When They Found Buddha’s Relics

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    In 1898, a British estate manager made one of the most amazing discoveries in history. In the small village of Piprahwa, on the Indo-Nepal border, W C Peppe’s team dug a mound and found vases filled with jewels and fragments of bones. At first, they didn't know what this was, but an inscription on one of them created quite a stir. It seemed that they had found the relics of the Buddha himself! While this was contested at the time, later finds validated what was one of the most significant finds ever made.

    The story is riveting and goes back to the Buddhist scriptures itself.

    The Mahaparinibbana Sutta scripture, which is concerned with the last part of the Buddha’s life, says that after his cremation in the 5th century BCE, fragments of his body were shared among eight ruling families, including his own people, the Shakyas of Kapilavastu. Though Buddha was born in Lumbini in Nepal, it was in Kapilavastu that he spent his first 29 years. He was a prince and grew up in the palace of his father Suddhodana, the Chief of the Shakya clan. His people buried his remains under a humble tomb.

    After Buddha’s cremation, fragments of his body were shared among eight ruling families

    As centuries passed and the subcontinent’s political and cultural map changed, a lot was lost and forgotten. By the end of the 12th century, Buddhism was almost extinct in its birthplace and many of its monuments, abandoned.

    Around 800 years later, in the 19th century, there was a renewed interest in Buddhism as British antiquarians took interest in Indian archaeology and set out to pursue the Buddha’s trail.

    An excavation in Piprahwa led to the discovery of five vases with bone fragments, ash, gold and jewels.

    In 1898, William Peppe, an estate manager of Birdpur (in present-day Siddharth Nagar district of Uttar Pradesh) led a team to excavate a brick mound on his land in Piprahwa, a village on the Indo-Nepal border. About 18 feet below was a large stone chest containing five small vases. They had bone fragments, ash, gold and hundreds of precious and semi-precious jewels.

    One of the vases had an inscription:

    'Sukitibhatinam sabhaginikanam saputadalanam yam salilanidhane Budhasa Bhagavate Sakiyanam'

    Roughly translated, it read ‘Relics of the Lord Buddha which had been given to his own Shakya clan.'

    However, soon after, the studies done on the vase revealed details which challenged its authenticity. The material it was made from and the inscription in Brahmi script were dated to at least a century and a half after Buddha’s death. So the obvious question was, were the objects found within, not Buddha’s?

    The answer to this was hidden in the Sanchi Stupa built by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE. Depicted vividly in the reliefs of this stupa the story of how Ashoka endeavoured to dig out Buddha’s original burial sites and distribute his relics among hundreds of new stupas, built by him throughout his realm.

    Thus, possibly what Peppe found was not the burial done by the Shakyas but one that was redone by Emperor Ashoka, who added his own tribute in the form of jewels to the Buddha’s relics and built a magnificent stupa over it.

    Following this, another question was raised. Based on its location, is it possible that Piprahwa is the site of the ancient city of Kapilavastu, where Buddha spent his youth?

    Experts were divided. A few archaeologists refuted this idea, as they identified Tilaurakot, a village in Nepal’s Terai region, as Kapilavastu, based on the writings of Chinese pilgrims Fa-Hien and Hiuen-Tsang, who visited India in the 5th and 7th century CE respectively. Excavations in this site had also found the presence of a large ensemble of structures, indicating that Tilaurakot was once an ancient seat of power.

    Upon re-excavation, further discoveries of terracota seals indicated Piprahwa as the ancient city of Buddha’s youth, Kapilavastu

    To settle the debate, in 1971, K M Srivastava from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) re-excavated Piprahwa, and he found even more! When he went further below the trench dug by Peppe, his team found there were two small chambers, each with a soapstone casket and some broken red ware dishes.

    One of them contained 10 bone fragments and the other 12, all dateable to 5th century BCE. Besides this, many terracotta seals were found at the site, bearing the inscriptions ‘Om Devputra Vihare Kapilvastu Sangha’ and ‘Maha Kapilvastu Bikhu Sangha,’ indicating that this was Kapilavastu, and it was indeed in India.

    Today, the inscribed vase found by Peppe is on display at the Indian Museum, Kolkata and the bones found by Srivastava are on display at the National Museum, New Delhi.

    While the discussions over the actual locations of the Buddha's relics have spanned many decades and geographies, with various remains claimed to be found in stupas in Sri Lanka, China etc., the finds at Piprahwa are truly significant and bring credibility, as they are the only remains with a direct link to Buddha's own clan - the Shakyas and Mauryan emperor, Ashoka.

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