Oldest Buddha Shrine Dates Birth to 6th Century B.C.

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The birthplace of the Buddha has been found in Nepal, revealing that the origins of Buddhism date to the sixth century B.C., according to archaeologists. What’s more, evidence of tree roots at the birth site reinforce the mythology of Buddha’s birth under a tree.

The excavations took place within the already sacred Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini, Nepal, a UNESCO World Heritage site long thought to have been the Buddha’s birthplace.

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The archaeological team dug under a series of brick temples at the site and unearthed a previously unknown sixth-century B.C. timber structure. It is described in the latest issue of the journal Antiquity.

The timber structure contains an open space in the center that links to the nativity story of the Buddha himself.

“By placing the life of the Gautama Buddha firmly into the sixth century B.C. we can understand the exact character of the social and economic context in which he taught — it was a time of dramatic change with the introduction of coinage, the concept of the state, urbanization, the growth of merchants and the middle classes,” Robin Coningham, co-leader of the project, told Discovery News.

“The discovery of evidence of tree roots in the center of the earliest shrines at Lumbini — the presence of a tree shrine — add a real physical perspective to the Buddhist traditions of his life story, which associated Lumbini with the Buddha’s birth under a tree,” added Coningham, who is an archaeologist at Durham University.

Coningham, with Kosh Prasad Acharya of the Pashupati Area Development Trust in Nepal and colleagues used a combination of radiocarbon dating and optically stimulated luminescence techniques to date fragments of charcoal and grains of sand at the timber shrine. Analysis of the site’s geology confirmed the presence of ancient tree roots within the temple’s central void.

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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. The researchers speculate 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 one were also arranged around the central space, which was unroofed.

Coningham says the discovery contributes to a greater understanding of the early development of Buddhism as well as the spiritual importance of Lumbini.

“Most historical studies of early Buddhism start with the rule of the Emperor Asoka in the third century B.C. as he was personally responsible for patronizing Buddhism and helping it spread from Afghanistan to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka,” he said.

“However, the discovery of two earlier shrines at Lumbini demonstrate that Buddhism had already attracted powerful sponsors before his imperial intervention,” he continued. “The fact that all three shrines were constructed around a tree also provides us with a unique insight into Buddhist veneration before the introduction of the image of the Buddha centuries later.”

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 died. At his passing at the age of 80, the Buddha is recorded as having recommended 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.

Bokova urged that there be “more archaeological research, intensified conservation work and strengthened site management” to ensure Lumbini’s protection.

Ram Kumar Shrestha, Nepal’s minister of culture, tourism and civil aviation, concluded, “These discoveries are very important to better understand the birthplace of the Buddha. The government of Nepal will spare no effort to preserve this significant site.”

Half a billion people around the world are Buddhists. Hundreds of thousands make a pilgrimage to Lumbini each year, numbers that are likely to increase all the more given today’s announcement.

The research was funded by the government of Japan in partnership with the government of Nepal, under a UNESCO project aimed at strengthening the conservation and management of Lumbini. Along with the National Geographic Society, the research also was supported by Durham University and Stirling University.

(Image: Pilgrims meditate by a stone pillar erected by the ancient king Asoka in the third century B.C., with the Maya Devi Temple in the background; Credit: Ira Block/National Geographic)