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Charles Allen (Alex Holden, Icon Films)

Charles Allen on discovering the bones of the Buddha

The bones of Lord Buddha have been discovered under a mound in Northern India. So why isn't everyone excited? Noted historian Charles Allen explains why

Peter Moore

In 1898 Colonial estate manager Willie Peppe's workers, digging at a mysterious hill in Northern India, found what seemed to be the most extraordinary discovery in Indian archaeology. 20 feet down they unearthed a huge stone coffer containing 5 ancient soapstone jars, over 1600 separate jewels and some bones. And one jar had an inscription that appeared to say they were the remains of the Buddha himself buried by his own 'clan', the Sakyas.

Sadly, the involvement of Dr Anton Führer, a shadowy German archaeologist subsequently exposed as a fake and a fraud, has cast doubt and scandal over this amazing find.  For over 100 years it has been ignored and avoided.

In a new film, The Bones of the Buddha, renowned historian Charles Allen sets out to solve the mystery once and for all.

Allen was initially drawn to the project through his interest in the ‘orientalists’ of the British period in India, the men who rediscovered India’s history through things like coins, inscriptions and finding old manuscripts.

“They've always been my heroes in a lot of ways,” he says . “Guys like William Smith, the father of Indian studies, and in particular, James Principe, the guy who sits down and actually beaks the code of this strange and mysterious language.”

That language is Brahmi, devised by Emperor Ashoka, and India’s first written language.  It is also the language found inscribed on a vase found at the Piprahwa excavation, the authenticity of which is the key to solving the mystery. The inscription dates the vase to the time of Emperor Ashoka and confirms Allen’s theory that the Sakya clan’s portion of the original remains of the Buddha were dug up by Ashoka, divided even further and then reburied with jewels.

The key to the program was convincing one of the world’s leading epigraphists, Professor Harry Falk, to travel to India to study the inscription and validate it’s authenticity. Professor Falk had largely ignored the Pripahwa discovery because of the controversy but was genuinely excited by what he found.

“And as you’ll see in the film, he has no doubts about it," says Allen. "He says that it is quite patently genuine and he explains why. There’s a word used for remains, that has not been used anywhere else.”

Professor Falk was also able to confirm that the coffer was also from the Ashokan period.

“He measured it, examined it and confirmed it as an Ashokan artifact,” explains Allen. It conformed to Ashokan yard, the measurement introduced by Emperor Ashoka, and displayed exceptionally high quality craftsmanship.”

“More excitingly, Professor Falk discovered little black spots in this pink sandstone that confirmed it came from the same quarry as the Lumbini column, erected by Ashoka, came from.”

The Indian authorities, however, seem less convinced, leaving these important relics neglected. The vase with the inscription is kept in a metal cabinet in the back of a dusty office. The giant stone coffer sits in a courtyard in the museum in Calcutta, mislabelled and left out in the elements.

“The help we got from the Archaeological Survey in India and the museum was minimal.’ Says Allen. “They were just very, very unwilling to help. It took six weeks of negotiation to get them to open up and show the vase with the inscriptions.”

His request to see the jewels that were discovered with the remains was met with a curt refusal.

I asked Allen why he felt there was such apathy towards such a potentially monumental find and he readily admits that it is the involvement of Dr Führer tainted them, despite the fact that he has  “a whole series of letters “ that indicate that say Führer never visited the site until six weeks after the excavation.

It doesn't help, either, that one of the world’s experts on Buddhist relics, Dr Michael Willis from the British Museum, is not convinced of the find’s authenticity. Allen says that he asked Dr Willis to take part in the program but he refused because it was “too hot to handle.”

Allen says that Doctor Willis is yet to be convinced that the inscription is genuine.

“It’s maddening,’ explains Allen.  “It’s not just Professor Harry Falk who has said it was genuine, but the other great Sanskritist of our era, Professor Richard Salomon of the University of Seattle has also said that there is no question that it is anything part genuine.”

After decades of research, Allen hopes that this film will finally lay the myth to rest and finally remove the stain of impropriety from this important excavation.

“It’s just thrilling to be able to bring this story to a conclusion after ten years,’ he says. ‘And thrilling that to have a great, world leading authority like Professor Harry Falk say that it’s genuine.”

The Bones of the Buddha was produced by Icon Films and will air on National Geographic UK on May 11th, 2013 at 8pm.

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 Your Comments (5)

  • 11th May by diptych3

    In the early 1990s, Harry Falk wrote an article entitled ‘Spurious Asokan Records’. In this he gave a lengthy examination of a stone slab found in Orissa (eastern India) in 1928, on which was inscribed a faulty copy of the inscription on the Asokan pillar at Lumbini,  the birthplace of the Buddha. According to Falk, this stone slab was a pilgrim’s souvenir from the Lumbini site itself, and he dated it to 4th – 8th century AD. Recently however, he has declared that it was precisely what other experts had said it was – viz, a modern fake – having since discovered that it had been forged by an unlettered Brahmin, who had made a bad copy of it from a book. As for the Piprahwa casket itself – which I saw and closely examined for myself in 1994 – suffice it to say that I bought two incense holders for £1.00 apiece from Camden Market in London, which are made of exactly the same kind of steatite (not sandstone, as has here been stated) that the Piprahwa casket was made of. Shall I therefore assume that they are Asokan, I wonder?    


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  • 12th May by arunabha

    The neglect of the Museum by its primer support The Geological Survey of India that surrounds it and the other Govt Of India Surveys that have moved away was foretold by the then Director of GSI. The fact that Dr Oldham the founder of GSI and his followers were the prime mover for the development establishment and the maintenance of the Indian Museum at Kolkata has been conveniently ignored by small time culture vultures. It does not even find mention in the Museums Web site. This has been not only detrimental to the Indian Museum but also to all the concerned Government of India Surveys that have been cut off from their repository that is the Indian Museum.


    The ashes and the bones of the Buddha is an amazing discovery. It should rejuvenate public interest in the Indian Museum that has been neglected since the 1960's when its trusteeship was taken over by the various secretaries of the Ministry of Culture. In absence of a proper inventory of the artifacts time and again new discoveries are being made in the Museum itsself. Thus a few years back a compilation of our ancient vegetable dyes was made in the Botany section. Again a couple of years back a neglected collection of Dinosaur fossils was reported. Now we have the containers of the ashes and the bones of the Buddha.


    What more does this amazing building hold? Truly the public has aptly named it “Jadugar or Ajabgar”. It’s time that the educated public regards it as a Museum and returns its upkeep to the Surveys.  Perhaps the Surveys should now take initiative to seriously inventory their own artifacts. Perhaps the GSI could now seriously think of shifting its non scientific establishment to its vacant spaces at Salt Lake to make way for the expansion of its repository facilities. Presently it appears that the British Museum has a better inventory of what is available in the Museums of the Raj. “O Yes” a political decision is needed. Perhaps the 200 year celebration of the Museum can give a push to Intellects of Kolkata.


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  • 14th May by observer

    I’ve just watched Bones of the Buddha. Very interesting, but from a lay point of view, something definitely sucks here!


     First, we were informed that a mighty emperor, ruling northern India around 400 BCE, who elevated Buddhism to an extraordinary position and built grand monuments with exquisite carvings on them, then built this ‘stupa’ - and from the look of it, in its time it was a mighty monument - to put the remains of his Hero in.


    We then see the urn - a small, badly-lettered vase – which to me doesn’t seem at all right, when were shown stone monuments with perfect, crisp lettering on them, whereas whatever the urn was made from, it must have been easier to work with than these. Indeed, the inscription on the urn was seen to have been made by an amateur who didn’t work out his lettering properly, whereas a mighty emperor would surely have insisted that the urn itself was perfectly inscribed - and much grander – to contain the relics of the Buddha than this small and insignificant item?


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  • 14th May by diptych3

    Nobody seems to have noticed that when the two famous Chinese pilgrims, Faxian and Xuanzang, visited the site of Kapilavastu in the 5th and 7th centuries AD, they made no mention whatever, in their respective accounts, of seeing any stupa containing the relics of the Buddha at this site. They both gave detailed descriptions of precisely what they DID see there, and also described many of the associated sites – up to six miles radius – in the vicinity of the town, but wrote not a single syllable concerning the all-important Sakyan stupa of the Buddha’s remains (which is precisely what Piprahwa is claimed to be). From this, one can only conclude that it simply wasn’t there any more – presumably after Asoka’s notorious raid on the original stupas – and that the Piprahwa claims are therefore insupportable as a result. If it was there they would have mentioned it, and they didn’t. End of story.  


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  • 5th July by diptych3

    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 1899 – 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. 


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