India’s Hindu Prime Minister Touts Hometown’s Links to Buddhism as Election Day Draws Near

A Buddhist stupa atop Dhagolia hill in Gujarat’s Taranga range was excavated in May 2018 by the Archaeological Survey of India. Photo courtesy of ASI

For generations, folk tales passed down by northern Gujarat’s nomadic goat herders described an ancient well atop Dhagolia hill in the Taranga mountains.

Then, last May, Abhijit Ambekar, a deputy superintending archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of India, hit upon something that corresponded to the herders’ stories while excavating the weather-beaten site.

“It was like unraveling a mystery in layers. We found a structure that resembled a Buddhist stupa about 8 meters in diameter,” says Ambekar.

“There were tiers of burnt bricks, chipped stones and small boulders, which may be dated as far back as A.D. 1.”

A Buddha head found in Naderdi
village in the Mehsana district of
Gujarat in western India. Photo
courtesy of ASI

Besides the obvious historical appeal, Ambekar’s find has become a political curiosity in India. Vadnagar, an arid village dotted with acacia shrubs, is where India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, grew up. As he faces a tight election in which voting begins Thursday (April 11), Modi, the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has avidly supported tracing Buddhism’s footprints in Gujarat’s Mehsana district.

Spurred by Modi’s interest, the archaeologists have excavated a large stupa; a Buddha head; 58 votive stupas; 65 rock shelters; an assembly hall; 22 brick platforms; habitational mounds; check dams; and other structural evidence pointing to Buddhism’s spread in the region.

While some scholars believe the spurt in excavation activities is tied to Modi’s geopolitics and zeal to placate India’s neo-Buddhists, others think he simply wants to boost tourism in his hometown.

Northern Gujarat has long been an important Buddhist center, according to the accounts of Hiuen Tsang, a seventh-century Chinese traveler and scholar who visited many sacred sites to understand Indian Buddhism practices here.

Tsang mentioned 1,000 monks of the Hinayana sect of Buddhism along with 10 monasteries flourishing in a place Tsang called “Onan To Pu Lo,” which modern scholars believe is Anandpur — the ancient name of Vadnagar.

In 1962, archaeologists at Gujarat’s Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda excavated a stupa in Devni Mori, a village near Vadnagar, where 27 terra cotta images of the Buddha were discovered. Two relic caskets at the site — one of which is believed to contain the bodily remains of the Buddha — were also unearthed and drew global attention.

Despite international fervor around Devni Mori, excavation efforts carried on sporadically for decades. Then, in 2008, archaeologists excavated a 1,200-square-meter Buddhist monastery complex in Vadnagar, dating back to A.D. 1. Led by Gujarat state archaeologist Y.S. Rawat, the team also discovered 8,000 related artifacts at the site, such as seals, crucibles, shell bangles, beads, terra cotta objects, semiprecious stones and coins.

Laborers sift through a mound of earth for antiquities near Sharmistha Lake in Vadnagar in western India. RNS photo by Priyadarshini Sen

Not far away, a centuries-old Taran Dharan Mata shrine has been found in a Buddhist cave, and excavations there have revealed stupa platforms, votive stupas, an assembly hall and other cultural artifacts pointing to Buddhism’s possible imprint here until as late as A.D. 14.

“This major discovery showed how Buddhism was embedded in the Hindu past and philosophy,” says Rawat. “It buttressed India’s position as the spiritual leader of the East.”

The discovery of this rich cultural repository drew the attention of the Dalai Lama, who inaugurated an international conference on Buddhism in Baroda, which, besides being home to the university, is a thriving trading center about 127 miles from Vadnagar. Scholars from the U.S. and the U.K., Sri Lanka, China, Myanmar and 41 other countries met to discuss Buddhist practices in the East and West.

The zeal to promote Buddhism got a boost in 2014, when Modi became India’s prime minister and became an advocate not only for Hinduism but Buddhism.

“Because of Modi’s political ascendency, ideological and intellectual engagement with Buddhism grew in a more rigorous way,” says Vishwasrao Sonawane, a retired professor of archaeology and ancient history at Maharaja Sayajirao University.

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Source: Religion News Service