Mahayana Buddhism, Maitreya and Swat
The terracotta plaque was found in what might well be described as a small fire temple. Fire ritual was common in Iran and the Shahi period8, linked with Kabul and Kapisa. The Shahi period whose Kings succeeded the Kushanas ruled over much of what was Gandhara. The terracotta seal is probably from the end of the Buddhist Kabul Shahi period. Both Buddhists and Hindus lived alongside each other for over five hundred years. The early Buddhist kings may even have been Tibetan. At that time Ladakh also controlled much of what is now Western Tibet.
The use of the plaque is not yet determined and it may even be a similar to Tibetan ts’a ts’a9 which are funerary figures often in the shape of a Buddha, and made after a cremation. After cremation a small portion of the remaining ash and crushed bone is mixed with clay, moulded into Buddha figures and then fired. These are deposited in sacred spots. Sometimes around old statues. Usually eight are made from each cremation. The rest of the ashes then tipped into the river. Many ts’a ts’a can still be seen today in Ladakh.
The Three Barikot Hares share ears but are not running. They are lying down quietly almost as if they are deer meditating. Their ‘paws’ do look a bit like hooves. Also on the plaque are what look like two sets of flames or possibly vegetation and a surround of thirty dots which may correspond to days of the month. Time and ritual are often linked. If it is a fire temple this will have possible connections with Buddhist Vajrayana Fire rituals that are still carried out today in Ladakhi and Tibetan monasteries.
In those days Swat was known as Uddiyana, which means ‘garden’ or ‘orchard’ in Sanskrit, and had strong links with India.10 Today Swat is still scattered with the remains of many important Buddhist sites. There are stupas from the time of Ashoka 2nd century BC. Also there may well be a Tantric element to the Three Hares symbol, as Tantra is believed to have evolved in Swat. A dakini is a ‘sky goer’, an enlightened female practitioner who imparts pleasure and divine knowledge at the same time. Uddiyana is also known as ‘paradise of the dakinis’. The Buddhist background story to the Three Hares is therefore a complex web both intellectually, spiritually and historically.
In Tibetan folklore hares are also regarded as being very wise and quick-witted embodying wisdom, featuring in many folk tales. Hares are also consulted on questions of fertility and are linked to the moon. So from Kanishka’s white hare in Peshawar there is a slender thread reaching back to the early Buddhist teachings and another slender thread leading all the way through Ladakh to the caves in Dunhuang.