Archaeologists working in Nepal have uncovered evidence of a structure at the birthplace of the Buddha dating to the sixth century B.C. This is the first archaeological material linking the life of the Buddha and thus the first flowering of Buddhism to a specific century.
Pioneering excavations within the sacred Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini, Nepal, a World Heritage site long identified as the birthplace of the Buddha, uncovered the remains of a previously unknown sixth-century B.C. timber structure under a series of brick temples. Laid out on the same design as those above it, the timber structure contains an open space in the center that links to the nativity story of the Buddha himself.
Until now, the earliest archaeological evidence of Buddhist structures at Lumbini dated no earlier than the third century B.C., the time of the patronage of the Emperor Asoka, who promoted the spread of Buddhism from present-day Afghanistan to Bangladesh.
“Very little is known about the life of the Buddha, except through textual sources and oral tradition,” said archaeologist Robin Coningham of Durham University, who co-led the investigation. Some scholars, he said, have maintained that the Buddha was born in the third century B.C. “We thought ‘why not go back to archaeology to try to answer some of the questions about his birth?’ 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 international team of archaeologists, led by Coningham and Kosh Prasad Acharya of the Pashupati Area Development Trust in Nepal, say the discovery contributes to a greater understanding of the early development of Buddhism as well as the spiritual importance of Lumbini. Their peer-reviewed findings are reported in the December 2013 issue of the international journal Antiquity. The research is partly supported by the National Geographic Society.
To determine the dates of the timber shrine and a previously unknown early brick structure above it, fragments of charcoal and grains of sand were tested using a combination of radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques. Geoarchaeological research also confirmed the presence of ancient tree roots within the temple’s central void.
“UNESCO is very proud to be associated with this important discovery atone of the most holy places for one of the world’s oldest religions,” said Director-General Irina Bokova of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. She urged “more archaeological research, intensified conservation work and strengthened site management” to ensure Lumbini’s protection.
“These discoveries are very important to better understand the birthplace of the Buddha,” said Ram Kumar Shrestha, Nepal’s minister of culture, tourism and civil aviation. “The government of Nepal will spare no effort to preserve this significant site.”
Buddhist tradition records that Queen Maya Devi, the mother of the Buddha, gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree within the Lumbini Garden, midway between the kingdoms of her husband and parents. Coningham and his colleagues postulate that the open space in the center of the most ancient, timber shrine may have accommodated a tree. Brick temples built later above the timber shrine also were arranged around the central space, which was unroofed.