The general consensus among modern scholars is that Buddha Sakyamuni died within a few years of 480 BCE. It has been recorded in ancient texts that after the Buddha’s body had been cremated at Kusinagari the remaining ashes and bone fragments were divided into portions and shared between the rulers of eight kingdoms including the Buddha’s own clan the Sakya’s of Kapilavastu. In accordance with the Buddha’s instructions ten stupa’s were constructed; one in each of the kingdoms of the eight recipients that had taken a share of the relics, one over the ashes of the cremation pyre and a further one over the vessel in which the bones and ashes had been gathered. According to ancient history the Emperor Ashoka, who’s empire spread over most of the Indian sub-continent from circa 270 BCE-230 BCE, broke open nine of the ten stupa’s in order to redistribute their contents throughout his realm and in the process created a series of monuments that memorialized the Buddha’s life.
In the 1890’s a number of these monuments were discovered in Northern India near the Nepalese border, this included in 1896 the discovery of an Ashokan stone pillar at Lumbini that was believed to identify the place of the Buddha’s birth.
These activities caught the attention of William Claxton Peppé a British colonial engineer and landowner who managed a series of estates south of the Nepalese border including one large estate called Birdpur. In his report later published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society W. C. Peppé wrote:
‘Since the discovery of the pillar in the Lumbini Garden commemorating the birthplace of Gautama Buddha considerable curiosity has been aroused concerning the different mounds or kots as they are locally called, which occur dotted over the tract extending from Kapilavastu on the north-west and the Lumbini Garden on the north-east in Nepalese territory to a distance of several miles inside the British territory’.
In the spring of 1897 W.C Peppé began to excavate one mound that was particularly ‘more prominent than the rest’ near the village of Piprahwa on the Birdpur estate. His decision to begin excavations at this time may have also been an altruistic one. Throughout 1896 & 1897 Central and North West India had been terribly affected by famine, mortality rates from both starvation and accompanying epidemics was extremely high. An endeavour such as the excavation at Piprahwa would have lifted morale and provided famine relief in very trying times, something that W.C. Peppé, as an apparently conscientious landlord, was acutely aware of.
After weeks spent clearing away soil and dense scrub that covered the mound preliminary excavations exposed a solid mass of red fired brickwork that after further digging revealed itself to be a large dome roof roughly 130 feet in diameter. Realising that he required expert advice Peppé sought out Vincent Smith, a renowned authority on ancient Indian history and archaeology who fortuitously was serving nearby as a district officer.
Having inspected the partially excavated kot Smith immediately announced that it was an unusually early example of an ancient Buddhist stupa probably dating from the era of Ashoka the Great. At the beginning of January 1898 Peppé continued with excavations and after digging through eighteen feet of solid brickwork he came across a huge slab of stone that revealed itself to be the cover of an enormous stone coffer which had been, as Peppé later noted, ‘hollowed at the cost of vast labour and expense’. Within the coffer were found five vessels, none more than seven inches in height, which contained a vast array of treasure. These precious offerings included quantities of stars in silver and gold, discs of gold leaf embossed with Buddhist symbols, numerous pearls of many sizes, some of which had been fused together in sets of two, three and four. There were drilled beads, stars and flowers cut in red or white cornelian, amethyst, topaz, garnet, coral and crystal. Also found inside the vessels were small pieces of bone and ash and on the side of one of them, in an ancient Pali character was an inscription that read:
“This shrine for relics of the Buddha, the August One, is that of the Sakya’s, the brethren of the Distinguished One, in association with their sisters, and with their children and their wives”
William Peppé had seemingly unearthed one of the original eight stupa’s that was said to contain the ashes and bone fragments of the Buddha that was shared out after his cremation. The Buddha’s own Sakya clan had perhaps built this stupa to contain the relics of their ‘illustrious kinsman’ Gautama Buddha. It is likely that the Piprahwa stupa was constructed in three phases. The first phase was built by the Sakya's around the time of the Buddha's death, this phase consisted of a circular mud built adobe structure measuring approximately 38.9 meters (127ft) in diameter and 0.9 meters (3ft) in height. The second phase is early Mauryan and believed to have been built by the Emperor Ashoka, who, in the second century BCE, disinterred the Buddha’s remains and created his own structure to house the relics and his own relic offerings on top of the original Sakyan site. This second phase was characterised by well fired mud bricks made with rice - straw and laid in clay mortar in concentric circles, the base measured 35meters (116ft ) in diameter and 6.7 meters (22ft) in height. During the third phase of construction the height of the stupa was raised and the base was squared off, monastic buildings were also constructed around the stupa. This all happened at an unknown date although most likely during the Kushan era, approximately two hundred and fifty years after the reign of Ashoka.