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Buddhist monasteries and monasticism in ancient India

Platformed monastery at Morel khurd

From wandering monks to institutional monasticism

The earliest followers of the historical Buddha (c. 6th/5th century BC) were required to beg for a living and were prohibited from taking up permanent residence in any one place. The exception was during the monsoon season when monks were obliged to gather together in a single place as a community (sangha). The question of when the transition from peripatetic living to sedentary monasticism took place is still debated, largely by textual historians, some of whom have drawn on published archaeological evidence to date passages in Buddhist texts which are seen as indicators of what is often referred to as the ‘domestication’ of Buddhism.

The understanding of such issues has been hampered by a lack of integration between textual and archaeological frameworks of analysis. On the one hand, nineteenth century, and largely site-based archaeological reports are the usual points of reference, and on the other, it takes time for new discoveries in the field to be absorbed into broader historical scholarship.

Platformed monastery at Morel khurd
History and chronology of monastery architecture

The project builds on earlier findings from the Sanchi Survey Project regarding the history and chronology of monastery architecture, and seeks to build up a comparative framework based on material further to the west and south.

The typology from the Sanchi area includes i) the previously unrecognised ‘platformed’ monastery, datable to c. second century BC, and originally surmounted by towering superstructures of brick and stone; ii) simple single or double roomed structures; and iii) the classic courtyard monastery which was traditionally thought not to have arrived in the area before the Gupta period, but was most probably developed as early as the second century BC, based on the SSP material; similar quadrangular plans are found on the summits of the early platformed structures in the area.

This material has helped to challenge received views regarding the apparent late ‘domestication’ of the sangha in central India which have for the most part been based on the supposed late chronology of the courtyard monastery, which with its emphasis on planning and ‘order’, has been taken as the key archaeological manifestation of textual allusions to the transition between peripatetic and sedentary monasticism.

Kharwai, Madhya Pradesh: painted rock-shelter
The monastic re-occupation of rock-shelters

Another category of monastic dwelling in central India is the prehistoric rock-shelter showing evidence of adaptation for monastic use. Central India has a particularly rich concentration of rock-shelters showing evidence for occupation from at least the Chalcolithic period, and in some cases as early as the Mesolithic and upper Palaeolithic. Some of the shelters at well known complexes such as Bhimbetka show evidence for having been reoccupied by Buddhist monks (and other ascetic groups) in historical periods. Other such instances are found on the outer cliff-top edges of hilltop architectural Buddhist complexes such as Sanchi and neighbouring sites, whose constructional sequences date from the third or second centuries BC. The study seeks to establish the chronology of monastic use of such shelters and how their history relates to the wider history of monasticism and monastery construction in central India and areas further to the south. Did they, for example, represent a transitional phase between peripatetic and settled forms of monasticism, or did they continue to be occupied in later periods, thus representing a form of ‘forest’ as opposed to ‘urban’ monasticism?

Prospective PhD students who would be interested in working on themes related to this project are encouraged to contact Julia Shaw directly.


Related outputs

  • 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.

  • 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.
  • 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.

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