This morning we left Lumbini, Nepal, crossed the border on foot at Sunali, and are now in Sravasti, India. Thus our 24-day pilgrimage of the major historical sites in the life of the Buddha has begun. We’re not religious people, but we do believe the Buddha was one of the world’s greatest teachers whose message of peace and compassion is universal. We also feel much gratitude to a teacher who not only preached peace, but taught a very practical way to achieve it. We’ve long wanted to visit these ancient places. Leaving aside whether you believe in following the Buddha’s teaching, his life is a fascinating and inspiring story. So for the next three weeks we’ll visit some of the oldest sacred sites in Nepal and India, following in the Buddha’s footsteps along the way. Sort of. He walked. We’re taking a hired car.
Where better to start our tour than with the place of the Buddha’s birth. It was in Lumbini that the Buddha was born in the mid-6th century. And he grew up a prince in the nearby city of Kapilavastu, the ruins of which lie about 22 km west of Lumbini. We also visited a third place here called Ramagram, the only stupa built immediately after the Buddha’s passing hat has never been disturbed. More on all of this in a moment. First, a story about our journey here.
Day 1: We took a “deluxe” bus to Lumbini from Kathmandu. we know you’re asking yourselves, “What makes a bus deluxe?” Well, you get an pre-assigned seat. This is more important than it might seem. Plus, they don’t stuff every square centimeter with random passengers, bags, or animals – on a bus we took out of Pokhara we shared the aisle next to us with a large load of baby chickens – and there are no passengers on the roof. You get a newspaper and a bottle of water and the bus attendants are helpful and understand English quite well. Now, we’ve taken the bus in Nepal a few times. Twice on “deluxe” buses, the other times on regular buses when we traveled up into the mountains and back. The main “highway” in the country is a terrifyingly narrow, broken, rough and bumpy track that weaves up and down and around steep mountain sides. It’s treacherous and death is a frequent occurrence on these roads, especially during the monsoon seasons when torrential rain fall washes out bridges and roads. However, given mother-in-law is reading this, we’ll point out that the vast majority of people arrive alive and healthy at their destination. We’ve been on many long, harrowing bus journeys in Vietnam, Cambodia, India, and China. But the long bus journeys of Nepal are different due mainly to the mountainous terrain that adds much to the excitement.
Our journey west and south from Kathmandu began at 8:00 AM. We left pretty much on time, as most buses do in our experience here. Our arrival time was between 3 and 4 PM. In actual fact, two and a half hours after we had left Kathmandu we were exactly 35 kilometers into our 306 km journey. That didn’t bode well. The late monsoon here has brought torrential rains the last week. And that has meant landslides and chaos on Nepal’s roads. We would motor along for a few minutes and then stop, parked in the pouring rain and sweltering heat for an hour with no explanation. When we finally started rolling again, we’d see the landslide, or a truck that went off a bridge or into a ditch. Once we were stopped for over an hour while locals tried to clear a downed power line laying across the road.
Why don’t we fly? Well, first: Karen hates flying. Hates it. The smaller the plane, the greater the aversion to it. So as much as possible we go by land. Plus, when you fly all you see are tourists and other wealthy people. You never see the country the way it is. And we very much enjoy this part of traveling. Nepal is incredibly beautiful. And it verges on speechlessly so in the rainy weather that brings such a brilliant green to everything. Who would want to just skip over it? In addition, Karen would like to make sure you all know, had we have flown…. we would have never arrived in Lumbini that day. All domestic flights were canceled because of the extreme weather. The bus was our only option, as it turned out.
Near sundown, after leaving Narayanghar, we arrived at another long line of parked traffic. This time everyone got off the bus, collected their luggage and started to walk down the road. A bridge had collapsed in on itself, so trucks and buses couldn’t cross it. We all walked across the damaged bridge, boarded another bus that was waiting for us, then started again. The passengers who had been traveling in the opposite direction would have boarded our bus to continue back to Kathmandu.
But we had expected this washed out bridge / bus change. At a rest stop in Narayanghar, the driver approached Scott and handed him his mobile. Scott said, “That’s not ours.” He tried to hand it to Scott again, saying “Phone is you.” Again Scott told him we had our own phone, and showed it to him. Then the driver said, “You are Mr. Scott?” Surprised, Scott said yes. Then the driver handed him the phone yet again and said, “Just start talking.” At the other end of the phone was the manager from the hotel we had booked in Lumbini. Wow. He was calling the driver to check on us and to see when we would arrive. He told Scott there would be a bus change and the driver would call him to make sure the transfer went ok. Obviously, we felt well looked after. When we finally arrived in Lumbini, the bus dropped us off in the parking lot of the hotel Peaceland itself. We were grateful, because it was almost 10 PM, pitch black outside (no street lights in Nepal), and it was pouring with rain. At the end of the day, our 8-hour bus ride was 14 hours long.
Day 2: We decided to start with Lumbini Park, the birthplace of the Buddha.
Our hotel was just a short walking distance from one of the main gates so we grabbed umbrellas and walked. The hotel staff thought we were nuts for walking, but the rain was not too heavy and it was nice and cool. Our visit to Lumbini was better than we had expected. Of the many sites that mark the life of the Buddha, most would say Lumbini is a bit of a run down disappointment. Big plans were drawn up for the site in the mid-90s when the park was built in earnest. The Maya Devi Temple was properly excavated and preserved. During the excavation, the Japanese team of archeologists discovered the original marker stone that was laid to identify the spot of the Buddha’s birth. They put it in place under a bullet-proof case to protect it. Since the park was built, many Buddhist monasteries from dozens of countries have been built in the area to the east and west of the site in a special monastic park. A very large, 4 km long pool of water runs from the main Maya Devi temple to the north and ends at the museum. Which was closed. Lumbini could be better preserved and maintained. It’s a bit tattered-looking and a little neglected. Still, we had expected worse and so were pleasantly surprised. Plus, the walk up and down the monastic zones provided us with the most exercise we’ve had since our trek… We’ll let the photos do the rest of the talking.
Day 3: We visited two sites, Kapilvastu and Ramagram. Kapilvastu is the site of the ancient kingdom of the Sakyas. King Sudodhana was the Buddha’s father. Nowadays, there is not much left of what was once a mighty kingdom. The modern area of Tilaurakot consists of tiny villages and it’s very rural. The people here look like the people of northern India, from Bihar. The ruins of Kapilvastu in fact lie underneath hundreds of square kms of rice fields. Excavations have been carried out of the Banyan Grove monastery built by the Buddha’s father, as well as the ruins of the Sakyan king’s palace, where the Buddha spent his first 29 years.
The last place we visited in Lumbini was our favourite. Located 60 km to the east of Lumbini, it took 3 hours to drive there and back. But we thought it was worth it. Ramagram is a very simple place. It is known to be the only one of eight original relic stupas built to house the remains of the Buddha after he passed away that wasn’t disturbed. His remains had been divided into eight and given to the eight kingdoms where he had spent part of his 45 years of teaching so they would not fight over who got to retain the remains. Each got some of them. One of the kingdoms was called Koliya, also the ancestral home of the Buddha’s mother, Maya. The king placed the remains in Koliya and built a simple stupa to mark the spot.
A few hundred years later, when the Emperor Ashoka (who had adopted the teachings of the Buddha) wanted to spread the teachings far and wide, he visited and opened the original stupas in order to take out some of the relic remains so he could build 84, 000 more stupas all over India. It is said that when Ashoka arrived at Ramagram he saw elephants carrying flowers and watering the stupa with their trunks, as well as a “Naga” king (dragon) which he believed was protecting it. When we arrived, we didn’t see elephants (or a dragon king), but we did find it interesting that the stupa mound was covered in butterflies. The butterflies were very interested in the mound, but they completely ignored the area all around it. When we saw the butterflies we could imagine what went through the mind of Ashoka when he saw the elephants. We thought it was pretty neat.
The emperor had decided not to disturb the stupa, and left it untouched. Since then, the stupa has remained unmolested by anyone. Larger stupas were built over top of the smaller ones, but it has never been opened. Archeologists studied the stupa in the early 2000s and confirmed the dating of the stupa to the period of the Buddha’s life. They also found pottery sherds that confirm maintenance of the stupa through the major Buddhist historical periods. It’s a fascinating place. It was also very peaceful. When we arrived, aside from curious children and a small group of Chinese visitors accompanied by a monk, there was no one else there. After a while, we were alone. In fact, the blessing of the monsoon chaos is that we were actually the only ones in our hotel, and among just a very few other visitors (mostly nuns and monks) to the other sites in Lumbini.
Day 4: This morning we crossed the threshold into India.
We’re back after five years. Our crossing was quite easy. We got a ride from the hotel to the Nepalese immigration office, then called the driver we had arranged in India. He walked over the border to meet us and walked with us over to India to the immigration office. He left his car in India due to a traffic jam. After clearing Indian immigration we jumped into the Tata Indigo that will be our transport and headed off into the state of Bihar on our way to Sravasti, in Uttar Pradesh. India is incredibly beautiful. The drive was lovely. At each small town intersection our driver would pull up to a traffic police officer and ask the way to Sravasti, then we would zoom off again. After a few hours we reached our hotel. A vastly overpriced, cement hulk of a joint built originally to fleece Japanese pilgrims. But alas, we’re the only sheep here, the only guests in this massive hotel.
Tomorrow we will start our tour of the sites here.