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Discovery of earliest Buddhist shrine sheds new light on life of Buddha

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    Pilgrims meditate at the wall below the nativity scene within the Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini, Nepal. The remains of the earliest temples at the site are in the background. (Ira Block/National Geographic)

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    Archaeologists Robin Coningham (left) and Kosh Prasad Acharya direct excavations within the Maya Devi Temple, uncovering a series of ancient temples contemporary with the Buddha. Thai monks meditate. (Ira Block/National Geographic)

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    Thai monks inside the Maya Devi Temple meditate over the remains of the oldest Buddhist shrine in the world at Lumbini, Nepal. (Ira Block/National Geographic)

Archaeologists in Nepal have uncovered the earliest-known Buddhist shrine, physical evidence that puts a concrete date and location on the life of the man who founded Buddhism.

"For the first time we actually have scientific evidence leading to the establishment of one of the major Buddhists shrines," professor Robin Coningham of Durham University, U.K., who co-led the investigation, said in a press conference Monday.

Coningham's research indicates the temple found at Lumbini in Nepal dates back to the 6th century B.C. The discovery is the first archaeological evidence linking the life of Buddha and the beginnings of Buddhism to a specific century.

'Very little is known about the life of the Buddha.'

- Professor Robin Coningham of Durham University, U.K.

“Very little is known about the life of the Buddha, except through textual sources and oral tradition," Coningham said. "We thought 'why not go back to archaeology to try to answer some of the questions about his birth?'"

According to Buddhist tradition, Buddha's mother Queen Maya Devi gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree within the Lumbini garden. Coningham and his team began their excavations at this site and discovered the remains of a previously unknown timber structure within the Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini.

"What's interesting is we identified a roof tile ... all around the edges of the temple and not in the center," Coningham said. "This indicated something that was very special about the center of the temple. When we started excavating we found another early temple below."

Geoarchaeological research was conducted that confirmed the presence of ancient tree roots in the open space at the center of the newly-discovered timber structure which links to the nativity story of Buddha.  Fragments of charcoal and grains of sand were tested to determine the date of the timber shrine and the early brick structure above it.

The evidence of the tree shrine at the site proves the "continuity of the site" as Buddhist according to Coningham.

"The sequence (of archaeological remains) at Lumbini is a microcosm for the development of Buddhism from a localized cult to a global religion," the authors wrote in a scientific paper in Antiquity.

The Buddha is recorded at the time of his passing at age 80 to encourage all Buddhists to visit Lumbini. The Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini remains a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of people today and the archaeologists worked alongside meditating monks, nuns and pilgrims.

Until now, the structures found at Lumbini dated only to the third century B.C. at the time of the patronage of the Emperor Asoka.

The findings are reported in the December 2013 issue of the international journal Antiquity and the research was partly supported by the National Geographic society.

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