The gardens of Lumbini Sanskritik in Nepal have found a place in the annals of History as one of the sacred places of the Buddhist religion. Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was born in Lumbini in the ancient kingdom of the Shakya clan around 600 BC. This UNSECO World Heritage status town of Nepal attracts not only the Buddhist pilgrim, but also the regular traveler looking to explore an off-beat destination. It is of special importance to Buddhist pilgrims as the Buddha, on his deathbed, highlighted the importance of visiting Lumbini. He proclaimed that every follower must at least once in their lifetime visit Lumbini to achieve bliss in these gardens. While the image of Nepal is always one surrounded by hills and snow-capped mountains, Lumbini and its surrounding areas paint another picture, one of flat grasslands and vast green fields. But whatever challenges the terrain may throw at us, we had our trusted Tiago to manoeuvre them. You may read more about this wonderful machine here.
The kingdom of the Shakya clan with its capital at Kapilavastu on the foothills of the Himalayas flourished between the eighth and third centuries BC. They ruled over parts of present-day Nepal and India. They were one among the many small states that existed during this period in India, with many serving as vassals to bigger kingdoms, the rice-farming Shakyas were loyal to the kingdom of Kosala and even engaged in matrimony with them to promote their vassalage to Kosala. The Shakyas are believed to be descendants of the Ikshvaku clan.
Sometime around 600 BC, Suddhodhana, the leader of the Shakya clan then, married the two daughters of the leader of one of the families of their clan. One of the daughters was Mayawati and the other was Prajapati. As per their tradition, during the last days of her pregnancy, Mayawati set out to her father’s house, Devadaha. She decided to stop at Lumbini which was renown for its beautiful sal grove and lush green trees. The legend is that as she bathed in the waters of the Puskarna pond and emerged, she felt strong pain in her hip and supporting herself using a branch of the tree, gave birth to a baby boy, who was named Sidhartha Gautama. Mayawati died shortly after the childbirth and the onus was upon Prajapati to take care of Sidhartha as she would to her own child, Nanda. It was predicted that Sidhartha would either become a great king or a great ascetic and Suddhodhana tried to prevent Sidhartha from becoming an ascetic by keeping him confined to the palace. But neither did this confinement nor his early marriage stop Sidhartha from achieving enlightenment and founding a new Dharma or religion: Buddhism. He is known by many names including Sidhartha, Gautama Buddha and Shakyamuni.
BEST SEASON TO VISIT:
The open gardens of Lumbini are vast and the sun showers its mercy so plenty here. We suggest you go during the rainy season (mid-June to mid-August) so you can walk around rather easily without dehydrating yourself. The grasslands are so much more prettier to look at during the rains. Many travellers also opt to go during Buddha Purnima, the festival that celebrates the birth of the Buddha; it falls sometime around May and attracts the bulk of tourists to this region.
Tip: Be sure to stack up on your mosquito repellent creams if visiting during the summers or rainy season.
As most of the maps of Lumbini, including Google Maps, are wrong, we have taken the pains of creating our very own map.
HOW TO REACH:
Lumbini is best reached by road. Since it is near the Indian border, there are frequent buses from both sides of the border. On the Nepal side, buses ply from Sunauli, Kathmandu and Pokhara regularly to Lumbini, many of them stopping at Bhairahawa. There are shared-taxi/jeep services too that run from these places, be sure to decide the fare before getting in. From the Indian side, one can always get a taxi or bus from Gorakhpur. Gorakhpur is also, coincidentally, the closest major railhead to Lumbini. Train-travellers will have to get down here and proceed further by road. The nearest airport is Bhairahawa from where buses depart very frequently to Lumbini. Those crossing over from India by cars can choose either Kakrahawa or Sunauli to cross into Nepal.
Tip: It costs 400 INR a day to take your car inside Nepal. We opted to go by our own car crossing over from Kakrahawa on the Indian side and we are thankful we made the right decision. We chose Kakrahawa instead of Sunauli to avoid traffic.
Lumbini offers quite a few luxury and mid-range accommodations near the main park of Lumbini. The Lumbini market offers a plethora of budget and backpacker accommodations, mostly without air-conditioning. We stayed at Hotel Ananda Inn which falls under the mid-range accommodation; it is very near to the Maya Devi Temple complex and offers car parking too. We would recommend this place to anyone not looking for anything luxurious, but content with the basic comforts including Air-Conditioning. We have heard horrible tales of a few backpacker accommodations that do not provide mosquito nets and believe us, you need them here.
Tip: To get a taste of how it would be living in a monastery, try the dorm in the Korean temple. Do note that you have to book in advance and there are many rules and regulations. They can be reached at +977-71-580125.
Some people opt to stay at Bhairhawa too as there are more options available.
Surprisingly, most people in Lumbini spoke English, albeit with some difficulty. Many could also understand and converse in Hindi. Indians can easily manage if they know Hindi, especially considering that all traders also accept Indian currency and know the Hindi words for the common denominations.
All hotels have associated restaurants that cater to the Indian palate, but if you want to explore the Nepalese cuisine, we suggest going to a roadside eatery such as Invitation 365 eatery. We had our meals at Kudan restaurant associated with Hotel Peace Palace. We fell in love with the Thukpa (noodle-soup) and ordered it every time we had a meal; this is a breakfast staple for the local folk here. The restaurants here prepare every meal from the scratch and hence take their time preparing dishes.
Lumbini is a small town and can be covered entirely on foot if the weather is good and you are used to walking long distances. Cycles are available for hire at many a hotel and they would serve the purpose on a hot day. There is a steamer service that runs inside the complex, but it only covers a few areas. The Rickshaws that shield one from sun or rain, they can be taken on hire for a half-day tour and are probably the best option here. If you are here by car, you will have to go to Gate 1 to get an entry ticket. We were here on a hot day but faced no problems as we travelled by our Tiago which took hardly a couple of minutes to bring down the temperature. You can visit all sites by car except for the Maya Devi temple.
SIGHTS AND PLACES TO SEE:
Everything that is there to see at Lumbini is inside the rectangular Lumbini development complex of roughly 10 sq. km including the iconic Maya Devi temple that has put Lumbini on the world map. The whole complex is divided into three zones: Sacred zone containing Maya Devi Temple zone, Monastic Zone, and New Lumbini Village Zone. This complex was founded in 1978 and since then has seen many nations coming forward to donate money to build monasteries here depicting the Buddhist culture and architecture of their countries. The complex has multiple gates and to make things simple we will start with Gate 1 that is on the Kapilavastu Bhairahawa highway. Tickets to the complex are priced differently for people of different nationalities and citizens of SAARC countries have an advantage. Do note that a separate ticket is required for a camera.
We started our day with a visit to the Lumbini museum which was quite near to the ticketing office. The museum was brick-walled and had a distinct style of architecture that was common with many other buildings of the area. There were a couple of dogs fighting while a watchman peacefully slept nearby. We walked inside and took a look at the exhibits housing many artefacts related to Buddhism from various parts of Nepal. Since there was no electricity, parts of the museum were not lit up and it was very hot too. We managed to brave the heat for some time, but left when it became sweltering. The only thing that caught our attention here was the Ashokan seal with four lions that is the Indian state emblem. When we were leaving, the guard woke up and made us fill out feedback forms as we waited for the rain to end.
Tip: Most monasteries can only be entered barefoot, so make sure to wear footwear that can be quickly removed and worn as you will have to travel a lot between monasteries.
We then entered Western Monastic Zone through Gate 9, this zone contains Monasteries of Mahayana and Vajrayana forms of Buddhism. The first of the monasteries that we saw was the Singapore Monastery. From the outside, we did not quite guess that it was the monastery of Singapore, we were expecting architecture somewhat similar to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple at Singapore, but what greeted us instead was a Pagoda with 4 layers with a rather non-generous usage of colour. The insides were not very spectacular and we would rather limit this post to the outside architecture. There is no garden either around the monastery as there usually is.
Rain poured as we quickly climbed into our car and headed on to the German Monastery nearby. We saw that the Japanese Monastery, Sokyo Gompa, was closed for repairs and with no way to access it without getting drenched, we kept moving after a couple of clicks from inside our car. We reached the circular lake which has on its one side the German Monastery, named ‘The Great Drigung Kagyud Lotus Stupa’, of the Drikung Kagyu sect under the Mahayana form of Buddhism. Built by the Tara Foundation, this is one of the grandest of the monasteries here, with a neat lawn, retiring rooms for monks and a prayer room that is decorated with murals from the Buddha’s life.
The murals in the prayer room are spectacular and warrant the half-hour that we spent here; photography is not allowed in the prayer room, so to experience it, you will have to travel down to Lumbini. The architecture outside the prayer room is imposing and pays a lot of attention to symmetry, consequently, the result is stunning.
With the German Meditation Centre closed, we headed along the circular lake to the Linh Son Temple, the French Monastery at Lumbini, only to find it closed too. We gather that the temple was built by the Vietnamese Tung Lam Lihn Son community in France. From the few pictures that we managed to capture through the gaps in the huge gate, the Monastery looked small but spectacular. The fusion of Asian elements such as concave roofs with the French ‘oeil de boeuf’ circular windows lends this monastery its elegance as it stands three levels tall. The complex is much smaller and closed-off, but it seems well-maintained nevertheless.
By the time we reached the United Tungram Monastery opposite the German Monastery, we were half-drenched and hurriedly ran inside the traditional Pagoda-style Monastery of Nepal. We did not spend much time here as we had had our healthy dose of similar beautiful structures around this region. And so we had a rather small stopover at the United Tungram Monastery waiting for the rain to subside. Though the Canadian Monastery is just behind the Tungram Monastery and can be reached by walk, it took us ten minutes to reach there by car as it was a different route.
The Thrangu Monastery of Canada is a hidden gem of Lumbini, though much has been written about the German and Chinese monasteries, the Canadian monastery can match up to each of the other monasteries in beauty. Sponsored by the Canadian Thrangu Vajra Vidya Buddhist Association which follows the Karma Kagyu Lineage of Buddhism. The monastery is built encompassing elements of Tibetan architecture. It bears strong resemblance to the Jokhang Monastery of Tibet such as the presence of the gilded golden roofs and finials, and the symbol of two deer with a Dharma Chakra between them. The monastery was inaugurated in 2014 in an opening presided over by the Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche of the Karma Kagyu faith.
The biggest monastery here is the Chinese Zhong Hua Monastery built on a complex that is 25000 square metres in area. The Chinese have always had a knack for construction and this complex stands testimony to that. Interestingly, this is the first overseas monastery built by the Chinese government and is even directly administered by the Buddhist Association of China. This is the only Monastery in Lumbini to have an information board displaying its history and other details.
All buildings of the monastery have been built in a pseudo-classic architectural style based on the Qing dynasty palaces of China such as the Taiqing palace of Shandong, China or the Forbidden City. The entrance of a Chinese monastery is also called the Mountain Gate, because usually Chinese monasteries are located atop mountains or hills. Notice that the roofs of the Mountain Gate curve upwards; this is so because of the Chinese belief that such roofs ward off evil spirits which were believed to be able to move only in straight lines. But actually, such roofs helped the structure get the maximum warmth during winters and least warmth during summers. The entrance even has a golden-coloured Maitreya Buddha, the popular Laughing Buddha, which, for some reason, was extremely popular with a few tourists. The Buddha was flanked by four guards called ‘Tian Wang Bao Dian’, the guardians of the four directions, referred to in popular culture as ‘The Four Heavenly Kings’.
Each of these four kings has a unique trait; Virupaksa, the king of the west holds a dragon to control the weather; Vaisravana, the king of the north holds an umbrella for protection; Dhrtarastra, the king of the east holds a lute to ensure prosperity; Virudhaka, the king of the west holds a sword to control the air. Chinese belief is that these four kings work together to ensure that the farmers reap a good harvest. Also seen here is a statue of Wei To protecting the wealth of the temple and the Buddha. He is always seen facing the Great Hall or the main monastery.
There is a circumbulatory path starting from the entrance, around the monastery and ending at the entrance. But, a couple of dogs resting on the steps discouraged everyone from entering the path. And so we proceeded on to the pièce de résistance, the main monastery and there was just a single word that came to our mind, it was ‘wow’. The main monastery or Great Hall is just as spectacular as one would expect it to be and did not disappoint the least bit. The hall contained a gold-covered statue of the Buddha and his disciples and designs of exquisite beauty adorned the ceiling, despite the pattern being a very simple array of lines and dots. We are sure that these have some meaning, but without a proper guide here, we have to wait till we actually get to China to understand this. Behind the Great Hall are the Lecture Hall that also contains a scroll repository, and a residential quarters for the monks. So, now you know that the Chinese Monastery at Lumbini is huge.
The Chinese monastery is huge, but the award for the tallest monastery definitely goes to the Korean Monastery of the Korean Chogye Order. Standing tall at three floors, the monastery towers right in front of the Chinese Monastery and it almost seems like a competition between the two. The Korean Monastery also offers accommodation for visitors who want to stay with the Korean Sen monks and learn a thing or two about their culture. The monastery lets people join in on the chanting sessions held every morning and evening. It does have some rules concerning visitors and may not entertain someone just looking to save a buck using the cheap accommodation here. You get thin mattresses, vegetarian food and no air-conditioning or running hot water. But then, not much is to be expected as the accommodation is for monks.
The roof of the Korean Monastery is similar to the Chinese one in that it is curved upwards. Korean builders use wood, quite liberally, in their structures, sometimes entire structures are built of tree trunks without a single nail. At Lumbini too, wooden beams have been used with Tanch’ong paintings on them. Tanch’ong quite literally means ‘red and blue’, the colours that are primarily used in Buddhist cosmic designs. Tanch’ong not only decorates the roofs, but also protects the wood underneath from insects and rotting. The Korean Monastery was under maintenance and consequently, there was not much to see here except for the outer architecture.
Close to the Korean Monastery are many structures built by Nepal: Karma Samten Ling Monastery, Manang Sewa Samaj Stupa, Swayambhu Mahavihara and Seto Gumba Buddha temple. Of these, the most important is the Karma Samten Ling Monastery also known as the Self Evolved Burning Lamp Monastery. Also, be careful when entering the Manang Sewa Samaj Stupa, we were chased by a dog and had to be content with just a single picture. The Swayambhu Mahavihara is a replica of the original Stupa near Kathmandu. The Seto Gumba Buddha Temple is very similar to the Japanese Peace Pagoda here, we decided to skip it.
As we left this area of Nepalese monasteries, we came across a columned structure which looked very European from afar. And just as we guessed, it was the Austrian Geden Monastery. This monastery has been built by the Rabten Foundation of Switzerland and has the title ‘Mother Temple Of The Graduated Path To Enlightenment’. The architecture is a brilliant mix of Greek and Tibetan architecture with Tuscan columns infused into a Pagoda-style multi-layered structure. The insides are brightly lit up due to a higher ceiling and contain the pictures of many monks as well as prayer mats and cushions for devotees to pray. There is also a series of paintings from the life of the Buddha displayed along the inner walls. The centre-piece of this monastery is the statue depicting the birth of the Buddha, of Maya Devi holding a tree-branch for support while assisted by her sister, Prajapati. The infant Buddha is seen standing immediately after birth, as legend goes, he took seven steps before delivering a message to humanity.
Next door lies the dilapidated Vietnamese Monastery, Phat Quoc Tu, inaccessible due to the intense growth of plants on the road leading to it. We suppose it has remained closed for much time as every blog that we have read has shown the Vietnamese Monastery to be closed. Although it did appear to be somewhat grand, there was no way to confirm it.
The French Meditation Centre is picturesque and draws absolutely no attention to itself as it sits in a corner, next to the German Monastery. Even more picturesque is the Nepal Vajrayana Mahavihara next to the French Meditation Centre. We were running out of time as we had also planned to visit the places near Lumbini and we had just finished the West Monastic Zone. We dodged a few potholes and went right through one placing confidence in our higher ground clearance and finally managed to reach the East Monastic Zone.
Our adventures at the East Monastic Zone and Maya Devi Temple are covered in Part 2 of our travelogue.
This site provided useful information about Chinese temples. The book Tibetan Customs by Tao Li, Hongying Jiang was also useful when learning about Tibetan monasteries and their customs.