Buddhist Sites in Nepal
Kapilavastu and Lumbini
Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha, was born at Lumbini near the Shakyan capital of Kapilavastu in the southern region of Nepal known as the terai. The 5th-century Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien described Kapilavastu as a "great scene of empty desolation", populated by a few monks, a score or two of families and dangerous animals such as lions and white elephants. Fa-hsien none the less visited well-known sites, including the Shakyan palace, the place where the child bodhisattva's identifying marks were discovered, and, east of the city, the garden of Lumbini where the future Buddha's mother bathed and gave birth. Mounds, stupas and other ruins testified to previous Buddhist institutional prosperity. Buddhist tradition tells that the emperor Ashoka visited Nepal in the 3rd century BC and erected a stupa and an inscribed column at Lumbini. Recent excavations have uncovered evidence of stupas, monastic dwellings and the well-preserved structure of the bathing-pool. The Ashokan column -rediscovered in 1896 but snapped in half by a lightning bolt - may also be seen at Lumbini. Theravada and Tibetan monasteries have been built in the past two decades near Lumbini, re-establishing the site as an important, although geographically remote, devotional centre.
Svayambhunath and Bodhnath (Kathmandu)
To commemorate his missionary visit, the emperor Ashoka is said to have built innumerable stupas in Nepal. Two surviving examples, much restored, may derive from the Ashokan period. These are the remarkable Svayambhunath and Bodhnath stupas in Kathmandu. Both stupas share unique Nepalese architectural features. Surmounting the conventional dome is a "steeple" raised on thirteen diminishing tiers to symbolize the thirteen Buddhist heavens. Yet more striking is the design of the square base (harmika) from which the tiers rise. The harmika is gilded, and a face gazes with immense eyes of inlaid metal and ivory from each side. One explanation for this unique Nepalese iconography is that the eyes suggest a solar cult expressed on some Hindu temples by "sun-faces". A second idea is that the temple represents the "Primal man" (mahapurusha) of early Hinduism. Buddhist theory would suggest that the eyes are a sign of the "all-seeing" Buddha. Visitors are certainly struck by the way in which the eyes follow them as they move round the stupa precincts.
Buddhist Sites in Sri Lanka
Anuradhapura (north-central Sri Lanka)
Today's Anuradhapura is a huge park containing the ruins of the Great Monastery (Mahavihara) established 250 B.C.E. on the outskirts of the ancient Singhalese capital. Anuradhapura is connected by an eight-mile (1 3km) pilgrim's path to Mihintale where the missionary Mahinda first preached and where an excavated stupa can be visited. Disinterred earlier this century from the jungle growth of more than a millennium, Anuradhapura's stupas, monastic ruins, sculptures, reservoirs, and a descendant of the original bodhi tree, provide an intense experience of ancient Buddhism. Dominating the site are two vast stupas with characteristic Singhalese "bubble domes". The Thuparama, although much restored, is probably the oldest monument in either India or Sri Lanka. The Ruwanweli Dagoba, is also heavily restored, and is clad in the undecorated white plaster which differentiates Singhalese stupa architecture from the more ornate Indian style.
At Anuradhapura a wonderful convergence of the modern and the archaic may be experienced. On May and June full moon days, the festivals of Wesak and Poson celebrate, respectively, the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and parinirvana, and the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka. At such festivals, Anuradhapura is enlivened by hundreds of thousands of devotees. For the modern day visitor, one of the great pleasures is touring Anuradhapura on a rented bicycle.
Polonnaruwa (northeastern Sri Lanka)
While Anuradhapura evokes the austerity of early Singhalese Buddhism, the later site of Polonnaruwa, wonderfully situated on Lake Topawewa, offers an unparalleled view of medieval Buddhist sculpture and architecture. There the visitor may see the immense recumbent parinirvana Buddha and the 25-foot (7.5m) rock-cut figure of Ananda standing by the head of the Master. There too is the colossal meditating Buddha, and the famous sculptured portrait of the sage-king Parakramabahu overlooking the lake and in contemplation of a manuscript.
dazzling are the early 13th-century monuments situated on the
"Great Quadrangle". These include the classically
proportioned pyramidal brick stupa (Sat Mahal Pasada),
the carved stonework of the "temple of the tooth
relic" (not to be confused with the Temple of the Tooth
in Kandy) and the waving lotus-stem-shaped columns of the
Nissanka Lata Mandapaya.
Just as Anuradhapura was abandoned by the 8th century, Polonnaruwa was finally conquered by the Tamils in the 15th century. The art of Polonnaruwa represents the final flowering of Singhalese Buddhist art, still matchlessly preserved in land-locked jungle.