HISTORIAN Charles Allen finds exploring India and discovering ancient sites that have been all but forgotten, exhilarating.
“The biggest thrill I get is when I leave the road and ask some villagers where a certain place, temple or statue is and no one seems to know. Then an old man leads us there. You pull back the scrub and there’s an inscription from 2 300 years ago. It’s magic.”
Ancient graffiti, if you will, is found all over the Indian countryside, a lot of it left there by Emperor Ashoka. Allen’s fascination with early Indian history brought to his attention a discovery that was made in 1898 – the apparent bones of the Buddha.
The discovery was followed by scandal and Allen made it his mission to get to the bottom of the story. The result of his relentless digging is Bones of the Buddha which premieres on National Geographic Channel on Saturday at 9pm.
Allen’s interest in the subject began almost two decades ago while he was researching the rediscovery of pre-Muslim history in India by Europeans in the early 1800s.
“The British had no idea there was a religion called Buddhism,” he explains, adding that their investigation really helped to bring Indian history back to life. “Now we just take it for granted.”
In his book, The Buddha and the Sahibs: The men who discovered India’s lost religion, he mentioned that the last piece of the jigsaw was finding where the Buddha’s remains were buried.
When the Buddha died there was a squabble over his remains, which were then divided into eight and buried across the land. None of the sites had been rediscovered until 1898, when British colonial estate manager William Peppe began to farm at Birdpore, close to the Nepal border. Not long before, the birth place of Buddha had been found just a few miles away. Peppe came across a large mound and decided to conduct a dig to see what lay buried beneath it. He discovered a large stone coffer which held relics and a mass of precious and semi-precious jewels. There was also an indecipherable inscription.
Not sure about what he had found, Peppe wrote to archaeologist Dr Anton Fuhrer, who believed Peppe had unearthed the remains of the Buddha himself.
“There was huge excitement,” says Allen. “It was written up in all the newspapers and everything was marvellous.”
He explains that usually when Buddhist relics are found they are accompanied by just two or three precious jewels and a little gold. But this find was on a massive scale, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in India before.
“But within months everything exploded. Fuhrer was found to have been bogus. He had faked reports and, more worryingly, it appeared he had even added his own inscriptions to sites,” says Allen.
Ever since then there has been a pall of suspicion over the Peppe inscription and many declared it a fake. Allen’s goal when putting The Bones of the Buddha together was to investigate whether the whole thing was a hoax. He asked a leading authority on Indian languages, Professor Harry Falk, to examine the inscription. Falk and Allen met in Calcutta to study the inscription.
“It looked as though it had been carved yesterday, it was that well preserved. Falk examined it in my presence for 20 minutes. And then I asked whether it was, in his opinion, a fake. He said ‘I can tell you, categorically, it is not a fake.’ ”
Falk explained that the inscription had been made by someone who was used to using the characters. The specific words used also held clues to the authenticity of the find. Falk knew a fair amount about Fuhrer’s background and while the discredited man had studied a little Sanskrit, he was essentially out of his depth.
“Which explains why he faked all of those reports. He was a fantasist,” says Allen. “The inscriptions he added were so badly done. He was a ham-fisted faker.”
The writing found at the Peppe site was early Brahmi, the first incarnation of written language to appear in India. But this text did not exist at the time of the Buddha’s death around 410 BCE. It appeared around 150 years later around the time of Emperor Ashoka’s rule. Both Allen and Falk had studied Ashoka and admired the peaceful approach to leadership he adopted.
“The first part of the mystery was solved,” says Allen. “Ok, it’s not a fake, so what the hell is it?”
It was the right place and the right inscription, but not from the right time. So the pair started to dig. Hidden beneath the stupa (burial site) was another chamber holding more relics, a couple of smashed red dishes and ash and bone.
“We knew from the history of Ashoka that he was very keen on Buddhism and wanted to convert India. So he dug up the remains of Buddha and redistributed them into thousands of stupas – that’s the legend,” says Allen.
Further investigation showed that the first coffer found was made of stone from the same quarry as Ashoka’s pillars. All evidence pointed to Ashoka having unearthed the original remains and reburied them with a wealth of jewels.
“It was fabulously exciting. I knew it was genuine, but to have a scholar say that it wasn’t a fake was very important. It’s one of the earliest known examples of Ashokan Brahmi and the only known relics of the Buddha.”
For Allen, one of the saddest things is how out-of-touch the officials and bureaucrats in India appear to be.
Gaining access to the relics was not an easy undertaking and the Peppe coffer was not even properly on display in the museum.
“There are thousands of sites that hardly anyone goes to,” he laments. “There’s just so much early history that I’m in awe of. How jealous I am, and how lucky they are. I wish they appreciated it more.”
l See DStv Channel 181.