Indo-Greeks: the importance of archeology for historical linguistics, part 4

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During our discussion of the Iranian antecedents of "kiosk", we also touched upon the Indian origins of "stupa".  In this post, I would like to focus on a single monument of utmost importance that shows the intimate intermingling of Indic and Greek archeological, architectural, artistic, iconographical, religious, numismatic, and, not least, linguistic elements.

The Butkara Stupa (Pashto: بت کړه سټوپا) is an important Buddhist stupa near Mingora, in the area of Swat, Pakistan. It may have been built by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, but it is generally dated slightly later to the 2nd century BCE.

The stupa was enlarged on five occasions during the following centuries, every time by building over, and encapsulating, the previous structure.

The stupa was excavated by an Italian mission (IsIOAO: Istituto Italiano per l'Africa e l'Oriente), led by archaeologist Domenico Faccenna from 1956, to clarify the various steps of the construction and enlargements. The mission established that the stupa was "monumentalized" by the addition of Hellenistic architectural decorations during the 2nd century BCE, suggesting a direct involvement of the Indo-Greeks, rulers of northwestern India during that period, in the development of Greco-Buddhist architecture.

An Indo-Corinthian capital representing a Buddhist devotee within foliage has been found which had a reliquary and a coin of Azes II buried at its base, securely dating the sculpture to earlier than 20 BCE.

The nearby Hellenistic fortifications of Barikot are also thought to be contemporary.

A large quantity of the artifacts are preserved in the National Museum of Oriental Art and the City Museum of Ancient Oriental Art in Turin (M.A.O.).

The oldest core strata (GSt 1) revealed a coin of Chandragupta Maurya and is therefore dated to the Ashokan period. A coin of Menander I was found in the second oldest stratum (GSt 2). A coin of Azes II was found under a plinth of the third stratum (GSt 3), which is therefore dated to the end of the 1st century BCE or the beginning of the 1st century CE. The 4th stratum (GSt 4) contained late coins of Azes II and coins of the Kushan Kujula Kadphises.

The in-situ seated Buddha (or Bodhisattva) statue at Butkara is considered one of the earliest, if not the earliest, known iconographical statues of the Buddha in northwestern India. Van Lohuizen-de Leeuw considers that the statue dates to the late 1st century BCE to the early 1st century, as it was discovered in the GSt 3 stratum that contained a coins of Azes II. More conservative estimates date it to the 1st-2nd century CE, roughly at the same time the first known statues of the Buddha were made in the art of Mathura. Probably the earliest known statue of the Buddha in the art of Mathura is the "Isapur Buddha", dated to circa 15 CE. This would make the creation of the Buddha image an approximately simultaneous phenomenon between the two geographical areas.

(source — with remarkable illustrations)

I suspected that the "But-" part of the name derives from "Buddha" and that, in post-Islamic times it would have meant "idol", as it did in many parts of formerly Buddhist Central Asia that were subsequently Islamized.  I asked Hiroshi Kumamoto for confirmation.  He replied:

Since I have no specialist knowledge of Paštō, I looked it up in the largest bilingual dictionary available to me: Афганско-русский словарь (Пушту) (50000 слов) by М.Г. Асланов.

بت бут “идол, истукан, кумир”, [all “idol”], no doubt ultimately goes back to Skt. buddha-, but in this case is more likely to be a loanword from Persian / Dari, with a long history in the classical literature nicely summed up by the late Bill Hanaway in EIr ( ).

کړه каp̣а́ “1) кольцо, круг; 2) браслет (золотой или серебряный) ”. [“ 1) ring, circle; 2) bracelet (of gold or silver) ”].

Elfenbein, ad kaˈṛəy f. “ring”, on p. 40 of Morgenstierne’s A New Etymological Vocabulary of Pashto, Wiesbaden 2003, refers to Turner’s CDIAL no. 2629 kaṭa- “mat”, where some derivative forms have the meaning of “ring, bracelet, anklet”. Turner supposes “an early MIA. form of *kṛta-”, which matches Pashto -ṛ- < OIr *-rt- (Skjærvø, “Historical Phonology”, p. 404, in Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum). Incidentally, Bailey’s karā ‘circle’ in Dict. of Khotan Saka 53, has been thoroughly refuted by Emmerick, Studies in the Vocabulary of Khotanese 2, 1987, 32-34.

So, butkara seems to mean “the idol (or Buddha) circle”, perhaps “a round, or circular edifice of the pagan (non-Islamic) religion”.

I did not ask Hiroshi about this, but I further suspected that, if Butkara had a pre-Iranic / pre-Islamic, Indic / Buddhic derivation, it would have been Bodhimaṇḍala ("circle of awakening"), a term that is often used to designate "A monastery where Bhiksus (monks) and Bhiksunis (nuns) practise and teach the Buddhist Dharma. It also generally refers to a holy place of enlightenment; a place for teaching and learning the Dharma; a place where a Bodhisattva appears and where devotees have glimpses of him." (source)

The takeaway / bottom line from all of the above is that, through diverse cultural manifestations (as noted at the end of the first paragraph above), there was an intimate intermingling between Indic and Hellenic cultures that arrived in, were carried to that area, known as Swat:

The name "Swat" is derived from the Swat River. The Swat River referred to as the Suvāstu –in the Rig Veda, with a literal meaning "of fair dwellings [sic] Some have suggested the Sanskrit name may mean "clear blue water." Another theory derives the word Swat from the Sanskrit word shveta (lit. 'white'), also used to describe the clear water of the Swat River. To the ancient Greeks, the river was known as the Soastus. The Chinese pilgrim Faxian referred to Swat as the Su-ho-to.


If we look at the strategic location of this area as a link between South Asia and Central Asia, and beyond that to East Asia and Europe, we can see how it is only natural that it would have been a fertile ground for mixing of peoples, and their cultures and languages, from those far-flung regions.  Butkara Stupa provides palpable, physical evidence of that assemblage.


Selected reading

[Thanks to Lucas Christopoulos]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    October 16, 2022 @ 7:46 am

    Every site that I consult for the expansion of "IsIOAO" tells me that, as stated above, it is an acronym for "Istituto Italiano per l'Africa e l'Oriente". But if it is, what does the first "O" stand for ? To try to get to the bottom of this, I searched instead for ""Istituto Italiano per l'Africa e l'Oriente", and there I find a different (and more logical) acronym — "IsIAO". Can we be certain which is correct ?

  2. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    October 16, 2022 @ 8:23 am

    “Stupa,” mentioned on Ashoka's Nigali Sagar pillar as () "Thube" in Brahmi scripts seems close to the Ancient Greek word τάφος (táphos, “tomb”). Since the Mauryans did an alliance with the Greeks from the time of Seleucos (Σέλευκος Νικάτωρ 358-281 BC) and Chandragupta Maurya (चन्द्रगुप्तमौर्य/Σανδρόκυπτος 340-297 BC), it most likely leaded to new tomb-building structures innovation following that alliance in northern India. The continuous association of Ashoka with Buddhist art development was followed by his Indo-Greek Buddhist successors, especially with Menander (Menandros) Soter (Μένανδρος Σωτήρ/ मिलिन्दो 165-130 BC). The Stupa of Butkara is the demonstration of Hellenistic architecture development on the Buddhist stupa structures by the Indo-Greeks. Indo-Greek monument constructions was followed by the Kushana kingdom, as it can be also seen with the Butkara Stupa evolution through time. Menandros however seems to have been very active in the construction of stupas, as the Stupavadana of Bodhisattvadana-kalapata mentions that he had also built one as far as the city of Patalipurta (पाटलिपुत्र), and most likely more in his large and wealthy kingdom. Aside the Indians and the Indo-Greeks, it was then the Sri-Lanka people and the following Hellenized and Buddhist Kushana kingdom warlike aristocracy (Kshatriyas), mentioned in the Indian sources as Yavanas (Greeks), Sakas, Kambojas, Pahlavas (Parthians) and Paradas people, who will continue the development of the Buddhist stupa building tradition around the first century of our era from Central Asia and Northern India.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    October 16, 2022 @ 8:49 am

    The missing symbols in the first line of Lucas Christopoulos' comment are .

  4. Victor Mair said,

    October 16, 2022 @ 9:13 am

    Sorry, they disappeared for me too.

    I will describe them as:

    1. a circle with a dot in the center (☉) and a short, straight line extending perpendicularly downward from the bottom of the circle

    2. a square (口) with a short, straight line extending leftward from the top left corner of the square

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    October 16, 2022 @ 9:34 am

    Which I think represent —
    U+11029 : BRAHMI LETTER BA

  6. Tom Dawkes said,

    October 16, 2022 @ 10:19 am

    @ Philip Taylor. "Domenico Faccenna was a young and brilliant classical archaeologist when, in the mid-1950s, he met Giuseppe Tucci, the founder and then president of the Istituto Italiano per il medio ed Estremo oriente (IsMEO; now Istituto per l’Africa e l’oriente, IsIAo, after its merger with the Istituto Italo-Africano in 1995), who in 1956 entrusted Faccenna with the direction of the Italian Archaeological mission in Pakistan." [Source: Anna Filigenzi 'In Memory of Domenico Faccenna' Rivista di Studi Sudasiatici III, 2008, 239–244

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    October 16, 2022 @ 10:42 am

    Thank you Tom. I wonder why the upper-casing of "l'Africa' but the lower-casing of "l'oriente". Africa is a continent, and the Orient is not — is that sufficient to explain the difference ?

  8. Tom Dawkes said,

    October 16, 2022 @ 4:17 pm

    @Philip Taylor
    My apologies, Philip, a typo: IsIAo should read IsIAO. See
    I should also have given my source for the article I cited:

  9. Andrea Di Castro said,

    October 16, 2022 @ 8:07 pm

    IsMEO/IsIAO doesn't exist anymore as an Italian public institution affiliated to the Foreign Affair ministry.
    It was commissioned and then closed down in 2012.
    Nowadays IsMEO name has been revived in a "private" academic institution called International Association of Mediterranean and Oriental Studies (ISMEO).

  10. Peter Grubtal said,

    October 17, 2022 @ 12:40 am

    Let's hope the stupa doesn't get destroyed like many other Buddhist relics in that area.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    October 17, 2022 @ 5:58 am

    @ Peter Grubtal


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