Structures such as these horseshoe-shaped chaitya gates unvovered in Bandhavgarh point to the Buddhist past of the region. Credit: ASI

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has discovered Buddhist remains including a shrine (stupa) and temples in the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. The relics, that date back to the 2nd to 5th century BCE, strongly support the prevalence of Buddhism in the region, according to the team of archaeologists.

The ASI exploration took place 84 years after initial efforts in 1938 by the late archaeologist, Niranjan Prasad Chakravarti.

The exploration between May and June 2022 was the first of a three-phase exercise led by Shivakant Bajpai, chief archaeologist of the Jabalpur circle, and spanned nearly 170 square kilometre in the Bandhavgarh national park.

The region, known as Baghelkhand, lies in northeast Madhya Pradesh and covers a part of southeast Uttar Pradesh. Baghelkhand derives its name from Vaghela Rajput kings who reigned in the 14th century.

Bajpai said of 100 caves in the area, 76 have been documented, including 50 caves previously seen. Twenty six temples were classified as belonging to the Kalachuri period (9th to 11th centuries CE).

“The caves date from the 2nd century CE to the 11th-12th century CE. The later ones are associated with the Kalachuri reign, but the earlier ones are from the Magha period,” Bajpai said.

Names of Magha rulers inscribed on Buddhist images on display in Allahabad Museum suggest that these rulers were associated with Buddhism. “The remains clearly indicate the existence of Buddhism in this region. The presence of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism was noticed for the first time in the survey when Chaitya-like (horseshoe-shaped) doors and cells with stone beds and stone pillows were found,” Bajpai told Nature India.

Chaitya-shaped structures are basic to Buddhist architecture. Chaitya-type gates were recorded in 21 caves and 15 caves had stone beds and stone pillows. “A votive stupa and a Buddhist pillar fragment containing miniature stupa carvings have also been discovered for the first time” says Bajpai.

These, he said, are roughly dated 2nd to 3rd century CE.

“The finding of the votive stupa and the Buddhist pillar is significant. These structures are found in the Bedse caves (Buddhist rock-cut monasteries) of Maharashtra and strengthen evidence for the prevalence of Buddhism in Bandhavgarh.”

Besides the caves and stupa, 35 temple remains, 56 sculptures, four coins, 26 inscriptions, five board games, 27 water bodies, two water treatment channels and pottery have also been documented. The ruins of 26 temples date to the 9th to 11th centuries, to the Kalachuri period.

Among sculptures unearthed is a large Varaha sculpture, a monolith of the tenth incarnation of Lord Vishnu according to Hindu mythology.

In an article published in Current Science, Nayanjot Lahiri, and co-authors M B Rajani, Debdutta Sanyal and Samayita Banerjee wrote: “The archaeology of historical India has usually been perceived through the lens of cities and states, leaving forest tracts to a large extent unexamined.

“The early historical archaeology of the forests of Bandhavgarh is best studied by integrating various techniques for exploration and analysis. If the ground surveys and GPS readings helped us locate and document caves, streams and water reservoirs, a close analysis of satellite imagery enriched our understanding of the hilly topography as also the sources and alignment of the streams.”

The writers suggest that a study of how the forest has changed over centuries, an exploration of past vegetational changes, could begin by analysing soil cores from some of the old reservoirs in the area.