Lumbini – well the story of Buddha begins here – somewhere in a sacred garden between the homes of both his parents. Yes, Buddha was born while his mother was traveling to her parental home.
At Lumbini, it is not Buddha but his mother Maya Devi who is celebrated. She is best known for two scenes in the story of Buddha – one when she dreamt of a white elephant that indicated the conception of the great one. Second, when she was on her way from her husband King Sudhodhan of Sakya clan to her parents’ home in Devdaha for the delivery. Buddhist literature speaks in detail about the preparations that were made to ensure that she has a comfortable journey. Ponds were excavated at different places for her.
Legend of Buddha’s Birth
It was at a pond at Lumbini that Maya Devi gave birth to Siddhartha in a standing position while holding the branch of a tree above her. It is said that the gods of the three worlds i.e. Brahma, Vishnu & Shiva came to receive the child. Buddha took birth and as soon as he was born, he walked seven steps. The place where his feet touched the earth, lotus flowers bloomed. This incident is believed to be the first miracle of Buddha’s life. He would do many miracles later in life.
The scene of Buddha’s birth can be seen in most Buddhist sites. It is usually the second scene depicted after Maya Devi’s dream. Maya Devi is shown accompanied by Prajapati Gautami – a foster mother for Buddha. Other important associated with Buddha are:
Bodh Gaya – Where he attained enlightenment
Sarnath – where he gave his first sermon and set the wheel of Dharma rolling
Khusinagar – where he attained Mahaparinirvana
Rajgriha – where the first Buddhist conference took place
Vaishali – where he met Ambapali
This scene of Buddha’s birth dominates Lumbini for obvious reasons.
Maya Devi Temple – Lumbini Garden
Temple dedicated to Maya Devi or Maha Maya as she is sometimes known has always existed at Lumbini. The place is also known as Pradimoksha Vana. However, in the last few centuries, it lay in neglect. Very recently, archaeologists have started excavating sites in and around Lumbini and conserving what is found.
As of now, Maya Devi temple is an enclosure that covers the ruins of an ancient temple that existed at the same spot. It is well established through the written records of various Chinese Buddhist scholars who passed through this region. Both Fa-Hein and Huan-Tsang have written about this temple.
Lumbini was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997
The biggest archaeological evidence that supports the identification of this spot as the place of Buddha’s birth is the presence of an Ashoka Pillar along with an inscription identifying this spot as the exact spot of the birth of Prince Siddhartha. The Ashoka pillar was installed here in 249 BCE. It was still 300-400 years after the birth of Buddha but one can safely assume that oral tradition would have always kept the location of the important spot intact. Dr. Fuhrer discovered this Ashoka Pillar in 1896.
It was in the early 1990s that a marker stone was found that as per some archaeologists establishes the exact spot of Buddha’s birth.
Things to see in & around Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini
Maya Devi Temple is a complex housing many monuments of interest for the visitor.
Maya Devi Temple enclosure
This temple enclosed in white walls with a typical Buddhist stupa like formation on top houses the ruins of an ancient temple dedicated to Maya Devi. As you enter the temple you walk on a wooden walkway going around the ruins. You can see the large-sized bricks arranged in the small box like formations. I stood there for a long time but could not make out what the structure could be. It is not a hall, it is not a vihara or monastery – the rooms would be too small. It does not even look like a temple. I was not even sure if this is how it was found or is this how it has been reconstructed.
Most of these structural ruins date back to the Gupta period i.e. 5-6th CE.
Nativity Sculpture at Lumbini Garden
At one end of this hall-like space stands a wall on top of which stands a stone sculpture. It has been so much rubbed that you can hardly see anything. The beauty of the sculpture though is that you can still make out that it is the same Maya Devi sculpture that you have seen elsewhere. The stone called nativity sculpture dominates this room. Buddhist believe that the sculpture has been flattened by the touch of the devotees who worshiped it for ages.
Archaeologists call it nativity sculpture – the sculpture that depicts the native tale. Chronologically, it dates to 4th CE. However, excavations have revealed some pre-Mauryan era bricks that are massive in size – strengthening the evidence that this is indeed the place of Buddha’s birth.
Pre-Mauryan era bricks have a size of 49x36x7 cms and weigh as much as 20 Kg.
In fact, the size and texture of the bricks in this chamber are intriguing. You wonder what makes them stay as it is after so many years. Pale orange in color they are in different sizes and shapes. I wonder if the difference in size is because they come from different ages or is it because different sizes were commissioned for different purposes.
Just below the nativity sculpture a few feet below the ground level sits The Marker Stone. It is an irregularly shaped stone with a faint marking of a human foot. It is supposedly the foot mark of Siddhartha. Now, this is a matter of pure faith. If you think it is Buddha’s footprint – it is. Logical mind makes it difficult to believe.
At this point in time, it lies beneath a bulletproof glass. It is clearly visible and you can see currencies of all Buddhist countries piled around it.
Usually, there is a queue to have a glance at the marker stone. I was fortunate that both the times when I visited it, there were hardly any people and I could spend a few minutes at the place.
Ashoka Pillar at Lumbini Garden
The Ashoka pillar stands at the back wall of the Maya Devi Temple. The inscription on the stone in Pali says that Ashoka himself visited Lumbini and got the pillar erected. It says – ‘Hida Budhe Jate Shakyamuniti‘ meaning Shakyamuni Buddha was born here. It also mentions that since Lumbini is the birthplace of Lord Buddha, the taxes of the Lumbini village were reduced to 8th part only.
Pushkarni or the Sacred Pond
On the side of the Maya Devi Temple is the sacred pond. This is the pond in which Maya Devi took bath at the time of Siddhartha’s birth. This makes it a sacred place for followers of Buddha. The present pond is, of course, a recent construction.
A large Bodhi tree stands close to the pond where there is a small shrine dedicated to Buddha. There are other Bodhi trees as well. Some of them have a wooden round bench surrounding them. It was a pleasure to see many people sitting under these trees and meditating.
All the trees are tied to each other through colorful prayer flags. Standing at the Pushkarni with your back towards the Maya Devi Temple you see a melange of colors.
Maya Devi Temple is surrounded by big and small stupas – most of which are also in their ruined state. However, they are much better preserved than the temple itself or maybe they have not been touched as much as the temple has been.
There are a couple of large square bases of stupas. There are many circular stupa bases. I found this set of 16 stupa bases very interesting. The information only says they are votive stupas. I like the way they sit on a platform like a chessboard.
Votive stupas are built by devotees when their wishes come true.
Different stupas belong to different eras – most of them are from 1-3rd CE.
Worship at Maya Devi Temple
One evening, I saw the Maya Devi complex come alive with the groups of Buddhist monks from far off countries coming here to perform their rituals.
A group from Sri Lanka sat in a disciplined manner. The head monk narrated the life of Buddha as he repeated the teachings of Buddha for everyone. A Chinese group wore all black and worshiped the image of Baby Buddha. Others lined up oil lamps around the Pushkarni and made it look like a night of Diwali. Another group took another corner and did their chanting.
One group decorated one of the square stupas with marigold flowers while the other one wrapped the Ashoka pillar in bright silk cloth.
A group of local monks sat around the tree. I spoke to one of them and it seems he was not very happy with the way archaeologists have reconstructed the temple. He pointed out that the temple is on the east-west axis and now the devotees enter and exit on the north-south axis. In fact, you can see many photographs of the original temple as it existed in mid-19th CE onwards and you can see the difference clearly.
Soaked in the chants of devotees, the place came alive. It was when the place was full of monks that I felt the spiritual energy in what until then were mere ruins. I sat back and observed them & absorbed the devotional energy they were emanating. This is when I felt my trip to Lumbini was complete. The connection that I failed to make after 2 days of roaming in this complex happened in moments when I saw so much devotion on those faces. As they say, it is the devotion of a devotee that turns the stone into a deity.
Lumbini Development Trust has a master plan for the development of the place to make it a world-class destination. The plan can be seen anywhere in the town. However, you must know that this is a work in progress plan and not everything mentioned in this plan is complete.
The plan divides the complex in the middle with a canal. At one end of the canal is Maya Devi Temple and at the other end, you can see giant white world peace pagoda.
On the western side of the Canal are temples belonging to Mahayana Buddhist countries. It has temples of countries like Korea, China, Germany, Canada, Austria, Vietnam, Ladakh and of course Nepal. On Easter side are the temples of countries belonging to Theravada Buddhism. It has temples from Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia & Mahabodhi society of India, Kolkata & a Gautami Nunnery from Nepal. Somewhere in between, you will find glimpses of Vajrayana Buddhism as well.
Both sides have their meditation centers where you can go and learn meditation with prior appointment.
You need to walk a lot to see these temples
Remember, these temples are open to visitors but they are meant for the monks who live here or the followers of Buddhism. As a visitor, you can admire the architecture, which is quite representative of the countries they belong to. You can see the opulent statues and décor. However, if you want to learn more about either the temple or the religion, you are pretty much on your own.
I would suggest – pick the temples you want to see. If you try to see everything, after a while you are both bored and disoriented. They all are about Buddha and Maya Devi. Unless you follow Buddhism very closely, there is a little you would appreciate beyond the architecture.
I liked the Maya Devi sculpture at the Australian temple. I liked the Xuan Zang statue at the Chinese temple and it is a beautiful temple in red and yellow. German temple has beautiful murals inside the temple. Nepalese temple has a huge Buddha statue. Thai, Cambodian and Myanmar temples are good to look at from outside.
Lumbini Development Trust Museum
At one end of the central canal, stands a curiously shaped building in brick red. Its arches create the impression of a Buddhist Vihar. This is the Lumbini museum for you. You have to walk to another building across a pond to buy the ticket. In all probability, you would be the only person visiting the museum – it is not a very popular part of the park. There is a reason why it is not.
The museum building is beautiful, but it has no real artifacts. Everything you see here is a replica of a popular sculpture from other Buddhist sites. Most replicas I counted were from Nagarjunkonda site in Andhra Pradesh. The replicas are good, but they lack the energy of the originals in stone.
There are photographs of all important Buddhist sites – I wish they used high-resolution images – that are so easily available in this date & age.
Overall, the museum is pleasant but I came out very unsatisfied.
Walk around Lumbini Park
If you love walking as I do, go to the park in the mornings and evenings – it is a place designed for walkers. There are water bodies everywhere where you can spot lots of birds and butterflies. In winters many migratory birds including Saras Cranes visit the wetlands at Lumbini.
However, please be aware, many roads are still under construction. There are sections that are quite deserted and you need to take your precautions.
I enjoyed my small conversations with monks. I spoke to a Bhikkuni who spoke about her journey and the Bhikkunis in general. Young monks in their ochre robes look a curious combination of innocence and mischief as they pose for your camera.
Travel Tips for Lumbini Garden, Nepal
- It is a huge park with large patches of jungles. Wear very comfortable shoes.
- There is no food available inside the park, so eat well before you go inside. I did see some Bhel, ice cream vendors & small water shops on the eastern side of the park. In the western part, there was nothing to eat at all.
- You must carry ample water with you, especially when you are doing Maya Devi Temple or Western group of temples.
- Transportation inside the park is extremely limited. Be aware of the amount of walking you can do, else hire a rickshaw and roam around using it.
- You can take a boat ride to go from one end to another, but it would not help if you want to see all the temples.
- Dress conservatively as it is a religious place.
- Maya Devi Temple and the Lumbini Museum are the only ticketed places, everything else is free. For Indians, the entry plus camera ticket costs INR 20/- at each place.
- Temples and museums are open from 9–5 with a break from 1-2.
- Maya Devi temple is open from sunrise to sunset. You must keep 2 hours for this temple and if you have only half a day spend it at this temple.
- The park is open otherwise, though you are advised not to wander around after dark.