On the Happy Dust of India once Trodden by the Sacred Feet of Buddha: Part 4 of the Buddhist Pilgrimage
A Beyond Here Feature travel story.
“Like the sun bursting from a cloud in the morning
So he too, when he was born from his mother’s womb
Made the world bright like gold
Bursting forth with his rays which dispelled darkness.”
— Buddhacarita by Asvaghosha, written in the 1st Century CE
The Buddha’s story is well known all over the world, from his once sheltered princely lifestyle followed by disillusionment over the crippling poverty plaguing humanity, to an extraordinary man of wisdom. His teachings have had quite an impact on the society around him, having traveled throughout Asia and to cultures all over the world. What is one of the simple advice he offers humanity? Awareness. To be aware of everything around you, including people and most importantly, to be aware of your own thought processes.
How does one achieve this? Through meditation. Meditation is a quiet, contemplative state, or Mind Training, where through focusing on your breathing you observe the countless thoughts which pass through your mind every second. The key word here is observe, then to let those thoughts pass you by. You begin to realize that your thoughts are like phantoms or ghosts, running through the dark caverns of your mind, disappearing and reappearing.
We followed his life, his teachings, like thousands of devotees. On the final leg of our journey through significant Buddhist sites in India, we visited Lumbini, Nepal, the birthplace of the Buddha.
Buddhist scripture states that the Buddha’s birth at Lumbini, the enlightenment at Bodhgaya, and the Mahaparinirvana at Kushinagar, happened on the same auspicious full-moon illumination in the month of Vaisakha (roughly the month of May). Buddha Day or Vesak is an embodiment of these three great occurrences in the Buddha’s life. Therefore, worldwide, Vesak is celebrated by Buddhists commemorating the three historic events together.
Crossing the border from India to Nepal was a unique experience. There was no border crossing outpost or barrier, rather people can park either within the Indian or Nepalese side of the border, then walk to immigration and customs offices of both countries to acquire exit and entry visas. Surrounded by many organized tour groups, the process appeared chaotic and overwhelming. Lumbini is close to the border so it takes about a half-hour to reach the Lumbini garden. Before entering the garden we ate lunch in a roadside Nepalese restaurant that offered delicious local cuisine. We tried thukpa and momo dumplings, some of the most delicious dishes we had ever tasted!
Developmental History of Lumbini
Lumbini is the focus of international attention as the birthplace of Siddharta Gautama, also known as the Buddha meaning the enlightened one. This attention started to take effect after numerous archaeological discoveries found evidence of the Buddha’s life story described in the Buddhist scriptures, and in Buddhist monk and scholar Xuanzang’s travel records. The first initiative was taken by the Nepalese king in 1956 by proposing the development of sacred Buddhist sites at the Fourth Assembly of the World Fellowship of Buddhists. An Act was passed in the same year to develop, protect, and preserve the historic monuments.
The process received great momentum after the initiatives and efforts by the United Nations Secretary General, U Thant (1961-1971). He campaigned to mobilize opinions and resources to develop Lumbini as a world tourist and pilgrimage destination. During his tenure, a master plan covering an area of 1.6 km x 4.8 km for the development of Lumbini as a World Peace Garden was established, and the plan was later submitted to Nepal and the UN in 1978 by a Japanese architect named Kenzo Tange.
The developments that you see in Lumbini now – the Mayadevi Temple, the Pushkirini Pond, the Ashoka Pillar, the Bodhi Tree, the Eternal Peace Flame, and the 1.4 km long south-to-north Water-of-Life Canal which leads to the World Peace Pagoda, are part of the Kenzo Plan. The plan also includes rows of temples and monasteries, the Theravada on the East and the Mahayana and Vajrayana on the West of the canal. Lumbini was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, and the Nepalese Government even allocated a plot to the Buddhists of Bangladesh to build a temple in Lumbini.
The Mayadevi Temple was built on the archeological ruins of the Buddha’s birth site. When I entered the temple, a feeling of joy and admiration filled my mind. Here baby Siddharta from the Śākya clan was born. He would become the Buddha at the age of 35, to enlighten the world with the declaration that one’s happiness lies within oneself through the processes of purifying the mind. I was also engulfed with sadness at the thought of young Mayadevi’s death shortly after giving birth to Siddharta. It was Mahaprajapati, the sister of Mayadevi, who devoted her life to raise the newborn as her own son.
Next to the temple is the royal Ashoka Pillar declaring the authenticity of the birthplace of the Buddha. In Buddhist scripture, Mauryan Emperor, Ashoka the Great (304 – 232 BCE), was referred to as Piyadasi (one who cares about all with affection). He peacefully ruled a huge empire for 40 years following the Buddha’s Ten Rules of Governance, Dasavidha Rajadhamma.
Emperor Ashoka hosted the third Buddhist Council at Patliputra in 250 BCE. He not only sent missionaries to propagate Buddhism to all directions beyond his empire, but also visited most notable places associated with the Buddha’s life and marked them by erecting royal pillars or columns. He founded many stupas, shrines, and viharas all over India. His reign was unparalleled in the history of the ancient world.
Ashoka also implemented many developmental works for the care and wellbeing of people and animals. In one of his stone edicts, he engraved, “Wherever medical herbs suitable for humans and animals are not available, I have had them imported and grown…Along roads I have had wells dug and trees planted for the benefits of humans and animals.”
It was the wisdom of Jawaharlal Nehru, supported by Gandhi and BJ Patel, that led independent India to initiate adoption of some glorious and unifying ideals, and symbols of Emperor Ashoka as the new country’s emblems.
Pushkirini Pond and the Bodhi Tree
Across from the Ashoka pillar is the pond where Mayadevi bathed, and on the other side of the pond is a Bodhi Tree. Here, people paid homage by lighting candles and incense on a platform near the tree. A white teenage boy traveling with his family struggled to light an incense, but after seeing the glow on the stick he smiled. As he looked around beaming at his success our eyes met, and he and his family smiled at us. We were moved by this and other scenes of respect and devotion, not only in Lumbini but also in other Buddhist pilgrimage sites, from citizens of many countries where Buddhism is still considered a foreign and alien religion by the establishment.
Eternal Peace Flame and the Water-of-Life Canal
From the Mayadevi Temple, we started walking toward the Eternal Peace Flame. Before the flame stands a golden statue of the baby Siddharta. The statue was built by Thailand, unveiled by a Thai princess on Buddha Day in 2012. After paying homage to the baby Buddha we continued walking toward the flame and the canal.
When you approach, the view of the flame and the 1.4 km long straight canal lined with brick retaining walls, comes into view. The vision of the Kenzo Plan becomes clear when the image of the white World Peace Pagoda appears straight ahead. The white pagoda in the horizon symbolizes the light or enlightenment.
After spending some time at the peace flame we jumped on a motor-boat which took us to the other side of the canal where the peace pagoda is located. Although temples and monasteries are located on either sides of the canal, they are not immediately visible because of a forested buffer zone between the canal and the temples. Apart from the pagoda flanked by a lotus pond, the north end of the canal has a museum and an open-air sculpture depicting the birth of Siddharta Gautama.
The Future of the World Peace City
The Kenzo Plan is now inadequate because of an enormous increase in the volume of pilgrims and tourists. The Nepalese government and the UN have gone back to the drawing board to examine more options. The Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) was entrusted to develop a new plan by considering the wishes and suggestions of Buddhist countries, organizations, and local people. The 2015 plan was drawn based on the three Treasures of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The three are to be laid out in a lotus plan.
At the core of the lotus is the 1.6 km diameter Buddha Zone, in the middle of which is located the Mayadevi temple. According to the plan, a grand temple/pagoda is to be built at its present site. Surrounding the Buddha Zone will be the Dharma Zone, and the Sangha Zone will encompass both of these zones in eight lotus petals which represent the Noble Eightfold Path. The present Eternal Peace Flame and the Water-of-Life Canal will belong to one of these lotus petals.
Buddhists all over the world are very eager to see this 8 km x 8 km peace city plan together with the nearby Gautam Buddha International Airport. However, along with a lack of resources the Nepalese government is slow to implement these changes.
Tagore’s Contribution to Buddhism
Bengali Nobel Laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941), among his many prolific and diverse literary works, devoted some of his writings to the glorification of Buddha Dharma, such as the famous dance dramas: Mulyaprapti, Malini, Natir Puja, Chandalika, and Abhisar. Tagore highlights the Buddha’s message of serenity, love, compassion and inclusiveness against the cruelty of the sectarian Hindu caste-system and Brahminic supremacy.
Tagore himself staged the dance drama of Natir Puja at the institute he founded, the Shantiniketan (now Bisva Bharati University). The drama depicts the clash between ritualistic and aggressive Hinduism, and the serene teachings of the Buddha in the backdrop of King Bimbisara’s (558 – 491 BCE) Magadha kingdom. Tagore not only visited the Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India but also many Buddhist countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Japan and the grand Borobudur site in Java, Indonesia. He called the Buddha his gurudev, meaning lord teacher, and made it an annual routine to celebrate the Vesak or Buddha Day at Shantiniketan.
Today, centuries after the Buddha’s teachings, humanity still struggles, continuing to learn how to build and follow their own noble path. In this we are reminded of the words of Tagore.
“The world today is wild with the delirium of hatred
The conflicts are cruel and unceasing in anguish
Crooked are its path, tangled its bond of greed
All creatures are crying for a new birth of Thine
Oh Thou of boundless life
Save them, raise Thine eternal voice of Hope
Let love’s lotus with its inexhaustible treasure of honey
Open its petal in Thy light.”
— Rabindranath Tagore, Natir Puja
— By Dr. Dilip K. Barua
Interested in completing the Buddhist Pilgrimage circuit? Join our Tour!
This is part 4 of a 4-part series on the Buddhist Pilgrimage through India.
Copyright © Dr. Dilip K. Barua 2020
About the Author:
Dr. Barua is a coastal, marine and ocean engineering professional with more than 30 years of research and versatile work experience. As a researcher, his work has been published in many academic journals, including his website Wide Canvas where he discusses nature, social interactions, and science & technology.
Buddhist Pilgrimage Travel Guides
Buddhist Pilgrimage Part 1: Come along with us as we show you where the Buddhist Pilgrimage begins. On the historical site of Bodhgaya stands the Bodhi Tree, the place of enlightenment for the Buddha, a man of wisdom and insight on humanity.
Buddhist Pilgrimage Part 2: The journey continues through Rajgir, the site of the first Buddhist Council; Nalanda, one of the earliest universities in the world; and Sarnath, the site of the Buddha’s first sermon. Read along to find out details of each site for your next visit.
Buddhist Pilgrimage Part 3: As we traverse through northern India, we encounter historic Buddhist sites such as Vaishali, Kesaria to see stupa ruins, and Kushinagar, where the dying Buddha lay. Here is what you need to know for your visit.