Gilded Bronze Reliquary Casket, (Shāh-ji-ki Ḍherī, Peshāwar) [draft]

The Kanishka casket is a bronze reliquary discovered at Shah-ji-ki-Dheri, an archeological site near modern Peshawar, in 1909.  The casket consists of a lid and base that measures 18 cm in height and 12.7 cm in diameter and is currently held in the Peshawar Museum.  Attached to the lid of the reliquary is a seated Buddha flanked by Indra (on his right) and Brahma (on his left). The top of the lid is decorated in a lotus leaf pattern.  The flange of the lid overlaps the rim of the base and is adorned with six flying geese holding wreaths.  The reliquary base contains four scenes that are divided by a garland supported by putti figures in different postures.  The first scene, on the front of the base below the Buddha on the lid, is a solitary seated Buddha.  To the right, the second scene depicts a standing Kushan king with the deities Mao and Miiro situated above his shoulders.  The third scene is a seated Buddha being honoured with flowers by a worshiper.  The fourth scene shows the Buddha again situated between Indra and Brahma, but in this scene Brahma is on the right and Indra is on the left and both are facing the Buddha.  An inscription in four lines is etched between the figures on the base, the row of geese, and the lotus leaves on the lid.  It records a relic donation made by the architects of the fire-hall, Mahasena and Samgharaksita, in Kanishkapura at the Kanishka monastery (Falk 2002, 113).

Interest in the mounds at Shah-ji-ki-Dheri arose from Chinese Buddhist accounts, namely Faxian and Xuanzang who visited India in the 5th and 7th century CE respectively who both remarked on the great stupa built by Kanishka located in this region (Rosenfield 1967, 35).  Based on these accounts, D.B. Spooner led an excavation at this site in 1908 in hopes of discovering the Kanishka stupa.  After unearthing the spokes of a large stupa during the first year of excavation, the following year a reliquary was found in a collapsed chamber near the center.  When opening the bronze reliquary Spooner discovered:

a six-sided crystal reliquary measuring about 2 ½” x 1 ½”, and beside it a round clay sealing which had been partially dissolved by the infiltration of water and had become detached from the crystal… This seal had originally closed the small round orifice which had been hollowed out to a depth of about an inch in one end of the six-sided crystal, and within which the sacred relics were still tightly packed.  These consist of three small fragments of bone, and are undoubtedly the original relics deposited in the stupa by Kanishka which Hiuen-Thsang (Xuanzang) tells use were relics of Gautama Buddha (Spooner 1912, 49).

With a reliquary in hand that contained an image of a Kushan king, an inscription mentioning Kanishka, and relics presumably of the Buddha, Spooner believed he had in fact discovered the legendary Kanishka stupa.  However, subsequent iconographic, archeological, epigraphic studies have tempered Spooner’s original arguments for this site being Kanishka’s stupa.

Shortly after its discovery the relics and reliquary were separated, the reliquary moved to the Peshawar Museum and the relics sent to a Buddhist temple in Mandalay, Burma where they are located today (Asher 2012, 151).  In 1960 the reliquary was taken to the British Museum for cleaning and two replicas were made, one remains in the British Museum and the other was returned to the Peshawar Museum along with the original reliquary.

During the restoration process, detailed studies of the figures on the reliquary as well as a revised reading of the inscription were produced.  R.M. Organ and A.E. Werner (1964) detailed the condition of the reliquary upon its arrival to the British Museum in 1960 and described the restoration process.  Much of the work involved removing almost two thousand years of corrosion and straightening the Buddha figure on the lid, which had been crushed when the relic chamber collapsed, and reattaching the Buddha’s nimbus that was also damaged.  After cleaning the reliquary, Prudence Myer (1966) published a detailed study of the figures and B.N. Mukherjee (1964, 1966) produced a revised reading of the inscription.  Better images of the reliquary prompted further discussions by John Rosenfield (1967), Neil Kreitman (1992), and Elizabeth Errington and Harry Falk (2002) about this object’s historical and artistic significance.

Mukherjee’s (1964, 40) re-reading of the inscription revealed that prior to being a used as a reliquary this object was a perfume box, which explains the lid and base.  The lid contains three figures attached to the top, the Buddha in the middle seated on a lotus throne that is etched into the top of the lid.  The Buddha sits in abhayamudrā posture, has an uṣṇīsa on top of his head, robes with front folds, and a nimbus behind him (the nimbus fell off the original piece but has been reattached in the replicas).  Indra is standing to the right of the Buddha, identifiable by his crown, and Brahma is on the Buddha’s left.  Both deities are standing, wear long robes, and have hands in anjali posture. The lotus throne, visible from above, has two tiers, the upper tier has narrow petals with the stem serving as the pedestal for the seated Buddha, and the lower-tier has wider petals.  Along the flange of the lid are six flying geese holding wreaths in their mouths and each goose is depicted slightly different.

The base of the reliquary can be divided into two zones separated by the garland.  Deities are situated above the garland while human figures, the seven garland holding putti, are below.  The Kushan king straddles both the lower and upper zones, probably signifying his human and divine status (Kreitman 1992, 195).  The three seated Buddhas above the garland are in meditative postures.  The first Buddha is solitary and the second is being worshiped with flowers, perhaps by Padmapani.  The third seated Buddha is situated between Brahma on his right and Indra on his left, a reversal of the position of these figures on the lid.  All the seated Buddhas share common characteristics: a nimbus, uṣṇīsa, front folded robes, and covered hands.  The possible Padmapani figure on the right of the second seated Buddha has a headdress of flowers, a nimbus, a robe over their left shoulder, and is holding flowers in their left hand while casting flowers with their right (Errington 2002, 107).

The deities flanking the Kushan king are the moon god Mao (over his right shoulder) and sun god Miiro (over his left shoulder), both Iranian deities (Rosenfield 1967, 262).  Mao has a crescent shaped halo and is extending a diadem to the king and Miiro has a nimbus composed of sunrays and extends a flower towards the king.  Mao and Miiro both appear on Kushan coins minted by Kanishka and Huviska, demonstrating their affiliation with Kushan royalty.

The Kushan king is the only figure that extends from the bottom to the top of the base.  The king is depicted with a high-topped crown, wavy diadems, heavy robe, boots, and holding lotus flowers.  The posture of the king, with his feet turned to the side, resembles the Kanishka statue in the Mathura Museum as well as Kushan royal figures depicted on coins.  Whereas Spooner took this figure to be Kanishka based on the location of the reliquary and the inscription, recent scholars have questioned this association.  Rosenfield (1967, 260-61) notes differences in facial hair and dress of this figure from that of the coins of Kanishka, and remarks that the sideburns look more like how Huvishka is portrayed on his coins.  Errington (2002, 106) also compares the features of this royal image with Kushan representations on their coins and suggests that this was a “composite image of an idealized Kushan King.”  Furthermore, what appeared to be a clay seal found alongside the relics is most likely a coin of Huvishka that features him riding an elephant (Errington 2002, 102).  The composite composition of the Kushan royal figure and presence of a coin issued during Huvishka’s reign suggest that the reliquary was deposited during Huvishka’s reign, ca. 150-80 CE.

In his initial reading of the inscription, Spooner did identify the name of Kanishka in line two among the geese and a reference to Kanishka’s vihara in line four around the bottom of the base. These references suggest a connection between this site and Kanishka, but do not attest to this ruler directly building the stupa.  In fact, the donors of the reliquary are now known to be two architects of the fire-hall, Mahasena and Samgharaksita, who dedicated their relic donation to the welfare and happiness of all beings and for the acceptance of the teachers of the Sarvastivada school (Falk 2002, 113).

From its initial discovery the Kanishka reliquary has drawn attention from scholars of different fields.  Although the reliquary was most likely deposited after the reign of Kanishka, this stupa and surrounding vihara near Peshawar served as a prominent Buddhist site during the Kushan period.

Conventional Name Kanishka Casket| Item Gilded Bronze Casket| Findspot Shah-ji-ki-Dheri, Peshawar | Dimensions Height: 18cm, Width: 12.7cm | Date Unknown | Collection XXX | Current Location Peshawar Museum, Pakistan | Language/Script Gāndhārī/Kharoṣṭḥī

Base Circumference

Seated Buddha (facing forward)seated in meditative position
(Myer 1966, 397) "It should be noted that although these Buddhas are only about one and a half inches high, their heads are smaller and their proportions more "normal" than those of the larger Buddha on the lid, suggesting that the disproportion of the lid figures (and of the Kushāna ruler on the side of the casket) was the result of the artist's effort to emphasize the expressive gestures and significant facial expressions."
(Kreitman 1992, 194) "Above the garland and within its dipping hollows are seated three identical Buddhas closely resembling the Buddha on the lid in the treatment of their robes, hairstyle and physiognomy but different from it in the folded hand gesture of dhyana mudra, the covering of the hands by the fabric of the robe and a halo of the same double-rimmed type that frames the head of the attendant figures of the lid."
Nimbusnimbus with plain bordermedium
Hairhair parted in middle with lateral continuous waves; separate uṣṇīṣa
(Myer 1966, 397) "the ushnishas of the smaller Buddhas on the body of the casket are not, in fact, snail-shaped but striated to indicate a mass of hair arranged in a bun or chignon on top of the head."
Robesseated position, wrapped in the overrobe with covered hands and feetmedium
Garland holder (Putto 1)putto
(Meyer 1966, 397) "Incised lines have been used on the figures of the garland-carrying Putti chiefly to stress the articulation of the torsos and limbs and to describe the bangle on their wrists and ankles."
(Rosenfield 1967, 262) "The erotes bearing garlands at either side of the king belong to an idiom of classical, Dionysian origin."
Ankletplain ankletmedium
Mao (moon diety in Kushan's right shoulder)deva
(Kreitman 1992, 195) "In the loops of the garland flanking the king are the torsos of two worshipful three-quarter length attendants, one extending his arm upward toward the monarch's headdress, the other holding a ring of investiture. These may be identified by the radiating lines of the halo and the half-circle behind the head, as the Iranian sun and moon gods, Miiro and Mao, respectively."
Kushan Rulerking
(Ingholt and Lyons 1957, 180) "In the principal band in rather high relief a king stands facing front, dressed in caftan and trousers and holding flowers in his right hand.”
(Myer 1966, 399) "The standing figure on the side of the casket, who is presumably, the donor, the Mahārāja Kanishka, wears the full Kushāna costume of tall hat, flaring coat, loose trousers and enormous boots."
(Rosenfield 1967, 260-61) "If the royal figure on the side of the casket is a King Kanishka, it is probably not Kanishka I because of the absence of a beard. Moreover, the costume differs from that of Kanishka I on his coins: the mantle is fastened on the king’s shoulders whereas on the coins, it is fastened at the chest; the headdress is not found on Kanishka I's coins; the king seems to be wearing those peculiar sideburns which are a feature of the coin portraits of Huvishka... the royal effigy on the reliquary has heavy boot and large feet standing akimbo. The style has a vigor which I feel belongs essentially to the reigns of Kanishka I and the early stages of that of Huvishka."
(Kreitman 1992, 194-5) "Centrally laced within the highly decorated register is the figure of a standing king. Dressed in the belted topcoat, baggy pants and heavy boots of Kushan royalty, he sports an unusual two-tiered crown, possibly comprising of coiled garlands, behind which flutter diadems. Twin lotuses are held in one hand while the other hand rests on his hip. His face is pointed an open-eyed, with a dynastic mark on the brow, and with features like those of the attendant deities on the lid."
(Errington 2002, 102, 105) "The casket image depicts a king with a moustache and a high, rounded hat with earflaps and diadems, his cloak knotted at one side… the left hand of the king is covered by a long sleeve… behind the right side of the king's head, there is a circular incised line indicating a halo.
(Errington 2002, 106) The sum of the parallels between the casket images and those appearing on the coins of Vima Kadphises, Kaniṣka I and Huviṣka points to a date for the reliquary in the reign of Huviṣka. The fact that the portrait of the king does not correspond exactly with any of the Kushan coin portraits, but appears to be an amalgamation of a number of earlier and later features culled from diverse sources, including coins, suggests that it is not a portrait taken from life, but a composite image of an idealized Kushan king. If idealised, then the king it is intended to represent must surely be the legendary founder of the stupa, Kaniṣka I."
Turbanskull-cap turban with zones, fantail, and diademmedium
Tunicsleeved long tunic spreading at the feetmedium
Miiro (sun deity on Kushan's left shoulder)deva
(Spooner 1912, 50) "The sun-god is evidently shown in the act of crowning Kanishka with his wreath, a well-known conception of Greek and Persian art."
(Errington 2002, 105)" The sun god on the casket wears the Phrygian cap of Mithra… a rayed halo and the right hand raised in blessing, while the left rests on a sword pommel."
Garland holder (Putto 2)puttomedium
Ankletplain ankletmedium
Seated Buddha (facing forward)seated in meditative positionmedium
Nimbusnimbus with plain bordermedium
Hairhair parted in middle with lateral continuous waves; separate uṣṇīṣamedium
Robesseated position, wrapped in the overrobe with covered hands and feetmedium
Garland holder (Putto 3)puttomedium
Ankletplain ankletmedium
Bodhisattva throwing flowers (Padmapāṇi?)padmapāṇi
(Errington 2002, 107) “The final haloed attendant divinity is more enigmatic. In dress, he most closely resembles a Bodhisattva, with a robe draped over his left shoulder, his arms and right shoulder bare and a bracelet around the right wrist. The visible ear is certainly elongated and may contain an earring. His hair is gathered in a topknot, with an incised division in the centre that suggests a double loop of the type commonly worn by Maitreya (Ingholt and Lyons 1957, fig. 292), but this may be illusory, given the tiny scale of the figure. The head-dress comprises a band or diadem, with three circular discs above, that resemble, in shape and execution, the lotuses held by the king. There is a round object in his left hand, while from his outstretched right hand rays emanate towards the incised outline of a flower suspended slightly behind the left shoulder of a Buddha seated in dhyānamudrā. The figure throwing lotuses is commonplace in Gandhdran reliefs, but the halo and emanating rays deny the possibility that this attendant is merely a princely worshipper, as some have suggested (Ingholt and Lyons 1957, p.181). Interesting in this respect are two reliefs from the Sikri stūpa of the Entreaty to preach the Doctrine by the gods, which both include haloed figures with lotuses in the upper register above Indra and Brahmā: one figure in the first instance (Ingholt and Lyons 1957, fig.70) and two in the second (Ingholt and Lyons 1957, fig. 104). So the inclusion on the casket of a figure throwing lotuses clearly echoes the depiction of this scene in the reliefs. But does the use of the existing iconography of the Entreaty to preach carry additional levels of meaning? The presence on the casket of three meditating Buddhas, one of which is linked by a lotus/flower to a Bodhisattva-like figure, indicates the possibility of another implicit interpretation. Indeed, the combination of rays and lotus-like flowers associate this figure with Padmapāṇi. If Padmapāṇi, then the meditating Buddha to whom he directs his rays could be Amitābha, the transcendental Buddha of Boundless Light and of the Western Paradise.”
Nimbusnimbus with plain bordermedium
Hairhair with straight fringe, central triangle and ornamentsmedium
Robefemale dress with paridhāna and uttarīyamedium
Garland holder (Putto 4)puttomedium
Ankletplain ankletmedium
Deity facing left - Brahmābrahmāmedium
Hair knothair of young brahminmedium
Nimbusnimbus with plain bordermedium
Robesmale dress with paridhāna and uttarīyamedium
Handsgesture of veneration with joined handsmedium
Garland holder (Putto 5)puttomedium
Ankletplain ankletmedium
Seated Buddha facing forwardseated in meditative position
(Errington 2002, 106) "Two of the deities flank on of the seat dhyāni Buddhas and have been identified as Brahmā and Indra respectively. The same combination of figures is repeated on the lid"
Nimbusnimbus with plain bordermedium
Hairhair parted in middle with lateral continuous waves; separate uṣṇīṣamedium
Robesseated position, wrapped in the overrobe with covered hands and feetmedium
Garland holder (Putto 6)puttomedium
Plain ankletplain ankletmedium
Deity facing right - Indraindramedium
Nimbusnimbus with plain bordermedium
Robesmale dress with paridhāna and uttarīyamedium
Handsgesture of veneration with joined handsmedium
Garland holder (Putto 7)puttomedium
Ankletplain ankletmedium
Geese with wreathsflying goose
(Spooner 1912, 49) "the deep lip, which fits on the top of the casket proper shows a highly ornamental band of geese or swans flying with wreaths in the bills"
(Ingholt and Lyons 1957, 180) “On the cylindrical reliquary itself, below the lip is a frieze of flying geese in low relief – emblems of the spread of Buddhism.”
(Rosenfield 1967, 262) “Above the head of the king is a preëminently Indian motif: the frieze of flying geese, the haṃsa. Although symbolically the haṃsa had a long association in Indian metaphysical literature as an emblem for an embodied soul and for Brahmā as the supreme spirit (in later iconography, the haṃsa is a vāhana of Brahmā), it was also a royal emblem in the Kushan period."
(Kreitman 1992, 194) "On the wide-rimmed lip of the lid, a procession of long-necked geese (hamsa), cast in low relief with wings outstretched and feather indicated by incised lines, glide gracefully around the casket's perimeter holding wreaths in their beaks."
Garlandwavy garland
(Rosenfield 1967, 262) "Although it was particularly suited to the spirit of Indian symbols of vegetative fertility - creeping vines peopled by dwarfs, as are found at most of the important early Buddhist monuments - it is extraordinary to find two small Buddha images flanked by attendants of Bodhisattva placed in the garland loops. The ensemble seems to express that tendency of Buddhist art to demonstrate that the fruits of the earth are linked with the Buddhist faith."
(Kreitman 1992, 194) "An array of figurative elements in higher relief adorns the surface of the container, each interconnected by a continuous garland born aloft by a group of playful chubby putti in a variety of poses, some relatively static, others, as is the case with the putto pulling a thorn from the sole of his foot, more exuberant."
(Errington 2002, 106) "The artistic intention behind the design seems to be that the undulating garland supported by the seven Putto should function as a boundary line between two distinct zones, with the upper one apparently symbolizing the heavens. The position of the figures in the upper register of the casket thus emphasises their divine status."
Lotus offeringfull-blown lotus with one corollamedium

Lid Figures

Buddha Image Lidseated in meditative position
(Myer 1966, 397-98) "the head of the central Buddha, with its vertically striated hair, its circular ūrṇā, carefully shaped eyelids, and strongly marked pupils, has been very neatly and carefully reworked with the aid of chasing tools... the face of the Buddha, with its rather long oval shape and long upper lip, apparently clean shave, has few close parallels in either Mathuran or Gandhāran figures"
(Errington 2002, 106) "the Buddha is seated in abhayamudrā on an inverted lotus"
Hairhair parted in middle with lateral continuous waves; separate uṣṇīṣa
(Kreitman 1992, 194) "His face is oval-shaped with a small mouth, partially hooded eyes, urna on the forehead, semi-circular hairline and vertically coiffe hair held in place by a narrow band of cloth surmounted by a low conical-shaped ushnisha."
Robesseated position, wrapped in the overrobe with covered feet
(Myer 1966, 397) "The irregularly symmetrical folds of the Buddha's robe were apparently cast as ridges and later accented by deepening the furrows between them and adding shallower intermediate incisions, especially on the cowl-lie folds around the neck and the portion across the legs."
(Kreitman 1992, 194) "The Master wears a thick robe which hangs in symmetrical folds from his upper body, arranging itself in horizontal pleats at the knees and vertical ones on a lappet that conceals the feet as it descends over the edge of the seat."
Right hand mudragesture of reassurance
(Ingholt and Lyons 1957, 180) "On its lid the Buddha is seated, his right hand raised in the reassuring pose, the left holding a fold of the drapery…"
Left hand holding hemmedium
Nimbusnimbus with plain band and border with lotus petals
(Ingholt and Lyons 1957, 180) "The quite large halo is edged with a foliate pattern ..."
(Kreitman 1992, 194) "A large nimbus is attached to the back of his head, its inner sphere undecorated, the outer bearing a lotiform design, the two separated by a single engraved circular line"
(Ingholt and Lyons 1957, 180) "The stalk on which the Buddha sits springs from an incised, inverted lotus flower, the sepals raised slightly above the petals."
Deity on the Buddha's Right (Indra)indra
(Krietman 1992, 194) "The two standing figures either side of the Buddha, each independently attached to the lid, are dressed in long overgarments that fall in diagonal folds across the body leaving one shoulder and forearms bare. Sharpe featured and open-eyed, each with an undecorated double rimmed nimbus, they wear bracelets and make the gesture of anjali mudra. The figure on the right is identified by his flat-topped crown as Indra"
Nimbusnimbus with plain bordermedium
Robesmale dress with paridhāna and uttarīya
(Myer 1966, 399) "The costumes of the attendant deities, like those of other princely or divine figures, are made of two broad strips of cloth. One is wrapped around the legs like the modern Indian dhoti, with a mass of loose pleats falling down the front or over the left thigh, and the other is worn as a sort of shawl, passing under the right arm and up again over the left shoulder... the falling pleats of their dhotis and the ends of their shawls do not dangle in irregular points but are cut off abruptly on a horizontal line (again perhaps a concession to the technical problems involved in working on this small scale), and their shawls are spread out in heavy folds, covering the entire body from armpit to thigh."
Handsgesture of veneration with joined handsmedium
Deity on the Buddha's left (Brahmā)brahmā
(Krietman 1992, 194) "the figure on the left with long shouold length hair and a somewhat indistinct headress represents Brahma"
Hair knothair of young brahminmedium
Nimbusnimbus with plain bordermedium
Robesmale dress with paridhāna and uttarīyamedium
Handsgesture of veneration with joined handsmedium

Lid Surface

Lotus throne on lidfull-blown lotus with one corolla
(Spooner 1912, 49) "The only decoration of the upper surface of the lid consist of the incised petals of a full-blown lotus"
(Myer 1966, 398) "The lid of the casket is treated as an expanded lotus blossom with broad petals and a tall knob-like projection representing the pericarp of seed-pod, which forms the throne on which the central Buddha sits. Around the base of the seed-pod are the stamens, narrow petal-like shapes with inscribed borders, and around these the petals of the corolla are inscribed, filling the remaining surface of the lid."

Other References

  • Asher, Frederick M. 2012. “Travels of a Reliquary, Its Contents Separated at Birth.” South Asian Studies 28, no. 2: 147-56.
  • Errington, Elizabeth. 2002. “Numismatic Evidence for Dating the ‘Kaniṣka’ Reliquary.” Silk Road Art and Archeology 8: 101-10.
  • Falk, Harry. 2002. “Appendix: The Inscription on the so-called Kaniṣka Casket.” Silk Road Art and Archeology 8: 111-13.
  • Ingholt, Harry and Islay Lyons. 1957. Gandhāran Art in Pakistan. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Kreitman, Neil. 1992. “’Kanishka’ Casket and Related Coins Designs, 193-6.” In The Crossroads of Asia: Transformation in Image and Symbol, edited by Elizabeth Errington and Joe Cribb, 193-7. Cambridge: The Ancient India and Iran Trust.
  • Mukherjee, B.N. 1964. “Shāh-jī-kī-ḍherī Casket Inscription.” The British Museum Quarterly 28, (Summer) no. 1/2: 39-46.
  • Mukherjee, B.N. 1996. “Observations on the Shah-ji-ki-Dheri Casket Inscription.” The British Museum Quarterly 30, (Spring) no. 3/4: 110-11.
  • Myer, Prudence. 1966. “Again the Kanishka Casket.” The Art Bulletin 48, (Sep.-Dec.) no. 3/4: 396-403.
  • Organ, R.M. and A.E. Werner. 1964. “The Restoration of the Relic Casket from Shāh-jī-kī-ḍherī.” The British Museum Quarterly 28, (Summer) no. 1/2: 46-51.
  • Rosenfield, John. 1967. The Dynastic Arts of the Kushans. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Spooner, D.B. 1912. “Excavations at Shāh-jī-kī-Dhērī.” Archeological Survey of India: Annual Report, 1908-9, pp. 38-59. Calcutta: Superintendent Government Printing.

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Avadānaśataka (ed. Speyer 1906–1909)
Burmese (Chaṭṭhasaṅgāyana) edition
Sri Lankan (Buddha Jayanti Tipiṭaka Series) edition
Catuṣpariṣat-sūtra (ed. Waldschmidt 1952–1962)
European (Pali Text Society) edition
Fobenxing ji jing (T 190)
Mahāvastu-avadāna (ed. Senart 1882–1897)
Saṃyukta-āgama (T 99)
Saṅghabhedavastu (ed. Gnoli 1977–1978)
Thai (King of Siam) edition
Taishō 大正 edition