It’s not every day that you get to walk in the footsteps of the founder of one of the world’s great religions. But then not every religion can be mapped so precisely to the real-world landscape as Buddhism.
Although eclipsed by Hinduism in the land where it was born, the origins of Buddhism are rooted in the Terai plains of Nepal, where Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born into a royal family in the ancient kingdom of Kapilavastu, and went on to found a faith that at one time claimed most of Asia, from Sri Lanka and Maldives to Tibet, Afghanistan and Mongolia.
Holy men meditate in front of the bodhi tree at Maya Devi Temple, the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama © Frank Bienewald-LightRocket / Getty Images
The birthplace of Buddhism
Despite the global reach of Buddhism, this epic story began in the 5th century BC in the humble village of Lumbini, today a dusty detour from the truck-clogged highway connecting India and Nepal. In the years immediately following Buddha’s death – or at least, his release from the mortal plane – Lumbini was the centre of a thriving religious community, directly inspired by the remembered teachings of the living Buddha. His followers soon erected a miniature city of brick stupas, tanks and prayer halls around the sacred spot where Prince Siddhartha entered the world. Even the great Buddhist Emperor Ashoka swung by in 249 BC, leaving behind one of his famous stone pillars to mark the occasion, as he spread the Buddhist faith enthusiastically across the subcontinent.
But a mere few hundred years later, early Chinese travellers described a forlorn site, with crumbling monasteries and Ashoka’s pillar lying shattered on the ground, destroyed by the lightning storms which still plague the subcontinent every monsoon. And so things remained for the next 1300 years or so, until 1896, when the local governor, General Khadga Samsher Rana, and German archaeologist, Alois Führer, unearthed Ashoka’s pillar near the village then known as Rummindei and put Lumbini literally back on the map.
The striking Myanmar Golden Temple, one of the first Buddhist structures to emerge in the Monastic Zone © CR Shelare / Getty Images
Since then, Buddhists from across the globe have devoted vast amounts of energy – and money – into returning Lumbini to its rightful place as a focal point for Buddhist pilgrimage, yet this sacred site is still overlooked by the vast majority of the travellers who surge across the India-Nepal border bound for Kathmandu and the trekking routes of the Himalaya. For now, that is. A new international airport under construction at nearby Siddharthanagar (formerly Bhairawa) on the Indian border looks set to massively alter Lumbini’s fortunes, providing a new, safer flight route into Nepal, and a direct gateway to Lumbini and the under-explored sights of the Nepali plains.
The gleaming-white World Peace Pagoda was constructed by Japanese Buddhists © Paul Biris / Getty Images
Ancient and modern side by side
For all its rich heritage, the experience of visiting Lumbini today is a curious combination of the ancient and the new. On one side, the ground is littered with the remains of thousand-year-old brick stupas and monastery buildings, interspersed with ancient bodhi trees, where pilgrims in robes that identify them as belonging to a dozen different Buddhist traditions sit silently in meditation, much as Siddhartha Gautama did in his own lifetime, before achieving enlightenment at Bodhgaya, a short trip south across what is now the border between India and Nepal.
On the other side is the curious Monastic Zone, an ever expanding complex of gleaming new monasteries, temples and stupas, built by Buddhists from as far afield as Myanmar, Cambodia and Korea. Laid out on a network of bridges, canals, ponds and gardens, this is the Epcotof Buddhism, a World’s Fair sampling pot of Buddhist traditions, from gilded Burmese zedis to geometric Tibetan chortens and incense-filled Chinese pagodas with painted timbers and sinuously curving tiled roofs.
Unmistakable Chinese temple architecture at the Zhong Hua Chinese Buddhist Monastery © Mieszko9-iStock Editorial / Getty Images
While firmly religious in intent, there’s a hint of sculpture garden about the complex, and the quiet, dusty pathways are dotted, but rarely thronged, with monks and pilgrims, adding to the sense that you are walking through a giant architect’s model. This ensures plenty of peace and quiet while you enjoy a sample of Thailand at the Royal Thai Buddhist Monastery, traces of imperial China at the Zhong Hua Chinese Buddhist Monastery, a golden facsimile of Burma at the Lokamani Pula Pagoda, towering Khmer-style prang towers at the Cambodian monastery and the grandeur of dynastic Korea at the Korean Buddhist Temple.
Yet, for all this, the lack of crowds undeniably contributes to a calm and contemplative atmosphere, in marked contrast to the frenetic bustle of Siddharthanagar and other Terai towns. On the bus journey from Siddharthanagar to Lumbini, the noise and chaos subsides noticeably with each passing mile, and a sense of entering a rural idyll pervades. At times – while pausing in the shade of a bodhi tree, or watching rare red-headed sarus cranes landing on the wetlands behind the Japanese-built World Peace Pagoda, for example – Lumbini can feel genuinely sublime.
Rare red-headed sarus cranes stalk the wetlands around Lumbini © Utopia_88 / Getty Images
At other times, when sitting in on dawn prayers at a monastery or approaching the sanctum of the Maya Devi temple, marking the precise location where Buddha was born, Lumbini can feel profoundly spiritual too. Encased in an aesthetically dubious white cocoon, the Maya Devi temple is actually layer upon layer of temple ruins, dating back millennia, centred on a terracotta slab set on the exact spot where, according to Buddhist scriptures, the mother of Buddha ‘walked 20 paces, grabbed the branch of a tree and faced to the east’, before giving birth to Siddhartha Gautama.
The journey becomes even more peaceful, and interesting, if you hop on the local bus from Lumbini to Tilaurakot, where archaeologists have unearthed the ruins of what is believed to be the palace of King Suddhodan, ruler of Kapilavastu. It was here that Gautama Buddha lived a life of luxury before leaving the royal compound aged 29 and discovering human suffering for the first time. Wandering round the dusty bases of ruined brick walls, it’s hard to visualise the site as a lavish palace, but impossible not to appreciate the calm quiet of the tree-dotted archaeological site, surrounded for miles by emerald pastures.
Green fields extend for miles around the ruins of Tilaurakot © Casper1774 Studio / Shutterstock
Dotted around the nearby landscape are some even less visited sites linked to the life of Buddha. At Gotihawa, 5km southwest of Tilaurakot, the worn stub of a second Ashoka pillar marks the birthplace of the Krakuchchanda Buddha, the first Buddha of the present age, and 8km northwest at Niglihawa, another Ashoka pillar marks the birthplace of the Kanakmuni Buddha, the second Buddha of the current era. At Kudan, 5km south of Tilaurakot, monumental plinths from vanished stupas mark the site of the forest grove where Buddha formulated several key principles of Buddhist doctrine, and a few dusty remains at Devadaha, 28km west of Lumbini, mark the birthplace of Buddha’s mother. The few tourists who venture out to these sites come as much for the chance to experience village life in the timeless plains as for the archaeology.
Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to Buddhist sites. Lumbini is within easy striking distance of many other interesting detours in the Terai and Middle Hills. Immediately north, where the plains give way to the hills of the Mahabharat range, Tansen is a classic Nepali hill town, dotted with ancient Newari architecture, that sees just a handful of visitors, despite its calm demeanor. From here, gentle walks in the hills lead to Magar tribal villages and the decaying Ranighat Darbar, a Baroque palace built for a general banished from Kathmandu for plotting against the government. Then there’s Chitwan National Park, Nepal’s most famous haven for tigers and one-horned Indian rhinos, an easy diversion off the road to Kathmandu.