Of the many temples I visited recently (over 2 dozen in the last 3 weeks) the one that struck me as the most interesting in terms of its past and present is Famen Temple outside of Xi'an. I already wrote a bit about its modern history, but now I would like to write about its early history, as I think it demonstrates quite a lot about the difficulties of creating ancient history.
According to legend and recorded history from the Tang Dynasty, the original pagoda of Famen Temple was one of 19 stupas donated to China from Prince Ashoka of India, who ruled India from 273 BC to 232 BC and was one of the first great Buddhist evangelists. It was he who really did a lot to spread Buddhism throughout Asia, and he did so by donating relics and stupas to countries and kingdoms all over Asia. While the other 18 stupas reportedly donated to China did not survive, Famen stupa and its Buddhist finger bone relic did. This is also the story told at the museum of the temple. The vice abbot of the monastery told us over tea that the stupa was built in the Eastern Han (220 BC to about 0 AD), which would be after the death of Prince Ashoka. Similarly, a professor we met at Northwestern University told us his theory about Famen temple, which saw its construction before the Qin dynasty.
According to the museum, however, archeological evidence that suggested the temples' existence did not appear until the Sui dynasty. From that point forward, the temple and its finger bone relic became a crucial Buddhist pilgrimage site as well as one of the biggest monasteries to receive imperial patronage. The Tang dynasty saw the golden age of Famen temple. The temple spanned nearly 24 blocks, and pilgrims came from all over China to pay homage to the important relic. It was also largely significant because it was so interconnected to the imperial court; every 30 years during the Tang dynasty, emperors themselves came to the stupa to give gifts to the monastery and the relic. During the Tang dynasty, a large stupa was placed over a chambered reliquary that housed the Buddha finger relic. In addition to the 9 layered boxes that protected the relic, archaeologists also recently discovered underneath the stupa chambers filled with imperial offerings to the relic; these treasures, according to a written inventory on the wall, numbered 2499. They are now on display at the national museum.
Most scholars would agree at this point that there was no possible way that the original Famen stupa was built during the Zhou or Han dynasty. In the most practical sense, the dates don't add up. The brochures as well as the museum date the original pagoda at the Eastern Han, but by that time Prince Ashoka had already passed. More than this, there is little to no evidence of Buddhism entering China until the later Han, let alone a full temple and finger relic at the capital.
But for the temple, or the Bureau of Religious Affairs, to admit to the inconsistencies would mean the complete collapse of the prestige and religious power of the relic. The relic's entire legitimacy is based upon it being a gift from Prince Ashoka, and without that, all of its supernatural power would dissolve with the myth. When we study religious history, this is often a source of contention; how do we create a history that is true to evidence without challenging or destroying contemporary faith? While I know very little of the history of Christianity, I do know that much of their legitimacy is also based upon a certain understanding and reading of history. Once that history is challenged, the faith of millions of believers today is also challenged.
Another interesting point brought to light by this contentious history is the problems of creating ancient history. While archaeological proof of Famen temple didn't appear until the Sui dynasty, that does not necessarily mean that was when it was created. Archaeology does not give us all of our answers. At the same time, legend and written documents does not tell us everything either. In the modern history field, we have different challenges: points of view, reliability of facts in documents, unspoken histories. But in ancient history, these challenges are exacerbated.
So while most scholars would not give a lot of weight to the Han dynasty Famen temple idea, that does not necessarily rule it out. Similarly, just because archaeology points to one story, it does not mean that is the only accurate story to be told.