Lumbini Rediscovered

The Sacred Pond at the Maya Devi Temple.
Picture: Erik Torner

Erected in the 3rd C. BCE by the Mauryan king Ashoka (r. 272-231 BCE), as a way of propagating the dharma, the Lumbini Ashokan pillar was buried from the 15th to the 19th C. CE. This photograph was taken for the Archaeological Survey of India’s collections sometime in 1896. Picture: British Library

Thereafter, for about five hundred years, Lumbini was forgotten. Ancient sites turned into mounds of bushes and trees and faded from Sub-continental memory. The timing coincides with the decline of Buddhism across Asia. It was not until the 19th C. CE that interest in tracing Buddhist sites and monuments was renewed.

In 1896, Dr. Anton Fuhrer of the Archaeological Survey of India and Nepali General Khadga Shamsher Rana visited a mound crowned by a small shrine to a goddess known as Rummuni-dei. Clearing the debris, they uncovered Asoka’s pillar and remnants of an ancient temple. In 1899, P.C. Mukerji of the Archaeological Survey of India was commissioned to make records of the site. The site was then left untouched until the 1930s when a new Maya Devi temple was constructed.

UN Secretary-General U Thant and Nepal's King Mahendra discuss the Lumbini Master Plan that was developed by the UN and Nepal government.

Although the story of Lumbini’s modern development tends to focus on the roles played by UN Secretary-General U Thant and the renowned Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, we also have an Indian Prime Minister, a Nepali king, and two notable Nepali Theravada monks to thank for the Lumbini which we see today.

In 1955, the prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, wrote to Nepal’s King Mahendra, proposing the development of Lumbini as part of the preparations for the 2,500-year celebration of the Buddha’s birth, to be celebrated with several Buddhist coutnries the following year.

By late 1955, King Mahendra devoted a significant sum from his own funds to the construction of a vihara (Buddhist monastery), guesthouse, and a road connecting the sacred site with the nearby towns of India. At a speech given at Lumbini in February 1956, King Mahendra declared Buddha Jayanti a national festival and forbade the killing of any animal in Nepal on that day, emphasising that it was Nepal’s duty to immortalise the Lord Buddha and materialise his ideas.

L to R: Bhikkhu Aniruddha with his assistant Mahānam and father Bhikkhu Dhammāloka c. 1960s. Picture: VJ Srivastava, A Guide to Kapilavastu and Lumbini (1971)
An envelope postmarked 29 July 1970, which contained one of the letters exchanged between U Thant and Bhikkhu Aniruddha on Lumbini’s development, in the wake of U Thant;s pilgrimage.
Picture: UN Archives.

At King Mahendra’s invitation, Bhikkhu Dhammalok Mahasthavir (1891-1977), a Newar Theravadin monk who was one of the last Newar merchants to ply the Lhasa trade route, became the first abbot of the government-sponsored monastery, the first monastery to be built in Lumbini in modern times. Bhikkhu Dhammalok devoted himself to improving Lumbini and Kapilavastu, and transmitted this deep devotion to his son, Bhikkhu Anirudda Mahathera (1915-2003).

Fluent in multiple languages, it was Bhikkhu Aniruddha (1915-2003) who received U Thant during his pilgrimage to Lumbini in 1967. He could speak with him directly in Burmese about the need to develop the still much-neglected sacred birth place. Their conversation contributed to the eventual drawing up of the Lumbini Development Master Plan and the establishment of the Lumbini Development Trust.

U Thant was so deeply moved that he wrote in his diary, “The visit to Lumbini was one of the most important days of my life.” With the help of the Government of Nepal, U Thant set up an 15-nation International Committee for the Development of Lumbini, that would go on to appoint Kenzo Tange as its chief planner.

In accordance with Tange’s plan, many different countries and international Buddhist organisations have since built monasteries and meditation centres at Lumbini honoring the vision of the Buddha. Through their efforts, Lumbini today continues to emanate the same peaceful tranquility which his mother Maya Devi experienced when she paused to take in its gardens.