Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Buddha's Begging Bowl

One of the most revered relics in the ancient Buddhist world was the Buddha’s begging bowl. A rough outline of its long convoluted history is this – it was supposedly given to the people of Vesali when the Buddha passed through the city on his way to Kusinara. In the 1st/2nd century King Kanishka took it to Pushapura, now Peshawar, where a string of Chinese pilgrims reported seeing it between the 3rd and the 9th centuries. The importance of the bowl is attested by numerous depictions of it in Ghandara art, usually shown on the pedestal of Buddha statues. During the Islamic period it was taken from one palace or mosque to another until at a date unknown it ended up in Sultan Ways Bābā’s shrine on the outskirts of Kandahar. Several British officers report seeing in there in the 19th century, one attempting to translate the inscription on it, and another, Alexander Cunningham, trying to trace its history, a fact I mention in my Middle Land Middle Way (1992, p.136). In the late 1980s during Afghanistan’s civil war President Najibullah had the bowl taken to Kabul’s National Museum. When the Taliban came to power their Minister of Culture ordered all Buddhist artifacts in the museum smashed although the bowl remained undamaged, no doubt because of the Quranic verses inscribed on its outer surface. Today the bowl is displayed at the entrance of the Museum.

The bowl is not small. It is a stone hemispherical vessel of greenish-grey granite with a diameter of about 1.75 meters, a height of about three ¾ of a meter, and a thickness of about 18 cm at its rim, rather thicker elsewhere particularly at its middle and the base. It has no cracks or abrasions, except for a portion about the size of the palm of one’s hand that has flaked away from near the rim. There is a delicate lotus petal design chiseled around its base, attesting to its Buddhist past, and, inscribed in beautiful large calligraphic script horizontally along the rim of the bowl, are six rows of verses from the Quran, reflecting its Islamic continuum and its status through the ages as an object of special religious interest. Traces of similar calligraphic script are visible on the surface on the inner side of the bowl. The bowl is about 350 to 400 kg in weigh, far too heavy to lift.

The bowl was probably an early larger copy of the Buddha’s actual bowl placed in a monastery in Vesali for people to offer their first fruits in, a custom common in ancient India and which survived even in Sri Lanka and elsewhere up to the 19th century. The bowl’s great size may well have encouraged the acceptance of the widespread belief amongst ancient Buddhists that the Buddha was 18 feet tall. Only someone that big could have used or even lifted a bowl this size.
I am writing about the Buddha’s begging bowl because after being in obscurity for so long it recently hit the headlines in India when it was mentioned in the Lok Sabha, India’s parliament. I reproduce the below from the Ministry of External Affairs website.
MP Dr. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh asked; “Will the Minister of External Affairs be pleased to state: (a) whether the Government has recently got the information that the begging bowl of Buddha, given to the people of Vaishali by him, has been found in the Kabul museum; (b) if so, the details thereof; (c) whether the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan has sent a photo of the said bowl to the Government; (d) if so, the details thereof; (e) whether the Government has initiated the process to recover the said bowl; (f) if so, the details thereof; (g) whether the travelogues of the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hein and the writings of Dr. Cunningham and Shri S.V. Sahni mention the said bowl; and (h) if so, the details thereof?”
The Minister Prenteet Kaur in reply answered; “The Embassy of India, Kabul has made enquiries in the matter. It is learnt that the item purported to be Lord Buddha’s begging bowl was apparently in Kandahar until the regime of former President Najibullah. It was later brought to Kabul and is currently in the Kabul Museum. It has been pointed out that the begging bowl, a photo of which our Embassy has obtained, is rather large, besides having inscription in Arabic and Persian, thus calling into question its provenance. The Archaeological Survey of India has been requested to convey any information or advice it may have regarding the provenance of the bowl currently in Kabul Museum”.
The picture of the bowl as it appears today is reproduced with permission of


puaykim said...

Hi Venerable, I have problems with the concept that the Buddha was a giant in ancient days, given that in no other cultures/civilisations, was there any records of such giant humans in existence?

Do you have any opinions on that?

Soe am i said...

I'm sure people with an average general knowledge of the world will have a problem believing in a race of human giants. That the bowl was a larger copy for devotees to place offerings in does seem to the more plausible explanation. Bhante, thank you for sharing another wonderful piece of history. I only heard of the legendary golden bowl that the lady Sujata offered milk rice in and which was believed to have been thrown into the river Neranjara.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

The reason why the Buddha’s supposed footprints on Sri Pada and elsewhere and his many supposed teeth relics are so big is because of the belief that he was so physically big. Simple minds in the past confused being spiritually ‘great’ with being bodily ‘great’.

donnyyonatan said...

Namo Buddhaya.

Just my curiousity.

Is there any explanation of why there is Arabic / Qur'anic Inscription at the bowl's surface ?

What is the Qur'anic Inscription saying about ?

When exactly was the Qur'anic Inscription carved there ?

Namo Buddhaya

Shravasti Dhammika said...

In the 7th/8th century Islam replaced Buddhism as the main in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Someone must have found the bowl in the ruins of a temple, been impressed by it and taken it to use for some new purpose. Eventually someone decided to carve the inscription on it. Who did this and when has not been recorded. The inscription is legible and has been translated but sorry, donnyyonatan, I don’t know what it says.

Blogger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blogger said...

Dear Venerable,

Great article.
There are body relics of The Bhagava in many museums,are any of them verified by scientific methods[say carbon dating]to be authentic?And in the links below,there is a picture of the tooth relic,could it be authentic?


Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Blogger,
None of the supposed bodily relics of the Buddha can be traced back before the 3rd or 4th century CE, i.e. 900 or 1000 years after the Buddha, and many of them are so large that they could not possibly be of a human being. The one and only exception to this are the so-called Kapilavastu relics excavated from a stupa at Pipphrawa in the early 1970s. This stupa is the oldest ever found, it is situated in what is thought to have been Kapilavatthu and it had never been touched, opened or interfered with since it was built in about the 5th or 4th century BCE. Further, the relics found in this stupa look just like burned human bones, not like pearls and crystals that popular tradition says 'relics' look like. If there are any genuine bodily remains of the historical Buddha they are the Kapilavatthu relics. They can be seen today in the National Museum in New Delhi.

Rahula said...

Ven Dhammika,

Is there any photo of it (Kapilavatthu [Kapilavastu] relic) in the net?


Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Rahula,
I do not know of any.

Srinath Gamage said...

Kapilawaththu Relics

Pathfinder said...

Dear Venerable,

Have your ever heard of a purported alms bowl of the Buddha uncovered from a stupa in Nallasoppara (Suppāraka) on India's west coast north of Mumbai?

When I was there, we visited and old dilapidated stupa of a style similar to the interior of Sanchi.

The locals said that archeologists had removed a bowl attributed to the Buddha from their to Great Britain, but I've not been able to find anything about that...

Kind thanks, _()_

Pathfinder said...

I have a reply to my own question from one year ago here, found today:

Unknown said...

Hi, can you give me soe information about the first picture? Is it a carving from Gandhara?

MalakhailPowinda said...

The inscriptions on the bowl merely show that the bowl was re-purposed. It was found in a prominent Muslim saint's shrine being used as a charity bowl. The inscriptions are verses from The Quran, entirely unrelated to Budha or budhism.
Historical records show that the bowl was taken to the present location by the Gandhari people from ancient Gandhara on the advent of the White Huns (Heptalite) invasion during 2nd century CE.