Bones of the Buddha

Full Episode

The mystery surrounding the bones of the Buddha dates back more than 100 years ago, when colonial estate manager William (Willie) Peppe and his workers began digging at a mysterious hill in Northern India. Peppe had no idea what they’d find just a little more than 20 feet down. They unearthed an astonishing discovery: a huge stone coffer, containing five reliquary jars, more than 1,000 separate jewels – carved semi-precious stones and gold and silver objects – and some ash and bone. One of the jars bore a Sanskrit inscription which, when translated, stated the jar contained the remains of the Buddha himself.

Doubt and rumors of forgery have overshadowed this remarkable find dividing, Buddhist scholars for more than 100 years. Many believe the whole thing is an elaborate hoax. Others insist the tomb on Peppe’s estate is no less than the final resting place of the leader of one of the world’s great religions, a sage who died nearly 2,500 years ago. For the doubters, suspicion focuses on a key figure from the time, disgraced German archaeologist Dr. Anton Fuhrer.

Renowned historian Charles Allen sets out to solve this extraordinary mystery, once and for all. Is the little-known monument in Northern India really the Buddha’s tomb? Is the find genuine? And if it is, who created it and when? Allen begins his journey in England at the home of Neil Peppe, the grandson of William Peppe. From there he travels 4,000 miles to Birdpore House in India, built by the Peppe family in the 1840s. The mysterious hill known as Piprahwa where the tomb was found sits on the northern edge of the Birdpore estate. Allen traces Peppe’s steps to authenticate the find, uncovering how the discovery became shrouded in scandal and where the Piprahwa ashes and bones reside today.

But is the inscription on the jar stating “these are the relics of the Buddha – the Lord” genuine? Allen meets with Harry Falk, a professor at Germany’s oldest institute of Indology and the world’s leading authority on ancient Indian languages, to authenticate the ancient Brahmi script. Though Falk’s findings may finally clear William Peppe’s name and resolve the mystery surrounding his find, Allen must still unravel who built the tomb and buried the remains of Buddha 2,500 year ago.

Production Credits Print

An Icon Films Production for THIRTEEN in association with WNET, ARTE
France and National Geographic Channels

Narrator: Jay O. Sanders
Writer/Director: Steven Clarke
Executive Producer, Icon: Harry Marshall
Executive in Charge: Stephen Segaller
Executive Producer: Steve Burns

© 2013 ICON FILMS

Transcript Print

On a spectacular journey through Northern India… renowned historian Charles Allen follows in the footsteps of a real man of flesh and blood, the historical Buddha…

And uncovers a real life Indiana Jones tale of buried treasure.

In 1898, a Colonial landowner made an extraordinary archaeological find – perhaps thousands of years old; perhaps even the tomb of the Buddha himself.

Charles Allen Charles - Imagine finding the bones of Christ!

But the find has been dogged by rumours of forgery ever since.

Charles Allen – Charles - You’ve been staring at this for a long time. Is this a fake?

This film aims to resolve a series of mysteries:

Is this little-known monument in Northern India really the Buddha’s tomb? Is the find genuine? And if it is, who created it, and when?

For the nearly 400 million Buddhists worldwide,
the stakes could not be higher.

This is Bodhgaya in Northern India. Buddhism’s holiest site.

Here, more than 2400 years ago, a former prince, Sakyamuni Gautama, found enlightenment and became ‘the awakened one’ - the Buddha.

Bodghaya is home to scores of Buddhist memorial mounds known as ‘Stupas’.

Could the Piprahwa Stupa, 200 miles from Bodhgaya, be the holiest of them all?

To answer that question, historian Charles Allen begins his quest, not in India, but on a quiet suburban street in England… home to the treasure that he first saw several years ago, launching his fascination with this extraordinary, unresolved mystery.

Like Charles Allen, Neil Peppe was raised in British India, and is the grandson of W.C. Peppe… the man who made the remarkable discovery at Piprahwa… a site near his colonial estate.

Neil Peppe – Charles - That is patently William Claxton Peppe your grandfather is it not?

Neil - Yes, this is his old chest. There are some of the photos..

Charles - and there he is..

Neil – and that is the Piprahwa Stupa.

Charles – This is the excavation site?

Neil - Yes, and you can see the trench that was cut through the middle of it….
Beneath the Piprahwa stupa, Willie Peppe found a huge stone sarcophagus over 20 feet down.

In it were some reliquary urns, and more than 1000 separate jewels, carved semi-precious stones, gold and silver objects…of incalculable value…

A fraction of the duplicates given to Peppe more than 100 years ago and preserved here by the family.

Neil Peppe CHARLES – Now I have to say Neil this is really what I’ve come to see, which is the Piprahwa treasure.

Neil – Well these ones were the original frames done by my grandfather.

Charles – what strikes me is how absolutely fabulous they are – the exquisite workmanship that’s displayed here, look at all these beautiful jewels and the other thing is that these must be thousands of years old.

Neil – Yes I think they are.

Charles – Well the awful thing is that we don’t quite know how old or why there is such an extraordinary collection.

Neil – Yes..yes

Charles – And I suppose that is really the thing that I’ve got to find out.

Neil – Well I very much hope you do...

A cloud still hangs over this amazing find; one that has deterred serious scholarship, and blackened the name of Willie Peppe.

Charles – So Neil here we are more than a century after your grandfathers famous discovery and there is still talk of hoaxes and conspiracy theories, What do you make of that?

Neil – I find it quite extraordinary….really I don’t understand it, it seems quite illogical. As far as my family is concerned the man was incapable of forging anything.

Neil grew up on his grandfather’s estate, Birdpore in Northern India, where Willie Peppe made his remarkable discovery.

And here’s Birdpore House itself, the home the family left more than 50 years ago.

4000 miles away, Birdpore house still stands.

Here, Charles Allen begins his search for answers to the Piprahwa mystery.

Charles – yes its faded – it’s not looking at its best but it is the same house. 3 Generations of the Peppes grew up in this house and Neil who’s now in his 70’s he must have played on these lawns, he must have played along the veranda up there.

Birdpore House was first built by the Peppe family when they arrived in India in the 1840’s, during the early days of Britain’s Indian Empire.
The family created a vast 30,000-acre estate here, growing crops like sugar-cane and rice.

The question is - did the man who lived here in the 1890’s really discover the remains of the Buddha?

Or was he the victim of a hoax…

Or even the hoaxer himself?

Willie Peppe - estate manager and engineer - was in his mid 40’s when he turned amateur archaeologist in 1897.

The landscape of this part of Northern India is low and flat.
But at the northern edge of the Birdpore estate is a mysterious mound, known as Piprahwa. It was here that Peppe set his men digging.

Charles Allen – Consultant
Charles – Yeah I don’t think We’ll ever know exactly what motivated William Peppe, but the fact is that this was the golden age of Indian archaeology, all sorts of exiting discoveries were being made at this time in particular the discovery of some lost Buddhist sites, one of them very near here.

After weeks of clearing away soil at the mound, Peppe’s men had exposed the top of a large brick structure. But what lay beneath?

Charles Allen – Consultant
Charles - This is the Piprahwa Stupa as it is today, beautifully restored, but this is not what it would have been like in 1898.

You have to imagine that I would now be standing deep underground because the surface level of the ground would have come about 20ft above my head.

So the first thing Mr Peppe has to do is expose the top of this vast mound and his workmen uncover a lovely brick dome
PAUSE

…so in January 1898 first thing they do they run a great trench right the way through the monument – then they dig down deep into the ground.

When finally they’ve got to the bottom what do they find but a neat little alcove and inside it this vast stone coffer and nothing like it had ever been found in India.

It’s almost like some sort of Egyptian sarcophagus – will they find a body, will they find treasure – you can imagine the excitement building it must have been an extraordinary moment.

On the morning of January 18th 1898, Peppe and his men went down into the shaft. This was the moment they had been waiting for.

The huge lid, weighing nearly a quarter of a ton, was slid aside, and for the first time, Peppe was able to look inside.

He waved his workers back to give himself room and began to remove what he found.

Charles Allen – Consultant
Charles - We know from family accounts that William Peppe reached down into the box and produced a water pot – I suspect a great sense of anti climax.

Heres an ordinary little water pot as you might find in India today, so he would have handed that to his foreman, looked down again and this time he comes up with a rather beautiful stoneware object – a jar of some sort with a top, ok a bit more excitement perhaps, hands it to his foreman…

The next pot seemed unremarkable, too. A low, stone jar, with a lid. This too was carefully wrapped in newspaper. But something much more remarkable was to come.

Charles Allen – Consultant
Charles – Now Its almost as if William Peppe has saved the best for last because the fifth time his hand comes out of the box he’s holding a beautiful shining crystal object, it has a beautiful lid on top in the shape of a fish and when he lifts the lid off you can imagine a gasp of astonishment because it glittered with jewels

and hundreds of little flowers made of precious stones – a most thrilling sight it must of been, and there’s more to come because when they actually looked inside the stone coffer they saw the entire floor was covered with glittering items, gold and little precious and semi precious jewels, I mean there were over 1600 individual items there. A unique offering of some sort had been laid across the floor of this great coffer – a complete mystery, but what an amazing moment for the Peppe family.

The discovery was unlike anything found in India before or since.

Charles Allen – Consultant
Charles – Now we also know from the family’s own account that one of William Peppe’s niece’s was there and she said to her uncle – Oh uncle Willy do dig deeper and he said no that’s the end of it which with hindsight was a terrible mistake.

Digging deeper might have answered questions that clouded this amazing find for the next 100 years. But Peppe did not dig deeper. And why should he?

What he had already found was little short of miraculous.

Willie Peppe was an estate manager, not an archaeologist. Little attention was paid to the details of which jewels had come from which of the jars.

More importantly, what everyone had overlooked in all the excitement, were the bits of bone and ash mixed in with the jewels.

Charles Allen – Consultant
Charles – well that same evening Peppe realised that these fragments must be human remains as to who they were or how old they might be of course he had no idea but he was very careful he gathered them all up and he put them inside 2 stone jars which he sealed and
…then he sat down to write 2 crucial letters.

Charles Allen – Consultant
Charles – and the first of the 2 letters went to a friend of his Vincent Smith, he was the local district officer based in Gorakhpur about 50 miles to the south and he was also a very keen antiquarian – indeed quite a specialist.
The second letter however was to a genuine archaeologist – the only archaeologist in the entire area and he was actually working about 20 miles to the north on an excavation and his name was Doctor Anton Fuhrer.

Charles Allen – Consultant
Charles – both these men wrote back almost immediately, both very excited by what he’d discovered and they both asked exactly the same question – Is there an inscription anywhere?

Peppe, in fact, had already found one.

Around the neck of one of the reliquary jars, was a line of spidery writing, consisting of 36 strange letters.

The letters themselves, let alone the language they represented, were completely unknown and indecipherable to Peppe.

But he painstakingly copied out the mysterious inscription, and scribbled a hasty note to his friend, the local district officer, Vincent Smith.

Charles – Now quite amazingly this little scrap of paper has survived.

Charles Allen – Consultant
Charles – You can see that Willie Peppe’s very carefully copied the characters on the urn and then underneath it you can see that Vincent Smith has given his first transcription of what it might mean, Ya salsani nidasi budhasa and then if you turn this little scrap of paper over on the back you find Vincent Smiths reply and it begins ‘the relics appear to be those of the Buddha himself’. hard to imagine what must have been going through Peppe’s mind when he saw that – this is mind blowing stuff.

Mind blowing indeed. No relics of the Buddha – dead for almost two and a half thousand years - had ever been found.

If Peppe had located them, it was a discovery of huge importance – akin to finding a piece of the true cross.

Charles - Fuhrer’s response was just as enthusiastic. He wrote back ‘Your shrine contains real relics of Lord Buddha’

Within weeks, Dr. Fuhrer – in his role as official archaeologist for much of Northern India - was on his way to see Peppe – a visit that would have dire consequences.

No one knew it yet, but Dr. Fuhrer was a fraud.

Charles Allen – Consultant
Charles - The enigmatic Dr. Anton Fuhrer, Roman Catholic priest turned reverend turned amateur curator, turned bogus Sanskritist turned professional archaeologist – I spent years trying to understand this man and years trying to find a photograph and the best I’ve been able to come up with, there’s one that shows him at the scene of one of his only digs and you can see him standing by a statue and the other one here he is at Piprahawa and he’s standing with William Peppe but in both those pictures he’s a kind of shadowy figure and really that’s the shadow that he casts over the Piprahwa stupa excavation.

An unsuspecting Peppe met Dr. Fuhrer at Piprahwa 4 weeks or so after the find… Soon a scandal would surround Fuhrer.

The German archaeologist had sold bogus Buddha relics, falsified numerous reports and, worst of all, had faked at least one ancient inscription.

He resigned before he could be fired.

In its capital in Calcutta, India’s British Government faced its own scandal. Dr. Fuhrer, after all, was one of their most senior archaeologists.

Charles Allen – Consultant
Charles -The reaction from the government was one of embarrassment – what on earth are we going to do?
The first thing they did was to try and destroy all of his records – they were patently bogus – the best thing to do was to quite simply wipe them out, then they had the problem of Piprahwa, now here had been discovered not only some wonderful JEWELS but also some actual bones and ashes – I think the immediate response was let’s get them out of the country as fast as we can….

The government saw an opportunity to kill 2 birds with one stone. They’d long wanted to ingratiate themselves with the neighbouring state, Siam.

So they formally presented the Piprahwa ashes and bones to Siam’s Buddhist King, Rama V scoring a diplomatic victory – and brushing the affair under the carpet before the Fuhrer scandal could boil over.

But where did that leave Peppe, and his extraordinary find?

Charles Allen – Consultant
Charles - The suspicion had to be that Dr. Fuhrer had interfered in some way with the Piprahwa excavation – he had the opportunity perhaps to go into the excavation itself, go down to the coffer – perhaps even put some items in there, or even conspired with Mr Peppe, perhaps even conspired with the other officials.
Some gigantic hoax, ….but the key conspiracy theory involves the Piprahwa inscription. The basis of that theory is that Dr Fuhrer had the opportunity and the expertise to fake it himself.

Over a century later, that conspiracy theory has never been entirely disproved.

The crucial piece of evidence is here in Calcutta, stored in the city’s museum: the original inscribed Piprahwa urn.

Stone cannot be carbon dated; nor can the inscription. But, for the right expert, there are vital clues in the text itself.

Charles Allen – Consultant
Charles – Now I’m hoping that waiting for me at the museum will be Professor Harry Falk, now he is the world’s leading authority on ancient Indian languages – we’ve corresponded but I have never met him so I have no idea what’s going to happen.

Harry Falk is a professor at Germany’s oldest institute of Indology in Berlin.

Charles – Harry, it must be Harry..

Harry – This must be you.

He’s been studying ancient Indian languages for more than 40 years.

What will his verdict be on the possible involvement of fellow German, Anton Fuhrer?

Charles – So now here we are into the holy of holies

Harry – Oh there it is.. Look at this Charles..

Charles – This is wow, wow, wow – I’ve been looking at pictures of this for 6 years Harry – What strikes me as how clear the writing is how each character has been clearly defined

Charles – So Harry you’ve been staring at this for a long time – is this a fake?

Harry – I can definitely say this is not a fake,

Charles – How can you say that?

Harry – The script is absolutely authentic, the object is authentic, the language is the language of that time and that area of India.

Charles – Now the obvious perpatrator is Dr Fuhrer – now surely he could of done this?

Harry – well yes he was employed as an archaeologist um but his knowledge of Sanskrit was deficient, the text uses vocabulary like Nidhani which is not found at any other place.

Charles – Harry that unusual word you used there, what’s the significance of that?

Harry – The term is Nidhani and it means container in a neutral sense, it is only found on this casket, no other place.

Charles – so in other words it would have been very unusual for Fuhrer to have picked upon this very obscure word?

Harry – Uh yes since Fuhrer was a not so skilled Sanskritist to say it mildly, um he would have copied terms from other reliquaries and not coined the term on his own – everything surpasses the capacities of Dr Fuhrer immensely.

Charles – So it is a genuine and unique inscription?

Harry – absolutely yes

Harry Falk – Professor Harry - su kit tim had tin amp sab ah kin i can nam sapupujhuj and then he ran out of space and he added 2 letters on top of it that say yenan

Charles – now for me Harry what does that say?

Harry – This reliquary, which is the reliquary of the Buddha, the lord of the Shaquia clan in the Terai

Charles – so Harry you’re absolutely confident that this reliquary contained the remains of the Buddha.

Harry – yes we can be absolutely confident because the text says, - buddisa selile makhavate - these are the relics of the Buddha – the lord.

So the world expert is convinced that the vital inscription is genuine – clearing the name of Willie Peppe.

But now, a deeper mystery emerges.

According to Harry Falk, the script used for the inscription didn’t exist when the Buddha died.

And the only comparable urns are from long afterwards, too.

Charles Allen – Consultant

Harry Falk – Professor

Charles – So Harry your confident this urn contained the remains of the Buddha but it does not date from the time of the Buddha, it dates from a century and a half perhaps after the Buddha.
Would you agree with that?

Harry – this is absolutely correct. Yes.

So how can it be that an urn that claims to have contained the remains of the Buddha was made at least 150 years after he died?

The answer to that question lies back in time, around 2300 years before Peppe made his find… at the time of the Buddha himself.

How did an ordinary man of flesh and blood start a world religion? How and where did he die? And how might his remains have ended up in the tomb Peppe found?

Charles Allen – Consultant
Charles – these are some delightful paintings of the Buddha – the life of the Buddha which you see depicted in Janakpuri folk art, and when you look at images like this it’s very hard to remember that this is a real person – but the fact is that the Buddha was a real person of flesh and blood, in fact we know as much about him as we know about Jesus Christ or indeed the prophet Muhammad, he lived in the Gangetic plains of the fifth century BC, he was probably born about 500 and he probably died about 410 BC.

The Buddha was born in Lumbini, not far from Piprahwa. He was raised a royal prince – but in his early 30’s he fled the luxury of the palace, and witnessed human suffering, old age, illness and death for the first time.

When he saw an old hermit at prayer, he rejected his former life, and became a hermit himself.

For 6 years he lead a life of extreme denial earning himself a new name - ‘Sakyamuni’ – ‘Holy Man of his own clan - the Sakyas’.
Then he came to the place that would bring him to enlightenment - Bodghaya.

When Buddha first came here, it was nothing but trees and jungle.
But over the centuries, Bodghaya has grown into a great holy site - as sacred as Mecca or Jerusalem.

Charles Allen – Consultant
Charles – It really very humbling to think this for millions and millions of Buddhists, this is the centre of their universe and that there are people here from Tibet, from China, from Burma, from Thailand, from Sri Lanka and indeed foreigners from the west as well, and there is a very real sense of spirituality here which I find very, very moving. This is epicentre of the Buddhist faith and of course everyone knows of Bodghaya but whoever has heard of Piprahwa and yet it could be hugely significant within the world of Buddhism.

At the heart of this holy site is the Bodhi tree. Meditating here, Buddha finally understood the causes of human suffering, and attained ‘enlightenment’.

And so a new religion was born: Buddhism.

In his footsteps the pilgrims still walk – two and half thousand years later.

Here at Bodhgaya, the Buddha transcended time, entering an eternal present, without future or past….

For Bhante Piyapala Chakma, a descendent of the Buddha’s Sakya clan it is this ‘eternal present’ that gives Buddha his power.

Bhante Piyapala Chakma – Buddhist Monk Bhante – when he was born in Lumbini he was born just ordinary person who sometime used to live in the past or in the future, not in the present – after he became enlightened under the Bodhi tree then he started living exactly in the present moment the thing is that the differences in an ordinary person and a person of enlightenment like the Buddha, that’s Buddha lives only in the present moment, don’t live in the past and don’t live in the future, but on the other hand an ordinary person live either in the past or in the future not in the present.

At around the age of 80, Buddha set out on his final journey…back to his homeland, close to Piprahwa…

His route was marked later by memorial stupas and stone columns….

… at the site where he delivered his last sermon…

… and at another where he turned back the crowds and continued with just his close disciples.

60 miles short of Lumbini, at Kushinagar, he lay down between 2 trees that suddenly flowered out of season, and died…

This huge statue at Kushinagar marks the spot where he experienced what Buddhists call the ‘final extinguishing.’

But it’s what happened after his death that provides vital clues to locate his true burial place.

[ALTERNATE VERSION: But it’s what happened after his death that provides vital clues to answer the Piprahwa mystery.]

Charles Allen – Consultant
Charles – As soon as the Buddha had died his body was cremated. now over the years he gathered a very large following so there was an almighty squabble because everybody wanted a share of his remains and this could only be resolved when it was decided that the remains should be divided into 8 portions which would go to 8 kings including the Sakya family – members of his own Sakya clan.

The inscription states that the Piprahwa urn contained this precious Sakya family portion…

Since Piprahwa is at the heart of Sakya territory, Buddha’s homeland,
was it possible that Peppe had found this original burial site of Buddha’s remains ? The only one of the 8 portions to be found?

Perhaps… But that original burial would have been simple; the bones and ashes laid in the ground with flowers, buried under a mound of earth, nothing like the tomb that Peppe had discovered.

So even if the fragments of bone and ash belonged to the Buddha, the elaborate tomb must have been created later by someone else.

So who could of built it, and when and why?

There’s one place that could hold the answers to these vital questions: a remarkable site at the very heart of India - Sanchi….nearly 500 miles away.

Charles Allen – Consultant Charles- There it is, very striking – we’re sweeping into Sanchi hills and there it rises out of the plain and right on the top is the great stupa with its magnificent carvings – one of the wonders of the world….’

With it’s huge stupa, 50 feet high, Sanchi is a monument to the spread of Buddhism.

Could it be that the man who first built this site was also responsible for the spectacular tomb that Peppe found?

Charles Allen – Consultant Charles –The carving here is monumental, it’s a miracle you might say that it’s survived 2000 years plus and here it is, and it’s the only one like it – it’s breath taking.

The monument was begun by a great emperor who converted his Indian Empire to Buddhism, 150 years after the Buddha died.

His name was Ashoka, and his conversion marked a dramatic personal transformation.

Charles Allen – Consultant
Charles -It’s impossible not to be moved by the character of Ashoka – here is an extremely violent unpleasant, ruthless emperor who seizes the throne by violence, kills all his brothers and then suffers some extraordinary change of heart and suddenly is converted completely becomes a new man and from that moment onwards Asia has a ruler who rules by principles of morality.

Charles Allen – He is the one who changes this minor cult into what is initially a national religion and then a world religion.

Three crucial facts suggest possible connections between Ashoka and Piprahwa…

Sanchi shows how Ashoka built hundreds of brick stupas all over India… how he dug up the original portions of Buddha’s remains….and redistributed them to these new sites.

Was Piprahwa among them?

A clue may be found in one of India’s earliest languages. Ashoka used a form of Sanskrit to create written edicts, first on rocks and later on a series of huge sandstone pillars. They were written in script called Brahmi, the very script used to make the Piprahwa inscription.

That inscription – according to Harry Falk – was made around 150 years after Buddha died – exactly when Ashoka reigned.

But if Ashoka did create the tomb at Piprahwa, if it did mark the burial site of Buddha’s own family – the Sakya clan, it would have been one of Buddhism’s holiest sites.

How could such a place possibly have been forgotten?

The answer to that question lies in what happened to Buddhism after Ashoka died.

Charles Allen – Charles – Ashoka wanted to transform his kingdom into a Buddhist country and in a sense that was a step too far.

These statues did not lose their heads by accident. Buddhism challenged the authority of India’s Hindu priests, who saw it as a heresy to be suppressed. And what the Hindu Priests started…Muslim invaders completed.

Over the centuries, Ashoka, the Brahmi script, Indian Buddhism itself, were all erased from memory, almost as if they had never been.

It wasn’t until the 1800’s that Buddhism was all rediscovered – mainly by British scholars.

Brahmi was deciphered.

Ashoka was identified.

So were places like the Sanchi monument…

And Piprahwa--among the last sites to be found--was unearthed by Willie Peppe in 1898.

All the evidence seems to point toward Ashoka as the man who created this remarkable tomb.

For world expert, Harry Falk, the huge sarcophagus is the clincher.

Harry Falk – Professor Harry – So this is 132, a little less

The dimensions of the chest seem to fit the typical measurements of Ashokan artwork.

Harry Falk – Professor The look, the feel, everything smacks of Ashokan perfectionism..

Harry Falk is convinced that the sarcophagus is made of sandstone from the same quarry Ashoka used for his pillars, and that it may even have been made at the same time as the nearby pillar at Lumbini.

Charles Allen – Charles – so does this mean that it’s possible to give this stone chest a date?

Harry – This should have been done when Ashoka was in Lumbini and then in that area, that means around his 20th reginal year which comes down to 245 BC, roughly.

Charles – You’ve given me a very specific date Harry, highly unusual.

Such a precise date is a breakthrough. But a vital question remains.

Did Ashoka choose Piprahwa because it was the original burial place of Buddha’s remains by his own Sakya family?

If Peppe had dug deeper, as his niece suggested in 1898, he might have found the answer.

But, many years later someone else did.

It was 1971. The excavator this time was not a British colonial but a young Indian archaeologist, K.S Srivastava.

His daughter, Mridula, recalls how it all began.

Mridula Srivastava - contributor
Ms Srivastava – Well actually when my father started excavation in 1971 – we just ask him, with what intentions you are doing this?
He said that um I want to do something which no one has done – something which will stand in my name.

Srivastava was convinced that the chamber where Peppe had found the sarcophagus wasn’t at ground level and that there might be something beneath it.

Peppe’s excavation had long since been filled in, so Srivastava had to go down through the whole stupa again, from the top.

Ms Srivastava – Every month when he used to come back to the headquarters, my brother, myself and my sister – we used to just keep waiting at the door for him.
As soon as he started climbing the stairs you say poppa did you get anything and everytime he used to say no, not this time – we could see the tention and worry on my fathers face, but ultimately in 72 when he got the relic caskets and he came to Putna and we asked poppa did you get something? He said oh yes.. I have done it!!

And he had. Just below Peppe’s find, he located an earlier burial...

Two small chambers, each with a soapstone casket and some broken redware dishes.

Srivastava was convinced that this find was from the time of the Buddha himself.

For Charles Allen, it’s the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle, suggesting that this lower site was the original Sakya burial place, and that Buddha’s ashes were moved from here to the elaborate new tomb above – just as the inscription said.

Charles – When Peppe comes along and he finds this huge great box – we’re talking about a different era, somebody has come along and disturbed the original ashes –
And then he’s added his own particular tribute – his offering of all these wonderful jewels.

Charles – And we know that that person is almost certainly Ashoka because this great box was Ashokan.
The writing almost certainly added to that inscription is from the time of Ashoka.

Charles – Now I can’t tell you how relieved I feel because when I set out this journey I had no idea if we would come up with real answers but we have– I’m pretty excited by it frankly.

Charles - I can now go back to England and tell Neil Peppe that his grandfather is not a liar, that the inscription is genuine, not only that but I can say that the jewels he possesses are indeed genuine

Neil – I can hardly believe it,
It’s a fantastic ending.

But Charles Allen has done far more than clear the name of one man.
For nearly 400 million Buddhists worldwide, he has confirmed that Piprahwa is, in all likelihood, the very place where the Sakya’s buried their holy clansman and where the Emperor Ashoka later built a magnificent tomb to give honour to the Lord Buddha himself.

END