“The whole world follows Buddha’s teachings, but for us Nepalis we just sit and say Buddha was born in Nepal, we must learn to value Buddhist philosophy and learn from his teachings. Research and study into Buddhist philosophy also needs to happen in Nepal,” archaeologist Maharjan says.
While the Ashoka Pillar and marker stones are pieces of clear historical evidence that Gautam Buddha was born in Lumbini, there are two pillars that indicate the births of the other two Buddhas. There was one dedicated to Kanakamuni Buddha in Niglihawa even before Ashoka came, and he enlarged it in 249BC. The other of Kakusandha Buddha in Gotihawa is badly damaged, but early Chinese travellers noted that it too had an inscription.
“Besides the Shakyamuni Buddha, this region was also the birthplace of two other Buddhas, and compared to the Buddhist sites in India like Bodhgaya and Kushinagar, I think Lumbini is more organised and better preserved,” Maharjan says.
Much of that credit goes to former United Nations Secretary-General U Thant of Burma who came here in 1967, and was so moved by its neglect that he wept. He convinced King Mahendra to promote the birthplace of the Buddha as a world heritage site.
The famous post-war Japanese architect Kenzō Tange, designer of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, was hired to come up with a masterplan for Lumbini. Despite all the setbacks over the decades, Tange’s vast Lumbini rectangle is now visible on Google Earth, and has preserved the nature and tranquility of this sacred site.
“If it wasn’t for U Thant and Kenzō Tange’s masterplan there would be no trees and the sacred garden would have shops,” says Maharjan. “Thankfully, unlike many other holy places, Lumbini’s spiritual essence is intact.”
Even though he was not a Buddhist, Tange’s master plan for Lumbini has deeply philosophical character. The nearly 8 sq km area is dominated by a north-south canal with amphitheatres, forests and wetlands on either side. At the southern end are concentric circles of the sanctum sanctorum: the sacred garden around the Mayadevi Temple.
The plan includes an eastern monastic set aside for Theravada Buddhism, and the west side is for Mahayana Buddhism. The master plan is still being broadly followed, but there are many showy edifices coming up in the monastic zone that do not conform to the Buddha’s teachings of simplicity and reverence for nature.
Among the monasteries representing Buddhism from Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma, China, Japan and Myanmar, there is also the elegant Vajrayana Vihar, built with donations from thousands of people from Kathmandu Valley. The challenge is to keep to the masterplan and prevent Lumbini from being over-built as sects compete with each other to build grander monasteries.
Venerable Metteya, the monk who is vice-chairman of the Lumbini Development Trust, was born to a Hindu family in Kapilvastu and his vision is to turn Lumbini into an international centre for peace where world leaders and spiritual thinkers can come to seek ways to end war, violence and to confront the planet’s environmental crisis.