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SECRETS OF THE DEAD: Bones Of The Buddha

Airs Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: The Piprahwa Stupa, scene of William Peppe’s extraordinary 1898 discovery.

The mystery surrounding the bones of the Buddha dates back more than 100 years ago, when colonial estate manager William (Willie) Peppe and his workers began digging at a mysterious hill in Northern India. Peppe had no idea what they'd find just a little more than 20 feet down.

Courtesy of © Icon Films / Alex Holden

Neil Peppe with some of the jewels found by his grandfather, William Peppe, in 1898 at Piprahwa in Northern India.

Courtesy of © Icon Films / Lorne Kramer

Author Charles Allen at the great Ashokan Stupa at Sanchi, near Bhopal.

Courtesy of © Icon Films / Lorne Kramer

At Calcutta's Indian Museum, German scholar Professor Harry Falk (left) and author Charles Allen examine the stone chest that contained the original Piprahwa find.

Courtesy of © Icon Films / Lorne Kramer

Charles Allen at the Piprahwa Stupa, site of the original find in 1898.

They unearthed an astonishing discovery: a huge stone coffer, containing five reliquary jars, more than 1,000 separate jewels – carved semi-precious stones and gold and silver objects – and some ash and bone. One of the jars bore a Sanskrit inscription which, when translated, stated the jar contained the remains of the Buddha himself.

Doubt and rumors of forgery have overshadowed this remarkable find dividing, Buddhist scholars for more than 100 years. Many believe the whole thing is an elaborate hoax. Others insist the tomb on Peppe’s estate is no less than the final resting place of the leader of one of the world's great religions, a sage who died nearly 2,500 years ago.

For the doubters, suspicion focuses on a key figure from the time, disgraced German archaeologist Dr. Anton Führer.

Renowned historian Charles Allen sets out to solve this extraordinary mystery, once and for all in "Bones Of The Buddha." Is the little-known monument in Northern India really the Buddha’s tomb? Is the find genuine? And if it is, who created it and when?

Allen begins his journey in England at the home of Neil Peppe, the grandson of William Peppe. From there he travels 4,000 miles to Birdpore House in India, built by the Peppe family in the 1840s.

The mysterious hill known as Piprahwa where the tomb was found sits on the northern edge of the Birdpore estate. Allen traces Peppe’s steps to authenticate the find, uncovering how the discovery became shrouded in scandal and where the Piprahwa ashes and bones reside today.

But is the inscription on the jar stating “these are the relics of the Buddha - the Lord” genuine? Allen meets with Harry Falk, a professor at Germany’s oldest institute of Indology and the world’s leading authority on ancient Indian languages, to authenticate the ancient Brahmi script.

Though Falk’s findings may finally clear William Peppe’s name and resolve the mystery surrounding his find, Allen must still unravel who built the tomb and buried the remains of Buddha 2,500 year ago.

"Bones Of The Buddha" is an Icon Films Production for THIRTEEN in association with WNET, ARTE France and National Geographic Channels.

SECRETS OF THE DEAD is on Facebook.

Secrets of the Dead: Bones of the Buddha

Secrets of the Dead: Bones of the Buddha

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