Visit Buddha’s birthplace to observe—or partake in—holy rituals and one raucous celebration in honor of third-century religious figure, Gautama.
As I sat squeezed against the windscreen of a decrepit bus, I recalled what I’d read about public transport in Nepal: Try to avoid it where you can, steer clear of nighttime travel and always opt for the back of the bus—these were the pearls of wisdom offered by my guidebook. But here I was, on my Nepal vacation, just inches from the windscreen with another 50 or so passengers squeezed into the seats and aisle behind me, all trying to continue their excited conversation above the music blaring from an ancient sound system.
Of course, I was lucky to find a seat at all, for this wasn’t any normal day. I was heading to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, on the approximate anniversary of his birth in May. Pilgrims, both Buddhist and Hindu, flock from across India and Nepal to visit the spot that Siddhartha Gautama was born around the year 563 B.C. I decided to join them and witness a religious site that’s surprisingly under-visited by Western travelers.
This was not my first visit to Lumbini; I had actually made the trip from nearby Bhairawa the day before to get a feel for the place before the crowds descended. As I sat under a shady tree, reading and listening to the therapeutic fluttering of hundreds of prayer flags, I couldn’t help thinking about the eve of another religious figure’s birth. Here a feeling of calm excitement reigned, rather than the stresses of last-minute shopping that characterize Christmas Eve in the West. Humble offerings of small coins, flowers and rather bizarrely, hair, replaced the excessive gifts given back at home.
Once I had watched the pilgrimage rituals for a while, I closed my book and followed suit. After walking the paths built around remains of ancient monasteries, I headed for the Ashokan Pillar, skipping the step where others bathed in the Holy Pond. The Buddha’s mother washed here before giving birth to him, so bathing in the pond is an important part of the pilgrimage. Holy it may be, but I couldn’t help worrying about the mossy color of the water and what might happen if I accidentally ingested a little, so I skipped straight to the six-meter high pillar.
The former King Ashoka erected the pillar as a tribute to Buddha when he traveled the region in 249 B.C. An iron fence surrounds the column, creating an enclosure where visitors place their offerings. I tossed in a few coins, eschewing the practice of presenting locks of hair as a gift. It’s very odd seeing thick curls of hair lying among more traditional offerings, but the practice dates back to when Siddhartha Gautama shunned his privileged background, shaved his head and left Lumbini in search of enlightenment.
With the preliminaries out of the way, it was time to enter the Mayadevi Temple, named after the Buddha’s mother, Queen Mayadevi. I slipped off my shoes and entered the unpretentious structure, following the wooden walkway that skirts ruins dating back more than two millennia. Taking center stage is a carving of the nativity. After centuries of pilgrims running their hands over the beloved statue, the detail has been worn away and it took me a few moments of squinting to work out exactly what I was looking at: Mayadevi clutching the Sal tree that the Buddha was born beneath. And below this much revered carving lies the most photographed site in Lumbini: a modest marker stone and a plaque heralding “the Exact Birth Place of Buddha.”
The following day I returned to find a very different scene. The tranquility had been replaced with a carnival; the quiet rustling of prayer flags drowned out by blaring music and enthusiastic sermons. While the local equivalent of Christmas Eve was a relaxed affair, on the day of the festival no one was holding back. Makeshift kiosks dished out masses of rice and dhal, which people devoured on the lawns; pilgrims arrived in droves to shop for Buddhist memorabilia and rickshaw drivers worked overtime to shuttle people around the complex.
Having already visited the birthplace, I ventured farther afield, seeking some solitude and tranquility in one of the temples behind the holy site. The vast Lumbini Development Zone is still under construction, but already features more than a dozen temples and monasteries, built by Buddhist communities from across the world. For those with a deep interest in Buddhism, it’s an insight into the varying practices followed in different countries; for architecture enthusiasts, touring the temples is like taking Buddhist Buildings 101. I filled my camera’s memory card with shots of elaborate gold stupas, intricate Chinese roofs and the elaborate white facade of the Thai temple.
In the end, I failed to find the solitude I’d enjoyed on the eve of the party, but instead found jovial visitors keen to welcome me into their celebration. As I enjoyed chapattis (an Indian flatbread) with a family from Varanasi, India, I couldn’t help wondering what the Buddha would think of the festivities, the masses of food and the merchandise on sale. But I realized that his philosophy taught the Middle Way—a life of moderation but not total abstinence—and his birthplace, alternating between a serene sanctuary and an all-out shindig, seemed a fitting tribute.
Themes: Historical Vacations
Nepalese community in Adelaide Australia celebrated Buddha's 2554th birthday at Sagarmatha Nepali Restaurant on the 27th May, 2010.
Thank you for the write up. We Nepali also celebrate Buddha's birthday here in Adelaide, Australia during the month of May in Sagarmatha Nepali Restaurant www.sagarmatha.com.au