Excavating the birthplace of Buddha

Archaeologist Keir Strickland has been excavating at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lumbini. It is one of the holiest sites of one of the world’s largest religions – the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, the historic Buddha.

South of the Himalayas in Nepal’s Terai, just a few kilometres from the border of neighbouring India, lies the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lumbini. It is one of the holiest sites of one of the world’s largest religions – the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, the historic Buddha.

Buddhist chronicles record that the Buddha’s mother, Queen Maya Devi, was travelling back from her family at Devadaha to her husband’s home of Kapilvastu when she began to go into labour. Stopping to bathe in a pool in the gardens of Lumbini village, she gave birth to Prince Siddartha Gautama - the future Buddha – in the shade of a Pipal tree.

Today, the site is one of the four key Buddhist pilgrimage destinations associated with the life of the Buddha, and the only one to lie in Nepal – with Kushinagar, Sarnath, and Bodghaya all located further south in India.

However, until recently the antiquity of the site was poorly understood.  “For many years the earliest evidence we had of religious activity at Lumbini dated back to the 3rd century BCE,” says Dr Keir Strickland, a lecturer in Archaeology at La Trobe University. “At this time the site was visited by the Emperor Ashoka, who ordered a temple built on the site of Buddha’s birth, and erected a pillar of Indian sandstone bearing an inscription recording his visit.”

It was this Ashokan pillar, and its inscription, that helped identify the site in the late 19th century, as the location of Lumbini had been lost for centuries.  Since its re-discovery the site has seen rapid development, and a huge increase in visitor numbers, both tourists and pilgrims, which pose threats to the site.

Strickland first travelled to Nepal in 2001 as an undergraduate on an internship with UNESCO. His task was to monitor the number of visitors and their activities to the World Heritage Site – and for six months he lived in a nearby Buddhist monastery run by South Korean monks.

Ten years later, and having completed a PhD in South Asian archaeology, Dr Strickland returned to Lumbini as part of a major international project, funded by Japanese Funds-in-Trust to UNESCO. He worked with Professor Robin Coningham (Durham University, UK) and Mr Kosh Acharya (UNESCO consultant, Nepal) to assess the extent and condition of the archaeology at the site in order to advise the ongoing management and development.

Part of the team’s work focussed upon the Ashokan Maya Devi temple at the heart of the site, and it was here that they made their most significant discovery –evidence of an earlier shrine, something that predates the birth of Siddartha Gautama Buddha, and represents the earliest Buddhist shrine ever found.

Kier Strickland“Cutting back some of the in-situ material left by earlier excavations, we discovered the remains of a much earlier shrine, dating to the 6th century BCE,” says Dr Strickland.  “This earlier shrine was very simple, and consisted of a large wooden railing surrounding a tree – most likely, based on leaf-wax residues, a Pipal tree.  A pathway appears to have surrounded the outside of this railing, and this was later modified by a kerbed pavement of monumental clay bricks before finally being enshrined below the Ashokan temple in the 3rd century.”

“Archaeological interpretations always come with caution, but we potentially found the first shrine built around the tree that the historic Buddha was born under,” says Strickland.

Since concluding their work at Lumbini, the team have now moved 10km west to the neighbouring site of Tilaurakot – a well preserved Early Historic walled citadel. The site is believed by many to be Kapilavastu, the ancient capital of the Sakya kingdom and the childhood home of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha.

However, Tilaurakot has a rival to this claim – 16 kilometres south, just over the Indian border, is the archaeological site of Piprahwa, which many believe to be the “true” Kapilavastu.

There’s a lot at stake – establishing Tilaurakot as Kapilavastu would greatly increase the number of Buddhist pilgrims to the area, and encourage economic development in a largely impoverished region.

Nepal aims to boost the number of international tourists to 2 million annually by 2020, and there are efforts to develop an entire precinct with Lumbini as a major centre of peace, as well as plans to develop the region as a pilgrimage landscape – the natal landscape of the Buddha.

Geophysical scans of Tilaurakot carried out by Durham University have made it possible to map out the plan of the citadel in its Early Historic form (dating to between the 3rd century BCE – 1st century CE), while Strickland’s excavations in 2015 were able to identify a number of timber structures below the citadel dating to around the 7th century BCE – evidence of an earlier village contemporary with the early tree-shrine at Lumbini.

For Keir Strickland, digging in an archaeological pit while being surrounded by chanting monks, nuns or pilgrims has become commonplace. Rather than let the politics and religion distract him, he just focuses on what the site can tell him.

“There is pressure to ‘prove’ the location of Kapilavastu, but you can’t let that dictate how you work, or how you interpret the archaeology,” says Strickland. “Kapilavastu or not, it’s one of the best preserved Early Historic Citadels in South Asia, and was undoubtedly part of Siddhartha Gautama’s world.  As an archaeologist you do your best to be objective, to disregard political pressures and to focus on the site. The archaeology has its own story to tell you.”