An Introduction to Buddhist Archaeology

An Introduction to Buddhist Archaeology

Buddhism is a religion that has millions of followers all around the world. It grew out of India sometime around the 6th century BCE from the historic person, Siddhartha Gautama. He was born in Lumbini (modern day Nepal) overlooking the Ganges river valley and he was a prince in the Gautama clan of the Sakya tribe. Much of his life is legend but scholars and followers of Buddhism are in agreement of how he and his teachings developed.

When he was 29, he was disgusted at the corruption, poverty and evil in his father’s kingly capital of Kapilavastu. He rejected the life of luxury he grew up with and became an ascetic. When he was 35 he reached Enlightenment under a banyan tree in Bodhgaya.

Immediately after, he gave the lecture ‘Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Law’, which forms the essence of Buddhist teachings. Siddhartha became known as the Buddha (he who has reached enlightenment) and continued teaching until he died at the age of 80. When he died, he was cremated and his remains (fragments of teeth and bone) were dispersed among the nine ruling clans. They then placed the remains into stupas.

The remains of the Buddha became objects of worship of themselves. They were placed into architectural structures known as stupas which evolved from north Indian burial mounds. These stupas form some of the earliest objects of Buddhist archaeology, especially in India. As shrines for the Buddha’s earthly remains, these stupas themselves evolved into other structures, such as the dagobas in Sri Lanka and pagodas in East Asia, as Buddhism eventually spread across Asia.

Buddhist archaeology focuses on the history and archaeology relating to Buddhism. Temples, shrines, artefacts and even the monks themselves have all been studied extensively and continue to do so. The Buddha fashioned a set of beliefs of reincarnation and the cycle of birth and death – from which escape was the crucial objective of the living being – and the best way to achieve this was to cut oneself off from one’s family and the rest of society. Because of this, a high number of monks were encouraged to live secluded and isolated lives.

Later, monasteries and temples were erected throughout Asia; objects were fashioned by artists relating to the religion and religious scriptures penned. Over the years, archaeologists have been fascinated about the history of the religion and the incredible man who established it centuries ago.


Barnes, Gina (1995) An Introduction to Buddhist Archaeology, World Archaeology, Taylor & Francis Ltd.