When it was found by the archaeologist Charles Masson during his work in Afghanistan between 1833 and 1838, the casket contained coins of the Indo-Scythian king Azes II, though recent research by Senior indicates Azes II never existed and finds attributed to his reign probably should be reassigned to Azes I. It is also sometimes dated to a slightly posterior date of 50 CE, based on a redeposition theory, and sometimes much later (2nd century CE), based on artistic assumptions.
The casket features hellenistic representations of the Buddha (contrapposto pose, Greek himation, bundled hairstyle, realistic execution), surrounded by the Indian deities Brahma and Śakra, inside arched niches (called "homme arcade", or caitya) of Greco-Roman architecture. There are altogether eight figures in high-relief (two identical groups of Brahman-Buddha-Indra, and two devotees in-between) and two rows of rubies from Badakhshan.
Owing to their necklace, bracelets, and armbands, and aurora, the two devotees might be representations of Bodhisattvas. They hold their hands together in a prayerful gesture of reverence, Añjali Mudrā.
The Buddha: a rare iconography
The Buddha seems to walk sideways. His right forearm goes across his chest to form the Abhaya mudra. His left fist is clenched on his hip. The gown of the Shakyamuni Buddha is quite light compared to that of the other known representations of the standing Buddha (see Standing Buddha (Tokyo National Museum)), tending to follow the outline of the body, in a rather light way. These are probably the first two layers of monastic clothing the antaravasaka and the uttarasanga, without the heavier overcoat, the sangati, which would only go as low as the knees and be more markedly folded. Also, his gown is folded over the right and left arm (rather than being held in the left hand as in the classical Buddha image), suggesting some kind of scarf-like uttariya. He has an abundant topknot covering the ushnisha, and a simple halo surrounds his head. This combination of details of the iconography (posture and clothing) is rare and only otherwise known in the coins of Kanishka (c. 150 CE), where they bear the inscription "Shakyamuni Buddha", in apparent contrast to the his coins of the "Buddha" where he wears the heavy topcoat. The posture itself is well known in the art of Gandhara in sculptures of the Buddha as a Bodhisattva, but in these cases, he wears the Indian princely dhoti and the royal turban.
The Bimaran casket was kept in a steatite box, with inscriptions stating that it contained some relics of the Buddha. When opened in the 19th century, the box did not contain identifiable relics, but instead some burnt pearls, bead of precious and semi-precious stones, and the four coins of Azes II.
The inscriptions written on the box are :
- Main body of the container:
- "Shivaraksita mumjavamdaputrasa danamuhe niyadide bhagavata sharirehi sarvabudhana puyae"
- "Sacred gift of Shivaraksita, son of Munjavamda; presented for Lord's relics, in honour of all Buddhas" (Translation by Fussman)
- Lid of the container:
- "Shivaraksita mumjavamdaputrasa danamuhe bhagavata sharirehi"
- "Gift of Shivaraksita, son of Munjavamda; presented for Lord's relics"
The archeological find of the Azes II coins inside the casket would suggest a date between 30 BCE to 10 BCE or slightly later (the coins are also attributed by certain numismats to a member of the family of Kharahostes (10 BCE–10 CE), a successor to Azes II). Azes II would have employed some Indo-Greek artists in the territories recently conquered, and made the dedication to a stupa. The coins are not very worn, and would therefore have been dedicated soon after their minting. Indo-Scythians are indeed known for their association with Buddhism, as in the Mathura lion capital. Such date would make the casket the earliest known representation of the Buddha:
- "In the art of Gandhara, the first known image of the standing Buddha and approximatively dated, is that of the Bimaran reliquary, which specialists attribute to the Indo-Scythian period, more particularly to the rule of Azes II" (Christine Sachs, "De l'Indus à l'Oxus").
Various disputes have been arising regarding the early date suggested for this first Buddha image:
- "The well-known gold and ruby reliquary found at Bimaran in Afghanistan is generally assigned a date of about the second century AD in spite of the virtually incontrovertible scientific evidence surrounding it that suggests that it was made about the first century BC. The resistance to the early dating of the reliquary is based solely on the assumption that Buddha images were not introduced into the Buddhist artistic repertoire until the early centuries of the Christian era, and therefore that any work that bears an image of the Buddha must be of a comparably late date." (S. L. Huntington, Art Journal, Vol. 49 No. 4 Winter.1990, pp.401-408)
Since the casket already displays quite a sophisticated iconography (Brahma and Indra as attendants, Bodhisattvas) in an advanced style, it would suggest much earlier representations of the Buddha were already current by that time, going back to the rule of the Indo-Greeks, as advocated by Alfred A. Foucher and others.
The style and manufacture of the casket (gold inlaid with precious stone) is also highly consistent with the art of the Scythians, as known for example from the Tillia tepe archaeological site in northern Afghanistan. The Tillia tepe treasure is also dated to the 1st century BCE.
The first representations of the Buddha are generally assumed to be around the 1st century CE, about fifty to a hundred years later than the reign of Azes II, under the rule of the Kushans. For these reasons, it has been suggested that the casket may be a 1st-century CE re-deposit inside the stupa, so that its actual date would be later than the coins suggest. In that case though, it is unclear why a later devotee or ruler (1st century Kushan?) would insert the coins of an Indo-Scythian ruler inside such a high-profile and precious dedication. It has also been suggested that the coins of Azes II were posthumous issues, which is highly unlikely as different ethnicity (Indo-Parthians and Kushans) ruled after the reign of Azes II.
Stylistically, the Kanishka casket, with an iconography broadly similar to the Bimaran casket, but a much coarser execution, is securely dated to around 127 CE.
The Bimaran casket is on display at the British Museum (Joseph E. Hotung Gallery), which dates the casket to 60 CE, based on the re-dedication theory, supported by the Museum's curator.
Another face of the Bimaran casket, featuring a devotee, possibly a Bodhisattva.
Detail of Hamsa goose.
Detail of a devotee, possibly a Bodhisattva.
- Senior (2008), pp. 25-27.
- "De l'Indus à l'Oxus, Archéologie de l'Asie Centrale", Osmund Bopearachchi, Christine Sachs, ISBN 2-9516679-2-2
- "The Greeks in Bactria and India", W.W. Tarn, Cambridge University Press.
- "Monnaies Gréco-Bactriennes et Indo-Grecques, Catalogue Raisonné", Osmund Bopearachchi, 1991, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, ISBN 2-7177-1825-7.
- Susan L. Huntington (with contributions by John C. Huntington), Art of Ancient India (Tokyo and New York: John Weatherhill, 1985).
- Senior, R. C, (2008). "The Final Nail in the Coffin of Azes II." Journal of the Oriental Numismatic Society 197 (2008), pp. 25-27.
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