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Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha, in the Terai plains of Nepal is one of the greatest pilgrimage sites for Buddhists. More than 400,000 Buddhists and non Buddhists visit Lumbini every year. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Culture) and holds immense archeological and religious importance. Sacred Garden: It was here in the gardens of Lumbini that Prince Siddhartha Gautam, who later became the Buddha, was born in 623 BC. The nativity site is marked by a commemorative pillar erected by Mauryan Emperor Ashoka of India during his pilgrimage to the holy site in 249 BC. The inscription on the Ashoka Pillar indentifies the Sacred Garden - spread over 9 sq. km – as the spot where the Enlightened One was born. A large number of Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world visit Lumbini to pray at the Mayadevi Temple where excavations have revealed the “marker stone” showing the exact spot where Siddhartha Gautam Buddha was born. The sacred Puskarni Pond where Queen Mayadevi had taken a bath before the birth of Buddha lies to the south of the pillar. It was also in this pond that the infant Buddha was given his first bath. Monuments: To the north of the Sacred Garden are monastic zones where different countries have built temples and monasteries depicting different sects of Buddhism. The Myanmar Temple (Lokamani Cula Pagoda) is a shiny GOLD and white structure that resembles the Shwe-dagon Pagoda of Yangon while the International Gautami Nuns Temple is a replica of the Swayambhu Stupa of Kathmandu. The China Temple, built by the Buddhist Association of China, is a complex of pagodas, prayer rooms and meditation cells. Across the road is the Dae Sung Suk Ga Sa Korean Temple. The Japan Peace Stupa, built by Nippon Jon Kyohoji of Japan, is a 41-m tall structure with four different Buddha statues set into the stupa’s dome facing the four cardinal directions. Other beautiful monuments and temples have been built by Vietnam, Thailand, Mongolia, France, Germany and Sri Lanka.
Tansen, 119km south of Pokhara, is far enough off the radar to make it a rewarding detour for independent travellers. Perched high above the Kali Gandaki River on the road between Butwal and Pokhara, Tansen’s main attraction is both its Newari charm and distinct medieval feel. Lining Tansen’s steep cobblestone streets, which are too steep for cars, are wooden Newari houses with intricately carved windows, from where the clacking of looms can be heard. On winter mornings a blanket of mist is cast over the bowl-shaped Madi Valley, earning it the moniker ‘White Lake’. Chatting to locals, you’ll find they’re fiercely proud of their home town, which no doubt stems from its rich history during the glory years as the capital of the Magar kingdom of Tanahun. Until the rise of the Shahs, Tanahun was one of the most powerful kingdoms in Nepal. Troops from Palpa even came close to conquering Kathmandu in the 16th century under the leadership of King Mukunda Sen. The power of the Magars waned in the 18th century and Tansen was reinvented as a Newari trading post on the trade route between India and Tibet. Today Tansen remains the administrative headquarters of Palpa district, and many Nepalis still refer to the town as Palpa.
About 29km west of Lumbini, Tilaurakot has been identified as the historical site of Kapilavastu, where Siddhartha Gautama spent the first 29 years of his life. The site sits in a peaceful meadow on the banks of the Banganga River. Although you can still see the foundations of a large residential compound, it takes a certain amount of imagination to visualise the city of extravagant luxury that drove the Buddha to question the nature of existence. The showy shrine nearby with several carved pachyderms is dedicated to Maya Devi. There’s a small museum at the final turn-off to Tilaurakot that displays some of the artefacts found at the site. To get here from Lumbini, catch a local bus from the Lumbini Bus Stand to the junction (Rs 10, 10 minutes) and change to a bus bound for Tilaurakot (Rs 55, 1½ hours), 3km north of Taulihawa. You can take a rickshaw to the site from Tilaurakot for Rs 100/175 one way/return. The best way to get here, though, is through Lumbini Village Lodge, which can organise a van for Rs 500 with a day’s notice. Otherwise a taxi can make the return trip from Lumbini for around Rs 2000.