It’s a pilgrimage site, a UNESCO World Heritage site — and a building site. Lumbini in southern Nepal, less than 10 km from the Indian border, should be a name as familiar as Jerusalem, Bethlehem or Mecca, the holy places of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It’s where, in 563 B.C., the Buddha-to-be, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, was born.

And yet Lumbini feels like a well-kept secret among all but Nepal’s nearest neighbors: India, Sri Lanka and China.

In 2010, for instance, there were just 2,151 visitors from Japan, 1,691 from Britain and 1,171 from the United States. Then last year, foreign visitors numbered 129,000 among a total of 600,000 — a figure the Nepalese government’s Vision 2020 plan aims to boost to 2 million.

Part of the reason for this paucity of visitors is that many tourists merely pass through, stopping off for just a couple of hours — and Lumbini does not shine on brief acquaintance.

My first impression had been of a dusty, almost listless place. But over a four-day visit, the gentle atmosphere of Lumbini works on me, and when I climb into my car for the eight-hour drive back to Katmandu, I certainly feel I could have stayed longer.

Two decades before my sojourn in Lumbini, a Japanese businessman named Tokushin Kasai had a similar but rather more profound experience there. A devout Buddhist, Kasai made a pilgrimage to Lumbini during a period of illness. He’s been returning ever since, and is deeply involved in supporting and developing the town and its locality.

In fact, Kasai has built the eponymous Hotel Kasai — a slice of Japanese-style comfort in Lumbini’s parched surroundings — and he has been honored by the governments of Nepal and Sri Lanka for his work here.

“The important thing is to visit Lumbini,” he tells me. “First you visit, then you understand. Even after 21 years, I still feel a very strong energy here.”

That energy isn’t immediately apparent. People here move slowly, on foot or by bicycle and rickshaw. But Lumbini has been designed that way, because it’s not only a 2,500-year-old World Heritage Site, it’s also a bold experiment in modern planning.

UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) — the cultural arm of the United Nations — only listed the site in 1997, but U.N. involvement with Lumbini began in 1967 when the then-Secretary General, Burmese-born U Thant, visited and was shocked by the state of what he found.

As a result, a U.N.-sponsored international development committee was founded in 1970, and this body commissioned Japanese architect Kenzo Tange to come up with a vision for the site. Tange labored on his design for six years before his Master Plan was formally adopted in 1978.

“The Master Plan is a very emotional design, a work of philosophy,” explains Basanta Bidari, the genial and knowledgeable chief archaeologist of Lumbini, whom I meet several times during my stay. Tange’s plan divides Lumbini’s 4-km-by-2.5-km site into successive zones: the New Lumbini Village Zone, where the Hotel Kasai and other lodgings are situated, as well as the Lumbini Museum and a planned archive; then there’s the Monastic Zone, where Buddhist sects from around the world can construct temples and monasteries; and finally comes the Sacred Garden Zone, the culmination of a pilgrim’s visit, which includes the Maya Devi Temple, where the Buddha’s mother gave birth, and the pool in which she bathed.

“Tange’s concept,” says Bidari, “is that the lodgings should be away from the monastic area. Your home, your family, your chickens — this daily life and the enlightened life are different. His aim was to make it as simple as possible.”

Arguably the only flaw in the Master Plan is that there was no money to deliver it, so what Lumbini visitors see today is a partial realization of Tange’s design. The water features he placed at the heart of his plan — including a long central canal — are there, but not the boats that he envisaged carrying pilgrims slowly through the zones to the lake surrounding the Sacred Garden Zone. The Monastic Zone is taking shape in fits and starts, though of its 42 lots available for countries to build on, only around half are occupied.

The Monastic Zone is like a religious version of Disney’s Epcot center, with its countries in miniature — but here the identification game isn’t quite as easy. An elegant pink building that’s still under construction, Japanese in style, turns out to be the French temple. There’s what looks like a perfect Roman villa straight from the pages of a history book, which — mystifyingly — is the Austrian monastery. And then there’s one that defies description.

I’d just visited it and was on my bicycle, pedaling away, when a tiny Suzuki car pulled up next to me, crammed with what looked like nine members of a Nepali family. Their appointed spokesperson, a small girl age about 10, enunciated loudly and very fast: “Excuse me, where is German temple?”

A couple of hours earlier I would have wondered why on earth, in this sacred place steeped in ancient history and littered all over with ruins two millennia old, local tourists would want to visit the German complex. But now I know. I point away up the road to where I’ve just come from. As the car pulls away, puffing dust all over me, the girl shrieks a “thank you” out of the open window.

The German temple is a vision — of sorts: a technicolor Buddhist mashup that could have sprung from a collaboration between Superflat artist Takashi Murakami and the Dalai Lama. Huge exterior wall paintings range from the sublime (bodhisattvas pouring down blessings from the Himalayas) to the creepy (an ascetic carving flesh from his thigh to feed to a starving lioness and her skinny cubs). The lushly-planted grounds host numerous nearly life-size statues of scenes from the life of the Buddha; the gaudy cartoonish figurines lurk in the foliage and surprise you, like saintly Smurfs.

The visitors can’t get enough of it all. Three teenage boys, their jeans and gelled hair the acme of boy-band cool, take photos every few meters. Small children run around screaming with delight as they discover more holy goings-on in the bushes. Two Nepalese schoolgirls shyly ask me to pose for a photo with them by the temple sign; I’m not German, I tell them, but English. They don’t mind; it’s close enough, and I am blonde and sensibly dressed so probably look the part.

There are other wonders in the Monastic Zone. The Chinese temple is every bit as impressive as you’d imagine: a miniature Forbidden City flanked with souvenir sellers, it is the only monastery that attracts beggars, a sure sign of its popularity. There is a gorgeous golden stupa in the characteristic Burmese style — so saving you a visit to that newly reopened country. The Thai temple flaunts its nation’s characteristically graceful and exuberant architecture. It is peopled with plump, beaming monks and a friendly stall-keeper selling popcorn. Even the builders, hard at work adding another wing to the structure, smile and wave.

But other sites strike a different note. My guidebook, only a few years old, advises a visit to the Vietnamese monastery to see its resident Saurus cranes. But the Vietnamese monastery is a disconcerting sight — tall and elegant, with a bridge arching over a lily pond, it appears derelict. Closer inspection reveals that the bridge is cracked and falls about a meter short of making contact with the pathway. The high, elaborately wrought gates are chained shut. A notice affixed to them advises that the monastery is closed until further notice. I wonder what happened — did the money run out?

There are hints elsewhere of the challenges faced by some nations in sustaining a presence here in this holy place. The Indian monastery, an unassuming pastel-colored hexagon, was funded by a Japanese benefactor. The Sri Lankan monastery, which I visit with Kasai to pay reverence to a sacred tree growing in its courtyard, bears a small plaque stating that its construction was halted in 1992, before it opened in 2009.

I ask Bidari about this stop-start progress, and he is sanguine. “Why should it be finished in 30 years?” he says. “When I visited the Vatican, I asked, ‘How long did it take, to build all this?’ and they told me, ‘A thousand years.’ ”

Being an archaeologist, it’s perhaps not surprising that he takes the long view. And it is Bidari’s excavations here in the past decade that have unquestionably secured Lumbini’s status as the birthplace of the Buddha. The Sacred Garden is the highlight of any trip to Lumbini — I visit it twice, to soak up its atmosphere and history.

That history is still being pieced together. What’s certain is that Lumbini became a pilgrimage site soon after the Buddha’s death (which Buddhists call his Mahaparinirvana, a cessation of consciousness and feeling) in 483 B.C.

In the third century B.C., Emperor Asoka (304-232 B.C.), who had triumphed in a period of brutal regional conflict, converted to Buddhism, and — to mark his newfound faith — made a pilgrimage to Lumbini. To commemorate the visit, he erected a pillar of sandstone with an inscription noting that he accorded the village that ultimate mark of a ruler’s respect — tax relief.

“The Lord having been born here, the tax imposed on Lumbini village was reduced to an eighth,” read the letters, carved in the squiggly Brahmi script, still visible today.

The inscription also indicates that Asoka paid his respects at a “marker stone” placed on the exact birth spot. Thereafter, details grow hazier. A temple complex went up around the time of the emperor’s visit. Six hundred years later we have a record of a visit by a Chinese monk, Seng-Tsai. A millennium then passed. In the early 14th century A.D., a Nepalese prince made a pilgrimage. Then Lumbini slowly fades from record, the birth site reverts to scrubland. Some scholars attribute this to Islamic antagonism (even today, the local population is 85 percent Muslim) and the Hindu revival; others speculate about the role of climate, or natural disaster.

Then one day, at the close of the 19th century, two men claimed to have (re)discovered the Buddha’s birthplace. They were a controversial pair: a German-born, British-employed linguist and archaeologist, one Rev. Dr. A.A. Fuhrer, who was later revealed as a forger and plagiarist; and Gen. Khagda Shumser, an ambitious politician exiled from Katmandu, who was brother to no fewer than three prime ministers of Nepal (and the would-be assassin of at least one of them).

As unlikely a pairing as Fuhrer and Shumser were, though, they were proved right, as subsequent excavations uncovered the remains of temple structures and a fabled fourth-century A.D. nativity sculpture depicting an impossibly slim-waisted Princess Maya Devi gripping a tree for support as she delivers her child.

Then, in 1996, Bidari made the most significant find since the rediscovery itself — the Marker Stone, sited on the spot of the Buddha’s birth at the heart of the Maya Devi temple.

Lumbini can be dusty, can be gaudy; the police who patrol it are brusque, though the many children are generous with their gap-toothed smiles. But here, at the Marker Stone, is Lumbini’s tranquil heart.

I stand in the shady interior of the Maya Devi temple — really just a walled canopy erected over over the exposed archaeological excavations — and watch the visitors.

A fashionable young Chinese couple linger by the stone — she leaves an offering of money, he removes his baseball cap. A noisy Nepalese family falls quiet. Tourists become pilgrims before my very eyes.

Then a young monk enters. His simple trousers and tunic are the same blue-white as the walls, and knotted over one shoulder is a sash the rich, deep color of the worn floorboards. He pauses in the doorway and bows, silhouetted by sunlight. Then he lights a bundle of incense sticks and begins to walk around the Marker Stone, prayers and fragrant smoke trailing after him.

I watch for what feels like a long time, before stepping out into the bright garden where tourists chatter and snap away with cameras.

A large group of white-robed pilgrims sit under a tree as their leader prays noisily into a microphone. On the grass, a cross-legged monk and a soldier in full combat fatigues read the newspaper together. A young acolyte in saffron robes is photographing the sacred pool where Maya Devi bathed.

I stand in the shade cast by Emperor Asoka’s pillar and wonder at how peaceful it feels, despite the bustle and din. I remember Tokushin Kasai’s words — that “the important thing is to visit Lumbini. First you visit, then you understand.”

I’ve visited Lumbini, and now I understand.

Victoria James is a London-based writer and television journalist. Contact her at www.bettertotravel.com and victoria@bettertotravel.com or tweet @TrailMinx.

Ramagrama: Buddha’s last original resting place

About a 30-minute drive from Lumbini, down a right-turn from the Katmandu highway that soon peters out into unpaved track, is a grassy hillock topped by a spreading tree. The tree is strung with prayer flags, perhaps the only clue that there is anything special about this quiet corner of rural Terai, Nepal’s flat, agricultural south.

This is Ramagrama, the only surviving burial place of the cremated remains of Siddhartha Gautama, the princeling who grew up to become the Buddha.

Upon his death, the Buddha’s body was burned and his ashes were divided between eight rival clans. Each erected a stupa over the relics entrusted to them.

There they lay until the time of Emperor Asoka in the third century BCE (see main story), who in the zeal of his newfound faith declared that the ashes should be more widely distributed. They were duly divided into no fewer than 84,000 portions after the emperor had seven of the original stupas opened. The kingdom of Ramagrama, however, would not let him open the eighth, which survived intact.

Like Lumbini, the Ramagrama site was for a time a pilgrimage destination, but it then fell into obscurity and was not located again until 1974 — though the site was not confirmed until the 1990s.

Today, Basanta Bidari, Lumbini’s chief archaeologist, and colleagues conduct excavations here. But even more than the Sacred Garden of Lumbini, the Ramagrama stupa retains an air of restfulness — even mystery. It resembles the tumuli of ancient British kings, or the burial mounds of Japan’s Kofun Jidai (C.E. 250-552) in Nara Prefecture. Children play along the pathway and nearby bushes are thick with butterflies.

Ramagrama is not signposted, but if you’re visiting Lumbini, it is well worth seeking out.

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