U Thant, Kenzō Tange and the Buddha's birthplace

When the Burmese Buddhist Secretary-General of the United Nations, U Thant, visited Nepal in 1967 he flew to Lumbini for a pilgrimage and said: “This is the most important day of my life.” Then, he wept. 

Many years later, he said he was touched by the visit to the sacred site, and even his grandson Thant Myint-U tells us in an interview (below) that his grandfather was ‘incredibly moved’ in Lumbini. U Thant might have been spiritually stirred to be at the birthplace of the Buddha, but he was also distressed by the condition of the desolate and featureless spot near the Nepal-India border.

Read also: The right path


Back in Kathmandu, he met King Mahendra and discussed restoring Lumbini’s sanctity. And on return to New York, U Thant set up a UN committee to turn the nativity site into an international centre for peace. 

Both UNDP and UNESCO got involved and the Japanese architect famous for designing the Hiroshima Peace Memorial MuseumKenzō Tange, was hired to draw up a master plan. Tange visited Lumbini, and his firm submitted the design in 1978.

The project to preserve Lumbini and landscape the sacred garden and surrounding park was to have been finished by 1985, but Tange died in 2005 without seeing the completion of his master plan. 

The choice of Kenzō Tange for the design was influenced by his stature in post-war Japan. While he was part of the ‘Metabolist’ movement of Japanese architects, his work did not incorporate any obviously traditional Japanese, or even Asian, elements. Neither was he a devout Buddhist. Metabolists sought to experiment with structures that were inspired by biological processes of growth and aggregation.

In fact, Tange joined architecture school after seeing the work of the Swiss-French architect and urban planner Le Corbusier, and he admired the functionality of Soviet architecture of the 1930s. This penchant for raw, concrete mega-structures that shunned decorative elements earned Kenzō Tange a place in the ‘brutalist’ school of mid-20th century architectural modernism. 

Tange’s monumental master plan for Lumbini governed by its north-south axis (above) of a canal that bisects the site, and is straddled by a series of amphitheatres and vast spaces for public meetings. The museum anchors the north, while the concentric circles of the sanctum sanctorum: the sacred garden surrounding the Mayadevi Temple is situated at the south end. The plan includes a monastic zone, a library and Lumbini Village for visitors. 

The eastern monastic zone was set aside for Theravada Buddhism, while the western zone is for Mahayana Buddhism. The master plan is still being broadly followed, but the masonry structures are falling apart due to poor maintenance, and not all the temples in the monastic zone conform to the overall harmony and scale the architect had in mind. 

Lumbini did not develop into a major Buddhist pilgrimage destination like Bodh Gaya, Sarnath or Kushinagar, mainly because it was discovered to be the Buddha’s birthplace relatively late — in the early 20th century. It suffered neglect due to its remoteness and because Nepal was closed to foreigners till the 1950s. 

Even after U Thant’s visit, the Buddha’s birthplace was never accorded the priority it deserved by rulers in Kathmandu who wanted to have it both ways: push Nepal’s identity as the world’s only Hindu kingdom while simultaneously using Lumbini as a symbol of nationalism. The fact that Lumbini is today surrounded mainly by Muslim villages has also diminished local interest.

After U Thant’s death in 1974, the UN’s focus and fund-raising for the project also waned. Although Nepal’s royal family attended numerous meetings of the International Committee for the Development of Lumbini, and gave patronage to the Lumbini Development Trust, the master plan languished. After 1990, corruption, poor governance and conflict took their toll.

The government’s weak commitment to Lumbini and lack of transparency meant that over the years, vested interest groups tried to cash in on Lumbini’s fame. Those with resources and geopolitical clout got away with unregulated construction in the monastic zone.

One murky affair was an initiative in 2012 by the Asia-Pacific Exchange Cooperation Foundation (APECF), which claimed it would invest $3 billion in Lumbini. The foundation got the backing of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, but soon became embroiled in controversy because it planned to scrap Tange’s master plan. APECF’s scheme is now on hold.  

On Saturday, 18 May President Bidya Devi Bhandari, Prime Minister K P Oli, other government ministers and ambassadors of Buddhist countries in the region will be in Lumbini to give new impetus to developing the Buddhist circuit in Nepal as an international pilgrimage and tourism destination.

The time is ripe, as the new international airport nearby (called Gautam Buddha International Airport) will be in operation by next year, allowing direct flights from Asian cities, the road linking Lumbini to the Indian border and the East-West Highway is being upgraded, new hotels are coming up and Kenzō Tange’s modular barrel vaulted structures are being revamped into a world-class museum of Buddhism (see below).

Despite all the setbacks over the decades, Tange’s vast park is now visible on Google Earth and from planes flying at 35,000ft westbound from Kathmandu. The vegetation has grown back, the cranes are nesting again in the Sacred Garden, and despite noisy picnickers taking selfies on weekends, the site has retained its spiritual significance.

The Lumbini Development Trust is now led by the energetic 33-year-old monk, Venerable Metteyya Sakyaputta, who is committed to following Kenzō Tange’s master plan. He told Nepali Times recently: “We have an obligation to preserve Lumbini’s environment and its tranquility for future generations, and this is only possible if everyone joins the effort.” 

Lumbini could be a magnet”: Thant Myint-U

 Thant Myint-U is the grandson of former United Nations Secretary-General U Thant, was an adviser to the president of Burma, and is the author of The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma. He is in Nepal this week for the Buddha Jayanti celebration in Lumbini, and spoke to Nepali Times about his recollections of his grandfather, and the future development of Lumbini.

Nepali Times: What are some of your earliest memories of your grandfather? 

Thant Myint-U: I was eight years old when he died in 1974.  We lived together in New York, and so I remember him well: coming home from work in his black Cadillac in a dark overcoat and fedora, puffing on Burmese cigars in his study, his desk piled with books and papers, a photo of Mahatma Gandhi at his spinning wheel behind him, swimming with me in our pool at home, relaxing in a Burmese longyi, enjoying my grandmother’s curries or reading the latest news in the New York Times.

NT: What was the reason behind his determination to get the UN involved in preserving Lumbini? 

In those days, the biggest conflict was of course the Cold War and the ideological conflict between communism and capitalist democracy.  My grandfather believed that religion could be an ally in the cause of peace. In 1965, Pope Paul came to New York at his invitation, the first Pontiff ever to set foot in the new world, and spoke to a special meeting of the UN General Assembly, calling for an end to war. 

It was not long after that he came to Nepal and visited Lumbini. He was incredibly moved, saying it was one of “the most important days in my life”. I think it was only then that he had this particular vision, as a Buddhist but also as the UN Secretary-General, not only to preserve Lumbini but to connect the development of Lumbini as a global centre, representing values of tolerance and non-violence, with the broader cause of world peace.   

NT: You yourself have spent some time in Nepal. What would be some suggestions about how to preserve the sanctity of Lumbini. 

Yes, I have very fond memories of my year in Kathmandu in 2008. I was not however able to travel to Lumbini, and so have no particular insights on what should be done. I would however say that, as is the case for any of the world’s greatest places, any development should weigh carefully the interests of local people, to ensure they benefit too.  

NT: Many people from Burma travel to Buddhist sites in India on pilgrimage. What should be done to attract more of them to the Buddhist circuit in Nepal? 

I think the most important thing at this point is simply transport. There are no direct flights from Yangon to Kathmandu, which is really a shame. Our two countries, with so much in the way of shared culture, history and even political experience, can benefit immensely from greater contact. I am sure Lumbini could become a magnet, but I hope the Burmese would then take the opportunity to explore Nepal more generally.

Reimagining and renovating The Lumbini Museum

Near the sal tree under which Queen Maya, the consort of King Suddhodana, gave birth to Gautam Buddha, a well-conceived museum dedicated to inspiring people the world over with the Buddha’s life and teachings is being restored.

The state-of-the-art museum will set a new standard for how heritage and art are preserved and promoted in Nepal, transforming Lumbini into a major spiritual and cultural centre to share with the world the Buddha’s teachings of compassion, openness and truth.

Located inside the Sacred Garden Area, The Lumbini Museum is an integral part of the architectural landscape and cultural experience of the Buddha’s birthplace.

For decades, the cylindrical modules of the museum building designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Kenzō Tange as part of his ambitious master plan languished in neglect.

Now, The Lumbini Museum has brought together a pool of talent from within Nepal and beyond to re-imagine, renovate and expand the centre as a true cultural and spiritual oasis within Lumbini. 

The museum has a rich history rooted in the vision of the Buddha’s nativity site as a universal centre for peace, and the new phase of development will further the original vision of the master plan and the museum. Besides the spiritual value of the Buddha’s birthplace, the modernist heritage of Tange’s refurbished structures will be an additional attraction for international visitors. 

“When we travel to Lumbini we hope to find peace, solace and serenity as part of the Buddha’s teachings, so the re-imagination of the Lumbini Museum is going to be a very special milestone,” says Vice Chair Ven Metteyya Sakyaputta of the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT).

In addition to being the birthplace of the Buddha, the Greater Lumbini Area has more than 200 historical sites including Kapilvastu (the ancient capital of the Sakya Kingdom where Prince Siddhārtha lived until age 29), Devdaha (his maternal hometown) and Ramagrama (the only stupa still containing corporal relics of the Buddha).

“Lumbini is a very special place where you see all the vehicles come together — Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana — in a big Buddhist spiritual junction ... and at long last a dedicated Buddhist Museum is happening,” says Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche of Bhutan.

The structure is currently being restored and refurbished by Asia’s leading architect, Kris Yao, and the redesigned museum will re-open in late 2020. Conservation and evaluation of display possibilities for priceless archaeological artefacts from the Greater Lumbini Area dating back 2,500 years are underway, with Thai interpretive planner Albert Paravi Wongchirachai curating, designing and fabricating a world-class gallery space.

Says monk and writer Matthieu Ricard, “In our troubled world facing human and environmental challenges, the wisdom of Buddha Shakyamuni’s compassionate heritage is more relevant than ever. The Lumbini Museum will offer a unique and inspiring insight on the Buddha’s teachings, a most precious legacy that Nepal can be proud of.”

Contemporary fine art, audio-visual shows, dioramas and interactive exhibits will enhance storytelling for a truly modern and powerful experience of the Buddha’s life and message.

The Lumbini Museum team is busy fundraising, curating art and mobilising national and international donors, partners, experts and visionaries.

Says The Lumbini Museum Director Sumnima Udas: “It is not often that one is given an opportunity to participate in such a momentous undertaking that can have a transformative impact on the identity of Nepal and its people. The Lumbini Museum is not a project, this is our common mission.” 


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

King 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

Kunda Dixit


Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).