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Drowning the Buddha's birthing pool
The Guardian Post

Indian dam may submerge Buddha's Nepal birthplace

Lumbini -- For more than 2,500 years Lumbini, a small, unremarkable village in the foothills of the Himalayas, has been revered as a holy site. It was here in 623BC that Siddhartha Gautama, better known as Lord Buddha, was born in a pleasant garden next to a pond. After 29 years as a prince, Siddhartha renounced his luxurious existence and set off on the journey that eventually led him to enlightenment.

But the village in Nepal is now at the centre of a bitter dispute. Just over the border, the Indian government has begun building a dam, intended, it says, to stop Indian villages being flooded every year during the monsoon.

But the authorities in Nepal, who were delighted when Unesco listed Lumbini as a world heritage site in 1997, say the dam is likely to wash Bud dha's birthplace off the map. Opposition MPs have gone even further, scenting a conspiracy. India has long claimed that Buddha's actual birthplace was not Lumbini but the Indian village of Pipprahawa, two miles down the road.

"The construction of this barrage is a well-designed conspiracy of India to inundate the birthplace of Lord Buddha and create another fake Lumbini somewhere in India," Gokarna Bista, of Nepal's Communist party opposition, said last week.

Last week the Nepalese water minister, Bijaya Gachchedar, said the government had raised the issue through diplomatic channels and asked the Indian government to stop work on the barrage.

India began building the dam, six metres high, across the Danav and Danda rivers four months ago, 200 metres from the Nepalese border. The Nepalese said India had broken international laws which forbid such constructions within five miles of any border. The entire region on their side would be flooded, they said. India seems to have stopped work.

Unesco is keeping a close watch on events. Its spokeswoman in Kathmandu said: "This is a very sensitive issue. It involves two different coun tries, religion and cross-border issues. We are just observing until either government requests our help." Before its listing in 1997 there was little to indicate that Lumbini was a site sacred to one of the world's great religions.

The village was an hour's bumpy ride on an earth road road from the nearest town, Bhairawa.

Once there, visitors could walk round the sacred pond where the Buddha's mother, Maya Devi, bathed before giving birth. A commemorative pillar erected by the Indian emperor Ashoka on a pilgrimage to Lumbini in 245BC has also survived. It was dug up in the 1890s.

But the great sal (forest) which used to surround the area has disappeared, as have the tigers that hunted in the border region in the days of the Raj. Excavations by British archaeologists earlier this year seemed to confirm the validity of Nepal's claim to the birthplace. They found ancient pieces of pottery in nearby Tilaurakot, once the capital of the Kapilavastu empire, which the Buddha's father ruled.

Since Unesco listed Lumbini the Nepalese government has built several monasteries, a museum and a library. It wants to make the village an international pilgrimage centre.


Updated: 20-8-2001

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