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Monday, May 10, 1999 Published at 18:28 GMT 19:28 UK

World: South Asia

Slow delivery for Buddha birthplace project

Lumbini has attracted the interest of archaeologists

By BBC Correspondent Alastair Lawson

The birthplace of Buddha is being turned into an international pilgrimage centre - a project which the authorities in Nepal hope will draw visitors to their country.

The village of Lumbini is one of Nepal's most famous landmarks, because Buddha was born there more than 2,600 years ago.

But plans to develop Lumbini as a world pilgrimage centre for Buddhists have progressed painfully slowly - hampered by poor organisation and a shortage of funds.

The idea to turn the site into an international pilgrimage centre goes back at least three decades.

It was given a significant boost when the Buddhist Secretary-General of the United Nations, U Thant, visited the site in 1967. Then as now, the site of Buddha's birthplace was in a small village in a remote part of southern Nepal.

'Master plan'

[ image: A pillar marking Buddha's birthplace: One of several isolated projects to commemorate the prophet]
A pillar marking Buddha's birthplace: One of several isolated projects to commemorate the prophet
In 1978, the Nepalese Government formed what they called a master plan to develop Lumbini within seven years.

The government said it wanted to implement plans, drawn up by a Japanese architect, that would landscape the site, providing it with a museum and research centre.

The idea was to encourage countries with Buddhist populations - such as Japan, Sri Lanka, India, South Korea, China, Burma and Thailand - to invest in the project.

All of these countries responded in different ways. They have either built Buddhist temples, shrines or monasteries near the site, or have constructed hotels for pilgrims.

At least five years to go

But money for the master plan was not so fast-flowing. The Lumbini Development Trust says that even by the most optimistic assessment, the plan will not be completed within the next five years.

That is the key reason why Lumbini does not have a great deal to offer the foreign pilgrim beyond being a place of prayer and veneration. Some argue that a pilgrimage site needs to be nothing more than that.

But others, including at least one former member of the trust appointed by the government to develop Lumbini, disagree.

They say that the site is not attracting enough pilgrims from abroad because there are no guidebooks for visitors to buy, and few restaurants nearby.

They argue that Lumbini does not have the infrastructure to cope with large numbers of tourists. There are not enough hotels, they say, and the area has poor road and air communications.

Archaeological interest

Most of the site is currently being dug up by archaeologists eager to find out more about the village where Buddha was born.

The area surrounding a stone that marks the exact location of the birth is covered by a tarpaulin. However, visitors can see is a stone pillar, erected by Emperor Ashoka around 249 BC, to commemorate Buddha's birth.

Estimates of the number of pilgrims visiting the site vary: The Lumbini Development Trust say that it is as many as 100,000 people a year, but some independent observers say the true number is half this figure.

Ultimately, the development of Lumbini will be determined by the Nepalese Government. The government currently allocates around $15,000 a year to the project, in addition to deciding who should head the Lumbini Development Trust.

Critics say that money provided by the government is not sufficient to fulfil the master plan. The government says it does not have the funds.

Political uncertainty

Whatever the case, matters are made worse by the fact that the leadership of the Trust changes every time a new government is formed. This lack of continuity can clearly be seen by the fact that Nepal has had seven changes of government since 1991.

Like many other key questions in Nepal, the development of Lumbini appears to have fallen victim to the country's ongoing political uncertainty.

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