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Precision measurement shakes world of science

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By Prof. Kirthi Tennakone

ktenna@yahoo.co.uk

National Institute of Fundamental Studies

Precision measurements have transformed science, influenced our way of thinking and impacted technology. A recent experiment conducted at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, in the United States, poses questions regarding how nature operates at the deepest level. The experiment measured the magnet-like property of the elementary particle named muon, giving a numerical value to a quantity termed the g-factor. According to the most successful theory humans have devised, known as the Standard Model, this factor should be 2.0023318362. The experiment planned for decades has found that the measured value is 2.0023318412.

Why is a discrepancy in the eighth decimal place of a measurement, regarded a tantalising issue to agitate the world of science?

Before going into details of this experiment, it is interesting to recollect landmark examples of previous measurements that revolutionised the world and how definitive unvarying units have been adopted to do measurements.

 

Precision measurements: A few examples

One of the greatest precision measurements in the ancient world was invoked in planning the construction of Yoda Ela to carry water from Kalawewa to tanks in Anuradhapura. The slope of the 87 km channel measures less than 10 cm per kilometer!

Today, non-contact infrared thermometers instantly assess our body temperature, when we enter a supermarket. The first precise temperature measuring device, the so-called mercury-in-glass thermometer was invented by the Dutchman Daniel Fahrenheit in 1709 and the medical version by Thomas Allbut after a century. Later on, much more accurate temperature recording instruments were introduced, permitting determination of the temperature of ovens, planets, stars and the universe itself. The increased precision of temperature measurement unrivalled fundamental knowledge and elevated the quality of life. The thermometer has saved many lives, and cosmic background temperature measurement convinced us of Big Bang origin of the universe.

In mid-1800s astronomers measured minute deviations in the orbit of Uranus. The French mathematician Joseph LeVerrier, performed an unbelievably precise calculation and pointed out that the anomaly was due to the existence of another planet. He predicted that if astronomers point their telescopes to a certain point in the sky at a time he had calculated, the planet could be seen. This is how Neptune was discovered – confirming the preciseness of LeVerrier’s calculation! The ability to deploy exploratory robots to chosen locations on Moon or Mars rely on accuracy of such calculations, performed today with computers. LeVerrier did his laborious calculation manually!

Verification by observation and measurement is the ultimate test of any scientific theory. Unlike in other human affairs, individual opinions and politics entail no relevance. When Albert Einstein formulated his famous theory of general relativity, test he proposed was to measure the bending of light by gravity of the sun, seen as a minute change in the apparent position of a star during the time of a total solar eclipse. A measurement conducted during 1918 solar eclipse, visible to the island of Principe on African coast, agreed with his prediction, but he had to await further confirmation during the next solar eclipse that occurred in 1920.

Collisions of black holes in distant universe generate gravitational waves disturbing space-time itself, causing minute changes in distance between positions on the globe. Gravitational wave detectors are sensitive enough to record changes in kilometer distances to an accuracy of trillion billionth of a meter.

Modern fundamental science stands firm and progress on basis of ever increasing accuracy of measurements.

 

Units of measurement

Reliable and unambiguous measurements require fixed unvarying standards to be used as units. In the 12th century, the Royal Court of England, pleaded with King Henry I to tell what the length of the yard was. The King stretched his arms horizontally and said, “It is the distance between my nose and the thumb – a convenient length to match the size of the human body but not an accurate unvarying standard. After the French revolution, the Academy of Sciences in Paris decided to adopt a decimal metric system of units to ease measures in business and engineering. The metric unit of length ‘meter’ was originally determined as one ten- millionth of the shortest distance between North Pole and the Equator. As the extent of this length is hard to determine repeatedly, in 1779 meter was redefined as the length of a metal bar secured at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris. Likewise, the unit of mass, the kilogramme was fixed as that of a cylinder of metal kept in the Bureau. The definition of the unit of time, the second, relied on the period of rotation of the earth (one day) divided into hours, minutes and seconds in the usual way.

The units of length, mass and time defined as above are not guaranteed to remain unchanged. The standard of length, the metal bar kept in Paris could slightly warp and cylinder defining the kilogramme may lose weight owing to evaporation of the metal or gain weight by deposition of dust. Earthquakes and falling meteors alter the rate of rotation of the earth.

It is amazing that nature has provided a method of permanently fixing the units of time, length and mass so that standards remain unvarying and same everywhere whether it is on earth, mars or any other remote corner of the universe. There are unchanging constants in nature and the standards of time length and mass can be fixed in terms these quantities.

The modern international standard unit of time is defined as a 9.1926331770 billion periods of a specific oscillation of the cesium atom. Nearly 9 million odd number is chosen to adjust approximate agreement with the previous definition of the unit of time based on earth’s period of rotation.

The velocity of light in vacuum is constant and independent of the motion of the light source, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity. Once a velocity and time are fixed, a length can be fixed. Thus the international standard of length is now defined as the distance traversed by light in vacuum in 1/299 792 458 of a second. Here again this odd fraction is adopted to ensure good agreement with previous definition of the unit of time – the second.

 

New International Standard of Kilogram – Effective from 20th May 2019

Although the units of time and length have been redefined in terms of fundamental constants, until 20th May 2019, the standard of mass (weight) continued to be the chunk of metal kept in Paris. The definition of mass based on this standard is unsatisfactory because the metal chunk could lose or gain mass owing to natural causes. Mass can also be defined in terms of another constant of nature termed the Planck constant. The German Physicist Max Planck and Albert Einstein derived this constant to formulate the quantum theory. The Planck constant has dimensions of an energy multiplied by time. Einstein’s famous equation––Energy = mass x square of the velocity of light––allows unit of mass to be defined in terms of energy. Alternatively fixing the standard of mass is equivalent to fixing the value of the Planck constant.

After many discussions on fixing the value of the kilogramme, lasting for more than a decade, the Meeting of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures held in Versailles, in November 2018, unanimously voted to fix the value of the Planck constant as 6.62607015 kg square meters per second. As in the cases of the units of time and length, this particular value of Planck constant was chosen so that the value of the kilogramme agree with previous definition. A procedure was also established to calibrate the kilogramme using a device known as the Kibble Balance. The new definition of the kilogramme was declared to be effective from 20th May 2019.

The modern units of time, length and mass have the same meaning to us as well as aliens wherever they exist;they can decipher our units!

 

 

Fermi lab Experiment: Possibility of something hidden deepest in nature

The Fermi Lab particle accelerator, near, Chicago in the United States, and the more powerful sister machine, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva are the world’s leading particle accelerators, built at an exorbitant cost to understand the ultimate constitution of matter and forces governing their interactions. Accelerators energise protons or electrons and impinge them on each other and the products of the crash, yield a wealth of information.

Based on such experiments carried out at accelerator laboratories since early 1960s, we know that all matter around us is constituted of three particles–– up-quark, down quark and the electron, carrying electric charges 2/3, -1/3 and -1 in units of charge of the electron. Though not found in ordinary matter, experiments indicate occurrence of other brands quarks and electron like objects. Up-quark, down quark and the electron, have two other heavier companions each. Nobody knows why quarks and electron like objects, known as leptons, belong to families with three members. However, a theory known as the Standard Model accounts for forces between these particles mediated by another set of quantum objects known as bosons. The theory of the Standard Model is so general; in principle, it encompasses,large portion of physics, the whole of chemistry and therefore biology as well. Nevertheless, it has several discrepancies. The major one is that the model cannot accommodate gravity and the theory of gravity stands separate unmarried to the Standard Model as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Experiments conclusively demonstrate that quarks and electron like particles of opposite charge also exist as demanded by the theory, but bulk matter made out these of these entities (antimatter) is not seen in the universe. Another anomaly is the existence of a triad of particles without electric charge known as neutrinos. The standard model could accommodate neutrinos if they have zero mass, but now they are known to be endowed with miniscule masses. Again observed faster expansion of the universe imply that the space is filled other forms of matter and energy not accounted by the Standard Model.

Science has furthered longer leaps, not by finding more and more evidence to support a favourite theory but by focusing greater attention on things refuting it.

Finding a disagreement with a theory is more important than dozens of supportive evidence.

Last week, the scientific world was shaken by an announcement of the Fermi Lab that the result of an experiment, suggested another glaring contradiction of the Standard Model.

 

Anomaly challenging established science

Electron and its 206 times heavier companion particle muon in the lepton family behave as miniature magnets and their magnetic properties are measured by a parameter referred to as the g-factor. As a result of magnetism these particles wobble in a strong magnetic field, similar to the motion of a spinning top just before it falls. Fermi lab experiment studied this motion using gigantic magnet, enabling evaluation of the g-factor of the muon to an utmost precision. The value they determined experimentally, deviate from the number predicted by the celebrated Standard Model by one part per one hundred million. Result confirms a previous measurement and therefore points to an anomaly. Scientific world is excited, because it may be a clue to disclose a deeper secret of nature, bearing profound implications. Possibly a crack in the Standard Model – a gift to amend the Standard Model and go beyond.

 

Why we should engage in advanced studies to learn secrets of nature?

One might ask what’s the use of this brain-teasing science, which seems to be of no relevance to the majority of the people, is. This query, in some sense, is equivalent to the question; what is the use of Totagomuwe Sri Ruhula Thera’s Salalihini Sandesaya or Shakespeare’s A Mid-Summer Nights Dream to people’s economic aspirations? The answer to both the questions is that these may not have immediate practical benefit to the average man or woman, but their value to humanity has been enormous. An average human being is benefitted most by overall advancement of the civilization.

In an era of telemedia which display everything hastily on two dimensional screens, society tends to seek quick answers to most issues and end-up with marginal solutions, refraining from deep contemplation

Every nation needs to encourage curiosity and imagination motivating advanced fundamental science, arts and literature. In reality those nations who have successfully earned economic returns from technology are the ones who excelled in the former themes.

Years ago, only Europe and the United States of America engaged in advanced precision experimentation and theoretical calculations to understand hard unresolved puzzles. Now, the developing countries have also realised the importance of such endeavors.

In fact, Sri Lanka was one of the first countries in Asia to recognise the importance of theoretical and mathematical studies and establish an Institute for the purpose; the proposal to set-up the Institute of Fundamental Studies was drafted by a Committee, headed by the late Prof. M.W. Mailvagnam, in 1969, on instructions of the Minister of Scientific Affairs M.D. H. Jayewardhana.

Sri Lanka possess talented young minds to tap and we need to provide them with opportunities to comprehend and pursue advanced frontier studies of the level that agitated the scientific world the past week; it is the duty and mandate of the institutions established for the cause to do so.



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Ramadan in Sinhala

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A group of musicians, including Sri Lankans, living in Qatar, have come up with a unique concept – ‘Ya Ramadan’ – an original song, in Sinhala.

This project, I’m told, was initiated by some talented musicians, based in Qatar, in collaboration with a local production house, also based in Qatar – Record on Studio.

According to Rubeena Shabnam, who hails from Sri Lanka, they are the first group of musicians, in Doha, Qatar, to do a Ramadan song, in the Sinhala language.

The song all is about Peace and the beauty of the holy month of Ramadan, says Rubeena.

“It’s team work that enabled all of us to come up with creative ideas in making this type of production.”

Those involved in the vocals of ‘Ya Ramadan’ are Ansaf Ameer, Rubeena Shabnam, Faiz Omar, Reena Singhawansa, Dileepa Liyanage and Angelo Anslem.

Music Arrangements were handled by Dileepa Liyanage, while Ansaf Ameer worked on the lyrics, and Shanaz Shabdeen and Angelo Anslem (DOP).

 

 

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Changing O/L and A/L exam dates: More action essential for best results

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By Prof. R.P. Gunawardane

A decision is reported to have been made to change the dates of the GCE O/L and GCE A/L exams with effect from the year 2023. According to this proposal O/L examination will be held four months early in August instead of December and the A/L examination will be conducted seven months early in January instead of August every year.

This plan if implemented properly with the necessary changes in the university admission process coupled with the streamlining of the university academic year in the university system would considerably reduce the delay in the time required for graduation. It is also necessary to develop a well-organized academic program to keep the O/L students occupied after their exam until the A/L classes begin in January next year.

History

In this context, it is of interest to go into the history of these examinations briefly. GCE O/L examination has always been conducted in the month of December every year without any interruption. However, there were number of changes to the period of GCE A/L examination. The GCE A/L examination was held during the month of December until 1970. During this period practical examination for those offering science subjects (Physics, Chemistry, Botany, Zoology) was held in April the following year. These practical examinations were held in the Universities of Colombo and Peradeniya at the time.

In 1972, the GCE A/L examination was shifted to the month of April mainly because of the disruption of education due to the insurgency occurred in 1971. This examination was held in April until the year 1977. During this period yet another significant development took place. Practical examination for the science subjects at A/L was abolished deviating from accepted international practices.

Until the year 1977 it was possible to admit the students who qualified for admission to universities in October the same year. At that time the universities had a regular academic year beginning October and ending in July making the transition from secondary education to tertiary/university education smooth. As a result, the students at the time did not waste much time awaiting admission to the universities. In 1978 the GCE A/L exam was shifted to August for unknown reasons making students to wait more than a year to enter the universities. From 1978 the GCE A/L examination was held regularly in August every year until 2001.

During 2000-2001 period extensive discussions were held in the Ministry of Education and Higher Education and the National Education Commission to review the exam time tables in order to reduce the waiting time for students. After careful consideration of all the issues involved it was decided to conduct the GCE A/L Examination in April with effect from the year 2002.

With the implementation of this scheme the backlog of admissions was also cleared by admitting two batches in the same year. After implementation of this plan the GCE A/L exam was conducted in April every year until the year 2007 making it possible to admit students to universities in the same year. Then supposedly due to administrative reasons this exam was shifted back again to August in 2008, and it is continuing up to date.

Issues

When A/L examination is held in August, it is not possible to begin A/L classes for the fresh students who sat GCE O/L exam in December until September the following year. The class rooms and teachers would be available for the new students only in September. As a result, those who sat O/L examination in December wait for nearly 9 months wasting valuable time in their prime years. Similarly, after A/L examination in August the students have to wait till September or October the following year for admission to Universities under normal circumstances. This state of affairs can be further aggravated in situations where there is a backlog of students waiting to enter different faculties of the universities.

In these circumstances, those students who were fortunate enough to be selected to the universities had to wait periods up to 2 years at home wasting their valuable time. As explained earlier time lag occurs in several stages – after O/L examination, after A/L examination and also due to delays in admission to individual universities. In addition, due to strikes and other disruptions in different universities/ faculties further delays are encountered.

Fixed Academic year for universities

A disturbing feature currently prevailing in the University System is that different universities adopt different academic years/semesters due to various reasons. What is worst is that in the same university different faculties are adopting different academic years resulting in a chaotic situation. It is worth noting that no other country in the world has such a disorder in the university system. An internationally accepted fixed academic year (September/October to June/July) is being practiced in all the countries in the world. Thus, this situation has to be corrected by synchronizing the academic years in all the faculties and the universities in our university system in order to obtain the best benefits from the proposed changes in the national examinations.

It must be stressed that changes in examination dates alone will not solve the issue of long delay in graduation. Simultaneously, the academic year of the universities also should be fixed. Once it is fixed it should not be changed under any circumstance except in a national calamity like the Covid-19 pandemic. Even in such a situation the necessary adjustment should be temporary and restricted to that particular year only.

Thus, the university academic year should be fixed like in all the other countries from September to June (9 -10 months) beginning 2022. Like our school academic year (January-December) this should not be changed under any circumstance. If there are disruptions due to strikes etc. course material should be displayed on line, alternative arrangements should be made for practical/clinical training and the exams should be held as scheduled. This is very essential to get the new batch admitted on time.

In order to implement this program, the examination department and the University Grants Commission have a prominent role to play. The results of both O/L and A/L examinations should be released as early as possible within two months. The admission process should be streamlined to complete the selection process expeditiously by getting the universities also involved in the selection process.

It is a national crime to waste years of precious time of our young generation. Thus, it is absolutely essential to implement an action plan to reduce the waiting time of students at the GCE A/L stage, the university admission level and in the undergraduate program. This will facilitate the smooth running of the higher education system in Sri Lanka.

 

Status of medical education

Related to the same issue, it has been highlighted recently that medical graduates spend a very long period to become consultants due to long delays at various stages of their training program in addition to the delays encountered in the university admission process.

Due to the current status in higher education those who study medicine would be wasting about 5-6 years of their prime time between their O/L exam and the beginning of the internship in the medical career. Even after that they have a long way ahead to become medical consultants.

There is a waiting period before the placement for internship appointment. Then, there will be another waiting period for post internship appointment followed by exams by the PGIM and foreign training. Foreign training component has to be organized by the trainees themselves and there is no formal help or methodology. Even after going through the foreign training program, they may still have to wait for a considerable period of time for their consultant appointments. By that time, he or she will be past 40 years having less than 20 years left to serve the nation as a medical consultant. At this stage this person has spent almost 35 years of continuous school education, university education and professional training. This is rather a pathetic situation prevailing in Sri Lanka today.

In most of the other countries such delays do not exist. For example, in USA most students enter universities when they reach about 17 years. In USA, most professional programs are conducted at graduate level. For instance, medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and even education are conducted as postgraduate courses. In the case of medicine, you need to follow an undergraduate program which includes pre-medical requirements prior to admission to medical school. Then, they should pass MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) to apply for a medical school. Total period of the first degree and MD program is 8 years. Thus, they will be about 25 years when they complete MD. Their internship is combined with specialized training to become consultants. This training lasts for 3-5 years depending on the specialty, except in highly specialized fields such as cardiac surgery, neuro surgery, plastic surgery etc. which may take 6-10 years. For example, one can become a consultant physician at the age of 28 years and a consultant dermatologist at the age of 29 yrs. The situation is similar regarding the average ages of the medical professionals in most of the other developed countries and even in some developing countries. This means that Sri Lankan medical graduate spends over one decade more than an average medical professional in any other country to become a medical consultant!

In most countries students apply for admission to universities in their final year in the high school and similarly, medical students apply for internship and specialization programs in their final year in the medical school. They start the combined internship and specialization program immediately after graduation. They have a highly organized and coordinated systems with a fixed calendar to administer these activities annually.

All the delays encountered by the medical trainees are avoidable if suitable action is taken by the Ministry of Education, the UGC, universities and the Ministry of Health in a highly coordinated manner. Since medical students are graduating at different times in different medical schools at present due to variable academic years, it is extremely difficult for the Ministry of Health to find placements immediately.

It is a national crime to waste many productive years and precious time of our talented young generation due to inaction of our authorities. Thus, it is absolutely essential to implement an action plan to reduce this time lag to a minimum without any further delay. A dedicated and a highly coordinated effort is needed in this direction with the active participation of the higher officials of the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health and the UGC. Furthermore, it is essential that all the medical faculties have the same fixed academic year immediately so that internship appointments can be streamlined and expedited.

We have seen the rapid increase of waiting period and the delay at the different stages of medical training during the last several decades. It has now become a very serious issue affecting our young generation and the whole nation. Many generations of our highly talented young medical students have gone through this painful process without much protest.

Thus, it is high time for the civil society activists and particularly trade unions like GMOA and FUTA to take this matter up with the authorities and see that appropriate action is taken by the relevant authorities without any further delay.

(The author is a Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya, formerly Secretary, Ministry of Education and Higher Education and Chairman, National Education Commission, Sri Lanka)

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Buddhism spread wider, longer and more influentialthan previously thought

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New excavations across Asia suggest…

BY S VENKAT NARAYAN
Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI, May 17: New excavations across Asia suggest that Buddhism had spread wider, lasted longer and was more influential than anyone thought till now.

Across Asia, geography is changing history. A slew of excavations and chance discoveries shows that the history of Buddhism, the belief system that flourished from 600 BCE until a decline in the 13th century CE, still contains many surprises.

Newly unearthed sites in Uzbekistan in Central Asia are evidence that it spread farther than previously thought. Stupas and sculptures dating back 2,000 years show that it flowed into new territories earlier. And magnificent monastery complexes are proof that the Buddhist institutions exerted greater influence over commerce, urban development, economic systems and everyday life than previously thought.

Emerging from the digs are stone structures, coin caches, copper plates, mantras punched on gold foil, inscriptions on palm leaf and ivory, colourful murals, and scriptures in at least 20 languages. How did Buddhism, which preached a renouncement of the material world, leave behind such a staggering wealth of physical evidence? KTS Sarao, former head of Buddhist Studies at the University of Delhi, says that a mingling of the sacred and non-sacred was inevitable.

“Monks spreading the Buddha’s teachings would travel along the Silk Road with merchant groups for safety; merchants, in turn, relied on them for spiritual support on these risky journeys,” Sarao told the Hindustan Times. Over time, shrines sprouted at rest stops, becoming a constant in an uncertain landscape. “They grew to include storehouses, factories, banks, and guesthouses, allowing monks to benefit not only from royal patronage but from local commerce, too.”

In Bihar, where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, efforts are on to unearth an administrative centre that until now only existed in texts. A monastery headed by a woman has been found there. And in Odisha, evidence of an unusual meditation complex open to both monks and nuns has emerged. In Afghanistan, monasteries located alongside copper mines reveal how rich monks wielded clout over the region.

Clearly, archaeology is recreating parts of the story that aren’t found in the scriptures. Because of the Buddha’s renunciation of material possessions and the self — he told followers he shouldn’t be the focus of their faith — there are key questions that are still unanswered.

Researchers are hoping to confirm whether Kapilavastu, the Buddha’s childhood home, corresponds to the town in Nepal or one of the same name, not far away, in Uttar Pradesh in north India. They’re tracking how his teachings travelled clockwise out of central India, spreading through north-west Asia and then to China and further east over a thousand years.

Says Sarao: “Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar have done admirable jobs of preserving Buddhist monuments.” In India, however, unmarked Buddhist sites are often mistaken for Hindu temples by locals. Idols of Buddha are worshipped as Shiva, Ashokan pillars are taken for lingams. “We should work together to preserve the Buddha’s legacy,” says Sarao. “His teachings are more relevant today than ever.”

Across the arid Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which encompasses much of the north and northwest of Pakistan, lie some 150 Buddhist heritage sites. The area was a major centre for early Buddhist development under Emperor Ashoka’s reign 2,300 years ago.

Italian archaeologists were investigating the province’s northern Swat region as far back as 1930. But digs were abandoned before discoveries could be made. Local teams, back at the site last year, were luckier. They discovered a monastery and education complex, the largest found in the region, and believed to be between 1,900 and 2,000 years old.

Discovered thus far are stupas, viharas, a school and meditation halls, along with smaller cells higher in the mountains where monks could retreat into isolation. Also unearthed were a coin, helping date the site to the Kushan empire (30 CE – 375 CE), which spread across modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India and was instrumental in spreading Buddhist teachings. The bonanza: rare frescoes depicting figures in various poses, including the namaskar.

It’s been 20 years since the Taliban destroyed the Buddha colossi in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. They still couldn’t erase signs of Buddhism, which had a large following here until the 11th century. Cave networks, paintings and statuary have been found at six major sites.

In 2008, when the Chinese bought over the world’s second-biggest unexploited copper mine in Mes Aynak, the site of an ancient Buddhist settlement, archaeologists raced to document and salvage the 2,600-year-old monastery that stands there, before it was lost forever. Mes Aynak was a spiritual hub along the Silk Road from the third to eighth centuries CE, a peaceful cosmopolitan pitstop run by monks who’d become rich from the copper ore.

Researchers unearthed monastery complexes, watchtowers, walled zones, jewellery hoards, manuscripts and close to a hundred stupas. One statue of the Buddha, twice as tall as a human, still bore traces of red, blue and orange on the robes. Several copper coins featured an image of the Kushan emperor Kanishka on one side, and the Buddha on the other.

As a result of Afghanistan’s poor infrastructure, mining work has stalled. Archaeologists couldn’t be happier. Their initial three-year deadline for digs has stretched to nearly 13 years already, becoming the most ambitious excavation project in Afghanistan’s history.

In 2016, when a mural was discovered in Termez in southern Uzbekistan, near today’s border with Afghanistan, few were surprised. Uzbekistan was, after all, once part of the Kushan Empire. Its residents were intermediaries as goods flowed west to Rome and east to China.

But the mural was unusual. It was discovered in a stone basement adjoining a pagoda and looked to have been made in the second or third century CE.

Despite its age, its figures in blue and red were remarkably vivid, blending influences from East and West, its angled face shaded to mimic depth. It seemed to be part of a lost larger painting about the life of the Buddha. Researchers drew parallels with murals in Dunhuang, China, an eastern junction on the Silk Road. It was proof that the route didn’t just transfer things, it let art, religion and ideas flow in both directions, too.

The Buddha disapproved of the idea of devotees focusing on him, and so little about him and his life is known. Followers believe that his mother Maya Devi, en route to her parents’, went into labour and gave birth to him (grasping the branch of a sal tree) in the Lumbini garden in present-day Nepal. We know that Emperor Ashoka built the first Buddhist structure there: a pillar inscribed with his own name, the story of the Buddha’s birth, and a date corresponding to the third century BCE.

That spot is now a UNESCO world heritage site. But in 2013, when British archaeologist Robin Coningham excavated inside the third century BCE Maya Devi temple that also stands there, he found that the site (and Ashoka’s story) went deeper. Beneath the temple his team found a roofless wooden space, with signs of ancient tree roots over which a brick temple had once been built. Charcoal and sand fragments were carbon-dated and found to be from 550 BCE, around the time the Buddha is said to have lived. If this was a Buddhist shrine, the timing would make it the first one ever built.

Indian archaeologists are sceptical, though. “Tree shrines have been part of Hindu worship much earlier than the time of the Buddha,” says KTS Sarao, former head of Buddhist Studies at the University of Delhi and a former classmate of Coningham at Cambridge. “It’s not unusual for temples to be renovated and there’s no proof connecting it to the Buddha.”

He adds a further blow: The Government of India does not permit foreign archaeologists to dig here. So, some scholars may exaggerate foreign findings to make them sound as important as the sites they can’t access, he says.

Meanwhile, work continues in Nepal. Coningham’s excavations in the Tilaurakot region, where the Buddha was believed to have lived as Prince Siddhartha, have unearthed the remains of an 1,800-year-old palace complex and walled city. There are courtyards, a central pond and stupas. But still no concrete connection to the Buddha.

When a storm tore through the village of Dalijhara Dhibi in south-western Bangladesh in 1988, it uprooted rows of trees in a mango orchard. The owners decided to plant banana instead, but found they couldn’t. Under the soil was a thick layer of brick. Thirty years later, they tried to plant mango again, and that’s when they decided to examine the bricks more closely. They unearthed a brick structure. The regional archaeological department was brought in.

Three months of excavation later, the orchard yielded an unusual harvest: a 1,200-year-old Buddhist monastic complex. Last year, continuing digs unearthed two temples and courtyards, and 18 residential cells. Fragments of ornamented bricks, terracotta plaques and clay pots show engravings of lotus flowers and geometric shapes.

There are other sites of note in the country. In Nateshwar in central Bangladesh, a 1,000-year-old temple was excavated in 2015. Researchers say the revered teacher and saint Atish Dipankar probably spent time there before his travels to Tibet and China. His life, like the Buddha’s, left no known material evidence. Perhaps that’s changing.

China is hardly short on historic treasures. Local traditions say that the first Buddhist temple there was established in 68 CE. The 339 Kizil cave temples in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region were built between the third and eighth centuries CE and are the oldest in China. They hold two kilometres of narrative murals, calligraphy and painted clay statues that borrow styles from across Asia.

And despite political efforts to minimise it, Buddhist history keeps popping up. Reservoir renovation work reveals a 600-year-old idol of the Buddha; ancient statues are discovered, built into what are now the bedrock foundations of residential buildings; buried boxes in villages are found to contain cremated remains of scholars and monks. And these are just the biggest finds across mainland China from the last five years.

This year, researchers found that the artwork in Dunhuang’s famous caves isn’t 500 years old as believed but at least 700 years old, and it has an Indian connection. Text on an image from Cave 465 was found to be mistakenly pasted backwards.

Researchers flipped it digitally. It turned out to be Sanskrit.

Priests overseeing the renovation of a temple in the Shiga prefecture, north-east of Kyoto in Japan, found history hiding in plain sight last year. Two old pillars bore blurred, sooty images. Infra-red photography revealed images of eight Buddhist saints. Each pillar bears the images of four Bodhisattvas — monks who delay enlightenment to help others find salvation. The photographs indicate they were once painted in bright blue, green and vermilion. Researchers believe these could date to the Asuka period, which lasted from 538 CE to 794 CE, putting them possibly among the oldest known Buddhist paintings in Japan.

In Hazaribagh, 110 km from Jharkhand capital Ranchi, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) identified three mounds last year as having possible links to Buddhism. One yielded a 900-year-old shrine and two subsidiary structures, two metres below ground level. In January this year, digging into the second mound revealed another shrine and monks’ cells. The site’s six sandstone sculptures depicted a seated Buddha and five likenesses of Tara, depicted as the female Buddha in the tantric-influenced Vajrayana Buddhism.

Historians believe the area may have been a religious hub, a stop between Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bodh Gaya in Bihar. But site security is a problem. Two of the Buddha sculptures were stolen, and recovered by the police only a week later.

In the past decade, archaeologists have unearthed a nunnery (India’s first record of a shelter for women monks) and metal workshops in the village of Vadnagar in Gujarat; a massive 23-chamber monastery and a cache of artefacts on the banks of Sharmishtha Lake; and a stupa, capped with burnt bricks and a chipped-stone entryway, at Taranga Hill.

Last year, Vadnagar discovered that its roots ran deeper. Excavations near a grain godown revealed a well-preserved semi-circular structure resembling a chaitya or prayer hall, and two stupas. All were built or repaired between the second and seventh centuries CE – meaning that Hiuen Tsang, who mentioned 10 monasteries in Anandpura (the town’s old name), may have been right after all.

Archaeologists digging at Phangiri in Suryapet in Telangana in 2019 knew the area was once a bustling Buddhist site. What they didn’t know was that they’d unearth the biggest stucco statue in India there. The life-size Bodhisattva, made from a brick base and covered with sand, lime and other materials, stands alongside stupas, meditation cells, prayer halls, and sculptural panels with Brahmi inscriptions, that date from the first century BCE to the third century CE. Later explorations have yielded coin caches, beads, iron objects and storage jars. The finds indicate that the complexes supported commerce and religion.

Buddhism’s heartland made news this January, when digs at the administrative centre of Lakhisarai yielded the region’s first hilltop monastery and more evidence that the lost city of Krimila lay underneath. Clay seals from the eighth or ninth century CE bore inscriptions pointing to a Mahayana monks’ council, but shows, startlingly, that the vihara might have had a significant population of women, too. The script on a previously unearthed sculpture indicates the monastery may have been headed by a nun, Vijayshree Bhadra.

There are plans to dig at 60 more sites in Lakhisarai. In Telhara, 100 km to the west, the remains of a university older than the fourth century CE Nalanda in Bihar have been unearthed. One terracotta seal shows a chakra flanked by two deer and the university’s name. The government plans to open a museum there soon.

Workers building the Purvanchal Expressway in Mau district last year found a pocket of history along the way: a stone Buddha head, a hoard of coins, terracotta pieces and bricks that hadn’t seen the light of day since at least the 12th century CE.

The cache adds to the abundant evidence of the state’s Buddhist heritage. Scriptures mention the Buddha spending time in cities such as Sravasti and Saaketa. British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham’s surveys in the 1860s and 1890s, and AK Narayanan’s in the 1960s, corroborate the claims.

The writings of Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang, who visited between 629 and 645 AD, record 3,000 monks and 100 monasteries in Ayodhya alone. Land-levelling work for the Ram temple in Ayodhya has revealed artefacts on-site too. Indian Buddhist groups have been petitioning the government to allocate a site for a vihara in Ayodhya, too.

In Andhra Pradesh, the Thotlakonda, Bavikonda and Pavuralakonda complexes, discovered in the 1970s, have offered proof that the region was a hub of commerce and learning. More than 8,000 artefacts and antiquities have been found here in the last three years. In Guntur, 350 km to the south, locals found a polished cup, terracotta roof tiles and a broken parasol from the first century BCE. In the coastal town of Ghantasala, Buddhist-era remains have emerged from fields and school backyards. Locals say there’s enough to fill a small museum.

Buddhism was the state religion when the Bhaumakara kings ruled Odisha between the eighth and 10th centuries CE. Many believe that this was the home of the Buddha’s first disciples. But a surprise emerged in 2018 in Angul district, 120 km from state capital Bhubaneswar. Archaeologists found a monastery dating from the Shunga-Kushan reign between 150 BCE and the first century CE. Bits of brick, sculptures, stupas and a sandstone pillar were found. The site is likely the monastery that is referenced in a copper plate found in the 19th century. The inscriptions mention a space for 200 devotees and habitation for monks and nuns.

Modern monasteries dot the state. The ruins of a Kushan-era temple and meeting hall at Harwan, on the outskirts of Jammu and Kashmir’s capital Srinagar, were discovered in the 1920s and lay forgotten. But in 2000, in Ambaran on the banks of the Chenab, archaeologists unearthed an even older Buddhist stupa. The site’s haul, dating from the first century BCE to the fourth-fifth century CE, included monastery walls, decorative idols and ornaments. One casket at the base of the stupa contained ashes, charred bone, coins and part of a tooth believed to be from a saint.

Researchers concluded that the site may have been a transit camp for monks and pilgrims, and a spot from which the Buddha’s teachings were disseminated to local communities. It is believed to have been abandoned in the seventh century CE, after flash floods and the decline of Buddhism in the region.

In 2009, researchers cleaning the site discovered the stupa’s foundation featured fire-baked bricks, designed as eight spokes, much like the ones in Punjab and Andhra Pradesh — another indicator that it might have been built in the Kushan period.

But there has been no further excavation since.

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