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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

All Research Projects

The Natal Landscape of the Buddha, Phase II: Tilaurakot

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.

Background

The site of Tilaurakot is located three kilometres north of the town of Taulihawa on the eastern bank of the river Banganga. The site consists of a fortified 'citadel' of approximately 500 metres by 400 metres and is surrounded by a series of associated monuments. Tilaurakot was first noted as a place of archaeological interest during the 1896 tour of Dr A. Fuhrer, Archaeological Surveyor for the North-Western Provinces and Oudh, during which he stated that there were many important Buddhist remains in its vicinity. Three years later, the archaeologist P.C. Mukherji was convinced that the remains at the site of Tilaurakot represented Kapilavastu, the capital of the Sakya kingdom, and childhood home of the Buddha.

Two short field seasons were conducted in 2012 and 2013, focusing on assessment work st the southern industrial mound and northern rampart. After the success of Phase I of the UNESCO project Strengthening the Conservation and Management of Lumbini; the Birthplace of Lord Buddha, it was agreed that the next four years of UNESCO funding through the Japanese funds-in-Trust would focus on investigating and developing the site of Tilaurakot. Phase II of the project began in 2014 and brought together archaeologists, conservators, site planners and management teams to look at how to protect, preserve and promote the site. The 2018 field season was generously funded through a private donation by Dr Kasai of the Hotel Kasai Lumbini to bridge a hiatus in UNESCO funding. Phase III of the UNESCO-JFiT funding began in 201, with a greater focus on conserving and presenting the site for visitors, pilgrims and the local community.

The long-term aim is to seek World Heritage Status for the site.

Funding

The project is funded by the following grants.

  • Strengthening The Conservation And Management Of Lumbini, The Birthplace Of The Lord Buddha, World Heritage Property (phase Ii) (£48355.95 from UNESCO)
  • Archaelogical Identification, Evaluation And Interpretation Of Lumbai And Tilaurakot (£32117.38 from UNESCO)
  • Unesco: Strengthening The Conservation And Management Of Lumbrini, The Birthplace Of Lord Buddha (phase Ll) (£40687.00 from UNESCO)
  • Archaeological Investigations Of Tilaurakot (£41762.01 from Government of Hokke Shu)
  • Tilaurakot-kapilavastu: Reinvestigating The Archaeology Of The Natal Landscape Of The Buddha (£13997.80 from National Geographic Society)
  • Excavating The Palace Of Tilaurakot, Nepal: Reinvestigating The Archaeology Of The Natal Landscape Of The Buddha (£10283.66 from National Geographic Society)
  • Strengthening The Conservation And Management Of Lumbini - Tilaurakot, Kudan And Araurakot 2017 (£52724.00 from UNESCO)
  • Excavating, Conserving And Presenting Tilaurokot-kapilavastu (£142011.50 from )
  • Strengthening The Conservation And Management Of Lumbini, The Birthplace Of Lord Buddha, The World Heritage Property (phase Iii) (£48412.52 from UNESCO)

Aims

Archaeological investigations at Tilaurakot began in 2012, and continue until September 2021. The aim of the project is to evaluate and interpret the urban morphology of Tilaurakot, as well as develop a better understanding of the immediate environs of the city. To do so, the project combines geophysical survey, auger-coring, excavation, fieldwalking and geoarchaeology, as well as monitoring and interviewing visors to the site and the social and economic impact of heritage on local communities and businesses. The project is also looking at the associated sites of Kudan and Araurakot, as well as several other archaeological sites near Tilaurakot. This is partly to develop an understanding of the wider hinterland of the ancient city, and to assist in the long-term protection of the important heritage of region. 

Findings

The research at Tilaurakot has revealed the most complete plan of an Early Historic South Asian city since John Marshall worked at Taxila in the 1920s. Geophysical survey within and around the city has revealed a grid-plan layout of houses, shops, buildings, streets and lanes, with cardinally oriented gateways provided access in and out of the city. At the centre of the city lies an inner walled compound measuring roughly 100x100 metres, and just to the northwest of this what looked like a large, square monumental tank. Outside the city, geophysics has identified the remains of a large monastic complex to the east, and further structures to the south and west.

Inside the city, excavations have been conducted at the newly discovered central walled complex, within the central tank, on a high mound near the modern Samai Mai Temple, across the northern and eastern rampart, and over many of the structural features identified during geophysics.

A large trench within the northwest quadrant of the central walled complex covering 60x20 metres was excavated in 2016. It exposed the large perimeter wall, measuring 1.5 metres wide and up to one metre in height; a monumental gateway providing access to the complex; and inside a large structure measuring 20x20 metres, with several rooms around a central courtyard. In 2017, a second trench measuring c.70x30 metres was excavated to the southeast focusing on the central crossroads of the city and a series of structures running from there to the eastern gateway of the complex. Here, we identified a distinct architectural style not found elsewhere in the city. The brick walls of the structures would have been 20 or 30 courses high, and external areas were paved with brick. The entire complex is palatial in scale and construction and is suggestive of a monumental complex at the centre of the city, possibly relating to the administrative and political elites of ancient Tilaurakot.

At the Samai Mai Temple, a deep trench uncovered a long chronological sequence, stretching back from the origins of the city, to its final occupation. At the base were postholes representing timber architecture, stretching through to carved brick at the surface. This is mirrored at the northern rampart, where another deep trench cutting through the different phases of fortification wall also demonstrated early timber palisades, replaced by successive phases of clay and brick rampart. The earliest fortification of the city was created in the 6th century BC, and is suggestive of centralised control and urban design at ancient Tilaurakot from its earliest phases of occupation. From the trench on the eastern rampart, we now know that the later clay rampart would also have been topped with a timber fence.

Excavation at the central tank uncovered a two-metre-deep brick facing to a large central tank, which was Mauryan in date. Similar in appearance to tanks found in the medieval cities of the Kathmandu Valley the working hypothesis is that some architectural styles and forms developed in the Terai before moving up to the valley as part of urban design. Elsewhere in the city trenches have demonstrated distinctive architectural features. Most notably, the main construction technique of the city is to build low brick walls, and then cut postholes into them to support a timber superstructure. Roofs were most likely thatched rather than tiled. Obviously, this is very different in the central walled complex, where the exterior walls were much higher, and would have directly supported a roof.

Outside the walls, the wider hinterland of the city has been investigated. To the south was a large industrial mound, where a trench in 2012 yielded over eight tons of metalworking residues, as well as furnaces and crucibles. Dating to the fourth century BC, this indicates that heavy polluting industries were located outside the city from early on. To the east of the city lies an overgrown stupa. Thought to be an isolated monument, geophysical survey uncovered a huge monumental complex, which when excavated, was found only 25 centimetres below the current ground surface. Dating to the third century BC, these monuments around the city highlight the importance of the archaeological heritage of Tilaurakot and the surrounding landscape, but also the need to protect it from future development. Fieldwalking has demonstrated a wide spread of cultural material in all directions.

To understand the needs of visitors, and to understand the current social and economic impacts of the site, the project also conducted interviews with residents, businesses as well as tourists and pilgrims to gain an understanding of who visits the site and how this impacts the local economy. Monitoring visitor behaviour has enabled us to assess the needs of pilgrims, tourists and the local population, which will contribute to aiding sustainable development at Tilaurakot, whilst also preserving and protecting the sites unique cultural heritage.

The project has also begun to explore the morphology and extent of surrounding sites in the Natal landscape of the Buddha, including Ramagrama, Kudan, Araurakot, Sisaniya, Sagrahawa, Karma and Dohani to further understand the origins and developments of these sites, as well as their links to Tilaurakot and Lumbini.

Published Results

Authored book

  • Coningham, R.A.E., Lin, R., Chang, R., Chien, M., Gong, M., Barclay, C., Lu, Y., Barclay, R., Tremblay, J. & Xian, Y. (2018). Walking with the Buddha: Discovering the Natal Landscape of the Buddha. Fo Guan Shan Buddha Museum.

Journal Article

  • Coningham, R.A.E., Acharya, K.P., Manuel, M.J., Davis, C.E. , Kunwar, R.B., Simpson, I.A., Strickland, K.M., Smaghur, E., Tremblay, J. & Lafortune-Bernard, A. (2018). Archaeological investigations at Tilaurakot-Kapilavastu, 2014-2016. Ancient Nepal 197-198: 5-59.
  • Coningham, R.A.E., Acharya, K.P., Davis, C.E., Strickland, K.M., McDonnell, G., Tremblay, J., Manuel, M.J. & Bidari, B. (2016). Defining the Chronological and Cultural Sequence of Mound V Tilaurakot (Nepal) a report on pilot excavations conducted in 1999. Ancient Nepal 190: 18-29.
  • Davis, C.E., Coningham, R.A.E., Acharya, K.P., Simpson, I.A., Tremblay, J., Kunwar, R.B., Manuel, M.J., Krishna Bahadur, K.C. & Bidari, B. (2016). Re-investigating Tilaurakot’s Ancient Fortifications: a preliminary report of excavations through the northern rampart (Nepal). Ancient Nepal 190: 30-46.
  • Strickland, K.M., Coningham, R.A.E., Acharya, K.P., Dahal, B.N., Davis, C.E., Kunwar, R.B., Tremblay, J., Simpson, I.A., Jones, J., Hale, D., Krishna Bahadur, K.C. & Bidari, B. (2016). Recent archaeological excavations at Tilaurakot’s southern Industrial mound (Nepal): a preliminary report. Ancient Nepal 190: 47-58.
  • Schmidt, A.R., Coningham, R.A.E., Strickland, K.M. & Shoebridge, J.E. (2011). A pilot geophysical evaluation of the site of Tilaurakot, Nepal. Ancient Nepal 177: 1-16.

Chapter in book

  • Coningham, R.A.E., Acharya, K.P., Manuel, M.J. & Tremblay, J. (2019). Sites of the Greater Lumbini Area. In The Sacred Garden of Lumbini. UNESCO UNESCO. 223-259.
  • Coningham, R.A.E., Acharya, K.P., Kunwar, R.B., Davis, C.E., Manuel, M.J., Simpson, I.A., Strickland, K.M., Hale, D., Tremblay, J. & Lafortune-Bernard, A. (2018). Excavating ancient Kapilavastu: the childhood home of Lord Buddha. In Buddha Rashmi Vesak Volume 2018: Essays in Buddhism and Buddhist Monastic Archaeology. Gunawardhana, P. & Coningham, R.A.E. Colombo, Sri Lanka Central Cultural Fund, Ministry of Education, Sri Lanka. 8-25.
  • Coningham, R.A.E., Acharya, K.P., Schmidt, A. & Bidari, B. (2010). Searching for Kapilavastu. In Essays in Archaeology. Gunawardhana, P., Adikari, G. & Coningham, R.A.E. Colombo: Neptune Publishers. 55-66.

Staff

From the Department of Archaeology

Scottish Soldiers Project

Cooperating with the Palace Museum in China