by Kalinga Seneviratne
Tens of thousands of Buddhist pilgrims from Asian countries, especially Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar, visit the Buddha’s birthplace Lumbini each to pay homage to its teacher who preached a philosophy of eradicating greed and being contented with what you have..
Around 2011 there was much hype in the international media, where even Al Jazeera did a special report, about a Chinese company based in Hong Kong investing some USD 3 billion to develop Lumbini as a major Buddhist pilgrim centre. At the 2nd Belt and Road initiative Forum in Beijing last April, building a multi-billion dollar railway across the Himalayan mountain ranges to ultimately link Lhasa in Tibet to Lumbini was adopted as one of the 64 initiatives of BRI.
In 2016, according to the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT), Lumbini attracted 270,522 tourists, which is miniscule compared to Vatican’s 3.95 million in the same period. One of the problems Lumbini face is its remoteness. It is about 10 hours treacherous road trip from Kathmandu or about a one hour journey from Gorakhpur rail station in India, with at least 1-2 hours to cross the border into Nepal. A new international airport called ‘Gautama Buddha International Airport” has just been opened near Lumbini with a local airline “Buddha Air’ offering budget fares.
When asked what happened to the grand Chinese plan announced almost a decade ago, Hari D Rai, Information and PR Chief of LDT said, after some initial hesitation, that the investors were Chinese MNC’s many from US, Indonesia and China. “The idea was to develop Lumbini as an international tourist centre with monorail etc – a Buddhist Disneyland. They would develop it over 5 to 6 years then get returns over 20 years (before handing the project to Nepal)”. The plan included “world class experts” to come here to conduct training programs in conflict resolution. “When the Nepali government understood and found that they would not gain much, they did not accept it,” he added.
The plan to develop Lumbini as a Buddhist pilgrim centre was first proposed by a Japanese professor Kezo Tange in 1972. Today, 3 square km area around the Mahadevi temple – that marks the spot of Prince Siddartha’s birth under a sal tree – has been cleared up of local residents. A Japanese style Canal has been built leading to the site and acres of land on either side have been reserved for Buddhist monasteries from both Theravada and Mahayana traditions. Already 30 monasteries have been built out of a planned 46, almost all funded by foreign governments that have been given land under a 99-year lease. An international Buddhist university has also been established.
The problem Lumbini has is that there are hardly any Buddhists living in the area. About 60 percent of the population here are Muslims and the rest are mainly Hindu.
Ven Metteyya Sakyaputta, Vice Chairman of LDT admits that developing Lumbini as a Buddhist pilgrim centre where the majority local community is Muslim, creates a complex problem. “(LDT) believes that Lumbini belongs to all Buddhists from across the world,” he said in an interview with me and argues that Lumbini could also become a symbol of a compassionate cultural awakening that could encompass all religions. He added that the local Hindu and Muslim community are ready to showcase their rich traditions of costumes, cuisine, street dance and drumming to interpret religion “in a peaceful theme showing compassion to others”.
“We have removed 7 villages, 6 Hindu temples and 4 mosques to establish the Lumbini development area. It’s a large project and people did not protest when it was said that for Buddhists we should do this,” pointed out Ven Sakyaputtra.
But, to keep the local community happy they need to see tangible economic benefits coming out of this project. LDT and the newly set up Lumbini International Buddhist University are now discussing with the Chinese, Tibetan, Thai, Japanese, and Koreans who have built grand monasteries here to design programs collaboratively, such as workshops and retreats, so that pilgrims and tourists visiting here could stay on for a few days.
Until a few years ago, Nepal was the world’s only Hindu kingdom. But, Venerable Sakyaputta argues that the history of this area is immersed with Buddhism. Recently, archeologists have identified the ancient city of Kapilavastu and the palace where Prince Sidharta grew up just 30 km from Lumbini. There are plans to build an international nunnery at this site – that will go well with the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In 2013, an international team of archeologists discovered a wooden structure beneath the Mahadevi temple here, which they claim is the earliest example of a Buddhist monastery.
Kathmandu based Bodhi TV – a Buddhist TV channel – is planning to move its operations here to develop an international Buddhist Media Centre.
Buddhists, with assistance from Thailand, has set up a school near Lumbini, which has attracted over 1600 students from the impoverished Muslim and Hindu communities here. “We built the school in terms of giving not for spreading Buddhism”, Phra Sittichai, a senior monk at the local Thai monastery told Lotus News. He also added that the temple runs eye clinics and gives blankets to the local community during the winter.
Ven Sakyaputta explains that their Buddha Metta(compassion) School aims to spread the idea within the community here that their ancestry belong to a great Buddhist history. While they teach secular subject, there is one subject where the students learn about the history of Lumbini Kapilavastu and adjoining Ramadeva; about Prince Siddartha , his father, mother, kingdom and basic teachings of the Buddha. “This way we connect them with their history. Buddha is part of our own history, our heritage,” he says. “(It is) a great challenge to connect these people to their great great grand parents, who would have been part of the story of Buddhism.”
With the economic benefits flowing to the local Hindu and Muslim communities, Lumbini could well reflect a ‘compassionate harmonious society’, which the Buddha wanted to establish during his lifetime.