Lumbini (in Nepal) is the birthplace of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, who was born in the 7th or 6th century BC. According to Buddhist tradition, Maya Devi (or Mayadevi) gave birth to the Buddha on her way to her parent’s home in Devadaha in the month of May in the year 642 BC. Feeling the onset of labor pains, she grabbed hold of the branches of a shade tree and gave birth to Siddharta Gautama, the future Buddha. The Buddha is said to have announced, “This is my final rebirth” as he entered the world. Buddhist tradition also has it that he walked immediately after his birth and took seven steps, under each of which a lotus flower bloomed.
In 249 BC, the Buddhist convert Emperor Ashoka visited Lumbini and constructed four stupas and a stone pillar. Ashoka’s Pillar bears an inscription that translates as: “King Piyadasi (Ashoka), beloved of devas, in the 20 year of the coronation, himself made a royal visit, Buddha Sakyamuni having been born here, a stone railing was built and a stone pillar erected to the Bhagavan [“blessed one”] having been born here. Lumbini village was taxed reduced and entitled to the eight part (only)”.
Monasteries and temples were built at Lumbini until the 9th century, but Buddhism declined in the area after the arrival of Islam and later Hinduism. All that remained was a sculpture, revered by local women as a fertility symbol. The garden of the Buddha’s birth was lost for a thousand years.
The site was rediscovered in 1895, when a German archaeologist came upon Ashoka’s Pillar, identified by its inscription. Records made by the Chinese pilgrim Fa Xian were also used in the process of identifying this religiously acclaimed site. Lumbini was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
Lumbini lies in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal. The site is a large garden with a grove of pipal trees. The area around Lumbini is entirely Hindu, but many Buddhist temples and shrines from various nations are scattered around the holy site itself.
The most important temple at Lumbini is the Maya Devi Temple, which enshrines the traditional site of the Buddha’s birth. The current temple stands on the site of earlier temples and stupas, including the stupa built by Ashoka.
The modern temple consists mainly of simple white building that protects ancient ruins, with the exact spot of the Buddha’s birth identified. The delicate sandstone sculptures discovered here are now in the National Musuem in Kathmandu. Atop the temple is a small square tower of the type seen in Kathmandu, with Buddha eyes on each side and a golden pinnacle on top.
On the south side of the temple is a sacred pool (see top photo), where it is said Maya Devi bathed before giving birth, and where the newborn Buddha was washed by two dragons.
The Maha Devi temple is surrounded by the brick foundations of ancient temples and monasteries. All around Lumbini, long lines of colorful prayer flags are strung between trees. They carry prayers and mantras heavenward as they flap on the breeze.
The other main sight of interest at Lumbini is Ashoka’s Pillar, near the temple. It is protected by a small fence, which is decorated with prayer flags and banners from the faithful. Around the courtyard containing the pillar are bowls for incense sticks, and there is room to sit in front of the pillar for contemplation.