After I am no more, Ananda, men of belief will visit with faithful curiosity and devotion to the four places – where I was born … attained enlightenment … gave the first sermons … and passed into Nirvana.

The Buddha (c.543–463 BC)

For the world’s one billion Buddhists, LUMBINI, 22km west of Bhairahawa, is where it all began. The Buddha’s birthplace is arguably the single most important historical site in Nepal – not only the source of one of the world’s great religions but also the centre of the country’s most significant archeological finds, dating from the third century BC. With only modest ruins but powerful associations, it’s the kind of place you could whizz round in two hours or rest in for days, soaking up the peaceful atmosphere of the wooded park and its monasteries, founded by countries from all over the Buddhist world.

The Buddha has long been a prophet without much honour in his own country, however, and the area around Lumbini is now predominantly Muslim. The main local festival is a Hindu one, commemorating the Buddha as the ninth incarnation of Vishnu – it’s held on the full moon of the Nepali month of Baisaakh (April–May). Celebrations of Buddha Jayanti (the Buddha’s birthday) are comparatively meagre because, as the local monks will tell you with visible disgust, Buddhists from the high country think Lumbini is too hot in May.

Pilgrims used to stick to the more developed Indian sites of Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar, but in the 1970s the government, with the backing of the UN, authorized a hugely ambitious master plan for a religious park consisting of monasteries, cultural facilities, gardens, fountains and a tourist village. After a glacially slow start, the plan is finally taking shape under the direction of (or perhaps in spite of) the Lumbini Development Trust (w lumbinitrust.org); at the time of research 14 monasteries and meditation centres had been built (out of a target of 42), with a further 12 in the pipeline. Of course, there’s ample cause for scepticism, not least when it comes to the nakedly commercial aspirations of the Nepali government, but if the remaining plans come off, Lumbini could grow to be quite a cosmopolitan religious site. Japanese tour groups have already added it to their whirlwind tours of Buddhist holy places.

Roads enter the master plan area from several directions, with the main entrance gate at the southeastern edge. A road leads from there to the Sacred Garden, which contains all the archeological treasures associated with the Buddha’s birth. North of the Sacred Garden, two “monastic zones” are filled by an international array of temples, overlooked by the grand Shanti Stupa, or Peace Pagoda. Alongside, a miniature wetland reserve has been established for the endangered sarus crane, and 600,000 trees have been planted throughout the site, attracting many birds and animals.