Indian Buddhism: Birch-bark treasures

Experts in Indological Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich are in the process of analyzing 2000-year-old Indian Buddhist documents that have only recently come to light. The precious manuscripts have already yielded some surprising findings.

The oldest surviving Buddhist texts, preserved on long rolls of birch-tree bark, are written in Gandhari, an early regional Indic language that is long extinct. The scrolls originate from the region known in ancient times as Gandhara, which lies in what is now Northwestern Pakistan.

For researchers interested in the early history of Buddhism, these manuscripts represent a sensational find, for a number of reasons. The first is their age. Some of the documents date from the first century BC, making them by far the oldest examples of Indian Buddhist literature. But for the experts, their contents are equally fascinating. The texts provide insights into a literary tradition which was thought to have been irretrievably lost, and they help researchers to reconstruct crucial phases in the development of Buddhism in India. Furthermore, the scrolls confirm the vital role played by the Gandhara region in the spread of Buddhism into Central Asia and China.

Editing the manuscripts

At LMU Munich a team of researchers led by LMU Indological scholar Professor Jens-Uwe Hartmann and Professor Harry Falk of the Free University of Berlin has just begun the arduous job of editing the manuscripts. Most of the texts survive only as fragments, which must first be collated and reassembled. The magnitude of the task is reflected in the planned duration of the project – 21 years. The project of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities is being funded by a total grant of 8.6 million euros from the Academies Program, that is coordinated by the Union of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities. It is one of the largest research programs in the field of the Humanities in the Federal Republic.

The researchers work not with the manuscripts themselves, but with digital scans. The originals are not only extremely fragile, but are held in various collections scattered around the world. A large fraction of the surviving material is stored in the British Library in London. The ultimate goal of the project is to prepare a modern edition of all the Gandhari manuscripts, thus making them available for further investigation. In addition, the researchers plan to produce a dictionary of the Gandhari language and a survey of its grammar. However, the project will be primarily concerned with illuminating the development of Gandhari literature and the history of Buddhism in Gandhara. It is already clear that the results will lead to a new understanding of the earliest phases of Buddhism in India.

At the core of the project is the construction of a comprehensive database in which all relevant information and results are collected, stored and linked together. The database will serve as the major source of electronic and printed publications on the topic, and regular updates will give the international research community access to the latest results.


Heritage gets boost, Property Owners Can Sell FSI To Conserve Legacy

In a big boost to the heritage movement in the city, AUDA in its draft GDCR has incorporated Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) for owners of heritage properties in the walled city. Simply put, TDR means sale, transfer or leasing of built area lost due to the need to preserve existing heritage structure.

This represents the loss of development potential or rights, which the owner would have to bear if these rights were not transferable or negotiable. The owner of a heritage property can sell an FSI value to a developer on the condition that the owner maintains the property in its original form, and the developer, who will then with the approval of AUDA is allowed to build this area as an additional floor space in another location.

“For instance a ‘Grade-1’ pol Haveli, if spread on 1,000 square meters will get a saleable FSI of 0.4. This means an additional 400 square meters to sell or lease out or transfer it to another location. Today with the prevailing rates, each square meter costs an average of Rs 22,000. If the haveli owner sells this additional space, the owner has to use this money to repair and conserve the haveli in its original form. This will be a blessing for many heritage property owners,” says AUDA CEO, D Thara.

Heritage management institute director Debashish Nayak adds, “The TDR policy is way ahead of the one that exists in Mumbai. The entire sum from the proceeds of sale of FSI has to be used for building conservation in Ahmedabad, which is a landmark policy decision for the city,” says Nayak.

Green facelift for heritage zones in French township Two Chandernagore heritage zones will be given makeover

Bengal’s very own French connection is all set for a makeover, thanks to the West Bengal Heritage Commission. It has taken up restoration of the 340-year-old Sacred Heart Cemetery and centuries old Laldighi in Chandernagore.

The project, undertaken by architect/ environment planner Parasar Basu, will also be the commission’s first endeavour towards “green conservation” — in which the restoration and preservation activities will be focussed on recreating an environmentally sustainable ambience.

The 1.6-acre cemetery, along with the 3.5-acre Laldighi complex — on either side of G T Road — would constitute a Nature Study Park. French-style grilled boundaries will be put up on either side of G T Road for an uninterrupted view of the cemetery and the water body as an integrated complex. This stretch of the road between the two heritage zones will also get a facelift with adequate landscaping and a boulevard-style planting in the middle of the road, said sources.

The waterbody itself would get a makeover. A beautiful floating promenade in the middle will be made accessible through jetties. The complex will be lined with pathways, benches and gazebos.

To make the project economically viable, aquatic flowers will be planted and a pisciculture will be carried out in the lake.

In keeping with the concept of “green conservation”, the wall around the three sides of the cemetery will itself serve as a green backdrop for the tombstones and sculptures within. Climbing roses of various hues will drape the masonry. The various roses will also be sold to generate funds.

“Funds will be needed for maintenance. This could be done by training local youths,” said Basu.

Flowering trees, evergreen and seasonal and fastand slow-growing, will be planted along the borders and the pavements outside the complex. The visual “aberration”, a water tower in an adjoining plot, will be camouflaged with flowering vines.

Restoration done, the commission will hand over the premises to the Sacred Heart Church, which was founded by Augustinian monks in 1688.

Painter Shuvaprasanna, who’s the chairman of the commission, said: “Conserving the colonial past tops the priority list of the heritage commission. In Chandernagore, the preservation will be a more rewarding experience since it will involve the environment as well.”


Worth 1cr abroad, dino eggs for 500 in MP

Dinosaur eggs that are millions of years old are being sold for as little as Rs 500 in Madhya Pradesh’s fossil-rich Dhar-Mandla belt. In the international market, say experts, they fetch close to Rs 1crore.

So rampanthasthesmuggling of the eggs — dating back to the Cretaceous period 145 to 66 million years ago — become that a nervous MP government has set plans afoot to introduce the Fossils Preservation Actthat might come in handy to prevent the dubious trade. The draft of the law, says a senior forest official, has already been sent to the law department.

The only notified site of dinosaur nesting in MP is Padlyain Dhar district. It covers some 89 hectares and has been lying unprotected since it came into prominence in 2007, making it a fertile hunting ground for egg smugglers. Procuring them — these are of immense value to palaeontologists — is easy as there are neither fences nor guards in the area.

Sources say all it takes is some haggling and coaxing from smugglers, who mostly come from Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan, to target gullible tribal’s living in the area.

“There is no count of how many eggs have been removed,” says MP forest minister Sartaj Singh. “There is need for a law as we don’t yet have legal provisions to check this roaring business. And the fact that the government is helpless in curbing these activities has only emboldened this nexus. But with the impending passage of the Act, we can prohibit possession and sale of fossils.”

The Act, as of now, envisages a transit pass for “movement of fossil”, which, the minister thinks, will be a deterrent to law-breakers. It also calls for the wildlife warden to monitor and supervise known sites of dinosaur eggs, all the while keeping the forest department in the loop.

Former deputy-DG of the Geological Survey of India, Dr Arun Sonakia, says Gujarat has done a far better job with conservation of dinosaur remains. “We (Madhya Pradesh) do not have the resources, and therefore, there has hardly been any effort on the part of the state government to look after these precious bits of history,” he says, adding, “But it’s time we did. The cost of one such egg in the international market could go up to around Rs 1 crore, and these smugglers are making a killing.”

Har Raj Ji Mahal, Jaisalmer Fort wins UNESCO Award

Har Raj Ji Mahal in Jaisalmer Fort, Rajasthan, India has been heroically rescued was granted an Honourable Mention by UNESCO. The project was implemented by INTACH and supported by World Monument Fund, Jaisalmer in Jeopardy and Girdhar Smarak Trust. INTACH had earlier received a UNESCO Award in 2002 for Street Scape Project, Jaisalmer Fort.

The project was started in 2002, responding to the threat posed by the progressive decay of the fabled 17th century Har Raj Ji Mahal, which had suffered from the ravages of time in an unforgiving desert environment, the project has heroically rescued and restored. It is the oldest and most majestic palace in the imposing Jaisalmer Fort. The restored palace is now open to visitors after ten years.

Debate Continues Over Hampi Bazaar Evictions

The Virupaksha temple at the end of the Hampi bazaar.  The building painted with a red cross is marked as a place from which residents would be evicted.  Photo: Gethin Chamberlain

In July 2011, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) removed some 250 families housed in “illegal encroachments” along the 700-metre-long colonnaded pavilion of the 16th-century Virupaksha temple, otherwise known as “Hampi Bazaar.”  The evictions, announced less than 24 hours before the demolition of some of these stalls and homes was set to begin, triggered an ongoing debate about the ASI’s handling of residents living illegally on a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

While many continue to support the ASI’s decision, arguing that the bazaar residents were doing more harm than good — accusations include drug trafficking, cobbling building materials out of the site’s ruins, and diverting revenues away from the State of Karnataka with seasonal traders coming in from other provinces — others have lamented the abrupt loss of Hampi’s “living heritage.”

In the current issue of Archaeology magazine, archaeologist John M. Fritz and architectural historian George Michell refer to the ASI’s decision as “callous, not least because the local population was not involved in the decision-making process.”  Fritz and Michell, who first visited Hampi in 1980 and say they watched the bazaar “return to life” in the 20 years they spent studying site, describe the evictions as “all too common in India, where there is only a limited range of paradigms for managing heritage sites.”