Oldest Buddhist shrine holds clues to Buddha's birth

Story highlights

  • Archaeologists have found Buddhist shrine from sixth century B.C.
  • Its remains were found under a known Buddhist shrine, built about 300 years later
  • Results are published in the journal Antiquity
  • The older structure seems to have been made of timber
There are about 500 million Buddhists worldwide, but it's unclear exactly when in history this religion began. The Buddha's life story spread first through oral tradition, and little physical evidence about Buddhism's early years has been found.
Now, scientists for the first time have uncovered archaeological evidence of when the Buddha's monumentally influential life occurred. Excavations in Nepal date a Buddhist shrine, located at what is said to be the Buddha's birthplace, to the sixth century B.C.
The research, published in the journal Antiquity, describes the remains of a timber structure about the same size and shape as a temple built at the same site in the third century B.C.
Archaeologists also found reason to think that a tree grew at the center of this ancient structure, lending support to the traditional story that the Buddha's mother held onto a tree branch while giving birth to him.
"This is one of those rare occasions when belief, tradition, archaeology and science actually come together," lead study author Robin Coningham, professor at Durham University in the United Kingdom, said at a press briefing Monday.
If this study is correct, the Buddha's actual life could have overlapped with a popularly recognized time frame of 563-483 B.C. But lots of other date ranges for the Buddha have been tossed around -- some scholars say 448 to 368 B.C., for instance. (The UNESCO website about his birthplace says 623 B.C.)
"We know the entirety of the shrine sequence started in the sixth century B.C., and this sheds light on a very long debate," Coningham said.
A place for pilgrims
The Lumbini site in Nepal is one of four principal locations that are believed to be connected with the Buddha's life. Bodh Gaya is where he is became enlightened, Sarnath is where he first preached and Kusinagara is where he died.
Lumbini is located in "a subtropical chain of forests, marshes and grasslands" between Nepal's border with India and the Siwalik Range of the Himalayas, according to the study.
Historical documents from Chinese travelers show that pilgrims made the journey to Lumbini for many centuries.
The site was lost and stopped attracting pilgrims after the 15th century -- no one knows why -- but Lumbini was rediscovered in 1896. It was declared the birthplace of Buddha because of a sandstone pillar there, dating from the third century B.C. The pillar's inscription states that Emperor Ashoka visited this site of Buddha's birth.
Scholars say the more modern Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini, named after the mother of Buddha, was constructed on top of the foundations of more than one earlier temple or stupa, which is a dome-shaped Buddhist monument