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Reflecting on Mahinda

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“These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we f***** up the endgame.” (Tom Hanks, “Charlie Wilson’s War”)

The day the war ended, I wasn’t quite 17. Our old Isuzu Gemini didn’t have an onboard radio, so on the way home from the exam hall – I had sat for my O Levels – we made do with a portable one. The news was everywhere: over the airwaves and on the streets. People were elated, overjoyed: mountains of kiribath and piles of lunumiris, hordes of youngsters waving one flag after another, greeted us all the way from Wellawatte to Boralesgamuwa. As Wordsworth would have put it, bliss was it to have been alive then, heaven to have been young. Nothing seemed subdued in the air, and nothing could be. For me and pretty much everyone else, Sri Lanka had won. Everything else came later.

My generation was among the last to see the war through to its end, to have been alive to the dangers and the torments that accompanied it from the beginning. We had witnessed successive peace talks, a ceasefire agreement, even a post-tsunami “deal” with the other side. Nothing worked.

When we moved from my old home town to where I am now, politics had reduced to a battle between those who wanted peace and those who wanted war. Among such obtuse divisions shades of grey did not exist: either you voted for the peaceniks – the UNP – or you threw in your lot with the nationalists – the SLFP. I can’t remember the day the latter won the election in 2004, but I do remember the sense of elation among my family: Mahinda Rajapaksa, the populist candidate, had clinched the presidency, defeating the appeasers. Five years later he would help us end the war.

Mahinda was a hero to my family – to an extent to me also – and, for a brief moment right after the war ended, even to those who disliked him. At that moment we defined our enemy, not in crude ethnic terms, but in terms of a ruthless terrorist outfit that preached only fanaticism. We never defined another by what set us apart; only by what brought us together. Call it sentimental nostalgia, but I now remember May 2009 as one of the few times in our recent history from which we could go forward, as one. Leading us all ahead there was Mahinda. How could you dislike the guy?

I never understood the halo many of us painted around him later on. But I understand why they did what they did, turning Mahinda into some kind of deliverer. The man was in, and of, his time in a way none of his predecessors were – barring one. The exception was Ranasinghe Premadasa, who, it must be said, hailed from an altogether more subaltern, and thus depressed, background.

Like Premadasa, Mahinda was receptive to what people expected of him: not as a demagogue and a nationalist, but as a populist and a patriot. Today these words have become anathema to left-liberals and neoliberals. But then they are not bereft of meaning; only leaders conversant with the politics of people, as opposed to the politics of power, can make the people matter and the people count. In this Mahinda may have been, at one level, the successor of Premadasa. No wonder Dayan Jayatilleka, a man who obviously knows what he’s writing, and more importantly what he’s not writing, wrote of both as the two “most courageous, heroic, leaders we elected in my lifetime.”

So the halo a lot of those who supported him painted on him wasn’t entirely unwarranted. And yet – and this is something that needs to be emphasised fairly and squarely – what was so refreshing about Mahinda Rajapaksa wasn’t so much his appeal to a single constituency as his appeal was to every constituency. Put in other words, in the aftermath of the war, he appeared less a narrow nationalist than a pluralist patriot: the sort before whom everyone could become one.

In his declaration about there being no Sinhalese and Tamils, but all being Sri Lankans – the boldest made by a popular president here – lay a philosophy and a way of doing politics that could get the country ahead. When he became the first president to make it a point to speak in Tamil – which no other president no matter how liberal or popular had tried to do – he thus went as far as anyone in his office had to reach out. I often wonder whether such gestures were recognised for what they were, and whether those for whom they were meant grasped their full significance.

Not that it matters now. But it mattered then. The excitement and the exhilaration of those statements, decisions, and gestures, which I doubt were lost on us, were lost on those who could have responded. Instead of acceptance, he and his government got intransigence, a persistent refusal to endorse such gestures. I fail to understand why we crowned him like we did, but I also fail to understand why such sentiments never got reciprocated. Why did they go unnoticed, really?

Tempting as it would be to view it so, the lack of a proper response to these gestures and sentiments was not the only, or even the main, reason for his government’s downfall. Thirty years of war do not end without victors claiming their share of the spoils from the losers. Although the war went on, and continued to be fought, without the victor/vanquished dichotomy, after it ended that dichotomy crept up, doubly so because of a resurgence of Sinhala ultra-nationalism on the one hand, and the perceived defeat of its competitor – Tamil ultra-nationalism – on the other, towards the end of the decade. Yet the defeat of the latter meant that Sinhala ultra-nationalism could no longer thrive. In the absence of an enemy, paraphrasing Voltaire, we need to invent one. Four years later the ultra-nationalists invented one in Alutgama. That fight continues.

At the outset, then, a fatal rupture developed between the imperatives of multi-ethnic populism and the convulsions of mono-ethnic ultra-nationalism. Against that backdrop Mahinda’s government found itself forced to take sides. Sri Lanka witnessed three moments in which it faced a choice between an inclusive, progressive path and a divisive, reactionary one: 1948, 1970, and 2009. In 1948 the choice was made in favour of a compradore bourgeoisie that doubled down as a dependent elite, and in 1970 it was made in favour of a state-led reformist programme that, while laudable, got bogged down in the contradictions of the times in which it came to be enacted. What road would 2009 take?

It’s perhaps the biggest tragedy of my time, my generation, and the generations which followed mine, that the choice made was not the choice that should have been made. Mahinda’s charisma did not, and does not, stem from his pandering to one constituency: his populism, nurtured more by the left than by the right, extended to everyone. As multi-class as it was multi-ethnic, it’s the sort of charisma very few leaders have been endowed with. A Muslim friend from Hambantota – Rajapaksa territory – put that in perspective best: “He was of the South, but not just of the Sinhalese.”

So we know what road we should have taken, just as we know what road we ended up taking. What compelled him to abandon the first road and take the other, whether the forces that prevailed on him to do so profited by their insularity, and how we might have fared had we not listened to those forces, are questions I can’t really answer. All I know was that we had a golden opportunity, the best we ever had and the best we ever got, to forge a new future. The nationalism we should have made use of then should have been more pluralist than exclusivist, more accommodating than assertive. Yet trapped on every front, the then administration gave in to the chauvinists.

My critique of Sinhala ultra-nationalism today has always been that it differs little from the forces of neoliberalism it so strongly opposes: mired in its contradictions, it thrives on internal divisions while offering the feeblest resistance to external pressures. Andre Gunder Frank was not wide off the mark when he observed that “national” (or nationalist) capitalism was no better than its compradore variety. Amidst the resurgence of ultra-nationalism we are witnessing today, a contradiction has hence sprung up between the demonisation of the ethnic Other and an acceptance of an economic model which does not differ, or depart, radically from the sort championed by the previous regime.

We could have changed all this. Yet we did not. I still don’t know why. In Mahinda Rajapaksa we got the kind of deliverer the country was in need of: not a mythical Diyasen Kumara, but a popular unifier nurtured by the left. Today the revival of the nationalist right within not just the government, but also sections of the Opposition, threatens to eliminate everything we achieved in 2009, and everything we could have achieved in the years which followed. That is our tragedy, and the tragedy of all those who helped conclude the war. What pains me is that it did not have to be this way.

 

 



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Ramadan in Sinhala

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A group of musicians, including Sri Lankans, living in Qatar, have come up with a unique concept – ‘Ya Ramadan’ – an original song, in Sinhala.

This project, I’m told, was initiated by some talented musicians, based in Qatar, in collaboration with a local production house, also based in Qatar – Record on Studio.

According to Rubeena Shabnam, who hails from Sri Lanka, they are the first group of musicians, in Doha, Qatar, to do a Ramadan song, in the Sinhala language.

The song all is about Peace and the beauty of the holy month of Ramadan, says Rubeena.

“It’s team work that enabled all of us to come up with creative ideas in making this type of production.”

Those involved in the vocals of ‘Ya Ramadan’ are Ansaf Ameer, Rubeena Shabnam, Faiz Omar, Reena Singhawansa, Dileepa Liyanage and Angelo Anslem.

Music Arrangements were handled by Dileepa Liyanage, while Ansaf Ameer worked on the lyrics, and Shanaz Shabdeen and Angelo Anslem (DOP).

 

 

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Changing O/L and A/L exam dates: More action essential for best results

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By Prof. R.P. Gunawardane

A decision is reported to have been made to change the dates of the GCE O/L and GCE A/L exams with effect from the year 2023. According to this proposal O/L examination will be held four months early in August instead of December and the A/L examination will be conducted seven months early in January instead of August every year.

This plan if implemented properly with the necessary changes in the university admission process coupled with the streamlining of the university academic year in the university system would considerably reduce the delay in the time required for graduation. It is also necessary to develop a well-organized academic program to keep the O/L students occupied after their exam until the A/L classes begin in January next year.

History

In this context, it is of interest to go into the history of these examinations briefly. GCE O/L examination has always been conducted in the month of December every year without any interruption. However, there were number of changes to the period of GCE A/L examination. The GCE A/L examination was held during the month of December until 1970. During this period practical examination for those offering science subjects (Physics, Chemistry, Botany, Zoology) was held in April the following year. These practical examinations were held in the Universities of Colombo and Peradeniya at the time.

In 1972, the GCE A/L examination was shifted to the month of April mainly because of the disruption of education due to the insurgency occurred in 1971. This examination was held in April until the year 1977. During this period yet another significant development took place. Practical examination for the science subjects at A/L was abolished deviating from accepted international practices.

Until the year 1977 it was possible to admit the students who qualified for admission to universities in October the same year. At that time the universities had a regular academic year beginning October and ending in July making the transition from secondary education to tertiary/university education smooth. As a result, the students at the time did not waste much time awaiting admission to the universities. In 1978 the GCE A/L exam was shifted to August for unknown reasons making students to wait more than a year to enter the universities. From 1978 the GCE A/L examination was held regularly in August every year until 2001.

During 2000-2001 period extensive discussions were held in the Ministry of Education and Higher Education and the National Education Commission to review the exam time tables in order to reduce the waiting time for students. After careful consideration of all the issues involved it was decided to conduct the GCE A/L Examination in April with effect from the year 2002.

With the implementation of this scheme the backlog of admissions was also cleared by admitting two batches in the same year. After implementation of this plan the GCE A/L exam was conducted in April every year until the year 2007 making it possible to admit students to universities in the same year. Then supposedly due to administrative reasons this exam was shifted back again to August in 2008, and it is continuing up to date.

Issues

When A/L examination is held in August, it is not possible to begin A/L classes for the fresh students who sat GCE O/L exam in December until September the following year. The class rooms and teachers would be available for the new students only in September. As a result, those who sat O/L examination in December wait for nearly 9 months wasting valuable time in their prime years. Similarly, after A/L examination in August the students have to wait till September or October the following year for admission to Universities under normal circumstances. This state of affairs can be further aggravated in situations where there is a backlog of students waiting to enter different faculties of the universities.

In these circumstances, those students who were fortunate enough to be selected to the universities had to wait periods up to 2 years at home wasting their valuable time. As explained earlier time lag occurs in several stages – after O/L examination, after A/L examination and also due to delays in admission to individual universities. In addition, due to strikes and other disruptions in different universities/ faculties further delays are encountered.

Fixed Academic year for universities

A disturbing feature currently prevailing in the University System is that different universities adopt different academic years/semesters due to various reasons. What is worst is that in the same university different faculties are adopting different academic years resulting in a chaotic situation. It is worth noting that no other country in the world has such a disorder in the university system. An internationally accepted fixed academic year (September/October to June/July) is being practiced in all the countries in the world. Thus, this situation has to be corrected by synchronizing the academic years in all the faculties and the universities in our university system in order to obtain the best benefits from the proposed changes in the national examinations.

It must be stressed that changes in examination dates alone will not solve the issue of long delay in graduation. Simultaneously, the academic year of the universities also should be fixed. Once it is fixed it should not be changed under any circumstance except in a national calamity like the Covid-19 pandemic. Even in such a situation the necessary adjustment should be temporary and restricted to that particular year only.

Thus, the university academic year should be fixed like in all the other countries from September to June (9 -10 months) beginning 2022. Like our school academic year (January-December) this should not be changed under any circumstance. If there are disruptions due to strikes etc. course material should be displayed on line, alternative arrangements should be made for practical/clinical training and the exams should be held as scheduled. This is very essential to get the new batch admitted on time.

In order to implement this program, the examination department and the University Grants Commission have a prominent role to play. The results of both O/L and A/L examinations should be released as early as possible within two months. The admission process should be streamlined to complete the selection process expeditiously by getting the universities also involved in the selection process.

It is a national crime to waste years of precious time of our young generation. Thus, it is absolutely essential to implement an action plan to reduce the waiting time of students at the GCE A/L stage, the university admission level and in the undergraduate program. This will facilitate the smooth running of the higher education system in Sri Lanka.

 

Status of medical education

Related to the same issue, it has been highlighted recently that medical graduates spend a very long period to become consultants due to long delays at various stages of their training program in addition to the delays encountered in the university admission process.

Due to the current status in higher education those who study medicine would be wasting about 5-6 years of their prime time between their O/L exam and the beginning of the internship in the medical career. Even after that they have a long way ahead to become medical consultants.

There is a waiting period before the placement for internship appointment. Then, there will be another waiting period for post internship appointment followed by exams by the PGIM and foreign training. Foreign training component has to be organized by the trainees themselves and there is no formal help or methodology. Even after going through the foreign training program, they may still have to wait for a considerable period of time for their consultant appointments. By that time, he or she will be past 40 years having less than 20 years left to serve the nation as a medical consultant. At this stage this person has spent almost 35 years of continuous school education, university education and professional training. This is rather a pathetic situation prevailing in Sri Lanka today.

In most of the other countries such delays do not exist. For example, in USA most students enter universities when they reach about 17 years. In USA, most professional programs are conducted at graduate level. For instance, medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and even education are conducted as postgraduate courses. In the case of medicine, you need to follow an undergraduate program which includes pre-medical requirements prior to admission to medical school. Then, they should pass MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) to apply for a medical school. Total period of the first degree and MD program is 8 years. Thus, they will be about 25 years when they complete MD. Their internship is combined with specialized training to become consultants. This training lasts for 3-5 years depending on the specialty, except in highly specialized fields such as cardiac surgery, neuro surgery, plastic surgery etc. which may take 6-10 years. For example, one can become a consultant physician at the age of 28 years and a consultant dermatologist at the age of 29 yrs. The situation is similar regarding the average ages of the medical professionals in most of the other developed countries and even in some developing countries. This means that Sri Lankan medical graduate spends over one decade more than an average medical professional in any other country to become a medical consultant!

In most countries students apply for admission to universities in their final year in the high school and similarly, medical students apply for internship and specialization programs in their final year in the medical school. They start the combined internship and specialization program immediately after graduation. They have a highly organized and coordinated systems with a fixed calendar to administer these activities annually.

All the delays encountered by the medical trainees are avoidable if suitable action is taken by the Ministry of Education, the UGC, universities and the Ministry of Health in a highly coordinated manner. Since medical students are graduating at different times in different medical schools at present due to variable academic years, it is extremely difficult for the Ministry of Health to find placements immediately.

It is a national crime to waste many productive years and precious time of our talented young generation due to inaction of our authorities. Thus, it is absolutely essential to implement an action plan to reduce this time lag to a minimum without any further delay. A dedicated and a highly coordinated effort is needed in this direction with the active participation of the higher officials of the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health and the UGC. Furthermore, it is essential that all the medical faculties have the same fixed academic year immediately so that internship appointments can be streamlined and expedited.

We have seen the rapid increase of waiting period and the delay at the different stages of medical training during the last several decades. It has now become a very serious issue affecting our young generation and the whole nation. Many generations of our highly talented young medical students have gone through this painful process without much protest.

Thus, it is high time for the civil society activists and particularly trade unions like GMOA and FUTA to take this matter up with the authorities and see that appropriate action is taken by the relevant authorities without any further delay.

(The author is a Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya, formerly Secretary, Ministry of Education and Higher Education and Chairman, National Education Commission, Sri Lanka)

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Buddhism spread wider, longer and more influentialthan previously thought

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New excavations across Asia suggest…

BY S VENKAT NARAYAN
Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI, May 17: New excavations across Asia suggest that Buddhism had spread wider, lasted longer and was more influential than anyone thought till now.

Across Asia, geography is changing history. A slew of excavations and chance discoveries shows that the history of Buddhism, the belief system that flourished from 600 BCE until a decline in the 13th century CE, still contains many surprises.

Newly unearthed sites in Uzbekistan in Central Asia are evidence that it spread farther than previously thought. Stupas and sculptures dating back 2,000 years show that it flowed into new territories earlier. And magnificent monastery complexes are proof that the Buddhist institutions exerted greater influence over commerce, urban development, economic systems and everyday life than previously thought.

Emerging from the digs are stone structures, coin caches, copper plates, mantras punched on gold foil, inscriptions on palm leaf and ivory, colourful murals, and scriptures in at least 20 languages. How did Buddhism, which preached a renouncement of the material world, leave behind such a staggering wealth of physical evidence? KTS Sarao, former head of Buddhist Studies at the University of Delhi, says that a mingling of the sacred and non-sacred was inevitable.

“Monks spreading the Buddha’s teachings would travel along the Silk Road with merchant groups for safety; merchants, in turn, relied on them for spiritual support on these risky journeys,” Sarao told the Hindustan Times. Over time, shrines sprouted at rest stops, becoming a constant in an uncertain landscape. “They grew to include storehouses, factories, banks, and guesthouses, allowing monks to benefit not only from royal patronage but from local commerce, too.”

In Bihar, where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, efforts are on to unearth an administrative centre that until now only existed in texts. A monastery headed by a woman has been found there. And in Odisha, evidence of an unusual meditation complex open to both monks and nuns has emerged. In Afghanistan, monasteries located alongside copper mines reveal how rich monks wielded clout over the region.

Clearly, archaeology is recreating parts of the story that aren’t found in the scriptures. Because of the Buddha’s renunciation of material possessions and the self — he told followers he shouldn’t be the focus of their faith — there are key questions that are still unanswered.

Researchers are hoping to confirm whether Kapilavastu, the Buddha’s childhood home, corresponds to the town in Nepal or one of the same name, not far away, in Uttar Pradesh in north India. They’re tracking how his teachings travelled clockwise out of central India, spreading through north-west Asia and then to China and further east over a thousand years.

Says Sarao: “Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar have done admirable jobs of preserving Buddhist monuments.” In India, however, unmarked Buddhist sites are often mistaken for Hindu temples by locals. Idols of Buddha are worshipped as Shiva, Ashokan pillars are taken for lingams. “We should work together to preserve the Buddha’s legacy,” says Sarao. “His teachings are more relevant today than ever.”

Across the arid Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which encompasses much of the north and northwest of Pakistan, lie some 150 Buddhist heritage sites. The area was a major centre for early Buddhist development under Emperor Ashoka’s reign 2,300 years ago.

Italian archaeologists were investigating the province’s northern Swat region as far back as 1930. But digs were abandoned before discoveries could be made. Local teams, back at the site last year, were luckier. They discovered a monastery and education complex, the largest found in the region, and believed to be between 1,900 and 2,000 years old.

Discovered thus far are stupas, viharas, a school and meditation halls, along with smaller cells higher in the mountains where monks could retreat into isolation. Also unearthed were a coin, helping date the site to the Kushan empire (30 CE – 375 CE), which spread across modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India and was instrumental in spreading Buddhist teachings. The bonanza: rare frescoes depicting figures in various poses, including the namaskar.

It’s been 20 years since the Taliban destroyed the Buddha colossi in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. They still couldn’t erase signs of Buddhism, which had a large following here until the 11th century. Cave networks, paintings and statuary have been found at six major sites.

In 2008, when the Chinese bought over the world’s second-biggest unexploited copper mine in Mes Aynak, the site of an ancient Buddhist settlement, archaeologists raced to document and salvage the 2,600-year-old monastery that stands there, before it was lost forever. Mes Aynak was a spiritual hub along the Silk Road from the third to eighth centuries CE, a peaceful cosmopolitan pitstop run by monks who’d become rich from the copper ore.

Researchers unearthed monastery complexes, watchtowers, walled zones, jewellery hoards, manuscripts and close to a hundred stupas. One statue of the Buddha, twice as tall as a human, still bore traces of red, blue and orange on the robes. Several copper coins featured an image of the Kushan emperor Kanishka on one side, and the Buddha on the other.

As a result of Afghanistan’s poor infrastructure, mining work has stalled. Archaeologists couldn’t be happier. Their initial three-year deadline for digs has stretched to nearly 13 years already, becoming the most ambitious excavation project in Afghanistan’s history.

In 2016, when a mural was discovered in Termez in southern Uzbekistan, near today’s border with Afghanistan, few were surprised. Uzbekistan was, after all, once part of the Kushan Empire. Its residents were intermediaries as goods flowed west to Rome and east to China.

But the mural was unusual. It was discovered in a stone basement adjoining a pagoda and looked to have been made in the second or third century CE.

Despite its age, its figures in blue and red were remarkably vivid, blending influences from East and West, its angled face shaded to mimic depth. It seemed to be part of a lost larger painting about the life of the Buddha. Researchers drew parallels with murals in Dunhuang, China, an eastern junction on the Silk Road. It was proof that the route didn’t just transfer things, it let art, religion and ideas flow in both directions, too.

The Buddha disapproved of the idea of devotees focusing on him, and so little about him and his life is known. Followers believe that his mother Maya Devi, en route to her parents’, went into labour and gave birth to him (grasping the branch of a sal tree) in the Lumbini garden in present-day Nepal. We know that Emperor Ashoka built the first Buddhist structure there: a pillar inscribed with his own name, the story of the Buddha’s birth, and a date corresponding to the third century BCE.

That spot is now a UNESCO world heritage site. But in 2013, when British archaeologist Robin Coningham excavated inside the third century BCE Maya Devi temple that also stands there, he found that the site (and Ashoka’s story) went deeper. Beneath the temple his team found a roofless wooden space, with signs of ancient tree roots over which a brick temple had once been built. Charcoal and sand fragments were carbon-dated and found to be from 550 BCE, around the time the Buddha is said to have lived. If this was a Buddhist shrine, the timing would make it the first one ever built.

Indian archaeologists are sceptical, though. “Tree shrines have been part of Hindu worship much earlier than the time of the Buddha,” says KTS Sarao, former head of Buddhist Studies at the University of Delhi and a former classmate of Coningham at Cambridge. “It’s not unusual for temples to be renovated and there’s no proof connecting it to the Buddha.”

He adds a further blow: The Government of India does not permit foreign archaeologists to dig here. So, some scholars may exaggerate foreign findings to make them sound as important as the sites they can’t access, he says.

Meanwhile, work continues in Nepal. Coningham’s excavations in the Tilaurakot region, where the Buddha was believed to have lived as Prince Siddhartha, have unearthed the remains of an 1,800-year-old palace complex and walled city. There are courtyards, a central pond and stupas. But still no concrete connection to the Buddha.

When a storm tore through the village of Dalijhara Dhibi in south-western Bangladesh in 1988, it uprooted rows of trees in a mango orchard. The owners decided to plant banana instead, but found they couldn’t. Under the soil was a thick layer of brick. Thirty years later, they tried to plant mango again, and that’s when they decided to examine the bricks more closely. They unearthed a brick structure. The regional archaeological department was brought in.

Three months of excavation later, the orchard yielded an unusual harvest: a 1,200-year-old Buddhist monastic complex. Last year, continuing digs unearthed two temples and courtyards, and 18 residential cells. Fragments of ornamented bricks, terracotta plaques and clay pots show engravings of lotus flowers and geometric shapes.

There are other sites of note in the country. In Nateshwar in central Bangladesh, a 1,000-year-old temple was excavated in 2015. Researchers say the revered teacher and saint Atish Dipankar probably spent time there before his travels to Tibet and China. His life, like the Buddha’s, left no known material evidence. Perhaps that’s changing.

China is hardly short on historic treasures. Local traditions say that the first Buddhist temple there was established in 68 CE. The 339 Kizil cave temples in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region were built between the third and eighth centuries CE and are the oldest in China. They hold two kilometres of narrative murals, calligraphy and painted clay statues that borrow styles from across Asia.

And despite political efforts to minimise it, Buddhist history keeps popping up. Reservoir renovation work reveals a 600-year-old idol of the Buddha; ancient statues are discovered, built into what are now the bedrock foundations of residential buildings; buried boxes in villages are found to contain cremated remains of scholars and monks. And these are just the biggest finds across mainland China from the last five years.

This year, researchers found that the artwork in Dunhuang’s famous caves isn’t 500 years old as believed but at least 700 years old, and it has an Indian connection. Text on an image from Cave 465 was found to be mistakenly pasted backwards.

Researchers flipped it digitally. It turned out to be Sanskrit.

Priests overseeing the renovation of a temple in the Shiga prefecture, north-east of Kyoto in Japan, found history hiding in plain sight last year. Two old pillars bore blurred, sooty images. Infra-red photography revealed images of eight Buddhist saints. Each pillar bears the images of four Bodhisattvas — monks who delay enlightenment to help others find salvation. The photographs indicate they were once painted in bright blue, green and vermilion. Researchers believe these could date to the Asuka period, which lasted from 538 CE to 794 CE, putting them possibly among the oldest known Buddhist paintings in Japan.

In Hazaribagh, 110 km from Jharkhand capital Ranchi, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) identified three mounds last year as having possible links to Buddhism. One yielded a 900-year-old shrine and two subsidiary structures, two metres below ground level. In January this year, digging into the second mound revealed another shrine and monks’ cells. The site’s six sandstone sculptures depicted a seated Buddha and five likenesses of Tara, depicted as the female Buddha in the tantric-influenced Vajrayana Buddhism.

Historians believe the area may have been a religious hub, a stop between Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bodh Gaya in Bihar. But site security is a problem. Two of the Buddha sculptures were stolen, and recovered by the police only a week later.

In the past decade, archaeologists have unearthed a nunnery (India’s first record of a shelter for women monks) and metal workshops in the village of Vadnagar in Gujarat; a massive 23-chamber monastery and a cache of artefacts on the banks of Sharmishtha Lake; and a stupa, capped with burnt bricks and a chipped-stone entryway, at Taranga Hill.

Last year, Vadnagar discovered that its roots ran deeper. Excavations near a grain godown revealed a well-preserved semi-circular structure resembling a chaitya or prayer hall, and two stupas. All were built or repaired between the second and seventh centuries CE – meaning that Hiuen Tsang, who mentioned 10 monasteries in Anandpura (the town’s old name), may have been right after all.

Archaeologists digging at Phangiri in Suryapet in Telangana in 2019 knew the area was once a bustling Buddhist site. What they didn’t know was that they’d unearth the biggest stucco statue in India there. The life-size Bodhisattva, made from a brick base and covered with sand, lime and other materials, stands alongside stupas, meditation cells, prayer halls, and sculptural panels with Brahmi inscriptions, that date from the first century BCE to the third century CE. Later explorations have yielded coin caches, beads, iron objects and storage jars. The finds indicate that the complexes supported commerce and religion.

Buddhism’s heartland made news this January, when digs at the administrative centre of Lakhisarai yielded the region’s first hilltop monastery and more evidence that the lost city of Krimila lay underneath. Clay seals from the eighth or ninth century CE bore inscriptions pointing to a Mahayana monks’ council, but shows, startlingly, that the vihara might have had a significant population of women, too. The script on a previously unearthed sculpture indicates the monastery may have been headed by a nun, Vijayshree Bhadra.

There are plans to dig at 60 more sites in Lakhisarai. In Telhara, 100 km to the west, the remains of a university older than the fourth century CE Nalanda in Bihar have been unearthed. One terracotta seal shows a chakra flanked by two deer and the university’s name. The government plans to open a museum there soon.

Workers building the Purvanchal Expressway in Mau district last year found a pocket of history along the way: a stone Buddha head, a hoard of coins, terracotta pieces and bricks that hadn’t seen the light of day since at least the 12th century CE.

The cache adds to the abundant evidence of the state’s Buddhist heritage. Scriptures mention the Buddha spending time in cities such as Sravasti and Saaketa. British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham’s surveys in the 1860s and 1890s, and AK Narayanan’s in the 1960s, corroborate the claims.

The writings of Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang, who visited between 629 and 645 AD, record 3,000 monks and 100 monasteries in Ayodhya alone. Land-levelling work for the Ram temple in Ayodhya has revealed artefacts on-site too. Indian Buddhist groups have been petitioning the government to allocate a site for a vihara in Ayodhya, too.

In Andhra Pradesh, the Thotlakonda, Bavikonda and Pavuralakonda complexes, discovered in the 1970s, have offered proof that the region was a hub of commerce and learning. More than 8,000 artefacts and antiquities have been found here in the last three years. In Guntur, 350 km to the south, locals found a polished cup, terracotta roof tiles and a broken parasol from the first century BCE. In the coastal town of Ghantasala, Buddhist-era remains have emerged from fields and school backyards. Locals say there’s enough to fill a small museum.

Buddhism was the state religion when the Bhaumakara kings ruled Odisha between the eighth and 10th centuries CE. Many believe that this was the home of the Buddha’s first disciples. But a surprise emerged in 2018 in Angul district, 120 km from state capital Bhubaneswar. Archaeologists found a monastery dating from the Shunga-Kushan reign between 150 BCE and the first century CE. Bits of brick, sculptures, stupas and a sandstone pillar were found. The site is likely the monastery that is referenced in a copper plate found in the 19th century. The inscriptions mention a space for 200 devotees and habitation for monks and nuns.

Modern monasteries dot the state. The ruins of a Kushan-era temple and meeting hall at Harwan, on the outskirts of Jammu and Kashmir’s capital Srinagar, were discovered in the 1920s and lay forgotten. But in 2000, in Ambaran on the banks of the Chenab, archaeologists unearthed an even older Buddhist stupa. The site’s haul, dating from the first century BCE to the fourth-fifth century CE, included monastery walls, decorative idols and ornaments. One casket at the base of the stupa contained ashes, charred bone, coins and part of a tooth believed to be from a saint.

Researchers concluded that the site may have been a transit camp for monks and pilgrims, and a spot from which the Buddha’s teachings were disseminated to local communities. It is believed to have been abandoned in the seventh century CE, after flash floods and the decline of Buddhism in the region.

In 2009, researchers cleaning the site discovered the stupa’s foundation featured fire-baked bricks, designed as eight spokes, much like the ones in Punjab and Andhra Pradesh — another indicator that it might have been built in the Kushan period.

But there has been no further excavation since.

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