24 May 2013
If you have read Charles Allen’s The Buddha and Dr Fuhrer (2011), you will be familiar with the content of this recent documentary from Icon Films. It sets out the story of the Piprahwa stupa, its discovery in 1897 in the Indian terrai by an amateur English archeologist, and the controversy over the stupa’s contents and the claim that these included relics of the historical Buddha. The book was rather tedious reading, but credit goes to Allen for laying out all the facts in the case. The film moves at a much brisker pace and is narrated by the author himself.
The controversy surrounds Dr Fuhrer, at the time England’s only full-time archeologist in India, who — at about the time he visited Piprahwa — was exposed for having created fake documents and enabling the sale of bogus artifacts. None of those misdeeds was in fact connected with Piprahwa, but the air of suspicious has not been easy to clear, and has clouded questions about the stupa’s contents.
To weigh the evidence, the film’s producers have enlisted German scholar Harry Falk, an esteemed expert on ancient Indian languages. He claims the Piprahwa findings are most likely those of the Buddha. The urn in which they were found, he feels, is most certainly from the period of Asoka (304–232 BCE), the emperor of the Mauryans who purportedly converted to Buddhism after his experience of the horrific Kalinga War. Following this conversion, Asoka dedicated stupas and other monuments at sites associated with the Buddha’s life. While this act is supported by archaeological evidence, the story that Asoka specifically undertook a project to redistribute the Buddha’s relics (toward which end he constructed 84,000 stupas) is only a legend.
Some scholars have, however, identified Piprahwa with the ancient Kapilavastu, the Buddha’s hometown.
Falk’s claim is based on examination of the urn’s inscription, which contains a word not found on any other inscriptions from the period. Dr Fuhrer, he says, was such a poor scholar of Sanskrit he would have been unable to have used such a rare word, that any forgery of Dr Fuhrer’s would have been a pastiche of more commonly available words and phrases.
The urn script is identical to those found on other Asokan monuments, placing it in the period of the great emperor. The larger casket in which the urn was found bears similarities in manufacture to other Asokan artifacts and a smaller reliquary tomb found under the Asokan cache suggests the smaller tomb was the original burial spot for the Buddha’s remains (one of the original eight sent to neighboring kingdoms immediately after the Buddha’s cremation).
If Dr Falk is correct, then this is a discovery of major importance to historians, Indologists, Buddhologists, and practicing Buddhists. Why then were no others consulted in the production of this film? Allen, the English grandson of the archaeologist who made the Piprahwa discovery (still in private possession of many of the stupa’s contents), and Dr Falk are the only voices in the film. Where are the other experts and academics? Why are there no Indian or Buddhist voices? More importantly, why is an English citizen permitted to hold the legacy of India, of Buddhists, and of the world? An interview with Allen at Wanderlust reveals there is more to story than revealed in the film.
Give Icon and Allen credit for bringing the story to public attention. The world looks forward to a follow-up.