Astrange cry drew my attention to the sky. “Sarus cranes,” said naturalist Dinesh Giri, “the world’s largest flying birds.” We were sitting outside at Lumbini Buddha Gardens resort a kilometer outside of Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha, when they flew over. With his wide-brimmed safari hat and leathery skin, Dinesh looks like he’d be more at home in Chitwan or one of the other nature reserves than at a place of religious pilgrimage. Actually, he worked in two reserves before coming to the Lumbini resort. It’s the only one here that employs a full-time naturalist and also caters to nature-lovers and birding enthusiasts.
There’s a close connection between Buddha and Sarus cranes, Dinesh said. It was near here while the young prince Siddhartha was growing up that he encountered a wounded crane, injured by a hunter’s arrow. According to legend, he removed the arrow and nursed the bird back to life. It was Siddhartha’s jealous cousin Devadatta who shot and claimed it as his own. The two boys argued, but the merciful Prince Siddharth would not relinquish the bird. Finally, the case was adjudicated by a royal court judge who ruled that custody belongs to the one who saved the bird’s life, not the hunter. It’s a lesson that resonates among animal rights activists to this day.
Environmentally engaged Buddhists will tell you that Buddhism has always been close to nature. The Buddha was born in a garden, attained Enlightenment in and passed away from this world under trees, preached in a deer park, and from then on nearly always taught outdoors, preaching ahimsa (non-violence). So, there is also a strong connection between Buddhism and conservation.
Despite the construction of new monasteries in the Lumbini Development Trust Monastic Zone, Lumbini is still underdeveloped and underpopulated, with large tracts of grasslands, wetlands and farmlands; hence, there is a lot of natural beauty and wildlife. So, aside from visiting the birthsite and various monasteries, there are other activities for visitors such as nature walks and village tourism.
The Lumbini Buddha Gardens camp is bordered by farmlands and the historic Telar River—mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures as being oily (hence its name). In ancient times, bathing in its waters was reputed to have therapeutic properties, helpful in skin diseases. The area is also designated as an IBA (Important Bird Area).
On my first afternoon, Dinesh and I took bicycles to a nearby Tharu village. Bicycles and tractors are still the main means of transportation in this rural area, with very few motorcycles on the road. It was a bandh day, so there were no heavy vehicles either. Dinesh brought binoculars and a telescope, so we could watch a pair of the Sarus cranes wading in a pond. The Sarus are a threatened species, one of the ten globally threatened species out of several hundred found here. We walked around the Tharu village where the houses are made from mud and dung, where the friendly villagers live a simple agrarian lifestyle, probably not much changed since Buddha’s time. There is also a small village museum displaying the traditional implements and lifestyle articles used in the village. The museum is supported by the UN-sponsored Tourism for Rural Poverty Alleviation Program.
That evening we sat beside a campfire roasting potatoes in the coals and listening to the cries of jackals and the hooting of owls off in the darkness. With little prompting the young staff broke into song and dance, while I nursed a hot rum.
The next day, after early morning bird-watching (we saw cranes, egrets, doves, kites, kingfishers, babblers and mynahs), we rode bicycles one kilometer into the Monastic Zone. Turning off at the Lumbini Research Institute, we crossed the Friendship Bridge over wetlands. There is a long canal (about 1.5 km) running from the eternal flame near Buddha’s birthsite to the Japanese Peace Stupa. The zone is divided into Theravada and Mahayana sections. At the Vietnamese monastery we met Dr Lam, who came to Lumbini in 1968 to found its first international monastery. Each monastery from the various Buddhist countries in Asia (and some privately funded) has a distinctive architectural style, including exotic looking Chinese-style dragon-tipped, curled eaves. Despite being the first to be constructed, it is still incomplete and not yet open to the public. Dr Lam has declined to accept government funding (unlike the lavishly funded Chinese and Thai monasteries). We also met Dr Tran, a septaugenarian and disciple of Dr Lam and a retired former UN economics officer.
The Vietnamese monastery has a special connection with Sarus cranes and shelters three on its grounds. The long-legged cranes stand almost six feet tall. Their long, sharp beaks used for spearing fish and frogs can inflict a nasty wound on humans if they feel threatened and attack. “They don’t like me”, Dr Tran said, who carries a bamboo stick to keep them at bay. I also kept a respectful distance. As we toured the grounds, I noticed crane motifs in the architectural details and some concrete cranes in the garden, along with a many species of bamboo from Vietnam.
Inside the monastery over a cup of aromatic Vietnamese jasmine tea, served by an angelic-looking monk named Giac Thanh dressed in flowing brown robes, I learned more about the monastery and cranes. Dr Tran gave me a copy of Dr Lam’s autobiographical book, Nepal–Peace is at Hand. In it, Dr Lam explains how in his second year at Lumbini, while still living in a hut, he was approached by two cranes, which he took as an auspicious sign (cranes are believed bestow prosperity and happiness). He tried to protect them and their eggs but, unfortunately, some of the locals tried to kill the birds and steal the eggs. One of the culprits broke out in a severe rash after eating an egg and later repented and helped to protect the cranes. Dr Lam has been protecting them ever since, though as endangered species they are not to be kept domestically as ‘pets’.
Early the next morning Dinesh and I rode our bicycles as the fog was rising to Buddha’s birthsite, the Mayadevi temple. If Buddhism is supposed to be a religion of respect for the environment, it is not evident here. Just outside the temple, the grounds are littered with garbage and ramshackle stalls, unbecoming of its World Heritage Site status. Inside the compound strung with prayer flags there is a palpable sense of serenity, even as monks of dubious credentials sit under the sacred tree sheltering the Puskarini pond where Mayadevi bathed before giving birth to the Buddha. Like the monks, an albino white rat with red eyes peered out at the passersby, looking for hand-outs. A group of Thai pilgrims were seated in front of the Ashokan pillar devoutly listening to a discourse and offering prayers in Pali. The red-bricked Mayadevi temple that houses the nativity site appears more like a factory or godown than a temple. It is an unattractive buildings, uninspired by any traditional style of architecture. A plaque states that it was inaugurated by King Gyanendra in 2003, in the second year of his reign.
Monasteries such as the German-funded Tara Foundation are much better maintained, and for the epitome of meticulousness, there is the 17-year old Hokke Hotel, which caters to Japanese and other well-heeled Asian pilgrims. I spent a relaxing few hours there having a shiatsu massage (1 hour, 800 rupees) in a room with tatami mats and futons. Unfortunately, the Japanese hot baths are only open when they have ten or more customers (usually Japanese). The Hokke has bicycles for guests, and those interested in conservation can plant a tree in Lumbini.
That afternoon, due to a bandh, I was obliged to take a rickshaw back to the Bhairahawa airport. The ride was very quiet. If I’d had more time, I would have been happy to have taken a bullock cart. As the sun was setting, I enjoyed the
lowing of cattle and bleating of goats, and egrets flying overhead. I imagined that this pastoral scene was little changed since Buddha’s day, except for the
yokels with their warbling mobile phones.
Tip: If you are coming to Lumbini for a weekend visit, best to fly, due to the
uncertain condition of the roads. A bandh could be called at a moment’s notice,
although tourists can generally pass. Thanks to Yeti Airlines, it took us only 30 minutes to fly to Bhairahawa, but much longer to get from the airport to Lumbini.
Yeti Airlines sponsored the author’s airfare to Bhairahawa, the nearest airport. Yeti also contributes a portion of its ticket sales to its Social Initiative Program, assisting four chosen charities.
For information on Lumbini Buddha Garden, log on to www.lumbinibuddhagarden.com, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. A percentage of the hotel’s proceeds go to help the Himalayan Conservation and Research Institute. Students who come for environmental research work are provided accommodation and charged only a nominal fee. The hotel also conducts Conservation Awareness programs for local school students and villagers, including bird-watching and protection of globally threatened species such as Sarus Cranes.
For information on the Lumbini Hokke Hotel, go to www.theroyalresidency.com/np or email Subhokke_btw@wlink.com.np. It is part of a chain of upmarket hotels serving pilgrims on the Buddhist circuit. They were also kind enough to host the writer at the Royal Residency in Kushinagar, some 50 km outside of Gorakhpur.
Daniel B Haber is a freelance travel writer and teacher residing in Kathmandu, with a strong interest in Buddhism. He can be contacted at email@example.com.