Oldest Buddhist Shrine Unearthed at Birthplace of Buddha in Nepal

Nov 26, 2013 by Sci-News.com

An international team of archaeologists digging at site of the sacred Maya Devi Temple in Lumbini, Nepal, has discovered remains of a Buddhist wooden shrine dating to the 6th century BC.

Prof Robin Coningham, left, and Dr Kosh Prasad Acharya direct excavations within the Maya Devi Temple, uncovering a series of ancient temples contemporary with the Buddha. Image credit: Ira Block / National Geographic.

Prof Robin Coningham, left, and Dr Kosh Prasad Acharya direct excavations within the Maya Devi Temple, uncovering a series of ancient temples contemporary with the Buddha. Image credit: Ira Block / National Geographic.

Until now, the earliest evidence of Buddhist structures at Lumbini dated no earlier than the 3rd century BC, 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. Some scholars have maintained that the Buddha was born in the 3rd century BC,” said Prof Robin Coningham of Durham University, who with colleagues reported the discovery in the journal Antiquity.

“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 6th century BC.”

Lost and overgrown in the jungles of Nepal in the medieval period, Lumbini is one of the key sites associated with the life of the Buddha. Others are Bodh Gaya, where he became a Buddha or enlightened one; Sarnath, where he first preached; and Kusinagara, where he passed away.

Lumbini was rediscovered in 1896 and identified as the birthplace of the Buddha on account of the presence of a 3rd century BC sandstone pillar. The pillar, which still stands, bears an inscription documenting a visit by Emperor Asoka to the site of the Buddha’s birth as well as the site’s name – Lumbini.

According to Buddhist tradition, 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.

At his passing at the age of 80, the Buddha is recorded as having recommended that all Buddhists visit Lumbini.

The archaeologists postulate that the open space in the center of the 2,600-year-old timber shrine may have accommodated a tree. Brick temples built later above the shrine also were arranged around the central space, which was unroofed.

The shrine was still popular in the middle of the 1st millennium CE and was recorded by Chinese pilgrims as having a shrine beside a tree.

The Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini remains a living shrine. Prof Coningham with colleagues worked alongside meditating monks, nuns and pilgrims.

They used a combination of radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques to determine the dates of the timber shrine and a previously unknown early brick structure above it. Geoarchaeological research also confirmed the presence of ancient tree roots within the temple’s central void.

The archaeologists said: “the discovery contributes to a greater understanding of the early development of Buddhism as well as the spiritual importance of Lumbini.”

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Bibliographic information: Coningham R.A.E. et al. 2013. The earliest Buddhist shrine: excavating the birthplace of the Buddha, Lumbini (Nepal). Antiquity, vol. 87, no. 338, pp. 1104–1123