March 11, 2012
Kosh Prasad Acharya, former Director General of the Department of Archaeology, under the Ministry of Culture, is currently Executive Director of the Pashupati Area Development Trust, Governing Council. He spent many years in Lumbini and Greater Lumbini as Nepal’s leading archeologist.
DUNHAM: I’d like to begin with your career.
ACHARYA: Basically, I’m an archeologist by profession but, later on, became a heritage manager as well. I’ve had the opportunity to work in Lumbini since 1985 – not continuously, but whenever required. Today, I am involved in the archeological investigations in Lumbini and Greater Lumbini. I worked for the Department of Archeology for more than 32 years and I retired as the Director General of the Department of Archeology, less than three years ago.
DUNHAM: In 1985, when you began working in Lumbini, at what stage was the Kenzo Tange master plan?
ACHARYA: The Japanese plan was already there. This was right at the time when the Lumbini Development Committee was about to become “the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT)”. At that time, they were trying to implement the Kenzo Tange master plan for the development of Lumbini. In a way, I found the Kenzo Tange master plan very comprehensive, without disturbing the archeological potential of the place.
As you probably know, the southern one-square mile of the core is regarded as the Sacred Garden. Except for the circular pond and the levee, there is no major intervention suggested by the Kenzo Tange’s master plan. So basically that area has been separated and kept for preservation.
From an archeological point of view, in 1985, my predecessors were excavating some portions of the Sacred Garden – the monastic area close to Asoka Pillar and the Maya Devi Temple. And they were also excavating, on a small scale, in another place close to the monastic are known as the mound of the ancient Lumbini village. That area is where the police station is now located.
So far, the mound has not been fully excavated. But since last year we – through a new project – we are trying to better understand the mound. For two seasons, we have excavated some portions of the mound, but not the entire area. We are trying to understand the sequence, nature and the environment of that area.
DUNHAM: Has the mound been dated?
ACHARYA: Yes. On the Asoka Pillar there is a phrase that says, “Lumbini grame”. [Grame is Sanskrit for “village”.] When Asoka [ca. 304–232 BC] visited Lumbini, the village was there. It’s important because Asoka’s pillar verifies that Lumbini is the earliest inscribed or named village in South Asia.
DUNHAM: I presume that the work must go slowly.
ACHARYA: Yes, excavation, unfortunately, is a very very slow process. This time, the excavation is a collaborative work. We have experts and professionals from Durham University, UK. Last year we worked for four weeks. This year we also worked for four weeks on the site. In between the excavations and fieldwork there is a lot to do: laboratory analyses, interpreting the findings, understanding the context – there are so many things.
Actually, when I went down to Lumbini in 1985, archeology in Nepal was in its infancy. It still is today. If you think, in the global context, this science has developed so rapidly that this has become a very sophisticated science. There are so many technologies and expertise available that, now, you can understand things that we could not understand before. That is the reason that, from time to time, we reopen the trenches.
For example, we are trying to reevaluate the archeological materials inside the Maya Devi Temple, which had been excavated in the 1990s. Now, last year, we simple reopened the trenches and re-examined the materials there and, this year, we were able to scrape some of the unexcavated portions of the temple. Now, we are getting so many interesting heretofore-unknown facts that it really encourages us to continue this type of research.
For sure, next year, we are going to investigate that area inside the Maya Devi Temple. If possible, we’ll try to continue our investigations in the future, beyond next year.
At this time, I am co-directing this excavation along with another colleague from Durham University, Prof. Robin Cunningham. Besides working for Pashupati Area Development Trust, I’m fortunate to continue my work in Lumbini.
DUNHAM: Given the new technology, what new evidence is emerging from the reopening the trenches in the Maya Devi Temple?
ACHARYA: In the earlier excavations, we were happy to know that the bricks dated back to the Asoka period, third century BC. But with our latest investigations, we came across building materials that were there prior to the brick structure. There were bricks that were not properly interpreted in the earlier excavation. But now, we’ve got, in sequence, the bricks used before Asoka period. That is one thing.
Second: Below this earlier brick structure, we’ve discovered postholes and some structural activities evident, dating to a time when there was no technological understanding of how to make bricks.
DUNHAM: How far back do the postholes date?
ACHARYA: We think that these postholes are almost contemporary with the life of the Buddha. I’m claiming this on the basis of the sequence of discoveries.
Then, there is another interesting finding based on the typology of the pottery used during that period. There is a typical type of pottery, which is called cord-impressed pottery. We found examples of that type of pottery within the Maya Devi Temple. Cord-impressed pottery has a very long range, date-wise. But the our examples of this type of pottery can be regarded as contemporary with the time during which the historical Lord Buddha lived. This type of pottery is the continuation of Neolithic culture, but in this region of Terai, this type of pottery continued until late – again, meaning during the time of the Lord Buddha.
So this is another exciting and interesting example of the evidence that we have discovered in the Maya Devi Temple.
DUNHAM: Did these two examples emerge during the last two digs?
ACHARYA: Last year, for the first time, we noticed this kind of pottery from that site. We have also sent different types of samples – charcoals, bricks, and soil – to the laboratory for different types of analysis. Once the analysis is finished, we will be in a better position to talk about the sequence, the precise dating of the different phases of activities and constructions in Lumbini.
Not only that, we will be in a position to say something about the environment of that period as well.
DUNHAM: When you say “environment”, are you talking about the flora that flourished when the Lord Buddha was alive?
ACHARYA: Yes, mostly about flora – the vegetation – but even fauna. We have collected so many charcoal samples and soil samples – hopefully, we will get some pollens, some traces of vegetation, even the glue that comes from the leaves and trees – things like that.
And very interestingly, close to the ruins of the monastic area, we collected samples of cord-impressed ware – again, which shows that the monastic area was contemporary with the first phase of the Maya Devi Temple. And not only that: The postholes and structural activities, which pre-date the brick structures, were also evident in that trench in the monastic zone. Further more, from the Village Mound, we found the same.
DUNHAM: How far is the Village Mound from the Maya Devi Temple?
ACHARYA: Less that a kilometer.
Also, I should mention the existence of paleochannels. [Deposits of unconsolidated sediments or semi-consolidated sedimentary rocks deposited in ancient, currently inactive river and stream channel systems.] There is a paleochannel very close to the Maya Devi Temple. Now it is within the core area at the northwest of the Maya Devi Temple. Earlier, also, one type of research conducted there was auger coring: making a hole, taking samples from the earth.
DUNHAM: How far down did you bore for the samples?
ACHARYA: In this case, about four meters. This reconfirmed the existence of the paleochannel. We do not understand much about the length, the width or the content of the paleochannel, but we can confirm that the paleochannel exists. Again, samples have been sent to the laboratory for analysis.
DUNHAM: I’m not up-to-date on the latest technologies. Is carbon dating still regarded as the most reliable way to determine age?
ACHARYA: Yes, carbon dating is still useful. We have sent out samples for carbon dating. But there are other techniques available. For example, there is a newly developed technique called OSL – Optically Stimulated Lumination, which dates sediments. We have used that technique in Lumbini.
DUNHAM: So OSL and carbon dating, used in tandem, are useful in verifying age.
ACHARYA: That’s right, useful in crosschecking.
DUNHAM: You mentioned that, hopefully, you would be getting data back on pollen and flora samples, which would help to determine what was growing in Lumbini during the Lord Buddha’s life. How wonderful it would be to replant the sacred garden with those identified plants and how evocative it would be for the pilgrims. It couldn’t happen overnight but in thirty years or so …
ACHARYA: Yes. Actually, the land of Lumbini has gone through so many changes. Before the Kenzo Tange master plan was prepared, the core was a paddy field. There were no trees around. After the Kenzo Tange plan came into existence, trees were planted but, at that time, people were not very sensitive to the value of retaining the horticultural authenticity of the place.
DUNHAM: Like the shisham trees that were planted?
ACHARYA: Yes, shisham trees were planted because they are one of the fastest growing trees. That was the reason they chose to plant them in the paddy fields. But now we are trying to really understand the ancient environment of that place. And we will be making a recommendation to restore the ancient environment – up to the possible extent. I think you have to be practical. There are so many considerations.
DUNHAM: Talking about practicalities: What would happen if you found something outside the three-by-one mile core zone, an archeological find that you wanted to pursue? What would you be up against in trying to persuade a property owner to let you dig before he put up his casino?
ACHARYA: Legally, anything found underground that has archeological potential has to be reported to the local government immediately. This will then be reported back to Kathmandu, to the Department of Archeology. All the necessary follow-up will be done.
The second thing you should understand is that the Nepali people are very much positive about archeological property. It is a source of their nationalistic pride. Although they are not very aware about the intricacies and the technical details, they will be happy to find anything in their area. So this is one of the very very positive aspects.
But, again, because of the ignorance and, also, because of the lower priority of heritage, there are development efforts going on without honoring or without appreciating the sensitivity of their the heritage.
We are in a dilemma. There is one aspect that is very positive. People are very much excited and encouraged by such kinds of finds. Whenever we go to excavate, any place in the country, the people are very keen – they want to know about what we are finding and what does that mean and how old the things are that we are finding. The interest, among the people, is there.
But the thing is, we are lagging behind in planning the preservation of the heritage. So far, we have been talking only about Lumbini. If we talk about the Greater Lumbini area, there are three districts in that zone: Rupandehi, where Lumbini lies, is in the middle; west of Rupandehi, there is another district – Kapilvastu; and to the east of Rupandehi is the district of Nawalparasi. These three districts are full of archeological heritage. The whole area is a holy, Buddhist , historic, cultural landscape.
DUNHAM: So what are the greatest challenges, given the rapidly development of Greater Lumbini?
ACHARYA: We have to talk about all the aspects of the heritage, the protection and the development existing side by side. We have the master plan created by Prof. Kenzo Tange for Lumbini. We are trying to develop as well as preserve Lumbini – whatever is necessary.
Also, for the first time, we have a infrastructure approaching Lumbini, which is much better now: There are road connections, electricity supply, and telecommunication. So there is private-sector potential in putting up industries. These new industries are creating problems for the serenity of Lumbini, itself.
But there are additional problems when you are talking about Greater Lumbini. There we have less well-defined, less understood, less publicized and less known sites. So it’s a bigger problem to be in a position to protect these sites. What we need now for this area is a land-use plan, which protects and preserves the heritage. If you have a very scientific plan, you can include industries that are environmentally friendly and that will also better the livelihood of the local people.
DUNHAM: What about the pollution issue? Is the local pollution taking a toll on the archeological sites? What preventative measures are being made?
ACHARYA: The problem has not been properly addressed. But we – not only me but also the people on the decision-making level of different disciplines – are becoming aware.
The decision that has been made is that no new factories, within a fifteen-kilometer radius of Lumbini, will be built. But that doesn’t solve the problem of the pre-existing factories, which are still in operation. There should be a relocation plan.
We do have serious environmental issues. We have some traces of gypsum right on the Asoka Pillar, and the chemists have told us that this gypsum comes directly from the cement factories. Yes, the problem is alarming. But, now, we are understanding the magnitude of the problem.
We need a relocation plan. Not only this, when we are talking about Greater Lumbini, (having learned from the experience of pollution in Lumbini), we should be careful about preserving the archeological heritage in the larger area.
DUNHAM: And what is your reaction when suddenly someone outside of Nepal offers three billion dollars to develop Lumbini?
ACHARYA: We have to keep in mind that we are a resource-challenged country. We don’t have money to do so many things. But even then, I think that money is not the only problem.
Proper planning is the thing we need to pursue. If you have a big sum of money, without any planning, that will ruin everything. It would be a new disaster.
I used to say that money in both senses – positive and negative – has become a problem for heritage preservation. If you don’t have money, you cannot preserve your heritage. If you too much money, then you destroy your heritage.
DUNHAM: It’s like walking a tightrope. In the meantime, nothing should happen until the master plan has been agreed upon. Nothing. Right?
ACHARYA: Yes, and a master plan for what? A master plan for development or a master plan for the preservation of heritage? We must be very clear about our priorities.
So now we are talking about the identity of the people. As you know, we are talking about the restructuring of ourselves! Identity means, basically the culture of the Nepalis.
So, the main thing is to preserve our history. Without it, who are we? Our pride, our history and our heritage were handed down to us by our ancestors. We must treasure that.
DUNHAM: And above all, in my opinion, it is the Nepalis who must take the lead. They cannot waste their time looking across the border, in either direction. This is the crux of the matter: Nepal taking the lead as to what happens in Nepal and, in this case, what happens in Lumbini. Furthermore, the Nepalis need to make it very clear to the international community – whether it is China or India or the Unites States, or whoever, what happens in Nepal must be determined by the nation of Nepal.
ACHARYA: Yes, and currently there are numerous plans in Nepal in the area of heritage, but they seem to be utilizing development tools, not preservation tools. We must learn from their misdirection.