The Piprahwa find stands as the most authenticated discovery yet of relics relating to Buddha Sakyamuni. It is also the only authenticated discovery made in the Buddhist heartland of Magadha itself.
In July 2006, in association with the Royal Asiatic Society, a conference was organised at Harewood House with a brief to discuss all aspects of the discovery. Among those in attendance or reading papers on the subject were Richard Salomon (Professor of Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington and President of the American Oriental Society), Oskar von Hinuber (Professor of Indology at the University of Freiburg), Richard Gombrich (Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford and Founder-President of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies) and Madhuvanti Ghose (Curator at The Art Institute of Chicago).
With the exception of two critics (see ‘Modern Day Critics’ below), all of those present deemed the inscription and the items from the Piprahwa find to be genuine. Studies by today’s leading epigraphists, historians and gemologists have supported this conclusion. Furthermore, letters that were first introduced at the conference are now being made available to the public online for the first time on this website. They answer questions and doubts that may have existed at the time of the find.
The documentary ‘Bones of the Buddha’ needed a dramatic conceit around which the filmmakers could build the fascinating story of Piprahwa and the subsequent challenges it has presented to academics. It begins by stating its mission: to clear the name of Willie Peppé after a century of doubt. But the first accusation of anything that required W. C. Peppé’s name to be cleared did not surface until the advent of the internet. Prior to that there is no claim that suggests any such vindication was necessary.
A quote from T. W. Rhys Davids’ lecture to the Royal Asiatic Society in 1900 indicates that some doubts may have existed at the time:
The careful excavation of Mr Peppé makes it certain that this stupa had never been opened until he opened it…The hypothesis of forgery in this case is simply unthinkable.
There were no papers published or opinions recorded following the find which suggest that the Piprahwa discovery had been tampered with. This in itself suggests that Rhys Davids was responding to casual comments, questions or gossip, rather than to reasoned positions.
The subject was most likely raised because it had recently been revealed that Dr. Antoine Führer, the Archaeological Surveyor to the Government of the North West Provinces and Oude, was guilty of plagiarism and forgery. Could he in some way have tampered with the Piprahwa find? Today, original correspondences from the time of the discovery reveal that Führer’s involvement was minimal and that he did not even reach the stupa until six weeks after the find. Furthermore, Führer had been exposed by Vincent Smith, the same Indologist who had advised W. C. Peppé on the excavation of the stupa and who would have known of any such activities at the time of the stupa’s excavation.
A letter to W. C. Peppé on 17th June 1898, from the Ceylonese Pali scholar and High Priest, Sri Subhuti, provide a hint as to the kind of gossip that circulated as the result of Führer’s disgrace:
I hear that the relics & other articles you have discovered were taken in charge of Govt, But you have been allowed to have some of those for your disposal. I hear also some false rumours given out by some people who were in India regarding these relics, i.e. that there were only a few bone relics of Buddha and all the rest were bones of those Sakyas who were died at the battle of Widudhaba war, etc
The rumours that Subhuti alludes to most likely originated from members of the public who had confused Fuhrer’s excavation of the site of slaughtered Sakya warriors with the Piprahwa find. However, it may also have come from the many attempts to decipher the inscription on the urn.
Pali was a recently discovered language at the time and the Piprahwa inscription attracted many scholars. All agreed on the broader meaning of the inscription but it was the highly esteemed Professor of Indian Philology and Archaeology Georg Bühler whose details prevailed:
This relic shrine of the divine Buddha (is the donation) of the Sakya Sukiti-brothers, associated with their sisters, sons and wives.
Rhys Davids' lecture had also posed the question: 'If this stupa and these remains are not what they purport to be, then what are they? ' John Fleet, his successor at the Royal Asiatic Society attempted to answer this question by way of an alternative translation. He proposed that the relics are ‘not of Buddha himself… but of his kinsmen, with their wives and children and their unmarried sisters’. However, in 1906, Fleet withdrew his position after strong retaliation from fellow epigraphists M. Auguste Barth and Emile Senart. Barth issued a translation similar to Bühler’s that is still widely accepted by academics today:
The receptacle of relics of the blessed Buddha of the Sakya's (is the pious gift) of the brothers of Sukirti, jointly with their sisters, with their sons and their wives
Modern day critics
The age of the internet counted only one conspiracy theorist website that challenged the authenticity of the Piprahwa find. An independent British researcher asserted that Führer tampered with the find and that the British government covered it up in order to suit their foreign policy needs. The theory, which was read out at the Harewood House conference, pre-dates and does not address the letters archived in the Royal Asiatic Society in London in 2006. These are accessible on this site and move the conspiracy theory from the far-fetched to the implausible. The website no longer exists.
The late Andrew Huxley (SOAS) became a close friend and collaborator with Phelps, and used his research to put his own theories forward. Huxley, whose area of expertise was law, combines documentary evidence with speculative ‘courtroom style’ leaps for which there is no documentation. His papers or lectures have suggested that, despite taking time to write and publish three papers on the Piprahwa inscription, John Fleet actually believed it to be a Führer forgery but was silenced by the Royal Asiatic Society’s inner circle (Huxley’s SOAS inaugural address). Huxley also believes that Georg Bühler’s drowning in Lake Constance was actually a suicide brought about by the disgrace of his former student, Alois Anton Führer. (This was read at the Harewood House conference on Piprahwa but never published.)
Michael Willis, former curator of South Asian and Himalayan collections at the British Museum, has also used research materials provided by Phelps for other papers and was a close friend of Huxley. (Huxley’s final paper was given to Willis with the request that he see it published posthumously.) Willis has acknowledged the help of both Huxley and Phelps in papers he has published.
Willis offers that ‘I myself have not done detailed research on the discoveries, so I do not have a decided position as such’. However, he commented in a Royal Asiatic Society Journal review of another work that the Piprahwa inscription is ‘in all likelihood a forgery made by A. A. Führer’. It is unlikely that Willis is aware of the contents of the correspondence made accessible on this site.
(Thank you to the site visitor who bought our attention to the webpage Debunking the Piprahwa 'Deceptions' which dissects Phelps' conspiracy theory in concise bullet points.)