Pedaling the path of the BuddhaOver centuries, religious devotees have undertaken pilgrimages to sacred sites and places of belief, many holding the notion that the greater one suffers, the greater karmic merit one will achieve in the process.
Over centuries, religious devotees have undertaken pilgrimages to sacred sites and places of belief, many holding the notion that the greater one suffers, the greater karmic merit one will achieve in the process. Although not a journey of pilgrimage as such, the Tour de Lumbini is an adventure of epic proportions—a four-day, 400 km cycle ride from Swayambhu in Kathmandu, over the Himalayan foothills and across the plains of Tarai to Lumbini in Rupandehi, the birthplace of the Buddha. And as I was about to discover, the journey to this sacred UNESCO World Heritage Site would be one of adventure, adversity and beauty; and indeed ideal for exploring the many layers that Nepal has to offer.
Clad in yellow, over 70 yellow-clad riders checked and tuned their bicycles in the early morning sun, the gaze of the eyes of the stupa of Swayambhu peering down at us below. The prospect of almost 400km of cycling ahead, needless to say, was daunting. Despite a warm appreciation for cycling, I did not consider myself an adventurer on two wheels, and as a Brit working in Kathmandu, I was unfamiliar with what lay ahead, beyond the confines of the urban city streets.
No sooner our journey began we left the dust and traffic of Kathmandu behind us, snaking up to the lush foothills of the Chandragiri then passing down into Chitlang. The sight of traditional houses, the sounds of livestock and the smell of fresh air made the Capital seem distant—a time warp away.
Initially as I set off, I felt a competitive streak, seeing if I could overtake riders on the hills and trying my best to race along the flat sections. As day two began, however, I began to enjoy the process of cycling and the journey at large. Before long I relished cycling at a steady pace, enjoying the views, and waving to the children who lined the roadside (after all it’s not every day that a tour of cyclists comes down the road).
When we arrived in a rural Tarai town, known locally as Rajarah, on the second day, we were allocated homestays with separate families. During the evening we were treated to a performance of traditional regional dances. The spectacle was mesmerising, and the high-pitched vocals provided by the elders, mixed with the speed, colour and intensity of the dance were incredible; an aspect of Nepal’s diverse and rich cultural heritage extending beyond its buildings and monuments, but to the diversity of its customs and history. The family I stayed with shared stories of their local traditions, showed me the intricate traditional tattoos the elder generations of women host. Then, over a delicious meal of local duck, the family shared stories of their encounters with local tigers and rhino, and amid the cacophony of crickets in the surrounding jungle, I slept like a log.
On the third day, with well over 100km still to go, we rode through the flat yet notoriously hot Tarai region, and despite setting off early, the sun soon bore down on us all as we made our way across the plains. The heat rippled off the road, and the tarmac created an oven effect. The views, however, made up for the discomfort. As well as this, the diversity of the villages we passed and the friendliness of locals along the way accommodated for any difficulty.
The prospect of seeing a site sacred to so many Buddhists, and of such significance to those who visit Nepal and who have an interest in the teachings of Buddha, preoccupied my mind increasingly as the journey progressed into its final day. Buddha Jayanti (the birthday of the Buddha) marked the date we would arrive in Lumbini. Full of anticipation, we found the final day of cycling was the shortest, although that didn’t stop the creeping feeling of being saddle sore. Getting back into the rhythm of riding again by early morning, we reached Lumbini as a team, and rode slowly along the tranquil waterside leading up to the Mayadevi Temple, where Siddhartha Gautama was born in 563 BCE. It amazed me that the effects of the teachings of one individual could resonate so strongly through time. Though not a Buddhist myself, I had developed a keen interest in the teachings and example of Buddhism, which for many in the West offers approachable guidance and an alternative to a growing consumerist culture.
Leaving our bikes aside, we celebrated reaching our destination, and watched devotees mark this special day in the shade of the trees surrounding the sacred pond with a view of the temple behind. Sitting together as a group, we were offered a short discussion and guided meditation class with a resident monk, which had been arranged by the organisers beforehand. Our bodies tired and our spirits high, the sincerity with which the riders partook in the class, and the evident reverence for the site (regardless of belief) highlighted to me the importance of Lumbini as a World Heritage Site at the heart of Nepal’s rich culture, and of the poignancy and resonance of the Buddha centuries later. I watched from the shade as visitors of all ages and backgrounds from across Nepal (and indeed the globe) wandered the gardens, and reflected at the sacred site; relishing in the path and example one individual took centuries ago.
Lumbini is more than a relic or museum of the past; like many of Nepal’s heritage sites, it is a living, venerated place which continues to attract visitors from across the globe—be they modern day pilgrims or curious tourists, each interested in the message of the Buddha centuries after his birth. The journey to Lumbini may have proved adverse at times, but the rewards of seeing it through a journey by bicycle are immense. What more poignant way to celebrate peace and the rich heritage of Nepal than through the teamwork and effort of an adventure by pedal-power?