Institute of Archaeology


Landscape, Water and Religion in Ancient India

This project is geared towards building integrated models of religious, economic and environmental history in central and western India through the documentation of ritual sites and water-resource structures in their archaeological landscape.

A central question is how did the spread and institutionalisation of Buddhist and Brahmanical religious traditions between c. 3rd century BC and 6th century AD relate to other important processes such as urbanisation, state-formation and innovations in agriculture?

There are two major interrelated research themes: Religion in the Landscape; and Water and Civilisation, with three main geographical zones of application: Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

Research themes

  • Religion in the Landscape
    The study of ancient Indian religion has long since been dominated by textual scholarship which has given priority to the Sanskrit tradition, and drawn on archaeology largely for supplementary evidence. Furthermore, until recently the site-based focus of South Asian archaeology has meant that ritual sites have tended to be studied in isolation from wider patterns in the landscape. This project has sought to build a more integrated approach to textual and archaeological scholarship on early Indian religion, focussing in particular on the following questions: What was the changing relationship between the state and religion? How did the different religious traditions attract local patronage networks? How did they relate to local agricultural communities? What was the nature of inter-religious dynamics?
  • Water and Civilisation
    The development of advanced irrigation systems has been seen as a major factor in the rise of complex, urban societies in ancient India. However, a number of questions regarding the history and chronology of irrigation technology and its role in the wider economic, political and religious landscape, have remained unanswered. The traditional view, based largely on readings of problematically dated texts such as the Arthasastra, is that the building and management of irrigation works was dependent on centralised state administration. Marxist-inspired models such as Wittogel's 'Hydraulic Civilisations of the Orient' have led to similar notions regarding Asian economic systems as a whole. In recent years, these have undergone major revision following studies of more devolved systems of irrigation management in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia involving village councils and religious institutions. In India, however, traditional models have until recently remained unchallenged due in part to the paucity of archaeological research on irrigation.Steps towards redressing this problem have been taken in relation to a group of dams documented during the Sanchi Survey Project (Madhya Pradesh) with comparative studies in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Datable to the early centuries BC, the Sanchi dams appear to have been central to the development of sustainable exchange networks between Buddhist monks and the local laity, just as contemporaneous irrigation systems in Sri Lanka formed the basis of monastic landlordism and a distinctly 'Buddhist economics'.

Related outputs

  • Shaw, J. (2013), 'Archaeologies of Buddhist propagation in ancient India: 'ritual' and 'practical' models of religious change', in J. Shaw (Ed.), Archaeology of Religious Change, Special volume of World Archaeology 45(1): 83-108.
  • Shaw, J. (2013), 'Sanchi as an archaeological area', in D.K. Chakrabarti and M. Lal (Eds.), History of Ancient India, vol. 4. New Delhi: Vivekananda International Foundation and Aryan Books, 388-427.
  • Shaw, J. (2011), 'Monasteries, monasticism, and patronage in ancient India: Mawasa, a recently documented hilltop Buddhist complex in the Sanchi area of Madhya Pradesh', South Asian Studies 27 (2): 111-130.
  • Sutcliffe, J., J. Shaw, and E. Brown (2011). 'Historical water resources in South Asia: the hydrological background', Hydrological Sciences Journal 56 (5): 775-788.
  • Shaw, J. (2009), 'Stūpas, monasteries and relics in the landscape: typological, spatial, and temporal patterns in the Sanchi area', in A. Shimada and J. Hawkes, eds., Buddhist Stūpas in South Asia: Recent Archaeological, Art-Historical, and Historical Perspectives. New Delhi : Oxford University Press.
  • Madella, M., R. Osborne, and J. Shaw (Eds.), (2009), The Archaeology of Water, Special volume of World Archaeology 41(1).
  • Shaw, J. (2007), Buddhist Landscapes in Central India: Sanchi hill and archaeologies of religious and social change, c. 3rd century BC to 5th century AD. London: British Association for South Asian Studies, The British Academy; Leftcoast Press.
  • Shaw, J. (2007), 'Landscape, Water and Religion in Ancient India', Archaeology International 2006-2007, 43-52.
  • Shaw, J., J. V. Sutcliffe, L. Lloyd-Smith, J-L. Schwenninger, and M.S. Chauhan, with contributions by E. Harvey and O.P. Misra, (2007), 'Ancient Irrigation and Buddhist history in Central India: optically stimulated luminescence and pollen sequences from the Sanchi dams', Asian Perspectives 46(1): 166-201.
  • Beck, A., J. Shaw, and D. Stott (2007), 'Best practice aproaches for applying satellite imagery for landscape archaeological applications: a case study from the world heritage site of Sanchi, India', Proc. SPIE 6749, Remote Sensing for Environmental Monitoring, GIS Applications, and Geology VII, 774905 (Oct 29, 2007).
  • Shaw, J. (2005), 'The archaeological setting of Buddhist monasteries in central India: a summary of a multi-phase survey in the Sanchi area, 1998-2000', in C. Jarrige and V. Lefèvre (Eds.), South Asian Archaeology 2001: proceedings of the 16th international conference of the European Association of South Asian Archaeologists, Paris: Éditions Recherche sur les Civilisations, ADPF, Vol. 2, 665-676.
  • Shaw, J. and J.V. Sutcliffe (2005), 'Ancient Dams and Buddhist Landscapes in the Sanchi area: New evidence on Irrigation, Land use and Monasticism in Central India', South Asian Studies 21, 1-24.
  • Shaw, J. (2004), 'Naga sculptures in Sanchi's archaeological landscape: Buddhism, Vaisnavism and local agricultural cults in central India, first century BCE to fifth century CE', Artibus Asiae LXIV(1), 5-59.
  • Shaw, J. (2004), 'Early historic landscapes in central India: recent archaeological investigations in districts Raisen and Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, 2003-4', Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in History and Archaeology 1, 143-150.
  • Shaw, J. and J.V. Sutcliffe (2003), 'Ancient dams, settlement archaeology and Buddhist propagation in central India: the hydrological background', Hydrological Sciences Journal 48 (2), 277-291.
  • Shaw, J. and J.V. Sutcliffe (2003), 'Water management, patronage networks and religious change: new evidence from the Sanchi dam complex and counterparts in Gujarat and Sri Lanka', South Asian Studies 19, 73-104.
  • Shaw, J. and J.V. Sutcliffe (2001), 'Ancient irrigation works in the Sanchi area: an archaeological and hydrological investigation', South Asian Studies 17, 55-75.
  • Shaw, J. (2000), 'The sacred landscape', in M. Willis, with contributions by J. Cribb and J. Shaw, Buddhist Reliquaries from Ancient India, London: British Museum Press, 27-38.
  • Shaw, J. (2000), 'Sanchi and its archaeological landscape: Buddhist monasteries, settlements and irrigation works in central India', Antiquity 74, 775-776.
  • Shaw, J. (1999), 'Buddhist landscapes and monastic planning in eastern Malwa: the elements of intervisibility, surveillance and the protection of relics', in T. Insoll, (ed.), Case Studies in Archaeology and World Religion: the proceedings of the Cambridge conference, Oxford: Archaeopress, 5-17. 

Publications in preparation

  • Shaw, J., Archaeologies of Wellbeing and Suffering: environmental ethics and Buddhist economics in ancient India.
  • Shaw, J., J., Sutcliffe, E. Cork, and H. Bakker. 'Archaeological landscapes at Ramtek and Mansar: religion, politics and water in the Vakataka empire', South Asian Studies


  • British Association for South Asian Studies (2006-8)