A non-Buddhistâ€™s trip to Lumbini, Nepal, raises the question: what compels travelers to visit centers of faiths that are not their own?
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 theÂ 488 million BuddhistsÂ worldwide, this region marks the birthplace of Buddha, who was born Prince Siddhartha Guatama in 623BC to King Suddhodhana and Queen Maya Devi.
AÂ world heritage siteÂ since 1997, Lumbini has attracted travelers 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 lionÂ on top. After a period of neglect, the site was rediscovered in 1896 by German archaeologist Alois Anton FÃ¼hrer and later recognized as Buddhaâ€™s birthplace based on the analysis of archaeological remains. Today, more than 400,000 travelers 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 theÂ Maya Devi Temple, where itâ€™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-dayÂ Buddha JayantiÂ festival brings thousands to the region to commemorate Buddhaâ€™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 BasilicaÂ in Vatican City, Angkor WatÂ in Cambodia, and theÂ Sultan Ahmed MosqueÂ in Turkey. But what drives travelers 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 Buddhaâ€™s birthplace.
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.
Previous research published in the August 2009 issue of the JournalÂ agreed, concluding that travelers 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 Familia); or they are associated with famous people or events (like St Paul’s CathedralÂ and the royal wedding). Thereâ€™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 itâ€™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 Buddhaâ€™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 Buddhaâ€™s honour. I was left in awe, marveling at Myanmarâ€™s eye-catchingÂ Golden Temple, Thailandâ€™s ornate white marbleÂ Rotal Thai Buddhist Monastery, Vietnamâ€™s pagoda-styleÂ Phat QuocÂ Tu TempleÂ with dragons on the roof, and Germanyâ€™s LotusÂ with its colorful fresco of Buddhaâ€™s teachings.
By the time I reached the museum, which is filled with Buddhist artifacts and photographs, Iâ€™d felt as though Iâ€™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.