Lumbini – first impressions and second thoughts

The second installment of my writing on Nepal is in The Japan Times today – this time it focuses on Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha that I blogged about back in April.

In the article, I describe how I was underwhelmed with Lumbini on first acquaintance. That’s putting it kindly – I spent the first 24-hours wondering why I’d come to this godawful, dusty place that felt woefully inadequate to its status as the birthplace of one of history’s most revered religious figures. I wondered if it had been a mistake to leave lively Kathmandu and all its sights (though I eventually made it to those, too…)

The village of Lumbini Bazaar (as distinct from the ‘Village Zone’ of the birthplace site Master Plan – see the main article for more details) is a dispiriting, impoverished settlement. The Lonely Planet ‘top pick’ restaurant featured a toilet unspeakable even by the standards of the many, many shitholes (literally) that I’ve hovered over, trembling, during my years globe trotting.

Yet at some point, all that changed – and I can pinpoint exactly when. The afternoon of my second day, I made my first visit to the Sacred Garden, which contains the birth spot of the Buddha, a pool where his mother bathed before giving birth, plenty of ruins and a colourful blizzard of prayer flags strung from every tree.

Getting in had been a hassle – a soldier on the gate hadn’t believe that I was a journalist with permission to visit, and tried to send me away to the ticket office at the far end of the complex. Officiousness I can cope with, but it was his smirk and laugh as he told me to go ‘3 kilometres that way’ that grated. I stood my ground and eventually got in – my frame of mind, by that point, far from peaceable enlightenment.

But then a series of encounters transformed my mood: the devout monk I describe in the article, the way tourists fell silent – and finally the two gentlemen shown in the photo here: a monk and a soldier sharing a few minutes on a lazy afternoon reading the papers. The soldier spotted me watching them, and gave me a lovely smile; the monk was engrossed in the news in a way that suggested he was far from achieving Buddhist detachment.

It was a pivotal moment, and from then on I made my peace with Lumbini, put aside my expectations and took it as it was. People often talk of being disappointed when traveling – a place that was not as impressive, as otherworldly, as imagined. Sometimes, I love having my expectations confounded – such as when I visited Botany Bay in Australia, legendary site of convict landings, and found it to be an entirely unremarkable corner of coastline. Other times, I’ve felt discomfort at my surroundings that fatally undermines what a place has to offer, spectacular though it may be (stand up, Rajasthan).

But Lumbini was a good lesson to me: a reminder not to hold fast to an initial impression, but to be open to what a place has to offer, and above all to be willing to change my mind.

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