Early shrine unearthed at Nepal Buddhist site

Remains of 2,500-year-old wooden structure found beneath temple at Buddha’s birthplace

BUDDHA'S SECRETS  Archaeologists working inside Nepal’s Maya Devi Temple direct excavations of what is possibly the earliest known Buddhist shrine while Buddhist monks on a pilgrimage to the site meditate in the background.

Ira Block/National Geographic

Remains of a wooden structure at the Buddha’s birthplace dating to at least 2,500 years ago provide a rare glimpse of ancient religious practice in South Asia.

Excavations in 2011 and 2012 beneath Maya Devi Temple in Lumbini, Nepal, have yielded a better understanding of when the Buddha lived and how Buddhism grew into a major religion, report archaeologists jointly led by Robin Coningham of Durham University in England and Kosh Prasad Acharya of Pashupati Area Development Trust in Kathmandu, Nepal. The team presents its findings in the December Antiquity.

The previously unknown shrine lay just beneath brick pathways from a later shrine that was eventually covered by the Maya Devi Temple that stands on the site today. Each of the structures displays the same layout, with an open, roofless space in the center. Mineralized root fragments unearthed in the new excavation indicate that the ancient wooden shrine contained a central area featuring a tree; it may have been a sacred tree at which pilgrims worshipped.

Sacred trees at Maya Devi Temple and other modern Buddhist sites reflect oral traditions holding that the Buddha’s mother, a queen of an ancient South Asian kingdom, gave birth to the future religious leader while holding on to a tree branch in a Lumbini garden.

“This is the earliest evidence for a Buddhist shrine,” Coningham said at a November 25 press conference. Until now, Buddhist structures at Lumbini and elsewhere dated to no earlier than between 2,200 and 2,300 years ago. An inscription on a sandstone pillar still standing at Lumbini — which might have been part of the brick shrine that preceded Maya Devi Temple —  documents a visit at that time by India’s Emperor Asoka, a key figure in the construction of the first brick Buddhist temples.

Rulers capable of funding major Buddhist temples now appear to have lived 200 to 300 years before Asoka, Coningham said.

Roof tiles found scattered near the edges of the ancient Lumbini shrine were once held up by wooden walls, the researchers surmised when they found two surviving lines of postholes. Separate estimates for the age of bits of burned wood from the postholes and for the time since posthole soil was last exposed to light converged on a date of between 2,500 and 2,600 years ago.

Many scholars and some Buddhist traditions hold that the Buddha was born as late as 2,340 years ago. Evidence of an earlier Buddhist shrine at Lumbini supports an older age for the Buddha’s birth, Coningham says.

Although no conclusive evidence of Buddha worship has been found at the earliest Lumbini site, it’s likely to have been a Buddhist shrine given the later construction of Buddhist temples at the same spot, comments archaeologist Nancy Wilkie of Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

But archaeologist Julia Shaw of University College London isn’t so sure. “The worship of trees, often at simple altars, was a ubiquitous feature of ancient Indian religions,” she says. ”It is also possible that what is being described at Lumbini represents an older tree shrine disconnected from the worship of the historical Buddha.”

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