DigVentures BuddhaLooking good for his 2,500 years with not a wrinkle in sight, Buddha may be older than we first realised. An archaeological team led by Robin Coningham from Durham University have discovered the world’s oldest Buddhist shrine – dating to the sixth century BC – beneath a popular pilgrimage destination in Nepal.

Buddhism is one the world’s major religions with 350 million followers worldwide, most living in East Asia. Following the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (aka – the rather easier to pronounce Buddha) it focuses on personal spiritual development and knowledge of the true nature of life. It is one of the fastest growing religions to date. Buddha’s birthday is debated with one popular suggestion 623 BC and another 400 BC. However, this recent excavation has uncovered what is believed to be the oldest Buddhist shrine, dating to about 550 BC.

Examination of Nepal’s Maya Devi temple at Lumbini – the legendary spot attributed to Buddha’s birth – has revealed older wooden structures beneath its walls which suggests the continuance of Buddhist worship at the site for longer than first realised. According to Buddhist teaching, Lumbini is believed to be the site where Maya Devi grasped a tree and gave birth to Buddha. Recognised as a sacred centre for Buddhism in 249 BC, it was then abandoned until 1986 when pilgrimage was re-established. Now holding World Heritage Site status, its visitor numbers are ever expanding, mainly due to its popularity as a pilgrimage destination.

DigVentures Buddha ShrineDigging beneath the central shrine, Robin Coningham’s team identified four postholes and mineralized tree roots (suggesting there was once a wooden railing surrounding a tree shrine known as a bodhigara) adjacent to an older brick structure. Radiocarbon and luminescence dating techniques were used on the posthole charcoal, suggesting that site was first used around 1,000 BC, with the development of a Buddhist monastery-like community by the sixth century BC.

In spite of this, some sceptics have warned against getting too carried away. Leicester University’s Ruth Young rather cynically commented ‘Archaeologists love claiming that they have found the earliest or the oldest of something,’ and Julia Shaw from University College London warns that ‘The worship of trees, often at simple altars, was a ubiquitous feature of ancient Indian religions. Given the degree of overlap between Buddhist ritual and pre-existing traditions,’ she continues, ‘it is also possible that what is being described represents an older tree shrine quite disconnected from the worship of the historical Buddha.’

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Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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