A new discovery in Nepal is reopening questions about the birth date of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical figure who, according to tradition, became the Buddha. The ancient shrine was found underneath the Lumbini pilgrimage centre near the Indian border, which Buddhists consider Buddha's birthplace.
The archaeologists behind the study were excavating beneath the brick walls of the Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini when they discovered the remains of older wooden structures following more or less the same layout as the brick ones. In the middle of the ancient shrine, they found clay floors and mineralized tree roots, which they believe indicate the site was once an ancient bodhigara, or a tree shrine. Using a combination of radiocarbon and luminescence dating techniques, they were able to fix the date of the structure to around 550 B.C. The Maya Devi Temple above dates from the third century, when the Indian emperor Ashoka left a pillar there.
"The big debate has been about when the Buddha lived and now we have a shrine structure pointing to the sixth century B.C.," Coningham said. Some Nepalese authorities claim a birth year of 623 B.C., although many historians have pointed to more recent dates, as late as 400 B.C. In this National Geographic video, Coningham talks about the excavation:
Not all scholars are quite convinced that the site represents the oldest Buddhist shrine, however.
"Archaeologists love claiming that they have found the earliest or the oldest of something," archaeologist Ruth Young, of the U.K.'s University of Leicester, told National Geographic.
"The new evidence from this project shows that this ritual activity was taking place centuries prior to the Ahsokan levels and this is really significant and interesting," Young says. Other researchers point out that tree shrines were common in ancient Indian religions — which could mean the newly discovered site could be unconnected with the historical Buddha.
"Given the degree of overlap between Buddhist ritual and pre-existing traditions, it is also possible that what is being described represents an older tree shrine quite disconnected from the worship of the historical Buddha," Julia Shaw, a lecturer in South Asian archaeology at University College London, told National Geographic.