Holy Pilgrimage to Lumbini, Nepal

By Kiat-Sing Teo

In the year 563 BCE, what we now know as India today was really a collection of countries, each with their own rulers. It was a time when people valued and praised those who went to great measures pursuing deeper meanings in existence. It was a full moonlit night in May, in the beautiful Lumbini garden of shady Sal trees, a baby boy was born to king Suddhodana and Queen Mahamaya of the Shakya clan. The child was named Siddhartha – “Wish Fulfilled”. The Gods and the entire city celebrated this auspicious birth, but the royal fortune teller Asita wept, predicting that Prince Siddhartha would grow up to be a “Universal Monarch” or “a Fully Awakened One”, and that he, Asita, would not live to hear the Fully Awakened One preach.

So it came to be that Prince Siddhartha ful- filled the fortune teller’s prophecy and became venerated as Lord Buddha. Described as “the apostle of peace and the life of Asia”, he left a legacy that lives on today; an extensive philoso- phy whose message of love and compassion has left imprints on the entire world, a school of thought that continues to bring confidence and solace to people, and harmony among human- kind and living things.

In the course of this year, Asian Fusion
will take you through the journey of Prince Siddhartha’s life, covering the major sites of his birth, enlightenment, where he expounded his philosophy and finally, his place of death. Un- earthing, as we go along, details of the life of a man who has attained true peace, and showed the path to others so that they too, may discover for themselves.

Lumbini – the holy site of Prince Sid- dhartha’s birth – made the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 1997, for fulfilling the criteria of being a unique and exceptional testimony as a common heritage of humanity, and for having a tangible association to living traditions, ideas and beliefs of outstanding universal significance.

The United Nations Development Pro- gramme granted nearly a million dollars towards the preparation of a master plan, including engineering and archaeological stud- ies, for Lumbini’s development. Renowned Japanese architect, Kenzo Tange, was commis- sioned with this task. Seeking to “reinforce the symbolic entity of the Lumbini Garden in its simplicity and clarity”, Tange envisioned the result to be the restoration of nearly 7.7 kilome- ters square – to be known as the sacred garden, with its landmark Mayadevi Temple and Ashoka pillar – a surrounding 64.5 kilometers square area developed into a monastic zone and a supporting Lumbini village with lodgings and other tourist facilities.

The eastern monastic zone would be reserved for Theravada Buddhism from Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka and such, while the west- ern zone would be home for Mahayana Bud- dhism from Tibet, China and Bhutan. In January, as the last frosts of the season fades, Lumbini (now within the borders of modern day Nepal) appears promising with hundreds of soon-to-blossom buds peering between tall grasses. The local women, mostly clad in Indian saris, tread barefoot on the unpaved, sandy paths leading a good way from the bustling town, to the spot that claims Siddhartha’s birth. It costs 100 Nepali rupees (a mere US$1.25 that goes towards the Lumbini Development Trust) to enter the tranquility of the sacred garden. One is a greeted by the sight of the Mayadevi Temple, strangely magnetizing with her unassuming air of regality. She is sur- rounded by bodyguards of ancient trees keeping a respectful distance on the well-tended lawn neatly peppered with archeological remains of temple and stupas.

The Mayadevi Temple is built over at least three other foundations of temples that may date as far back as the 3rd century BCE. Much of its interior is cordoned off because of exten- sive excavation work currently taking place. Visitors are, however, allowed to circumam- bulate the inside, view the nativity sculpture from the 4th century, and the flawless stone – a glass-protected stone slab believed to mark the exact spot of Siddhartha’s birth.

Outside the temple, one ancient tree stands out because its sturdy trunk is very thick and very sinewy. Incense and garland offerings lie at its foot. This is the descendent of the very tree, on the same spot of its ancestor, under which Queen Mahamaya rested before cleans- ing herself in the sacred pool Pushkarini, which still exists today as a refurbished tank riveted by layered bricks.

Another monument marking the holy site of Lumbini is the Ashokan Pillar, erected in the 3rd century by Mauryan Emperor Ashoka as a sign of his physical presence. The pillar is inscribed with Brahmin script, pardoning the village of Lumbini from taxes due to its sacred- ness as birthplace of Siddhartha.

Today, just as it has been for centuries, faithful Buddhist and Hindus, who regard Sid- dhartha as the incarnation of Vishnu, continue to visit Lumbini. Simplicity and serenity per- vades the atmosphere, as it too must have, more or less, during Siddhartha’s time. Now, though, the ambience is clearly broken at regular intervals by beggars and dusty children asking for change. Despite the number of decent and even luxurious hotels and inns lined outside the scared garden, one remains confused as to whether this is the realization of Tange’s design, or a cry of potential neglect.

In our next issue, we travel to Bodh Gaya, India to track the story of how the young prince grew up, meditated under the Bodhi tree, was challenged by Mara, the demon, but persisted and attained enlightenment.