As the birthplace of the Buddha, Lumbini is one of the holiest and most significant places for Buddhism in Nepal. The town’s outstanding religious importance, spirituality, and archaeology has attracted visitors and especially pilgrims from all over the world. Due to its universal value, the site was also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
The sacred area in Lumbini includes a temple marking the spot where Lord Buddha was born, and also a large number of Buddhist monasteries, meditation centers, temples, and shrines. Unless you want to walk (a lot! – more than 10 kilometers), the best way to explore Lumbini is to rent a bicycle. You will be able to cover the large distances between Buddhist sites and have plenty of time to enjoy them. Most monasteries have been built in the middle of a large green area and are usually accessible at the end of a long road.
From Lumbini’s hotel-filled market area, I followed the Mayadevi Temple Road and started the tour at the Maya Devi Temple. You’ll have to park your bicycle at the entrance and take off your shoes. The Maya Devi Temple is known (and proved by archaeologists) to be the exact spot where Queen Mahamayadevi gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama Buddha in 623 B.C.E. After a long period of decline, when nobody knew anything about the site, it was rediscovered a century ago. A commemorative pillar erected by the Indian emperor Ashoka was found, and the inscription on it testifies Lord Buddha’s birthplace.
Even though Maya Devi is the most important site in Lumbini and a must-see, the whole sacred area covers a wide range of Buddhist monasteries and temple compounds. Due to its popularity as a Buddhist site of high spiritual value, monks of different Buddhist branches have come to Lumbini and set up monasteries and meditation centers. Many are worth a visit, as is taking a retreat if you have more time. All these Buddhist sites are part of the so-called ‘monastic zone.’
Hidden amid lush vegetation, the monastic zone is easy to reach by bicycle from the Maya Devi Temple. I soon came to a canal and from there, I first headed to the west monastic zone, with its ever-expanding complex of new monasteries and meditation centers of the Mahayana School. Each monastery has a large compound with a garden (sometimes even a park), temples, stupas, and shrines.
At the end of a dusty road, the Karma Samtenling Monastery is a Tibetan monastery that features a large prayer hall and eight stupas scattered across a park. After pedaling several kilometers, you come to an artificial pond that has is surrounded by several monasteries and meditation centers. I enjoyed the Drigung Kagyud complex a lot, built by a German foundation and called the German Temple. Inside are inspiring paintings and intricate wood carvings, and in the garden are gilded statues. Next door, I was lucky to take part in a local ceremony at the Nepal Vajrayana Mahavihara, a Nepali Buddhist monastery with a large inner courtyard.
Once you reach the end of the water canal, the western monastic zone ends, and you’re close to the local bazaar with street food stalls. A bit further, the white dome of the Lumbini Shanti Stupa dominates. It was designed by the Japanese, and the white color of the stupa symbolizes peace.
On the way back to the monastic zone, the road passes the Lumbini Museum, a modern building set by a pond. The museum displays exhibits ranging from daily use crafts to stamps related to Lumbini or Buddha, and this is a way to better understand the local history. From there, I followed the route that snakes among the sites of the eastern monastic zone grouping gleaming new monasteries and temples of the Theravada School.
The Thai Royal Buddhist Monastery is composed of white wooden temples that are an echo of the famous White Temple of Chiang Rai. A bit further, the Golden Temple of Myanmar features luxurious structures where one can see pilgrims circling the gilded Lokamani Cula Pagoda. When I reached the Goutami Nuns’ Temple, I had a big surprise and smelled cooked food that reminded me it was lunchtime.
There are many other stupas, monasteries, and temples in these two monastic zones. In Lumbini, you’ll discover a sampling of Buddhist traditions. If you want to have a deeper insight into monastic lifestyles though, check the hours for prayers or meditations and take part in religious activities. You’ll find out how diverse they are between monasteries.
If you want to explore other sites near Lumbini, a bike trip of approximately 30 kilometers one way leads to Tilaurakot. This is the archaeological site of the ancient Shakya Kingdom, where the Buddha lived as Prince Siddhartha until the age of 29. Or if you’re in good physical condition and enjoy pedaling through Nepal’s countryside, you can go to Ramagrama (approximately 50 kilometers one way). The place features the only unopened relic stupa of Lord Buddha.