Durham University professor helps uncover the origins of Buddhism

Professor Robin Coningham, of Durham University, has played a key role in discovering the the origins of the Buddhist religion, writes Nathan Sandu

Bangladeshi Buddhist monks walk in front of a Buddha statue

A team of British archaeologists has played a key role in a breakthrough discovery into the origins of the Buddhist religion.

Professor Robin Coningham, of Durham University, led a group of 15 archaeologists from Durham, Stirling and Orkney, within an international team who excavated an ancient shrine dating back to the sixth century BC within the Maya Devi Temple in Lumbini, Nepal.

The Unesco heritage site has long been identified as the birthplace of Buddha and the discovery – revealed in the December edition of the international journal Antiquity – has been hailed as the first archaeological material pinpointing the life of the Buddha to a specific century.

The British team worked alongside monks, nuns and pilgrims at the sacred site in collaboration with conservationists and planners. They wore only slippers or went barefoot during the excavation work – as shoes are forbidden in the sacred temple – over three winters in Nepal, when the water table is at its lowest.

Buddhist tradition records that Queen Maya Devi, the mother of the Buddha, gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree within the Lumbini garden, midway between the kingdoms of her husband and parents.

Prof Coningham and his colleagues have speculated that the open space in the centre of the shrine they discovered may have accommodated a tree.

He said the birth of Buddha had been placed in a wide spectrum from the early 400s BC to the 7th or 8th Century BC by different traditions within Buddhism. The discovery made it likely that the Buddha lived in the 6th Century BC, he said.

“It is one of the most exciting discoveries in terms of Buddhist archaeology since the early discoveries of the sites because we now have an idea of what the earliest Buddhist shrine looked like,” he said.

“The significance for us is that the shrine is built around a tree and the fact that the Buddhist birth story is connected with a tree. It is one of those really rare occasions when belief, tradition, archaeology and excavation actually come together.”

Buddhism is based largely on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha and is one of the world’s oldest religions. Many hundreds of thousands of Buddhists from around the world make the pilgrimage to Lumbini every year.

The excavation work was funded by the Japanese government in partnership with the Government of Nepal as part of a Unesco project aimed at strengthening conservation and management of the temple.

Ram Kumar Shrestha, Nepal’s minister of culture, tourism and civil aviation, has hailed the importance of the Durham team’s discoveries.

He said: “These discoveries are very important to better understand the birthplace of the Buddha. The government of Nepal will spare no effort to preserve this significant site.”


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