The birthplace of the Buddha, far from being Nepal’s pride, is a disgrace.
The world knows of Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, through the white-plastered Mayadevi temple and a huge pipal tree growing out of its side. Little does the world know that it has been about six years since the tree has been cut and the temple dismantled to beneath its foundations. The tourist brochures, postcards and news photographs still carry the images of yesterday´s Lumbini, the nativity site of Sakyamuni Buddha. For the pilgrims and tourists who make it to the so-called “Lumbini Garden”, it is a dismal setting. Where the temple used to be, there is an archaeological dig covered in yellow tarpaulin and topped by a tin shed. The nativity statue in black stone, showing Mayadevi giving birth to young Gautama, which earlier stood in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, has been moved to a nearby shed.
Increasingly a place where Buddhist religious sects compete with poured concrete stupas and monasteries, and where nationalistic Buddhism divides up plots among Burmese, Thais, Japanese, Sri Lankans, Taiwanese and Beijing-backed Tibetans, Lumbini is today even less a spiritually uplifting place than it has been for the last few decades. (Nepal´s own Vajrayana Buddhists, without money and clout, do not yet have a presence in the place.)
The atmosphere of this site, rescued from the jungle only so many decades ago, is today clouded by mistrust and suspicion between moneyed donors from East Asia and the ineffectual Nepali caretaker organisation, the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT), and marked by the uncaring attitude of Kathmandu-based politicians and bureaucrats.
An agreement was signed between the Japanese Buddhist Federation (JBF) and the LDT back in 1990 to make the Mayadevi temple “vegetation free”. This meant dealing with the great pi-pal, whose healthy canopy had over the years gained an iconic status as part of the temple, itself a rather unimpressive whitewashed structure built by a local governor in the last decade of the 19th century.
During the height of the Pancha-yat regime in Nepal, before 1990, the LDT had served as a fiefdom for palace-assigned administrators. At the very least, however, they had provided continuity and (in retrospect) a fairly sophisticated sense of preservation and development. Since the advent of democracy in 1990, the unstable evolution of party-led politics has greatly affected all aspects of national life, and Lumbini was not spared.
In the anarchical situation that characterises Nepali politics today, Lumbini is not a priority for the national-level politicians and it has been set adrift. Meanwhile, the LDT is hit every time during the numerous changes of government in Kathmandu, as a forum to provide employment to party flotsam. The Trust´s staff has swelled, but the budget remains low, as does morale.
Soon after the political transition from Panchayat to democracy in Nepal, in 1992, the “Mayadevi Temple Renovation Project” metamorphosed into the “Mayadevi Temple Restoration Project”. This signified the addition of an exploratory archaeological element to what had earlier been an exercise to rein in the wayward pipal´s roots. Without too much oversight from the LDT, and certainly without any semblance of a public information exercise, the tree was cut, the temple summarily dismantled, and the site excavated. (For further background, see “Lumbini as Disneyland” in Himal, December 1995.)
Two archaeologists were primarily involved in the digging, Satoro Uesaka from Japan, and his Nepali counterpart Babu Krishna Rijal. They made it their task to excavate the entire temple, with one of the aims apparently to prove that the Sakyamuni had been born at the site where the temple had come up. There were mild protests against this momentous act of excavation, with the argument that the rock pillar put up by Emperor Ashoka nearby was historical proof enough for Lumbini´s claim to be the Buddha´s birthplace. The protests went unheeded.
The four years of archaeological excavations revealed some interesting aspects of the site, including antiquities which go back to the Maurya, Sunga, Kushan and Gupta periods. According to cultural historian Sudarshan Raj Tewari, the brickwork brought to light by the Lumbini excavations are indeed significant. Says Tewari, “The use of bricks in the foundation at the site indicates that Lumbini was a venerated spot long before Ashoka. If confirmed, this would also change the building history of the entire Buddhist areas of Nepal and north India.”
The excavating archaeologists, however, went further to claim that, 16 feet below ground level, they had discovered the very “marker stone” indicating the spot where the Sakyamuni had been born. As proof, they cited the inscriptions in Pali found on the nearby Ashoka Pillar which, according to some interpretations, refer to a rock where the “marker stone” was found.
While the role of the “marker stone” is not clear, what is obvious is that even back then the Lumbini site had been a centre of veneration over many centuries. The lowest foundation, says Tewari, seems to indicate the presence of a briksha chaitya, or a tree with a rock colonnade around it and an altar on one side. This kind of structure is said to have predated the latter-day stupas and existed during the time of the Sakyamuni.
What many critics question, however, is whether the spiritually hallowed temple of Mayadevi had to be dismantled to get at this kind of information. There is also severe professional criticism of the archaeologists for not having kept better records of their work and not presenting high-quality scientific reports of their findings. The substandard work is said to have made it difficult for religious historians, social historians, architects and archaeologists to study the site to their satisfaction in future.
There is also fear that the exposed structures at the Mayadevi site will rapidly deteriorate due to exposure to moisture. It has already been two years since the excavation was carried out, and no conservation work has been done at the digging. A tarpaulin cover and, within it, a tin shed covering the brickwork, are all that there is to see.
While all this scientific concern remained limited to a few scientists and scholars, the Nepali media seemed only interested, and that too momentarily, on the ´proof provided by the Nepal-Japan archaeological team. Repeating a common mistake made all the time in Nepal, a LDT official said after the discovery of the marker stone, “We finally have absolute proof that the Buddha was born in Nepal.” Actually, there has never been confusion on that score. True, there has been debate on whether the palace of Suddodhana (Gautama´s father) is in Tilaurakot in present-day Nepal or across the border in Piprahawa in present-day India, but there has been no tussle over the nativity site itself.
The excavation, then, is a fait accompli, and the decision that is left (and which too could go wayward if no one is watching) is what is to be done with the dug up site. The fear is that an unsavoury decision may be taken and the place ruined by inappropriate construction based on the easy availability of East Asian hard currency and competition between different sects and nationalities.
As far as sectarian politics is concerned, already an area near the nativity site is crowded with cement and concrete structures presenting themselves as Burmese pagodas, Thai temples, Tibetan monasteries, and so on. If any little-known sect came by with the promise of a few hundred thousand dollars worth of support, it would not be past the Nepali caretakers to give permission to put up a structure over the nativity site. This should not be allowed to happen.
It is important for those who would want Lumbini to remain a spiritual legacy to all mankind, and not just the stomping grounds for a few sects with the money and the access, to keep watch on the Lumbini Garden so that nothing inappropriate and unrepresentative comes up on the site.
What the Nepali authorities, who have ultimate control, and the appointees to the LDT have to learn is that money will never be a problem as far 5 Lumbini is concerned. For this reason, they need not go scurrying to obscure sources, and at the same time, any sudden availability of funds should not rush them to do anything that would spiritually devastate Lumbini. The authorities must appreciate the value of the place of the Sakyamuni´s birth, a place which will never lack for ´funding´ of any amount if that is what is required.
It is because of its lack of understanding of the very nature of the Lumbini site that the Nepali Government seems to have forgotten the fact that there is a committee for Lumbini, comprising of 15-member nations of the United Nations, that sits under the Secretary General at the UN Headquarters in New York. It has been years since the Nepali government has activated the committee, which was set up by the late Secretary Gen- eral U Thant. This dormant commit-tee alone could do all that is necessary for the uplift of Lumbini, and there are many other sources that can be tapped.
Best of all, Buddhists and non-Buddhists the world over would dearly love to contribute to make Lumbini a truly spiritual site, one that is not marred by ungainly construction and tacky pilgrim-generated commercialism.
The Lumbini Garden, as a whole, has already been ruined by the many monasteries, an ugly memorial in plastered marble to the late King Mahendra, and a “peace flame” which has no significance other than the fact that the United Nations commemorated 40 years of its existence back in 1986, in the middle of a low period under Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar. However, the future of the central, sacred site of the erstwhile Mayadevi temple still hangs in balance. The hope is that it will not be built up and ´developed´ according to the whims of misguided architects and moneyed sects.
The JBF, under whose aegis the excavation was carried out, has indicated it wants to build a temple and congregation hall of its own design at the Mayadevi site. It has been pressuring the various governments of Nepal to approve its plan, a structure which supposedly incorporates the various elements of Buddhistic architecture. Fortunately, in the interim, Lumbini has come under the umbrella of the UNESCO World Heritage list, which may restrict the possibility of wayward architecture invading the nativity site. There seems to have emerged a welcome disagreement between the Federation and the Trust on this score, which may stall the building plans for the moment.
Recently, the LDT invited 83-year-old Kenzo Tange, the man who drafted the original “Lumbini Master Plan”, to Kathmandu, seeking advice on what to do with the nativity site. The elderly architect has decided not to come, it is said, because he does not want to get involved in the spat between the Federation and the Trust. However, he says he is willing to provide advice if the Nepali authorities are able to visit him in Japan. Now, there are a lot of Nepali officials who would like to travel to Japan for the purpose, but there is no money.
Lumbini is, if anything, a spiritual site, and no human design or blueprint can ever hope to do justice to this place and to what it means to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. The most logical thing to do would, therefore, be to leave the nativity site, the place of the former temple, as natural and untouched as possible.
Under no circumstance should a new temple be built at the place. As some experts have already suggested, the archaeological dig should be conserved. A way should be found so that everyone can view the place, its various levels and stages of brickwork, as well as the figurines and the marker stone.
Indeed, maintaining the archaeological site as it is would be the closest thing to leaving the place in its ´natural´ state. Certainly, it would not do to allow any one structure or design, howsoever grand or sublime, to come up here and thereby identify for all time to come the birthplace of the Buddha, The temple that was once here together with the long-gone pipal tree are memory enough. For the future, let there just be a well-preserved archaeological site at Lumbini, and let the worshipful derive spiritualism from it.
It is part of Lumbini´s lore that UN Secretary General U Thant shed a tear for the place when he visited it in 1967. Today, seeing the Sakyamuni´s birthplace as little more than a tin shed under a tarpaulin shroud, he would weep uncontrollably.