The challenge Lumbini faces now is how to cope with the larger numbers of pilgrims and tourists visiting the holy site. Before the pandemic, while the number of visitors in Lumbini was high, they usually came in from India’s Buddhist circuit and only spent a few hours before heading back.
The infrastructure was poor, there were not too many hotels with proper facilities. Lumbini was difficult to get to. Now, an international airport is being inaugurated just 10km to the east, and a new influx of visitors is expected.
Before the pandemic, 1.7 million pilgrims visited Lumbini by land in a year, of these 300,000 were from outside of Nepal and India. But on average, they spent less than an hour in Lumbini.
For centuries after Ashoka visited and commemorated the nativity site, Lumbini was retaken by the surrounding jungles. It was only in the 1890s that British explorers looking for hardwood timber for railway sleepers came upon the Ashokan pillar.
In 1967, the United Nations Secretary-General U Thant, a devout Buddhist from Burma, toured Lumbini on elephant-back, and is reported to have wept on seeing the condition of the birthplace of the Buddha.
Back in New York, U Thant set up a UN committee to turn Lumbini into an international centre for peace. Noted Japanese architect Kenzō Tange, who had designed the Hiroshima Museum, was hired to draw up a master plan.
Nepal established the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT) which is implementing Kenzō Tange’s master plan and includes a monastic zone, a library and Lumbini Village for visitors. A canal bisects the site with a museum and visitor centre on the north end and the Maya Devi Temple on the south.
The eastern monastic zone was set aside for Theravada Buddhism and the western for Mahayana Buddhism. The master plan is still being broadly followed and is nearing completion, but structures are already showing signs of disrepair.
Even the visitor’s centre in Lumbini is in a sorry state, there are no information boards that tell the visitors about the site.
“Our expectations are high when it comes to Lumbini but the infrastructure is lacking,” says Purushottam Aryal, an entrepreneur who runs Buddhagram, a robotic museum outside of Lumbini gate. “We have guests who complain about the lack of restroom and having only one gate to purchase tickets.”
Despite nearly 2 million annual visitors pre-pandemic, only about 2% of the pilgrims visited the other sacred sites from the Buddha’s life like Niglihawa, Gotihawa, Kudan and Ramagram, either because they are unaware of them or because they are too difficult to get to.
Currently, most international visitors to Lumbini come from India as part of the Buddhist circuit that includes Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Kushinagar, where facilities and connectivity are better. Pilgrims preferred travelling through India to Lumbini rather than flying to Kathmandu and then making their way to the sacred site.
“Nepalis rarely hire guides. Indian tourists come in with their own guides from India, who narrate their own version of the story of Lumbini. If they hire local guides they can get authentic information. Why would anyone stay for long if all they do is go in and out?” asks Mahesh Pati Mishra, a local guide in Lumbini.
The upcoming Lumbini Museum will fill this gap. The existing museum is being upgraded and expanded to international standards, that tells the story of the Buddha, says the museum’s Sumnima Udas.
Located at the entrance of the Sacred Garden, the Lumbini Museum aims to help transform the sacred place as a major spiritual and cultural centre while setting a standard for how art and heritage can be preserved, presented and promoted.
The museum has brought in talent from Nepal and around the world to make it a state-of-the art project to educate and promote the Buddha’s message of compassion and peace, and re-imagine U Thant’s original goal inside the cylindrical modules designed by Kenzō Tange.
Explains Udas: “There are different kinds of museums, this is not going to be a museum with just statues. It will be about the storytelling. And it doesn’t have to be huge, it can just be a beautiful little gem where once you go in you leave with a better sense of what had happened in Lumbini, why the birth story matters, and what we as human beings can learn from it.”
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