Durham archaeology team re-dates Buddha's birthday after Lumbini shrine dig in Nepal

By Culture24 Reporter | 25 November 2013

The Buddha nativity story may date to the sixth century BC, say Durham archaeologists working at earliest shrine in Nepal

A photo of a group of Buddhists in orange robes praying around an archaeological site
Thai monks inside the Maya Devi Temple meditate over the remains of the oldest Buddhist shrine in the world at Lumbini, Nepal© Ira Block / National Geographic Buddha Birthplace
Digging at the pilgrimage site of the earliest Buddhist shrine in the world, within the sacred Maya Devi Temple in Nepal, archaeologists from Durham have discovered surprising timber remnants of the life of the Buddha, predating previous finds by nine centuries.

Testing fragments of charcoal, grains of sand and ancient roots beneath the temple’s central void, the international team believes a tree was almost certainly at the heart of the space. They worked alongside meditating monks, nuns and pilgrims, dating the timber structure to 600 years before the modern era.

“Very little is known about the life of the Buddha, except through textual sources and oral tradition,” said Professor Robin Coningham, the Durham University archaeologist who co-led the investigation.

“We wanted to 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 BC.”

Lumbini has a revered history. When he died, the Buddha is said to have recommended that all his followers visit the grounds, which remained popular during the middle of the first millennium. Chinese pilgrims recorded a shrine beside a tree at the site, and the Buddha is said to have held on to its branches during his birth within the garden.
 
Jungle growth hid the site during the medieval period, but a third century sandstone pillar, bearing an inscription telling of a visit by Emperor Asoka, saw it identified as the Buddha’s birthplace when it was rediscovered in 1896.

The Durham excavators shared their expertise with the Pashupati Area Development Trust in Nepal. Drawing their conclusions in the scientific paper Antiquity, they believe the remains represent “a microcosm for the development of Buddhism from a localized cult to a global religion.”

Thousands of Buddhists make the trip to Lumbini every year. The National Geographic Society, Stirling University and the governments of Japan and Nepal also backed the project at the World Heritage Site.

“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.”

Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, called for “intensified conservation work” and “strengthened site management” to protect the grounds.

“UNESCO is very proud to be associated with this important discovery at one of the most holy places for one of the world’s oldest religions,” she added.

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A photo of a stone archaeological excavation site surrounded by orange-robed monks
Archaeologists Robin Coningham (left) and Kosh Prasad Acharya direct excavations within the Maya Devi Temple, uncovering a series of ancient temples contemporary with the Buddha. Thai monks meditate© Ira Block / National Geographic Buddha Birthplace
A photo of a male archaeologist at the top of a ladder in a hole on a Nepalese site
Coningham, of Durham University, emerges from the dig at the Lumbini Village Mound in Nepal, where a secular settlement contemporary with the earliest temple was discovered© Ira Block / National Geographic Buddha Birthplace
A photo of a group of Buddhist monks in red robes praying at an archaeological site
Monks chant within the Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini in Nepal. The modern temple enshrines the birthplace of the Buddha© Ira Block / National Geographic Buddha Birthplace
A photo of a Buddhist monk praying crossed legged next to a tree within sacred grounds
A pilgrim meditates at a sacred Bodhi tree within the Sacred Garden of Lumbini© Ira Block / National Geographic Buddha Birthplace
A photo of a group of Buddhist monks in red robes praying on grass next to a temple
Pilgrims meditate by a stone pillar erected by the ancient king Asoka during the third century BC, with the Maya Devi Temple in the background© Ira Block / National Geographic Buddha Birthplace
A photo of a man digging up a Nepalese archaeological mud site next to a blue bucket
The Durham co-leader works in the trench in the remains of an ancient monastery, with the Maya Devi Temple in the background© Ira Block / National Geographic Buddha Birthplace
A photo of a group of buddhist monks in red robes praying at an archaeological site
Pilgrims meditate at the wall below the nativity scene within the temple. The remains of the earliest temples at the site are in the background© Ira Block / National Geographic Buddha Birthplace
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