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Map of Lumbini, Nepal.

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published November 25, 2013

Time to push back the Buddha's birth date a century or so? Archaeologists may have uncovered evidence of the oldest Buddhist shrine yet discovered, dating to around 550 B.C.

Located at Nepal's Lumbini pilgrimage center, the legendary site of the Buddha's birth, the discovery points to the renowned religious figure living more than a century earlier than dates accepted by many scholars. (See also: "Buddha Rising.")

"What we have got is the earliest Buddhist shrine in the world," says archaeologist Robin Coningham of the United Kingdom's Durham University, lead author of the discovery study, released on Monday by the journal Antiquity.

In the study, the international archaeology team reports digging beneath existing brick structures at the shrine, which is visited yearly by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.

Photo of archaeologists Robin Coningham and Kosh Prasad Acharya directing excavations within the Maya Devi Temple, uncovering a series of ancient temples contemporary with the Buddha.
Photograph by Ira Block, National Geographic
Archaeologists Robin Coningham (at left) and Kosh Prasad Acharya direct excavations within the Maya Devi Temple.

The excavations showed that older wooden structures lay beneath the walls of the later brick Buddhist shrine. The layout of that more recent shrine duplicates the layout of the earlier wooden structures, pointing to a continuity of Buddhist worship at the site, Coningham says.

"The big debate has been about when the Buddha lived and now we have a shrine structure pointing to the sixth century B.C.," Coningham says. The team used two kinds of scientific dating to find the age of the early shrine.

Outside scholars applauded the discovery but cautioned against too hastily accepting the site as the oldest discovered Buddhist shrine without more analysis.

"Archaeologists love claiming that they have found the earliest or the oldest of something," says archaeologist Ruth Young of the United Kingdom's University of Leicester in an email message.

The Buddha's Birthplace

Buddhism is one of the world's great religions, with more than 350 million followers, most living in East Asia.

By tradition, Lumbini is the garden site where the Buddha's mother, Maya Devi, grasped a tree and gave birth to the historical figure Siddhartha Gautama, who later became the Buddha.

The exact date of the Buddha's birth is disputed, with Nepalese authorities favoring 623 B.C., and other traditions favoring more recent dates, around 400 B.C.

Regardless, by 249 B.C. Lumbini had became one of the four sacred centers of Buddhism, marked by sanctifying inscriptions and a pillar left there in 249 B.C. by the Indian emperor Ashoka, who helped spread Buddhism across Asia.

Later abandoned, the site was rediscovered in 1896 and re-established as a worship center, the Maya Devi temple, which is now a World Heritage site.

Concerned about wear from visitors, UNESCO, along with Japanese and Nepalese officials, supported Coningham and colleagues as they documented conditions at Lumbini and investigated the history underneath the layers of brick structures left from Ashoka's era.

The research was also supported by the National Geographic Society.

"We had almost unique access to the site that probably won't come again for another generation," Coningham says. "For that reason, we made our work completely open and transparent to pilgrims. Their experiences were quite moving to see as we did our work."

Ancient Tree Shrine

Digging beneath a central shrine, the researchers uncovered postholes pointing to a wooden railing surrounding a tree shrine and dating to around 550 B.C., says Coningham. They also found an older brick structure.

The center of the shrine was unroofed, the team found, and contained mineralized tree roots, surrounded by clay floors worn smooth by visitors. It was likely an ancient bodhigara, or tree shrine.

The tree roots appear to have been fertilized, and although bodhigara are found in older Indian traditions, the shrine lacked the signs of sacrifices or offerings found at such sites.

"It was very clean, in fact, which points to the Buddhist tradition of nonviolence and nonofferings," says Coningham.

The team zeroed in on the shrine's age with radiocarbon dating of charcoal from the wooden postholes and optically stimulated luminescence dating, a method that reveals radioactive decay times of elements in the soil to reveal when it was last on the surface.

Overall, Coningham argues, excavations at the site point to its cultivation starting around 1000 B.C., followed by the development of a Buddhist monastery-like community by the sixth century B.C.

Scholarly Caution

"The new evidence from this project shows that this ritual activity was taking place centuries prior to the Asokan levels, and this is really significant and interesting," Young says.

Julia Shaw, a lecturer in South Asian archaeology at University College London, called the claims for a wooden railing surrounding a possible tree shrine convincing but speculative.

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.
Photograph by Ira Block, National Geographic
Pilgrims meditate in the Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini, Nepal. The remains of the earliest temples at the site are in the background.

She was cautious about the oldest Buddhist shrine claim.

"The worship of trees, often at simple altars, was a ubiquitous feature of ancient Indian religions, and given the degree of overlap between Buddhist ritual and pre-existing traditions, it is also possible that what is being described represents an older tree shrine quite disconnected from the worship of the historical Buddha," Shaw says.

"Still, it does indeed present some new insights into the archaeology of Indian ritual in general," she adds.

Coningham called the chance to study the site and contribute toward Lumbini's conservation important, particularly due to its growing popularity as a pilgrimage site. By 2020, more than four million pilgrims are expected to visit.

"It was amazingly busy at times, people praying and meditating," Coningham says. "It was challenging and exciting, working on a living religious site."

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter and on Google+.

116 comments
D. Day
D. Day

Wouldn't it only be the later sacred sites that would accumulate offerings?

The earliest in time, the least known, would be the least visited, held sacred only

by the earliest converts, quickest to be forgotten. Can't wait to hear more about a very

interesting site that may have much more to tell us.

P.S. Ashoka was not a fool...

Nia Imman
Nia Imman

People have believed in God for unnumbered years i embrace millions of years millions of beliefs millions of faith. I love this embrace god undated

Ajitman Tamang
Ajitman Tamang

Good news for the Peace lover and Buddha's follower in the World.


The greatest discovery of the further proof of this year, Lumbini, Nepal, the birthplace of Lord Shakyamuni Buddha. GoN, Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, Lumbini Development Trust, Sacred Garden, Rupandehi, Lumbini, Nepal. 

terence phelps
terence phelps

For a devastating, scholarly demolition of these claims, see the online article entitled 'Recent Discovery of Earliest Buddhist Shrine a Sham?' by the eminent Oxford University authority on Buddhism, Professor Richard Gombrich.

daya dissanayake
daya dissanayake

this is a typical con-artist in action, probably just like Fuhrer. please read the full article carefully. they have not found any evidence that it is the birth place of the Buddha, or what the tree was or if it was a Buddhist shrine. Coningham is basing everything on Fuhrer's 'discovery' of the Rumindel inscription, probably to get more publicity and more funds for more conning

Kory K.
Kory K.

I think that more evidence is necessary before jumping to any conclusions. For example, look at many of the so-called holy sites associated with Jesus. There is no, or has there ever been any proof whatsoever that these sites have any historical significance. They are only traditional sites marked by the mother of then Roman Emperor Constantine, and who dared to question their judgement? With modern knowledge and no fear of execution, a comprehensive analysis should occur before making such a claim.

Billy Diaz
Billy Diaz

I say about associating a site on top of another site. I have visited sites in Africa, Europe, Asia, Central, South and North America (including Alaska) and it is not uncommon for a site to be built on top of another site for a different purpose. Yet, I like the healthy debate because it helps people want to learn more about the topic and its historical relevance.

CHARU MATHY
CHARU MATHY

The "archeologist" claims here are not worthy - some like him have often claimed wrong things. Its clear when Buddha was born and how he died - there is no big debate about it. There are many ancient structures which were not holy, it may be one of them or even related to a shrine. Its not a big deal neither does this person have to enlighten anyone about Bhuddha.

It appears Israel or Jewish contribution is involved in this excavation - appreciate it really.


terence phelps
terence phelps

The ONLY thing that identifies this site as Lumbini is the Brahmi pillar inscription there.  Dr A A Fuhrer was deeply involved in its 'discovery' in 1896, and since he was the most notorious and prolific inventor / forger of such inscriptions known to Indology, the jury must remain out on the veracity of this site in consequence. Moreover, whereas other major sites of Indian Buddhist antiquity - Kasia, Sankisa, Vaishali etc - yielded dozens of artefacts proving them as sites of Buddhist pilgrimage and devotion, not a single instance of any such artefacts - such as votive tablets, sealings, rupas, etc - has ever been found either at this site, or at neighbouring Tilaurakot, said to be Kapilavastu, the Buddha's home town. I repeat, the REAL sites would have been visited by countless pilgrims over many centuries, who would have left evidence of their affiliations as sites of Buddhist worship, yet here we have nothing. Naturally, one wonders why.,  

gary heiden
gary heiden

I was there a few days ago.  Very Sacred sites are often built upon even older sites. The lack of offerings could be an important clue as I do believe Buddha frowned on religious and later Buddhist activities that he would have concidered frivilous and unmeaningful in terms of pursuing real enlightenment like the act of offerings and certainly sacrifices.  By the way REAL BUDDHISTS DO NOT DRIVE LIKE THE DEVIL.  

Desie Arumsari
Desie Arumsari

Wow! Many ancients things would reveal more. Fantastic!

Metta Bhavana
Metta Bhavana

That carbon date of 550 BCE is close enough to the date generally accepted by Theravada Buddhism.

Veerabrahmachar Murthy
Veerabrahmachar Murthy

National Geographic,  how dare you disfigure the map of my country INDIA. 

Dan Vergano, exercise caution while choosing map of a country. 

Sein Kyaw
Sein Kyaw

Thanks a lot NG. Please carry on at other sites of Buddha's.

Hal Molitor
Hal Molitor

- John Romer pointed out that sacred places tend to remain stable through time as the dieties or holy spirits or memories associated with the location come and go.  The explanation of why a certain place is sacred changes, but since old structures often do not have a sign saying why they were built, one must use archaeological analysis to come up with the historians best guess.  All the historian can hope for is to be convincing since all he has to offer is speculative (that's the nature of the beast).  Debate is about what level of speculation is acceptable.

Lama Yuthok
Lama Yuthok

Who does not pray to nature? Sun bathing, mountain climbing, whale watching, excavating historical sites to list only a few. Here it is the scientists whose prayers are answered. If they found a piece of wood, or a jar or a old coin,  they are happy. Le it be. No god is involved here, just the effort of digging nativity of a holy site with less or no regard for the living spiritual sensitivity of the people.  Was this the challenge?

craig hill
craig hill

I'd always consistently read the birth date given of Siddhartha Gautama to be 563 BCE in India. If this site is Buddhist as suspected, it pushes the date back a few decades at least, but not greatly. Who thought it was 400 or therabouts??

Karki Prabhat
Karki Prabhat

Best proof that Gautama Buddha was born in Nepal not in India as state by some Indian government official.

Richmond Acosta
Richmond Acosta

@daya dissanayakeThey did not say it was the birthplace, but what they found is that the shrine could be older that initially thought which pushes back the history, not only of Buddha, but of the whole religion of Buddhism.

terence phelps
terence phelps

Well said, dear boy, the comparison with Fuhrer being entirely apt in my opinion. The Oxford Professor, Richard Gombrich, has already thundered 'RUBBISH!, the British Museum's Julia Shaw has damned Coningham's claims with faint praise, and we have good reason to hope that wiser counsels will prevail when all the dust settles on the recent ballyhoo. Again, meanwhile, well said!

Richmond Acosta
Richmond Acosta

@Billy DiazThat is a very good argument. A good examples are the catholic Churches built on top of Aztec temples.

Chinu Nasrin
Chinu Nasrin

@Billy Diaz 

It is possible for building another structure on an old structure. In Bangladesh, Mainamati, an ancient Buddhist site in Comilla, has a Buddhist Bihar/ Monastery which is its 7th phase of construction. But the point is, its previous structure was destroyed or demolished by various causes, and the last phase was constructed by the Deva kings of ancient Bengal in 8th century. It is a brick made Buddhist Monastery.      

Jayarava Attwood
Jayarava Attwood

@Psyco Anurag The link goes to an uncritical and rather bogus presentation of the information presented here. Basically it's sectarian hype that ought to be thoroughly ignored.

pankaj mavchi
pankaj mavchi

@terence phelps in fact a docu released by Nat geo this year clears the name of WC pepe in the piprahwa stupa contoversy which was caused due to the 'ambitious' claims of Herr Fuhrer!  you are right in mentioning that both the chinese travellers went from different places to lumbini..


Yumin Tchen
Yumin Tchen

@terence phelpsThere are many things that identify Lumbini as the Buddha's birthplace, you simply have to click the blue 623 BC above to go to unesco.org and Lumbini.

. here is a quote: "The complex of structures within the archaeological conservation area includes the Shakya Tank; the remains within the Maya Devi Temple consisting of brick structures in a cross-wall system dating from the 3rd century BC to the present century and the sandstone Ashoka pillar with its Pali inscription in Brahmi script. Additionally there are the excavated remains of Buddhist viharas (monasteries) of the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD and the remains of Buddhist stupas (memorial shrines) from the 3rd century BC to the 15th century AD."

 Moreover, there were famous Chinese Buddhist monks who wrote about going there and seeing the temples and stupas there in the 4th and 7th century AD, when it was a well-known pilgrimage site until the 1400's. Research it.

Sriram Krishnan
Sriram Krishnan

@Veerabrahmachar Murthy let us not get overtly sentimental about it.... the map is a reality! International organisations including publications such as NG...would essentially showcase what is the status of the day (here, those parts of India are indeed in foreign control - refer LOC / LAC)... so until it is reverted back to the Republic of India...let US play caution... anyway, the subject of discussion here is a WOW discovery.. :)  

Shamiksha Koyu
Shamiksha Koyu

@craig hill for your kind information buddha was born in kapilvastu which falls in Nepalese terrtory.. Thankyou

DEaddude AYoos
DEaddude AYoos

@Karki Prabhat What proof you are talking about dude, there was no existence of India or Nepal then, Buddha was never born in Nepal or India, HE actually was born in Kapilvastu. Grow Up man!!!

Jayarava Attwood
Jayarava Attwood

@Karki Prabhat Don't be ridiculous. Nepal didn't exist at the time and nor did India. He was born in the Kingdom of the Śākyas, which bordered on and was eventually conquered by the kingdom of Kosala. Kosala was then over-run by Magadha and a large Empire was founded on the subcontinent by Chandragupta Morya. Centuries later the Kingdom of Nepal was carved out of land occupied by a wide variety of people speaking a wide range of languages. Present day India is an invention of the British as when they arrived the subcontinent was broken up into various regions. The borders of Nepal and India today are entirely arbitrary and mostly laid down by the British. 

terence phelps
terence phelps

@Yumin Tchen @terence phelps I have researched it, for the past twenty years! You mention the famous Chinese monks, Faxian and Xuanzang. Well, they BOTH placed Lumbini at least 100 miles (160 kms) southeast of Sravasti, whereas the present site is just over half that distance to the east -NORTH -east of Sravasti. Wrong distance, wrong direction, wrong site. And since they both WENT to Lumbini, and agreed where it was, then that's where we must look, regardless of present unsupportable claims to the contrary. Try my website, 'Lumbini on Trial: The Untold Story' for the real facts of the case. And read the accounts of the Chinese pilgrims, too!

Yumin Tchen
Yumin Tchen

@Jayarava Attwood @Metta BhavanaThe tree shrine lies right under the 3rd century BC Maya Devi temple. You have to read the article: "The tree roots appear to have been fertilized, and although bodhigara are found in older Indian traditions, the shrine lacked the signs of sacrifices or offerings found at such sites." Buddhist shrines don't have the sacrifices or other offerings. Besides, if you bother to look at the video on the other NG page, you will see that it's not "charcoal in a hole" but planks and brick walls surrounding the mineralized tree roots, as stated here as well, just go over the articles and you will see for yourself.

gary heiden
gary heiden

what does a nationalistic argument over what historically wasnt even a unified nation concerning neighbors who share more then divides them reflect the true nature of enlightenment which Buddha sought to impart on humanity. shame on you really.

Sriram Krishnan
Sriram Krishnan

@niranjan ghimire @craig hill @shamiksha koyu @manil thakuri .....guys with all due respect, please do not trivialise the subject of discussion... Agreed that Lumbini is in present-day Nepal...but if some one does mention the brithplace of the Buddha as India...it is NOT technically incorrect...since THEN, all of the Indian subcontinent was essentially part of a socio-ethno-politico concept called India (although it were a hundred bigger & smaller kingdoms somewhat akin to ancient Greece) and its people followed a larger Indic culture ...(which is true to the present day)... Argument closed. Now, let us focus on the current subject matter...which is a WOW discovery...

gary heiden
gary heiden

Actually Buddha was NOT born in Nepal because Nepal didnt exist at that time.  His Birth place is accepted to be in Lumbini which is now part of Nepal.  the truth is in the details. 

gary heiden
gary heiden

Just came back from Lumbini. yeah your right 100%  NO INDIA NO NEPAL just more or less bunch of petty kingdoms. 

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