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"Lumbini" by Shantum Seth

1 April 2010

Lumbini grove, the sacred site of the Buddha’s birth, is today a small village in Nepal just across the border from India, but to get there, one has to cross the border and travel 20 miles from Sonauli on the Indo-Nepal border. There are also flights from Kathmandu to Bhairava 15 miles away from Lumbini.

It is said that Mayadevi, the mother of the Buddha-to-be and chief Queen of Raja Suddhodana of Kapilavastu, had a beautiful dream. In the dream she saw a six-tusked elephant enter her side as she lay sleeping. Ten months later as she headed for her maternal home for the delivery, the entourage camped in the beautiful Lumbini grove. As Mayadevi felt labor pains, she reached out for a branch of a Sita Ashok (Saraca indica) tree, and the child was born. It was the full moon day of Vaisakh (April-May). It is said that the heavens filled with light and the devas showered flowers on the young baby. Mayadevi died 8 days after giving birth, and she requested her younger sister, Prajapati, who was the second wife of Raja Suddhodana, to care for the young boy.

An old sage, Asita, prophesied that the child would become a great spiritual teacher when he grew up. Raja Suddhodana tried to provide every type of luxury to the young Siddhartha Gautama and protect him from experiencing suffering, so as not to take the path of renouncing home and society. He married at the age of 16, had a son, but destiny took its course and Siddhartha renounced his heritage and set off on the course to find a solution to end human misery at the age of 29.

Three hundred and thirteen years after the birth, Emperor Ashoka visited Lumbini in 250 BC and erected a pillar there. This pillar still remains at the site and has an inscription on it saying that the Emperor exempted the locals half of their tax, since the Buddha had been born there. The Chinese traveler Fa Hien in the 5th century AD and other travelers and pilgrims were disappointed to see that jungles had swallowed the entire place, and nothing existed of the scenic pleasure garden. Ashoka’s pillar was rediscovered in 1896. Excavations after that have once again drawn attention to this holy place. In 1967 U Thant, the Secretary General of the UN, came to visit and initiated a development plan for Lumbini. This includes a sacred garden, a monastic zone, an academic zone and a residential zone with hotels.

The Mayadevi temple and the tank nearby are part of the sacred garden. There is a beautiful panel in the temple, depicting Mayadevi holding the Sita Ashoka tree and the young prince emerging out of her right side. Excavations have revealed a series of rooms and a stone slab which is now believed to mark the exact location at which the Buddha was born.

Just outside the temple is a tank whose water glistens in the faint sun, the gentle breeze creating endless ripples. Here Mahamaya had her bath before the delivery and it was also here that baby Siddhartha had his first purificatory bath.

The whole place has an air of remoteness except when the occasional busload of pilgrims from different corners of the Buddhist universe arrives.

The monastic zone has a complex of monasteries built on a grand scale, in their national styles, whether from Myanmar (Burma), Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand. Also in the academic zone is the Lumbini Research Institute, which has an impressive collection of Buddhist literature and a museum.

If we look north on a clear day, we can see the beautiful Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges of the Himalayas.

Adapted by Shantum Seth from the book Walking with the Buddha, co-authored by Shantum, who has lead acclaimed pilgrimages to traditional Buddhist sites --'In the Footsteps of the Buddha’-- since 1988. Visit www.buddhapath.com to learn more.


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