Buddha’s birthday in his birthplaceEven as the pandemic ravages Nepal, archaeologists unearth new secrets of Prince Siddhartha’s kingdom
For the second year in a row, Lumbini will see none of the thousands of pilgrims from around the world that used to congregate here to mark the birthday of the Sakyamuni Buddha, which this year falls on 26 May.
The Sacred Garden, holy pond, Mayadevi Temple and the pathways along the central canal are all deserted, except for a few monks in maroon robes chanting mantra through blue surgical masks.
Kapilvastu, the district named after the kingdom that Sidhhartha Gautam abandoned at age 29 more than two-and-a-half millennia ago, is finally revealing secrets that had been buried deep in time.
It turns out that there is a lot more to Lumbini than Lumbini. While the Ashoka Pillar and the Mayadevi Temple mark the nativity site, there are the ruins of ancient Kapilvastu nearby — home of Siddhartha Gautam’s father King Sudhodhan in Tilaurakot.
Archaeologists here are not only researching the ruins of the ancient towns, but also relics left here by pilgrims over the centuries which reveal that Gautam Buddha, besides being the divine entity he is today, was also a historical figure.
Siddhartha Gautam was born in Lumbini in 623 BC while his mother Queen Mayadevi was being carried in a palanquin to her own home in Devdaha. Mayadevi gave birth while standing and clutching the branch of a sal tree, but died seven days later. Siddhartha was then raised by his aunt, Prajapati.
The birth is depicted in a 1,800-year-old stone sculpture found at the site, and further proof is a marker stone found in 1995 that locates the exact spot where the Buddha was born.
Then there is the pillar erected by Mauryan Emperor Ashoka in 249BC. Ashokan pillars are found at holy Buddhist sites across north India, and the one in Lumbini has Pali inscriptions stating that the emperor had himself visited the place of the Buddha’s birth in the 20th year of his reign.
Chinese monk pilgrims Faxian and Xuanzang visited Lumbini and Tilaurakot in the 4th and 7th century CE, and described the ruins in detail. But it was only in 1889 that exiled Rana general Khadga Shumshere together with German archaeologist Alois Anton Führer found the pillar in the middle of a thick jungle that had started being cleared for railway sleepers in British India.
They found Ashoka’s inscription on the column that was made of chunar stone, which must have been carried with great effort from as far as Banaras, 300km away. Like other Ashokan pillars, the one in Lumbini was probably also topped with an inverted lotus and horse finial carved out of stone. The damaged lotus has been found, and now rests next to the pillar, but the horse has not been located.
“It must be underground here somewhere, and if we excavate, we will probably find it,” says Basanta Maharjan, a Buddhism scholar with Nepal’s Department of Archaeology. “But we have not really done much excavation here, except for these pre-Mauryan structures.”
It troubles Maharjan that Nepalis have taken Buddha’s birthplace for granted and it has become an issue of national pride, and reduced to a populist ‘Buddha was born in Nepal’ slogan.
“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.
“Gautam Buddha was a mediator who sought to bring peace between warring kingdoms in his day,” says Metteya. “We have to preserve this spiritual space not just as a pilgrimage site, but also as a centre for conflict resolution and nature protection.”
Venerable Metteya says he gets proposals every day for new construction within the Lumbini zone, including for new monasteries and even one to build an enormous 100m high Buddha statue. “We will not entertain these, and on this the Nepali state is also clear,” he says.
The Trust is now finalising a Rs8 billion plan starting with sacred garden to enhance the open space. Before Covid there were 250,000 foreign pilgrims and tourists a year here, and 1.6 million Nepalis.
The International Committee for Lumbini is the only one dealing with world heritage sites that comes directly under the UN Secretary General in New York. Buddhist countries are members, and Nepal is trying to revive it after 25 years by changing its focus away from fund-raising to develop an International Centre for Peace.
There are also plans to link the Greater Lumbini region with the Buddhist Circuit in India and Nepal for a time when pilgrims and tourists can return on the Buddha’s 2,645th birthday next year.
Even before it was the seat of King Sudhodhan, father of Siddhartha Gautam, Tilaurakot already had human habitation dating back nearly 3,000 years. Remnants of those early settlements are now overlaid by ruins of the palace and the town that surrounded it.
In 1899 the Indian archaeologist P C Mukherjee came here and determined that Tilaurakot was indeed ancient Kapilvastu, the kingdom of the Shakya dynasty. In the past decades, the area was studied by noted Nepali archaeologists Tarananda Mishra and Babu Krishna Rijal, who confirmed that finding.
A geophysical survey is now being carried out here by the Department of Archaeology and Durham University experts using special equipment to peer underground without digging and disturbing the site.
“It is all forest and shrub on the surface, but beneath us is an elaborate network of paths, walls and buildings of that ancient kingdom where the Buddha lived till he was 29 years old,” explains Kosh Prasad Acharya, former head of the Department of Archaeology. “These are relics of an extremely important part of our history.”
There is now a detailed map of what lies below ground, and it shows that Kapilvastu had a north-south and east-west road grid. The poorer buildings with thatch roofs and mud walls were in the periphery, while more important people who lived near the centre had brick walls and tile roofs.
The writings of early Chinese travellers give a detailed description of what they said was Kapilvastu. Their written accounts of the ruins of the palace, the walls, paths and gates, from nearly 2,000 years ago tallies exactly with what has been found today by archaeologists.
“What is most exciting is that this is proof that King Sudhodhan’s palace was here, and we are sitting here right now on the ground that Siddhartha Gautam walked on,” Acharya says. “We now know where the roads were and have built wooden walkways right above them.”
Tilaurakot is now a fascinating archaeological museum where visitors can walk around along wooden paths, following the footsteps of Siddhartha Gautam as a boy. The parts that have been excavated and mapped have clearly illustrated explanations of what ancient Kapilvastu looked like.
The other historical site is in nearby Ramgram, where there is an ancient stupa that goes right back to the years after the Buddha died. It is one of the eight stupas where the Buddha’s relics were kept.