Alright, get ready for a slew of photos, pals. I know that’s what you’re all really here for anyways.
This past weekend was a long weekend, and as I mentioned in my last post, Adil and I headed to Lumbini, the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama (more commonly known as the original Buddha).
Lumbini is a half hour flight from Kathmandu, so Adil and I were up early Friday to catch the morning flight out. It’s a bit of a shock to the system to get out of Kathmandu and the valley in general – this was my first time in a more rural area of Nepal (Bhaktapur is in what I refer to as the Greater Kathmandu Area, so you don’t totally feel like you’re all the way out of the city). Seriously, the air was so fresh in Lumbini – it felt so good.
Lumbini is also further south than Kathmandu – extremely close to the Indian border – so it was a solid ten degrees warmer than the city, hitting mid-thirties the whole weekend – finally some extended Vitamin D for this kid.
Our flight was, of course, slightly delayed getting out, but we still managed to arrive in Lumbini by 11.00, after a twenty minute or so ride from the Bhairahawa (pronounced Bar-ee-wah) Airport. We checked into our hotel (which did have hot water all weekend at all hours – showering three days in a row was quite the novelty), and then headed out to check out the grounds!
So, there are specific grounds to enter to visit the actual confirmed birthplace of Buddha, and then beyond that, there is a decent sized complex of temples, some of which are still under construction. The temples have been built primarily by monasteries from other countries, and it is really interesting to walk through the complex and see all the different architectural styles – there is definitely a bit of one-upmanship going on.
As an aside, I’ve recently been thinking about the type of people we tend to associate with. The passing of Justice Scalia initially got me on this train of thought, but then seeing the way in which these different strains of Buddhism have all constructed temples, with different styles, and variations on worship, made me think about it some more. There is such value in not only interacting with people that have opposing viewpoints to your own, but in befriending these people and forming real relationships with them. I think one of the most dangerous things for your mind is to surround yourself only with people who perpetuate your viewpoint. Obviously, humans are more comfortable interacting with people with whom they have more in common – it’s natural, and helps to avoid conflict. But there really is so much to be gained from engaging with people who don’t agree with you – they push you to think from other perspectives, and really assist in developing you into a more well-rounded person. I mean, obviously, stay friends with all the people you get along with, and don’t go seek out people who don’t agree with you for the sole purpose of arguing with them, but trying to be a part of situations in which you may be uncomfortable or in the minority is really useful. Staying open to other views is challenging, but it’s important for personal development – but remember when staying open to be true to your values, while recognizing that they can alter. I’m all about growth through discomfort, which may be why I make many of the decisions I do!
But, back to the main attraction – Buddha!
So, the way the story goes is that, in 563 BCE, Buddha’s mama, Queen Maya of Sakya, was on her way to her hometown to give birth to the prince. On the way, she stopped to stretch her legs and bathe in a pond, and promptly went into labour. She had time to take 25 steps out of the pond, grabbed onto the branch of a sal tree, and gave birth to Siddhartha right then and there. Apparently, he was born posing as portrayed by the above golden statue. Baby Buddha, always number one.
Inside the temple is a marker stone, roughly 70cm in length – you can wait in line to go look at it, but the line was really long and neither Adil nor myself felt as though we were going to get all that much out of it. But, the marker stone supposedly indicates the exact spot where the prince was born.
After the prince was born, a seer predicted that he would become either a great teacher or a great king. His father, King Suddhodana, preferred the latter, and so shielded him from the world outside the palace for twenty nine years. When the prince first left the palace complex, he came across an old man, a sick man, a hermit, and a corpse. He thought that contemplation would be the only way to understand suffering, which appeared to come at the end of life, so ran away from his life as a prince, abandoning his wife, his child, and his horse (who died of a broken heart after being left without him). For five years, he fasted and meditated, finally determining that self denial brought him no closer to wisdom or the truth than self indulgence had, and decided to take the “Middle Way” – a path of moderation and self awareness which allows humans to escape the cycle of rebirth and achieve nirvana. He spent 49 days meditating under a Bodhi tree in India, and achieved enlightenment. He was renamed Buddha (enlightened one) and spent the next 46 years teaching the Middle Way. He died roughly 100km south of Lumbini with some of his last words being that “all things are subject to decay. Strive earnestly.”
Outside the Mayadevi temple are ruins dating back further than 2200 years, some as old as the second century BCE, and the most recent being from the ninth century. A huge complex of monasteries and stupas had been erected here by Buddha’s followers, but fell into disrepair and were abandoned at some point around 400 CE.
Before the monasteries fell into disrepair, the Indian emperor Ashoka made a well-documented pilgrimage to Lumbini in 249 CE to pay his respect to Buddha. To mark his visit, Ashoka left a 6 metre pillar, which is actually the best evidence to indicate that Lumbini is indeed the birthplace of Buddha. The pillar is the oldest monument in Nepal, and, not only did it denote Ashoka’s pilgrimage, it also granted Lumbini a tax-free status in honour of Buddha’s birth. It was split by lightning sometime in the 7th-century, and is currently held together by metal bands.
The discovery of Ashoka’s pillar is actually a pretty cool story too (as a child who was pretty into exploring, treasure hunts were pretty huge in my imagination station). The sacred garden was lost for roughly six hundred years – as I said, the monasteries were abandoned sometime after Ashoka’s visit – and the discovery of the garden in the late 1890s solved one of the last great mysteries of the Orient. The garden had been a real target for European explorers as far back as 1830, but it wasn’t until the early 1890s that any real clue was discovered. A Nepali officer was out hunting west of Lumbini when he claimed to have discovered a relic of Ashoka. There were two main individuals seeking the pillar at that time – A.A. Führer, from the Archaeological Survey of India, and Austin Waddell, a British military doctor working in Calcutta. Based on the writings of ancient pilgrims to Lumbini, dating back most recently to the seventh century, the two men tried to determine the garden’s location. In 1896, Führer had an intended dig site near Lumbini. On the advice of his Nepali escort, a general from the famous Rana family, they decided to meet in Pararia before heading to the intended site. While waiting for Führer to arrive, the Rana general was led to an ancient pillar near the village, and ordered his peons to begin its excavation. The pillar had, in fact, already been discovered by a different British military official, who dismissed it and its inscription as being random medieval writing, so nobody had bothered to excavate. When Führer arrived, he immediately recognized the pillar as being the one he had been searching for, and claimed credit for its discovery. People still consider him to be the discoverer of Lumbini, but he was stripped of his credentials once it was discovered that he falsified his discovery reports.
So, the temples pictures fromabove are all from the Monastic Zones. The zones open with the eternal flame and a kilometre long canal. The eternal flame has been burning since 1 November 1986, and marked the international year of peace.
Within the Monastic Zones, 42 plots in total have been set aside for temples and monasteries, though there are currently only roughly 20 plots, either with completed temples/monasteries or currently under construction.
The Lumbini Development Zone was founded in 1978, and the master plan has been in place since at least 2004, but the development has been quite slow. It definitely has the potential to become a more impressive space, but right now, despite how amazing some of the buildings are, it’s a bit of an underwhelming experience – there isn’t much grandeur to the complex. Some might say that it ought to stay that way, as that would be more in line with the teachings of Buddhism, but it would definitely help the local economy to have a larger draw. It definitely wasn’t super busy when we were there, and any later into spring it ends up being too hot for tourists, really. In fact, I think the Friday we were there, the majority of photos taken by visitors were of me and not the temples. Definitely not a popular destination for white people generally, and blonde people, well. Look out.
While visiting one of the livelier monasteries, we got a real treat – a helicopter landed! Normally, I would not care about this at all, BUT. The monks. Were so excited.
At the very end of the Monastic Zones is the World Shanti Stupa (Peace Pagoda), which is 41 metres tall. It was completed in 2001, and was built by the Nipponzan Myohoji, through contributions from devotees in Nepal and Japan. Japan first began building peace pagodas all over the world following the atomic bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in fact, this organization is also responsible for building the peace pagoda in Battersea Park. They are meant to disseminate love and peace.
But seriously. This took seven years to construct, and yes, it is absolutely beautiful. But. Gold-plated bronze decorations on an imported marble building… remember the middle path of Buddhism? I’m not saying there isn’t a place for memorials and monuments, and I mean, I love visiting places like this and seeing impressive architecture and feats of human construction. But one of the things that has always bothered me about organized religion are its hypocritical aspects – but I guess it’s kind of hypocritical of me to visit and then complain about its origins!
But wait! There is more to Lumbini than just Buddha and monasteries! It is also surrounded by wetlands which are noted to be prime birding territory, with over 210 recorded species! If you’ve read my previous blog posts from Africa, you’ll know that birding is totally my thing. Just can’t get enough of those red backed honey rollers.
And, regardless of how I feel about birds, I do support the protection of endangered animals, one of which is the sarus crane.
Despite my misgivings on the looks of the sarus crane (and its general potential to kill me), it is the world’s tallest flying bird, and one of the most endangered birds of them all – Nepal has somewhere between 200 and 300 in total, and just shy of 100 of them will be found in the Lumbini wetlands at any given time.
And I did get to see it fly. It looked like what I imagine an archaeopteryx would, which, oddly enough, was one of my favourite dinosaurs growing up.
And another fantastic part of this weekend was a bike trip into the villages around Lumbini – Mahilwar, Small Mahilwar, Laximpur and Lankapur – with a local guide. Despite being hilariously uncomfortable bikes on tiny gravel roads with endless potholes, it was really cool to get out into a Nepali village.
Prahlad took us around through the villages – he grew up in one on the other side of Lumbini – and told us about the general makeup of the communities. Funnily enough, the minority religious population makeup belongs to Buddhists, with higher Hindu and Muslim communities (in fact, we biked past a mosque in Mahilwar).
I was really impressed with the crop diversity in the area – we saw crops of mustard, garlic, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, bananas, eggplants, and chili peppers, to name a few. Rice also grows there during the wet season. The crops are all for local sale, so the villages are actually fairly sustainable food-wise.
Prahlad was also fairly frank about the issues facing the villages in this area. He estimated that roughly only 10 to 20 percent of women are educated. However, there were several schools in the villages, most of them funded by organizations located in other countries (Canadian organizations actually funded two of the schools we saw). They’ve also been hit pretty hard by the blockade, being so close to the Indian border, and the tourism industry in Nepal took a general hit following last year’s earthquake, which has further affected the economy of Lumbini and its surrounding villages.
It was definitely an eye opening experience, and I’m glad I did it – you can get a sense of a country from its cities, for sure, but the way in which people live in rural areas is particularly indicative of the state of a nation. Being from a small town myself, I’m always interested to see life in some of the more forgotten areas of a country.
And with that, we are back at work in KTM! Our gender conference is coming up this weekend, so as of Friday night, I am back in a hotel and hitting the hot water hard (and water generally, since mine stopped working in my apartment… classic #KathmanduQuandaries).
To conclude, words from Buddha:
No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.