Lumbini, birthplace of the Buddha, struggles with identity
Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on November 8, 2010
The growing town in Nepal is trying to appeal to tourists as well as pilgrims
LUMBINI, Nepal — It’s 6 p.m. when a dusty sun descends beyond the rice paddies in Lumbini, Nepal, in the southern Terai region near the Indian border. A hundred Thai Buddhist pilgrims, dressed completely in white, have gathered beside the Maya Devi Temple and in front of the Ashoka pillar, prepared for twilight.
They ignite their offering of candles and incense, and their gentle chanting takes on a sense of urgency.
The pillar that the pilgrims sit by is an edict left by Ashoka, India’s Buddhist emperor of the third century B.C., proclaiming Lumbini as the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama — the man who came to be known as the Buddha.
Next to the Ashoka pillar is the unassuming brick Maya Devi Temple, at the heart of this area called the Sacred Garden. Inside rests a nativity sculpture, and a stone, protected by bulletproof glass, marking the spot where the birth is believed to have taken place. On the other side of the Ashoka pillar sits another group of Thai pilgrims, listening to an orange-robed monk recite ancient Pali verses over a megaphone: “Sadhu. Sadhu. Sadhu.”
Good. Good. Good.
But not all is as serene as it appears in Lumbini, which is undergoing a complex development process. Unlike pilgrimage sites such as Varanasi, Mecca or Lourdes, Lumbini was rediscovered only a little more than 100 years ago. To some, the pace of progress seems forced.
“The place is artificial,” said Christoph Cuppers, director of the Lumbini International Research Institute. “The concept and development is unnatural — it is not naturally grown. It has become a man-made pilgrimage site.”
The result of these hurried attempts at development has been that some visitors aren’t quite sure how to experience Lumbini, a land brimming with contradictions. It’s a major Buddhist site in the middle of Hindu and Muslim country. It’s presented as the “Fountain of World Peace” on the entrance archway, but it lies in what has been a hotbed of Maoist activity during a decade-long insurgency in Nepal. Is it a pilgrimage site or a tourist destination? Can it be both?
“Lumbini is relatively new and there is still a lot of work to do, I think,” said tourist Jan Van Lieshout of the Netherlands. “The place definitely has an interesting story to tell, and I hope it will become something special for Buddhists and travelers like us, but right now the park looks like one big construction site.”
According to the Lumbini Development Trust, which manages the area, more than 50,000 tourists and pilgrims visit each year. In addition to domestic and Indian travelers to Lumbini, visitors come from all over the world.
If you go
Practical info: Tourist visas for Nepal can be obtained at Katmandu’s airport. From Katmandu it’s about an hourlong plane ride to Bhairahawa, and from there Lumbini is another hour away by bus. Where to stay:Lumbini Village Lodge, Lumbini bazaar; rooms $5 and up. Lumbini Buddha Hotel, inside the master plan area; rooms $10 and up. Lumbini Hokke Hotel, just north of the master plan area; rooms $80 and up. Where to eat: There are two local restaurants in Lumbini, but most visitors eat in their hotels. When to go:The best weather for visiting is in October through January. More info: lumbini trust.org or sacred-destinations.com
“This is part of the path I started about seven years ago,” said Steve Setera, a pilgrim from Oregon City. “When the opportunity to go to the birthplace of Buddha came up, it seemed natural to go.”
Much of what is known about Lumbini following Emperor Ashoka’s visit comes from the travel accounts of Chinese pilgrims Fa Hsien and Hsuan Tang in the fifth and seventh centuries, respectively. The next recorded pilgrimage to Lumbini was made by Ripu Malla, a Nepali king of the 14th century who carved his name on the upper portion of the Ashoka pillar.
After Ripu Malla’s journey, however, Lumbini appears to have been forgotten for hundreds of years.
Later, officials serving the British Raj became curious about the whereabouts of the neglected site, and Lumbini was rediscovered in 1896 during a survey. But the process of rebuilding really began after a visit in 1967 from U Thant, then secretary-general of the United Nations, who reportedly cried upon seeing the site’s condition. UNESCO made the area a World Heritage Site in 1997.
The Lumbini Development Trust is the autonomous organization attempting to pay for and develop strategies to make the site appealing for both pilgrims and tourists. By and large this has meant carrying out the Lumbini master plan finalized by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange in 1978.
One of the trust’s slogans for promoting the area is “Lumbini a Symbol of Unity in Diversity.” There is no disputing that it is many different things to different people — Buddhist pilgrims seeking merit and enlightenment, non-Buddhist tourists craving the unfamiliar and a good time, the Nepali government and village locals banking on economic benefits, and various researchers looking for clues.