of the British Museum
  1. The first casket inscription reads, “Sapurisasa Gotiputasa Hemavatasa Dudubhisara-dayadasa”
    1. translating, “(Relics) of the emancipated Gotiputra, of the Himavata region, (namely) of Dudubhisara, an heir of the faith”12
  2. The second casket inscription reads, “Sapurisasa Majhimasa Kodiniputasa”
    1. translating, “(Relics) of the emancipated Majhima, the son of Kodini”13
    2. This lathe-turned steatite casket, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, has a globular body in two parts on a circular disc foot surmounted by a four-tiered knob, perhaps intended to suggest a four-tiered honorific umbrella (chattra). It was found to contain one piece of calcined bone. The upper part of the casket has an inscription in early Brahmi characters.
  3. The third casket reads, “Sapurisasa Kotiputasa Kasapagotasa sava-Hemavatachariyasa”
    1. translating, “(Relics) of the emancipated son of Koti, of Kasyapa-gotra, the teacher of all the Himavat region (or, of all the people of Himavat)”14
  4. The fourth casket inscription reads,
    1. translating, “(relics) of the emancipated Kosikiputra”15
  5. The fifth casket inscription reads,
    1. Translating, “(relics) of the emancipated Alabagira”16

Dipaavamsa, chapter 8, verse 10, mentions a missionary group that was sent to Hemavanta (Himayalays) region after the third Buddhist council was comprised of Thera Kassapagotta, Majjhima, Durabhisara, Sahadeva, and Mulakadeva. They converted the multitude of Yakkhas (Yakshas) and preached the Suttanta called Dhammacakkappavattana. Among these Hemavata teachers, relics of Kassapagota are found at Sanchi and Sonari. While the casket inscriptions at Sanchi and Sonari are almost similar, the Sonari inscription adds his father’s name as Koti, referring to the monk as Koti-putasa. Relics of Kosakiputra are also found in Sanchi and Sonari as well as that of Majhima, the son of Kodini, are also found at Sanchi and Sonari. Among these teachers, it appears that the group was led by Kotiputra Kasapagota as he is labeled as the teacher of all the Himavat region in the casket inscription at Sunari. The Discovery of relics belonging to many important Hemavata school teachers suggests that Sunari was an important seat of this school.

Stupa 3 & 4
Stupa No 3
Stupa No 4

1 Cunningham, Alexander (1852). Opening of the Topes or Buddhist Monument of Central India published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 13. pp. 108-114
2 Cunningham, Alexander (1854). The Bhilsa Topes. Smith, Elder and Co. London. pp. 309-319
3 Willis, Michael (2000). Buddhist Reliquaries from Ancient India. British Museum Press. London. ISBN 9780714114927. p. 23
4 Indian Archaeology 1978-79 – A Review. p. 123
5 Indian Archaeology 1979-80 – A Review. p. 127
6 Indian Archaeology 1980-81 – A Review. p. 117
7 Indian Archaeology 1981-82 – A Review. p. 186
8 Indian Archaeology 1986-87 – A Review. p. 148
9 Cunningham, Alexander (1854). The Bhilsa Topes. Smith, Elder and Co. London. p. 313
10 Victoria and Albert Museum Page on Sonari reliquaries, retrieved on 7 June 2023
11 Shaw, Julia (2007). Buddhist Landscape in Central India. The British Association for South Asian Studies. London. ISBN 9780955392443. p. 51
12 Fleet, J F (1905). Notes on the Three Buddhist Inscriptions published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 37. pp. 679-691
13 Cunningham, Alexander (1854). The Bhilsa Topes. Smith, Elder and Co. London. p. 317
14 Fleet, J F (1905). Notes on the Three Buddhist Inscriptions published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 37. pp. 679-691
15 Cunningham, Alexander (1854). The Bhilsa Topes. Smith, Elder and Co. London. p. 317
16 Cunningham, Alexander (1854). The Bhilsa Topes. Smith, Elder and Co. London. p. 317

Acknowledgment: Some of the photos above are in CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain from the collection released by the Tapesh Yadav Foundation for Indian Heritage.