Crowning of the Budart Meditative Art Exhibition is the Piprahwa Relic of Buddha Sakyamuni – an archaeological object of immense historical and cultural value, which for millions of people in the world is a symbol and material embodiment of the highest meditative achievement.
Over a century ago, archaeologists made a discovery that shook the world. At the border of India and Nepal, near Piprahwa village, British landowner William Peppe excavated a stupa with the ashes of the historical Buddha Sakyamuni. Never before and never after was there an archaeological find so unequivocally associated with the life of a founder of one of the world’s major religions. The authenticity of the Piprahwa relics is verified by an inscription in ancient Brahmi characters and is acknowledged by the majority of archaeologists, historians, and scholars of Buddhism. For more than 300 million Buddhists worldwide these relics are sacred objects that convey the energy and the blessing of the Buddha.
Where do these relics come from? How did they resurface after many centuries of being hidden by the impenetrable jungle of the North India? What are the proofs of their authenticity?
The Piprahwa relics of the Buddha have a long and fascinating record that deserves its own story.
From the Depth of Centuries
Buddha Sakyamuni was born as Prince Siddhartha at the foothills of Himalayan mountains and was raised to become the king of the Sakya people. Having realized that impermanence and suffering are inseparable companions of human life, he abandoned his native city of Kapilavastu and embarked upon a difficult quest for the liberating knowledge of enlightenment. After years of wandering and spiritual search, Siddhartha finally attained Nirvana – the ultimate cessation of all suffering, and for the remaining forty-five years of his life he was teaching the path to enlightenment as Buddha Sakyamuni.
Within a few years of 480 B.C., on the full-moon day of May, the Buddha attained the final Nirvana. According to Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Buddha’s body was cremated at the funeral pyre, and his bones and ashes were divided between the rulers of eight kingdoms, including the relatives of the Buddha – Sakyas. In different parts of India, ten Great Stupas were erected: eight of them contained portions given to eight kings, and the other two – the urn in which relics were gathered and ashes of coal from the funeral pyre. For many generations of lay and monastic followers of the Buddha, these stupas were objects of veneration and important pilgrimage sites.
Centuries passed by, India was plunged into war and religious strife, and much of its cultural heritage was lost. By the end of the 12th century Buddhism was all but extinct in its birthplace, and many of its monuments – abandoned and forgotten. Time was not merciful to the native city of the Buddha either: Kapilavastu was consumed by the jungle together with the Great Stupa built by the Sakyas.
However, in the late nineteenth century, with the upsurge of interest in Oriental studies and archaeology, ancient history of India started to come to life. Several important monuments were found in North India, including the Ashokan pillar, which marked the birthplace of the Buddha – Lumbini. The discovery of the ancient city of Kapilavastu was anticipated to be next in line. These developments and the prospect of locating the historical cradle of Buddhism aroused curiosity of many archaeologists as well as amateurs pursuing antiquarian interests. William Claxton Peppe, a British landowner and a manager of several estates at the Nepalese border, turned his attention to one of the earth mounds on his property, near Piprahwa village, which could have been concealing an ancient stupa.
The Incredible Discovery
In 1898, after almost a year of removing soil and cutting through layers of bricks and mortar, Peppe's workers arrived at the base of the Piprahwa stupa, where they uncovered a stone coffer, “cut out of one solid piece of rock… in a perfect state of preservation with its sides very smoothly cut… all but polished”. Inside the coffer, William Peppe found five miniature vases containing multitudes of glittering pieces of jewellery made of gold and semi-precious stones: lotus flowers, stars, tridents, pyramids, drilled bids of various sizes and shapes, etc.
Apart from the treasure, there were fragments of bones and ashes originally placed in small wooden containers, which crumbled into dust. Peppe realized that he had found human relics and all the gems and gold ornaments were simply accompanying offerings. But who could command this much respect and veneration?
Peppe looked for an inscription and what he found was to turn a new page in the archaeological history of Buddhism:
“This shrine for relics of the Buddha, the August One, is that of the Sakya’s, the brethren of the Distinguished One, in association with their sisters, and with their children and their wives.”
Apparently, William Peppe discovered the relics of Lord Buddha himself – the portion, which was received by the Sakya clan and placed in one of the Great Stupas for worship and veneration. For the Western archaeology, this was one of the most important discoveries of the century, and many eminent Buddhists regarded it as no less than the return of the Buddha.
In view of the tremendous religious significance of this discovery, the British government offered a share of the relics of the Buddha to Rama V, the king of Siam and the only Buddhist Sovereign in the world. A share of the relics was also received by one of the most renowned Buddhist scholars of that time Venerable Sri Subhuti. The interest in Piprahwa relics has not diminished over the years, and at present, when public display of the relics was organized in 2015, approximately 2 million people came to pay homage in Sri Lanka and 8 million in India.
Now, for the first time in history, Piprahwa relics are to be displayed at the center of a meditative art collection. In a sense, this is a continuation of centuries-old tradition, according to which relics of the Buddha and his enlightened disciples are surrounded by the best artwork of the time. Each painting and sculpture included in the exposition is a portal into an artist’s meditation, reflecting unique qualities of his or her experience, but what brings them together is that they are marking steps of the journey to the same timeless goal– the light of the Buddha.