A couple of years ago, around January, the bone-freezing climate of Pokhara drove my wife and me down to Lumbini in the Nepalese Terai in search of sun and heat…and a visit to the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, born in the year 1563 BCE. (Archaeologists’ discovery puts Buddha’s birth 300 years earlier, although I don’t think this matters too much.)
There have been better journeys and there have been worse. The first stage in the journey from Pokhara to Bhairawa found us on a bus, having left the town at 06.30. The road wound on hairpin bends through deep valleys with narrow river-beds that would be filled with gushing waters in the monsoon season, eventually broadening out into flood plains and enriching the earth for the winter and spring crops. A last glimpse of Machapuchere – Fishtale Mountain – was the image I had before hitting the plains. Its peak pointed impressively to the sky above darker, brooding foothills.
We could have flown from Pokhara to Lumbini, but then we would have missed the hair-raising sight of trucks at the bottom of 1000 feet ravines, a reminder of the fragility of life.
The Pokhara-Bhairawa bus
We passed Sangye and Palpa, untidy little towns with a variety of weathered dwellings, rickety and under sloping, rusting, corrugated roofing pinned down against sudden gales by large stones, tyres, and other discarded paraphernalia that people are loathe to discard, later to be recycled for whatever use in future times of need. Then, the inevitable sight of the huddles of women in doorways outside shops and houses, young and old; and in their midst, the toddlers being preened by the women. The men?…perhaps off to the middle east to earn much needed cash – or in the tea-shop.
Then lastly on to Tansen, that hybridised sounding name, not quite Nepalese or Tibetan, standing on a hill overlooking the distant, snaking road and the travellers below. The maternity hospital dominates the skyline above. (A friend, Mabel Maclean, remembers her time there as a midwife in the 60s.)
Suddenly, we’ve landed on the dusty plains in Bhairawa, a largish Terai town bustling with people crowding the shops and stalls. Decanted passengers stand in a group, looking and feeling a bit dazed and uncentred, as if we’ve stepped off a boat after weathering rough seas. Slowly, amoeba-like, the crowd splits and we find ourselves with a tall Australian girl and who I take to be a German couple but find out the next day, meeting them in Lumbini bazaar, are actually father and daughter.
We hire a multi-seater micro to take us to Lumbini. Our bags are hoisted on to the rack at the top and we start our dusty journey along the highway to the birthplace of Gautama Buddha.
We make for the Korean Monastery as only there can we find rooms and still be inside the vast complex. We are exactly 300-kilometers away from Kathmandu, not that a measurement like that means very much here: 8-hours, including stops, would be more suggestive of the long, curving Prithvi Narayan pass up to Kathmandu from the Terai. But more than by distance and time, Kathmandu and Lumbini are separated by culture and climate. Here, in the market place, Bhojpuri, Maithili and Hindi are heard more than Nepali. There are fewer faces with Mongoloid features: more prevalent are the Indo Aryan, darker features of a taller race who derive not from mountain forests, but from the northern Indo-Gangetic plains of Nepal.
We arrive at the Korean temple. Approaching the office peon, he tells us, There are no double rooms available, only dormitories with eight to a room.
The rooms are grey concrete and quite austere. The beds are wooden pallets with thin mattresses laid on top. Dissatisfied, the German pair are off on a rickshaw for the town, not happy with the accommodation on offer. The Australian girl decides to stay in a dormitory. My wife talks to a monk and he instructs the peon to give us the last double room. This will cost us NRs600, or around £4 a night – plus three-meals a day. The only other choice was to stay in a hotel somewhere on the outskirts of the town, miles away from the walled enclave at the centre.
The Korean food is indescribably bland, innovatively bereft of imagination and hard to digest. Not the live boiled frog porridge you get in Thailand, but maybe this is a vegetarian equivalent in taste. At the buffet table, fish sauce is a favourite with the non-vegetarians.
Paintings inside the Korean Temple
The crowds move slowly to the central temple, to the exact spot where Buddha was born, I’m told by a security guard standing at the door. Within the building, you get a feeling you’re walking into a large area meticulously preserved where even the dust is kept in its place in the still air. There are low walls and enclosed areas, some of it dating back to the fifth century BC. Barricades surround the vestigial remains and from a distance, the gold leaf on a wall glitters, placed there by devotees over the years. The leaf is extremely thin and can be bought in little packets, not unlike sticky notes. Around the inside of the perimeter wall, a few monks and lay people sit in meditation.
All needs are catered for
I guess this is the point at which questions arise in my mind about why the urge to visit Lumbini, to make the pilgrimage? Under a tree, a distinguished looking man in brown kurta and pyjamas is regaling a crowd of westerners with words of wisdom that they already know and don’t mind hearing again. Other groups sit about on the grass absorbing the atmosphere of this unique place. On the steps leading down to the lake, someone conducts a group of pilgrims singing a haunting song in praise of Buddha.
A friendly wave from a devotee
Altogether, it’s a heart and mind-moving place to be – and the weather is warm! There is an atmosphere of peace and love. And finally, whether this is really the birthplace of Gautama Buddha or not, my heart is at a place from where he most probably went on to become one of the most influential figures in the history of human ideas and thought.