Lifestyle & Belief

The roots of Buddhism? A recent discovery digs them up, literally


Credit: Sonia Narang

A Buddha statue in a Sri Lankan monastery in Lumbini, Nepal. Recent excavations in this town, 20 miles from the border with India, have led archaeologists to believe the Buddha was born in the sixth century, three centuries earlier than long believed.

New research appears to shed new light on the origins and early life of the Buddha.

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For a few years, archaeologists have been excavating a site in Nepal that is said to be Buddha's birthplace, dating back to the third century BC. They now have evidence of a Buddhist shrine that dates to the sixth century BC — roughly 2600 years ago.

Robin Coningham, a professor of archaeology at Durham University in England, co-led the research team and published his findings in the journal Antiquity. He says the new research provides scientific dating for the earliest Buddhist shrine — challenging long-held assumptions about the life of the Buddha.

The discovery was something of a happy accident. His team originally set out to assist UNESCO and the government of Nepal with a project to preserve a brick temple said to be where the Buddha was born. As they started to excavate, they discovered an older, timber-built temple they hadn't been expecting.

"It's the dating of charcoal and also soil samples from within that earlier timber structure at the site that actually gives us this sixth century BC date," Coningham said. Many scholars had suspected the Buddha lived in the fourth or fifth century BC.

"We'll never actually identify the individual himself, but what we have is right at the beginning of Buddhism as a cult. We actually have a localized structure there, a locallzed shrine, built around a tree. And we know, later, the veneration of the tree as a concept of the Buddha is very important," Coningham said.

"He was, according to Buddhist tradition, born underneath a tree. It gives us this unique glimpse into the very origins of Buddhism."

The new discovery could also boost an effort to develop the site as a Buddhist "Mecca." It already has UNESCO World Heritage status.

Editor's note: The photo slideshow below is from The World's Sonia Narang, who photographed these sites in Lumbini, Nepal, in August 2013 with support from the International Center for Journalists.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    A team of international archaeologists unearthed a sixth century BC timber shrine underneath the Maya Devi temple, identified as the Buddha's birthplace, in Lumbini, Nepal. The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    Prayer flags near the site of Buddha's birthplace in Lumbini, Nepal, 20 miles from the border with India.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    Buddhists believe Buddha's mother Maya Devi bathed in pools of water here before giving birth to her son.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    Lumbini is full of Buddhist monasteries built by foreign countries, including Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, China, India, Germany and Austria. This is the Myanmar Golden Temple, modeled after the Shwedagon pagoda.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    This nativity scene, showing Buddha's mother holding onto a tree branch while giving birth to her son, is on display in a Swiss and Austrian built monastery in Lumbini, Nepal.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    Buddhists from around the world have built monasteries in Lumbini, Nepal. This statue of Buddha sits in a German monastery near the site of Buddha's birthplace.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    A German built monastery in Lumbini, Nepal.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    The Japanese peace pagoda in Lumbini, Nepal. The golden statue depicts the Buddha in his posture when he was born.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    Children run around the Japanese Peace Pagoda in Lumbini, Nepal.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    A young monk-in-training at a Buddhist monastery in Lumbini, Nepal.