The Buddha (also called Siddhartha Gautama or Shakyamuni), was an Axial age philosopher who lived and gathered disciples in India between about 500-410 BCE. His life renouncing his wealthy past and preaching a new gospel led to the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia and the rest of the world-but where was he buried?
Key Takeaways: Where is the Buddha Buried?
- When the Axial age Indian philosopher Buddha (400-410 BCE) died, his body was cremated.
- The ashes were divided into eight parts and distributed to his followers.
- One part ended up in his family's capital city Kapilavastu.
- The Mauryan king Asoka converted to Buddhism in 265 BCE and further distributed the Buddha's relics throughout his realm (essentially the Indian subcontinent).
- Two candidates for Kapilavastu have been identified-Piprahwa, India and Tilaurakot-Kapilavastu in Nepal, but the evidence is not unequivocal.
- In one sense, the Buddha is buried at thousands of monasteries.
Death of the Buddha
When the Buddha died at Kushinagar in the Deoria district of Uttar Pradesh, the legends report that his body was cremated and his ashes were divided into eight parts. The parts were distributed to eight communities of his followers. One of those parts was said to have been buried in his family's burial plot, in the Sakyan state capital city of Kapilavastu.
About 250 years after the Buddha's death, the Mauryan king Asoka the Great (304-232 BCE) converted to Buddhism and built many monuments called stupas or topes all over his realm-reportedly there were 84,000 of them. At the base of each, he enshrined splinters of relics taken from the original eight parts. When those relics became unavailable, Asoka buried manuscripts of sutras instead. Almost every Buddhist monastery has a stupa in its precinct.
At Kapilavastu, Asoka went to the family's burial place, excavated the casket of ashes and buried them again beneath a large monument in his honor.
What's a Stupa?Ananda Stupa and Asokan pillar at Kutagarasala Vihara, Vaishali, Bihar, India. Casper1774Studio / iStock / Getty Images Plus
A stupa is a domed religious structure, an enormous solid monument of fired brick built to enshrine relics of the Buddha or commemorate important events or places in his life. The earliest stupas (the word means "hair knot" in Sanscrit) were built during the spread of the Buddhist religion in the 3rd century BC.
Stupas are not the only type of religious monument constructed by early Buddhists: sanctuaries (griha) and monasteries (vihara) were also prominent. But stupas are the most distinctive of these.
Where is Kapilavastu?
The Buddha was born at the town of Lumbini, but he spent the first 29 years of his life at Kapilavastu before he renounced his family's wealth and went off to explore philosophy. Today there are two main contenders (in the mid-19th century there were many more) for the now-lost city. One is the town of Piprahwa in the Uttar Pradesh state of India, the other is Tilaurakot-Kapilavastu, in Nepal; they are about 16 miles apart.
To figure out which set of ruins was the ancient capital, scholars rely on the travel documents of two Chinese pilgrims who visited Kapilavastu, Fa-Hsien (who arrived in 399 CE) and Hsuan-tasang (arrived 629 CE). Both said the city was near the slopes of the Himalyas, between the Nepalese lower ranges near the western bank of the Rohini river: but Fa-Hsien said it was 9 miles west from Lumbini, while Hsuan Tsang said it was 16 miles from Lumbini. Both candidate sites have monasteries with adjacent stupas, and both sites have been excavated.
Piprahwa was opened in the mid-19th century by William Peppé, a British landowner who bored a shaft into the main stupa. Some 18 feet below the top of the stupa, he found a massive sandstone coffer, and inside it were three soapstone caskets and a crystal casket in the shape of a hollow fish. Inside the crystal casket were seven granulated stars in gold leaf and several tiny paste beads. The coffer contained many broken wooden and silver vessels, figurines of elephants and lions, gold and silver flowers and stars, and lots more beads in a variety of semi-precious minerals: coral, carnelian, gold, amethyst, topaz, garnet.Author Charles Allen examines original jewels from Piprahwa Stupa. Courtesy of © Icon Films / Lorne Kramer
One of the soapstone caskets was inscribed in Sanskrit, which has been translated as "this shrine for the relics of the Buddha… is that of the Sakyas, the brethren of the Distinguished One," and also as: "of the brethren of the Well-famed One, together with (their) little sisters (and) together with (their) children and wives, this (is) a deposit of relics; (namely) of the kinsmen of Buddha, the Blessed One." The inscription either suggests it contained relics of the Buddha himself, or those of his kinsmen.
In the 1970s, archaeologist K. M. Srivastava of the Archaeological Survey of India followed up on earlier studies, after coming to the conclusion that inscription was too recent to be that of the Buddha, made no earlier than the 3rd century BCE. In the stupa below the earlier levels, Srivastava found an earlier soapstone casket filled with charred bones and dated to the 5th-4th centuries BCE. Excavations of the area found more than 40 terracotta sealings marked with the name Kapilavastu in deposits near the monastery ruins.
Archaeological investigations in Tilaurakot-Kapilavastu were first undertaken by P. C. Mukhurji of the ASI in 1901. There were others, but the most recent was in 2014-2016, by a joint international excavation led by British archaeologist Robin Coningham; it included an extensive geophysical survey of the region. Modern archaeological methods require minimal disturbance of such sites, and so the stupa was not excavated.
According to new dates and investigations, the city was established in the 8th century BCE and abandoned in the 5th-10th centuries CE. There is a large monastery complex built after 350 BCE near the Eastern Stupa, one of the main stupas still standing, and there are indications that the stupa might have been enclosed by a wall or circulatory path.
So Where is Buddha Buried?
The investigations are not conclusive. Both sites have strong supporters, and both clearly were sites visited by Asoka. One of the two may very well have been the site where the Buddha grew up-it is possible that the bone fragments found by K. M. Srivastava in the 1970s did belong to the Buddha, but maybe not.
Asoka bragged that he built 84,000 stupas, and based on that, one could argue that therefore the Buddha is buried in every Buddhist monastery.
Sources and Further Reading
- Allen, Charles. "The Buddha and Dr. Führer: An Archaeological Scandal." London: Haus Publishing, 2008.
- Coningham, R.A.E., et al. "Archaeological Investigations at Tilaurakot-Kapilavastu, 2014-2016." Ancient Nepal 197-198 (2018): 5-59.
- Peppé, William Claxton, and Vincent A. Smith. "The Piprahwa Stupa, Containing Relies of Buddha." The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (July 1898) (1898): 573-88.
- Ray, Himanshu Prabha. "Archaeology and Empire: Buddhist Monuments in Monsoon Asia." Indian Economic & Social History Review 45.3 (2008): 417-49.
- Smith, V.A. "The Piprahwa Stupa." The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland October 1898 (1898): 868-70.
- Srivastava, K. M. "Archaeological Excavations at Piprahwa and Ganwaria." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 3.1 (1980): 103-10.
- ---. "Kapilavastu and Its Precise Location." East and West 29.1/4 (1979): 61-74.