Northern Black Polished Ware
(7th-2nd centuries BC)


Black Pottery Ware, photo by Biswarup Ganguly

Black Pottery Ware (900-800 bce)
photo (CC) by Biswarup Ganguly

The map above shows some of the main archeological sites associated with the spread of Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW) during the time of Asoka, although only the main sites are shown here as the ware has been found at over 1,500 sites by now. The Iron-Age culture which produced it appears to have been centered around the Middle Land, and was at its height during the period when Buddhism was on the rise, and is therefore the background culture to the discourses.

Between the 6th and 3rd centuries Indian society was undergoing dramatic and fundamental changes. The most significant of these, all of them connected, were the easy availability of iron, a rise in agricultural production, the growth of large towns and cities, and the beginning of a market economy and trade, and of centralized government. Iron made it possible to open up much more land for agriculture meaning that more food was available. The discovery of the technique of transplantation at around the same time also contributed to a food surplus. This caused an explosion in the population which in turn led to the development of the first large towns and cities in northern India.

In the political domain these changes caused the decline of the so-called tribal republics such as the Sakyans and the Vajjians, which had been governed by elected councils, and the growth of kingdoms such as Kosala and Magadha, with the latter eventually absorbing the former as well as the Vajjian and Licchivi republics and within 100 years of the Buddha’s parinibbāna becoming the vast Mauryan Empire.

Evidence of the growing wealth and technological sophistication of the time was the development of a very distinct type of pottery archaeologists call Northern Black Polished Ware. This pottery is somewhat misnamed, as it is found in the south of India, as well as in the north, and is sometimes brown in colour. But typically it has a black, shiny, almost metallic sheen and exactly how it was made remains unexplained. It was first produced in Magadha and reached its most developed form between 500 and 300 BCE, corresponding with the beginning of Buddhism.

This is important as it helps in dating archaeological sites associated with the Buddha and with the first Buddhists. It also helps map the expansion of Asoka’s empire which introduced NBPW technology as it spread, taking Buddhism with it.

Brahmanism, the religion that had prevailed up till this time, was a rural-based religion whose central sacrament was the sacrifice which involved killing of sometimes large numbers of domestic animal. The newly emerging town dwellers, and especially the tradesmen and merchants were looking for an ideology that made sense within an urban setting and particularly one that did not involve expensive and wasteful rituals.

It was at this point that first Mahāvīra, the founder of Jainism, and then the Buddha arrived on the scene. These changes influenced some of the issues the Buddha addresses which meant that his Dhamma had a ready audience. It is clear from the suttas that the Buddha’s most significant supporters were merchants (e.g. Anathapiṇḍaka, Ghosita and Kukkuṭa) and townsfolk. It is also interesting that quite a few of his discourses address ethics and practices related to business and finances.

One of the central themes of the Dhamma is that ethical behaviour and not rituals are important in the spiritual life. It is true that the Buddha often praised forest living, at least for monks and nuns, but this seems to have been mainly a nostalgic nod to the past. Of the earliest Buddhist monasteries discovered by archaeologists, all are within easy walking distance of a town or city, and one, the Ghositarama, is actually within the city walls of Kosambi.

Other ascetics groups were allowed to pick fruit and dig roots from the forest, whereas the Vinaya rules forbade monks and nuns from doing this, meaning that they had to be near habitation in order to get their food, and so Buddhism started as the religion of urban-dwellers.

The Buddha could have met with strong opposition from the powerful elites, i.e. rulers and the Brahmans who were their spiritual advisors. But while he was sometimes openly critical of Brahmanical rituals and Brahman complacency, he more commonly adopted their terminology and mythology, saying what they 'really meant' was exactly what he himself taught, rather than condemning and dismissing them.

The Buddha’s rejection of caste may also have contributed to the early success of the Dhamma. While few suttas are addressed to low caste or outcaste individuals, many undermine caste ideology. This must have made the Dhamma attractive to low castes and outcastes living in cities where social mobility was more possible than in the villages.

One more factor contributing to the rapid growth of the Buddha’s Dhamma was the extraordinary mobility of he and his monks. Strong central governments administrating large areas allowed for the opening up of roads, the construction of bridges and the control of banditry. The purpose of this was to promote trade but it also enabled the Buddha and his monks to travel widely. The suttas are full of references to the Buddha or his monks making long journeys, from one town or city to another. In a world without books this allowed thousands of people to hear the Buddha’s message, thus contributing greatly to its acceptance.

Text by Ven. S. Dhammika, January 27th 2013