Emperor Asoka’s Historic Visit

The first known record or evidence of a high-level visit was that of the Mauryan Emperor Asoka in the 3rd C. BCE. Asoka is a central figure in historical as well as legendary accounts of the early Buddhist community’s transformation into a world religion.

An Indian king who renounced violence after witnessing the devastation caused by his conquests, Asoka subsequently set out on a mission to promote inclusive non-violent rule across South Asia. He played a major role in establishing trans-regional Buddhist networks, and his memory continues to inspire and shape Buddhist practices and politics in modern times.

To commemorate his visit to Lumbini, he erected a sandstone pillar with an inscription in Brahmi and Pali proclaiming that he had come to pay his reverence “since the Buddha Sakyamuni was born here.” This is perhaps the most tangible and invaluable proof of Lumbini as the birthplace of the Buddha. According to historical accounts, the pillar was originally about 12 metres tall and was crowned with a horse sculpture.

Asoka also travelled to nearby towns related to two earlier Buddhas. In Gotihawa and Niglihawa, he erected pillars to mark the birthplace of Krakkuchanda (Kakusandha) Buddha and in commemoration of the nirvana of Kanakmuni (Konagamana) Buddha, respectively. Of the 20 Asokan pillars that still survive, three are in present day Nepal.

Hari Prasad Sharma, Emperor Ashoka’s pilgrimage to Lumbini, Nepal, 2019.
Picture: Hari Prasad Sharma and Bishnu Prasad Sharma

This painting by senior Nepali artist Hari Prasad Sharma depicts emperor Ashoka’s pilgrimage to Lumbini. The emperor is seen observing the installation of the horse capital atop the Ashokan pillar, accompanied by his spiritual advisor Upagupta and Queen Padmawati. A large group of monastics are in attendance, and local Tharu maidens welcome the imperial guests in accordance with their native culture.

In the upper right corner of the painting, two other pillars on buffalo cart await their delivered to Niglihawa (the birthplace of Kanakamuni Buddha) and Gotihawa (the birthplace of Krakuchhanda Buddha). Settlements around Lumbini dot the horizon, beyond the meadows and rice fields, and rural folks from nearby villages have gathered to witness this historic event.

The painting took some 4 years to complete with 11 months of canvas painting alone. Even before Hari Prasad set brush to canvas, he was aided by his son Bishnu Prasad, an university professor, in an intensive research process. The father-son duo studied a wide range of visual and historic documents and followed this up with a visit to Lumbini to survey the location and visualize the setting of the painting. Experts and scholars, including the archaeologist and Buddhist scholar Basanta Bidari were consulted, to corroborate and verify specific details.

Pilgrim-monks from China

A great deal of the historical information about the Buddha’s birthplace (Lumbini), his childhood home (Kapilavastu) and other sacred sites in the area are derived from the records of two prominent Chinese pilgrim monks – Faxian in the 5th century CE and Xuanzang in the 7th century CE – who came to South Asia in search of sutras. Their detailed descriptions of the sites and their journeys were instrumental in locating Lumbini and many other sites of great archaeological and religious importance.

Illustration from the Qing Dynasty imprint of Wu Chengen’s Xiyou Zhenquan, A Complete Narrative of Travels in the West.

“Going eighty or ninety li north-east…one comes to Lumbini. There is a bathing pond of the Sakya clan (whose water is) clear as a mirror, and now whose surface flowers are scattered and drift. Twenty or twenty-five steps to the north (of the pond) there is an Asoka flower tree which has now already withered; this is the place where the sacred birth of the Bodhisattva took place.”

Xuanzang, Great Tang Records on the Western Regions

The Chinese pilgrim Faxian also noted that after Sakyamuni Buddha’s ‘Great Passing Away’, his corporal relics were distributed amongst eight local kingdoms and placed into eight stupas.

In the 3rd century BCE, Emperor Asoka ordered the opening of all eight stupas and had their contents dispersed into 84,000 new stupas. When they tried to open the stupa at Ramagrama however, legend has it that they were prevented from doing so by guardian snakes or nagas.

Ramagrama Stupa

Today Ramagrama, some 70 kilometres from Lumbini, is revered by Buddhists as the only original intact relic stupa. It was placed on Nepal’s UNESCO Tentative List of World Heritage Property in 1996.