In traditional narratives, Queen Maya Devi, the mother of Buddha, gave birth to him while holding on to a branch of a tree in a garden at Lumbini, in what is now Nepal. Accounts vary as to when this occurred, leaving uncertain the founding century of one of the world’s major religions.
Until now, archaeological evidence favored a date no earlier than the third century B.C., when Emperor Asoka promoted the spread of Buddhism through South Asia, leaving a scattering of shrines and inscriptions to the man who became “the enlightened one.” A white temple on a gently sloping plateau at Lumbini, 20 miles from the border with India, draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year to read a sandstone pillar documenting Asoka’s homage at the Buddha’s birthplace.
But new excavations by archaeologists at Lumbini have uncovered evidence of a much earlier timber shrine and brick structures above it — all of which lay beneath the temple that is a UNESCO World Heritage site long identified as the birthplace. Dating fragments of charcoal and grains of sand, researchers determined that the lower structures were erected as early as the sixth century B.C.
The international team of archaeologists said the lower structures were laid out on the same design as the more recent temple. The timber shrine even had an open space in the center that suggested a link to the Buddha’s nativity tradition. Deep tree roots in the center space may even have been from the tree his mother presumably held on to.
The archaeologists, led by Robin A.E. Coningham of Durham University in England, reported the findings Monday in an article published online in the December issue of the international journal Antiquity. This was, they said, “the first archaeological evidence regarding the date of the life of Buddha.”
They also described the new line of research as having “the potential to provide yet more evidence for the earliest expressions of Buddhist architecture and ritual practice.”
Concluding their report, Coningham’s group wrote that “the sequence at Lumbini is a microcosm for the development of Buddhism from a localized cult to a global religion.” The shrine, for example, was transformed from a localized timber temple into “a monumental Asokan-period temple and pillar complex inscribing it as a site of imperial pilgrimage.”
Before the sixth century B.C., the Lumbini site was apparently cultivated land. The postholes of the timber building was the first evidence of a shrine focused around a tree, Coningham said in a teleconference for reporters arranged by the National Geographic Society, which partly supported the research, along with Durham University and Stirling University, also in England.
“These discoveries are very important to better understand the birthplace of the Buddha,” Ram Kumar Shrestha, Nepal’s minister of culture, tourism and civil aviation, said in a statement released by the archaeology team. “The government of Nepal will spare no effort to preserve this significant site.”
Although much is known of the Buddha’s teachings and half a billion people are Buddhists, there is little to document his life, Coningham said, except through textual sources and oral tradition.
He said, “We thought, why not go back to archaeology to try to answer some of the questions about his birth?”