Shrine find dates Buddha's birth earlier
THE discovery of a previously unknown wooden structure at the Buddha's birthplace suggests that the sage might have lived in the sixth century BC, two centuries earlier than thought, archaeologists say.
Traces of what appears to have been an ancient timber shrine was found under a brick temple that is itself within the sacred Buddhist Maya Devi Temple in Lumbini, in southern Nepal near the Indian border.
In design, it resembles the Asokan temple erected on top of it. Significantly, however, it features an open area, unprotected from the elements, from which it seems a tree once grew - possibly the tree where the Buddha was born.
"This sheds light on a very, very long debate" over when the Buddha was born and, in turn, when the faith that grew out of his teachings took root, said archaeologist Robin Coningham in a conference call.
It is widely accepted that the Buddha was born beneath a hardwood sal tree in Lumbini as his mother, Queen Maya Devi, the wife of a clan chief, was travelling to her father's kingdom to give birth.
But much of what is known about his life and time has its origins in oral tradition - with little scientific evidence to sort out fact from myth.
Many scholars contend that the Buddha - who renounced material wealth to embrace and preach a life of enlightenment - lived and taught in the fourth century BC, dying at around the age of 80.
Prof Coningham said: "What our work has demonstrated is that we have established this shrine (at the Buddha's birthplace to have been from) the sixth century."
That supports the hypothesis that the Buddha might have lived and taught in that earlier era.
Radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques were used to date fragments of charcoal and grains of sand found at the site.
Geoarcheological research, meanwhile, confirmed the existence of tree roots within the temple's central open area.
Prof Coningham co-directed an international team of archaeologists in Lumbini that was funded in part by the Washington-based National Geographic Society, which plans to telecast a documentary, titled "Buried Secrets Of The Buddha", worldwide in February.
The team's peer-reviewed findings appear in the December issue of the journal Antiquity.
Lumbini - overgrown by jungle before its rediscovery in 1896 - is today a Unesco World Heritage site, visited by millions of pilgrims every year.
Worldwide, Buddhism counts 500 million followers.
As the Maya Devi Temple is a working temple, the archaeologists found themselves digging in the middle of meditating monks, nuns and pilgrims.
It is not unusual in history for adherents of one faith to have built a place of worship atop the ruins of a venue connected with another religion.
But what makes Lumbini special, Prof Coningham said, is how the design of the wooden shrine resembles that of the multiple structures built over it over time.
Equally significant is what the archaeologists did not find: Signs of any dramatic change in the way the site has been used over the ages.
"This is one of those rare occasions when belief, tradition, archaeology and science actually come together," he said.