A Buddhist Complex Along the Silk Road

Today the Jaulian archaeological complex contains the remains of a Buddhist monastery and a large Stupa or Buddhist shrine. The site was constructed in the early days of Buddhist expansion out of the Indian subcontinent when this region was part of the Kushan Empire. The Kushans were a nomadic people from the Eurasian steppe who came to control and rule over an important segment of the Silk Road linking China and India to the Mediterranean basin. 

While the main stupa at Jaulian has been badly damaged, twenty-seven subsidiary stupas in different state of disrepair are located around the main stupa and in the two adjacent courts. An additional fifty-nine chapels are located around the courts and feature scenes from the Buddha’s life. Located to the East of the three stupa courts, the monastery contained individual monk quarters surrounding a large courtyard. To the East of the courtyard, several structures related to monastic life; including an assembly hall, kitchen, store room and refectory finish out the complex.  


Trade and the Spread of Buddhism

The site of Jaulian is located in the Taxila Valley, once part the ancient Kingdom of Gandhara, which spanned over parts of modern day Pakistan and Afghanistan and experienced its greatest florescence during the Kushan Period between the 1st and 4th centuries CE. With access to land routes to the Parthian (Persian) Empire in the West, seaports along India’s West coast, and the Central Asian corridor of the Silk Road, Gandhara was well situated to benefit from commercial activity. The Kushan Empire fostered commerce through cultural inclusion, borrowing characteristics of their Hellenistic, Persian, and Indian influenced subjects , which allowed them to more easily engage in trade with their neighbors. The Kushans utilized a dynamic multi-cultural currency based on a Roman gold standard that assisted in trade transactions. The coins, over a hundred of which were recovered from Jaulian, display an amalgamation of imagery featuring Kushan royalty, Greek lettering, and Buddhist imagery. This cultural fluidity is also visible in the blend of architectural features on the stupas at Jaulian, which show Greek, Persian, and Roman characteristics within the Buddhist complex. 

It is widely believed that it was along the trade routes of the Taxila Valley that Buddhism spread from the Northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent onto the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan and into Central Asia and China. After 100 CE, during the rule of the Emperors Kaniska and Huviska, building of stupas and monasteries began in earnest across Gandhara. These leaders are credited with the creation of great stupas in Peshawar and Mathura and are revered in Buddhist texts, though archaeological evidence suggests that the emperors continued, according to their cosmopolitan policies, to worship a variety of gods. While the emperors’ embrace of Buddhism was symbolically very important, it is likely that it was the stabilization of trade routes through the region and subsequent period of prosperity permitting local communities and monks to donate to Buddhist orders that had a much greater impact in spreading the faith. 

During this period, Buddhism underwent several transformations which permitted followers to seek salvation through donations and gifts as well as through lives of poverty and self-abnegation. Indeed, at Jaulian, many of the stupas include inscriptions by the generous monks and merchants who were their donors. 

The Significance of Stupas

A stupa, or Buddhist shrine, is a mound-like religious structure which may contain relics of the Buddha or a Buddhist saint, commemorate a holy event, or denote a sacred location. Stupas became a way to spread the living presence of the Buddha and to provide a physical manifestation of the religion to outsiders. Performing a pilgrimage to or donating for the creation of a stupa were some  of the principal ways to worship the Buddha and show adherence to the faith. At Jaulian, the main stupa features a large rectangular base decorated with plaster figures and a long staircase leading to a dome. A total of twenty-seven votive stupas surround the main stupa and feature square bases topped by circular drums and domes. 

While all of the stupas are unique, the votive stupas tend to follow a general pyramidal pattern.

The stupa bases are generally divided into three tiers separated by dental cornices that become gradually smaller as they approach the top of the stupa.

Each tier features a series of niches created from a series of pilasters (shallow exposed columns). Generally, in the two lower layers the pilasters are in the Corinthian style, referencing Hellenistic influences, while the third tier is more Iranian in shape. Within the niches are images of the Buddha or Bodhissitavvas (Buddhist saints who chose not to enter Nirvana so they could help others).

While all of the stupas at Jaulian are missing the uppermost portions, they likely consisted of domes topped by harmikas, or squared platforms, and yasti-chattras, or umbrella shafts, which were common features of Gandaharan stupas.

Inscriptions located at the bottom of some of the stupas and chapels feature the names and titles of their donors. They illustrate the importance of patronage to the spread of Buddhism in the region, and the many different classes of donors show the broad appeal and impact the religion had to many segments of society. In addition to a variety of members of the merchant class, Buddhist monks are also repeatedly credited as donors, which suggests that they accumulated personal wealth and possessed a greater degree of autonomy than previously thought.

Stupa A15 at Jaulian features two inscriptions on the North face of the stupa. The inscriptions reveal the titles of donors to the sanctuary and indicate the social classes to whom Buddhism was important.


Stupa A15 Base at Jaulian Complex by CyArk on Sketchfab

Preserving the Site

In 2015, the Lahore University of Management Science (LUMS) and CyArk undertook a partnership to create a Technology Center and to preserve Pakistan’s heritage.  The 3D data on the Jaulian monastery, scanned by LUMS students and archived by CyArk, provides an accurate base map to monitor deterioration of the architectural, figural, and inscriptional works of the site.  This data complements existing historical documentation and conservation materials and advances the capability for planning future preservation efforts.  The data can also inform efforts to map inaccurate plaster restorations of figures which were made in 2014 following monsoon damage.  The data highlights the differences between the historical and modern plasters and accurately reveals the extent of the restorations.  


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