KATHMANDU — The first sign I had that the “Buddha was born in Nepal” controversy was taking a serious turn was when I saw an ID card, modeled after the Nepali citizenship card, which listed “Gautama Buddha” as a citizen. This image was floated on Facebook and had received thousands of “likes” by the time I saw it.
As a cosmopolitan Nepali, this card discomfited me. Surely, I thought, Buddha is a transcendental figure that cannot be located in space and time, and everyone has the right to claim him as their own. The modern parochial politics of national boundaries, I thought, wasn’t fit for the Buddha. So I commented that neither the contemporary nation state of Nepal, nor India, existed 2,600 years ago.
The historic prince Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini, which now falls within the contemporary nation state of Nepal. But then he went over to Varanasi, where almost all truth-seekers of his day and age went, and then he became enlightened in Bodh Gaya, and then he gave his first teachings at Sarnath. So both Nepal, as land of birth, and India, as land of education, had claims to the historic Buddha, I said.
This argument didn’t impress the Nepalis, who tend to be an impassioned crowd about these matters. It occurred to me that “Buddha was born in Nepal” issue was getting heated, and acrimonious. What, I wondered, was triggering this controversy?
And on a recent visit to modern Kapilvastu—a poor, broken-down regional urban center of Nepal—I had the chance to find out.
I hired a Bolero (a jeep made in India) to take us around. The woman guiding me was of a Dalit (formerly known as “untouchable”) caste, and she took me to some of the poorest and most marginalized villages in the district. Child marriage, exorbitant dowries, expensive weddings that bankrupted parents, child rapes, bribery, corruption and police collusion—all of this was apparent in the district. There was almost nothing to indicate we were in the birthplace of one of the world’s greatest historic figures.
Except for the name of our hotel, which proclaimed itself to be the “Gautama Buddha Party Hotel,” there was almost nothing in the town to tell the casual visitor they were in the heartland of Buddhist history.
That week, we visited several sites. One was Kodan, where the Buddha’s father came to see him after he returned after his enlightenment. The modest structure, shaped like a mound, was made of ornate bricks. It reminded me of ancient Ayutthaya in Thailand.
In Gotihawa we saw the remains of a long pillar—which an Italian archeological team has identified as being one of “Ashoka’s pillars.”
The next day we visited Tilaurakot. A poorly written signboard put up by the Nepali government identified the site as “ancient Kapilvastu.”
Tilaurakot is thought to be—despite various murky academic controversies involving competing site Pipprahawa in neighboring India—the main archaeological site of King Suddhodhana’s palace. We entered the fenced site. Inside, a few low brick structures could be seen. They were the foundations of the complex.
Tilaurakot is overgrown with weeds. I enjoyed myself looking at the mango trees and a hospitable dog that decided to accompany us on our journey—the scenery, I felt, couldn’t be that different from what Prince Siddhartha saw during his day. We toured through the entire site, including a pond at the back, overgrown with lotuses.
At the back of the site, a board identified a gate as the one through which Siddhartha was thought to have left the kingdom in search of enlightenment. For a brief moment, as I stood there and looked out at the fields, with the sound of the wind rushing through the crops, I could feel the same sense of longing for liberation that Prince Siddhartha must have felt, stifled in the small and cloistered world of his day.
On our last day, our wonderful Dalit activist said she’d take us across the Indian border. I had to see what the Indian government was up to, she said. Not only does the Indian government teach in its schoolbooks that Buddha was born in India, but they even use these schoolbooks in the Modern Indian School in Kathmandu, she said indignantly. In addition, the Indian government runs a pilgrimage tour of four major Buddhist pilgrimage sites, and they take groups of Nepalis and keep them at Piprihawa, which is across the border from Kapilvastu, Nepal. This is an outrage, said another man in our team.
“Why so?” I asked. “They take all the foreign tourists across the border and tell them that this is Kapilvastu!” the man said. “They don’t tell them that the real site is in Nepal! And they also earn heaps of foreign exchange from doing this!”
Here was a chance to explore the fault-lines of the controversy. I seized the opportunity and said that we must go.
Across the Indian border, all is quiet. The border has been closed for three days for the Indian elections.
“Look!” my guide says, pointing excitedly.
“They’ve even put a sign saying Kapilvastu!” And indeed a big sign saying “Kapilvastu” comes into view. The site has a brick wall around it, flowering with pink bougainvillea. A few men are resting below trees.
The site is very clean and well kept. A board containing detailed information, placed by the Indian government, says that this is Piprahawa, Kapilvastu. The mound is excavated further down, unlike Tilaurakot which lies buried underground, and much of it is visible to the naked eye. In the blistering heat, we walk around the mound, and admire the institutional gardens.
Only after I return to Kathmandu and read up on the archeological history, which goes back to the nineteenth century, do I realize that Piprahawa’s claims are charged with murky intrigue, including a bone-faking art trader called Dr Alois Anton Führer, who was engaged in a trade in fake relics.
Archaeologist K.M. Srivastava of India claimed Piprahawa was the site where the Buddha’s ashes were delivered to his Sakya clan, but archeologists and historians past and present seem uncertain about his claims.
According to some observers, the fortified grandeur of Tilaurakot, along with the abundance of pottery, toys, beads and other signs of human settlement, were not found in the stupa site in Piprahawa. Tilaurakot is surrounded by the remains of palaces and settlements which litter Nepal’s Kapilvastu district, whereas Piprahawa is quite a distance off, standing alone on the edge of this larger, denser settlement.
The academic debates rage on, with the Indian government steering pilgrims towards alternate sites in India with tourist dollars in mind. The most recent controversy was a scholar in Orissa claiming Buddha was born in Orissa, on the grounds that Pali was spoken in Orissa, but never in Nepal.
It occurs to me the discontent of my Nepali friends seems to stem from the economic inequality between the two countries. The Nepali government, mired in bitter political fights and weakened by kleptocratic bureaucrats, hasn’t been able to afford the basic care such an important historical site needs.
On our last day in modern Kapilvastu, we zip by Lumbini on our way to the Bhairahawa airport. We can see cyclists going by, carrying various colorful flags of all countries for Buddha Jayanti, Buddha’s birthday. Lumbini, needless to say, falls on Nepal’s side of the border. I would have liked to have stopped and met a nun friend of mine, but we have no time. In a way, I am glad to avoid what looks like a politicized event.
It occurs to me then that Lumbini is hours away from Tilaurakot, where King Suddhodhana had his palace. Queen Mayadevi must have been in the last stages of her pregnancy when she departed for her parents’ house in Devdaha. Her pains must have been intense when she stopped in Lumbini to give birth to Prince Siddhartha.
Why would people send off a heavily pregnant woman in the draining May heat on a long journey to her parents’ house? There is no explanation, 2,600 years later, other than this: Traditions are very strong in this part of the world. If tradition dictated that a woman give birth in her natal home, then she would have to be sent off there, even if it was clear she would lose her life.
And that may be the simple reason why Prince Siddhartha lost his mother, filling him with the knowledge of transience from the day of his birth. The loss of a parent is a defining moment. For the young prince, this may have been the moment that propelled him onto a journey that would question tradition and make him find an entirely new path.
Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker based in Kathmandu.