History

Kanishka stupa was the Largest Buddhist stupa in the world.

American archaeologist David Brainard Spooner conducted excavations there in 1908-09 for the Archaeological Survey of India leading to the identification of the.

Shaji-ki-Dheri that means the  Kanishka stupa dated to the 2nd century CE, and the discovery of the Kanishka casket.

Spooner published a paper following the excavations: “Excavation at Shaji-ki-dheri: Annual Reports of the Archaeological Survey of India 1908–09”.

The stupa was built during the Kushan era to house Buddhist relics, and was among the tallest, if not the tallest, building in the ancient world.

Brief history of kanishka Stupa:

According to Buddhists the building of the stupa was foretold by the Buddha:

“The Buddha, pointing to a small boy making a mud tope….[said] that on that spot Kanishka would erect a tope by his name.” Vinaya sutra.

The same story is repeated in a Khotanese scroll found at Dunhuang, which first described how Kanishka would arrive 400 years after the death of the Buddha. The account also describes how Kanishka came to raise his stupa:

“A desire thus arose in [Kanishka to build a vast stupa]….at that time the four world-regents learnt the mind of the king. So for his sake they took the form of young boys….[and] began a stupa of mud….the boys said to [Kanishka] ‘We are making the Kanishka-stupa.’….At that time the boys changed their form….[and] said to him, ‘Great king, by you according to the Buddha’s prophecy is a Sangharama to be built wholly (?) with a large stupa and hither relics must be invited which the meritorious good beings…will bring.” 

The Kanishka stupa was a monumental stupa established by the Kushan king Kanishka during the 2nd century CE in today’s Shah-ji-Dheri on the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan.

The stupa was described by Chinese pilgrims in the 7th century as the tallest stupa in all India.

Archaeologists have examined the remains of the structure and determined that it had a diameter of 286 feet. Ancient Chinese manuscripts tell of Buddhist pilgrims reporting that the stupa had a height of 591–689 feet (The measurements they stated were in Chinese units, which were 600–700. This height was equal to about 180–210 meters or 591–689 feet.

Three Chinese reports are known (by Faxian, who travelled between 399–412 CE, Sung Yun who arrived in India in 518 CE, Xuanzang who went to India in 630 CE). Sung Yun describes the stupa in the following terms:

“The king proceeded to widen the foundation of the Great Tower 300 paces and more. To crown all, he placed a roof-pole upright and even. Throughout the building he used ornamental wood, he constructed stairs to lead to the top….there was an iron-pillar, 3-feet high with thirteen gilded circlets. Altogether the height from the ground was 700 feet.”

The stupa was discovered and excavated in 1908–1909 by a British archaeological mission, and led to the discovery in its base of the Kanishka casket, a six-sided rock crystal reliquary containing three small fragments of bone, relics of the Buddha (which were transferred to Mandalay, Burma for safekeeping, where they still remain), and a dedication in Kharoshthi involving Kanishka.

The visit of Faxian to Kanishka stupa:

In the 400s CE, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Faxian visited the structure and described it as “the highest of all the towers” in the “terrestrial world”, which ancient travelers claimed was up to 560 feet (170 m) tall, though modern estimates suggest a height of 400 feet (120 m).

In 520 CE, Sung Yun describes the stupa in the following terms:-

“The king proceeded to widen the foundation of the Great Tower 300 paces and more. To crown all, he placed a roof-pole upright and even. Throughout the building he used ornamental wood, he constructed stairs to lead to the top….there was an iron-pillar, 3-feet high with thirteen gilded circlets. Altogether the height from the ground was 700 feet.”

Destruction:

Sung Yun noted in the early 6th century that the tower had been struck by lightning at least three times, having been rebuilt after each strike. 

The tall stupa with a copper top acted as a lightning rod. This propensity to attract lightning strikes may explain the dearth of any surviving examples of wooden-tower stupas.

Reconstruction of Stupa:

The stupa is believed to have influence later constructions of “tower stupas” throughout ancient Turkistan. The construction of wooden towers topped with metal chatras made such buildings act as lightning rods, which could explain why such towers have all but disappeared.

The kanishka stupa wooden superstructure was rebuilt atop the stone base,and crowned with a 13-layer copper-gilded chatra. In the 5th century CE, stucco imagery was probably added to the site, in keeping with contemporary popularity for Buddhist imagery.

Current status:

The ancient site has not been preserved. The location was re-identified in 2011.
It is located outside the Gunj Gate of the old Walled City of Peshawar and is called Akhunabad in Pakistan

– Jaipal Gaikwad, Sub Editor at Sakal Media Group

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