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Piprahwa Stupa (India)

Buddhist Religious Structure in India

By

Wat Saket (Thailand)

The relics (cremated remains) of the Buddha found at Piprahwa were placed at Wat Saket in Thailand in the early 1900s.

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Author Charles Allen examines original jewels from Piprahwa Stupa

Author Charles Allen examines original jewels from Piprahwa Stupa

Courtesy of © Icon Films / Lorne Kramer

The Stupa of Piprahwa, in the Basti region of Uttar Pradesh state of northwestern India very near the border with Nepal, is a large round mudbrick structure which is believed to have been built by the Sakya clan to retain some of the ashes of their clansman, Sakyamuni, Siddhartha Gautama, the fifth and most famous historical Buddha.

Piprahwa is named after the village of Piprahwa, which itself is believed by some scholars to be the site of the Sakyan capital city of Kapilavastu. During the 19th and early 20th century, the stupa was part of Birdpor, the estate of the British-colonial Peppe family. One of the sons of the family, William Claxton Smith, is credited with the discovery and initial excavation of Piprahwa stupa.

Chronology

  • Phase III: At an unknown date, the second stupa was raised in height, squaring of the base
  • Phase II: Second, much larger stupa built by Ashoka during the 3rd century BC
  • Phase I: First stupa built by the Sakyas immediately after the cremation of Buddha at Kushinagar, ca. 510 BC

History and Archaeology

According to historical reports, when Gautama Buddha died in 510 BC, his remains were cremated and sent to eight different royal families. One of the families that received part of the Buddha's remains (called relics) was that of the Buddha himself: the Sakyas. The first phase of the stupa at Piprahwa was built by the Sakyas to inter their portion of the remains. This phase consisted of a circular mudbuilt adobe structure measuring 38.9 meters (127 ft) in diameter and .9 m (3 ft) high. Contemporary ash deposits believed to be of the Buddha have been found at Sravasti, Rajagriha, Vaisali and Kausambi.

The second phase is believed to have been built by King Ashoka, who, 250 years after the Buddha died, excavated the eight locations and parceled out more of the remains, then enlarged the existing stupas and built many more. The second phase of the Piprahwa stupa was built of mud bricks made with rice-straw and laid in clay mortar in concentric circles. The base measured 35 m (116 ft) in diameter, and 6.7 m (22 ft) in height.

Relics of the Buddha

According to excavator W.C. Peppe, at the base of the stupa was a massive sandstone coffer measuring ~13x8x6 meters, and weighing ~1500 pounds (680 kilograms). Within the coffer were found five small jars, three soapstone vases, one soapstone box and one crystal bowl with a handle in the shape of a fish. There were also several wooden vessels, which had deteriorated.

Inside the jars were several pieces of burned human bone, along with ~1,600 small ornaments, figurines in the shapes of birds and humans, gold beads, silver wire, stars and flowers in silver and gold, pearls, Buddhist tridents, pyramids, and a huge array of drilled beads of red and white carnelian, beryl, garnet, pink and purple amethyst, yellow, green and purple topaz, coral, ivory and crystal.

The Inscription

One of the steatite jars within the chest held a Prakrit (Pali) inscription, which read "this is the relic deposit of the Lord Buddha, endowment of Sakyas, brothers with sisters, sons and offspring". This has been interpreted to mean that the ashes were the Sakya's portion of the Buddha's relics, although there remains a controversy about its authenticity. The jar definitely post-dates the life of the Buddha: but it is of the style, and written in the language that fits Asoka's reign.

Discovery and Excavation

In January 1898, the stupa was opened by Peppé, who found the large limestone chest containing four steatite urns and a crystal vessel containing numerous small jewels, gold-leaf objects and fragments of cremated human bone. In 1898, the stupa and the surrounding structural remains were surveyed and tested by Babu Purna Chandra Mukherji.

In 1971, excavations of the stupa were led by K. M. Srivastava of the Archaeological Survey of India. Srivasta continued the investigations below the level of the Asoka period burial and found two mud brick chambers, each 82x80x37 centimeters (33x32x15 inches). Inside each chamber was a soapstone casket and several jars, one of which contained charred bones. Srivastava believed, and most scholars agree that this is the original burial of the Buddha's remains by the Sakya families.

Eventually, the bone fragments from the first excavations were sent to the king of Siam, where the head of the orthodox Buddhist community was situated. In 1900, a representative of King Chulalongkorn of Siam traveled to Gorakhpur where the relics were presented to him. The relics were enshrined at Wat Saket (Golden Mount) in Bangkok.

Sources

This article was intended as background for PBS Secrets of the Dead video, "Bones of the Buddha". It is a part of the About.com guide to the Archaeology of Buddhism, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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