December 2, 2013
For the first time, scientists have uncovered archaeological evidence of when the Buddha's life occurred. Excavations completed in Nepal, have positively dated a Buddhist shrine in Lumbini that dates back to the sixth century B.C.
Lumbini was the birthplace of the historical Buddha.
The research, published in Antiquity Journal, describes the remains of a timber structure about the same size and shape as a temple built at the same site in the third century B.C.
From Antiquity Journal, December 2013 issue: Key locations identified with the lives of important religious founders have often been extensively remodelled in later periods, entraining the destruction of many of the earlier remains. Recent UNESCO-sponsored work at the major Buddhist centre of Lumbini in Nepal has sought to overcome these limitations, providing direct archaeological evidence of the nature of an early Buddhist shrine and a secure chronology. The excavations revealed a sequence of early structures preceding the major rebuilding by Asoka during the third century BC. The sequence of durable brick architecture supplanting non-durable timber was foreseen by British prehistorian Stuart Piggott when he was stationed in India over 70 years ago. Lumbini provides a rare and valuable insight into the structure and character of the earliest Buddhist shrines.
"This is one of those rare occasions when belief, tradition, archaeology and science actually come together," Professor Robin Coningham of Durham University in UK and co-director of the archeological team working in Lumbini, said at a press briefing Monday.
It is a very significant contribution in verifying that the Buddha's actual life overlapped with the popularly recognized time frame of 563-483 B.C.
"We know the entirety of the shrine sequence started in the sixth century B.C., and this sheds light on a very long debate," Coningham added.
Kosh Prasad Acharya (former Director General of Nepal’s Department of Archaeology, and currently Executive Director of the Pashupati Area Development Trust) said that in order to establish the actual date of the timber shrine and a previously unknown early brick structure above it, his team had tested fragments of charcoal and grains of sand from the site, using a combination of radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques.
Geo-archaeological research has confirmed the presence of ancient tree roots within the temples central void. They had also sent fragments of the charcoal and the sand grains to a laboratory in the UK for cross checks and final confirmation.
Evidence of a shrine revering a tree is extremely significant, from a Buddhist point of view: According to Buddhist tradition, Queen Maya Devi, mother of the Buddha, gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree at the Lumbini gardens, midway between the kingdoms of her husband and her parents.
“With the help of these findings, many other historical facts can come out,” said Acharya. “And I do want to clear the misconception of a few who think Buddha was born in India, as such discoveries at Lumbini will make it easier for them to accept the reality.”
Click here for my interview with KSOH PRASAD ACHARYA
Until now, the earliest Buddhist temples have been attributed to Emperor Ashoka, who in the 3rd century BC spread Buddhism across the region, as evidenced by his Pillar and brick built temple in Lumbini, a UNESCO World Heritage property since 1997.
“For the first time in South Asia, excavations have revealed a pre-Ashokan temple of brick, which itself was built over an earlier one of timber”, explained Professor Coningham at a press conference held in Kathmandu last week.
A team of Nepali and international experts worked together within the framework of a UNESCO project funded by the Government of Japan through the Japanese Funds in Trust for the Preservation of the World Cultural Heritage to UNESCO. The first phase of the project was completed this month.
Coningham also said that even older remains of a village dating back to as early as 1300 BC were found a few hundred meters south of Lord Buddha’s birthplace, pushing the date of the settlement of the region back by a thousand years.
“We have now very robust proof that Lumbini’s history extends far before the visit of Emperor Ashoka. The government of Nepal will step-up its efforts to preserve the outstanding universal value of the site”, says Sushil Ghimire, Secretary of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation.
“I am pleased that the project that the UNESCO Office in Kathmandu has implemented in close cooperation with the Lumbini Development Trust and the Department of Archaeology has resulted in such important discoveries”, says Axel Plathe, Head of the UNESCO Office in Kathmandu and UNESCO Representative to Nepal.
Click here for my interview with AXEL PLATHE
The Lumbini site in Nepal is one of four principal locations that are believed to be connected with the Buddha's life. Bodh Gaya is where he is became enlightened, Sarnath is where he first preached and Kusinagara is where he died.