The Making of the Taj Mahal – Shantanu Bhagwat

Taj Mahal, Agra, India
The author of this article on the Taj Mahal, Shantanu Bhagwat, is not happy with our reposting of his content from The Times of India series, so we have removed it and given the links to the original article instead. Though it is now more difficult to access the article, visitors are encouraged to do so and learn about the real history of the building of Taj Mahal. – Editor

The Times of India article links

Part One: Re-examining history

Part Two: The making of the Taj

Part Three: The leaking domes and clueless master builders

Part Four: The Taj & Badshahnama: Is this the smoking gun?

Part Five: Was the Taj Mahal really built to be a tomb?

The TOI article in PDF format is now available on Google Docs

The TOI article in PDF format is available on e-Samskriti.com

Another version of the article is at Satyameva-Jayate.org

1 – Re-examining History: The Making of the Taj

2 – Re-examining History: The Gold Railing, the Leaks, the Palaces

3 – Re-examining History: The Motifs, the Design, the Features – Was the Taj Mahal really built to be a tomb?

Taj Site Plan

Taj Mahal Site Plan: The Taj Mahal complex can be conveniently divided into 5 sections: 1. The ‘moonlight garden’ to the north of the river Yamuna. 2. The riverfront terrace, containing the Mausoleum, Mosque and Jawab. 3. The Charbagh garden containing pavilions. 4. The jilaukhana containing accommodation for the tomb attendants and two subsidiary tombs. 5. The Taj Ganji, originally a bazaar and caravanserai only traces of which are still preserved. The great gate lies between the jilaukhana and the garden. Levels gradually descend in steps from the Taj Ganji towards the river.

 

Leading archaeologist says Old Testament stories are fiction – David Keys

David KeysProfessor Thompson … says that there is a complete absence of archaeological and historical evidence for many events portrayed in the Bible. The inevitable conclusion, he argues, is that the Israelite exile in Egypt, the Exodus and the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land never took place.” – David Keys

Prof Thomas L. ThompsonAbraham, Jacob, Moses, King David, and King Solomon in all his splendour, never existed, a 15-year study of archaeological evidence has concluded.

The study – by Professor Thomas Thompson, one of the world’s foremost authorities on biblical archaeology – says that the first 10 books of the Old Testament are almost certainly fiction, written between 500 and 1,500 years after the events they purport to describe.

Jewish TorahProfessor Thompson’s claims, outlined in a new book, The Early History of the Israelite People, are being taken seriously by scholars.

The British Museum’s leading expert on the archaeology of the Holy Land, Jonathan Tubb, said last week: ‘Professor Thompson may well be right in many of his arguments. His book is a work of tremendous scholarship. He has been meticulous in his research, and brave in expressing what many of us have thought intuitively for a long time but have been reticent in saying.’

Professor Thompson – from Marquette University in Milwaukee [and the University of Copenhagen] – says that there is a complete absence of archaeological and historical evidence for many events portrayed in the Bible. The inevitable conclusion, he argues, is that the Israelite exile in Egypt, the Exodus and the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land never took place.

Excavations have found no trace of a settled population around Judea and Jerusalem during the 10th century BC, when the Kingdom of David and Solomon was supposed to have flourished. A community that could have supported a kingdom did not form in Judea until at least a century later, Professor Thompson said. Jerusalem did not become a large and politically influential city until about 650 BC.

David by MichelangeloHe added: ‘It is out of the question that Saul, David, and Solomon, as described as kings in the Bible, could have existed. I think the biblical accounts are wonderful stories, invented at the time when Jerusalem was part of the Persian Empire in the 5th Century BC.’

The Israelite nation, he believes, was a creation of the Persian Empire and was formed around 450 BC. But the people who were moved to Jerusalem at that time were not the descendants of those who had been deported from the city after the Bablyonian capture in 586 BC. They were descendants of Syrian, Philistine, Phoenician, Judean, and other peoples who had also been forcibly deported to Babylon.

The first temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem was built at the instigation of the Persians, also in 450 BC – 500 years after the date suggested by the Bible. Before then, the main centre for the worship of Yahweh was in Samaria but, according to Professor Thompson, the religion had been in decline for several centuries. The Persian motive was to build up Jerusalem, with its newly-planted population, as a city of regional importance and to reduce Samaria’s standing. It was the Persian empire’s practice to build temples to important regional deities.

Professor Thompson’s thesis was taken calmly last week by leading spokesmen for Judaism. Rabbi Stephen Howard, chairman of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues Rabbinic Conference, said: ‘The Bible was written to explore the human relationship with God, not primarily as a history book. It is the wisdom, not the historicity, of the Bible which is of prime importance.’

Clive CalverRabbi Julian Jacobs, a member of Chief Rabbi’s cabinet, said: ‘The Bible, being of divine origin, can stand on its own feet and does not require supportive evidence.’

But the book – which is published by E. J. Brill in Leiden, the Netherlands – will offend some religious groups. The Reverend Clive Calver, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, which claims 1.2 million supporters, said it was the beginning of ‘a new phase in attacks upon the authenticity of scripture’. – The Independent, 28 March 1993

» David Keys is a history and archaeology consultant for TV documentaries, feature films and journalism. He writes for The Independent newspaper in London nand tweets at @Davidmkeys.

Will the real Moses please stand up – Ofri Ilani

Dr. Ofri Ilani“Thus it was a Jew, Freud, who came up with the theory that paints the people of Israel in the harshest light, as the murderers of their leader and founder of their own religion. In the 70 years since Freud published his book, mountains of criticism have been heaped on his murder-of-Moses theory.” – Dr Ofri Ilani

MosesOne day, King Amenophis of Egypt decided that he wanted to see the gods with his own eyes. He called on one of the kingdom’s sages and asked him how he could make his wish come true. The wise man replied that the king could do so if he were to cleanse Egypt of lepers and other impure people.

The king took immediate action. He gathered all the people with disabilities and diseases and expelled them all to the stone quarries east of the Nile, to endure hard labor and be separated from the rest of the population.

When the sage saw the king’s acts of cruelty, which were committed because of his prophecy, he feared the rage of the gods and the destructive consequences of his act, and killed himself.

The lepers labored in the quarries for a long time before Amenophis finally allocated the empty city of Avaris for them to live in.

Upon arrival, they made an Egyptian priest from Heliopolis named Osarseph their leader, and swore to obey his every order. Osarseph assigned the lepers a series of rules, each of them a violation of Egyptian law. Among other things, he forbade them to eat the animals that were sacred to Egyptians, and further ordered that these animals be slaughtered whenever they were encountered.

Next he dispatched emissaries to the Hyksos, a tribe of shepherds that had been expelled from Egypt by the Pharaohs and were living at that time in a city called Jerusalem — and invited them to join forces with the lepers and defeat Pharaoh. After anointing himself king over the shepherds and lepers, Osarseph changed his name to Moses.

To someone who has been hearing about the Israelites’ slavery and exodus from Egypt since childhood, this story sounds oddly familiar. It was written by Manetho, an Egyptian priest who lived in the 3rd century B.C.E., and who evidently based his account on ancient hieroglyphic inscriptions preserved in Egyptian tombs.

To a great extent, we can view the story of the enslaved lepers and their leader Osarseph as the Egyptian version of the Exodus story. Manetho’s tale continued by recounting that the joint army of lepers and shepherds from Jerusalem took over the kingdom of the Nile, vandalized the statues of the gods, and led a reign of cruelty over the kingdom. They quit Egypt only when Pharaoh came with a large army and drove them northward.

Was Moses actually an Egyptian priest who led a revolt against his country? Various writers have raised this theory on numerous occasions in the past, from the Hellenistic period to the 20th century. It is supported by, among other things, the recurrent appearance in ancient Egyptian sources of the name Mose, which was fairly common among the Egyptian nobility.

Unfortunately, Manetho’s book has been lost to history; the Moses-Osarseph story reached us thanks to Flavius Josephus, the 1st-century C.E. Jewish-cum-Roman historian, who quotes him in his book Against Apion.

Josephus tries to undercut the Egyptian priest Manetho’s version, and presents it as a ridiculous story that is rife with contradictions. Scholars today are divided over whether Manetho’s version of the birth of the Israelites is actually a deliberate distortion of the Biblical story about the Exodus from Egypt, or is perhaps based on certain historical elements that were preserved in Egypt and were passed down to him.

Titus Flavius JosephusMoses the general

Egyptologist Jan Assmann is of the second opinion. Assmann, author of the book Moses the Egyptian, argues that the story Manetho recounts is based on traditions that were left over from two traumatic events in Egyptian history: the religious revolution by Pharaoh Akhenaten, known as the Heretic King, who tried to ban idol worship and impose a monotheistic religion with the sun god Aten at its center; and Egypt’s conquest by the Semitic Hyksos shepherds.

Assmann contends that the story of the Exodus from Egypt as told in the Bible is a version of that affair — the nomads’ takeover and expulsion — that had been preserved in Canaan and found expression in the Torah.

Whether true or false, Manetho’s version of the Exodus from Egypt is among the first of countless theories and myths that grew up around the Biblical story down through the generations. These theories tried to solve the mystery of the story in various ways, and to imbue it with various meanings.

While Josephus Flavius denies Manetho’s story about the leper revolt, he provides another odd tale of his own. In his work Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus tells of a little-publicized chapter in Moses’ life.

Exodus leaves blank the chapter of Moses’ life from the time he was saved as a baby by Pharaoh’s daughter until he witnessed the suffering of his people and killed the Egyptian taskmaster. But Flavius provides details.

He recounts that Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, and on reaching adulthood was appointed chief of the army and led the Egyptian troops in a war against their Ethiopian enemies.

It was a tough battle. To mislead the enemy, Moses guided the Egyptian army along an unexpected route, through the desert. But there he had to contend with a surprising foe: flying snakes, which according to Flavius are born in massive numbers from the desert soil.

Moses came up with a brilliant strategy to overcome this obstacle: He ordered baskets made, and placed in them the birds known in Egypt as ibises. He released the ibis in the desert and they hunted the snakes, clearing the way for the Egyptian army with Moses at the helm.

When the Egyptian army reached Sheba, the Ethiopians’ capital, Moses faced another problem: The city was walled and sat on an island in the Nile.

The Egyptians would have had to retreat had it not been for an act of treason on the Ethiopian side. Therbis, the daughter of the Ethiopian king, saw Moses over the wall and fell head-over-heels in love with him. She sent one of her servants to make him an offer: the city would be handed over to Moses on condition that he marry her.

Moses welcomed the deal, and the city was surrendered without a fight. Moses returned to Egypt with an Ethiopian wife.

We tend to believe Josephus when he tells of the revolt against the Romans and the suicide of Masada’s defenders, but for some reason the story of Moses the general never took root in Jewish historical lore.

The Bible scholars Yair Zakovitch and Avigdor Shinan claim, in their book That’s Not What the Good Book Says (Hebrew, Yedioth Ahronoth), that Josephus’ words might reflect an ancient tradition that was prevalent among the ancient Israelites, regarding Moses’ adventures in the early part of his life, i.e., at Pharaoh’s court.

The editors of the Torah, say Zakovitch and Shinan, tried to excise that tradition, because it portrayed Moses as a collaborator with the Egyptians.

Friedrich SchillerMoses the priest

While Jews have been handing down the story of the Exodus from Egypt from generation to generation, other peoples and cultures have expressed an interest in it as well. The Koran, for example, contains a version of the Exodus that is similar to the Biblical version, except that it includes a guest appearance by a surprising figure: Haman.

The well-known villain from the Book of Esther appears in the Koran as Pharaoh’s right-hand man, and at the end of the story he drowns along with the king. Apparently there is a connection between the name of Ahasuerus‘ adviser in the Book of Esther and that of Pharaoh’s chief minister in the Koran, but some argue that the name comes from the ancient Egyptian title Ha-amen, which was reserved for high-ranking officials in the Pharaonic court.

Christian scholars, particularly during the Renaissance period, were partial to a different theory that held that Moses was introduced to monotheistic belief by an Egyptian priest named Hermes Trismegistus.

The basis for this theory is a verse from the New Testament book Acts of the Apostles, which describes Moses as “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.”

In the Enlightenment period this claim was the basis for scientific theories that the Torah laws Moses gave to his people were actually pale copies of Egyptian laws.

The German poet Friedrich Schiller went further than any other philosopher of his time in describing the Egyptian education that Moses received. According to his essay The Mission of Moses, the Hebrew boy attended a school for Egypt’s priestly caste.

There the idea of monotheism — a primal force that drives the universe — was bequeathed from one generation to the next.

However, the priests kept this knowledge a secret so as not to rouse their idol-worshipping people to rebellion, and thus encoded it in the form of hieroglyphs and animal statuary.

“The entirety of the civil constitution was founded upon the worship of gods,” Schiller writes, “and were this caused to collapse, all the pillars supporting the entire edifice of the state would have collapsed at the same time. It was still quite uncertain whether the new religion, conceived to take its place, would also stand firm enough to carry that edifice.”

During the time he was training to become a priest, Moses memorized the Egyptian hieroglyphs and the mysterious rituals of the order. When he came to know the suffering of his enslaved people, he wanted both to save them and reveal to them the secret of the true divinity, of whose existence he had learned at the school for priests.

But because he knew his people’s limited capacity for perception, Moses decided to identify that god with the national god of the Hebrews, who was already familiar to them from the tales of their ancestors. Moses revealed the secret of the Egyptian priestly caste, but covered over part of it with an old-new legend.

And thus the Hebrew religion was born.

Sigmund FreudMoses the murdered

Schiller’s theory about Moses’ Egyptian education, and other essays written throughout the 19th century, were the source for the most famous theory of our time about the unknown aspects of Moses’ story: Sigmund Freud‘s book Moses and Monotheism, which came out in 1939, shortly before the author’s death.

Freud adopted the claim that Moses had been an Egyptian priest. He argued that circumcision is an Egyptian idea, and that Moses instituted the religion of Egypt’s monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten among the Hebrews. Except that the wise Egyptian forced this faith on the people he had adopted, and the Israelites, a stubborn people, disobeyed him and rose up against him.

According to the father of psychoanalysis, they could not bear such a spiritual, abstract and lofty religion. So one day, they rebelled and killed their leader — a shameful event that was censored from the Biblical text and therefore forgotten.

As Freud has it, after they murdered Moses, the Jews renounced the imposed burden of Akhenaten’s religion, and crowned instead Jhave, “A rude, narrow-minded local god, violent and bloodthirsty,” in Freud’s words, who ordered his believers to destroy the people living in Canaan. The monotheistic idea was shrouded in darkness; guilt over the leader’s murder remained in the repressed memory.

It erupted only a thousand years later, in the writings of the Jewish Saul (later Paul) of Tarsus, one of the founders of Christianity. The repressed remorse at the murder of Moses turned into the story of Jesus, the son of God who was murdered but returned to save the world.

Thus it was a Jew, Freud, who came up with the theory that paints the people of Israel in the harshest light, as the murderers of their leader and founder of their own religion. In the 70 years since Freud published his book, mountains of criticism have been heaped on his murder-of-Moses theory.

But perhaps something of the Jews’ buried grudge against their greatest of heroes surfaced in former prime minister Golda Meir‘s words during a conversation with reporters in Germany in 1973.

“Let me tell you something that we Israelis have against Moses,” Meir said. “He took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil!” – Haaretz, 29 March 2010

» Dr Ofri Ilany is an Israeli post-graduate student at Humboldt University in Berlin.

The mystery of the Bible’s imaginary camels – Elizabeth Dias

Elizabeth Dias“The new study again raises the age-old question of biblical accuracy. The phantom camel is just one of many historically jumbled references in the Bible. The Book of Genesis claims the Philistines, the traditional enemy of the Israelites, lived during Abraham’s time. But historians date the Philistines’ arrival to the eastern Mediterranean at about 1200 B.C., 400 years after Abraham was supposed to have lived.” – Elizabeth Dias

Abraham and his wives and camelsOnce upon a time, Abraham owned a camel. According to the Book of Genesis, he probably owned lots of camels. The Bible says that Abraham, along with other patriarchs of Judaism and Christianity, used domesticated camels — as well as donkeys, sheep, oxen and slaves — in his various travels and trade agreements. Or did he?

Last week, archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University released a new study that dates the arrival of the domesticated camel in the eastern Mediterranean region to the 10th century BCE at the earliest, based on radioactive-carbon techniques. Abraham and the patriarchs, however, lived at least six centuries before then. The New York Times, in a story about the finding today, announced, “There are too many camels in the Bible, out of time and out of place … these anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history.” Behold, a mystery: the Case of the Bible’s Phantom Camels.

The discovery is actually far from new. William Foxwell Albright, the leading American archeologist and biblical scholar who confirmed the authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls, argued in the mid-1900s that camels were an anachronism. Historian Richard Bulliet of Columbia University explored the topic in his 1975 book, The Camel and the Wheel, and concluded that “the occasional mention of camels in patriarchal narratives does not mean that the domestic camels were common in the Holy Land at that period.” Biblical History 101 teaches that the texts themselves were often written centuries after the events they depict.

Philistine WarriorThe new study again raises the age-old question of biblical accuracy. The phantom camel is just one of many historically jumbled references in the Bible. The Book of Genesis claims the Philistines, the traditional enemy of the Israelites, lived during Abraham’s time. But historians date the Philistines’ arrival to the eastern Mediterranean at about 1200 BCE, 400 years after Abraham was supposed to have lived, according to Carol Meyers, professor of religion at Duke University.

Then there’s the case of the great earthquake in the prophetic Book of Zechariah. Geological evidence in archeological sites like Hazor and Gezer in Israel date it to the mid-8th century BCE. But the Book of Zechariah, written several hundred years later, uses the event to talk about what will happen at the end of time, notes Eric Meyers, director of Duke University’s Department of Religious Studies and Carol’s husband.

These anachronisms and historical inaccuracies, however, do not trouble biblical scholars. People in biblical times understood and wrote about their past differently from people in the modern, post-Enlightenment world. “We expect history to provide an accurate narrative of real events,” Carol Meyers explains. “The biblical authors, composers, writers used their creative imaginations to shape their stories, and they were not interested in what actually happened, they were interested in what you could learn from telling about the past.”

The Bible has also never been a history book or a scientific textbook, explains Choon-Leong Seow, professor of Old Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. Interpreting the Bible is a little like studying Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, he says. Modern viewers do not consider the Christ figure in da Vinci’s painting an accurate portrait because we know it was painted centuries after the supper happened, but that does not take away from the artist’s spiritual Jewish Torahmessage about Jesus’ last night with his disciples. “For us who believe that this is Scripture, Scripture is important as it has formative power, it forms the people, and it transforms,” Seow says. “It is poetic truth rather than literary truth.”

Understanding the Case of the Phantom Camel as a fight between archeological evidence and biblical narrative misses the entire spiritual point of the text, as far as scholars are concerned. Anachronisms and apocryphal elements do not mean the story is invalid, but instead give insight into the spiritual community in a given time and place. In this case, Bible: Religious romance or history?camels were a sign of wealth and developing trade routes, so it is likely that the biblical writer used the camel as a narrative device to point out power and status. “We needn’t understand these accounts as literally true, but they are very rich in meaning and interpretive power,” Eric Meyers says.

The study is going to ruffle the feathers of people who believe in biblical inerrancy, a doctrine popular among evangelical and other right-orthodoxy movements that says every word in the Bible is literally true. Liberal Judaism and Christianity, says Carol Meyers, often contribute to the problem when they do not look at the complexity of how ancient narratives were formed. Instead of worrying about proving history, she offers this suggestion: “If the Biblical writers are not interested in the facts, but rather in getting a message across, then people of faith can concentrate, instead of trying to verify every last item in the Bible, on what the overall message of the story is, not whether it is historically true or not.”

Case closed. – Time, 11 February 2014

» Elizabeth Dias reports on religion and politics for Time Magazine.

Asherah: Was God’s wife edited out of the Bible? – Christy Choi

Christy Choi“What remains of God’s purported other half are clues in ancient texts, amulets and figurines unearthed primarily in an ancient Canaanite coastal city, now in modern-day Syria. Inscriptions on pottery found in the Sinai desert also show Yahweh and Asherah were worshipped as a pair, and a passage in the Book of Kings mentions the goddess as being housed in the temple of Yahweh.” – Christy Choi

Hebrew Goddess AsherahSome scholars say early versions of the Bible featured Asherah, a powerful fertility goddess who may have been God’s wife.

Research by Francesca Stavrakopoulou, a senior lecturer in the department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter, unearthed clues to her identity, but good luck finding mention of her in the Bible. If Stavrakopoulou is right, heavy-handed male editors of the text all but removed her from the sacred book.

What remains of God’s purported other half are clues in ancient texts, amulets and figurines unearthed primarily in an ancient Canaanite coastal city, now in modern-day Syria. Inscriptions on pottery found in the Sinai desert also show Yahweh (Jehovah) and Asherah were worshipped as a pair, and a passage in the Book of Kings mentions the goddess as being housed in the temple of Yahweh.

J. Edward Wright, president of The Arizona Center for Judaic Studies and The Albright Institute for Archaeological Research, backs Stavrakopoulou’s findings, saying several Hebrew inscriptions mention “Yahweh and his Asherah.” He adds Asherah was not entirely edited out of the Bible by its male editors.

“Traces of her remain, and based on those traces … we can reconstruct her role in the religions of the Southern Levant,” he told Discovery News.

Yahweh & AsherahAsherah, he says, was an important deity in the Ancient Near East, known for her might and nurturing qualities. She was also known by several other names, including Astarte and Istar. But in English translations Ashereh was translated as “sacred tree.”

“This seems to be in part driven by a modern desire, clearly inspired by the Biblical narratives, to hide Asherah behind a veil once again,” Wright says.

Aaron Brody, director of the Bade Museum and an associate professor of Bible and archaeology at the Pacific School of Religion, says the ancient Israelites were polytheists, with only a “small majority” worshipping God alone. He says it was the exiling of an elite community within Judea and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C that lead to a more “universal vision of strict monotheism.” – Time, 22 March 2011

» Christy Choi writes for the South China Morning Post and lives in Hong Kong.

Will shrine discovery end Buddha’s birth date dispute? – Rediff

Maya Devi Temple with the Ashoka Pillar on the left.

Birth of Siddhartha Gautama at LumbiniThere is a dispute over the birth date of Buddha, many scholars believe that the sage lived and taught in the 4th century BCE and died at the age of 80. However, Nepalese authorities favour 623 BCE as the birth date of Buddha, though other traditions favour more recent dates, around 400 BCE. – Rediff

The key discovery of the oldest ‘Buddhist shrine’ at Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal will throw more light on one of the world’s earliest religions, archaeologists have said.

The international team, led by Nepal’s top archaeologists Robin Coningham and Kosh Prasad Acharya, said the discovery at Lumbini in western Nepal contributes to a greater understanding of the early development of Buddhism as well as the spiritual importance of the place.

Recent excavations within the sacred Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini, a UNESCO World Heritage site long identified as the birthplace of the Buddha, uncovered the remains of a previously unknown sixth-century BC timber structure, suggesting the sage may have lived earlier than thought.

Gautama Buddha“This is the first archaeological material linking the life of the Buddha — and thus the first flowering of Buddhism — to a specific century,” UNESCO Nepal office said in a release.

“Very little is known about the life of the Buddha, except through textual sources and oral tradition,” said lead researcher Coningham from Durham University‘s Archaeology Department.

“Now, for the first time, we have an archaeological sequence at Lumbini that shows a building there as early as the sixth century BCE,” Coningham said.

There is dispute over the birth date of Buddha, many scholars believe that the sage lived and taught in the 4th century BCE and died at the age of 80.

However, Nepalese authorities favour 623 BCE as the birth date of Buddha, though other traditions favour more recent dates, around 400 BCE. Now with the new excavations, it has been confirmed that the Buddha’s birth could have taken place in seventh century BCE as claimed by the Nepalese authorities or even earlier than that period, says Nabha Basnet, an official at UNESCO Nepal office.

To determine the dates of the timber shrine and a previously unknown early brick structure above it, fragments of charcoal and grains of sand were tested using a combination of radiocarbon and optically-stimulated luminescence techniques.

Sacred tree by the tank of the Maya Devi TempleGeoarchaeological research has confirmed the presence of ancient tree roots within the temple’s central void.

The archaeological investigation was funded by the Government of Japan in partnership with the Nepal government under a UNESCO project aimed at strengthening the conservation and management of Lumbini.

“UNESCO is very proud to be associated with this important discovery at one of the most holy places for one of the world’s oldest religions,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.

“More archaeological research, intensified conservation work and strengthened site management” to ensure Lumbini’s protection,” he pointed out.

“These discoveries are very important to better understand the birthplace of Buddha,” said Nepal’s Tourism Minister Ram Kumar Shrestha.

“The Government of Nepal will spare no effort to preserve this significant site.”

Lumbini is one of the key sites linked to the life of the Buddha besides Bodh Gaya, where he got enlightenment; Sarnath, where he first preached; and Kusinagara, where he passed away.

Except Lumbini, the birth place of Buddha, other three important sites linked to Buddha’s life are situated in north India.

Their peer-reviewed findings are reported in the December 2013 issue of the international journal Antiquity.

Ashoka pillar marking Buddha's birthplace at LumbiniBuddhist tradition records that Queen Maya Devi, the mother of the Buddha, gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree within the Lumbini Garden, midway between the kingdoms of her husband and parents.

Lost and overgrown in the jungles of western Nepal in the Medieval period, ancient Lumbini was rediscovered in 1896 and identified as the birthplace of the Buddha on account of the presence of a third-century BCE pillar.

The pillar bears an inscription documenting a visit by Indian Emperor Ashoka to the site of the Buddha’s birth as well as the site’s name – Lumbini.

Despite the rediscovery of key Buddhist sites, their earliest levels were buried deep or destroyed by later construction, leaving evidence of the very earliest stages of Buddhism inaccessible to archaeological investigation, until now.

Half a billion people around the world are Buddhists, and by 2020, some 22 million Buddhist pilgrims are expected to visit South Asia. Many hundreds of thousands make a pilgrimage to Lumbini each year. – Rediff, 28 November 2013

Ashoka Pillar Edict at Lumbini

Lumbini street scene.

Genetic study finds caste system in India began about 2,000 years ago – Carolyn Y. Johnson

Carolyn Y. Johnson“Researchers believe that instead of a new population invading south Asia, both populations were already present in India. Thus, the mixing doesn’t represent a surge of newcomers, but more likely the breakdown of some cultural or traditional barrier that had led to a natural separation between the two groups.” – Carolyn Y. Johnson

Prof. David ReichA large genetic study of hundreds of people in South Asia has allowed scientists to probe important transition points in the population’s history, pinpointing when two different groups of people mixed widely and then stopped. The study provides a genetic signature of cultural changes that occurred as the caste system was put in place in India.

Researchers have long known that at some point in history, South Asia was a melting pot for two different groups of people. The clues have been scattered in various scientific fields: the history, language, and ancient farming traditions of South Asia all bore the imprint of different origins. Sanskrit and Hindi, spoken in the north, are thought to be related to European languages, while Tamil and Telugu, spoken in the south, are unrelated. Agriculture in the north started earlier, some 8,000 years ago, and was distinctly related to the crops first domesticated in West Asia; farming in the south initially involved native plants.

But when did these two populations mix, and when did they stop?

NeanderthalHarvard Medical School professor of genetics David Reich specializes in analyzing genetic information from modern people to understand how populations interbred in the past, previously revealing that present-day humans have a little bit of Neanderthal in them and that the ancestors of Native Americans arrived in North America in successive waves.

Now, in a partnership with researchers in Hyderabad, India, Reich has examined hundreds of thousands of regions in people’s genomes and found evidence that the northern and southern populations mixed around 1,900 to 4,200 years ago. That period was well after the arrival of agriculture in the region and around the same time as Indo-European languages began to be used, the researchers reported Thursday in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

“From genetic data, remarkably, you see this picture emerging of cultural change,” Reich said. The population mixture didn’t happen in pockets—it was a profound mixing that has left traces in the DNA of people in all areas of India today. But that came to an abrupt halt around 2,000 years ago, likely due to the implementation of the caste system, Reich said.

Rig VedaSupporting evidence for the genetic interpretation comes from an unlikely source: the Rig Veda, an ancient text dating back to about 1500 B.C. Different portions of the text are thought to have been written at different times, and the most ancient ones do not include references to the caste system. Those mentions come in later versions.

“The big news is that a lot of the stratification in India seems to be set down in the last few thousand years. The date estimates they give correspond to what we think is the arrival of the Indo-European languages,” said Spencer Wells, director of National Geographic’s Genographic Project, which is aimed at untangling the origins of indigenous populations. “There’s been a big debate in archeology about how that happened.”

Human Migration MapThe researchers believe that instead of a new population invading south Asia, both populations were already present in India. Thus, the mixing doesn’t represent a surge of newcomers, but more likely the breakdown of some cultural or traditional barrier that had led to a natural separation between the two groups.

What most interests Reich for future research, however, are the health implications of these ancient patterns of mixing. The caste system, which restricts marriage to people of different groups, gave rise to populations that were genetically isolated, and therefore may be more likely to harbor rare genetic diseases.

“That is not really well appreciated in India,” Reich said. “An important medical thing is to document this and characterize it.” – The Boston Globe, 9 August 2013

» Carolyn Y. Johnson is a science reporter for the The Boston Globe.

See  also

  1. 1 & 2 – Indo-Europeans: Their origins and the natural history of their languages – N.S. Rajaram
  2. 3 – Indo-Europeans: Pashupati’s animals on the march – N.S. Rajaram
  3. 1 – Indian Third Wave West: Fertile Cresent and mathematics – N.S. Rajaram
  4. 2 – Indian Third Wave West: From language to thought – N.S. Rajaram
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