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Some scholars have suggested that modern-day Piprahwa 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. Others suggest that the original site of Kapilavastu is located 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) to the northwest, at Tilaurakot, in what is currently Kapilvastu District in Nepal.
Archeological association with Gautama Buddha
A buried stupa was discovered by William Claxton Peppe, a British colonial engineer and landowner of an estate at Piprahwa in January 1898. Peppe led a team in excavating a large earthen mound on his land. Having cleared away scrub and jungle, they set to work building a deep trench through the mound. Eventually they came to a large stone coffer which contained five small vases containing ashes and jewels. On one of the vases was an inscription which was translated at the time to mean "This relic-shrine of divine Buddha (is the donation) of the Sakya-Sukiti brothers, associated with their sisters, sons, and wives", implying that the vase was a reliquary containing the ashes of Gautama Buddha, the sage upon whose teachings Buddhism was founded. It is not clear whether the inscription specifically refers to Buddha's half-brother, half-sister and son (Prince Nanda, Princess Sundari Nanda, and Rāhula, respectively), or whether it simply refers to members of the Shakya clan in general.
From 1971-1973, a team of Indian archaeologists 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. 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.
There has since been much debate about the authenticity of the relics discovered by both Peppe and Srivastava at Piprahwa, especially with respect to the inscription on the reliquary vase discovered by Peppe. Some critics have argued that this Piprahwa inscription was a forgery by Alois Anton Führer, an archaeologist who became notorious for forging similar Buddhist relics and inscriptions and who was known to have been in communication with Peppe although historian Charles Allen claims he has "a whole series of letters" which say Führer didn't visit the Piprahwa site until six weeks after the excavation.
Epigraphist and archaeologist Ahmad Hasan Dani stated in 1997 that "The Piprahwa vase, found in the Basti District, U.P., has an inscription scratched on the steatite stone in a careless manner. The style of writing is very poor, and there is nothing in it that speaks of the hand of the Asokan scribes". However others — including Peppe's grandson — dispute the theory of forgery, citing a range of evidence including historical records, personal documents, drawings, and archaeological and linguistic evidence.
In 2006 a conference was held at Harewood House in Yorkshire, England, to review current evidence and theories and discuss the authenticity of the Piprahwa stupa and its inscription. Several world-renowned experts in Indology, Indian philology, Prakrit and Sanskrit attended this conference. While some experts concluded that the Piprahwa stupa and its contents, including the inscription and reference to the Buddha's ashes, are indeed authentic, other reached a different conclusion.
Documentary Bones of the Buddha
In an Icon Films documentary commissioned by WNET and Arte for the National Geographic Channel narrated by Charles Dance on the Piprahwa stupa entitled Bones of the Buddha (May, 2013), host explorer and Indian historian/writer Charles Allen interviews Harry Falk (Professor of Indology at the Freie Universität in Berlin and expert in ancient Indian languages and history), who states that Führer could not have forged the Piprahwa reliquary inscription. This is, Falk says, because Führer lacked sufficient knowledge of the language (Prakrit) in which the inscription was written, and, more importantly, he could have never known the Sanskrit word nidhane (container), which is written on the reliquary, a hapax legomenon in the Brahmi corpus otherwise.
In the documentary Bones of the Buddha, Falk concluded that the reliquary found at Piprahwa did contain a portion of the ashes of the Buddha, and that the inscription is authentic. According to Falk, the inscription translates as 'these are the relics of the Buddha, the Lord'.
The conclusion stated in the documentary Bones of the Buddha is that the Piprahwa stupa was built by the Emperor Ashoka 150 years later in 245 BCE over the original and simpler interment site of one eighth of the Buddha's ashes. Falk points to the close similarity of materials used at Piprahwa and its grand size with other Ashokan stupas, and that the coffer containing the reliquary found at Piprahwa closely reflects Ashokan workmanship, design, and the type of stone used for monuments such as the pillar erected at Lumbini during his reign.
Location and significance of the relics
Some scholars have suggested that the stupa and especially the soapstone reliquary discovered within it are strong evidence that modern-day Piprahwa was the site of the ancient city of Kapilavastu. Others however claim that the original site of Kapilavastu is located 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) to the northwest, at Tilaurakot, in what is currently Kapilvastu District in Nepal. The controversy among experts concerning the authenticity of the Piprahwa reliquary parallels that of the question of the precise location of the ancient city of Kapilavastu. This question is especially important to scholars of Buddhist history, as Kapilavastu was the capital of the Shakya kingdom. King Śuddhodana and Queen Māyādevī lived at Kapilavastu, as did their son Prince Siddhartha Gautama until he left the palace at 29 years of age.
The remaining Piprahwa relics are reportedly distributed across several locations, including:
- the Golden Mount Temple in Bangkok, Thailand
- the Dipaduttamrama Temple (also known as the Jewel Stupa) in Colombo, Sri Lanka
- the Ruwanwelisaya stupa in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
- some of the relics were retained by W. C. Peppe, and these are still owned by Peppe's grandson in England
Today, the relics from the original and the 1970s excavations of the Piprahwa stupa are revered by many Buddhists the world over. 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.
- Mishra, S (2005-09-15). "Kalanamak: the future of Indian scented rice?". Down To Earth magazine. New Delhi: Society for Environmental Communications. Retrieved 2014-11-29.
- Peppe, WC (1898). "The Piprahwa Stupa, containing relics of Buddha". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Article XXIII): 573–88. – via JSTOR (subscription required)
- Buhler, G (1898). "Preliminary note on a recently discovered Sakya inscription". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Correspondence: Note 14): 388.
- Srivastava, KM (1980). "Archaeological Excavations at Piprāhwā and Ganwaria and the Identification of Kapilavastu". The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 13 (1): 103–10.
- Allen (2008), The Buddha and Dr Führer: An Archaeological Scandal, p. 262: "The best hypothesis we are ever likely to arrive on the basis of what we know at present at is that the Kapilavastu in which the Prince Siddhartha grew to manhood was a settlement enclosed within a walled palisade beside the modern River Banganga, pretty much where the ruins of Tilaurakot are today."
- Tuladhar, Swoyambhu D. (November 2002), "The Ancient City of Kapilvastu - Revisited" (PDF), Ancient Nepal (151): 1–7
- "UP’s Piprahwa is Buddha’s Kapilvastu?".
- "Controversy and truth". Piprahwa Jewels. Retrieved April 16, 2015.
- Wheeler, Sara (January 5, 2009). "The Buddha and Dr Führer: an Archaeological Scandal by Charles Allen - review". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved April 16, 2015.
- Moore, Peter. "Charles Allen on discovering the bones of the Buddha". Wanderlust. Retrieved April 16, 2015.
- Dani, AH (1997). "Indian Palaeography" (3rd ed.). New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers. p. 56. ISBN 978-8121500289.
- Allen, C (2008). The Buddha and Dr Führer: An Archaeological Scandal (1st ed.). London: Haus Publishing. pp. 235–270. ISBN 978-1905791934.
- "Secrets of the Dead: Bones of the Buddha - Transcript". PBS. Retrieved April 16, 2015.
- Srivathsan, A (2012-08-20). "Gautama Buddha, four bones and three countries". Colombo Telegraph (Colombo, Sri Lanka). Retrieved 2014-11-29.