The number of visitors to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, is on the rise. Many pilgrims will visit on Buddha’s birthday on 18 May, and visitor volume will increase exponentially after the new international airport comes into operation next year.
People now visit from all over Nepal, and from around the world, to ‘see and do’ something at this sacred site. This is a problem, because many visitors walk away muttering that there is really ‘nothing to see and nothing to do in Lumbini’.
In a strange way this is what the Buddha would have wanted in terms of educating people about the path to a life without suffering. The birthplace of the Buddha should be quiet, serene and natural, with plenty of opportunities for self-reflection, meditation, de-stressing, healing and learning.
The slogan of the Visit Nepal 2020 campaign is very appropriate for Lumbini — a ‘Lifetime Experience’. People who know only that the Buddha was born in Nepal, but very little else about his life and teachings, are visibly disappointed when they take a long bus ride on a currently very dusty wide road, get off at a dirty bus stand, walk or take a noisy boat ride on the Central Canal, buy a ticket, take off their shoes and walk to the building that houses the marker and nativity stones, then out to the pond, the Asoka Pillar and back again.
There is no one to explain anything. Who was the Buddha, who was Maya Devi, what was his childhood like, what did he teach, why do we remember him 2,600 years later?
Organised groups have guides — the majority of Nepali visitors do not. Outside the sacred garden, a young entrepreneur is designing and building a Buddhagram, where visitors will be able to experience an eight-part sound and light show that captures the life of the Buddha with robot characters.
Lumbini is a World Heritage Site and a place of faith for millions from around the world. It should be managed as a sacred space, but also create jobs and economic opportunities for the local communities who need an incentive to preserve it, as did the people here two-and-a-half millennia ago.
The greater Lumbini area offers visitors a chance to understand the childhood, youth and family life of Siddhartha, his return to meet family after enlightenment and much more. Without a guide and proper story-telling tools, the sites are a pile of bricks and little else. We need to bring these important relics to life. A trip to Lumbini should be a life-changing experience influenced by the life and teachings of the Buddha. The planned world class Lumbini Museum in buildings designed by Kenzō Tange should be a big contribution.
However, a very disturbing aspect of Lumbini today are the multiple construction sites, including inside the zone set aside by Tange in his Lumbini Master Plan. We have to prevent Lumbini turning into a Buddhist Disneyland. The moisy motorboat ride on the canal (left) and the gaudy monuments are the results of this theme park mentality.
We now need a full moratorium on any more construction inside the sacred garden. The serenity that people expect here is being interrupted by constant noise of construction. This may require one final push for fund raising, but we need to close this phase.
We need to focus new resources and investment on upgrading facilities, developing the Greater Lumbini area, and the larger regional Buddhist Circuit ll, with new resources and investments. Even before the international airport is completed, there is an economic boom of new hotels and infrastructure in the Bhairawa-Lumbini-Butwal triangle.
Meanwhile, Lumbini itself needs better signage, transportation to get from one part of the garden to the other, and more toilets (with showers and lockers). There have to be many more guides with passion and knowledge, as well as opportunities for seclusion for those who want to meditate.
All the monasteries, monks and staff have to be oriented on what is expected of them if they are residing here. And what about day and week passes for unlimited rides on electric buses in the greater Lumbini area?
With Visit Nepal Year and Visit Lumbini Year around the corner, a lot more work remains to be done in coming months to align Lumbini closer to the Buddha’s teachings.
Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddharthinc