Having traveled a day and night from India by motor scooter, train, multiple buses, and a short stint on a bicycle rickshaw, I opt to walk the last leg of the journey to Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautama Buddha. The twenty-two kilometers of road cross the Nepali Terai—the flat, fertile region of southern Nepal stretching from the Indian border to the Himalayan foothills. Growing most of Nepal’s food, the Terai is covered with rice fields, each bordered by small stretches of sal trees and a grid of twisted grass footpaths. Nepalese women and children with enormous bundles of rice stalks on their heads walk along the paths to granaries, where a hand- or foot-powered blower separates the rice from the shaft. The Nepali waste nothing. Piles of rice straw line the road, to be fed to animals, then used again as manure for fertilizer and kitchen fuel.

It appears from the stares on the road that Westerners are infrequently in Lumbini. As the day heats up, I stop to rest in the company of a Nepali soap maker. Jumping down off his porch, this curiously Yoda-like fellow comes out to greet me, waving his hand with all of two fingers remaining and leading me behind his house. He insists I take off my pack, then sit, and finally lie down on a cot made of jute string. He climbs on an identical bed himself. We nap, then eat dal bhat, mushing the lentil soup and rice with our fingers and scooping it into our mouths, Nepali style. The conversation focuses on soap and religion. “A Muslim,” he says and slaps his chest with his hand. When I tell him I am Jewish, his face shows no response, and my explanation of our relation as ancient cousins exhausts his English.

Edict pillar erected at Lumbini by King Ashoka in 249 B.C.E. declaring, "Here the Buddha was born."
Edict pillar erected at Lumbini by King Ashoka in 249 B.C.E. declaring, “Here the Buddha was born.”

Wanting to reach Lumbini before dark, I refuse his offer for another nap and continue down the road. Just across the Barganga River, I pass a faded metal sign with a beautiful picture of Gautama Buddha seated under the Bodhi tree. I stop to marvel at what is evidently a Buddhist road sign. On closer examination, however, I see that the Buddha is not sitting on the straw mat given to him by a passing farmer, as the story goes, but rather on a brick platform built upon the roots of the tree. The logo at the bottom of the sign reads, “The Siddhartha Bodhi Brick Company.”

I continue on. The quiet pace of daily life is perhaps not so different, I think, from when Queen Mayadevi traveled down a similar road just to the west, toward Lumbini and the auspicious birth of her son. I begin to imagine the idyllic gardens described in Buddhist texts, “blessed with blooming sal trees and masses of beautiful flowers, where bees of five colors hum.” I am to find, however, that like the Buddha’s straw mat, such simple splendor has vanished. In its place lies a reconstruction built of brick, cemented by a mixture of reverence, greed, and even violence.

It is thought that the pregnant Queen Maya, on her way from Kapilavastu to her natal home in Devadaha, stopped in Lumbini to worship the trees in the lush gardens, as was the custom of the time. After bathing in the garden’s pool, she went into labor under a tree—most likely the tall, cone-shaped Ashoka tree—and gave birth to a son while grasping a branch for support. Just after birth, Buddhist literature relates, the baby prince took seven steps upon lotus flowers and declared his intention to end suffering in the world. Eighty years later, close to death, the Buddha speaks of Lumbini, “After I am no more, O Ananda, men of belief will visit—with faithful curiosity and devotion—to the four places—where I was born, attained enlightenment, gave the first sermons, and where I passed into paranibbana.” True to his prediction, within three hundred years of the Buddha’s death, stupas and temples were built at his birthplace, the nativity scene carved in stone, and many pilgrims came to pay homage, including the Indian emperor Ashoka, the Buddhist monarch who replaced the sword with the Dharma. Ashoka visited in 249 B.C.E., constructing a pillar with the Rock Edict declaring, “Here the Buddha was born.”

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