Scattered across Asia, from India to South Korea, thousands of Buddhist temples, monasteries, stupas and pagodas serve as places of worship and reminders of the principles of Buddhism.
But none of these architectural gems hold the symbolic and historical value of Lumbini, a province at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains in the Terai plains of southern Nepal. One of four holy pilgrimage sites for the 488 million Buddhists worldwide, this region marks the birthplace of Buddha, who was born Prince Siddhartha Guatama in 623BC to King Suddhodhana and Queen Maya Devi.
A World Heritage Site since 1997, Lumbini has attracted travellers and worshippers for centuries. In 249BC, Indian Emperor Ashoka visited and left his tribute to Buddha: four stupas and a stone pillar with a figure of a horse on top. After a period of neglect, the site was rediscovered in 1896 by German archaeologist Alois Anton Führer and later recognised as Buddha’s birthplace based on the analysis of archaeological remains.
Today, more than 400,000 travellers visit the sacred site each year, wandering among the ruins of ancient monasteries and stupas. They walk clockwise around Ashoka's stupas and stone pillar to pay homage, and they explore the Maya Devi Temple, where it’s believed that the queen gave birth, bathing in a nearby pond beforehand. And every April or May, during the first full month of Vaisakh, the one-day Buddha Jayanti festival brings thousands to the region to commemorate Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death through prayer and meditation.
In addition to being such an important pilgrimage site, Lumbini also attracts thousands of people of various backgrounds and denominations, much like St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Turkey. But what drives travellers to visit religious hubs from faiths that are not their own? To find out, researchers from Arizona State University (ASU) used Lumbini as a case study in 2013, surveying visitors throughout the year on their inspiration for visiting Buddha’s birthplace.
“I was interested in understanding the motivation and experience of people of different faiths visiting the same sites,” said lead researcher Dr Gyan P Nyaupane, associate professor at ASU’s School of Community Resources and Development.
According to the report, many of the Hindus and Christians that were surveyed said they visited Lumbini because they found Buddhism to be similar to their own respective faith. Many Hindus, for example, believe that Buddha is a reincarnation of Vishnu, and ergo accept Lumbini to be holy. A lot of Christians, on the other hand, see Buddhism to be non-conflicting with their faith.
“While Buddhists have higher religious motivations – such as, to feel close to Buddha and to pray – non-Buddhists have higher recreational, learning and social motivations,” Nyaupane explained.
Previous research published in the August 2009 issue of the Journal of Heritage Tourism agreed, concluding that travellers are drawn to sacred sites for four main reasons: they are world-renowned and globally branded (like World Heritage Sites); they feature exemplary architecture (such as the Sagrada Família); or they are associated with famous people or events (like St Paul’s Cathedral and the royal wedding). There’s also the spirituality component: many people find inner peace visiting cultural and religious destinations.
In my case, my visit was primarily driven by an innate love for Buddhist temples. No cocktail of words can exactly encompass the serenity and inexplicable feeling of harmony that I experience when entering one; perhaps it’s a product of the incense, the mild chanting or my fascination with the eclectic styles of Buddhist architecture. But after visiting countless Buddhist temples in India, Thailand and other parts of the world, I imagined a trip to Buddha’s birthplace would be even more comforting.
As I explored the main Lumbini compound and walked the 2.1km route from the Maya Devi Temple to the Lumbini Museum, I passed the numerous temples and stupas that have been erected by nations around the world in Buddha’s honour. I was left in awe, marvelling at Myanmar’s eye-catching Golden Temple, Thailand’s ornate white marble Royal Thai Buddhist Monastery, Vietnam’s pagoda-style Phat Quoc Tu Temple with dragons on the roof, and Germany’s Lotus Stupa with its colourful frescos of Buddha’s teachings.
By the time I reached the museum, which is filled with Buddhist artefacts and photographs, I’d felt as though I’d taken a walk around the world, experiencing the immense impact Buddhism has had on the planet and its people. Much like visits to other sacred sites around the world, the day had expanded my knowledge, broadened my awareness and allowed me to cultivate greater tolerance.
After all, there is just something different about removing your shoes before entering a temple, putting on a headscarf before entering a mosque, or sitting silently in a church that brings forth a feeling of solidarity with others around you.