Quests: Where dharma is karma

Buddha's birthplace has been a place of pilgrimage for 2,500 years. Kenneth Wilson joined the throng of worshippers at the sacred site.

It is a magnificent tree, twisted with age, with streams of faded prayer flags tied to its branches. It is the tree under which the Buddha was miraculously born 2,500 years ago. The Buddha's mother, it is said, bathed in the pool at the foot of the tree, before delivering him from her right side and watching him take seven steps in each direction. The pool is still here, its waters brown and unmoving between the damp brick steps which have been built to contain it. But the lotus flowers that are said to have sprung up to bless each of those infant footprints are no more.

This is ancient Lumbini, in Nepal, not far from the border with India. There is no city, not even a village, hardly even a place to buy a postcard. There is just the tree and the pool, a pillar of King Ashoka, dated to 245BC, and the excavated remains of ancient stupas and temples in small red bricks.

I had come here on a long bus-ride from Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. It had taken all day, climbing slowly out of the Kathmandu valley, and then careering along beside the whitewater Rapti river and through Nepal's rich forests, to reach Bhairahawa, the nearest town to Lumbini.

That evening I sat at a busy roundabout in Bhairahawa, summoning the confidence to approach the betel-chewing drivers of the jeeps that looked as though they were for hire.

This was the beginning of a journey in the footsteps of the Buddha. Just before he died, in about 400BC, the Buddha spoke to his chief disciple, Ananda, about the making of his life story into a sacred geography. Those who wanted to follow the Buddha's way should visit those four places where geography had been most sanctified by history; the places of his birth, his enlightenment, his first sermon and his death.

The Buddha attained enlightenment sitting under another tree, at what is now the town of Bodhgaya, in the Indian state of Bihar. In Bihar the roads are bad, and a full day's delay on the laughably named Grand Trunk Road is a common occurrence. So I arrived under the tree at Bodhi with less equanimity than I imagined to be ideal in preparation for enlightenment.

This tree, fifth generation of the original under which the Buddha sat, is pressed sideways by the Mahabodhi temple, built hard up against it. Its great branches are filled with deafening starlings, so that the chants of the prostrate Tibetan nuns, circumambulating tree and temple, can hardly be heard.

Bodhgaya is a place of refugees. On to the edge of an otherwise ordinary Indian town have come Buddhist temples from all over South Asia. Here is a Tibetan structure, with rich maroons and golds decorating its dark interior, and two rows of swaying monks chanting in an almost unison contra- basso. A novice hands round a crate of Coca-Cola to keep them going.

Here is a Japanese temple, light and elegant inside, with stylised flowers either side of a golden image. Outside, an 80ft statue of the Buddha has been built from blocks of concrete, his compassionate gaze cast down over a Disneyland of buildings from Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and China.

The wheel of the dharma began to turn at the deer park at Samath, when the enlightened Buddha preached his first sermon. Samath is now a suburb of Varanasi, the holiest Hindu bathing site and modern Indian industrial city. Great numbers of tourists visit Varanasi, to board leaky boats and row slowly up and down along the ghats to see the sun rise, and the god Surya greeted, before the day's work begins.

Not so many get to Samath. But here there is a magnificent stupa more than 100ft high, as well as the ruins of monasteries and temples. The remains of another pillar erected by the Buddhist pilgrim king Ashoka are nearby. This is a famous image, its four lions facing north, south, east and west having been adopted as the symbol of modern India.

There is one more place to visit. Bemused by the nothingness of Lumbini, overwhelmed and transported by Bodhgaya and Samath, I prepared to visit the place of departure. At Kushinagar, another of India's thousands of otherwise nowhere towns, the Buddha contracted food poisoning and died at the age of 80. It seems such a prosaic ending. The Enlightened One, with knowledge of all worlds, should have been above such things. Perhaps others had thought that, too, because the town had long forgotten its Buddhist history when 19th-century archaeologists, guided by the writings of a seventh-century Chinese pilgrim, began to uncover it. In the Twenties, Burmese Buddhists set about restoring the structures. To house a fabulous reclining Buddha statue that had been found in the nearby stupa, they built something that looks far too much like a Victorian waterworks. The state government has opened a tourist office - but it has no maps, and no guides.

Inside the waterworks I joined the trickle of pilgrims coming to touch the Buddha's gilded feet. Even for me, a non-Buddhist, it was a moment of unexpected reverence. Apart from the head and the feet the recumbent Buddha was covered with a cheap cloth. Its only function seemed to be to earn a few rupees for the shrine's guardian, who required a fee to remove it.

In the early evening, the sun came through the narrow door and illuminated the serene face of the Buddha's image. I made my final obeisance, before a monk led me outside. We walked down the road to the mysteriously contoured Ramabhar Stupa, the site of Buddha's cremation, where our circumambulation was interrupted by a grazing elephant. As the light faded, the silence of this inscrutable monument and the elephant's lack of concern were the final commentary on the life of the Buddha in whose footsteps I had come.

Soul of India Tours specialises in holiday pilgrimages to India's holy sites. Tel: 01902 450753.

fact file

The easy part is getting a cheap flight to Delhi (deals from around pounds 350-pounds 400 through discount agents) or Kathmandu (about pounds 100 more). The tricky part is likely to be getting a visa for India. If you call the 24-hour visa information service (0891 880800), you will spend a lot of time and money finding out the following:

For a three-month tourist visa, you can apply in person or by post to either of the following: Visa Section, High Commission of India, India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA; or Consulate-General of India, The Spencers, 19 Augustus Street, Jewellery Quarter, Hockley, Birmingham B18 6DS. If applying by post, first send a stamped addressed envelope for a visa application form to the Postal Visa Section at either address above.

Once completed, send the form with three passport photos, your passport, and the fee of pounds 13. "You are advised not to finalise your travel arrangements prior to obtaining a visa", says the High Commission.

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