Cultural Selection: Buddhist sites along the Silk Roads of the Nepal Region

© Getty Images / Saiko3p

With its origins in the Indian subcontinent, Buddhism is one of a number of major religions which was diffused via the Silk Roads. With the patronage of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka who ruled much of the Indian Subcontinent during the 3rd century BCE, Buddhism, which until then had been confined to a relatively small area, spread throughout the Indian Subcontinent, and later, via the Silk Roads, across South and South East Asia.

In the 19th century, several archaeological excavations took place in Nepalese region of Terai, in the North East of the Indian subcontinent, where Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was born and grew up. These excavations revealed a number of sandstone pillars and commemorative burial mounds known as ‘stupas’ which were built by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE.

Notably, one of the pillars in this series contains an inscription testifying to Lumbini as the birthplace of the Buddha. Another significant discovery was the pillar at Nigalihawa, inscribed with an engraving in both Brahmi script and Pali language which describes as visit made by Emperor Ashoka during the 20th year of his reign to establish and pay reverence at the pillar. The distribution of many of these pillars and stupas suggests that these sites in; Lumbini, Kapilavastu, Mahavana, Kshemavati, Shobhavati and Ramagrama, were not only associated with the life of the Buddha but were also connected to the Silk Roads passing through the Northern Indian Subcontinent.

Furthermore, finding these pillars within a 15 kilometres radius of each other inspired archaeologists to examine the area more thoroughly and try to locate other sites associated with the Buddha’s birth and childhood. In looking for these connections many places in the districts of Terai such as Kapilavastu, Rupandehi and Nawalparasi, were examined and important relevant sites identified. More than a century after the initial discovery, this process of exploration, excavation and research remains ongoing.

The Ramagrama stupa in the Nawalparasi District is one of the noteworthy finds from the work of archaeologists during this time. Discovered at the end of the 19th century, this famous stupa built by the Koliyas, royal relatives of the Buddha, contained the share of the Buddha’s relic they received. This is believed to be the only intact stupa of the original eight stupas built to hold the relic of Buddha. All seven of the others were opened by Emperor Ashoka and the relic split to be distributed and kept in new stupas he had constructed across the north of the Indian subcontinent.

The discovery of the Ashoka pillar at Lumbini in the 19th century opened new horizons within the research of Buddhist sites. The work of building, rebuilding and repairing the sacred location of Buddha’s birth continues today. After studying their antiquity, the rich cultural heritage, and distribution of the Ashokan pillars it is evident that these sites were either part of, or connected with the trade route of the Silk Roads in the Northern Indian subcontinent over which Buddhism exerted considerable early cultural influence. The region of Nepalese Terai has for centuries been the major link between the Indian Subcontinent and Central Asia via these trade routes through which goods and also ideas surrounding religion and spirituality were transported.


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