The search for Gautama Buddha’s birthplace

The search for Gautama Buddha’s birthplace (Lumbini – Nepal Terai)

As we enter the 2600th Buddha Jayanthi year,
Rohan L. Jayetilleke looks at some ancient Buddhist sites in India
With the total decline of Buddhism in India in the 10th century A.C, the invasions of Turkish tribes, Muslims from Afghanistan and the destruction of Buddhist monasteries and stupas, the entire Buddhist spectrum, together with the 84,000 stupas built by King Asoka (3rd century B.C) all over the Mauryan kingdom, his rock and pillar inscriptions too were either destroyed or buried inside the bowels of the earth.However, it is to the great credit of British officials, who came to India as administrators, magistrates and military men, that they pursued the examination and identification of these Buddhist sites, as a pastime. 

© The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka
Birth of Lord Buddha

In 1837, a young Englishman James Prinsep, who as a master of the Royal Mint at Calcutta and secretary of the Bengal Asiatic Society, was able to decipher the Brahmi inscriptions of the edicts of Emperor Asoka, who embraced Buddhism in the eighth year of his reign after the annexation of Kalinga (modern Orissa) through a genocidal war. In the meantime a young General of the Royal Engineers’ Force, who was a friend of James Princep during his spare time started digging for archaeological evidences of ancient Buddhist India.

In 1862, the British government established the Inspectorate of Archaeology, and General Alexander Cunningham, was appointed to the post. This was the beginning of the Archaeological Survey of India, which even today is the nodal agency for excavation, identification, conservation, preservation and documentation of archaeological remains of India. He is honoured by the Indians as the ‘Father of Indian Archaeology’.

With the retirement of General Cunningham in 1885 and his successor in 1885, the Archaeological Survey of India slipped off the British political agenda. Some provincial governments maintained their own archaeological survey departments, others left it to local administrators to do what they thought best. Such individual enterprise went unchecked, and there was a return to the days when an excavation meant just that, breaking up a stupa with picks and shovels to find whatever lay buried at its core, rather than the careful digging of trenches to discover the site’s original form and what it was meant for.

Once such local enthusiast was Englishman, James Campbell, Commissioner of Customs, Salt, Opium and Akbari in the Bombay Residency in the 1890s, who excavated at several sites in Gujarat. Among his early achievements was finding a new Asokan rock edict. It was taken to bits, mislaid and lost, and a relic subsequently identified by the incorporated inscription as a segment of Buddha’s alms bowl, was thrown away. He then moved on to break the Girnar mound, a large stupa a few miles south of the famous Girnar rock inscription discovered by James Tod in 1822.

Similar to the earlier experience of Cunningham, Campbell was unable to convince the local landowner (zamindar) that he was not a treasure hunter. Suspicions were confirmed when after three weeks of digging, labourers disturbed a large cobra. Cobras were believed to be guardians of buried treasures. The labourers worked hard, but the cobra refused to leave the site. A snake charmer was called in, but the cobra refused to show itself. A few days later with the disappearance of the cobra, the boys’ school in Junagadh town became almost empty.

Mothers were keeping their boys at home because rumours had it that 50 boys were to be sacrificed to the great cobra to coax it to show the 30 lakhs of treasure of which the cobra was the trustee, and which was required by the government for railway extensions.

The treasure finally was found in the familiar reliquary box of stone, which in this case held a round copper casket containing a tiny silver casket, within which was an even tinier gold casket, still bright and untarnished despite its 2000 years, and in shape and size like a small chestnut. In this tiny bowl were seven tiny articles, four precious stones, two small pieces of wood, and a fragment about the size of one’s little finger of what seemed to bone. This was a relic of the Buddha. It was one more of King Asoka’s reputed 84,000 stupas.

The contemporaries of Campbell were not so cavalier, two in particular. The older was Vincent Smith, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin,  son of a well-known Anglo-Irish numismatist and archaeologist. He came first in the annual Indian Civil Service examination and was appointed as an official of the North-Western Province and Oudh in India in 1871. Functioning up country as a Land Settlement Officer and Assistant Magistrate, he toured as a land settlement officer and wrote The Settlement Officers’ Manual for the North Western Province. In 1889 he was appointed a District Magistrate and Collector. Serving for well over a decade he garnered material for what he planned to be used for the first comprehensive history of ancient India.

Vincent Smith too was inspired by Cunninghan and during every opportunity either in his official and official tours walked the same routes with his assistants that were first walked through by Cunningham with his assistants in the 1860s. He read all the English translations of the travelogues of the Chinese pilgrim monks to India – Fa-Hien (5th century A.C), Hieun Tsang (7th century A.C) and others to get to know the routes trodden by these pioneering Chinese pilgrims. While serving as magistrate of the town of Basti, about hundred and twenty-five miles north of Benares, he explored the entire country side and came to the conclusion that Cunningham’s identification of Buddhist sites, in the plains of the country south of the Himalayan hills of Nepal were wrong. This region had a systematic road system, covered with thick forests of Sal trees and habitats of tigers, lions and venomous cobras, preventing any intruder to their region.

One Duncan Ricketts, manager of an estate in 1885, whose land extended to the Nepalese border, had come to Vincent Smith with the news of a stone pillar sticking out of the ground about five miles north of his bungalow, well inside Nepal territory. It was inadvisable for a British official to trespass across the frontier, so Smith asked for a rubbing to be made of the inscription that was on the part of the pillar sticking out of the ground, Rickets having told him about some inscriptions on the pillar. They were identified as medieval scribbling, so Vincent left the matter there, which proved to be the greatest mistake he had made.

During the same period, independently of Vincent Smith, distinguished medical personel were also devoting their leisure hours to unravel the buried Buddhist heritage of India. One such was Dr. Lawrence Austine Waddell, of Scottish parentage, a medical graduate of the Glasgow University. He served as an Assistant Sanitary Commissioner in Bengal at the age of 26 and spent his next seven years as a medical officer in North India’s Darjeeling where he performed some useful research on venomous snakes. In these tours he studied Tibetan Buddhism too, and though the son of a Presbyterian minister, he produced the book The Buddhism of Tibet or Lamausm. In Darjeeling he was engaged in tracing the walks of Fa-Hien and Hieun Tsang. He too like Vincent Smith scanned the reports of Cunningham and found Cunningham’s identifications of the sites of Buddha’s birth and death erroneous.

Waddell’s first search was a failure, with a pilgrim’s guide given to him by a Tibetan Lama in Darjeeling, he went up the Brahamaputra into Assam looking for Buddha’s site of Parinirvana and found the guide was faulty. In the following year, 1891, Lady Luck smiled on him when he explored the hills near Monghur in East Bihar and successfully located one of the Buddhist sites visited by Hieun Tsang referred to in his travel notes. This was the place where the Buddha spent his sixteen Rains’ Retreat. In the construction of the railway line the hillside had been largely quarried by British contractors, one of whom had carried off a cartload of stone statues, since lost. But Waddell discovered the impression of the Buddha’s footprint in the rock Hieun Tsang had seen and described, which proved Cunningham was wrong and he was right.

In 1892 he was in Patna with two free days and a sketch map. The general belief was that old Pataliputra, the capital of Magadha Kingdom, established by King Ajastasatta in the 6th Century B.C. had been swept away by the changing course of the Ganges river, but Waddell found it otherwise. In the chart the railway line marked the southern limits of Patna City to the series of mounds locally known as Pach Pahari or the Five Brothers. Here he found landmarks of King Asoka’s palaces, monasteries and other monuments. The first mound he came across was about a mile to the north of the main group and locally called Bhikna Pahari or the Hill of the Monk. The chart showed it was where King Asoka’s had built a large hall between the city of Pataliputra and his palace to honour his son Mahinda who had become a bhikkhu.

Investigating further he found this mound made up of large blocks of stone and found that the most southerly of all monuments of the city was the five great stupas of Asoka of the 84,000 stupas he built all over India.

In the area west of Bhikna he found the modern village of Kumrahar which was the site of Asoka’s palace. Here there were fragments of sculptures and also large wooden beams. Immediately Waddell wrote a report of his discoveries to the Government of Bengal seeking permission to dig a number of trial trenches. Permission was granted and funds allotted.

Waddell fell ill and took leave and in April 1895 he was involved in another military campaign marching deep into north-west regions, a force sent to rescue a beleagured garrison at Chitral. He was thereafter promoted as Surgeon Major and as Professor of Chemistry and Pathology at Culcutta, Medical College.

The Patna diggings had to be handed over to a local officer of the PWD C.A. Mills and diggings continued under Waddell’s instructions. On May 22, Waddell received a telegram from Mills asking him to come at once, as Mills had found stone carvings, beams, images, foundations of buildings, moulded bricks, stone pebbles etc. Waddell arrived in Patna, to discover among the finds a magnificent colossal capital of Greek type which suggested that it was Asoka’s palace. A number of carved stone colonnades and pillars similar to Sanchi too were found. In a second visit Waddell found a gigantic Asokan pillar with an edict.

In May 1893 a Major Jaskaran Singh, an officer serving the Government of Nepal, on a hunting expedition in the Indian border of Nigliva, exactly north of Benares, came to hear of a stone pillar called by Tharu Jungle dwellers as Bhimasena-ki-nigali or Bhimsena’s smoking pipe. Having gone there he found beside a tank, a broken pillar of polished stone lying on the ground. At the base of the pillar were four lines of ancient writing. This discovery made the Government of Nepal request the Government of India to decipher the writing on the pillar. This request was passed on to the Government of the North-Western Province and Oude. The German Archaelogical Surveyor Dr. Alois Fuhrer was also sent for further investigation. Dr. Fuhrer found the pillar with no difficulty and recognized the inscription as Asoka Brahmi script. He took several rubbings, surveyed the area, noting one large mound and returned to his headquarters at Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh).

Waddell wrote to Dr. Fuhrer for details of the inscription, but received no reply. Dr. Fuhrer had sent the rubbings of the inscription to his Professor George Bhuler in Vienna for translation. In about a year Professor Buhler published the translation of the inscription in the European Journal The Academy in April 1895. In 1896 Waddell was able to read Professor Buhler’s translation. The undamaged section of the inscription after deciphering read as: When Devanampriya Priyadarshin had been anointed fourteen years, he enlarged the stupa of Buddha Konakamana to double its size for the second time when he been anointed.. years, he himself came and worshipped it……” Konakamana is the name of a predecessor of Gautama Buddha and this Sanskrit name in Pali is Kanakamuni. This finding enabled to locate Kapilavastu capital city.

Since he didn’t get any response from the Asiatic Society, in irritation Waddell went public and wrote a letter which was published in the newspaper Englishman in Calcutta. Entitled, “Where is the Birth place of the Buddha’, he pointed out that the birth place of the Buddha was about seven miles from Nigliva Village.This is Lumbini or Lumbana grove. He stressed that this was the most important archaeological find and urged the Governments of India and Nepal to commence its full exploration.

This letter was copied by several other English newspapers and the Government of Nepal was to meet the expenses of the exploration for Waddell who was asked to take six weeks leave. He was denied leave and Waddell came to know that Dr. Fuhrer had already obtained permission to explore Lumbini. Dr. Fuhrer came over from Lucknow to Nigliva, and was provided a squad of Nepali sappers too for the task. The regional governor Khadga Shamher Jang Rana who gave the permission, himself had decided to explore a second pillar spotted by the estate manager Rickettes in 1885, the rubbing of which Vincent Smith had examined. This was just ten miles south-east of Nigliva, near a village called Rummindei.

In the meantime, Dr. Fuhrer had been handed a note asking him to join General Khadga Rana at Rummindei. Having hurried there excavations commenced. The Asokan pillar emerged 24 ft 4 ins in height, standing upon a masonary platform, and to have a inscription 9 ft 8 ins from the base. This Asokan Pillar Edict was in Brahmi inscription and the English translation of it reads as follows: “When King Devanampriya Priyadarshin had been anointed twenty years he came himself and worshipped this spot, because the Buddha Sakyamuni was born here: He both caused to be made a stone bearing a horse and caused a stone pillar to be set up, in order to show that the Blessed One was born here: He made the village of Lumbini free of taxes and paying only one eight share of the produce.”
As regards Kapilavastu, there was a claim that Piprahawa in Indian Terai near Nepal border (Uttar Pradesh) was Kapilavastu. Dr. Fuhrer’s departure to his home in Germany and the death of Professor Buhler left unresolved the issue of which site was Kapilavastu.

In the same year 1898, Vincent Smith received his much hoped for promotion as Chief Secretary of the North-Western Province and Oude, only to resign within two years to became a full time historian. In 1901, he published Aoska the Buddhist Emperor of India, followed three years later by the book he had worked on for two decades. This work, the early history of India, grew in time into the Oxford History of India.

In the meantime the great stone coffer and its casket found by William Peppe at Piprahawa (Uttar Pradesh, visited by pilgrims now) was taken to the Indian Museum at Calcutta. At the request of King Chulankara, the sacred bone relics of the Buddha found enshrined in the casket found a new home in Siam (Thailand).

In March 1973, while conducting extensive excavations at Piprahawa, on the Indian side of the border K.M. Arivastava of the Archaeological Survey of India uncovered 40 terracotta seals of the Kushan period (1st century A.C). Bearing the inscription Kapilavastu bhikshu sangha, ‘community of Bhikkhus of Kapilavastu’. As far as India was concerned this effectively resolved the dispute since December 1896, that Kapilavastu was modern Piprahawa. The Nepalese authorities however on archaeological evidence claim Kapilavastu is modern Tilakurakot in Nepal Terai.

In April 2001 Robin Corningham of the University of Bradford, England announced that a UNESCO- sponsored archaeological expedition under the leadership of Basanta Bidari, Nepali chief archaeologist at Lumbini, had uncovered painted greyware ceramics contemporary of the period of Gautama Buddha at their most favoured site, Tilaurakot, a village three miles north of the border with India and more or less equidistant between Smith and Waddell’s Kapilavastu and Dr. Fuhrer’s. It is obvious that the entire region has remains of stupas, monasteries etc. as was recorded by Fahien in the fifth century B.C. in his extensive pilgrimage of India.

(The writer is a retired Investigating Inspector of Sri Lanka Postal Services, member of the Bharthiya Kala Kendra of India conducting research in India on Indian cultural heritage)

© Rohan L. Jayetilleke The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka




Categories: Beginners, Buddhism, Encyclopedia, History

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