Kathmandu (AsiaNews) - For the first time in the history of Buddhism, a team of international archaeologists, scientists and scholars have begun an excavation project in Lumbini to find evidence of Siddhartha Gautama's life, starting with his birth.
According to tradition, Prince Gautama was born around the 4th century BC, but some archaeologists now claim he was born two centuries earlier, at the end of the sixth century BC.
Supporting evidence for this hypothesis was found amid the ruins of a palace in Tilaurakot, which is where, according to tradition, Siddhartha lived.
The finding has sparked controversy and criticism among Buddhists, pushing the Nepali government and UNESCO to undertake a dig, which began yesterday, in the Buddha's birthplace.
Expected to last two months, the excavation project has been divided into three sites within the sacred area of Lumbini, which was identified as the Buddha's birthplace in the 19th century and which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The recent dig brought to light the ruins of a hitherto unknown wooden structure and a number of brick temples.
What has prompted archaeologists to backdate Siddhartha's birth is an open space that could be connected to the tree where, according to tradition, Siddhartha's mother Mahāmāyā gave birth.
The investigation will also cover the ruins of the city of Tilaurakot, where the palace of King Shudhodan, Gautama's father, is located. The founder of Buddhism spent the first 29 years of his life at the palace, which he fled to start his preaching.
Archaeologists are trying to bring into view the architecture of the palace and the city.
"Very little is known about the life of the Buddha, except through textual sources and oral tradition," said archaeologist Robin Coningham of Durham University in Britain who is co-leading the investigation.
At present, "We are digging to reveal the reality about Buddha's life as our former investigation two months ago, for the first time, had an archaeological sequence at Lumbini that shows a building there as early as the sixth century BC," Coningham explained.
The 18-member team includes consultants, experts and archaeologists from UNESCO, Department of Archaeology, the Lumbini Development Trust, Durham and Sterling Universities and 13 students doing their master in culture at Tribhuvan University.
Discovered by archaeologists in 1897, Lumbini has become one of Buddhism's most important locations, as well as an UNESCO World Heritage site.
Although recognised only by some of Asia's Buddhist communities, millions of pilgrims visit it every year.
Construction is banned out of respect for the monasteries that surrounded it.