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


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)
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