A reliquary is a container for holy relics.
According to religious texts, the historical
Buddha Shayamuni was cremated after his death
and his ashes distributed between eight
reliquaries. These were placed within eight
hemispherical dome-shaped mounds known as
In the 3rd century B.C. the north Indian ruler King
Ashoka, is reputed to have opened these eight
monuments and further subdivided the ashes
between a larger number of stupas. This was
regarded as an act of great piety as it enabled
many more believers to have access to the relics.
Buddhism spread to Gandhara from the Ganges
basin in northern India in the 2nd century B.C.
In the following centuries many religious sites in
Gandhara claimed to possess relics of the
Buddha and they became important pilgrimage
destinations, visited by devotees from all over
Asia, especially China.
This vessel is designed as an independent small-
scale monument and may have contained a relic
as well as other small offerings such as glass
beads or coins. Model stupas were also
commissioned as reliquaries for the remains of
eminent monks or Buddhist devotees. Such
containers were often donated to
monastic foundations by lay followers as a
means to earn merit and generate good karma. It
has an elegant design of stylized foliage on the
lid. The small umbrella-like finial is a reference
to the architecture of the stupas in which the
original Buddha relics were stored.
The stupas and in consequence such reliquaries
were designed to reflect the
order of the cosmos. The base was associated
with the earthly sphere, whilst the ‘umbrellas’
symbolized the heavens. This remarkable object
is carved from green schist, a material indigenous
to the region and therefore popular with local
carvers. As a physical manifestation of early
Buddhist piety this object has important
historical and religious associations.
For a similar example see, ‘The Art of Gandhara
in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,’ (New York,
2007), p. 24, fig. 21.