While travelling through Nepal I experienced a kaleidoscope of cultural beliefs, and one of the most important places to me was Lumbini, the birthplace of the founder of Buddhism, Gautama Siddhartha Buddha. For anyone on a Buddhist pilgrimage, where’s a better place than the birthplace of Lord Buddha himself?
Lumbini is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the place where the story of Lord Buddha begins. Buddha was born here while his mother was traveling to her parental home in 623 BCE. Lumbini is located in the southern part of Nepal, in Rupandehi District, and as a major pilgrimage destination it attracts many Buddhist tourists from around the world. Lumbini, meaning ‘the Lovely’ in Sanskrit, is of great importance for pilgrims to Nepal. It is one of the four Buddhist pilgrimage sites based on major events in the life of the Buddha, the others being Bodh Gaya (where he reached enlightenment), Sarnath (where he made his first sermon) and Kushinagar (where he died), which are all in India. Lumbini is also an important Hindu pilgrimage site as Hindus believe that Buddha was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
Lumbini is bordered by a large monastic zone, in which only monasteries can be built. It is separated into an eastern and western monastic zone, the eastern having the Theravadin monasteries, the western having Mahayana and Vajrayana monasteries. Lumbini contains the ruins of ancient monasteries, a sacred Bodhi tree, an ancient holy bathing pond (the Puskarini), an Ashokan pillar and the Mayadevi Temple, which is supposedly where Buddha was born.
The ambiance at the Mayadevi Temple is hypnotic. It’s actually layer upon layer of temple ruins, located on the exact spot where the mother of Buddha walked 20 paces, faced east and grabbed the branch of a tree, before giving birth to Siddhartha Gautama. The temple is surrounded by the brick foundations of ancient temples and monasteries. Long lines of colourful prayer flags are strung between trees, which carry prayers and mantras heavenward as they flap in the breeze. The top the temple also has a small square similar to those on stupas in Kathmandu, with Buddha eyes on each side and a golden pinnacle in top.
The Holy Pushkarini Pond just outside the temple is another important part of history. It was at this pond that Maya Devi took a bath before the birth to Siddhartha, whom the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva came to receive. Just after the birth, Buddha is believed to have walked seven steps, and at each of his steps, lotus flowers bloomed miraculously.
The other main sight of interest at Lumbini is Ashoka’s pillar, near the temple. It is now protected by a small fence and is also decorated with prayer flags and banners from the faithful. There’s also a large Bodhi (peepal) tree, close to the pond. At its base there is a small shrine dedicated to Buddha. Many other smaller Bodhi trees can be seen in the complex, which are tied to each other with prayer flags.
Groups of saffron-robed monks congregate under these trees to offer prayers. Devotees walk around the tree, burn incense at the shrine and chant bhajans. The ambiance around the temple is full of faith and devotion. I sat back and absorbed the devotional energy.
Lumbini was ‘lost’ for many centuries, as Buddhism declined in the area, and the site was rediscovered in 1895. A German archaeologist named Alois Anton Führer came upon the Ashoka pillar, and identified it from its inscription.
Moving on from the temple area, I walked along a long canal filled with water that separates the western and eastern zones. International Buddhist monasteries and Buddhism meditation centers are located on both sides of the canal. On the western side are temples built by countries where Mahayana Buddhism is practiced: Korea, China, Germany, Canada, Austria, Vietnam, Ladakh (India), and Nepal. On the eastern side are temples from places where Theravada Buddhism is practiced: Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, the Mahabodhi Society of India (Kolkata) and a Gautami Nunnery in Nepal. Somewhere in between, glimpses of Vajrayana Buddhism are also found.
Each monastery is different, with different architectural styles. One of the most impressive is Myanmar’s Golden Temple, which has been designed to look like the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. The World Peace Pagoda is another prominent building. This pristine pagoda was built by a Japanese Buddhist organization as a symbol to unite humanity. There’s a sprawling lotus pond around it, which signifies purity and prosperity.
Article by Pradeep Chamaria