Place, Space and Community in Kushan Mathura : Sociology of an Early Indian 'tirtha'

Chandreyi Basu
Univeristy of Pennsylvania, USA

( ) This paper explores the spiritual 'empowerment' of place and the formation of sacred geographies in early India by studying the emergence of Mathura as an important 'tirtha' for Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jain sects in the first two centuries A.D. I analyze ways in which communities of pilgrims who journeyed to such "crossings" shaped ritual topography through their patronage to religious architecture and sculpture. Decoding the meaning of symbolically charged buildings and images dedicated by pilgrims at Mathura during the Kushan period, will illuminate the specific nature and function of the centers of pilgrimage that emerged within the region. I attempt to reconstruct the goals of pilgrims, their local or supra-regional origins and their social organization by using inscriptions placed on votive images and architectural pieces. By considering the sites and scluptures associated with each religious sect, I also hope to compare forms of pilgrimage practice in all three traditions as well as to illustrate varying levels of social and symbolic complexity that characterized these early forms.

( ) By the second century AD, Mathura had developed into an important tirtha characterized by clusters of ritual sites arranged aroudn its urban core. I attempt to answer two central questions- why did large groups of Jain, Buddhist and Brahmanical worshippers increasingly converge at Mathura in the Kushan period and claim parts of its sacred territory for sectarian worship and how did pilgrimage order the topography of Mathura. The reconstruction of Mathrua's sacred geography proposed here is based on the analysis of infomation contained in votive inscriptions, archaeological records of excavated sites, Buddhist, Jain and Brahmanical religious texts and ethnographic data presented in studies on modern pilgrimage patterns in the region. An analysis of the ritual function of images that were donated to sacred sites in Mathura and worshipped at cult shrines also throws light on how these specific sites functioned.

( ) I study multiple settings of pilgrimage in Mathura ranging form local shrines to supra-regional sacred complexes. My paper begins with an overview of symbolically charged spots located on the boundaries of the region. Such liminal sites were centers of Yaksha worship from the pre-Kushan period. These local divinities of place were worshipped as guardians of wealth and transportation usually at the intersections of routes or at the entrance points to regions. I include in these categories of tirthas the site of Mat, located to the northeast of the river Yamuna near an imporant grove in the sacred topography of Mathura. I suggest, on the basis of its location and artistic remains, that construction of this 'dynastic' complex reflects an attempt by the Kushan rulers to become associated with Mathura's sacred groves, mountains, and tanks mirroring the function of colossal Yaksha figures.

( ) Next, I study the three prominent religious sites in Mathura- Kankali Tila, the site of the Huvishka Vihara in modern Jamalpur and the Naga temples of Sonkh. In this part of the paper, I reconstruct the use of space at each of these sites over time and analyze the social status of the pilgrimage groups involved in worship. I examine the epigraphic and art historical evidence for understanding the nature of interaction between religious groups at these sites. Finally, I study the organization of the Naga cult temples situated within the urban cetner of Sonkh in Mathura. This evidence, along with the inscribed images of Naga deities found in other parts of Mathura, suggest that these functioned as local pilgrimage circuits that lasted well into the post-Kushan period.

( ) Thus, by analyzing the different strands of pilgrimage at Mathura and relating these to other pilgrimage centers in early India, I hope to illustrate the complexity and multiple levels of sacred organization that characterized early India tirthas. By focusing on the three major religious traditions that were localized at Mathura, this paper provides insights into the degrees of intersection between early Buddhist, Jain and Brahmanical pilgrimage traditions. On the basis of sculptural and architectural evidence I reconstruct the movement patterns of pilgrims within the sacred geogrphy of Mathura and suggest that Mathura's religious centers functioned as 'fords' between this world and the next both for local and extra-regional pilgrims, who converged at these sites to perform death rites, ancestor worship, pray for healthy progeny and wealth.