After U Thant’s death in 1974, the UN’s focus and fund-raising for the project also waned. Although Nepal’s royal family attended numerous meetings of the International Committee for the Development of Lumbini, and gave patronage to the Lumbini Development Trust, the master plan languished. After 1990, corruption, poor governance and conflict took their toll. 

The government’s weak commitment to Lumbini and lack of transparency meant that over the years, vested interest groups tried to cash in on Lumbini’s fame. Those with resources and geopolitical clout got away with unregulated construction in the monastic zone. 

One murky affair was an initiative in 2012 by the Asia-Pacific Exchange Cooperation Foundation (APECF), which claimed it would invest $3 billion in Lumbini. The foundation got the backing of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, but soon became embroiled in controversy because it planned to scrap Tange’s master plan. APECF’s scheme is now on hold.   

On Saturday, 18 May President Bidya Devi Bhandari, Prime Minister K P Oli, other government ministers and ambassadors of Buddhist countries in the region will be in Lumbini to give new impetus to developing the Buddhist circuit in Nepal as an international pilgrimage and tourism destination. 

Thant Myint-U is the grandson of former United Nations Secretary-General U Thant, was an adviser to the president of Burma, and is the author of The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma. He is in Nepal this week for the Buddha Jayanti celebration in Lumbini, and spoke to Nepali Times about his recollections of his grandfather, and the future development of Lumbini.


NT: What was the reason behind his determination to get the UN involved in preserving Lumbini? 

In those days, the biggest conflict was of course the Cold War and the ideological conflict between communism and capitalist democracy.1  My grandfather believed that religion could be an ally in the cause of peace. In 1965, Pope Paul came to New York at his invitation, the first Pontiff ever to set foot in the new world, and spoke to a special meeting of the UN General Assembly, calling for an end to war.  

It was not long after that he came to Nepal and visited Lumbini. He was incredibly moved, saying it was one of “the most important days in my life”. I think it was only then that he had this particular vision, as a Buddhist but also as the UN Secretary-General, not only to preserve Lumbini but to connect the development of Lumbini as a global centre, representing values of tolerance and non-violence, with the broader cause of world peace.    

  • 1. Both UNDP and UNESCO got involved and the Japanese architect famous for designing the Hiroshima Peace Memorial MuseumKenzō Tange, was hired to draw up a master plan. Tange visited Lumbini, and his firm submitted the design in 1978. 

    The project to preserve Lumbini and landscape the sacred garden and surrounding park was to have been finished by 1985, but Tange died in 2005 without seeing the completion of his master plan.  

    The choice of Kenzō Tange for the design was influenced by his stature in post-war Japan. While he was part of the ‘Metabolist’ movement of Japanese architects, his work did not incorporate any obviously traditional Japanese, or even Asian, elements. Neither was he a devout Buddhist. Metabolists sought to experiment with structures that were inspired by biological processes of growth and aggregation. 

    In fact, Tange joined architecture school after seeing the work of the Swiss-French architect and urban planner Le Corbusier, and he admired the functionality of Soviet architecture of the 1930s. This penchant for raw, concrete mega-structures that shunned decorative elements earned Kenzō Tange a place in the ‘brutalist’ school of mid-20th century architectural modernism.