Nepal is proud to say that The Lord Buddha was born in Nepal. He was born in the Shakya Kingdom of Kapilvastu which is in Nepal, though back then there were no borders. It is not known exactly when Prince Siddhartha was born, but it was probably around 623 BC. Moved by the suffering in the world, he decided to give up his wealth. When this was not enough, he sought a life without riches but also without deprivation: a ‘middle way.’ After six years of searching, Gautama found enlightenment while meditating and he then spent the rest of his life teaching others about the basic doctrines of Buddhism that include the four noble truths:
- existence is suffering (dukhka);
- suffering has a cause, namely craving and attachment (trishna);
- there is a cessation of suffering, which is nirvana;
- and there is a path to the cessation of suffering which is the path of having the right views, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
First converting his family to Buddhism, subsequently when the Shakya clans moved to the Kathmandu Valley, they helped establish Buddhism there.
Many people mistakenly believe Nepal is a Buddhist country. It is not as Hinduism is practiced by the majority of people. According to the 210 census, less than 9% of Nepalese people are Buddhist, and this number is decreasing. Usually living in the high mountains and are mostly from Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups like Sherpas, Tamangs and Bhotia living along the border with Tibet, when these people migrate to the cities, inevitably they tend to become Hindus. However, although Hinduism has absorbed Buddhism to a large extent, the two religions share many deities and temples. For example, the temple at Muktinath is sacred for both Hindus and Buddhists. And even though most people in Nepal are Hindu, Buddhist influences are pervasive throughout Nepali culture. Among Buddhists, Tibetan Buddhism is the most widely followed but also Newar Buddhists practice a particular Newar variant of Vajrayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism.
For many centuries Buddhism was not widely followed in Nepal and only revived here relatively recently, during the last century. While Buddha might have been born here, Buddhism was first actively disseminated in the 7th to 9th century BC from India into Tibet. Buddhism even waned there during the following two hundred years’ Era of Fragmentation, only recovering importance in the 11th century. With the Mongol invasion of Tibet in the 13th century, Tibetan Buddhism spread to Mongolia and China where it was adopted by the Chinese Ming and Qing Dynasties from the 14th down to the 20th century.
What to see in Lumbini
Like Bethlehem or Mecca, Lumbini is an important place of pilgrimage. Visiting the Maya Devi Temple, this UNESCO World Heritage Site stands next to a sacred pool. There are archaeological remains of brick buildings that date back to the third-century BC that were constructed by Ashoka and there is a sixth-century BC timber shrine that was discovered here in 2013.
The holy site of Lumbini is made up of ruins of ancient monasteries, the sacred Bodhi tree, an ancient bathing pond, the Ashokan pillar erected by King Ashoka in 249 BC, and the Maya Devi Temple. This is contained within a building that opened to the public in 2003 and houses the original 3rd century temple, the supposed place of birth of Buddha.
Apart from the Maya Devi Temple, there are several new temples that have been funded by Buddhist organisations from all over the world. Lumbini is in effect a grand complex of Buddhist temples located in an area about 5 kilometers (3 miles) by 1.5 (1 mile), separated into an eastern and western zone where only monasteries can be built, with no shops, hotels or restaurants. In the eastern zone there are the Theravadin monasteries, and the western zone has Mahayana and Vajrayana monasteries.
Many pilgrims come from many countries to pay worship and meditate at the site. Some Hindus see the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, so many Hindus have started to come here on pilgrimage during the full moon of the Nepali month of Baisakh (April–May). They worship the Queen Maya Devi as the mother goddess of Lumbini.
What else is there to do in Lumbini?
Most people come to Lumbini to visit the temples, however for anyone interested in birds, this is also a very good place to catch sight of endangered sarus cranes and many other colorful and beautiful birds. Sarus cranes are often depicted in the thangkas and other religious frescoes from through the ages and are considered sacred. There is also a very successful vulture rescue project in Lumbini where local people have set up a ‘vulture restaurant’ to help protect this endangered species.
From Lumbini, it is not far to visit Tansen, just over an hour’s drive away. This fascinating historic town is in the hills, looking down over the plains. Lumbini is also a good place to break the journey if you want to visit Bardia National Park or the Far West of Nepal, being roughly half way from Kathmandu.
By flight – Flights from Kathmandu take about half an hour to reach Bhairawa Airport which is just a short drive away from Lumbini.
By road – Public buses go from Kathmandu to Lumbini, taking 7-8 hours.
There is a wide range of hotels available close to the temples.
Best time to go:
It is best to avoid the summer if possible, as this is the wet season and the Terai can get extremely hot during July and August. The rest of the year is good, though in winter be prepared to bring a jacket as it can get cold.
Top image by Carlos Adampol Galindo/Flickr