The Buddha's Relics in India

Posted by Incredible India, August 23, 2018

The Mahaparinibbana Sutta (Mahaparinirvana Sutra), one of the oldest works in the Buddhist canon, delves into Gautama Buddha's last days, his funeral and the distribution of his relics. It states that after His last rites at Kushinagar, His remains were divided into eight parts, each of which was placed under the care of a particular king, community or dynasty. In keeping with the prevailing practice, it was decided that the relics would be placed within caskets and stupas would be built over them, preserving and sanctifying them for posterity. When one of the earliest relic caskets, believed to be one of them, were discovered in Piprahwa, Uttar Pradesh, a wave of awe cascaded across India. Inscribed with pre-Mauryan Brahmi text describing the erection of a stupa over the corporeal relics of the Master at the ancient site, the casket is said to have contained some bones and tooth. The site is believed to be a part of Kapilavastu, where the Buddha spent the first 29 years of His life. The relic casket unearthed at Piprahwa is currently housed in the National Museum in New Delhi, as part of a gallery dedicated to Buddhism.

Outside the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, legends abound regarding the journey of the rest of the relics, the most popular among them being centered on Mauryan emperor Ashoka. This narrative holds that he broken open all the stupas except one, and took the relics only to re-distribute them into a number of stupas he would go on to construct. One story goes that he constructed as many as 84,000 stupas marking the most significant events in the Buddha's life and preserving his relics.

Whichever the actual story might be, several relics are believed to have been discovered in different parts of the country during excavations over the years. Following up the first round of excavations at Piprahwa (1898) by amateur archaeologist W C Pepe, K M Shrivastava of  the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) carried out a second round and discovered more bones, which were then handed over to the Indian Museum in Kolkata and can now be viewed there. During the late 1950s, another relic casket believed to have been placed in the care of the Lichchhavis of Vaishali, was found enshrined in a 6th-century mud stupa in Bihar. The excavation was carried out by  Patna-based K P Jayaswal Research Institute. Taken to the Patna Museum in 1972, the casket can be viewed there now. Plans are believed to be afoot to set up a Buddha Smriti Stupa in Vaishali, the original location of these relics, but until the project is completed, they shall remain in Patna.

A set of relics are also enshrined at the Mulagandhakuti Vihara in Sarnath. They were sent to Sri Lanka earlier this year to be a part of the display for Vesak, a festival commemorating the birth, enlightenment and death of Lord Buddha. In 1985, three sets of relic casket containers made of Khondalite stone were unearthed at Lalitgiri in Odisha by ASI. They are believed to have contained pieces of charred bones and even a tooth. A museum at Lalitgiri now houses all three caskets, along with sculptures of the Buddha. Besides these, other sites in India where relics believed to be the Buddha's have been recovered, include Devni Mori in Gujarat (during an excavation carried out by M S University's Department of Archaeology and Ancient History in 1963), Nalasopara in Maharashtra, and Nagarjunakonda and Bhattiprolu in Andhra Pradesh. Lord Buddha’s relics are today preserved at museums and universities, like the Indian Museum in Kolkata and Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara.