One sunny, winter morning, I took the nine a.m. minibus from the ratty border town of Bhairawa to Lumbini, the birthplace of Siddartha Gautam, better known throughout the world as “Buddha,” the Enlightened One. My aunt had assured me that since it was a pukka, paved, road to Lumbini, I’d be there “in no time.” She also asked me to bring back some peda, a sweet snack shaped like a round cracker. I learned later that among the locals, Lumbini was once as famous for its peda as the birthplace of Buddha.
Despite the pukka road, the bus, a tinny box rolling on bald wheels, took two hours to cover the twenty kilometer distance. After all, it was a cold winter morning; the driver took frequent tea-pee-and-cigarette breaks whenever he pulled up at roadside tea shops which also were the informal bus stops.
As the minibus approached Lumbini, I was startled by the sight of a brilliantly white-washed, single-story mosque squatting in the middle of the flat, fallow farmland that is the monotonous feature of the tarai. It was the cleanest thing I had seen since the subway stations of Singapore. My first thought was: Saudi money here too? Ignoring the dazzling mosque, I scanned for the landmarks that had always greeted me on my previous visits: the ancient, sandstone Ashoka pillar leaning just so slightly; the sturdy, sacred Bodhi tree which spread its branches protectively over the Mayadevi temple, which too had once been brushed white, but the ravages of monsoon rains and hot, dusty winters had marked the temple with permanent blotches of gray and black, like an ugly skin disease. I had asked the bus driver to alert me when we reached Lumbini. When the bus stopped at another chaotic bazaar, he nodded at me.
I got off-and felt temporarily lost in the melange of shops, bicycles, pedestrians, motor vehicles, bullock-carts and street-vendors. I found my true north when I noticed a billboard advertising “Lumbini Village Lodge,” and at its bottom, fading block letters declared: the birth place of lord buddha just 5 minute walk from here. An arrow indicated the direction to take.
Off the paved road, a tree-lined dirt path led into the ancient Lumbini Garden which I finally recognized. I had an appointment with a Nepali archaeologist, Mr. Bidari, who had been living and working in Lumbini for over a decade. I apologized for being late and told him I was briefly lost because I no longer recognized Lumbini.
“So much activity, the whole landscape has changed,” I said.
“Well, surely you know about the Lumbini Master Plan?” he responded.
Yes, I did. It had been uttered like a mantra by every official I had met at the Lumbini Development Trust headquarters in Kathmandu. They would spread out rolls of blueprint on their desks, point to scale models with blunt, stubby pencils, recite impressive statistics, and hand me brochures as I prepared to leave.
When I had mentioned this Master Plan to my father, he had snorted skeptically. “They are trying to hide decades of corruption. So much foreign money has been given in the past twenty, almost thirty, years. And what do they have to show for development in Lumbini? Nothing! Did anyone show you a budget or a financial report?”
“Of course not! All these years, the bureaucrats developed themselves instead of Lumbini, and now, to fool the public, they declare a Master Plan. I’ll believe them when I see Lumbini again. They all lie and cheat. There is so much corruption that even Lord Buddha would have a hard time forgiving them!”
Strong words, but my father had once been a government employee; the experience had disillusioned him. Besides, our family had a proprietorial attitude about Lumbini. My parents’ family lived in Taulihawa, the modern name of Kapilvastu, the ancient kingdom of Buddha’s father, King Suddhodhan. My parents were born there, and so was I. During winter holidays when I visited my grandparents, I recalled local poets declaiming about “Child Siddartha/who rolled in the sacred dust of our Kapilvastu…”; when young men became despondent, families became worried that he too would follow Gautam’s path of exile and liberation. Gloomy intellectuals would comment with dense despair, “Now if Jesus Christ had been born in Lumbini, do you think Christians and Americans would allow such neglect? Oh no, no sir! Lumbini would be a paradise! It would have paved roads, buses, airport, hotels, rest-houses and other amenities for the weary pilgrim, but alas! Buddha was born in poor Nepal and Lumbini remains a backwater.” We felt the pain when Lumbini remained neglected.
In his office, Mr. Bidari proceeded to give me a detailed explanation of the Master Plan. It was designed by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, a winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. It covered three square miles divided into four distinct areas: 1) the new Lumbini village with accommodations for pilgrims, scholars, and tourists; 2) a cultural zone where a library, museum, auditorium, and research facilities would be built; 3) a monastic zone where every major Buddhist nation had leased a plot and many had started to build their monasteries; and finally, 4) the renovated Lumbini Garden where the Mayadevi temple, its sacred pond, and the Ashoka pillar have attracted visitors for millennia. An ornamental canal, fed by the Telar River, was also part of the plan. Meanwhile, Mr. Bidari continued, in 770 hectares of land, 650,000 plants and trees of more than 40 species had been planted.
He then invited me to step out of his rather dark office into the bright sunshine. We faced north, towards the Himalayas which were veiled by the dust rising from the vast Gangetic plain that lay to our south in India. Mr. Bidari stretched out his hand and made a grand sweep. He said, “There is a purity of vision in Mr. Tange’s design. As visitors arrive, they first enter the worldly domain of Lumbini. Food and accommodations that satisfy the basic, daily requirements of humans. After the physical necessities are satisfied, they move into the intellectual world of books, libraries, museums, seminars, conferences, lectures, and so on; then they enter the religious realm to meet monks and worship at monasteries, in preparation to enter the sacred zone-the ancient tree under which Mayadevi gave birth to Siddartha, the pond where he was first bathed, the temple itself, and Emperor Ashoka’s pillar. Now you will notice that beyond all this, the Himalayas beckon, the final destination for those brave enough to renounce this world of Maya, of illusion, and pursue the path of enlightenment-and thus become a Buddha. After all, the historical Buddha of Lumbini was one of many. There were others before him, and others to come.” Mr. Bidari looked at me and smiled sweetly.
“Can you tell me something about that mosque I saw just before we arrived in Lumbini?” I asked.
“Well, it makes perfect sense when you consider that sixty percent of the population in the Lumbini region are Muslims, not Hindus, and very few Buddhists!”
When I discreetly brought up the topic of my father’s rage – corruption – he did not dodge it as others had.
“Again, we must keep in mind that there were people living in this area before. Seven villages had to be resettled. There were no facilities-no roads, electricity, telephone, or piped water. So whoever was in charge of Lumbini’s development, whether the Trust or the government, it could not just come in and start ‘development.’ It takes a lot of time and money to convince people to leave their homes, and just as long to set up modern facilities. This is not to say that things couldn’t have moved more quickly in the past or that there were some dishonest officials.”
It was time to leave, and I thanked Mr. Bidari. I was planning to visit Tilaurakot, the site of ancient Kapilvastu. A friend in Lumbini had offered me his motorcycle for the day. Before meeting him, I decided to wander around this emerging “new” Lumbini of the Master Plan. Mr. Bidari’s office building was within the Sacred Garden area. And all around there was ceaseless activity which unsettled me. I felt crowded, not the quiet, isolated serenity I had experienced during my previous visits when I would sit and gaze at the mountains beyond.
The Mayadevi temple was wrapped in bright yellow tarp because it was being renovated with the assistance of the Japan Buddhist Federation. A sign in English said: no photography. Devotees entered an ugly, single-story building with a tin roof that temporarily housed a replica of the original Child Buddha, Mother, and Attendants nativity statue that was in the Mayadevi temple. The original was somewhere for safe-keeping, but no one seemed to know exactly where. There had also been an uproar when the sacred Bodhi tree was cut down because its ancient roots were damaging the temple building. The sacred pond’s stagnant water was murky but the stone steps around it were neatly swept. At nearby Ashoka pillar, tattered prayer flags fluttered weakly around the shoulder-high iron fence that protected the pillar. These were the ancient icons that had once identified the open, seemingly empty land as the birthplace of the Buddha. Even a casual visit here had produced serenity if not, however briefly, a tug towards religiosity.
Before there had been silence and stillness, but now noise and purposeful activity. There were skinny, dark-skinned laborers digging or chipping around archaeological sites. They carried loads on their heads or in clattering wheelbarrows; squatting women hammered rocks into pieces as their babies crawled around them; managers of the Master Plan warmed themselves in sunny porches and open courtyards of their office buildings, smoking cigarettes and talking loudly, no doubt discussing the intricacies of implementing the grand plan. Pious but impatient pilgrims jostled each other as they entered the various temples to worship.
In a shady grove, a family was enjoying a picnic. As I walked past them towards an old pilgrim’s rest house, I slipped on an abandoned plastic bag that had been camouflaged by fallen leaves. The entire grove was full of discarded papers and plastic bags. Above the entrance to an old stucco rest house, yet another notice in three languages (Nepali, Hindi, and English): killing beast and drinking wine alcohal is strictly prohibited. In Nepali and Hindi, the sign also forbade the consumption of fish and any kind of narcotics, including marijuana.
Beyond the ancient landmarks, new construction littered the landscape. The ornamental canal was partially dug up, bordered by brittle green bush; stagnant pools of water collected at haphazard intervals, challenging the mind to imagine a serenely flowing waterway. Sturdy cement and brick structures with intriguing tubular shapes loomed above dry greenery. When I passed the site of the Eternal Flame, I was actually surprised to find it lit. It flickered from within a black, circular container that rested upon a square platform of white marble. This is when I decided I had enough. It was time to pick up the motorcycle and ride to Tilaurakot.
I headed directly west, another twenty kilometers, on rough, bouldery road. Now that I was beyond the tourist-and-pilgrim area, the landscape was truly rural. Except for an occasional public bus or a tractor, bullock carts and bicycles ruled the road; but most walked, and their bare feet had shaped their own smooth “sidewalk.”
I passed villages and bustling bazaar towns where I was forced to walk my motorcycle to navigate among vast gatherings of bullock carts, and it was suicidal to assert the power of the machine when women, children, dogs, horses, and cattle darted around. Yellow mustard fields and golden ripening wheat broke the monotony of the flat agricultural land. Sometimes, an entire family was at work. Young children bent over as they cut the stalk with a scythe, the mother gathered the cut crop and handed it to the father who loaded it into the bullock cart.
Tilaurakot was the perfect antidote to the grand activity of Lumbini; it was quiet, wooded-and empty. A flimsy wire fence enclosed the archaeological site, and at the entrance, a billboard identified the area as “the remains of ancient Kapilvastu, the Shakya capital.” A man in khaki dress, claiming he was the guard, attached himself to me as I entered the forested enclave. He started to act officious, but stopped short when I spoke to him in the local dialect. I told him my grandparents lived in nearby Taulihawa and that I had visited this site since the early 1960s when a group of Japanese university students had arrived to dig up the ruins. The guard became quiet and followed me as I wandered around.
I first visited the temple devoted to a local goddess. An ancient pipal tree grew behind it and its roots and branches had penetrated the crumbling brick walls of the square structure; it had no roof and a narrow opening for an entrance. Nothing had changed in this temple since my childhood visits. Even its process of collapse had been arrested, it seemed, and despite its dilapidation, there was something ineffable and dignified about it, commanding reverence and awe that one reserves for one’s aging but redoubtable relatives. No doubt, I thought, when and if development descended upon Tilaurakot, there would be a bright yellow tarp around the temple and the venerable tree would be chopped up for firewood.
Archaeological finds were scattered about in clearings-low brick walls around shallow rectangular spaces that suggested rooms of buildings; low, round mounds that were the remains of stupas perhaps. Incongruously bright cherry-red bricks had recently been added on top of the older ruins. These sites were well-tended; the grass that grew in the open enclosures had been cut and the exposed walls were free of weeds. Next to another carefully preserved site, a signboard declared in English and Nepali that it was the remains of the “eastern gateway…from which lord buddha left his worldly life…” Objects such as coins, bangles, beads, a seal, and “shards of some polished wares” had also been discovered here. Digs had unearthed a moat, defense walls, the western gate, terra-cotta human and animal figurines, and pottery dating as far back as the 8th century B.C.
While the ruins were important, it was the natural surroundings that enchanted me. The trees of this forest were thick and sturdy, their branches heavy with glossy leaves. Birds called out and invisible forest creatures scurried about. Away from the carefully-tended ruins, nature was left to take its own course.
It was not a large enclosure. One could traverse its widest point in a few minutes. Its attraction was its state of benign neglect, its isolation from pilgrims, scholars, and tourists. During my half-hour stroll, only one person had entered the site, and he had come to worship at the temple.
I asked the guard if the government or any foreigners were continuing to work there. He said no because there was no money in the “budget.”
As I prepared to depart, I noticed a cluster of peasants’ fragile mud-and-thatch huts nearby. I paused and looked at it carefully, and it occurred to me that this settlement could have easily existed from the days of Buddha himself. Bony cattle were tied by rough rope to a low wooden stake; the villagers’ cooking fuel, a patty of cow dung mixed with straw, were stuck to the mud walls to dry. Papaya and banana trees towered over the low huts, and round pumpkins rested on thatched roofs like abandoned soccer balls. Both the men and women were lean and dark; the children wore ragged clothing, and the babies were plump but naked. I thought: take away the paved road, the distant electric pole and its wires fragmenting the sky, the occasional motorized vehicle, and should the Buddha return right now, he would feel at home instantly. To me, it was now Tilaurakot much more than Lumbini that genuinely evoked the life and times of the Buddha.
Before I headed back to Lumbini, I had one final destination. I had to visit an aunt of mine who lived in Taulihawa. My mother had told me to drop in (“even if you don’t have time for a cup of tea”) because my aunt had fallen into hard times lately.
She had grown even stouter-and she had always been teased for being fat. Her hair was gray and stringy, her skin wrinkled, and her eyes, dull and lifeless. Her house was a squat, square cement structure of the “bungalow” style. Nobody else was there, so it felt hollow, cold and lonely. She cheered up briefly when I said, to tease her, that she appeared quite thin. Since I had declined her invitation to have dinner, she insisted that I have tea. As she struggled with a banged up primus stove, I poured water from a plastic bucket into a blackened kettle. As we waited for the water to boil, I carefully inquired about her husband, her son, and his wife. She laughed heartily and said, “Surely your mother has told you about us…” and did not elaborate.
Yes, my mother had, and thus my visit. The son had quarreled with the parents over their extensive land holdings. Eventually, he had forced his parents out of the farm and the large rambling house they lived in. Now that he was the zamindar, the landlord, he would modernize the farm and make it profitable. So here was my aunt, in a town full of relatives who gossiped, without servants or farm hands to fulfill her whims. All alone. Her husband, meanwhile, dabbled in politics and was always away visiting “his people,” the future voters.
As the tea steeped, she quickly cracked an egg in a pan and presented me with tea and fried egg. She had always been accused of being indolent, insensitive to the needs of her husband and children. Now I marveled at how quickly and efficiently she had prepared this meal for me. But I had seen enough and had nothing more to say. It was getting late, and pleading the arrival of winter’s early darkness, I departed hurriedly, guiltily.
I felt better once I was back on the empty dirt road. It was just before sunset, perhaps the loveliest moment in the tarai. The sun was a flaming orange ball on the horizon, bathing the entire landscape in a warm pink and crimson glow. A cool breeze fanned my face. Occasionally, I’d pass cattle and goats kicking up a fine cloud of dust as they were herded home.
I thought about my aunt and how events in her life exemplified Buddha’s message of the wheel of life. Of all her sisters, she had been married into the wealthiest family. And for many years, she lived a rich, idyllic family life. An then slowly, inexorably, it had begun to fall apart. The source of her misery was her son’s greed. But this is nothing new, of course; it is the eternal human drama, that impermanence of our human condition brought about by our ceaseless desires which in turn produce boundless suffering. And as the motorcycle purred on the road back to Lumbini, the words and life of Buddha felt more immediate than ever.
In Lumbini, I inquired about the pedas, but was told that Bhairawa had better pedas these days.
About Rajendra S. Khadka:
Rajendra S. Khadka was born in Nepal, educated by the Jesuits in Kathmandu and Yankees in New England. His desultory career pursuits have included freelance journalism, managing a movie theater during the pre-VCR days, and a chef-on-call. For several years he was a writer, editor, and researcher at Travelers’ Tales, and back then when he was not sleeping, he could be found cooking, reading, or practicing zazen by doing nothing in the People’s Republic of Berkeley. After 25 years in the USA he returned to his homeland of Nepal, and now lives in a penthouse above a pack of howling curs in Kathmandu.
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