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”.