Monday, July 3, 2017

Piprāhwā Buddha Relics: Restoring from the Museum to the Place of its Origin

In 18th and 19th century CE, there was a trend in the Indian subcontinent of cursory digging at ancient mounds in the hope of finding treasure or to simply retrieve bricks for using as building material. In many incidences, cursory digging led to important discoveries. One such interesting incident is the discovery of Buddha’s Śarira (body relics) in 1898 from a small place called Piprāhwā. Piprāhwā is a small village in the Terai region (lowland region) that lies south of the outer foothills of the Himalayas, the Siwālik Hills, and north of the Indo-Gangetic Plain. In 1898, a British landowner, William Claxton Peppé (1852-1937) excavated a large mound on his estate in Piprāhwā, close to India’s border with Nepal, which turned out to be a Buddhist brick stūpa.
Excavated remains of Piprāhwā Relic Stūpa
Inside the mound, Peppé discovered a damaged soapstone casket a depth of 10 ft, and some beads, crystals, gold ornaments and cut stars scattered around it. Further below, at a depth of 18 ft, he discovered a large, high quality hard sandstone coffer 2.5 ft in height, 2 ft in width and three-quarters of a ton in weight. The sandstone coffer had five caskets containing bone, ashes and more than a thousand pieces of jewels. One of the caskets had an ancient inscription of thirty-seven characters dated to the 2nd century BCE. The language of the inscription was mix of Māgadhī and Pāli. It read: Sukiti-bhatinaṁ sabhagiṇikanaṁ sa-putadalanaṁiyaṁ salila-nidhane Budhasa bhagavate sakiyanaṁ. The meaning of this inscription became a subject of debate because in 19th century, Pāli was still a newly discovered language.

Sandstone coffer discovered by Peppé, presently kept at Kolkata Museum.                          Pic @ Biswarup Ganguli

Five caskets containing Relics and Jewels discovered inside sandstone coffer
One of the sandstone casket (reliquary) with inscriptions from 2nd century BCE
Inscriptions from the sandstone casket (reliquary)

Scholars like Silvain Lévi (1863-1935) and John Fleet (1847-1917) were of opinion that the inscription meant that the relics were not of the Buddha but his Śākyan kinsmen who were killed by the Kosala King Virūḍhaka. According to them the whole inscription translated as: Here are the relics of the Śākyas, blessed brothers of the saint Buddha, with their sisters, their sons and their wives.

Eminent orientalists like J G Bühler (1837-1898), Harry Falk, Vincent Smith (1848-1920), Emile Senart (1847-1928) and Auguste Barth (1834-1916) were convinced that the inscription implied the relics belonged to the body of the Buddha. Auguste Barth translated the inscription as: This receptacle of relics of the blessed Buddha of the Śākyas (is the pious gift) of the brothers of Sukirti, jointly with their sisters, with their sons and their wives. Barth’s interpretation of Piprāhwā casket inscription continues to be the generally accepted interpretation.

We know that the Buddha belonged to the Śākya tribe, who were the rulers of the kingdom of Kapilavastu. In 6th century BCE, the King of Kapilavastu was Suddhodhana, the father of Prince Siddhārtha (the Buddha).  Following his Mahāparinirvāṇa at Kuśīnagara in 5th century BCE, the Buddha was cremated and his ashes were divided among the royals of eight kingdoms which were then preserved as Holy Relics in eight śarīra stūpas constructed over the Buddha’s Relics.  The Śākyans of the Kapilavastu were one of the eight claimants.

The findings at Piprāhwā are intriguing because although the inscriptions on the caskets establish that the caskets contain the Śākyans share of the Buddha’s body relics, the inscription also suggests that these caskets were enshrined in 3rd or 2nd century BCE, which was a few centuries later than 5th century BCE when the Śākyans received these Buddha relics. As mentioned earlier, the Śākyans were one of the eight recipients of the Buddha relics. They received and enshrined these relics in this stūpa in Piprāhwā in 5th century BCE. The inscription on the casket, however, belongs to 3rd or 2nd century BCE implying that the casket belongs to 3rd or 2nd century BCE and cannot be the original casket enshrined by the Śākyans in 5th century BCE.

In 1971, Shri K M Srivastava, Superintendent of the, Archaeological Survey of India undertook further excavation of the  stūpa at Piprāhwā believing that Peppé did not excavate till the bottom of the  stūpa and that there might be an older casket, enshrined by the Śākyans, buried still deeper in the  stūpa. Srivastava dug deeper into the stūpa than Peppé had done in 1898, and at a depth of 19.7 ft, uncovered two chambers (North and South) each containing a soapstone casket and two damaged redware dishes. Together, the two soapstone caskets contained twenty-two fragments of charred bones and ashes.

Sandstone relic casket, redware dishes and brick chamber discovered by Srivastava in 1971 (figure showing one of the two chambers)
Two sandstone caskets with twenty-two relic shards discovered by Srivastava in 1972

Peppé excavation of 1898 and Srivastava’s excavation of 1972 raised several questions:

1. Both Peppé and Srivastava discovered two soapstone caskets containing the relics. The two caskets discovered by Srivastava were identical to the two caskets discovered by Peppé. From this, it may be argued that the two set of caskets were made at the same time and at the same place. Assuming they were, question arises whether these two set of caskets were enshrined by the same person or by different persons. If they were enshrined by different persons then at what difference of time.

2. Both Srivastava’s and Peppé’s excavations yielded identical caskets but at different depths: Srivastava discovered them at the depth of 19.7 ft while Peppé discovered them at a depth of 18 ft. Assuming that the two set of caskets were enshrined by the same person, question arises that why were these caskets enshrined at different depths: could it be because they were enshrined at different times?

3. As mentioned in Aśokāvadāna, King Aśoka who ruled from Pāṭaliputra around 3rd century BCE collected the Buddha’s relics from seven of the original eight stūpas constructed over the Buddha’s relics and enshrined them in 84,000 stūpas throughout his realm of Jambudvīpa (Indian Subcontinent).  Considering that the Piprāhwā stūpa is one of the original eight relic stūpas, question arises whether Aśoka uncovered the Piprāhwā stūpa at all. Given that the two set of caskets discovered by Peppé’ and Srivastava were dated to 2nd century BCE and Aśoka belonged to the period of 3rd century BCE, it may be reasoned that Aśoka did not enshrine either of the two set of vases. Question arises then who enshrined these relics.

4. According to the inscription on the Peppé casket, the Buddha relics where the share of Śākyans which they received at Kuśīnagara in 5th century BCE. However, neither of the two set of caskets discovered by Peppé and Srivastava belonged to the Śākyans. Question arises then what happened to the relic casket enshrined by the Śākyans.

5. Srivastava discovered four redware dishes along with the soapstone casket in each of the brick chambers. While the soapstone caskets contained the relics, the redware dishes were empty and damaged.  Question arises as to what is the significance of the empty redware dishes found in the two chambers excavated by Srivastava.

6. The Chinese monk pilgrims Faxian (Fahien, 5th century CE)  and Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, 7th century CE) who visited important Buddhist pilgrimage places like Lumbīnī and places of Kanakmuni and Krakchunda in the kingdom of Kapilavastu surprisingly do not make a mention about the relic stūpa at Piprāhwā.  Considering that the relic stūpa at Piprāhwā was one of the eight original relic stūpas constructed over the body relics of the Buddha, question arises why neither Faxian nor Xuanzang mentioned about it.

  In his book The Buddha and Dr Führer, Charles Allen attempts to analyse the findings at  Piprāhwā and resolve some of the conflicting issues. According to Allen, excavations at Piprāhwā establish it as relic stūpa. Initially the stūpa was a simple interment site created by Śākyan in 5th century BCE for the one-eighth of the corporeal relics of the Buddha they were apportioned at Kuśīnagara. The stūpa was raised by piling up natural earth from the surrounding area.

The stūpa was then rebuilt and enlarged three times (three phases): phase I (3rd century BCE); phase II (2nd century BCE); and phase III (1-2nd century CE) (refer to chart-1).

Phase I (3rd century BCE): Three steps were taken to enlarge the stūpa. First, the stūpa was opened up and two chambers of burnt bricks were constructed at the centre of the mud stūpa- the site of the original pit where Śākyans had deposited the relics in 5th century BCE-for protecting the relic caskets. Second, the original reliquary deposited by the Śākyans in the 5th century BCE was removed and replaced by two redware dishes. The two redware dishes containing the relics were then covered with similar redware dishes.  Third, the original mud stūpa was covered with a brick stūpa.

According to Allen, the brick encasing of the stūpa and placing of the relics in redware dishes could be the work of Aśoka (3rd century BCE). Based on these evidences, Allen believes that Aśoka did uncover the Piprāhwā stūpa and replaced the original Śākyan relic vase with the redware dishes. Based on writings from Buddhist literature, it may be conjectured that Aśoka also removed a part of Piprāhwā relics for enshrining in the 84,000 stūpas that he constructed all over the Indian subcontinent.

Phase II (2nd century BCE): Allen further believes that a century after Aśoka first opened the stūpa and replaced the Śākyan relic casket with the redware dishes, the stūpa was opened again in the 2nd century BCE. Although there is no evidence to suggest who opened the stūpa the second time, Allen believes that it was some powerful king in India, possibly a descendant of the Aśoka. This king divided the relics of the two redware dishes kept in the two brick chambers into two parts. He placed one part of the relics in two specially created soapstone caskets which he finally enshrined in the two brick chambers, and carried away the second part with him. After removing the relics from the redware dishes, he did not remove the empty redware dishes but placed them in two chambers along with the two soapstone caskets. According to Allen, these were the two soapstone caskets and four redware dishes that were discovered by Srivastava in 1971 at the depth of 19.7 ft.

Allen writes that with intent to earn more merit, the king returned to the Piprāhwā stūpa a few years later. He restored the part the Buddha relics that he had carried away with himself a few years ago along with hundreds of pieces of fine jewels and precious stones. He placed the relics and jewels in four soapstone caskets and a crystal vase put them all in a large sandstone coffer and deposited the coffer in the stūpa. This is the sandstone coffer containing the relic vases that was discovered by Peppé in 1898 at the depth of 18 ft. This king also further enlarged the stūpa.

Chart 1- Summary of Piprāhwā excavations and the finds
Phase III (1-2nd centuries CE): During this phase, which coincided with the Kuṣāṇ period, the stūpa was greatly enlarged reaching to a height of 6.35 m. A square base with niches was made. The Kuṣāṇ king who was in power at this time — either Kanishka or Huviska — did not disturb the relics enshrined in the stūpa. Instead, he donated a soapstone vase with jewels. This was the broken soapstone vase discovered by Peppé at the depth of 10 ft.

Based on a study of Allen’s writings, the only explanation for why both Faxian and Xuanzang do not mention about the stūpa at Piprāhwā seems to be that the stūpa and the monastery sites were probably abandoned in the 2nd or 3rd centuries CE and became obscure by the time Faxian and Xuanzang visited its surroundings.

The relics and jewels discovered by Peppé were kept with him for more than a year at his house at Birdpur. The discovery of the corporeal relics of the Buddha was a very important news. In the months following their discovery, many people including eminent monks visited Birdpur to see and venerate the relics. During my visit to Piprāhwā on 17th April, I enquired about Peppé’s house at the Birdpur market. In the market, a boy showed me to a retired schoolteacher named Shri Ram Charan Yadav. Shri Yadav shared enthusiastically his memories of the excavations by Srivastava from 1971 to 1975. The Piprāhwā stūpa site is approximately 10 kms from Birdpur.
A part of the Piprāhwā Jewels currently in possession of Peppé family

Shri Yadav recalled that he and his friends often escorted Srivastava and his colleagues to Piprāhwā site on their bicycles because the roads were not good at that time and only a few horse carts could reach the Piprāhwā site. Shri Yadav, his friends and I took a walk to Peppé’s house popularly known as the ‘Banglā’. This Bangla — Peppé’s private bungalow — became a government inspection building in 1952 after the abolition of the Zamindari system. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama stayed at this bungalow twice: the first time in 1956, and the second time in 1959 when he came for pilgrimage to Lumbīnī and Piprāhwā. Shri Yadav explained that the bungalow has changed a lot in the last twenty years. The beautiful woodwork of the bungalow was replaced with concrete, and the bungalow now serves as the office of the Irrigation Department of the Government of Uttar Pradesh. Shri Yadav felt that Peppé’s house is an integral part of the story of the Piprāhwā relics, and therefore, should be given the status of a heritage building.

Shri Ram Charan Yadav in front of Peppé’s banglā (house), Birdpur, now it is office of Irrigation Department 
Shri Ram Charan Yadav sharing how the beautiful woodwork in Peppé’s house is now replaced with concrete

A year after the discovery of the relics at Piprāhwā in 1899, Peppé offered the relics, jewels and caskets to the British Government of India. According to the Indian Treasure Trove Act of 1878, Peppé was given one-sixth of the finds (jewels). The sandstone coffer and caskets were deposited at the Indian Museum in Kolkata and the relics and jewels were offered to the King of Siam. The King of Siam offered a part of his portion of the relics and jewels to monasteries and temples all over the world. Relics from Piprāhwā currently reside in a number of locations except the place where they originally belong (refer to the chart 2). Shri Yadav and his friends believe that Piprāhwā relics belong to Piprāhwā and should be brought back to their home.

Chart 2- Summary of discovery of different relics and jewels and its present locations

The twenty-two pieces of bone fragments that were found in the two soapstone caskets discovered by Srivastava are currently locked away at National Museum in New Delhi. Shri Yadav feels that since these were enshrined in Piprāhwā for more than two thousand years before being carried to New Delhi, they should be restored, at least in part, to Piprāhwā. Shri Yadav’s view is noteworthy. Not the Piprāhwā relics only but almost all of the relics discovered in Indian subcontinent in last two centuries currently lie in museums under lock and key (refer to map 1). These relics are sacred object and should be accessible to everyone for worshiping. The ideal home for these relics, therefore, are the stūpa where they were originally enshrined.
Map 1- ‘Relics of Buddha’ discovered in India and their present location

The inscription on the casket containing the relics read that the relics of the Buddha were the belongings of Śākyans. The discovery of the Śākyans share of the Buddha relics at Piprāhwā suggested that Piprāhwā and its surroundings were an integral part of the kingdom of Kapilavastu. Government of India should not only restore the Piprāhwā relics back to Piprāhwā, but also integrate the sacred places associated with ancient kingdom of Kapilavastu that are on both sides of the border in India and Nepal and develop them under the banner of Kapilavastu Pilgrimage Circuit

Special Thanks to Aparajita Goswami


Allen, Charles; 2008, The Buddha and Dr Führer: An Archaeological Scandal (1st ed.). London: Haus Publishing.

Fleet, J.F; 1907, The Inscription on the Piprahwa Vase. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (Jan.), pp. 105-130, Cambridge University Press.

Srivastava, K. M; 1980, Archaeological Excavations at Piprahwa and Ganwaria and the Identification of Kapilavastu.  The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Volume 3, Number 1, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA.


subodh kumar singh said...

Well researched article

subodh kumar singh said...
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subodh kumar singh said...
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