Buddhism is an integral part of the fabric of everyday life in the countries of the high Himalayas, especially in Tibet, Nepal, the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan, and northern India. Lumbini Nepal is considered the birthplace of Buddha and as such, is sacred to those of the Buddhist faith, as are Bodhgaya in India where Gautama Buddha achieved enlightenment and Svayambhunath and Bodhnath in Kathmandu. It is as holy to Buddhists as Varanasi is to Hindus and the Western Wall in Jerusalem is to the Jewish people.
Buddhist pilgrims embark on Lumbini travel as do Christian pilgrims to Lourdes in France (the second most visited Christian site after Rome). Tours to Lumbini are organized by numerous companies, the majority of which are located in India. These are the tour operators that most American companies utilize when they put together tours encompassing many different locations.
Tours to Lumbini often include Nepal trekking, popular with young adventure travelers. While Lumbini Nepal is not directly within the Kathmandu Valley, a hub for trekkers, it does often appear on itineraries. It is almost on the border of India, to the southwest of Kathmandu and Royal Chitwan National Park.
The history of Lumbini travel dates to long before the birth of Buddha (in 642 BC), as this site was sacred to Hindus for millennia before that time. Maya Devi, so Buddhist tradition goes, was on her way to visit her parents when she felt labor pains. Grasping a branch of a sal tree, she gave birth to Siddharta Gautama. The infant Buddha is said to have immediately announced that this was his last incarnation and took seven steps, under each of which a lotus flower bloomed. Interestingly, it was also under a tree (the bodhi tree) in Bodhgaya where Buddha became enlightened. Trees also feature in the other two sacred Buddhist sites: Sarnath (site of his first sermon) and Kushinagar where he died.
In 249 BC, the great Indian Emperor Ashoka visited Lumbini Nepal and erected four stupas (mound like structures containing Buddhist relics) and a pillar that still stands today. The inscriptions on this pillar were a trademark of the emperor, and are as sacred to Buddhists as the paintings and inscriptions found on the Ajanta Caves in India. Numerous monasteries and temples were built up to the ninth century, after which the site was lost for centuries. While there remains some controversy surrounding his discoveries, the site was rediscovered in 1895 by the German archaeologist Alois Fuhrer who stumbled up the pillar. Lumbini travel and pilgrimages have been popular with Buddhists ever since, and the site was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
Tours to Lumbini will reveal other sacred sites and beautiful monuments in addition to the Pillar of Ashoka. The Maya Devi Temple, dedicated to the mother of the Buddha, is the most important site in the religious complex. It stands over the spot of the birth, as well as the site of Ashoka's stupas. On one side of this graceful white and red sandstone temple is the Puskarni (Sacred Pool) where Maya Devi bathed before the birth, and the newborn received his first purification bathing.