KATMANDU – The two archaeologists had a hunch that the Buddha’s birthplace in southern Nepal held secrets that could transform how the world understood the emergence and spread of Buddhism.
Their pursuit would eventually see them excavate the sacred site of Lumbini as monks prayed nearby, leading to the stunning claim that the Buddha was born in the sixth century B.C., two centuries earlier than thought.
Veteran Nepalese archaeologist Kosh Prasad Acharya had carried out excavations in Lumbini before in the early 1990s, when Nepal was still ruled by a king and a Maoist insurgency had yet to kick off.
The project ended in 1996 but Acharya remained unsatisfied with the results. “My belief was that there was another cultural deposit below, which we had not uncovered,” the 62-year-old said.
The Buddha’s birthplace was lost and overgrown by jungle before its rediscovery in 1896, when the presence of a third century B.C. pillar bearing inscriptions allowed historians to identify it as Lumbini. Since then, it has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site and is visited by millions of Buddhists every year.
UNESCO asked Acharya and his longtime collaborator, Robin Coningham, Britain’s leading South Asian archaeologist, to head a team to examine the site so conservators could develop it for growing numbers of visitors.
“In 2010, our first year there, we were pretty much the handmaidens to the conservators,” Coningham said. “The Eureka moment came in 2011, when we came across a brick temple located below the existing Asokan temple, and below that a sort of void. It became clear then that there was much more to this excavation.”
Over the next two years, archaeologists, geophysicists and hired workmen from Nepal and Britain worked on the site, digging in the presence of meditating monks and nuns.
Radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques were used to date fragments of charcoal and grains of sand found at the site.
The archaeologists also found holes, apparently meant to secure posts, in the open void below the brick temple. Lab tests confirmed the existence of roots within the void below the brick structure, suggesting it may have been a shrine where a tree once grew, possibly the hardwood sal tree under which many believe the Buddha was born.
The discovery, revealed in November, sparked huge excitement, but some historians have urged caution, saying the ancient tree shrine could have been built by pre-Buddhist believers.
“The worship of trees, often at simple altars, was a ubiquitous feature of ancient Indian religions,” Julia Shaw, a lecturer in South Asian archaeology at University College London told National Geographic’s online edition. “It is also possible that what is being described represents an older tree shrine quite disconnected from the worship of the historical Buddha.”
According to Coningham, however, if the Buddhists had appropriated the tree shrine from non-Buddhists, the site would not have survived relatively unscathed.
“Also, the inscriptions at Bodhgaya (where the Buddha achieved enlightenment) reveal a thriving culture of tree worship, which suggests continuity,” he added.