Sunday, March 22, 2009

Buried with the Buddha?

I came across this 2004 article at the Times Online while doing a little basic research on the Buddha for a post done earlier today. It's good stuff, but very long. Here's the beginning: From The Sunday Times March 21, 2004 Buried with the Buddha For years, these tiny jewels lay forgotten in dusty boxes. Then one man made it his mission to unearth the truth about them: could they have been enshrined with the Buddha 2,500 years ago? Vicki Mackenzie investigates Paul Seto was about to make the first of two astonishing discoveries. It was a Friday afternoon in June last year, and the general secretary of the Buddhist Society — one of the oldest Buddhist societies in Europe — was making a routine inventory, for insurance purposes, of all the artefacts at its London centre. As Seto and Philip Trent, an antiques dealer, pored over the contents of a display cabinet, Seto, seated on the floor, noticed a shabby cardboard box hiding between the bottom shelf of the cabinet and its base. It would have been invisible to anyone standing. Inside the box were various paraphernalia, such as conference badges and medals, that had belonged to Christmas Humphreys, the British judge who founded the society in 1924. And among these items was a smaller cardboard box, about 3in square. Written on its lid, in a neat Victorian hand, were two sentences that sent Seto reeling: "Relics of Buddha. From the Piprawah Stupa, Birdpore Estate, Gourkhpur NWP, India. 1898." Carefully, he opened the box. Inside he found 12 compartments, each holding a tiny, exquisite object: eight-pointed flowers and beads made of sapphire,cornelian, amethyst, ruby and rock crystal, a tiny, pearl-like object, and a larger object that appeared to be three pearls fused into one. "Everything stopped," remembers Seto. "My first thought was, 'It can't be true!' My second was, 'What's it doing here?' Normally such an object would be in a venerated place, not in a cardboard box in a cupboard." Could these items really have lain next to the Buddha's mortal remains, as the label on their cardboard box suggested? If so, these exquisite jewels would be more than 2,500 years old. This would be the most exciting religious discovery since the Dead Sea Scrolls. For 300m Buddhists worldwide, it would be the equivalent of Christians finding a piece of the cross. And little did Seto know he was at the start of a quest that would lead him to yet more treasures. Seto asked colleagues at the Buddhist Society about the box, but nobody had known of its existence. "This may be the earliest Buddhist archeology there is. There's virtually nothing to compare it with. I feel a responsibility to every Buddhist in the world and every Buddhist who will come, to establish what these objects truly are, so they can be given the proper respect," he says. Searching for clues, he turned to the internet. Entering "Birdpore Estate 1898" into a search engine, he was directed to an article in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, written by one William Claxton Peppè in 1898: "The Piprahwa Stupa, containing relics of Buddha." (Piprawah, as on Humphreys' box, is an alternative spelling.) "That gave me the feeling I was onto something quite special." But who was William Peppè? And how had these relics found their way to London? An intriguing story unfolded as Seto pored over the Victorian documents. Buddhism had flourished in northern India until AD500 but, while continuing to gain adherents overseas, it gradually declined in the Buddha's homeland under the pressure of competing religions. The Muslim conquest of India in the 12th century put the final nail in the coffin. Divorced from his geographical origin, for centuries the Buddha was viewed more as a mythical figure than a historical person. It was only with the coming of the Raj in the 19th century that archeological proof of his existence emerged. Those classically educated men cracked the holy language of Sanskrit and excavated monuments, temples, universities and tombs, all suggesting that the man who was Prince Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya-warrior clan, and later known as the Enlightened One, had lived, taught and died, at the age of 80, in India. In 1895, Dr Alois Anton Führer, a German archeologist working for the Indian Civil Service, had found a stone pillar at Lumbini, in the foothills of the Himalayas in southwestern Nepal, which he claimed marked the Buddha's birthplace. Then Peppè appeared in the frame. He was a British engineer, surveyor and manager of the Birdpore (now Birdpur) estate in northern British India, just a few miles southwest of Lumbini. Caught up in the rush of enthusiasm created by the Lumbini find, Peppè decided to excavate a prominent mound on his own land, hoping it might be a reliquary or stupa. He sank a vertical shaft down through 18ft of ancient brickwork and at ground level found a stone coffer, more than 4ft long, 2ft wide and 2ft high. "The coffer is made of hard, fine sandstone of very superior quality. I calculate the weight of the coffer, lid included, to be 1,537 pounds," Peppè wrote in his article. Inside, he found three soapstone (steatite) vases, all about 6in high, a small soapstone box, and a small crystal bowl with a fish-shaped handle. "The steatite vases have been beautifully turned in a lathe — the crystal bowl is polished to perfection and has all the appearance of a glass bowl of the present day." Within the vases, Peppè recorded, he found pieces of bone and hundreds of pieces of small treasures, which he dutifully listed and described. They included gold ornaments, gold-coin impressions, figures, Buddhist symbols, stars and flowers in silver and gold, pearls of different sizes, some of which were welded together, serrated and veined leaves, pyramids, drilled beads of various shapes in white or red cornelian, amethyst, topaz, garnet, coral and crystal, and a bird in red cornelian. There was also a pile of what seemed to be petrified rice. One vase bore an inscription, which Peppè said was in early Pali (an ancient written language), and which was later translated as: "This shrine for relics of the Buddha, the August One, is that of the Sakyas, the brethren of the Distinguished One, in association with their sisters and with their children and their wives." It seemed that Peppè had unearthed a portion of the Buddha's bones and burial treasure that had not been seen for more than two millennia. The Victorian historian Vincent Smith said, in a note attached to the 1898 article when Peppè announced his findings: "The massiveness and costliness of the coffer, and the richness of the deposit of precious objects in the vases, are obvious proofs of the veneration attaching to the relics enshrined. The inscription proves that the depositors believed the fragments of bone to be part of the sacred body of Gautama Buddha himself." A later article of 1910 called Peppè's find "the only authenticated relics known to date". But these records should not be taken at face value, says Dr Michael Willis, professor in south Asian studies at De Montfort University, Leicester, and author of Buddhist Reliquaries from Ancient India. "There are all sorts of problems with excavations of this period. The basic one is the way people worked: they read Buddhist texts, then went off and found the sites. A parallel is the Roman emperor Constantine's mother, Helena, who in the fourth century AD went to the Holy Land and 'found' the true cross and the nails supposedly used to nail Jesus to the cross. Peppè wasn't an archeologist — we're not dealing with a careful, scientific excavation. Even for the period, it wasn't of a very high standard." Rest of article.

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