Thousands of years ago, in the plains of Lumbini, a young queen was on her way to her family home at Devdaha to give birth.However, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, or Lord Buddha as we famously remember him, and his life’s work for, arrived earlier – at the sacred gardens of Lumbini.
Listed as a World Heritage Site, Lumbini and the Greater Lumbini Area, attract millions of visitors annually for its cultural, religious, historical and architectural importance.
In 623 BC, Lord Buddha’s mother Queen Mayadevi was travelling from Tilaurakot, the capital of the Shakya Kingdom, to her family home in Devdaha to give birth. However, Prince Siddhartha Gautama arrived earlier, at the sacred gardens of Lumbini, where the Maya Devi Temple stands today. Adjacent to the temple is a sacred pool (Puskarini) where Lord Buddha took his purification bath.
Later in his life, Lord Buddha advised his followers to visit four sacred places relevant to his life, one being his birthplace in Lumbini, and the other three being Bodhgaya, the place where he attained enlightenment, Sarnath, where he delivered his first discourse, and Kushinagar, the place where Lord Buddha passed away at the age of 80.
Lumbini and its surrounding areas have been sites of pilgrimage for centuries – however for a large part of modern history, the exact spot of Buddha’s birth was unconfirmed. It was only in 1896 A.D, when General Khadga Samsher Rana and Alois Anton Fuhrer discovered the Ashoka Pillar, King Ashoka’s visit to Lumbini and his assertion that it was the exact birth place of Lord Buddha was confirmed.
In 249 B.C., Emperor Asoka of the Maurya Dynasty of India, after converting to Buddhism visited Lumbini and the surrounding regions, and erected the Asoka Pillar as a marker of the exact spot of Lord Buddha. Emperor Ashoka, who after embracing Buddhism, helped promote Buddhism across Asia.
In later years, from 350 – 636 AD, travelers and monks from different eras of time which include Monk Seng-tsai, Traveller Fa-hsien, and Traveller Huan-tsang visited Lumbini and wrote accounts of their visit.
In 1312 AD, Ripu Malla, a Malla era ruler was one of the last visitors to leave evidence of their visit to Lumbini. After that, until the 1896 AD excavation by Khadga Shumsher and Anton Fuhrer, was the archaeological ruins, including the Asoka Pillar was rediscovered which led to an international movement to recognize Lumbini as the birthplace of Lord Buddha.
In 1997 AD, Lumbini was included on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The Lumbini Master Plan:
According to Sanu Raja Shakya, Member Secretary of the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT), the Lumbini Master Plan, which was formulated in 1967 AD covers an area of 13 square miles and is oriented north-south.
The Lumbini Master Plan, developed by Kenzo Tange, a Japanese architect, includes three zones: (1) the Sacred Garden, (2) the Monastic Zone, and (3) the New Lumbini Village. Each of the zones covers an area of a square mile, and is based on the concept of the path to Enlightenment. The three zones are connected by a canal which is part of the central link. The area outside the 1 x 3 mile Lumbini Project Area within the 5 x 5 mile zone is the Buffer Zone, which protects the three zones.
Comprising of the Mayadevi Temple which includes the Marker Stone to mark the birthplace of Lord Buddha, the Ashoka Pillar, and the surrounding archaeological remains, a visit to the Sacred Gardens, especially if timed in the early morning or late evening will make sure to evoke one’s spirituality. Watch the prayer flags flutter and observe the monks immersed in deep meditation, as you take in more than two millenniums of history in the beautiful and sacred gardens of Lumbini.
Consisting of Buddhist monasteries from around the world, the Monastic Zone while adding immersive value to travelers, offers insight into how Buddhism has spread to all corners of the world – starting from this spot itself.
New Lumbini Village
This zone contains facilities for visitors including hotels, a tourist and administration centre, a museum and a research institute. It also comprises of a meditation centre, a large, tranquil and open space wherein visitors are welcome to meditate.
According to Shakya, an estimated 85% of the work towards completing the Lumbini Master Plan has been completed, and the remaining 15% should be completed within the next two years. He is also optimistic about the now completed, soon to be opened international airport in Bhairawaha. According to him, Lumbini will now be directly connected to the world, making it convenient for travelers and pilgrims to arrive in Lumbini, especially from countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, China Vietnam, along with other European nations and the US who form a majority of the international visitors besides India. Meanwhile, the Lumbini Development Board is also working on programs and activities which will boost international and national tourism to the birthplace of Lord Buddha.
Grater Lumbini Area:
Beyond the Lumbini Development Area, plans to promote the Greater Lumbini Area which include several sites of cultural and religious importance are also ongoing. According to Shakya, Member Secretary of the Lumbini Development Trust, work on increasing tourism and cultural experiences around the area is also ongoing. For example, work on the Buddhist Circuit is ongoing at a rapid pace. The domestic circuit will cover Lumbini and Devdaha of Rupandehi, Tilaurakot, Kudan, Sagarhawa, and Niglihawa of Kapilvastu; and Ramgram of Nawalparasi. An external circuit will cover Bodhgaya, Raajgir, Sarnath and Kushinagar in India.
Places to explore in the Greater Lumbini Area:
Tilaurakot: Tilaurakot, above 29 km west of Lumbini is where Siddhartha Gautama spent the first 29 years of his life. The site sits in a peaceful meadow on the banks of the Banganga River.
Kudan (Nyigrodharma): It is said Lord Sakyamuni Buddha met his father King Suddhodhana for the first time after he got enlightenment at Kudon. Recent excavations have uncovered three stupas, a well, and a holy pond.
Niglihawa: Identified as the holy place where Kanak Muni Buddha was born, an Ashoka inscription engraved on a pillar in Nigilihawa attests the fact that Emperor Ashoka erected a stone pillar to mark the birthplace.
Sagarhawa: The place is identified as where King Virudhaka massacred several Shakyas – later hundreds of stupas were built by their descendants. Today, their ruin remains.