- Buddhist Landscapes in Central India: Sanchi Hill and Archaeologies of Religious and Social Change, c. Third Century B.C. to Fifth Century A.D. by Julia Shaw
Several of the book reviews in this issue were written in 2007 and 2008, originally solicited for another journal that is no longer in publication. Asian Perspectives is publishing them here because the books are of interest to our readers, the reviews are still timely, and it will give the review authors the opportunity to have their work published in an alternative venue.
For the scholar of South Asian art history, a visit to the Buddhist site at Sanchi in central India is akin to an encounter with a movie star. As the scholar circumambulates the main stūpa (a domed structure designed to hold the relics of the Buddha or other esteemed members of the Buddhist community) and wanders among the other remains within the larger complex of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, the initial pleasure of recognition mingles with marvel at the great beauty and affective presence of these material remains. Lovely stone tree goddesses dangle from the first-century b.c.e.-first-century c.e. sandstone gateways. Crisply carved relief sculptures on these gateways invite the viewer to discover familiar stories, such as the Buddha’s renunciation of the comforts of courtly life. Stone images of the Buddha from the fifth century a.d. quietly sit along the base of the much earlier stūpa. The star-struck visitor encounters the polished remains of the famous stone pillar erected in the third century b.c.e. by the Emperor Aśoka and the fifth-century c.e. Temple 17—perhaps the earliest extant freestanding temple in India! The ubiquity of Sanchi in introductory lecture courses and textbooks on South Asian art primes the art historian for such a visual experience of delight in recognition.
Although the much-studied and well-known Buddhist remains at Sanchi occupy a prominent place within multiple fields of study, Julia Shaw shifts our gaze from the beloved artistic remains of this site to the landscape surrounding Sanchi and the nearby city of Vidisha in order provide a broader perspective on how this familiar monument functioned within the religious and social life of this region over a span of more than one thousand years. Shaw states that the primary aim of her fieldwork “was to achieve a less fragmented picture of Buddhist history by combining the methods of landscape archaeology, and art and architectural history, while drawing on debates generated within religious [End Page 311] studies and ancient Indian history” (20).Begun in 1998, Shaw’s Sanchi Survey Project (SSP) mapped roughly 720 sq km of countryside and in the process revealed some 35 Buddhist sites, a network of dams, and numerous habitation settlements. Featuring almost 70 maps, charts, and tables and another 231 plates—including several never-before-published photographs of sculptural remains—along with extensive appendices, this publication documents and analyzes many of the findings of the SSP. Indeed, Shaw has collected an enormous amount of data and clearly wrestled with how to include as much of that data as possible in this book while still presenting her overarching conclusions in a fashion that might be accessible to scholars across multiple disciplines. In her preface, Shaw mentions plans for a web-based version of the extensive database she has created, but at the time of this review, this website was not yet available. Nevertheless, the importance of the information gleaned through Shaw’s fieldwork cannot be overstated.
As she notes in her introduction, Shaw’s intention to evaluate the underpinnings of religious change required her to reconsider certain conventional approaches to the study of ancient South Asian religions. Most notably, Shaw rethinks the emphasis on monumental sites that has colored much of the archaeology and art history of ancient South Asia...