"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Find said to confirm time of Buddha’s life

Nov. 25, 2013
Courtesy of the National Geographic Society
and World Science staff

Ar­chae­o­lo­gists say they have dug up ev­i­dence of a sixth-cen­tu­ry-B.C. struc­ture at the Bud­dha’s birth­place—the first ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ma­te­ri­al link­ing his life to a spe­cif­ic cen­tu­ry.

Digs at the Ma­ya De­vi Tem­ple at Lum­bi­ni, Ne­pal, a UN­ESCO World Her­it­age site long iden­ti­fied as Bud­dha’s birth­place, re­vealed re­mains of a pre­vi­ously un­known sixth-cen­tu­ry B.C. wood­en struc­ture un­der lat­er brick tem­ples, the re­search­ers said.

Rob­in Con­ing­ham (left) and Kosh Pra­sad Acharya di­rect ex­ca­va­tions with­in the Ma­ya De­vi Tem­ple, un­cov­er­ing a se­ries of an­cient tem­ples con­tem­po­rar­ with the Bud­dha. In the back­ground, Thai monks med­i­tate. (Cred­it: Ira Block­/­Na­tional Ge­o­graph­ic)

The ear­li­er struc­ture seems to be a shrine tied the birth sto­ry of the Bud­dha, who tra­di­tion holds was born by a tree, they added. The struc­ture fol­lows the same de­sign as those above it, they ex­plained, with a cen­tral open space that may have ac­com­mo­dat­ed a sa­cred tree. 

Pre­vi­ously, they said, the ear­li­est ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence of Bud­dhist struc­tures at Lum­bini dat­ed no ear­li­er than the third cen­tu­ry B.C. That had led some schol­ars to sug­gest he was born then.

“Very lit­tle is known about the life of the Bud­dha, ex­cept through tex­tu­al sources and oral tra­di­tion,” said ar­chae­o­lo­gist Rob­in Con­ing­ham of Dur­ham Uni­vers­ity, U.K., who co-led the in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion. “Now, for the first time, we have an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal se­quence at Lum­bini that shows a build­ing there as early as the sixth cen­tu­ry B.C.”

The ar­chae­o­lo­gists, led by Con­ing­ham and Kosh Pra­sad Acharya of the Pashu­pati Ar­ea De­vel­op­ment Trust in Ne­pal, say the find­ing adds to our un­der­stand­ing of Bud­dhis­m’s early de­vel­op­ment and of Lum­bini’s spir­it­u­al im­por­tance. They re­port their find­ings in the De­cem­ber is­sue of the jour­nal An­ti­qu­ity.

To find out the dates of the wood­en shrine and a pre­vi­ously un­known early brick struc­ture above it, sci­en­tists tested frag­ments of char­coal and sand grains us­ing a com­bina­t­ion of tech­niques. Re­search al­so con­firmed an­cient tree roots in the tem­ple’s cen­tral void. “The gov­ern­ment of Ne­pal will spare no ef­fort to pre­serve this sig­nif­i­cant site,” said Ram Ku­mar Shres­tha, Ne­pal’s min­is­ter of cul­ture, tour­ism and civ­il avia­t­ion.

Bud­dhist tra­di­tion records that Queen Ma­ya De­vi, the Bud­dha’s moth­er, gave birth to him while hold­ing on to a tree branch in the Lumbini Gar­den, mid­way be­tween the king­doms of her hus­band and par­ents. Con­ing­ham and his col­leagues pro­pose that the space in the cen­ter of the wood­en shrine may have ac­com­mo­dat­ed a tree. Brick tem­ples built lat­er above the tim­ber shrine al­so were ar­ranged around the cen­tral space, which was un­roofed.

Lumbini is one of the key sites tied to the Bud­dha’s life; oth­ers are Bodh Ga­ya, where he be­came a Bud­dha or “en­light­ened one”; Sar­nath, where he first preached; and Kusi­na­gara, where he died at age 80. He is recorded as hav­ing rec­om­mended then that all Bud­dhists vis­it “Lum­bi­ni.” The shrine was still pop­u­lar in the mid­dle of the first mil­len­ni­um A.D. and was recorded by Chin­ese pil­grims as hav­ing a shrine be­side a tree.

The Ma­ya De­vi Tem­ple at Lum­bini re­mains a liv­ing shrine; the ar­chae­o­lo­gists worked along­side med­i­tat­ing monks, nuns and pil­grims.

“The se­quence [of re­mains] at Lumbini is a mi­cro­cosm for the de­vel­op­ment of Bud­dhism from a lo­cal­ized cult to a glob­al re­li­gion,” the au­thors of the An­ti­qu­ity pa­per wrote. Lost and over­grown in the jun­gle in me­di­e­val times, an­cient Lumbini was re­dis­cov­ered in 1896. It was iden­ti­fied as the Bud­dha’s birth­place thanks to a third-cen­tu­ry B.C. pil­lar with an in­scrip­tion men­tion­ing a vis­it by Em­per­or Aso­ka to the site of the Bud­dha’s birth as well as the site’s name. Aso­ka pro­mot­ed Bud­dhism’s spread from pre­s­ent-day Af­ghan­i­stan to Bang­la­desh.

Half a bil­lion peo­ple around the world are Bud­dhists, and many hun­dreds of thou­sands make a pil­grim­age to Lumbini each year.

* * *

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Archaeologists say they have dug up evidence of a sixth-century-B.C. structure at the Buddha’s birthplace—the first archaeological material linking his life to a specific century. Digs at the Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini, Nepal, a UNESCO World Heritage site long identified as Buddha’s birthplace, revealed remains of a previously unknown sixth-century B.C. wooden structure under later brick temples, the researchers said. The earlier structure seems to be a shrine tied the birth story of the Buddha, who tradition holds was born by a tree, they added. The structure follows the same design as those above it, they explained, with a central open space that may have accommodated a sacred tree. Previously, they said, the earliest archaeological evidence of Buddhist structures at Lumbini dated no earlier than the third century B.C. That had led some scholars to suggest he was born then. “Very little is known about the life of the Buddha, except through textual sources and oral tradition,” said archaeologist Robin Coningham of Durham University, U.K., who co-led the investigation. “Now, for the first time, we have an archaeological sequence at Lumbini that shows a building there as early as the sixth century B.C.” The archaeologists, led by Coningham and Kosh Prasad Acharya of the Pashupati Area Development Trust in Nepal, say the finding adds to our understanding of Buddhism’s early development and of Lumbini’s spiritual importance. They report their findings in the December issue of the journal Antiquity. To find out the dates of the wooden shrine and a previously unknown early brick structure above it, scientists tested fragments of charcoal and sand grains using a combination of techniques. Research also confirmed ancient tree roots in the temple’s central void. “The government of Nepal will spare no effort to preserve this significant site,” said Ram Kumar Shrestha, Nepal’s minister of culture, tourism and civil aviation. Buddhist tradition records that Queen Maya Devi, the Buddha’s mother, gave birth to him while holding on to a tree branch in the Lumbini Garden, midway between the kingdoms of her husband and parents. Coningham and his colleagues propose that the space in the center of the wooden shrine may have accommodated a tree. Brick temples built later above the timber shrine also were arranged around the central space, which was unroofed. Lumbini is one of the key sites tied to the Buddha’s life; others are Bodh Gaya, where he became a Buddha or “enlightened one”; Sarnath, where he first preached; and Kusinagara, where he died at age 80. He is recorded as having recommended then that all Buddhists visit “Lumbini.” The shrine was still popular in the middle of the first millennium A.D. and was recorded by Chinese pilgrims as having a shrine beside a tree. The Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini remains a living shrine; the archaeologists worked alongside meditating monks, nuns and pilgrims. “The sequence (of archaeological remains) at Lumbini is a microcosm for the development of Buddhism from a localized cult to a global religion,” the authors of the Antiquity paper wrote. Lost and overgrown in the jungle in medieval times, ancient Lumbini was rediscovered in 1896. It was identified as the Buddha’s birthplace thanks to a third-century B.C. pillar with an inscription mentioning a visit by Emperor Asoka to the site of the Buddha’s birth as well as the site’s name. Asoka promoted the spread of Buddhism from present-day Afghanistan to Bangladesh. Half a billion people around the world are Buddhists, and many hundreds of thousands make a pilgrimage to Lumbini each year.