Cultural Formation and Transformation:
Shahi Art and Architecture from Afghanistan to the West Tibetan Frontier at the Dawn of the Islamic Era

The goal of the project "Cultural Formation and Transformation: Shahi Art and Architecture from Afghanistan to the West Tibetan Frontier at the Dawn of the Islamic Era" is to define a narrative cultural history of the Shahi kingdoms (7th to 10th century). Due to their extensive temporal and geographic parameters — extending from Afghanistan to the borders of the Tibetan empire — the kingdoms played a pivotal role in the history of Inner and South Asia. Despite its importance for the history of later Buddhist art and the formation of Islamic art, the cultural history of this almost 300-year period has never been the focus of dedicated research.

This research makes a major contribution to digital humanities through the innovative methods used to explain for the first time the cultural history of a vast area that is of tremendous geographic and temporal significance (today within the modern states of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India). A central element of our research is to document and systematize comprehensive data, cross referencing the entire corpus of the material culture of the vast Shahi kingdoms. The resultant database will be linked to the Digital Maps of the Shahi kingdoms and the Bibliographic Database (BibDB). Modern digital methods will allow the quantitative and qualitative analysis of primary sources (texts; inscriptions; numismatic, art historical, and archaeological data) plus completely new data derived from the analysis of the materials and techniques of manufacture of three groups of artifacts (see Database).
Our research to date allows us to propose a chronological framework: sometime after 660, Kabul became the seat of the Turk Shahi and the center of administration, succeeding Kapisa. Thus began the almost 300-year rule of the Kabul Shahi. During the late 7th century, another member of the Kabul Shahi’s family was ruling in Zabulistan. Southwest of Zabulistan, in Sistan, Arab cantonments were becoming stronger while the last remnants of a Sasanian court were fading from the historical scene. By the mid-7th century there were at least 52 Buddhist cult sites in Kapisa-Kabul (Fussman et al. 2008). Hindu cult sites also date to this period (Tepe Skandar, Khair Khana). The first half of the 8th century was the high point of artistic activity across the Shahi kingdoms — Bamiyan, Kabul, Tapa Sardar (Ghazni), and Gilgit — while the Karkota dynasty, related to the Turk Shahi, established itself in Kashmir. Despite the king’s nominal conversion to Islam in 812/813 CE, the Turk Shahi continued to rule until a palace coup (the revolt of the chief minister) brought the Hindu Shahi to power in circa the 820s. The two successive dynasties are known together as the Kabul Shahi. The Turk Shahi were primarily patrons of Buddhism, and the “royal monasteries” at Tepe Narenj and Qol-e Tut continued until the early Ghaznavid period (Paiman and Alram 2012: 38). Kabul remained a regional capital, but by the end of the 9th century, Udabhandapura (modern Hund on the Indus River in Pakistan) had become the primary administrative center. The current excavations at Barikot (Vajirasthana) in the Swat valley show a substantial continuity between the two dynasties. The Kabul Shahi kingdoms fell to Mahmud of Ghazni in 1026. However, recent evidence like the Śrī Haṃmīra bilingual inscription (Rodziadi Khaw 2015) demonstrates Hindu Shahi cult sites in Pakistan also continued to be active through the time of Mahmud of Ghazni.
We mention here only one research question: The impact of climate change on specific high altitude regions of the Shahi kingdoms:

Following a suggestion proposed by Di Cosmo, we will evaluate the possible impacts of the Late Antique Little Ice Age (LALIA)—a long cooling period that occurred between 536 and 660 CE in the adjacent regions of Inner Asia (Büntigen et al. 2016; Whittow 2019).
The Shahi project provides new multidisciplinary evidence for dramatic changes in the high-altitude valleys of the Shahi kingdoms which suggest two models as a basis for our working hypothesis. The high mountain valley of Swat in Pakistan experienced a collapse of agro-production with dramatic implications for the Buddhist society, which began a long and inexorable decline around the mid-6th century (see Olivieri 2020 )

The dramatic changes that can be identified in some high-altitude valleys may be attributed to the direct effects of climate change on the ancient economies of these Himalayan double crop pocket zones which encouraged the rapid growth of the mountain princely states. The economic expansion in the late 6th-early 7th century began when the trans-national trade routes were re-routed, in part as a result of the negative impact of LALIA. A long period of monumental building and artistic activity in the 7th century, followed by an extraordinary flourishing of high quality artistic production in the first half of the 8th century, has been identified in the kingdoms of Bamiyan and of the Palola Shahi at Gilgit and Bolor-Chilas.

Additional primary evidence will be obtained, for the first time across the Shahi kingdoms, from the analysis of the material and technical properties of coins and artifacts, both stationary and portable. This data analysis should allow us to understand the relationships among the categories of primary sources for the study of Shahi cultural history, thus allowing us to attempt to validate earlier hypotheses such as: The efficient use of resources, raw materials, and artisans would be maximized if the coin mints and major metal sculpture workshops could be located in proximity to one another. Qualitative data analysis of these two groups of objects might demonstrate relationships which indicate the probable locations for specific mints and workshops.

The transfer of objects, technologies, and ideas within the extensive Shahi kingdoms and along the network of trans-national trade routes enabled a distinctive visual culture to evolve and flourish throughout the kingdoms. We use diachronic and synchronic analytical methods to consider the relationship between innovative Technology and Society , visualized in the database. In order to increase the probable accuracy of the quantitative and qualitative analyses, the database architecture and its contents will be periodically reviewed by project consultants.

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The Shahi project is funded by the Austrian Science Fund (project P-31246), and the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The project is a cooperation between the University of Vienna—Department of Art History and CIRDIS; the Austrian Academy of Sciences—Austrian Archaeological Institute, Department of Classical Studies; and the Art History Museum, Vienna—Coin Cabinet and Conservation Science Department.

Additional support for the Shahi Kingdoms Database and dual-format digital and print publication is provided by the Austrian Science Fund (grant PUD 26-G), Holzhausen-Legat (grant awarded in 2021), and the Austrian Archaeological Institute at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

*The Shahi Kingdoms Digital Research Platform employs two transliteration systems. To ensure accessibility across scholarly disciplines and for general audiences, simplified phonetic transcriptions are used for frequently-used terms on the platform (e.g., Shahi). Diacritics are employed in individual scholars' contributions, such as Sourcebook entries (e.g., Śāhi).