11/29/2013 04:23 EST | Updated 01/29/2014 05:59 EST

Oldest Buddhist shrine found at Buddha's birthplace

A shrine consistent with the story of the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, the Lord Buddha, has been uncovered within a later shrine long thought to be his possible birthplace.

The teachings on which Buddhism, a world religion with an estimated 500 million followers, is based are said to have originated with Buddha.

According to an inscription on a pillar erected by the Mauryan Emperor Asoka in 249 BC, Buddha was born in 623 BC in Lumbini, Nepal, although his birth date varies from 800 BC to 400 BC in other accounts. Buddhists believe that his mother had been on her way to her parents' house to give birth, but that she stopped in Lumbini along the way, and ended up giving birth while clinging to a tree in the gardens.

Now, archaeologists at Lumbini have uncovered the oldest known Buddhist shrine, dating back to the 6th century BC. And evidence suggests that it was originally built around a tree.

"It can be no mere coincidence that what we have is one of the earliest known Buddhist shrines at Lumbini, which is focused around a tree," said Robin Coningham, an archaeologist who helped make the discovery, in an interview with CBC's Quirks & Quarks that airs Saturday.

"It's one of those rare occasions where actually you get belief, tradition, archaeology and science all beginning to come together."

Buddhist monasteries and shrines have long existed in Lumbini, the oldest known being Emperor Asoka's pillar, dating back to the 3rd century BC.

Lumbini, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is also home to the Mayadevi Temple, which is popular with Buddhist pilgrims and houses the archaeological remains of earlier temples inside it.

Coningham, a professor in the department of archeology at Durham University in England, was part of an archaeological team tasked with seeing how the infrastructure of the temple could be upgraded to accommodate the million pilgrims that visit every year without damaging the archaeological remains.

Puzzling void

The team first worked on the visible remains of a brick temple inside the modern temple, and were puzzled by a void in the middle that had no brick or tile.

Digging below that temple, they found the remains of an earlier brick temple, with the same void in the middle.

Finally, at the very bottom, they hit yellow clay with very visible post holes, along with burnt charcoal suggesting that the very oldest structure had been made of wood. It too had the void in the middle.

"The central area was open to the sky," Coningham told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. "It had never been covered, even in the earliest occupation."

Sinuous patterns in the soil suggested that tree roots had once wound through.

"Then it began to be absolutely clear what we had found," Coningham said. "What we had were a series of shrines, all built around a tree… For many Buddhists, this will be a confirmation of their beliefs."

Radiocarbon dating of the charcoal suggested that the original wooden shrine was built in the 6th century BC.

For Coningham, that means a "very real" Buddhist cult existed at Lumbini even then.

The results of the research were published in the December issue of the journal Antiquity.