Buried with the Buddha

Posted on August 19, 2010


This article was originally printed in the Sunday Times on March 21, 2004.

Buried with the Buddha

For years, these tiny jewels lay forgotten in dusty boxes. Then one man made it his mission to unearth the truth about them: could they have been enshrined with the Buddha 2,500 years ago? Vicki Mackenzie investigates

Paul Seto

Paul Seto

Paul Seto was about to make the first of two astonishing discoveries. It was a Friday afternoon in June last year, and the general secretary of the Buddhist Society — one of the oldest Buddhist societies in Europe — was making a routine inventory, for insurance purposes, of all the artefacts at its London centre.

As Seto and Philip Trent, an antiques dealer, pored over the contents of a display cabinet, Seto, seated on the floor, noticed a shabby cardboard box hiding between the bottom shelf of the cabinet and its base. It would have been invisible to anyone standing. Inside the box were various paraphernalia, such as conference badges and medals, that had belonged to Christmas Humphreys, the British judge who founded the society in 1924. And among these items was a smaller cardboard box, about 3in square. Written on its lid, in a neat Victorian hand, were two sentences that sent Seto reeling: “Relics of Buddha. From the Piprawah Stupa, Birdpore Estate, Gourkhpur NWP, India. 1898.”

Carefully, he opened the box. Inside he found 12 compartments, each holding a tiny, exquisite object: eight-pointed flowers and beads made of sapphire,cornelian, amethyst, ruby and rock crystal, a tiny, pearl-like object, and a larger object that appeared to be three pearls fused into one.

“Everything stopped,” remembers Seto. “My first thought was, ‘It can’t be true!’ My second was, ‘What’s it doing here?’ Normally such an object would be in a venerated place, not in a cardboard box in a cupboard.” Could these items really have lain next to the Buddha’s mortal remains, as the label on their cardboard box suggested? If so, these exquisite jewels would be more than 2,500 years old. This would be the most exciting religious discovery since the Dead Sea Scrolls. For 300m Buddhists worldwide, it would be the equivalent of Christians finding a piece of the cross. And little did Seto know he was at the start of a quest that would lead him to yet more treasures.

Seto asked colleagues at the Buddhist Society about the box, but nobody had known of its existence. “This may be the earliest Buddhist archeology there is. There’s virtually nothing to compare it with. I feel a responsibility to every Buddhist in the world and every Buddhist who will come, to establish what these objects truly are, so they can be given the proper respect,” he says.

Searching for clues, he turned to the internet. Entering “Birdpore Estate 1898” into a search engine, he was directed to an article in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, written by one William Claxton Peppè in 1898: “The Piprahwa Stupa, containing relics of Buddha.” (Piprawah, as on Humphreys’ box, is an alternative spelling.) “That gave me the feeling I was onto something quite special.” But who was William Peppè? And how had these relics found their way to London?

An intriguing story unfolded as Seto pored over the Victorian documents. Buddhism had flourished in northern India until AD500 but, while continuing to gain adherents overseas, it gradually declined in the Buddha’s homeland under the pressure of competing religions. The Muslim conquest of India in the 12th century put the final nail in the coffin. Divorced from his geographical origin, for centuries the Buddha was viewed more as a mythical figure than a historical person. It was only with the coming of the Raj in the 19th century that archeological proof of his existence emerged. Those classically educated men cracked the holy language of Sanskrit and excavated monuments, temples, universities and tombs, all suggesting that the man who was Prince Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya-warrior clan, and later known as the Enlightened One, had lived, taught and died, at the age of 80, in India.

In 1895, Dr Alois Anton Führer, a German archeologist working for the Indian Civil Service, had found a stone pillar at Lumbini, in the foothills of the Himalayas in southwestern Nepal, which he claimed marked the Buddha’s birthplace. Then Peppè appeared in the frame. He was a British engineer, surveyor and manager of the Birdpore (now Birdpur) estate in northern British India, just a few miles southwest of Lumbini. Caught up in the rush of enthusiasm created by the Lumbini find, Peppè decided to excavate a prominent mound on his own land, hoping it might be a reliquary or stupa. He sank a vertical shaft down through 18ft of ancient brickwork and at ground level found a stone coffer, more than 4ft long, 2ft wide and 2ft high.

“The coffer is made of hard, fine sandstone of very superior quality. I calculate the weight of the coffer, lid included, to be 1,537 pounds,” Peppè wrote in his article. Inside, he found three soapstone (steatite) vases, all about 6in high, a small soapstone box, and a small crystal bowl with a fish-shaped handle. “The steatite vases have been beautifully turned in a lathe — the crystal bowl is polished to perfection and has all the appearance of a glass bowl of the present day.”

Within the vases, Peppè recorded, he found pieces of bone and hundreds of pieces of small treasures, which he dutifully listed and described. They included gold ornaments, gold-coin impressions, figures, Buddhist symbols, stars and flowers in silver and gold, pearls of different sizes, some of which were welded together, serrated and veined leaves, pyramids, drilled beads of various shapes in white or red cornelian, amethyst, topaz, garnet, coral and crystal, and a bird in red cornelian. There was also a pile of what seemed to be petrified rice.

One vase bore an inscription, which Peppè said was in early Pali (an ancient written language), and which was later translated as: “This shrine for relics of the Buddha, the August One, is that of the Sakyas, the brethren of the Distinguished One, in association with their sisters and with their children and their wives.” It seemed that Peppè had unearthed a portion of the Buddha’s bones and burial treasure that had not been seen for more than two millennia.

The Victorian historian Vincent Smith said, in a note attached to the 1898 article when Peppè announced his findings: “The massiveness and costliness of the coffer, and the richness of the deposit of precious objects in the vases, are obvious proofs of the veneration attaching to the relics enshrined. The inscription proves that the depositors believed the fragments of bone to be part of the sacred body of Gautama Buddha himself.” A later article of 1910 called Peppè’s find “the only authenticated relics known to date”.

But these records should not be taken at face value, says Dr Michael Willis, professor in south Asian studies at De Montfort University, Leicester, and author of Buddhist Reliquaries from Ancient India. “There are all sorts of problems with excavations of this period. The basic one is the way people worked: they read Buddhist texts, then went off and found the sites. A parallel is the Roman emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, who in the fourth century AD went to the Holy Land and ‘found’ the true cross and the nails supposedly used to nail Jesus to the cross. Peppè wasn’t an archeologist — we’re not dealing with a careful, scientific excavation. Even for the period, it wasn’t of a very high standard.”

Remains of the Piprahwa Stupa, Kapilavastu

Remains of the Piprahwa Stupa, Kapilavastu

Führer, who had found the Lumbini pillar and visited the Piprahwa excavation, is known to have fallen into disrepute. “He seems to have gone off the rails, and was caught out: he was finally sacked from the Indian civil service for fraud. He had got some horses’ teeth and sold them to Burmese monks as relics. He was involved in a number of deceptions of that nature,” says Willis. He believes his association with the Piprahwa excavation casts a shadow of doubt on the find. “Whether this material actually came out of the ground is open to debate. The inscription may even be a fake.”

But Seto is convinced that these items lay beside the Buddha, and he is not alone. Robert Knox, keeper of the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, wrote to Seto: “What an exciting discovery! The new material from Piprahwa is clearly of high importance.”

He adds later: “These are unique pieces. They have considerable relevance and are very important association pieces for Buddhists, who have a special respect for stupa deposits, just as a Catholic would have respect for the relics of saints.”

Peppè’s article ran with life-size drawings of the treasure, made by his wife, which tallied exactly with the objects Seto had in his possession. “I found myself tingling all over,” he says. He decided to try to find a living relative of Peppè’s, and sent 20 cold-calling letters to anyone with the surname Peppè. He received just one reply, from a man called Mark Peppè, who told him his cousin Neil was the grandson of William Claxton Peppè.

On July 29, Neil Peppè, a retired model maker for television, telephoned Seto. He had no idea how the box came to be with the Buddhist Society, but he casually announced that he had “a couple of cases” of similar pieces, along with plaster casts of the burial urns and what looked like some petrified rice from the Piprahwa stupa, in a cabinet in his sitting room. He also had original photographs of the dig at Piprahwa and of the coffer in situ. Seto went to Peppè’s Suffolk home and found a cache of exquisite gold stars, finely worked leaves, delicate jewelled flowers, minute pyramid-shaped gems, seed pearls, small pieces of coral, coiled silver wire, tiny Buddhist symbols and gold-coin impressions. There was also a whitish object that looked remarkably like a tooth — might it be the Buddha’s?

The objects had been in Neil Peppè’s family as long as he could remember, and he had thought nothing of them. As nobody had ever shown much interest in them, they were simply viewed as family curios. The rest of the burial treasures had long ago been donated overseas, where they remain to this day. He says: “Grandfather gave the vases and a large portion of the jewels to the Calcutta museum, keeping some of the jewels for himself.” Lord Curzon, then viceroy of India, presented most of the treasure to Rama V, the king of Thailand, as “the upholder of Buddhism in the Buddhist world then”. Buddhists from Japan, Burma, Sri Lanka and Siberia began to request a share of the relics, and Rama then distributed them accordingly. The rest, Rama put into a pagoda in Royal Mount, in Bangkok, in 1899.

The donations may not have been an innocent gesture, says Michael Willis. “At the time, the British had annexed Burma and were trying to win over the King of Siam [now Thailand]. They used Buddhism to impress upon him that co-operation with the British was a good idea. The imperial interest in Buddhist archeology has a payback with regard to the larger policy of the British in Southeast Asia.” Archeological research in the area is still tinged with politics. The city of Kapilavastu, where the Buddha is said to have grown up, has two possible locations, a few miles apart, one in India, one in Nepal. Both countries are vying for the honour — and for the tourist dollar of Buddhist pilgrims from Japan and Korea.

William Claxton Peppè wasn’t interested in the objects’ religious value. His grandson says: “He was a strict but well-loved man, a Victorian Christian who had married a vicar’s daughter.” Nor was Neil Peppè’s father. “My father conceived of Buddha as a selfish man with his creed of being responsible for your own enlightenment and not for other people.” As a young boy, Peppè tried boiling some of the petrified rice to see if it would cook (it didn’t). He does remember that in 1956, for the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s death, the Dalai Lama visited the family’s estate, in what is now Uttar Pradesh, to view the treasures.

How the small box of treasures got from William Claxton Peppè to the Buddhist Society remains a mystery. They are not listed in an early 1960s inventory compiled by the founder, Christmas Humphreys. It is possible that Alexander Cunningham, a Victorian archeologist who became director of the Indian Archeological Survey, might have donated them, because he made other donations to the society. Seto adds: “Or they may be souvenirs taken by one of the people involved in the Piprahwa expedition. They wouldn’t have thought they were doing anything wrong… they were Christians, and there were no Buddhists in the area then.” He warns against seeing such objects purely in archeological terms, and makes an analogy with Tutankhamun’s tomb and its alleged curse: “To disrespect objects could bring bad karma upon that person.”

Neil Peppè, though not a Buddhist himself, travelled to Thailand 16 years ago to find out what happened to the Buddha’s bones unearthed by his grandfather. He found them in Bangkok, in the temple of the Golden Mount — where he also found a wife. “The Buddha’s got a lot to answer for,” he jokes. Though he knew what the relics were, nobody had seemed interested in them, and he had not had them valued (one expert suggests they could fetch £20,000, or more, given fierce competition). “They’ve got a direct line to the Buddha — it’s like having a piece of the real cross.”

More curious is the fact that the Buddhist Society overlooked, and indeed forgot, all about its small box of treasures. Seto puts this down to centuries of distrust of relics. “Even within the Buddhist community, there exists quite a ‘Protestant’ view that regards relics as a distraction from real Buddhist practice, which some people think to be only rational and philosophical.”

An eminent Tibetan lama, Zopa Rinpoche, who recently organised a worldwide tour of other Buddhist relics, commented: “If they are correct, they have the potential to bring great benefit to humankind.” The Dalai Lama is to give a series of teachings in Glasgow at the end of May, when it is hoped that some of the relics will be on display at the Scottish Exhibition and Convention Centre.

“The Buddha is said to be present in the relics,” explains Dr Tadeusz Skorupski of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “If anybody behaves badly towards them, or damages a stupa, it is considered to be the same as doing harm to the Buddha. The worship of relics is very important within Buddhism… People go on pilgrimages to stupas containing relics all over the world.” Relics are said to increase the devotion of believers. There are different categories: the bodily remains of a holy person; objects that have touched the body of Buddha, such as his bowl, the chair he sat in, or beads left next to his bodily remains; relics by association, such as a leaf from a tree he once sat under; and his teachings or verbal legacy, which are regarded by some as the most authentic relics of the Buddha.

Now Neil Peppè plans to loan the rest of the treasures to the Buddhist Society, but in the meantime he has placed them in a bank vault for safekeeping. He is as keen as anyone to have the treasure authenticated and is considering having the rice carbon-dated, although as Dr Thomas Higham from the Radiocarbon Unit at Oxford University says, this may not be possible. Carbon-dating can establish a date to within 30 years on either side, and even a single rice grain can now be dated. But it is not clear whether the rice was originally inside the jars or the bricks at that level of the stupa. If it was baked into the bricks, there would likely be no carbon left to date, just a silica shell. “You never really know,” says Higham. “It’s amazing what survives and what doesn’t.” Even if the rice were accurately dated, it would not prove that the other items were as old as their finders claim. As with relics in all religious traditions, their authenticity will ultimately be a matter of faith.

Today, “new” relics still emerge in areas where a Buddhist community is being established. In 2001, a stone box containing a piece of the Buddha’s hair was excavated beneath the ruins of the Leifeng Pagoda in eastern China’s Zhejiang Province; a similar relic was found in the north of China in the 1970s. They are not just kept in stupas nowadays, they also go on tour: one tooth relic, normally kept in a Beijing temple, drew huge crowds in Hong Kong in May 1999. On closer inspection, tooth relics are often too large to be of human origin, and their provenance is unclear.

The Buddha instructed followers on what to do with his relics, according to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, a Buddhist scripture: “A stupa should be erected at the crossroads for the Tathagata [somebody who has attained a higher state]. And whoever lays wreaths or puts sweet perfumes and colours there with a devout heart will reap benefit and happiness for a long time… people’s hearts are made peaceful and then at the breaking-up [of their own bodies] after death, they will go to a good destiny and re-arise in a heavenly world.”

According to the scriptures, after the Buddha’s death and cremation in 483BC, eight kings argued over who should get his relics. Finally, a wise Brahmin negotiated a peace settlement whereby the relics were divided equally into eight portions; the kings then took them back to their own provinces and erected stupas over them. One of those groups was the Sakya clan — Buddha’s family. Two hundred and fifty years later, the remains were disinterred and redistributed by the emperor Ashoka (about 270-232BC), a reformed conqueror who, realising the devastation his slaughtering armies had caused, became a devout Buddhist and set about erecting monuments all over the country. Each monument contained a portion of the relics, one for each of the 84,000 villages in his kingdom. There are also said to be 84,000 teachings of the Buddha, one for each of the ways that the human mind confuses itself.

Charles Allen, author of The Buddha and the Sahibs: the Men Who Discovered India’s Lost Religion, has seen the Peppè family treasures and thinks it most likely that Ashoka buried them as symbols of respect with the Buddha’s remains. “The bone relics from the Piprahwa stupa, which were sent to Thailand, are the most authentic yet recovered relating to the body of Buddha Shayamuni. There was a later excavation of the Piprahwa Stupa in 1971-72 [by the Archeological Survey of India], to a lower level, where more caskets were found, similar to those found by Peppè. It’s likely that Ashoka left some of the Buddha’s relics at the lower level but took some out and reinterred them [elsewhere] with the jewels and artefacts.”

Relics of Buddha Shakyamuni from the Maitreya Relic Tour

Relics of Buddha Shakyamuni from the Maitreya Relic Tour

Perhaps these offerings were buried alongside the Buddha’s remains; perhaps they were added 250 years later. But if the inscription on the burial vase proves to be authentic, then they lay next to the Buddha for millennia. “If they were with the bones of the Buddha for one minute, that would elevate them in many people’s eyes to being extraordinary objects,” says Seto.

At one level, these treasures are objects of fascination and beauty. But there is a second, mystical level that begs the question: what is the origin of the curious fused pearls? It is recorded that the Buddha’s funeral pyre produced not just bones but pearl-like, translucent and multicoloured “gems” called sarira. These were regarded as crystallisations of his high spiritual attainments. Said Seto: “There is still the possible question that these pearly-like objects may be products of the Buddha’s physical body.”

Posted in: Buddhist history