Saturday, February 23, 2013

Peace Unearthed

As we were descending down from the Kathmandu to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, trailing the cloud of mist through rolling hills along the river valley and then plain of Terai, I was thinking of the spiritual journey to calm my body and soul.

Last year filled with trauma and turmoil. I was affected more by news of violence perpetuated by humans upon humanity; atrocity on innocent children, especially, was shocking. I was happy that the new year began with this promising journey for seeking peace and equanimity.

We were group of 10 students of Department of Nepali History, Culture and Archaeology at Tribhuvan University accompanied by teachers to involve in archeological works in Lumbini as part of practical assignment. We settled in spacious Korean Monastery located adjacent to magnificent Korean Temple. During our stay of some three weeks there, we walked to haat bazaar to buy vegetables, carried the food stuffs on our shoulders, cooked our own food and worked at the sites with great fun and diligent. We experienced overcast condition, the typical weather at this time of year in the region, during entire period with occasional sunshine and rain. Mist so dense it was difficult to recognize person sitting next. Chill ran through our spines. Monotonous wail of jackals behind the tall grass around the monastery every morning and evening was threatening. But all these did not diminish our spirit and enthusiasm.

Under the coordination of UNESCO, a three-year-project “Strengthening the Conservation and Management of Lumbini, the Birthplace of Lord Buddha, World Heritage Property”, was underway with aim to conserve the archaeological remains (Marker Stone, Nativity Sculpture, Ashoka Pillar); identify, evaluate and interpret Lumbini; review Kenzo Tange Master Plan for Sacred Garden; and establish integrated management plan for Lumbini. To achieve these objectives, team of national and international archaeologists and experts were working in tandem. We students were basically assisting them in their work to gain practical knowledge and skill in the field of archeology. There were local workers as well to help us.

 Dr Chris introducing the sites selected for excavation this season

Professor Robin Coningham, vice-chancellor at Durhan University, gave site induction and also presented the progress of Lumbini Project. Excavation primarily is focused on finding the earliest levels of occupation and their relationship with later occupations. Previous excavations have revealed that the important shrine existed before Ashokan brick temple in the Maya Devi Temple. This season’s works continued to investigate the character and development of these structures. Archaeologists would study the development of these early cultural sequences in other sites as well.

Applying scientific tools and techniques, team of experts carried out excavations, auguring, conservation, geophysical investigations, and tourism survey in different sites. We were split into 5 groups comprising 2 students in each group and assigned in different sites working for 4 days in each site to diversify our knowledge. We involved in excavations and explorations at Nursery Well Site, Maya Devi Temple, Monastery Site and Helipad Site, tourism survey in the Sacred Garden and geophysical investigations in Lumbini core areas and nearby villages.

We learned from basic: how to use trowel, measure the trench and take photograph of section. Even many technical terms were new for us. As we were on the track of the learning process, we enjoyed our work. The curiosity arises in anticipation of finding important artifacts and it hits the climax when actually you find one and the day of your hard work is paid off.  

 Dr Keir briefing the guests about the progress at Nursery Well Site

The excavation sites were selected on the basis of geological survey conducted previous seasons. That survey had revealed possible pits around the ancient well located some 400m southwest of the Sacred Garden. We excavated the area immediately north-east of the well over the geographical anomalies identified last year. One of the tasks is to find the dating of well construction. The empirical design of the well construction is fascinating. The well was made of large curved bricks that had been constructed as a single ring, then marked and cut before firing. Similar markings on the interior face of each brick in a row indicate which row each brick belong to. Likewise the decorative symbols on the upper surface (same symbol on two bricks adjacent to each other) indicate which brick connects with which within that row. We found many red ware pottery pieces and broken bricks. We also did the auguring around the well to determine the extension of human activity. It was really great to work with friendly colleagues in perfect harmony with nature along with masala tea brought in small plastic glass from nearby village. This is why I love field work.

Excavations at two trenches in Maya Devi Temple. People paying homage to Marker Stone and Nativity Sculpture

It was a heavenly experience to work inside the Maya Devi Temple filled with spiritual vibrations with eternal prayer of pilgrims who were circumventing inside the temple to pay their homage to Marker Stone and the Nativity Sculpture enshrined at center. Surely work can’t be better than this. Dr Chris informed us that excavations in first two seasons have found the Ashokan brickwork cut through earlier cultural activity at the site. Excavations this season would investigate the relationship of the Ashokan Temple to these earlier cultural horizons. We worked on C6 and C9 trenches from where we extracted the broken bricks, shreds of red ware pottery, northern black polished ware (NBP), charcoal, quartz and broken tiles. A 3D measurement of the important objects were also taken.

The visitor survey at the Sacred Garden intends to study the visitors’ impact in the Garden that would be helpful for designing the integrated management plan for Lumbini. Anouk instructed us how to fill the questionnaire sheets, first one is about the general information of the visitors and their plan in Lumbini. Second sheet is about visitors’ actual activities and time of stay in Sacred Garden that we had to secretly monitor and record on the sheet. We had to draw zigzag line along the map of the Sacred Garden on the sheet to indicate their movement around the Garden and inside the Maya Devi Temple. It was kind of awkward to follow visitors but luckily there are many trees and ruined monuments inside the Garden to hide ourselves to secretly spy upon their activities. It was interesting to observe that some people did not actually do what they had stated in the interview. I was amazed to see overwhelmingly large number of people of different races, colors and creeds visiting this holy place. This typifies the religious syncretism in the country.

Buddhi and Shreeram on auguring at Helipad Site

I worked only a day at Helipad Site, the lawn southeast of the Sacred Garden where we also did auguring around two trenches. These longitudinal trenches, 3 x 0.5m at eastern side of the lawn and 12 x 0.5m at northern side of lawn, bisect the potential walls running parallel under the ground, some brick structures were sticking out from the surface. The excavations aim to study the features of these walls.

 Students washing ceramics at pottery section

People found working at pottery section is less glamorous; on the contrary, I enjoyed up there in sense that it was a hub for all to get together to engage in gossiping and share their experiences during the break. Of course, we had occasional visit of uninvited visitors. One day, we saw krait snake sticking out just below the tinned roof with a gecko in its mouth that reminded me of sighting of python swallowing deer in dense jungle of Chitwan National Park a long ago. Local people believe that after swallowing its victim, python consumes bark of specific tree that help them to digest the bones. The story goes further: once a Tharu man consumed lots of bones along with meat and had problem of digesting. He went nearby jungle and ate a bit of same bark but suddenly his body shrank and he was rushed to health center.

We cleaned the artifacts brought from different sites, counted and weighed them before they were recorded in computer by Jen, in-charge of the pottery section. She was ever encouraging while we were processing huge quantity of ceramics of different shape, sizes and variety. We dealt with broken pieces of red ware, Proto NBP ware, NBP ware and cord impressed ware along with terracotta figurines, tiles, slag, quartz and bones. We also took photograph of important artifacts. These pottery pieces would help to determine the relative dating. For example, finding of Proto NBP ware indicates the era of 8th to 6th century BC.

Monastery Site surrounded by prayer flags to check unwanted attention from visitors

Eventually, when we moved to Monastery Site, immediately east of the Maya Devi Temple, the excavation work was almost finished as there appeared the natural soil along with seeping water at the depth of some 2m turning otherwise beautiful trench to swimming pool! Now there left the tedious job of drawing the section map that Armineh did immaculately. Before that, Professor Coningham took photos of the trench and Ian and Krista, geophysicists, took soil thin section samples and samples for OSL dating from the known contexts of the trench. Trenches in other sites were also in their final stages except the trenches in Helipad Site where work had been started late. As huge workforce was needed, most of people were dispatched to that site. However me and Bishnu, one of the local workers, were there helping Armineh because she needed “one worker and one Rupendra”. We took measurement of each brick sticking out of section (distance from the horizontal string fixed just above the trench and vertical string at the northeast corner) whilst Armineh drew the map. Presence of two postholes in this trench is the evidence of earliest occupation. There appeared four brick phases and a large circular shaped pit. Numerous pieces of Proto NBP Ware and NBP Ware were also extracted from the lowest level of this trench.

Now we need to interpret these findings, one of the bugbears of the archaeology. Diplomatic answer on this issue by the experts is understandable. However they know that there is evidence in hand to confirm the theories drawn from previous seasons.

During our stay in Lumbini, eminent scholars delivered invaluable lectures on varied topics to enhance our knowledge and understanding. Hari Rai, communication officer, Lumbini Development Trust (LDT), briefed us about the life history of historic Buddha, authenticity of Lumbini and significance of Lumbini Master Plan designed by Kenzo Tange in 1978. The Master Plan includes New Lumbini Village, Monastic Zone and the Sacred Garden that has been designed based on Buddhist philosophy. Peace seekers begin their journey from the Village, the worldly place, enter to Monastic Zone for spiritual purification and come to the Sacred Garden for enlightenment. Kosh Acharya, the director of the Lumbini Project, informed the objectives of the project, the scientific exploration and excavation methods and about the concept of development of Greater Lumbini encompassing three districts: Kapilvastu, the ancient capital of Sakya republic, Rupandehi, the birthplace of Buddha, and Nawalparasi, the natal town of Maya Devi. Professor Coningham delivered the presentation on his archaeological works in Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. This ethnographic study is significant in archaeology as the Buddhist architecture is the embodiment of the Buddhist philosophy. Basanta Bidari, chief archaeologist, LDT, talked about the archaeological significance of Tilaurakot that fulfills all the requirements to be a capital of ancient Kapilvastu.

Eastern gateway of ancient fort at Tilaurakot from where Buddha left worldly life

During the day-off, we went field visit to various archaeological sites in Kapilvastu. Kudan is the place where Suddhodana, father of Lord Buddha built the monastery for Buddha upon his returning to Kapilvastu first time after enlightenment. Prajapati, sister of Maya Devi, offered Kashaya Vastra to Buddha and Buddha ordained Rahula, his son, to monkhood in this monastery. Gotihawa is identified with the birthplace of Krakuchhanda Buddha where Emperor Ashoka erected the stone pillar and built a stupa to commemorate his visit. Tilaurakot which is about 28 km south from Lumbini is the capital of ancient Kapilvastu, the Shakya republic where Siddhartha Gautam spent 29 years. Archaeological remains in and around the area: the fortification wall with sophisticated gateways, structural complex at center, metal workshops, clearly depicts the picture of ancient capital. Niglihawa is believed to be the birthplace of Kanakmuni Buddha. Emperor Ashoka paid his homage at this site and erected the stone pillar with inscription on it.

Wide courtyard of building complex at Ganwaria

We also visited the two Buddhist sites in India. Pirahawa is about 1 km south from Indo-Nepal border. There is a magnificent stupa at the center of the huge complex which was constructed by the Shakya with the 1/8th part of Buddha’s relic that they received after the death of Buddha. Ganbariaya has huge square shaped building structure with wide courtyard at the center of this complex. There are many monasteries and votive stupas in surrounding areas.

Archaeological Survey of India claims that this place (Piprahawa and Ganwaria) is the capital of ancient Kapilvastu. The territory of ancient Kapilvastu might have extended up to present-day India but existing monuments and structures in Piprahawa and Ganwaria do not qualify the characteristics of the capital of 6th century BC. Massive and impressive stupas and monasteries complex, however, explicitly suggests this place to be Buddhist religious hub at ancient time.

Bina Ma'am putting oil on Sunita's head on Maghe Sangranti

We had to present our daily field report in the evening among colleagues and teachers but later it was discontinued due to lack of time in study because much time was consumed buying vegetables and cooking food. We utilized little time working and enjoying together in a group. We visited stupas and temples to meditate. We also celebrated Maghe Sankranti, the festival of Hindu. On this day, devotees generally go the confluence of rivers to worship. But, we observed the day by eating delicacies and putting oil on our head.

It was a great privilege to involve in such a significant archeological project in Lumbini to gain not only knowledge and skill on field archaeology but also better understanding of universal value of Lumbini. It is indeed a heaven on earth, the fountain of world peace. Being there, I got more than I asked for. I am still feeling the spiritual impulse in my hearts and mind.

(This article is based on “Field Report on Archaeological Works in Lumbini, the Birthplace of Buddha” submitted to Department of Nepali History, Culture and Archaeology, Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur. For more information on the project log on:

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