Print Edition - 2014-07-19  |  On Saturday

A cursory reading of Lumbini

  • Basanta Bidari’s Lumbini Beckons works merely as a ‘guidebook’ on present-day Lumbini
- Devendra Gautam
A cursory reading of Lumbini

Jul 18, 2014-

When visiting Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha, in 1967, the then UN secretary general U Thant must have been shocked at the deplorable state of the sacred place. Fresh from a pilgrimage myself, a question has been nagging my mind: Wouldn't Professor Kenjo Tange, the famous architect who designed the Lumbini Master Plan, and U Thant weep if they were to visit the superstructures that have been operating without accountability in Lumbini today?

I recently read a report in the Annapurna Post that detailed how a particular Korean monastery has been operating like a hotel and a business centre of sorts, undermining the sanctity of the place. It was thus with a heavy heart that I read Lumbini Beckons, by Basanta Bidari, former chief archaeologist of Lumbini.

The author, in all humility, describes Lumbini Beckons as a book meant to provide pilgrims and visitors a glimpse of Lumbini—a book to be read while drinking a cup of tea. And the book does work as a helpful guide for those who want to know how present-day Lumbini became what it is today. Featured in the book are beautiful and uncorrupted pictures of Lumbini of the past and present, including of the Mayadevi Temple before excavation and after restoration, the Sacred Pond before and after restoration, and the excavation of the Asoka Pillar in 1962, along with photos of the finest sculptures documented around then. They show how archaeologists excavated Lumbini from the ruins.  Indeed, the pictures do much of the talking.

For those wondering about the Marker Stone, which points to the exact birth spot of Gautama Buddha, and about the origin of the Asoka pillars and how they were transported to Lumbini, Niglihawa and Kotihawa, the book is a must read. While Section A of the book offers 'A Glimpse of the Sacred Birthplace of the Buddha and its Master Plan', Section B deals with the Asoka Pillar Inscription and the Marker Stone, on which is inscribed the words: "The Exact Birth Spot of the Buddha". The book also takes us to the quarries in Uttar Pradesh, from where the Asokan pillars were sourced, and the waterways through which they were transported to Nepal.  

But the author's lowering of expectations with his suggestion that the book be read mostly as a guide to Lumbini should not preclude his making an informed analysis about the historical figure, Siddhartha, whose having been born in Lumbini is the reason for the place's transformations in the first place.

The author describes the central life-changing events in Prince Siddhartha's life—which led to his renouncing the comforts of the palace—by repeating the story that has been told before in so many books about the prince. Just as in the books that have come before, Bidari posits that Prince Siddhartha left the royal palace, in his search for an end to suffering, after seeing a decrepit person, a person suffering from a disfiguring disease, a funeral procession and an ascetic walking majestically along the road. This explanation does not convince the critical mind. In fact, it leads one to wonder if merely everyday tragedies like these could have pushed the prince into Mahaviniskramana.

The author has not explained other possible factors that could have pushed Siddhartha into monkhood. Was the socio-economic and political situation of that time also not responsible for the Great Departure? Could not strained relations between the Shakyas of Kapilvastu and Vidudabha—who was furious at the Shakyas for effecting an unequal nuptial between his father, the Koshal King Prasenjit, and the Shakya royals' housemaid, Vasava Khatiya—have also hastened Siddhartha's exit? What about the massacre of the Shakyas at Sagarhawa by Vidudabha? Could not this tragic event have been instrumental in turning Siddhartha into the Buddha? And what impact might the dispute over the distribution of Rohini's waters have had on the prince? Is that issue just a creation on the part of Ambedkar?  One would hope that these possible factors

get due treatment in the book's next edition, so that a complete picture of the events leading to the young prince's monkhood emerges.  

Furthermore, the book's treatment regarding the work that has gone on in Lumbini is problematic too.  The author says: "The development of Lumbini, according to the Lumbini Master Plan, is meant to lead to the socio-economic upliftment of the people of the whole of Nepal's western region, and ultimately of the nation itself, through the promotion of cultural tourism, which is a major source of the country's earnings."

But one could argue that the road to national prosperity from Lumbini seems to lead nowhere—with the superstructures built around Lumbini mostly acting as business centres of sorts for their clientele. I believe that the government and the Lumbini Development Trust should in fact bridle these facilities and instead involve the locals in preserving the sacred site and maintaining its sanctity, so that Lumbini does not become merely a prized real-estate enclave.  

I believe that for humanity to benefit from this sacred place and its spirituality, stakeholders, including Nepali and foreign 'monasteries' built on the site, should shun temptations to milk Lumbini as a cash cow. The government of Nepal and the Lumbini Development Trust should step in to stop the commercialisation of the pilgrimage site. But the book does not address the flipside to the development taking place in Lumbini. Thus it can't be regarded as serious literature.

Published: 19-07-2014 07:53

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