Buddhist Studies Lectures

Accounts of the Buddha’s life in the Senior Kharoṣṭhī Manuscript collection and their counterparts in the art of Gandhāra and ancient India

Speaker: Mark Allon, University of Sydney, Australia

This lecture is followed by drinks. Please register (required) by sending an email to:

The Senior Gāndhārī/Kharoṣṭhī manuscript collection, which was apparently interred in a stūpa in the ancient Gandhāra in the 2nd century CE as a pious act, contains several texts that preserve accounts of episodes of the Buddha’s life that were depicted in artwork in Gandhāra as well as at sites such as Bharhut and Amaravati, most commonly found in narrative reliefs associated with stūpas. This includes the account of the merchants Tripuṣa and Bhallika (to use Sanskrit forms) offering the Buddha his first meal after his awakening and the Buddha receiving four bowls from the gods of the four directions for receiving the food, which he reduces to a single bowl; the brahman youth Nāla and the nāga serpent Elāpattra visiting the Buddha; and King Ajātaśatru visiting the Buddha on a full-moon night, which forms the beginning of the Sāmaññaphala-sutta/Śrāmaṇyaphala-sūtra.

The narrative stone panels depicting episodes of the Buddha’s life that appeared on the exterior of stūpas or their accompanying railings made manifest and gave a visual performance of the life of the Buddha whose relics were preserved in the interior of the stūpa, enlivening the presence of the Buddha to the faithful as they performed the circumambulation around the stūpa and facilitating their participation in his life. It is thus an intriguing possibility that the stūpa that housed the Senior manuscripts, these dharma relics, may have been adorned with the very episodes of the Buddha’s life that were preserved in the manuscripts that had been interred at its heart, perhaps in conjunction with the Buddha’s physical relics.

In this lecture, the texts in the Senior collection that have visual counterparts in the art of Gandhāra and other ancient Indian sites will be discussed and the relationships between the textual and visual accounts revealed. The implications of the stūpa that housed these manuscripts being the site of the convergence of textual and visual accounts of the same episodes of the Buddha’s life, and these with the Buddha’s physical relics, will also be explored.

Mark Allon is Chair of the Department of Indian Subcontinental Studies at the University of Sydney, Australia, and Senior Lecturer in South Asian Buddhist Studies. He completed a Diploma of Arts at the City Art Institute, Sydney, and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) at the Australian National  University studying with Prof. J.W. de Jong. He received his PhD from the University of Cambridge under Prof. K.R. Norman. 

His primary research interests are the composition and transmission of early Buddhist texts, the ways in which texts have been used by Buddhist communities, and the Indic languages of early Buddhist texts (Pali, Gāndhārī, Sanskrit). He is involved in two major research projects. The first concerns the study and publication of the recently discovered Gāndhārī Buddhist manuscripts from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The second involves the conservation, photographing, and study of the Kuthodaw Pagoda marble stelae recension of the Pali canon in Mandalay, Myanmar. He is the author of Style and Function: A Study of Dominant Stylistic Features of the Prose Portions of Pāli Canonical Sutta Texts and Their Mnemonic Function (Tokyo, 1997), Three Gāndhārī Ekottarikāgama-Type Sūtras: British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragments 12 and 14 (Seattle, 2001), and is currently completing Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhāra II: The Senior Kharoṣṭhī Fragments, a study and catalogue of the Senior collection of Kharoṣṭhī manuscripts. He is also author of numerous articles on early Buddhist literature. 


The Buddist Studies Lectures are organised by Prof. Jonathan Silk, Professor of Buddhist Studies at the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS), with the support of IIAS.