The manager at Hotel Mount Everest tried very hard to make me stay and do a day trip to Lumbini when I was checking out of his hotel. “Lumbini is just a village. You’ll get bored there.The hotels are very expensive. You can easily go, see the place and come back in a few hours.” He was desperate because he hadn’t had any customers for a couple of days and a shabby, transit town like Bhairahawa was a truly hard sell. I’d been to Bhairahawa before and if there’s any place I was going to get bored, it was here. So I bid him farewell, thanked him for letting me use his phone and promised I would return some other time.
Buses to Lumbini left from the Buddha Chowk, about a kilometer beyond Bank Road where all the hotels were. I was thrilled to find a bus for Lumbini waiting there ready for departure but my joy was shortlived when I hastily entered the bus and the driver stomped on the accelerator. The coach was packed to the gills and there was no space to breathe. I’m not particularly tall but the buses in Nepal are built for people much shorter and slimmer (and fitter) than I was. The conductor wasn’t happy that I was consuming an amount of space that could squeeze in 3 passengers, so I told him I’d like to get off and take another bus. He laughed, patted me on the back, said he was just kidding and told me I’d get a seat soon as people might get off at the next village. The next village arrived and nobody got off but plenty more got on. I was also irked by the fact that I was made to pay more money than my fellow passengers. Was I paying more because I was bigger than the others? No. This was the “Indian price” which was higher than “local price” and substantially lower than “Foreigner price”. After an hour of banging my head against the ceiling, testing the limits of spinal flexibility, getting stamped on the foot by young Nepali teenage girls in high heels and a crash course in conversational Nepali with a boy from Taulihawa, I got off at the Buddha’s birthplace, Lumbini.
Lumbini was a two-street town whose only raison d’etre is to provide accommodation, food and basic necessities to people who come in droves from around the world to visit the UNESCO Heritage Site. I checked into the Lumbini Garden Lodge, one of the first few lodges in Lumbini Bazaar, the main backpacker lane and got myself a bright, sunny room with free wi-fi and a sparklingly clean shared bathroom with a western toilet and hot shower for 300 NR (roughly 200 Indian Rupees). That was the sort of deal I used to dream about during my early days of shoestring travel. The cross-ventilated windows in my room overlooked vast sugarcane fields and let in an ample supply of fresh air and sunlight. I resolved to stay here for a while to breathe fresh air and soak in the quasi rural pastoral setting.
I came to Lumbini to find peace, tranquility, time and space to read, write, idle and I found all of these wonderful boondocksian pleasures that eluded me in more urban settings. I also found a lot of mosquitoes. Thrilled to bits at having hit a jackpot on first attempt, I unwittingly left the windows open when I went out to take a stroll about Lumbini. By the time I was back, it was late in the evening and my room was swarming with mosquitoes. Ever paranoid about contracting Dengue/Malaria/Japanese Encephalitis/other mosquito related horrors, I closed the windows, dunked myself in Odomos and ran downstairs to ask the manager to spray my room with whatever poisonous repellant he had. He promptly did so but said I had to stay out for a couple of hours if I wished not to die with the mosquitoes.
So I went for an early dinner at Lotus Restaurant, one of the few copy-cat backpacker cafes on the street. This place, too, had a colony of mosquitoes baying for fresh blood but by now, I was positively reeking of Odomos and the little pests didn’t dare come anywhere near me. I ordered a bottle of beer and some bhatmas sandeko (roasted soyabeans) to go with. This was the end of February, certainly not low season but I was the only one eating there apart from a trio of American students rediscovering the power of free speech after a week of Vipassana. But when I ordered a main course of simple vegetarian curry with rice, it took them over two hours to bring it to my table. When needled about the delay, the manager apologized profusely saying they had a big order for 20 meals from an Indian group that could arrive anytime. “You know how some Indians are, they would like everything ready at once”, he said. I didn’t know if this was a sly reverse psychological tactic to make me feel ashamed of my countrymen and refrain from protesting but it worked. I quickly and quietly finished my meal without saying a word.
Lumbini’s UNESCO status is well deserved as here, in the 6th-5th Century BCE (depending on which historical records you believe), the Shakyan Queen Mayadevi, while resting under a sal tree, gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama, who would go on to become the Buddha. The entry to the massive site was flanked by many cycle rickshaws, all of whom banked on tourists wanting to do a whistle stop tour of all the monasteries and “points” within the site. They weren’t expensive and if one only had a day, it made sense to use one to take you around. But I had an infinite amount of time and I needed the exercise. So I marched in, behind a big group of cheerful Sri Lankan nuns from Kandy, all clad in white sarongs.
The first thing that impressed me about Lumbini was the sheer flatness of the terrain. To be in Nepal, the small yet overwhelmingly mountainous country, and able to see an unobstructed horizon in every direction felt magical to me. The mountains weren’t very far away with the mightly foothills of the Himalayas beginning 40 odd kilometers to the north. This was part of the Terai region, the scorching plains that extend from East to West, adjoining Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in India but with remarkably different ethnicities and identities compared to the Indian side.
Within the confines of the work-in-progress “religious park”, there are the Sacred Garden, a monastic zone and a nature park. The Sacred Garden is the oldest and the most revered section of the complex. Its center-piece is the Mayadevi temple, a newer, whitewashed concrete structure built by the Japanese Buddhist Federation around the archaeological ruins of the original temple built during Emperor Ashoka’s time. There’s speculation that some of the lower foundations indicate the sort of architecture that might have existed during pre-Buddha times. There was a long queue of people wanting to have a look at the sculpture depicting Maya Devi and the Buddha, some devotedly lighting candles near an altar-like structure. I didn’t join the queue but spent a long time walking around the foundations stretching my mind imagining the significance of the site’s antiquity.
There was a beauty even in those deformed and decapitated structures, structures built by people who lived many millenia ago. When you remove the embellishments, the articulations, the complexities, all that remains is the foundations built by the simplest and the most uncomplicated of workers and it’s the foundations that survive the longest. Buddhism didn’t originate here but the Buddha did and the first seeds of thought were sowed here, which he would build upon, debate, revise and carry on to Bodhgaya, Sarnath and to his nirvana in Kushinagar, the seeds of a religion and a way of life that’s still expanding and evolving 2600 years later in myriad forms.
Outside, a crowd of package tourists from China were huddled around the badly damaged Ashokan Pillar. I took a cursory look at it, not wanting to jostle for space with fellow tourists and took a walk around the grounds. There were monks everywhere, some giving sermons under a tree a la the Buddha himself, some sitting alone reading or meditating in an isolated corner, some cracking jokes and feeding turtles in the Shakya Tank. There were the obligatory Tibetan prayer flags fluttering everywhere. I spent many hours in the gardens, here talking to a monk from Amdo about Milarepa, there underneath a banyan tree reading some chapters of Nicolas Bouvier’s thrilling travelogue The Way of the World and somewhere near the pond watching people and updating notes. I visited the Maya Temple every afternoon for the next couple of days to either read, write or take a siesta because although it was undeniably a tourist site, its austere grounds offered me the peace and harmony I wasn’t quite getting in Lumbini Bazaar.
The monastic zone was a vast complex of monasteries built by the various sects of Buddhism and they all look depressingly concrete and new. What it didn’t have in antiquity, it made up for in variety with over 15 countries represented by their respective monasteries and plenty more under construction. The eternal flame that burns at the head of the reflecting canal was ignited in 1986 to commemorate what was then the International Year of Peace. The two rows around the canal were flanked by Japanese Buddhists dressed in yellow and topped with straw hats busy making colourful oil lamps for what they called “the floating lamp” festival. I was tremendously impressed by the amount space and the spotless cleanliness of the entire complex. It was quiet, serene, beautiful and spacious as any place of worship and contemplation ought to be.
It was late evening in Lumbini Bazaar and I was sitting in the open air café of Three-Vision Restaurant having beer with XL, a Chinese backpacker and GT, a long-term American traveler I’d met there. XL was an architect who was on a mission to visit every country in Asia and India was among the countries he absolutely loved traveling around. He strongly disagreed when GT told him he wished some of the Indian temple towns would learn from a place like Lumbini and clean up their act. He felt GT didn’t appreciate the true value of what India offered in its unselfconscious and naturalistic approach to devotion with the jagged and unconventional rhythms of chaotic towns, dirty alleys, cows on the roads and the blatant disregard for hygiene and sanitation that GT disapproved of. He was fascinated by the country and detested Lumbini for what he considered cold, sterile and manufactured spirituality, something that reminded him more of China than Nepal. When he learnt that this was my first stop in the country, he implored me to leave immediately and see the rest of Nepal, which he felt was more original and livelier than the “Buddhist Amusement Park”(his words) we were in at the moment.
When I arrived in Lumbini and snagged an inexpensive room, I thought I might stay here for a long time. My routine too, was set. Every morning, I would go for puri bhaji and chai to the grungy local dhaba on the road and chat with monks and pilgrims. Every afternoon, I would go for lunch to the restaurant opposite to the religious park and chat with the tall, pretty Nepali girl who worked there. Every evening, I would go for a walk around the water body in the park and do some bird-watching. But XL was right. The place was somewhat sterile and felt removed from the ordinary realities of everyday life in Nepal. This was a great spot to contemplate and clear out my head but after a point, the emptiness and the hollowness got to me. I was missing the markets, the hustle and bustle of a well-populated town and I was missing the cool air of the mountains in search of which I had come to Nepal in the first place. After 4 days in Lumbini, I packed my bags for Tansen, a hill town a couple of hours north of Lumbini, which promised everything I was looking for.