Sectrest of the Dead: Bones of the Buddha

Piprahwa is a village near Birdpur in Siddharthnagar district of the state of Uttar Pradesh. Piprahwa is best known for its archaeological site and excavations that suggest that it may have been the burial place of the portion of the Buddha’s ashes that were given to his own Sakya clan. A large stupa and the ruins of several monasteries as well as a museum are located within the site. Ancient residential complexes and shrines were uncovered at the adjacent mound of Ganwaria. Some scholars have suggested that modern-day Piprahwa-Ganwaria was the site of the ancient city of Kapilavastu, the capital of the Shakya kingdom, where Siddhartha Gautama spent the first 29 years of his life.

The general consensus among modern scholars is that Buddha Sakyamuni died within a few years of 480 BCE. It has been recorded in ancient texts that after the Buddha’s body had been cremated at Kusinagari the remaining ashes and bone fragments were divided into portions and shared between the rulers of eight kingdoms including the Buddha’s own clan the Sakya’s of Kapilavastu. In accordance with the Buddha’s instructions ten stupa’s were constructed; one in each of the kingdoms of the eight recipients that had taken a share of the relics, one over the ashes of the cremation pyre and a further one over the vessel in which the bones and ashes had been gathered. According to ancient history the Emperor Ashoka, who’s empire spread over most of the Indian sub-continent from circa 270 BCE-230 BCE, broke open nine of the ten stupa’s in order to redistribute their contents throughout his realm and in the process created a series of monuments that memorialized the Buddha’s life.

In the 1890’s a number of these monuments were discovered in Northern India near the Nepalese border, this included in 1896 the discovery of an Ashokan stone pillar at Lumbini that was believed to identify the place of the Buddha’s birth.

These activities caught the attention of William Claxton Peppé a British colonial engineer and landowner who managed a series of estates south of the Nepalese border including one large estate called Birdpur. In his report later published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society W. C. Peppé wrote:

‘Since the discovery of the pillar in the Lumbini Garden commemorating the birthplace of Gautama Buddha considerable curiosity has been aroused concerning the different mounds or kots as they are locally called, which occur dotted over the tract extending from Kapilavastu on the north-west and the Lumbini Garden on the north-east in Nepalese territory to a distance of several miles inside the British territory’.

In the spring of 1897 W.C Peppé began to excavate one mound that was particularly ‘more prominent than the rest’ near the village of Piprahwa on the Birdpur estate. His decision to begin excavations at this time may have also been an altruistic one. Throughout 1896 & 1897 Central and North West India had been terribly affected by famine, mortality rates from both starvation and accompanying epidemics was extremely high. An endeavour such as the excavation at Piprahwa would have lifted morale and provided famine relief in very trying times, something that W.C. Peppé, as an apparently conscientious landlord, was acutely aware of.

After weeks spent clearing away soil and dense scrub that covered the mound preliminary excavations exposed a solid mass of red fired brickwork that after further digging revealed itself to be a large dome roof roughly 130 feet in diameter. Realising that he required expert advice Peppé sought out Vincent Smith, a renowned authority on ancient Indian history and archaeology who fortuitously was serving nearby as a district officer.

William Claxton Peppé

Having inspected the partially excavated kot Smith immediately announced that it was an unusually early example of an ancient Buddhist stupa probably dating from the era of Ashoka the Great. At the beginning of January 1898 Peppé continued with excavations and after digging through eighteen feet of solid brickwork he came across a huge slab of stone that revealed itself to be the cover of an enormous stone coffer which had been, as Peppé later noted, ‘hollowed at the cost of vast labour and expense’. Within the coffer were found five vessels, none more than seven inches in height, which contained a vast array of treasure. These precious offerings included quantities of stars in silver and gold, discs of gold leaf embossed with Buddhist symbols, numerous pearls of many sizes, some of which had been fused together in sets of two, three and four. There were drilled beads, stars and flowers cut in red or white cornelian, amethyst, topaz, garnet, coral and crystal. Also found inside the vessels were small pieces of bone and ash and on the side of one of them, in an ancient Pali character was an inscription that read:

“This shrine for relics of the Buddha, the August One, is that of the Sakya’s, the brethren of the Distinguished One, in association with their sisters, and with their children and their wives”

The Stone Coffer

William Peppé had seemingly unearthed one of the original eight stupa’s that was said to contain the ashes and bone fragments of the Buddha that was shared out after his cremation. The Buddha’s own Sakya clan had perhaps built this stupa to contain the relics of their ‘illustrious kinsman’ Gautama Buddha. It is likely that the Piprahwa stupa was constructed in three phases. The first phase was built by the Sakya’s around the time of the Buddha’s death, this phase consisted of a circular mud built adobe structure measuring approximately 38.9 meters (127ft) in diameter and 0.9 meters (3ft) in height. The second phase is early Mauryan and believed to have been built by the Emperor Ashoka, who, in the second century BCE, disinterred the Buddha’s remains and created his own structure to house the relics and his own relic offerings on top of the original Sakyan site. This second phase was characterised by well fired mud bricks made with rice – straw and laid in clay mortar in concentric circles, the base measured 35meters (116ft ) in diameter and 6.7 meters (22ft) in height. During the third phase of construction the height of the stupa was raised and the base was squared off, monastic buildings were also constructed around the stupa. This all happened at an unknown date although most likely during the Kushan era, approximately two hundred and fifty years after the reign of Ashoka.

The reliquary urns

John Fleet, then epigraphist of the Government of India, proposed that it referred to the Buddha’s kinsman rather than the Buddha himself. In the 2013 documentary, ‘Bones of the Buddha’, epigraphist Harry Falk of Freie Universität Berlin confirmed the original interpretation that the depositors believed these to be the remains of the Buddha himself. Falk translates the inscription as “these are the relics of the Buddha, the Lord” and concludes that the reliquary found at Piprahwa did contain a portion of the ashes of the Buddha and that the inscription is authentic

The story brought forward by Bones of the Buddha is a fascinating one: one of the British Raj in India, when the amateur archaeologist W.C. Peppe plowed a trench through an enormous stupa and found the 4th century BC burial remains. The story continues in the 1970s, with K. M. Srivastava, a young Indian archaeologist who was convinced that Piprahwa was Kapilavastu, the capital of the Sakyan state. And finally it concludes with modern historian Charles Allen, who wanders suburban England and northern India in search of the artifacts, the language and the history behind the stupa at Piprahwa.

Contents of the discovery

Most of the all, the video (and the site’s investigations for that matter) is excellent as an introduction to the archaeology and history of Buddhism. The Buddha’s life, where he was born, how he came to become enlightened, where he died and what happened to his cremated remains are addressed.

Also involved in the story is the leader Ashoka, Buddha’s disciple, who 250 years after Buddha’s death promulgated the religious teachings of the holy man. Ashoka was responsible, say the scholars, for the placing the Buddha’s ashes here in a stupa fit for royalty.

The Piprahwa Jewels

And finally, Bones of the Buddha provides the viewer with an introduction to the broadening of Buddhism, how it came to be that 2,500 years after the Buddha died, 400 million people world wide are following his teachings.

The Piprahwa stupa

From 1971-1973, a team of the Archaeological Survey of India led by K.M. Srivastava resumed excavations at the Piprahwa stupa site. The team discovered a casket containing fragments of charred bone, at a location several feet deeper than the coffer that W.C. Peppe had previously excavated. As the relic containers were found in the deposits from the period of Northern Black Polished Ware, Srivastava dated the find to the fifth-fourth centuries BCE, which would be consistent with the period in which the Buddha is believed to have lived.

The Piprahwa stupa

The bone fragments recovered by Srivastava’s team are currently located at the National Museum, New Delhi. More than ten million people reportedly paid homage to the relics when they were first exhibited in Sri Lanka in 1978, and in August 2012 the Indian government once more allowed the relics to be exhibited in Sri Lanka.

The main stupa at Piprahwa, one of the earliest so far discovered in India, was built in three phases. In the 6th-5th century BCE it was raised by piling up natural earth from the surrounding area. In the centre there was a chamber of burnt-bricks to keep sacred relics. Phase II (3rd century BCE) is consisting of filling thick clay over the structure and of having two tiers to reach a height of 4.55m. In phase III, during the Kushan period, the stupa was extensively enlarged and reached a height of 6.35m. The largest structure after the stupa is the Eastern Monastery that is measuring 45.11m x 41.14m with a courtyard and more than thirty cells around it. There is also the Southern Monastery and the Western Monastery and the smaller Northern Monastery at Piprahwa