Bones of the Buddha - Secrets of the Dead

Excavating the Piprahwa Stupa

Author Charles Allen examines original jewels from Piprahwa Stupa
Author Charles Allen examines original jewels from Piprahwa Stupa. Courtesy of © Icon Films / Lorne Kramer

2013. Secrets of the Dead: Bones of the Buddha. Directed and written by Steven Clarke. Executive producers Steve Burns and Harry Marshall. Produced by Icon Films for Thirteen and WNET. Featuring Charles Allen, Neil Peppe, Harry Falk, Bhante Piyapala Chakmar, and Mridula Srivastava. Special thanks to the Archaeological Survey of India, the Indian Museum of Kolkata, the Mahabodhi Temple committee, Dr. S. K. Mittra, the Srivastava Family and Ram Singh Ji. 54 minutes; DVD and BluRay

The Bones of the Buddha is an historical entry in the PBS series Secrets of the Dead, published in 2013 and touching on the politically dicey discussion of religion and history in India. Centered around the ongoing research of historian Charles Allen, Bones of the Buddha tells the story of the stupa at Piprahwa, a Buddhist sacred structure in the Basti district of Uttar Pradesh in India. Piprahwa is believed by some scholars to be near the site of Kapilavastu, the capital of the Shakyan state, and the Shakyas were the family of the man who would become the historical Buddha [Siddhartha Gautama or Shakyamuni, 500-410 BC], the center of the Buddhist religion. But more than that: Piprahwa is, or rather was, the family burial place of some of the Buddha's ashes.

Historical and Archaeological Investigations

Bones of the Buddha details the investigations by amateur archaeologist William Claxton Peppe, professional archaeologist Dr. K.M. Srivastava, and historian Charles Allen to identify one of the most important of the several burial places of the ashes of the Buddha: that belonging to the Buddha's family. After his death, so the legend goes, the Buddha's ashes were divided into eight parts, one part of which was given to the Buddha's clan. Evidence of the Shakya family burial place of the Buddha's ashes was ignored for nearly 100 years due to the damage inflicted by a corrupt archaeologist: Dr. Alois Anton Führer.

Führer was the head of the British colonial archaeological center for northern India, a German archaeologist who was at the center of a scandal concerning faked and looted artifacts, attributed falsely to the Buddha. But when the excavations at Piprahwa were being undertaken by W.C. Peppe in the late 19th century, the scandal was yet a few months away: but near enough in time to cast doubt on the authenticity of the finds.

The Buddha's Cache

What Peppe found buried deeply within the enormous stupa was a stone reliquary, within which were five small jars. In the jars were hundreds of tiny jewels in the shapes of flowers. More were scattered within the reliquary, intermingled with burned bone fragments of the Buddha himself: this burial is believed to have been placed here by Buddha's disciple, King Ashoka, 250 years after the Buddha's death. In the 1970s, archaeologist K. M. Srivastava reexcavated at Piprahwa and found, beneath Ashoka's elaborate burial, a simpler burial place, believed to have been the original site where the Buddha's family placed the remains.

Indian History

The story brought forward by Bones of the Buddha is a fascinating one: one of the British Raj in India, when the amateur archaeologist W.C. Peppe plowed a trench through an enormous stupa and found the 4th century BC burial remains. The story continues in the 1970s, with K. M. Srivastava, a young Indian archaeologist who was convinced that Piprahwa was Kapilavastu, the capital of the Sakyan state. And finally it concludes with modern historian Charles Allen, who wanders suburban England and northern India in search of the artifacts, the language and the history behind the stupa at Piprahwa.

Most of the all, the video (and the site's investigations for that matter) is excellent as an introduction to the archaeology and history of Buddhism. The Buddha's life, where he was born, how he came to become enlightened, where he died and what happened to his cremated remains are addressed. Also involved in the story is the leader Ashoka, Buddha's disciple, who 250 years after Buddha's death promulgated the religious teachings of the holy man. Ashoka was responsible, say the scholars, for the placing the Buddha's ashes here in a stupa fit for royalty.

And finally, Bones of the Buddha provides the viewer with an introduction to the broadening of Buddhism, how it came to be that 2,500 years after the Buddha died, 400 million people world wide are following his teachings.

Bottom Line

I very much enjoyed this video, and I learned a lot. I don't know much at all about Buddhist archaeology or history, and it was good to have a bit of a starting point. I was surprised to see, or rather not see, any Indian archaeologists interviewed during the filming: although S. K. Mittra and the Archaeological Survey of India are credited at the end, and Allen visits the sites and museums where the relics are deposited. That circumstance led me to do a bit more investigation on my own; more of that later. We can't really ask more of a video: to pique the viewer's interest into the past.

Bones of the Buddha is a fascinating video, and well worth added to your viewing choices.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.