For the world’s one billion buddhists, Lumbini ( now a small village in southern Nepal) 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 Nepal’s most significant archeological finds, dating from the third century BC. An almost forgotten place with modest ruins… but powerful associations.
Since long, the Buddha is a prophet without much honour in the country where he is born; the area around Lumbini is now predominantly muslim, while the main local festival is a hindu one, commemorating the Buddha as the ninth incarnation of Vishnu – it’s held every year in april-may, in the month of “baisaakh”. Celebrations of Buddha jayanti ( Buddha’s birthday) are comparatively meagre. Even the Nepalese buddhists are reluctant to come to Lumbini : most of them are poor, they live in the mountains and southern Nepal iss too hot for them ! Moreover, until now, poor access and a lack of facilities put off most foreign pilgrims, who instead stuck to the more developed Indian sites of Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar, the places where the Buddha has been enlightened, where he first taught the dharma, where he attained the nirvana after his death.
At Lumbini, the “sacred garden”, where the Buddha was reputedly born, was by all accounts a well-tended grove in his day. It was consecrated soon after his death, and at least one monastery was attached to it by the third century BC when Ashoka, the great north Indian emperor and buddhist evangelist, made a well-documented pilgrimage to the spot. Ashoka’s patronage established a thriving religious community, but by the time the intrepid Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang visited in the VII° century it was limping, and must have died out after the X° century.
The garden was lost for at least 600 years, and its rediscovery, in 1896, solved one of the last great mysteries of the Orient. Europeans had been searching in earnest for the site since 1830, but it wasn’t until 1893, when a Nepali officer on a hunting expedition found a related Ashokan relic some miles to the northwest, that the first solid clue came to light. The race was on. Two main rivals, A.A. Führer of the Archeological Survey of India, and Austin Waddell, a British military doctor serving in Calcutta, each pursued various trails based on their interpretations of the writings of Hiuen Tsang and other early pilgrims in Lumbini. In the end, the site was found by pure chance. In a last minute change of plans, Führer’s Nepali escort, General Khadga Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana, suggested a rendezvous in a village. While awaiting Führer’s arrival, the general learned of an ancient pillar nearby and had his peons begin excavating it. Führer, who immediately recognized the pillar as the one described by the early travellers, claimed credit for the find in his reports, and though he was later stripped of his credentials for his falsifications, he continues to be known as the discoverer of Lumbini.
Centrepiece of the “sacred garden”, the Maya Devi Mandir ( mandir means temple in hindi. It derives its name from Maya Devi, the Buddha’s mother) is a ruin. It contains brickwork dating back to 300 BC, making it the oldest known structure in Nepal. West of the temple, the Ashokan pillar is the oldest monument in Nepal. The inscription, recording Ashoka’s visit in 249 BC, is the best available evidence that the Buddha was born here. Facing the “sacred garden”, two active monasteries are open to the public : one is tibetan while the other is Theravada. In the whole complex, there are other monasteries ( south Korean, chinese), meditation centres ( from Myanmar), temples ( from Japan, Thaïland), one stupa, one pagoda, a museum and a few places to rest.
Indeed, in the 1970’s, the Nepalese government, with the backing of the United Nations, set aside land and authorized a hugely ambitious master plan for a five square kilometre religious park consisting of monasteries, cultural facilities, gardens,… Since then, temples and monasteries have been built or are still under construction, 600.000 trees have been planted and Japanese tour groups add Lumbini to their tours of the Indian buddhist holy sites. An international airport has even been mooted. Of course there is ample cause for scepticism, yet if the plan comes off, Lumbini could become a cosmopolitan religious site – the only one of its kind in the world.