The discovery of the world's earliest Buddhist temple, marking the birthplace of the Buddha south of the Himalayas in Nepal, could give a powerful push in the drive to lift nearby villagers out of crushing poverty.
Visits by some of the world's 500 million Buddhists to this holy site near Nepal's border with India could help the region create a framework for sustainable development linked to these pilgrimages, said scholars involved in the discovery.
Archaeologists recently revealed they had uncovered a wooden structure, surrounded by an open-air courtyard, that dated from 2,550 years ago and was situated directly beneath a brick temple built three centuries later to venerate the birth of the Buddha.
The uncovering of the long-buried shrine and courtyard, believed to have hosted the tree under which the Buddha was born, provides the clearest evidence ever of when Prince Siddhartha Gautama walked the Earth and began outlining his pathway toward enlightenment and Nirvana.
The earliest Buddhist chronicles all record that Queen Maya Devi gave birth to the Buddha in the mystical Lumbini Garden, but none provides a clear-cut date for the event.
British archaeologist Robin Coningham, who led the international team that excavated the structure, said in an interview that there is a good reason for conflicting chronologies of the Buddha's birth and life: "Writing in South Asia didn't really spread until about 300 BC." That means details of the Buddha's life and teachings were passed down orally for centuries before being written down.
|British archaeologist Robin Coningham [National Geographic]
That led to present-day estimates on the Buddha's birth that have varied between 800 BC and 400 BC, he said.
But now, the discovery of the earliest shrine at Lumbini, and the use of leading-edge dating technologies to calculate its age, have led Coningham and his team to determine the temple was built around 550 BC.
"Ritual activity [at the shrine] could have commenced either during or shortly after the life of the Buddha," Coningham and nine other scholars state in an article published in the December issue of the British journal Antiquity.
Unveiling evidence confirming key details of the Buddha's nativity narrative and timing might ultimately be rated as one of the century's most remarkable archaeological finds.
Barbara Moffet, a spokesperson at the National Geographic Society, which helped support the excavation of what could be the world's very first Buddhist shrine, said, "It's not every day that we discover something that opens a window on the birth of a major world religion."
The Washington, DC-based group filmed key discoveries made during the unearthing of the shrine, and will broadcast a documentary, "Buried Secrets of the Buddha" in February on National Geographic Channel.
Coningham, a professor at Durham University in the United Kingdom, said as archaeologists from Britain and Nepal set out to explore the ancient shrine at the center of Lumbini's Sacred Garden, an unending stream of Buddhist monks and nuns from around the world circumambulated the site, chanting prayers over the emerging temple.
He spent three years excavating the Lumbini shrine, which had been buried beneath an entire sequence of later temples, working alongside some of Nepal's leading archaeologists, headed by Kosh Prasad Acharya, former Director General of the Department of Archaeology in Nepal.
Finding new pieces in the puzzle of the origins of Buddhism 25 centuries ago via this simple wooden temple marks "a really important finding in the study of Buddhist archaeology," said archaeologist Keir Strickland, who co-authored the study, "The earliest Buddhist shrine: excavating the birthplace of the Buddha, Lumbini (Nepal)."
In Lumbini, you can already see monasteries that have been built by Japan, China, Myanmar, and Cambodia ... The government of Nepal wants to develop Lumbini as a centre of peace.
Professor Coningham said he hopes the reemergence of this temple will benefit not only Buddhist scholars and followers across the globe, but also the present-day compatriots of the Buddha – villagers who toil the fields amid the amazing topography of Nepal and the punishing poverty born of living in such a remote location.
"In the area around Lumbini," he said, "more than half the population lives on less than one and one-half dollars per day."
The International Monetary Fund estimated Nepal's per capita GDP at US$522 in 2010, and only 9 percent of its 30 million citizens are now plugged into the Internet, according to the Internet World Stats website.
Painting new details on the mosaic of the Buddha's origins could give momentum to a UNESCO plan, being financed by the Japanese government, to simultaneously promote further archaeological explorations around Lumbini, conserve sacred sites that are being uncovered, and liberate nearby villagers from the shackles of impoverishment.
"It should be possible to balance sustainable pilgrimage with sustainable conservation" as part of a master plan that benefits the region as a whole, Coningham explained.
Hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks, nuns, and tourists now make the pilgrimage to Lumbini's mandala-like matrix of sacred sites every year, and that figure could rise rapidly over the next decade as the area raises its global profile.
To pave the way for the rise of the Buddha's birthplace in the world atlas of Buddhist pilgrimage sites, the Asian Development Bank has provided nearly $90 million in funding to expand Lumbini's roadways and airport. "This is a positive move," Coningham said, for the people of Nepal, which is landlocked between the giants China and India.
Govinda Gewali, who is monitoring the project from the ADB office in Nepal, said the runway at Lumbini's Gautam Buddha Airport will be extended to accommodate international flights, which will allow more of the world's half-billion Buddhists to tour the site.
This expansion is slated for completion in June of 2017, when the airport will be able to handle 1 million international passengers per year, said Kenichi Yokoyama, the ADB's country director in Nepal.
Meanwhile, Counsellor Ram Prasad Subedi at the Embassy of Nepal in Beijing said the discovery of the ancient temple at the centre of the Sacred Garden where the Buddha was born "will definitely boost Lumbini's significance and attraction as a holy place".
|A Buddhist monk deep in meditation [National Geographic]
Nepal's government now aims to boost the number of international tourists who visit the Himalayan nation to 2 million annually by 2020, compared with 800,000 who arrived in 2012. Part of the drive to attract more visitors is aimed at the global Buddhist community.
"In Lumbini, you can already see monasteries that have been built by Japan, China, Myanmar, and Cambodia, and so many countries support the master plan for Lumbini's development," said Subedi. "The government of Nepal wants to develop Lumbini as a centre of peace."
Lumbini's expanding glow as a pilgrimage site and as a symbol of cross-cultural understanding "is a great thing for Buddhists and people who believe in peace all over the world," he added.
UNESCO is now perfecting a blueprint to reach out to potential donors across the planet who are willing to help protect one of the world's most important religious regions while benefitting local inhabitants, said Axel Plathe, UNESCO Representative to Nepal.
The current excavations and archaeological discoveries made at Lumbini, Plathe added, "were the result of a UNESCO project that was funded by the government of Japan."
Inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1997, the group described Lumbini in glowing terms: "As the birthplace of the Lord Buddha - the apostle of peace and the light of Asia - the sacred area of Lumbini is one of the holiest places of one of the world's great religions, and its remains contain important evidence about the nature of Buddhist pilgrimage centers from a very early period."
UNESCO's envoy to Nepal, who has been closely involved in overseeing the archaeological exploration of the region, said that the temple and monastery now being brought to light after being hidden for more than 2000 years are transforming age-old legends of the Buddha into modern-day facts.
Zone of peace
In a UNESCO description of the Lumbini site, Plathe said its Buddhist groves and waterways form a dreamlike sanctuary: "Sacred trees, beautiful flowers, celestial splendor, eternal tranquility - these are the elements that constitute the place where Siddhartha, the Lord Buddha, was born."
|Buddhists number about 500 million [National Geographic]
UNESCO and its partners, Plathe said, aim to guide Lumbini's development into an expanding zone of peace, featuring modern schools and hospitals, that fosters an ongoing dialogue involving the world's diverse cultures and peoples.
The envoy said he hopes the new global spotlight on the site of the Buddha's birth will spark more patrons of culture and conservation around the world to help plan and finance Lumbini's future.
Coningham added that the Sacred Garden, nearby monastic zone, and outlying pilgrim's village have been attracting explorers from virtually every point on the planet.
This confluence of cultures swirls around the ancient pilgrimage site. "The Sacred Garden is still used by local Hindus, who also go there to celebrate," he added.
Coningham, who has become over the past weeks perhaps the world's best-known archaeologist, said the team leading the exploration of the ancient temple and nearby sites is scheduled to release a comprehensive book on its findings, titled "Excavations at Lumbini," in 2014.