Nov 2, 2012-
For the longest time, I’d wanted to go to Lumbini. My family isn’t Buddhist, and most of what I do know about Buddha and his birthplace stems from what I read in textbooks in school. Even so, Buddha’s life story, his spiritual awakening, and the philosophies that emerged in its wake, had made a great impression on my young mind. And having heard so much about present-day Lumbini from friends who’ve been, and given how strongly it features in Nepal’s historical legacy, I knew I had to see it for myself.
So it was a lucky break when just a few days before Dashain this year, an invitation came in for a three-day trip to Lumbini for mediapersons, organised by the Lumbini Development Trust
(LDT) in association with Radio Sagarmatha, as part of the Visit Lumbini 2012 campaign. And soon, alongside 18 other representatives from different media
houses, I found myself boarding a bus to Lumbini. I hadn’t met any of my fellow travellers before—comprising mostly of tourism and environment journalists, along with a few business reporters—but there was such a collective sense of anticipation in the air that we became fast friends.
As we talked and teased amongst ourselves, the bus bumped through the dusty, winding roads that snake along the Trishuli. We stopped first at Malekhu for lunch—delicious servings of local chicken and rice—and then again for tea at Dawane in Nawalparasi. I could see the landscape slowly changing around us the whole time; we were descending onto the plains, and steep slopes were soon replaced by bright yellow paddy fields that stretched far into the distance. Six hours and more than 300 kilometres later, we finally arrived in Lumbini.
We were staying at the hotel Kasai, where we were given a warm welcome by the hotel’s Japanese staff, accompanied by senior journalist Tika Ram Rai,
the station manager at Radio Sagarmatha, and one of the coordinators of Visit Lumbini Year 2012. A press conference was scheduled by the LDT for that evening to give us a little run-through of all developmental activities currently in process in the area, wrought by the Development Master Plan that was finalised in 1978 by the Japanese professor Kenzo Tange, with the support of the UN. According to Saroj Bhattarai, a senior engineer at the LDT, 50 percent of the work has so far been completed, and the remainder would be finished in another five to 10 years. Vice chairman of the LDT, Karma Syangbo Sherpa, also spoke on the occasion, describing Lumbini’s touristic potential. “The reason we haven’t been able to attract as many tourists is because of a lack of an effective publicity strategy,” he said. “We have so much to offer, but we haven’t been able to market ourselves very well.”
Early the next morning, we went boating on the Central Canal, a 1.5 km long waterway that connects the three areas within the Lumbini Development Project’s overall site—a great start to the day. We then walked to the Mayadevi temple, which is where Buddha’s mother—the eponymous Mayadevi—brought him into the world in 642 BC, as acknowledged by the marker stone, framed in glass, pinpointing the exact spot of his birth.
The premises were crowded with monks as well as other assorted visitors, and walking around, the melody of Om Mani Padme Hum constantly ringing in your ears, it’s impossible not to feel an immediate sense of calm. Indeed, there was a great serenity about the place—as I found was the case with most of Lumbini’s sites; the air itself tinged with something distinctly spiritual, impossible to describe in specific terms but very markedly felt.
At the back of the temple, under a peepal tree, people were preparing to meditate after having cleansed themselves in the Puskarani Pond, where it is said Mayadevi took a bath before
going into labour. As we made our rounds, we were regaled with interesting little historical snippets by Rajesh Basnet, a guide from the Information Centre. Up next was a requisite visit to the Ashokan Pillar, the famous stone column erected by the Indian Emperor Ashoka in 249 BC, and which contains a dedicatory inscription referring to his visit and to Buddha’s birth.
Although it was impossible for us to see all of the more than hundred archaelogical sites that lie within the Lumbini Sacred Garden and its surroundings in the short time that we were there, we did get to visit a few monasteries in the monastic zone. Out of 42 planned monasteries representing different nations, 24 are complete at present, each boasting its own distinctive architectural style.
We also squeezed in a trip to Tilaurakot, the ancient capital of the Shakya kingdom, which lies about 30 kms from Lumbini, and where Buddha is said to have lived the first 29 years of his life as a prince. We were, however, a bit disconcerted when we got there; compared to the flurry of restoration and construction activity going on in the development zone, the palace looked dilapidated and worn, façade overrun with weeds. Still, like how I’d felt about the rest of what we’d seen on the trip, it was incredible just to be physically standing in these places, these touchstones in the trail of Buddha’s life; it brought alive the stories I’d read and heard as a child, but added a dose of realism to them that one could never hope to imbibe from books.
Of course, a proper tour would have necessitated a two-week stay, at the very least. There is so much to see in Lumbini—natural and archaeological wonders—that three days is hardly adequate to take it all in. If I’d had more time, besides visiting more landmarks, I would’ve certainly loved to have met more locals, gotten their perspective on the developmental activities and how these have impacted their lives. The next time I go—and I will—I’ve promised myself to really dig deep, and see more of Lumbini.
Published: 03-11-2012 09:36