Pilgrim's Tale Part III

This is a continuation of my account of my pilgrimage. For Part II please click here.

I took an early morning government bus back to Gorakhpur. It was a long ride across a rainy Indian highway that seemed half under construction. At one point the driver honked the horn and the noise didn't stop. No matter how much he struck the wheel and cursed the noise continued. He pulled over to the side of the road, opened up the hood and stood there clueless as to what to do with his cell phone to his ear asking what he should do. He actually didn't fix it and just got back in and continued driving. The sound of the horn slowly subsided after ten minutes. I imagine all the pedestrians were wondering why the bus was rolling down the highway with a constant horn blaring.

Upon arriving in Gorakhpur I was approached by a number of men looking to hire their cars to take me to the Nepalese border. In India this kind of thing is common – you'll suddenly find yourself with half a dozen cab drivers shouting at you and arguing amongst themselves in Hindi. One driver, who was young and quite clean looking, offered me a fair price equivalent to US$14 for a two hour drive to the Nepalese border. I was originally planning to take a government bus, but suddenly the idea of a private car ride sounded quite appealing. It was a nice drive up to the border. As one goes out towards the frontier of India towards Nepal the highways become cleaner.

Arriving at the border one is surprised to see there really is no official looking border crossing. The street just stretches into Nepal. The Indian customs office on your right is literally just a few old men sitting behind aged wooden desks stamping passports. Not even a single computer in the office. It seems quite optional whether or not you go inside to get your passport stamped. Likewise the Nepalese customs office seems like an optional visit. The border guards seem more like traffic police directing the chaotic congestion of people, automobiles and oxcarts through the narrow corridor.

To get a Nepalese tourist visa is quite straightforward, but the odd thing is that you need to pay in American dollars. Cash. There is no credit card option. They don't take Indian or Nepalese rupees either. The cash changers at the border are all too ready to provide American dollars for a price.

It took a half hour to get the visa as a whole busload of Burmese monks and pilgrims were having their visas processed ahead of me. While waiting I was approached by a young Nepalese man who offered a hired car to Lumbini for only US$10. Again, it seemed like a comfortable option and I did not even bother haggling.

Crossing into Nepal I was surprised by the relative cleanliness of the countryside and towns compared to India. I didn't see heaps of rubbish piled into ditches like in much of India.

In about an hour I arrived at my destination and spied a massive Tibetan monastery on the side of the road.

After a day of travelling I was finally in Lumbini. This is the place where Buddha was born. Today it is a protected ancient ruin surrounded by pristine parkland that also serves as fields for grazing animals. There is a fence surrounding the site and it is patrolled by the military.

After checking into a local guest house without any prior reservation I dropped off my backpack and entered the site. I will say that Lumbini is perhaps one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited in my life. The key location of the site is Maya Devi Temple which is nestled in the center of Lumbini Garden. Outside the garden is a man-made lake which encircles the garden like a moat. It is quiet, serene, clean and beautiful.

Maya Devi Temple marks the spot where the Buddha is said to have been born. Ancient ruins surround the site and countless prayer flags above provide shade to the many devotees who come to pay their respects.

I had the good fortune here to run into a monk of some great renown. As I was walking towards Maya Devi Temple I was greeted by a barefoot monk clad in a yellow robe. He asked me where I was from and invited me to join him and his group to pray for world peace. I was honoured by such an invitation and without hesitation folded my hands and agreed.

His name was Bhikku Buddha Dhatu. He has been called the beggar of the century. He travels around the world with nothing more than his robe, a begging bowl and meditation cushion. When I met him he was leading a group of pilgrims from Laos along with a few other monks. I was humbled in his presence and found him quite sociable yet modest in his temperament. The prayers were done in English, Laotian and Vietnamese. There happened to be a group of pilgrims from Vietnam at the temple who were delighted to hear his prayers in Vietnamese. Their humility and reverence in his presence was remarkable. It is also worth mentioning here that one of his devotees told me that whenever Bhikku spots a dead animal on the roadside he insists on stopping to provide a proper burial and prayers for it. It does not matter the schedule or location either.

Beside Maya Devi Temple is an original Ashoka pillar erected sometime in the 3rd century BCE. It is in good condition and the original Brāhmī engravings are still visible.

As Bhikku Buddha Dhatu's party went onward I stayed around the garden and had a private moment recollecting the significance of the site. This indeed was where the Sage of the Shakya clan was born. As the sun descended towards the horizon and the brilliance of the candle offerings grew with every moment I felt a deep sense of gratitude and reverence for the Buddha and his beautiful mother Māyādevī who brought him into the world. He was born a prince and died a homeless sage that changed the course of history in ways unimaginable.

Returning to the guest house for the night I had to stop several times to take in the scenery.

Outside the main gate I was greeted by a young man in a wheelchair. I said hello and he invited me to join him. His name was Rahul and he explained to me that he was suffering from polio. The same age as me, but looking much older. He really had no need to ask for money as most people freely offered because of his clearly visible condition. He had a travel guide for Nepal and explained to me some places worth visiting.

Beyond the ancient ruins and Maya Devi Temple there are a number of recently built temples and monasteries. Just like in Bodhgaya one finds Buddhist temples from a myriad of nations. The west side is for Mahāyāna temples and the east side for Theravāda. There is a lot of vast empty land and forested area dividing the ruins from the recently built monasteries. I found a cosy spot and sat down to meditate in the afternoon amongst grazing goats.

I first walked through the Mahāyāna quarter and found a Korean temple next door to a Tibetan temple which is across the street from a Chinese monastery.

Down the way a bit is Great Lotus Temple which is a newly built Tibetan stūpa and monastery. It seems to have been built for world peace.

The stūpa contains a number of tantric statues and countless texts. The colourful wall and ceiling murals demand a good amount of time to adequately appreciate.

The east side of the park is where the Royal Thai Monastery is to be found. Incidentally, at all major Buddhist sites one will find a monastery built by and maintained by the Thai royal family.

A few minutes walk away one finds a Burmese stūpa.

One of the locals cooked me lunch and sat down with me to tell me how Lumbini is undergoing a lot of rapid development. There is significant investment being poured into the area to build good facilities for pilgrims and tourists alike. From the sounds of things ten years ago much of what I saw there did not exist. There are a number of hotels on the outskirts being built and cobblestone roads within the park are being laid down. Lumbini is destined to become a major destination for pilgrims and general sightseers. I think this will add to the atmosphere rather than take away from it.


Alex Turner said...

Wow, I hope some day, I will be able to take a trip like this! This is truly amazing. I suppose for many of us, the only thing stopping us is ourselves. I am always at how Pema Chodron managed to become a nun whilst also being a mother.

Anonymous said...

thank you for such an insightful inspired travelogue. this is the exact trip i've dreamed of all my adult life and feel like i've experienced it vicariously through your beautiful words and photos.