Nepal, an enchanting country draped in highest Himalayan peaks, expansive river valleys, rich cultural and architectural heritage, tolerant religious diversity, spectacular traditional festivals, rich and varied forests and vibrant wildlife, and last but not the least, friendliest, hospitable and simplest people on earth. When I checked about Lumbini I was told that lots of people travel to that place by reaching Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh by train (Mahaparinirvan Express Tourist train stops here) and from there take either a bus or a shared taxi, a drive of about two and half hour, but best and quick option is to fly from Kathmandu, a journey of about 45 minutes to Bhairawa ( also known as Siddhartha Nagar ). I was also told that many people spend maximum a day at Lumbini and proceed to their next destination but I chose to spend at least three leisurely days to explore not only Lumbini but also the lesser known archeological ruins of Tilaurakot, and surroundings, identified as historical site of Kapilavastu.
It was a bright and sunny day at Kathmandu and I took off from domestic airport by Buddha Air, a local but reliable airline and landed at Bhairawa airport just before noon. The landscape of countryside I drove through is like any other village scenario from India, with paddy fields, short bridges, moving bullock carts and people wandering here and there. Another commonality was scorching heat with high humidity, temperature soaring to 41 C on that day and swarm of mosquitoes. I decided to first venture to Taulihawa, a terrai town where Tilaurakot, was located. Tilaurakot has been identified by archeologists as Kapilavastu, where Gautama Siddhartha, lived 29 years of his life before his renunciation.
Our vehicle took a turn into a narrow mud road and reached the first archeological site “ Twin Stupas “ or Jodi Stupa. These stupas are built as commemoration of King Suddodhana and Queen Maya Devi, the parents of Buddha. The big stupa was 52 feet in diameter and 7 ½ feet in height from the surface and built in four phases, the first phase from 4th century B.C. The small stupa located to the north of big stupa, was 26 feet in diameter and built in one phase. From there we moved to the famous eastern gate of Kapilavastu, from where Gautama Siddhartha started his journey and began his spiritual quest. The entire area is in a serene and peaceful meadow on the banks of Banganga river. It was due to untiring efforts, hard work, meticulous investigation by the Nepalese Department of Archeology, the entire urban layout of the area of this ancient city was uncovered. This area consists of large residential compound, remains of city moat and walls, a grid iron street pattern oriented on the cardinal directions. On either side of the roadway, the archeology department has identified rectangular structures, central complex, frontages of several ruins and gates on four sides. Entry into this area is free and I could walk through on an elevated wooden board from eastern gate to western gate.
It appears the excavations and subsequent research confirmed that Tilaurakot not only reflect the urban planning concepts outlined in Arthasastra, but also exhibit the shared concept of South Asian urban designs as compared with other ancient city sites. Apart from identifying eastern and western gates, the excavations also found earliest pottery painted greyware of the 8th to 9th century B.C, Terracotta, human and animal figurines, beads, metal objects like punch marked and cast coining seals, sealings and other numerous objects. It took almost two and half hours for me move within the complex and reading the informative signages and comparing them with the actual sites. It is noteworthy that ancient Chinese travelers Fa Hsien and Hsuan Tang visited Kapilavastu during 5th and 7th centuries and captured the abundance of glorious times of the city and also, it’s decay in their writings. With identification of many sites from the life and times of Buddha through archeological excavations, research and vigorous historical studies, Tilaurakot is conclusively recognized as ancient capital city of Sakyas, the Kapilavastu.
From there we drove to Gotihawa, another site, the birthplace of Krakuchhanda Buddha where a broken Pillar erected by Ashoka in the year 249 B.C stand partly buried in rain water. Researcher Dr.L.A. Waddel led the early excavation here later in the year 1993 by other archeologists, discovering the present stupa that had diameter of 23mt with a Pradakshina path around it. Presently standing in-situ on the foundation, the existing pillar is 3.25 mt high and lost it’s upper portion. At the centre of the village there is an ancient well which is still used by the villagers and in the south, there is an ancient water tank for the Ashoka era. From Gotihawa we drove to Kudan archeological site, identified as Nigrodharama ( Banyangrove ), a monastery built by King Suddodhana where Buddha met his father for the first time and presented sacred robes. The security guard at the site volunteered to be guide and took me round the monuments that include three stupas, an ancient well and a water pond explaining the the historical significance. Incidentally the first stupa, is the place where Rahula, the son of Buddha was ordained by the Buddha’s chief disciple Sariputra. The stupa on its top bears octagonal Siva temple seems to have been built in later centuries.
In the evening, I reached Eternal Peace Flame located just at the north of Maya Devi temple. The evening shadows were stretching on the canal that flows silently by the side of temple and the Eternal Flame or Lamp was shining beautifully adding glory to the changing colours in the horizon. This Flame was lit on November 1st, 1986 to commemorate International Year of Peace and brought from United Nations hqrs New York, to symbolize, integrate and promote peace and harmony among global communities. From there I walked towards statue of Baby Buddha, standing atop an inverted Lotus pedestal with right hand raised to the sky and index finger pointing to Eternal Truth.
This is the historical and most sacred site where Queen Maya Devi gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama in the year 563 B.C. According to a legend, pregnant Mayadevi, a princess from neighboring kingdom of Devdaha, wife of King Suddhodana, ruler Kapilavastu, was travelling to her father’s home and impressed by the beauty and serenity of a pond surrounded by flowering Sal trees at Lumbini stopped to for a while for few hours rest. After bathing in cool waters of the pond, she suddenly went into labour and after walking few steps could grab the branch of the tree for support and gave birth to the baby painlessly. When the child was born, he immediately spoke saying “this is my final rebirth” and walked seven steps to the four cardinal points towards east beginning a path of enlightenment that transformed humankind. It is also said that a lotus flower sprang forth with each step symbolically enriching the spiritual significance of the event. The divinities around gave ceremonial bath to Mother and Child in an elaborate ritual witnessed by gods and other cosmic beings. This incident appears to be repeated by the Buddhist communities all over the world on the day of Buddha’s birth as a sacred ceremony as “bathing of Baby Buddha” with traditional fanfare.
Maya Devi temple located in the middle of huge park as part of Lumbini Development Zone, designed by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange in 1978 and has undergone sustained efforts to evolve as major cultural and heritage area with many monasteries constructed by Buddhist communities from all over the world blending aesthetically planned landscape with gardens, lakes and thick vegetation. Rightfully Lumbini was declared as World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997. It was in 1896, Nepalese archeologists led by General Khadga Samsher Rana and assisted by German archeologist Dr. Anton Fuhrer discovered a stone pillar identified as erected by Ashoka in the year 249 B.C. This fact was corroborated with additional evidence of detailed excavations, radiocarbon dating, historical references, Buddhist literature and other discoveries around the site confirming as birthplace of Buddha. A huge complex of monasteries, stupas was built in this area in ancient times, including the pillar erected by Ashoka during his pilgrimage to this sacred site. The pillar consisting of inscriptions in Brahmi script and Pali language bears the first epigraphic proof of reference to birthplace of Buddha. Writings of Chinese pilgrims Fa Hsien and Hsuan Tang who travelled to this place in 5th and 7th centuries described this narrating the details of abandoned monasteries, Ashoka’s pillar lying on the ground and dilapidated condition of the entire complex. I walked around the sacred pond called Pushkarini, witnessing the shadows of clouds and rising stars in the clean waters, by the side of huge Bodhi tree and listening to the rustling sounds of Tibetan prayer flags tied to the branches under a canopy. The well-lit Ashoka Pillar was outside the temple at a corner and I sat there for a while relishing the rare and blissful moments of tranquility.
I got up early and finishing my breakfast, decided to spend few more hours in visiting some more monasteries near to me, as my flight to Kathmandu was in the late afternoon. I could walk to Sri Lankan Monastery, which was undergoing renovation and also Cambodian temple which was under construction. The Cambodian temple is marked by Naga sculpture at the entrance of each of the gates, typical from the architectural style of that country and I could imagine that once the construction is completed, it will be a top attraction for all travelers and pilgrims alike. Though I could not cover all the monasteries, monuments and museum during my visit, it was enough for me to taste the richness and depth of Buddha’s universal influence on the globe. I returned to Kathmandu by evening, reinvigorated with the wonderful memories from sacred land of Kapilavastu and Lumbini, the places that presented the world a spiritual giant, epitome of philosophical treasure, and a Prophet of eternal peace and spiritual awakening that transformed the history of the mankind for ages to come.
——M Madan Gopal, IAS (Retd)