The Buddha and Dr Führer: an Archaeological Scandal by Charles Allen
by Sara Wheeler, The Telegraph (UK), Dec 30, 2008
Sara Wheeler on the man who claimed to have found the Buddha's birthplace
London, UK -- In 1898, on an estate between the foothills of the Himalayas and the Gangetic Plains, a third-generation British planter called William Claxton Peppé excavated an intriguing brick stupa. At 24 feet, he unearthed a hefty stone coffer containing five reliquary vases. Besides a glittering heap of jewels and gold, one of the vases held ashes. An inscription around the rim recorded that the ashes were the remains of the Buddha, and that they had been deposited by members of his Sakya clan.
Unfortunately, shortly after Peppé’s discovery, a German archaeologist called Dr Anton Führer, a former Catholic priest digging 15 miles away, was involved in an archaeological scandal. Führer had claimed to have discovered the Buddha’s birthplace at Lumbini, just over the border in Nepal, as well as the city where the young Buddha lived as Prince Siddhartha. The trouble was that Führer had been tangentially involved in the Peppé dig – an association that cast doubt on the authenticity of the vase and its ashes.
Overall, though, as in his previous work, Allen displays a strong sense of narrative, conjuring shikaris bent over trenches in their enormous solar topees while a naked sadhu from the local temple looks on from the shade of a banyan tree, no doubt thinking all foreigners insane.
A comprehensive final chapter assesses the validity of the Peppé dig using carbon dating. In dealing with recent discoveries in the region, and with modern interpretations of the evidence, Allen covers the grim, yet hilarious battle, between India and Nepal over the true location of the Buddha’s birthplace. Unlike the respective tourist boards, he concludes that we don’t yet know where exactly the Buddha was born and raised, though Allen favours the Nepalese claim that the ruins of Tilaurakot by the river Banganga are the site of Kapilavastu. And he vouches for the authenticity of Peppé’s discoveries.
Allen is a distinguished author in the field; his previous books include Plain Tales from the Raj and Kipling Sahib. He is a scrupulous researcher who respects his sources. In these pages he pieces the story together like the shards of a broken vase while avoiding the Führer tendency to reach hasty conclusions. The Buddha and Dr Führer represents a personal mission to remove the stain of impropriety from an important set of archaeological findings, and Allen has achieved his goal with admirable rigour. The book is well illustrated with integrated maps, photographs and artistic images. None the less, this latest offering has a much narrower appeal than the author’s previous work, and its detailed analysis of archaeological history will discourage all but the most committed Buddhist scholars.