2048nitaTime to push back the Buddha's birth date a century or so? Archaeologists may have uncovered evidence of the oldest Buddhist shrine yet discovered, dating to around 550 B.C.
Located at Nepal's Lumbini pilgrimage center, the legendary site of the Buddha's birth, the discovery points to the renowned religious figure living more than a century earlier than dates accepted by many scholars. (See also: "Buddha Rising.")
"What we have got is the earliest Buddhist shrine in the world," says archaeologist Robin Coningham of the United Kingdom's Durham University, lead author of the discovery study, released on Monday by the journal Antiquity.
In the study, the international archaeology ...view middle of the document...
By tradition, Lumbini is the garden site where the Buddha's mother, Maya Devi, grasped a tree and gave birth to the historical figureSiddhartha Gautama, who later became the Buddha.
The exact date of the Buddha's birth is disputed, with Nepalese authorities favoring 623 B.C., and other traditions favoring more recent dates, around 400 B.C.
Regardless, by 249 B.C. Lumbini had became one of the four sacred centers of Buddhism, marked by sanctifying inscriptions and a pillar left there in 249 B.C. by the Indian emperor Ashoka, who helped spread Buddhism across Asia.
Later abandoned, the site was rediscovered in 1896 and re-established as a worship center, the Maya Devi temple, which is now a World Heritage site.
Concerned about wear from visitors, UNESCO, along with Japanese and Nepalese officials, supported Coningham and colleagues as they documented conditions at Lumbini and investigated the history underneath the layers of brick structures left from Ashoka's era.
The research was also supported by the National Geographic Society.
"We had almost unique access to the site that probably won't come again for another generation," Coningham says. "For that reason, we made our work completely open and transparent to pilgrims. Their experiences were quite moving to see as we did our work."
Ancient Tree Shrine
Digging beneath a central shrine, the researchers uncovered postholes pointing to a wooden railing surrounding a tree shrine and dating to around 550 B.C., says Coningham. They also found an older brick structure.
The center of the shrine was unroofed, the team found, and contained mineralized tree roots, surrounded by clay floors worn smooth by visitors. It was likely an ancient bodhigara, or tree shrine.
The tree roots appear to have been fertilized, and although bodhigara are found in older Indian traditions, the shrine lacked the signs of sacrifices or offerings found at such sites.
"It was very clean, in fact, which points to the...