Between 2007 and 2010, archaeologists from the Nanjing Municipal Institute of Archaeology, aided by other Chinese experts, excavated a stone crypt buried beneath the Grand Bao’en Temple in Nanjing. Largely ignored by the Western media but covered extensively in China, the excavations yielded a stunning find: The crypt contained a 1,000-year-old model of a Buddhist shrine known as a stupa, made of sandalwood, crystal and gold and encrusted with gemstones. Inside the ornate artifact, the archaeologists found the remains of several Buddhist saints, including a parietal (skull) bone that, according to accompanying inscriptions, belonged to Siddartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha.
Though archaeologists initially reported their findings from the excavations at Nanjing’s Grand Bao’en Temple in the Chinese-language media back in 2015, an English translation was recently published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.
According to the article, the archaeologists were excavating a stone crypt beneath the temple when they found the model of a stupa, a type of Buddhist shrine used for meditation.
Measuring nearly 117 centimeters tall and 45 cm wide (4 feet by 1.5 feet), the shrine is a priceless artifact in its own right. It is crafted of sandalwood, crystal and gold, and covered in gemstones including glass, crystal, lapis lazuli and agate. The surface is also engraved with images of Siddartha Gautama, the revered teacher and founder of Buddhism, one of the major religions and philosophical systems of southern and eastern Asia. The engravings depict scenes from the Buddha’s life from birth to the moment he reached parinirvana, the after-death state when (according to Buddhist tradition) a person is released from the cycle of birth and rebirth.
Inside the model stupa, the archaeologists discovered a small casket of silver, which encased an inner casket of gold. Images of phoenixes, lotus blossoms and gods with swords adorned both caskets; the Hindu spirits known as apsaras, who play musical instruments, also grace the surface of the silver outer casket. The inner gold casket contained three crystal bottles and a silver box holding the remains of Buddhist saints. Nestled alongside them was a fragment of parietal (or skull) bone, which accompanying inscriptions identified as belonging to the Buddha himself.
The inscriptions on the stone chest in which the model was found were written about 1,000 years ago by a man named Deming. According to translations, the writer claimed to be “the Master of Perfect Enlightenment, Abbot of Chengtian Monastery [and] the Holder of the Purple Robe.” According to him, the model shrine was constructed during the reign of Emperor Zhenzong of the Song Dynasty, who ruled China from 997 to 1022 A.D. He listed the names of people who donated money or materials to build the model, as well as those of some of the people who constructed it.
Deming went on to describe the passage of the Buddha’s remains to China, claiming that after he entered parinirvana, his body had been cremated in his home country of India. According to Deming, King Ashoka, who ruled India from 268-232 B.C., determined that the Buddha’s remains should be preserved and “divided into a total of 84,000 shares.” China received 19 of these shares, including the parietal bone contained in the shrine.
The temple where the remains were buried, Deming wrote, was destroyed some 1,400 years ago during a series of wars. On the orders of Emperor Zhenzong, it was rebuilt, and the parietal bone was buried with great ceremony in an underground crypt there in 1011, along with the remains of other Buddhist saints. Deming celebrated the emperor for rebuilding the temple and reburying the Buddha’s remains: “May the Heir Apparent and the imperial princes be blessed and prosperous with 10,000 offspring; may Civil and Military Ministers of the Court be loyal and patriotic; may the three armed forces and citizens enjoy a happy and peaceful time…”
While the inscriptions clearly state that the skull bone belonged to the Buddha, it is unknown whether these claims are true. Though the archaeologists don’t speculate in their article on the likelihood that the bone really is the Buddha’s, it has been treated with the highest respect since its discovery. The scientists entrusted it to the Buddhist monks at the modern-day Qixia Temple, who interred it there. Later, the parietal bone and other artifacts from the excavation were displayed in Hong Kong and Macao, where tens of thousands of Buddhists showed up to pay homage.