“To the east of the city (of Kapilavastu), there is a royal park. The park is called Lumbini (Lunmin). (There) the wife (of the king) took a bath in a pond, left the pond from the north side, took twenty steps forward, grasped a tree with her hand and, (turning) to the east, delivered the prince,” reads Fa-Hien’s account of Lumbini.
Fa-Hien was a Buddhist monk from the Shanxi province in China, who visited Lumbini between 399 and 414 CE. This excerpt describes the account he heard of the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Though there are varying opinions about the date of Buddha’s birth, most scholars agree on the 6th Century BCE, i.e. somewhere around 585-571 BCE. According to Buddhist tradition, Siddhartha Gautama was born in the vana or garden of Lumbini.
The site is located in the Rupandehi district of Nepal, around 125 kms from Gorakhpur in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Today, it houses a shrine called the Maya Devi Temple, named after the Buddha’s mother, and is one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage centres in the world. A series of excavations at Lumbini has revealed the remains of many stupas, monasteries and temples, indicating that it has been a significant Buddhist site for several centuries.
Legends of Lumbini
Lumbini is often described as a beautiful garden, and was said to be located between the kingdoms of the Sakyas of Kapilavastu and the Koliyas of Devadaha. Maya Devi, a Koliya, was married to Suddhodana, the King of the Sakya clan. There’s a popular legend associated with the conception of Siddhartha. It is said that Maya Devi or Maha Maya dreamt she was being taken to be placed under a sal tree.
A six-tusked white elephant, holding a white lotus, then descended from heaven to enter her womb through her right side. This legend often finds depiction in Buddhist art even today.
While pregnant and on her way from Kapilavastu to her parental home in Devadaha, upon reaching a grove near the village of Lumbini, Maha Maya gave birth to her son Siddhartha under a sal tree. As depicted in different literary texts, she is said to have clutched a branch of that tree while giving birth.
Lumbini thus became one of the four spots that even the Buddha listed as key pilgrimage centres, as mentioned in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. The other three spots that hold significance in the Buddha’s life are Bodh Gaya, where Siddhartha gained enlightenment; Sarnath, where he delivered his first teachings; and Kushinagar, where he died and attained parinirvana.
Emperor Ashoka’s Pilgrimage
The earliest recorded reference to Lumbini as the birthplace of the Buddha dates to the 3rd century BCE. The Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (r. 269-232 BCE) embraced Buddhism after the battle of Kalinga in 261 BCE, in what would prove to be a turning point for the faith.
According to Buddhist tradition, as preserved in the Divyavadana (an anthology of Buddhist tales), Ashoka set off on a pilgrimage to Lumbini about 12 years later, in 249 BCE, in the company of his spiritual teacher, Upagupta. Upon their arrival, Upagupta, pointing to the tree under which Maha Maya gave birth to the Buddha, said, “Oh, Maharaja! Here the Blessed One was born.” To commemorate his visit and to propagate Dhamma, Ashoka had monuments built at the site.
In Lumbini, he erected a sandstone pillar with an inscription to memorialise his visit. The inscription contains five lines and 90 letters (in Brahmi and Pali). The inscription on the Ashoka Pillar in Lumbini states, among other things, that pilgrims visiting the location were exempt from all religious taxes and that the levy on produce from the village of Lumbini was reduced.
Here is an English translation:
“By King Piyadasi, the beloved of the gods (who) having been consecrated twenty years (having) come himself personally (here) to offer homage, or celebrate because Shakyamuni Buddha was born here, was caused both a Silavigadabhica to be built and a stone pillar to be set up. (And), because the Lord was born here, the Lumbini village was made free from taxes and liable to pay (only) one-eighth part (of the produce)”
Ashokavadan, a text describing Ashoka and his reign and dating to approximately the 2nd century CE, records that the Emperor erected a shrine near the nativity tree and donated 100,000 ounces of gold at Lumbini. And so Emperor Ashoka transformed it from a place in the woods to a massive centre of pilgrimage.
Visitors at Lumbini
– Following Ashoka’s visit, Lumbini drew many travellers from faraway lands. It was connected to the ancient trade route, Uttarapatha, which linked it to other important cities such as Kapilavastu.
Among the many pilgrims who visited Lumbini during its early period of splendor were Chinese travellers whose records have helped reconstruct a picture of what it was like then.
The monk Seng-Tsai of the Jin Dynasty (265-420 CE) was the first known Chinese traveller to visit Lumbini, between 350 and 375 CE.
He is said to have described a lapis lazuli nativity sculpture that Emperor Ashoka had installed there, of the queen giving birth. This statue was believed to have been placed under the descendant of the original tree under which Siddhartha was born. Seng-Tsai records that Ashoka placed stone slabs where Siddhartha was said to have taken his first seven steps, and that these were also enclosed in lapis lazuli.
Next, the Buddhist monk Fa-Hien visited Lumbini and wrote of the birth. He also described Siddhartha being bathed by Naga kings at a spot where a well was later built.
The traveller and monk Hiuen Tsang visited too, between 629 and 645 CE. He called Lumbini the La-fa-ni grove and left a rather detailed description mentioning the bathing pool and the old tree where the prince was born. Two springs and stupas were mentioned, along with a small stream. He also wrote a detailed description of the Ashoka Pillar, describing a capital shaped like the figure of a horse, which had by then been broken in the middle by a thunderbolt.
An excerpt from Hiuen Tsang’s account:
“Going eighty or ninety li north-east from the Arrow Spring, one comes to Lumbini. There is a bathing pond of the Sakya clan, (whose water is) clear as a mirror, and on whose surface flowers are scattered and drift. Twenty-four or twenty-five steps to the north (of the pond), there is an Ashoka flower tree (Wuyou-hua-shu), which has now already withered; this is the place where the sacred birth of the Bodhisattva took place.”
– Interestingly, the Ashoka Pillar at Lumbini also bears an inscription from the 14th century CE, a testament to the last significant visitor to make a pilgrimage there before the place was lost to the jungle and largely forgotten for five centuries.
The visitor was Ripu Malla, a king of the Khasa Malla Dynasty (11th-14th century CE) of Western Nepal. The inscription bears his name and the Buddhist prayer, Om Mani Padme Hum, which literally translates to ‘Praise to the Jewel in the Lotus’.
Some scholars say it is possible that the revival of Hinduism and a series of later Muslim invasions caused this vital place of pilgrimage to be lost to the marshy Terai forest and largely forgotten after this point. Others suggest that natural disasters such as droughts, famines, floods or earthquakes could have caused people to abandon Lumbini village.
Rediscovery & Excavations
In the 1890s, the Rana noble Khadga Shumsher (1861-1921), then governor of Nepal’s Palpa district, heard of an old stone pillar standing partly buried in the western part of the Terai forest. He found the object and ordered it dug out.
Alois Anton Führer, a German Indologist working as a surveyor with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), headed to the forest where the governor had ordered his workers to clear away most of the earth around what they then discovered was the Ashoka Pillar of Lumbini.
As news of the discovery spread, in 1898-99, Indian archaeologist Purna Chandra Mukherji was sent to conduct a brief exploration and excavation at Kapilavastu. He carried out extensive work, and some excavations at Lumbini too, and brought to light the exquisite plinth of the Maya Devi Temple. Atop this temple, a small modern temple dedicated to Rupadevi, the mother goddess of Lumbini, had been erected. Mukherji’s work concentrated on describing the Ashokan inscription, the decorative plinth of one phase of the Mayadevi Temple and the Gupta period sculpture of Mayadevi. According to Anton Führer, the new temple had been built as recently as 1890.
More than 30 years later, Keshar Shamsher Rana, a military general in the Gorkha Empire and later Governor of Palpa, carried out major excavation work, between 1933 and 1939. He also built a high platform around the Maya Devi Temple and enlarged the Shakya tank with terraces and brick veneer. Some scholars believe that this phase was indeed more of a demolition and reconstruction campaign than one of excavation and conservation. There is no documentation on the activities carried out by Keshar Shamsher Rana, other than a few photographs.
In 1962, a joint project between the ASI and the Government of Nepal’s Department of Archaeology was led by ASI Director-General Debala Mitra. She visited Lumbini and excavated a small trench to the west of the Ashoka Pillar, to determine the nature of its base. She observed that the pillar had a Mauryan polish typical of finished stone from a quarry in Chunar near Varanasi in UP, India (about 400 km from Lumbini).
In the later part of the 20th century, Nepal’s Department of Archaeology also conducted excavations that yielded significant data. Near the Maya Devi Temple, a few monasteries from four different cultural periods were discovered, as well as 10 successive layers of human occupation, with objects and figurines dating to the Kushan and Gupta periods (2nd to 3rd century CE and 4th to 6th century CE, respectively). These include a terracotta plaque mould of the Buddha in the earth-touching posture typical of the Gupta period.
A recent and rather fascinating discovery, in 2013, put Lumbini in the spotlight once again. A timber structure discovered at the site of the ancient Maya Devi Temple is now said to be the oldest Buddhist shrine in the world. British archaeologist Robin Coningham and his team conducted the excavation that unearthed the structure, buried within the temple; it was found to date to the 6th century BCE. The shrine appears to have once housed a tree, linking it to the Buddha’s nativity story.
Lumbini was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. With its rich archaeological treasure of temples, stupas, viharas (monasteries) and tanks, and the many sacred legends linking it with the Buddha, Lumbini continues to be one of the most significant sites of Buddhist pilgrimage in the world.