Film Review: Bones of the Buddha (Icon Films 2013)

Jeffrey Martin
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).

falk allen

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.

11 responses to “Film Review: Bones of the Buddha (Icon Films 2013)

  1. First, before Peppe officially announced his Piprahwa claims in 1898, he had been in touch with the notorious forger and cheat Dr Fuhrer who was excavating nearby. Fuhrer had then been selling phony Buddha-relics to a Burmese monk, U Ma, and a year BEFORE Peppe’s claim, Fuhrer had sent U Ma spurious bone relics of the Buddha which he claimed were those presented to the Sakyas of Kapilavastu after the Buddha’s cremation, these being placed in a soapstone casket with an ‘ancient inscription’. Since all of these details are, of course, exactly identical with those made for Peppe’s claim – supposedly unique – it is reasonably safe to conclude that the former scam was merely a dry run for the latter.

    Second, given that Falk is the only academic proposing that these items are Asokan artefacts, it may behove us to examine another example of his pronouncements in this area. In 1991, Falk wrote a piece which examined the Kapilesvar stone slab found in Orissa in 1928, which shows a badly-copied version of the Asokan script of the Lumbini pillar inscription. Against all other expert opinion – which decreed it to be an absurd modern fake – Falk solemnly asserted that it was an early pilgrim’s souvenir from the Lumbini site, and dated it to 4th – 8th cent. AD. He now confesses that he was wholly wrong in this conclusion however, and that the slab is, indeed, a risible modern forgery as others had maintained (for the details, see his ‘Asokan Sites and Artefacts’ (2006) p.292). As for Falk’s assertion that Fuhrer did not have the expertise to forge the Piprahwa inscription, it should be remembered that Fuhrer was both a competent Sanskritist and an Assistant Editor to the Epigraphia Indica, and was thus at the cutting edge of epigraphical studies at this time. Moreover, he was the protégé and friend of the great Sanskritist Georg Buhler, and the contemporary records show that Buhler had ‘begged Mr Peppe’ to look for features not shown in Fuhrer’s earlier copy of the inscription, features which faithfully appeared in the final version of it.

  2. Actually Mr Phelps, alongside Prof. Falk two other world experts on Indian history and languages have clearly stated that the inscription is genuine.

    Furthermore, you make claims which are have no grounding in the actual documentary evidence, but are based on your version of events.

    Being in touch or being geographically near to someone does not equal causation. Just because I may live near a thief or know a thief doesn’t make me one.

    You continue to insist on creating a conspiracy narrative of Piprahwa out of a series of incidents to prove your point without reflecting on and being critical of your own narrative. In academic research you balance arguments and discuss the actual evidence, while being willing to say when you might be wrong as new evidence emerges. Reflexivity and a willingness to acknowledge other evidence is a sign of good research.

    If three world experts say it is genuine when will you reflect on your own conclusion like an academic would rather than always insisting your version is always and unequivocally right.

    As for the relics, only a very small selection is held by Mr Peppe, the rest were given to the Indian Government and other Buddhist nations at the time of the find. W.C. Peppe received little in way of reward for the find at the time – a stamp album and a gilt-silver salver are hardly a king’s ransom.

    Furthermore, Mr Peppe had no involvement in the funding of either Charles Allen’s book or the National Geographic film which you claim elsewhere.

    As an expert in narrative method, I was asked to review the evidence for the Piprahwa find, and I found no historical or documentary evidence to suggest that any forgery ever took place.

    Indeed, logistically it was impossible for such a forgery to have taken place, and having resigned in disgrace Dr Fuhrer never implicated anyone else in his misdoings.

    Finally, If you insist despite all the other evidence that Dr Fuhrer had been at the centre of this impressive forgery – a career defining find – would he not have had a central and prominent role in excavating the relics to claim the fame and tried, like he did previously, to obtain a financial reward ? Since neither happened what then was his motivation according to your conspiracy narrative ?

    For further information please read Mr Peppe’s website.

  3. Being in touch or being geographically near to someone does not equal causation. Just because I may live near a thief or know a thief doesn’t make me one.
    Peppe wasn’t just ‘geographically near’ to Fuhrer during the Piprahwa events. The RAS Peppe Papers show that Peppe had written to Fuhrer BEFORE he had officially declared his alleged finds and again a few days after, and that both Peppe and V. A. Smith had then actually visited Fuhrer in what Smith (twice) declared was an ‘unannounced visit’. The RAS correspondence shows that this ‘unannounced visit’ to Fuhrer had been carefully arranged beforehand however, and despite the assurance (Peppe’s grandson’s website) that all this was because Peppe was under a legal obligation to notify Fuhrer (the Government Archaeological Surveyor) of his finds, this is also quite untrue. Under the Manual of Government Orders, Peppe was legally expected to notify the details of his claim to the local Collector, which he did ; so why did he and Smith undertake the laborious – and unofficial – elephant ride to see Fuhrer at his camp in Nepal? No reason is given for this extraordinary undertaking.
    ‘As for the relics, only a very small selection is held by Mr Peppe, the rest were given to the Indian Government and other Buddhist nations at the time of the find. W.C. Peppe received little in way of reward for the find at the time – a stamp album and a gilt-silver salver are hardly a king’s ransom.’
    As we have seen, Peppe retained 360 pieces of jewellery from the alleged find, not a bad little haul. For some wholly unexplained reason, V. A. Smith – Mr Fixit – declared these to be ‘a small number of duplicates’.
    ‘Furthermore, Mr Peppe had no involvement in the funding of either Charles Allen’s book or the National Geographic film which you claim elsewhere.’
    I haven’t said either of these things, though others have inevitably drawn associations between these events and the attempted sale, a not unreasonable conclusion I would imagine. .
    Finally, while I am not an expert in narrative method (whatever that is) I HAVE spent over twenty years – entirely at my own expense – in laboriously examining both the sites and the finds in India, and have also examined the unpublished Government papers, both in London and the National Archives of India, together with information which I have privately received from people whose confidence I am not about to breach. I would that those experts that Dr Smith mentions had done the same, instead of simply reviewing the epigraphical evidence from the safety of their office seats. Indeed, given the records of both Hoernle and Falk in being bamboozled by unlettered villagers in epigraphical matters, I don’t hold out much hope for the simple epigraphical approach I’m afraid (more particularly given the Fuhrer/Buhler input into the Piprahwa events, mentioned above). All this wouldn’t be of any particular interest to anyone anyway, of course, were it not for the brute fact that we are here attempting to establish the geographical and historical details of someone whom billions of people have considered to be the greatest human being that ever lived, and that it behoves us to ensure that we try to get those details right. Moreover, he just happens to have given the world teachings which have governed my own life for over fifty years, and which help explain my efforts in all this. So what’s Dr Smith’s interest here, I wonder?

  4. …your statement that you have invested so much time and emotion into your research (while being admirable) is very telling and more than likely means that you are less willing to acknowledge, discuss, and accept alternative opinions and theories. Again, your theory about elephant rides and meetings is not evidence – you are imposing your own interpretation – or narrative – onto events without any real evidence. And you still can’t explain any motivation for this alleged forgery, nor why no written documents exist incriminating those you accuse. And who are these unknown contemporary experts unwilling to discuss their views transparently? Why aren’t they willing to open up and discuss this issue like real researchers and those who have declared the authenticity of the find ? Again you dismiss, other people’s expert opinion by belittling it (sitting in offices), like you do with my expertise (what ever narrative research is); I am sure you can do a bit of reading about narrative and qualitative research. Lastly, you know my motivation – I, like you, are interested in Buddhism, and as an academic I like to see balance in any discussion while casting a critical eye over the evidence (and the weight of the evidence) and how events are interpreted; and for the record my review and opinion were given for free like you do when you critically peer review a paper. ,

    • I shall assume that ‘Dr G. Smith’ is the selfsame Dr Glenn Smith who last year emailed me with apparently innocuous questions about my website in an apparent attempt to use my replies to my subsequent discredit. Alas, I soon realised where the REAL agenda lay, and closed the correspondence down accordingly. It came as no surprise to find you cited on the front page of Peppe’s website, ‘The Piprahwa Jewels’, though I note that your comment – along with John Eskenazi’s entry – has now mysteriously vanished from this. And why didn’t you reply to my email asking whether you had contacted me before you contacted Peppe, I wonder? This kind of tiresome pursuit of hidden agendas has absolutely nothing to do with any attempt to establish the real facts about this extremely important matter, though it’s one with which I increasingly find myself having to deal these days. And if that’s where ‘narrative research’ leads then I’ll happily have none of it. If you want to add usefully to the debate, then add some original research, otherwise stay out of it. There’s been enough muddying of the waters as it is. Do your homework!!

      • As usual you read way too much into things and interpret things to suit your own agenda or narrative. Telling someone to “stay out of it” says a lot about how unwilling you are to seriously listen, reflect, debate and respect alternative perspectives and evidence that deviates from your own – these things which are the cornerstone of knowledge creation. Imagine for one minute an academic saying “stay out it” when peer reviewing research that challenged their view of an issue ! Really, I need say no more…

  5. It should be noted that despite the attempt of Rhys Davids (JRAS, 1901) to discredit the well-known story of Asoka rifling the original eight stupas to disperse their Buddha-relics in stupas throughout India, this story would nevertheless appear to gain full support from the accounts of the two early Chinese pilgrims, Faxian and Xuanzang, whose accounts remain the only reliable ones we have on ancient Indian Buddhist sites. Neither pilgrim makes any mention of visiting ANY of these original eight stupas save that of Ramagrama, which the king is said to have spared. Both pilgrims appear to have stayed for some time at the Kapilavastu site however, and both mention visiting many places associated with the Buddha’s presence there (the palace remains, etc) together with similar associated sites to up a distance of six miles around the town itself. Yet neither pilgrim makes the slightest mention of seeing any Sakyan stupa containing the Buddha’s relics at Kapilavastu – which would undoubtedly have been a major feature at the site – a fact which further supports the story of Asoka’s destructive raid on the stupa there. From this, it seems evident enough that this original Sakyan stupa no longer existed in the place, otherwise they would most certainly have seen it and mentioned it in their accounts. Yet despite this glaring absence, the Piprahwa stupa is alleged not only to be this stupa, but also to have yielded TWO sets of deposits of the Buddha’s remains, one supposedly in an Asokan urn! Given the evidences cited above, this claim would thus appear to be, as Alice said of Wonderland, ‘curiouser, and curiouser’ the more we look at it.

  6. What with all this shilly-shallying among the experts – who can’t even agree on whether this find is authentic, never mind its dating – it’s now perfectly obvious that the only way to resolve this critical issue is to subject the finds themselves to rigorous scientific testing. The Siamese received organic material from inside the Piprahwa coffer in 1898 – bones, sandalwood pieces, and ‘dark dust’ – and though the bones might present a problem to the faithful, there can be no objection to carbon-dating the other stuff. Likewise the terracotta ‘sealings’ from the 1973 claims, which should be subjected to thermoluminescence testing to reveal when they were fired. Otherwise it’s just ‘he says she says’, and a century of that has led us nowhere. Test the stuff, and settle the matter once and for all.

  7. Yesterday I saw the incredible “inauguration lecture” by Prof. Andrew Huxley (alias Terry Phelps?) on Youtube. Everybody interested in the case should do that too. It is a singular case of turning prejudice into “proof”. His way of thinking and reasoning is instantly becoming clear and needs no further comment. Since I am mentioned in his postings just one point:
    Führer is said to be a philologist or epigraphist “at the cutting edge” of our science. Our science would have died with him. The only evidence he left regarding his knowledge of Sanskrit is his edition of the Vasisthadharmasastra. That would be evidence enough, but, as I am working on a re-edition on the basis of some more importants manuscripts now for more thatn 20 years I do know how that “edition” came to be. Bühler was in need of a text for his series of translations. He had pundits in Gujarat and Pune constituting a first text on the basis 5 good mss. He translated that and published the translation. The pandits’ text was given to Führer who had it printed without changing a comma. Böhtlingk was reviewing this and proposed numerous well-founded emendations. For his second edition Führer included these emendations in square brackets and claimed to have found a ms in Rajastan, called “K” in this 2nd edition, which showed just these and some other improvements, all of them going back to Böhtlingk! This shows the same character: incablable and always ready for a lie. So much for the “cutting edge”. Phelps cum Huxley should have a look into what Heinrich Lüders wrote about the forged inscription on that stone in Lucknow. It displays nothing but ignorance regarding palaeography and language. Short: Führer was absolutely incablable of shaping such a text as on the Piprahwa urn and he would have been likewise incapable of scratching it in such a “fluent” hand on the urn.
    Phelps cum Huxley want to use Fleet against the genuity of the Piprahwa urn, pointing at a “memorandum” against it. It would have been honest to point out that Fleet wrote not only three papers on that urn and text, but also that all three papers presuppose a genuine text.
    It would have been easier for this discussion if the production team had presented other scholars apart from me. There are not too many concerned with this time, script and language, but the two foremost to be mentioned here have indeed expressed their opinion in lectures and writing, and Phelps cum Huxley know that very well.
    Let me clarify one point which remains unclear in the picture: I have never said that the Piprahwa urn or its inscription dates to the time of Asoka. The text must be younger, if only slightly, the urn has parallels at Sanchi. What flashed to my mind, thanks to Charles Allen and while shooting, was that the stone coffer in the Indian Museum could or should be Asokan. Something the picture does not convey is the idea that this coffer was brought not to Piprahwa by Asoka, but to Lumbini, which is just 12 miles away and there Asoka was according to his own words. The assemblage of reliquaries and the huge new construction at Piprahwa must be seen in the light of a shift of reliquaries from a series of smaller stupa sites to the Piprahwa stupa in a sort of rescue operation. This in turn must be seen against the background of assaults of non-Buddhists on Buddhist sites. All this is a long story and needs further elaboration which I am preparing for the near future. In the meantime we should stick to facts. Character assassination of scholars like T.W. Rhys Davids or Vincent Smith is no serious approach. On the continent, such malicious behaviour would not have led to an inauguration.
    Harry Falk

  8. First, whatever views were expressed in Huxley’s lecture they were certainly not mine, as Falk appears to imply with his ‘alias Terry Phelps?’comment. The main thrust of Huxley’s argument was to show – as his own researches had carefully and painstakingly revealed – that an internal battle had occurred within the ranks of the Royal Asiatic Society (UK) around 1905. This tussle concerned the use/misuse of Brahmi inscriptions – the Piprahwa inscription included – and led to the eventual ‘overthrow’, by Fleet and others, of the Smith/Rhys Davids cabal within the RAS itself. This was, indeed, the very first public mention of that most important struggle, and Huxley is much to be congratulated for having made it known.

    Second, when I stated that Fuhrer was at the ‘cutting edge’ of epigraphical studies in his day, I meant that in his position as Assistant Editor on the Epigraphia Indica, Fuhrer was firmly placed AT that cutting edge. This privileged position, together with his close association with the great Georg Buhler and other authorities, then gave Fuhrer the wherewithal to forge the Piprahwa inscription as I have alleged, and there is compelling evidence to show that he did just that with Buhler’s unwitting assistance. Ten days after Peppe’s alleged discovery, Fuhrer sent both Barth and Buhler preliminary ‘eye-copies ’- each slightly different – of the inscription. Buhler immediately wrote back ‘begging Mr Peppe to look if the required ‘I’ in the first word (iyam) the medial ‘i’ in the second (salila) and of a vowel-mark in the last syllable of ‘bhagavata’ were present‘, and voila! all of these features were duly present when Fuhrer made the first photograph of the inscription shortly thereafter. Three weeks later Fuhrer was exposed as a forger and a cheat and Buhler was dead, having apparently drowned in Lake Constance in unexplained circumstances.

    But surely the most damnatory fact of all in this extraordinary tale is the fact that over a year before the events at Piprahwa, Fuhrer had secretly sent phony relics of the Buddha to a Burmese monk, U Ma. These bogus items were placed in a soapstone casket, and according to Fuhrer were Sakyan Buddha-relics found (by him) in a stupa at Kapilavastu, together with an ‘ancient inscription’. Since these were, of course, precisely the same stupendous claims that were then made – and are still being made – for Peppe’s finds shortly thereafter, one may surely assume that the former scam was merely a dry run for the latter, and that this single ‘ugly fact’ then usefully serves to annihilate all further discussion on the matter. And what, one wonders, is Falk’s position on the alleged finds of 1973, apart from maintaining a perfect silence on the matter? As for Falk’s description of epigraphy as a ‘science’, I need only point to his own pronouncements on the Kapilesvar and Mathura stone tablets and Hoernle’s lamentable mistakes with Islam Akhun’s forgeries to show that this term cannot really be justified. Unfortunately, as any good detective will tell you, in complex cases such as these there’s simply no substitute for hard, painstaking research, together with a stony common sense and a really good nose for fish.

  9. Having recently re-read the above review of ‘Bones of the Buddha’, I would wish to comment on some of its observations. First, W.C. Peppe, the excavator of the Piprahwa Stupa in 1898, was merely an indigo planter, and not an amateur archaeologist as stated. Second, we should not ‘give credit to Icon and Charles Allen for bringing the story to public attention’, since I had published my own Piprahwa findings on the Internet before Allen’s book, ‘The Buddha and Dr Fuhrer’ had made its appearance anyway. Moreover, Allen had freely availed himself of much of my research in writing his book, as we had communicated freely upon the matter since I had first contacted him four years earlier.

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