B is for Buddhagupta

by Maganjeet Kaur

Image credit: Dennis Ong

Mahanavika1 Buddhagupta was a mariner who lived possibly in the second half of the fifth century CE. The title ‘Mahanavika’ bestowed on him implies he was a skilled navigator while his given name, Buddhagupta2, identifies his religious affiliation. Hailing from Raktamṛttika, his visit to the northern Malay Peninsula has entered into the annals of history though a stone stele he donated to a local shrine.

Replica of the Buddhagupta Stone at the National Museum, Malaysia. Found in 1834, Captain James Low gifted the stone to the Asiatic Society of Bengal in January 1835 and it is currently on display at the Indian Museum in Kolkata. A replica was gifted by the Indian Government to the National Museum in 1961. Incidentally, another replica was gifted in 2018 by the Indian Prime Minister to the Singaporean Prime Minister. Image credit: Maganjeet Kaur

Only the upper part of this stele has survived; it measures 66 centimetres in height, between 29 to 34 centimetres in width and 8 to 9 centimetres in depth. The main feature on this slab is the representation of a stupa with an almost spherical dome, in itself unusual given that they are typically semi-hemispherical.

A balcony can be seen on top of the dome and rising from this is a staff carrying seven parasols of diminishing sizes ending in two semi circles. The dome sits within the upturned petals of a lotus blossom while downward petals of the lotus frame the base. This base is decorated by three pilasters – the pilaster in the centre is shown complete while the two side pilasters are in halves. Alternatively, these could have been pillars. The stone is broken off under the pilasters/pillars – the base could have been resting on a plinth as in the case of the Kampung Sungai Mas inscription.


A drawing of the stupa at the Bujang Valley Archaeological Museum. Note that only the central pilaster/column has been traced. A handbook published by the Indian Museum in Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1883 describes the stupa as a Burmese pagoda while Jane Allen finds similarities with a Gupta-period relief on the façade at Ajanta Cave 19 in Maharashtra (India). Image credit: Maganjeet Kaur

Inscriptions run along the sides of the stupa as well as along the sides of the slab. The language is Sanskrit and the script Pallava. There are two parts to this inscription. The inscription that runs along the right side of the stupa is a karma verse that can be translated as:

Through ignorance, karma is accumulated. The cause of birth is karma. Through knowledge karma is not accumulated. Through absence of karma one is not reborn.3


This verse has also been found on inscriptions at two locations in southern Kedah – Kampung Sungai Mas and Bukit Meriam – in both cases coupled with the Buddhist Ye Dharma Hetu credo. The coupling of the karma and the Ye Dharma Hetu verses has not been found in India or Sri Lanka and, hence, could have been a local blending of philosophies.

The second part of the inscription mentions a Mahanavika Buddhagupta from Raktamṛttika giving thanks for a successful voyage. The inscription likely continues onto the broken-off piece of the stele and hence this inscription is not complete. The translation by Kern4 of the surviving inscription is below.

Right-hand side of stele: ‘Of the eminent shipowner Buddhagupta resident at Raktamrttika…’

Left-hand side of stele: ‘In every way, from everything, in every respect, all… who has performed a successful journey’


Raktamṛttika translates to ‘red earth’. This location was initially identified with the Chitu mentioned in Chinese records, which also translates to ‘red earth’; it is believed to have been located in Kelantan. Another possibility is the Raktamṛttika Mahavihara mentioned in the writings of Hiuen-Tsang (Xuanzang), a Chinese traveller to India in the seventh century CE. He wrote that the most learned men in the kingdom congregated at this vihara. Its location has been identified with the archaeological site at Rajbaridanga in West Bengal, India.

First line: right-hand side of stele; second line: left-hand side of stele; third line: right of stupa.
The writing style of this inscription bears close similarity with those found in West Java from the fifth century; the Buddhagupta stele is thus epigraphically dated to this period. Image credit: http://skyknowledge.com/pallava.htm (this inscription is as per JASB, 17(2), plate IV)

And… just for fun… an attempt to transliterate one line of the Pallava script.

The Pallava consonant indicated for ‘gu’ was possibly incorrectly copied on this drawing as it does not transliterate to ‘gu’. A close look at the artefact in the museum shows that it is inscribed as per the image shown above this image. The consonant ‘s’ should be a conjunct with another consonant, which cannot be made out as the inscription has broken off. Image credit: Maganjeet Kaur (base image taken from JASB, 4, plate III)

The stele was discovered in 1834 by Captain James Low while he was excavating some ruins at a sandy site in Seberang Perai (at its border with Kedah). Low did not leave behind any further details of the location but later researchers speculate it to be Guar Kepah, a sandy site at Penaga on the southern bank of Muda River.

Guar Kepah has other calls to fame. At one time coastal, it lies on an old beach ridge and it was previously made up of shell middens, i.e. mounds made up mainly from remains of edible molluscs and other kitchen waste. The shell midden at Guar Kepah was recorded in 1860 by G.W. Earl as being six metres high; by 1936, this had been reduced to less than two metres due to quarrying activities for lime. Shell middens signal the presence of prehistoric settlements and the Guar Kepah site was in occupation during the Hoabinhian and the Neolithic. Excavations during the colonial period had unearthed 41 skeletons and the discovery in 2017 of ‘Penang Woman’, a 5,710 year-old skeleton, puts the focus back on Guar Kepah.

With such a long history, it is thrilling to think that the shell mounds may have back dropped a stupa of the design shown on the stele. Guar Kepah is not done revealing its secrets and we can only hope that future discoveries will illuminate the Buddhagupta period, shedding light on the community that resided in the area at the time.

Buddhagupta Stone’s find-spot is speculated to be Guar Kepah, which has a history stretching to the Hoabinhian. This image shows Professor Mokhtar Saidin, director of Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre for Global Archaeological Research (CGAR), examining the ‘Penang Woman’ skeleton found at Guar Kepah. Image credit:
https://www.todayonline.com/world/asia/carbon-dating-confirms-penang-woman-5710-years-old

1 ‘Navika’ is a Sanskrit word translated initially as ‘sea-captain’. However, present-day scholarship leans towards ‘navigator’ as the more accurate meaning. ‘Mahanavika’ thus translates to ‘Great Navigator’.

2 Names identifying religious affiliation were common. As an example, among the 193 Indic inscriptions discovered at Hoc Cave on Socotra Island in Yemen, many were personal names indicating religious affiliation with Vishnu, Siva, Kartikeya or Surya. Incidentally, Budhagupta was also the name of an emperor of the Gupta Dynasty, reigning between c. 476 and 495 CE. The navigator who arrived on the shores of Kedah may have been named after him.

3Jacq-Hergoualc’h (2002, 216)

4Kern (1907, 96)

References

Allen, Jane. (1986-87). An Inscribed Tablet from Kedah, Malaysia: Comparison with Earlier Finds. Asian Perspectives, 27(1), 35-57.

Anderson, John. (1883). Catalogue and hand-book of the archaeological collections in the Indian Museum. The Order of the Trustees, Calcutta. https://www.indianculture.gov.in/rarebooks/catalogue-and-hand-book-archaeological-collections-indian-museum

Bahadur Chand Chhabra. (1965). Expansion of Indo-Aryan culture during Pallava Rule. Munshi Ram Manohar Lal.

Bulbeck, David F. (2005). The Guar Kepah Human Remains. In Zuraina Majid (Ed.), The Perak Man and other Prehistoric Skeletons of Malaysia (pp. 383-423). Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Jacq-Hergoualc’h, Michel. (2002). The Malay Peninsula: Crossroads of the Maritime Silk Road (100 BC–1300 AD). Translated by Hobson, Victoria. Brill.

Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (JASB) , 1835, 4, plate III.

Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (JASB), 1848, 17(2), plate IV.

Kern, H. (1907). Concerning some old Sanskrit Inscriptions in the Malay Peninsula. Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 49, 95-101.

Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

4 thoughts on “B is for Buddhagupta”

  1. Fascinating article, Magan. The link between the Sanskrit word for navigator ‘Navika’ and the Latin root ‘navis’-boat(Greek naus) clearly indicates how Sanskrit is an ancestor to so many basic words in languages both east and west, particularly where trade has been a contributory factor.

    1. Indeed, Rose. The similarities are due to the Indo-European language connection.

      Best wishes
      Magan

  2. Thank you, Magan. I have a question: if the stele was gifted to a local shrine (presumably local to Malaya) and was found in Guar Kepah here in Malaysia, how come India now has the original? Shouldn’t the original be with Muzium Negara?

    1. Hello Eunice. The person who found it, Captain James Low, gave it to the Asiatic Society of Bengal as they had the expertise to decipher the inscriptions and study the stone. In fact their journal, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, published quite a few articles on Malayan archaeological finds including the Cherok Tekun inscription and the Singapore Stone.

      Best wishes
      Magan

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