Telling the story of Buddha’s Lumbini
The story goes that when the Buddha was approaching his mahaparinirvana at age 80, he advised his faithful disciple Ananda that there were four great places of pilgrimage associated with his life.
The locations of the Buddha’s enlightenment, Bodh Gaya and Sarnath where he first taught the dharma were identified early on. But the mystery of where he passed away, Kushinagar, and where he was born and grew up, Kapilvastu and Lumbini, were not solved until the end of the 19th century.
Over the years, there was speculation about where the Shakyamuni Buddha was actually born – even though 2,600 years ago there were no modern nation state boundaries in the Subcontinent. But a finding from 3rd century BCE helped clear the doubt.
That was when Emperor Ashoka, following the devastating battle of Kalinga, set out on a pilgrimage to Lumbini with Upagupta. There he erected a sandstone pillar surmounted with a horse finial atop an inverted lotus, and an inscription in Pali to commemorate his visit in 249 BCE.
The two Ashokan inscriptions, one in Nigali Sagar near Tilaurakot referring to Konakamuni (a past Buddha) and another in Lumbini found in the 19th century showed that in the Mauryan period, the place where the pillar stands was considered to be the birthplace of the Buddha.
Over the centuries, the site saw the pilgrimage by many Chinese monks, Faxian in the 5th century and Xuanzang in the 7th century being the two famous ones. Their accounts of the travels were later used by antiquarians in British India to locate the sites of the Buddha’s birth and where he grew up.
But the popularity of the site waned until it was rediscovered in 1896, and excavations began. These days those visiting the Maya Devi temple in Lumbini, may not be aware of what they are seeing inside the complex.
Excavations in Lumbini have revealed many structures that were built over the centuries, one of the most sacred being the Shakya tank, a pond where the Buddha’s mother Queen Maya Devi is believed to have taken a bath before giving birth.
Maya Devi is believed to have given birth to Siddhartha Gautam in 623 BC, while she was on her way to her parents’ home in Devdaha on a palanquin. She gave birth standing, while clutching to the branch of a sal tree. She died a week later, and the baby was raised by his aunt, Prajapati.
A 1,800-year-old stone sculpture, eroded by centuries of worship and a marker stone found in 1995 at the nativity site locate the exact spot in Lumbini’s sacred garden where the Buddha was born.
Archaeologists have also uncovered ruins of monasteries dating from 3rd century BC to the 7th century AD, as well as of stupas, some built much more recently 600 years ago.
In 2011, an international team led by Robin Coningham of Durham University and Kosh Prasad Acharya, the former Director General of Nepal’s Department of Archaeology uncovered remnants of a wooden structure beneath the pavement in the Maya Devi Temple.
When analysed, it looked like a tree shrine and was dated to around 550 BC, giving historians new evidence to consider as they attempt to reconstruct the Buddha’s life.
But the story of the Buddha is much more than just of Lumbini alone. If Nepal is to commemorate more holistically the Buddha’s life, it has to have an integrated approach and include other sites over the Greater Lumbini Area spanning Rupandehi, Nawalparasi and Kapilvastu, which have many archaeological sites, some of which are directly associated with the Buddha’s life.
In Tilaurakot-Kapilvastu, the city where the Buddha is believed to have spent his first 29 years as Prince Siddhartha Gautam, and from where he left on his journey to spiritual enlightenment, archaeologists recently used ground penetrating radar to detect a palatial walled complex, street grid of a city, a brick wall tank and a monastic compound, and other historical objects.
Read Also: Drone view of Lumbini’s monsoon greenery
In 249 BC, Emperor Ashoka erected an inscribed pillar commemorating his veneration and expansion of the nirvana stupa of the Konakmuni Buddha. In 1895, two fragments of the pillar were discovered: the upper portion was half submerged in Nilgi Sagar pond and the lower part was buried. Since the plinth on which it once stood is missing, the original location remains unknown, but some scholars believe that it was erected at the birthplace of the Konakmuni Buddha.
Kudan is another site of historical significance. Some scholars have suggested this may be the site of Nigrodharama, the banyan grove where Gautam Buddha met his father years after his departure from Kapilvastu and where his son was ordained a monk. Gotihawa, is considered the birthplace of the Krakkuchanda Buddha, another one of the earlier Buddhas. It has a large brick stupa and a stump of an Ashokan pillar. Unfortunately, most of the pillar is gone, so it is not possible to know what was written.
The Ramagram stupa which is 10m high and 23.5m in diameter is on the tentative list for the World Heritage status, and is believed to be one of the original sites housing the mortal remains of the Buddha. According to ancient scripts, the seven other stupas were opened by Ashoka and the relics distributed – but the naga prevented Ashoka from opening the stupa here.
There are other sites that have been identified in the three surrounding districts. Building a circuit with all the culturally and spiritually important places and telling the story correctly can help solve a problem (see below) Lumbini has been facing for a long time.
The challenge Lumbini faces now is how to cope with the larger numbers of pilgrims and tourists visiting the holy site. Before the pandemic, while the number of visitors in Lumbini was high, they usually came in from India’s Buddhist circuit and only spent a few hours before heading back.
The infrastructure was poor, there were not too many hotels with proper facilities. Lumbini was difficult to get to. Now, an international airport is being inaugurated just 10km to the east, and a new influx of visitors is expected.
Before the pandemic, 1.7 million pilgrims visited Lumbini by land in a year, of these 300,000 were from outside of Nepal and India. But on average, they spent less than an hour in Lumbini.
For centuries after Ashoka visited and commemorated the nativity site, Lumbini was retaken by the surrounding jungles. It was only in the 1890s that British explorers looking for hardwood timber for railway sleepers came upon the Ashokan pillar.
In 1967, the United Nations Secretary-General U Thant, a devout Buddhist from Burma, toured Lumbini on elephant-back, and is reported to have wept on seeing the condition of the birthplace of the Buddha.
Back in New York, U Thant set up a UN committee to turn Lumbini into an international centre for peace. Noted Japanese architect Kenzō Tange, who had designed the Hiroshima Museum, was hired to draw up a master plan.
Nepal established the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT) which is implementing Kenzō Tange’s master plan and includes a monastic zone, a library and Lumbini Village for visitors. A canal bisects the site with a museum and visitor centre on the north end and the Maya Devi Temple on the south.
The eastern monastic zone was set aside for Theravada Buddhism and the western for Mahayana Buddhism. The master plan is still being broadly followed and is nearing completion, but structures are already showing signs of disrepair.
Even the visitor’s centre in Lumbini is in a sorry state, there are no information boards that tell the visitors about the site.
“Our expectations are high when it comes to Lumbini but the infrastructure is lacking,” says Purushottam Aryal, an entrepreneur who runs Buddhagram, a robotic museum outside of Lumbini gate. “We have guests who complain about the lack of restroom and having only one gate to purchase tickets.”
Despite nearly 2 million annual visitors pre-pandemic, only about 2% of the pilgrims visited the other sacred sites from the Buddha’s life like Niglihawa, Gotihawa, Kudan and Ramagram, either because they are unaware of them or because they are too difficult to get to.
Currently, most international visitors to Lumbini come from India as part of the Buddhist circuit that includes Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Kushinagar, where facilities and connectivity are better. Pilgrims preferred travelling through India to Lumbini rather than flying to Kathmandu and then making their way to the sacred site.
“Nepalis rarely hire guides. Indian tourists come in with their own guides from India, who narrate their own version of the story of Lumbini. If they hire local guides they can get authentic information. Why would anyone stay for long if all they do is go in and out?” asks Mahesh Pati Mishra, a local guide in Lumbini.
The upcoming Lumbini Museum will fill this gap. The existing museum is being upgraded and expanded to international standards, that tells the story of the Buddha, says the museum’s Sumnima Udas.
Located at the entrance of the Sacred Garden, the Lumbini Museum aims to help transform the sacred place as a major spiritual and cultural centre while setting a standard for how art and heritage can be preserved, presented and promoted.
The museum has brought in talent from Nepal and around the world to make it a state-of-the art project to educate and promote the Buddha’s message of compassion and peace, and re-imagine U Thant’s original goal inside the cylindrical modules designed by Kenzō Tange.
Explains Udas: “There are different kinds of museums, this is not going to be a museum with just statues. It will be about the storytelling. And it doesn’t have to be huge, it can just be a beautiful little gem where once you go in you leave with a better sense of what had happened in Lumbini, why the birth story matters, and what we as human beings can learn from it.”
Read Also: U Thant, Kenzō Tange and the Buddha’s birthplace, Kunda Dixit
Lumbini over Time
2,645 years ago
The birth of Siddhartha Gautama in a sal grove in Lumbini while his mother is enroute to Devdaha
2,575 years ago
The Buddha dies at the age of 80
3rd Century BCE
Emperor Ashoka visits Lumbini to commemorate the nativity site with a stone pillar
5th Century BCE
Chinese monks Faxian and Xuanzang visit Lumbini and find it in ruins
1312King of Jumla, Ripu Malla, carves graffiti with his name on Ashoka’s pillar
Ashoka’s pillar is rediscovered by General Khadga Shamshere, Governor of Tansen, and German archaeologist Anton Fuhrer
Indian archaeologist Purna Chandra Mukherji finds the eroded nativity sculpture
Archaeological excavations by General Keshar Shamsher reveal ancient monasteries and temples
King Mahendra visits Lumbini
UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld visits Lumbini during trip to Nepal
UN Secretary-General U Thant visits Lumbini, and pledges to develop it as an international peace centre
Kenzō Tange is commissioned to create a master plan, which is completed in 1978
Department of Archaeology excavates the marker stone at exact spot where the Buddha was born
UNESCO declares Lumbini a World Heritage Site
Mayadevi Temple opens to the public for the first time on Buddha Jayanti
Pilgrim’s progress in Lumbini
The retreat of Covid-19 and the inauguration of the Gautam Buddha International airport on 16 May has breathed new hope to Lumbini, which had seen almost no pilgrim and tourist traffic since 2020.
As many as 15 new hotels were planned in anticipation of the new airport, but had to halt construction when the lockdowns hit. Some of the older hotels here were sold to new owners and the Lumbini Development Trust that manages the sacred site lost significant revenue.
“Many new hotels were being built because we expected a surge of traffic with the new airport,” says Lila Mani Sharma of Hotel Association of Lumbini. “They had taken bank loans and because they had already invested so much, they could not abandon the project.” Now, construction activity has picked up again in the 10km stretch from the airport to Lumbini, as well as on the road linking the airport to the Bhairawa-Butwal highway.
The pandemic not only hit the hotel sector but also the farmers who supplied produce to the hotels, guides, travel agencies and others who relied on the sector.
Laxmi Choudhari of Mahilawar is looking to inaugurate his new homestay on the auspicious Buddha Jayanti, the very day that the new airport is being inaugurated.
“I have been working in the hotel business for a while and have wanted to do something on my own. The new airport will surely help bring more guests and as homestays we can provide a more authentic experience for them,” says Choudhari.
Lumbini’s Guide Association and Hotel Association are also cautiously optimistic. “If more people come directly to Nepal first instead of crossing over from India, it will be good for the local business. They will spend more time here and include more places around Lumbini in their itinerary,” says Sharma.
But according to industry experts, just having an international airport does not guarantee anything. Says Anu Lama, tourism specialist at ICIMOD, “There has to be an integrated approach bringing together the cultural, spiritual and natural aspect of Lumbini and involving the local communities. We have to tell and sell our story.”
Protecting Lumbini’s rare cranes, Rajendra N Suwal