Hordes of travellers hurry through Lumbini Terai, an ancient part of the Terai west of Chitwan, but few take the time to look around. It’s best known, unfairly, for Sonauli, the main tourist border crossing between Nepal and India. Yet just 20km away is one of Nepal’s premier destinations, Lumbini: birthplace of the Buddha and the site of ruins going back almost three thousand years.
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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.
The ruins of TILAURAKOT, 24km west of Lumbini, are believed to be the remains of ancient Kapilvastu, seat of the ancient Shakya kingdom and the childhood home of Prince Siddhartha Gautama. Tilaurakot gets far fewer visitors than Lumbini, yet its ruins are at least as interesting, and its history arguably even more so. Shaded by mango, kusum and karma trees, they have a serenity that Lumbini has begun to lose.
The remains include a couple of stupa bases, thick fortress walls and four gates. Looking out across the ruins from the eastern gate could hardly be a better opportunity for a moment’s meditation, as it’s said to be from here that the Buddha walked out on nearly thirty years of princely life to begin his search for enlightenment. It’s doubtful this is literally the ruins of the palace of King Suddhodana, the Buddha’s father, for the style of bricks used isn’t thought to have been developed until the third century BC, but it may well have been built on top of it; assuming the earlier structure was made of wood, no trace would remain. Indian archeologists argue that Piprahwa, just south of the border, is the true site, but excavations at Tilaurakot in 2000 uncovered potsherds and terracotta beads contemporaneous with Buddha’s lifetime, helping to corroborate the Nepali claim. A new Anglo-Nepali excavation team started work in 2011, and should help to further clarify matters.
The life of the Buddha
The life of the Buddha
The year of the Buddha’s birth is disputed – it was probably 543 BC – but it’s generally accepted that it happened at Lumbini while his mother, Maya Devi, was on her way to her maternal home for the delivery. He was born Siddhartha Gautama (“he who has accomplished his aim”), the son of a king and a member of the Shakya clan, who ruled the central Terai from their capital at Tilaurakot. Brought up in his father’s palace, Prince Siddhartha was sheltered by his father from the evils of the world, until, at the age of 29, he encountered an old man, a sick man, a corpse and a hermit: old age, sickness and death were the end of life, he realized, and contemplation seemed the only way to understand the nature of suffering.
Siddhartha revolted against his former life of pleasure and fled the palace, leaving behind his wife, child and faithful servant – not to mention his horse, which another legend says promptly died of a broken heart. Passing through the east gate of the palace, he shaved his head and donned the yellow robe of an ascetic. He spent five years in this role before concluding that self-denial brought him no closer to the truth than self-indulgence. Under the famous bodhi tree of Bodhgaya in India, he vowed to keep meditating until he attained enlightenment. This he did after 49 days, at which time Siddhartha became the Buddha, released from the cycle of birth and death. He made his way to Sarnath (near Varanasi in India) and preached his first sermon, setting in motion, Buddhists believe, dharma, the wheel of the truth. Although he is said to have returned to Kapilvastu to convert his family (and according to some stories he even put in an appearance in the Kathmandu Valley), the Buddha spent most of the rest of his life preaching in northern India. He died at the age of eighty in Kushinagar, about 100km southeast of Lumbini, saying “all things are subject to decay. Strive earnestly”.