In an ideal world we would not need a place of peace. The story of the World Peace Pagoda begins 60 years ago in Japan with Nishidathsu Fuji, a man who was disillusioned with the way of the world. His journey to share a message of peace led him to the birthplace of the Buddha. Befittingly, it was in Lumbini that Fuji had a vision to build a stupa for world peace. Nipponzan Myohoji in Japan, the sangha he belonged to, agreed to fund the project but Fuji couldn't find the right location. He shared this idea with a spiritual leader in Dharmasila who directed him to Pokhara and the perfect forested hilltop of Andu Danda overlooking the shimmering waters of Phewa Tal.
Min Bahadur Gurung, a former minister who owned the land, was more than eager to donate it for the stupa. In 1973 the foundation was laid for the peace pagoda but it would take another 20 years for Fuji's vision to be completed. Gurung was charged with clearing the forest and building without the municipality's permission and served an 18-month prison sentence. Gurung was seen as a Congress supporter and the Panchayat administration razed the partially-built stupa.
After continuous petitions, the authorities relented but said the stupa could not stand higher than 4.5m. In 1987 a committee chaired by Bicchu Sudarshan Mahasthavir, a great proponent of the stupa, joined by Gurung, who declared it his life's mission to see the stupa stand, reignited the issue. By his old friend KP Bhatarai, Gurung was promised full compensation for what was destroyed. The money never materialised, but the 1993 Koirala administration finally gave the permit.
A decade later Fuji's vision crowns the hill: the World Peace Pagoda rises 35m and has become a landmark. Thirty-seven steps take you up to the second tier where four Buddhas face the cardinal directions. A standing Nepali Buddha in bronze faces south (see pic, right), a Sri Lankan Buddha meditates to the west, a Thai Buddha faces north and a Japanese Buddha looks east.
The view is breathtaking-Phewa Tal spans the distance between Andu Danda and Sarangkot, the mountains and the sky reflected in its depths. Below, Pokhara's lakeside sprawls on the eastern banks. Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Machapuchare and Lamjung line up along the north and on a clear day you can see Manaslu, Himalchuli and even Ganesh Himal.
This is a popular spot-pilgrims, picnickers, young lovers, tourists and even the occasional film crew come here. Hagit Zioni and Michal Maori, two Israeli trekkers who have been all over the Annapurna region, were awestruck by the pagoda. "We've been to Muktinath," says Zioni, "And the Hindu and Buddhist temples there don't compare to this one." The area is kept up mainly by funding from the Nipponzan Myohoji and a special local committee. But it is not an easy job for Shyam Lal Pokhrel. He maintains the grounds leading up to the stupa despite frequent water shortages. "The Japanese will help us for some time, but at the end of the day we must learn to take care of this place of peace," he says.
On Buddha Jayanti, 16 May, a procession will leave from Pokhara to Bindhyabasini park for an open gathering. Everyone is welcome to use the meditation hall. Pilgrims light butter lamps every full moon when pujas are held at the stupa.
But the best time to visit is early morning as dawn colours the world and there is a slight nip in the air. You have the place almost to yourself, with the exception of Pokhrel who putters around the grounds. To paraphrase Yeats, peace comes dropping slow on the veils of the morning, and you not only understand but also experience Fuji's vision. In a less than ideal world we do need a place for peace.
On Buddha's birthday, King Gyanendra will inaugurate the new Mayadevi Mandir in Lumbini. The Rs 60 million construction may not be an architectural marvel, but it allows pilgrims to climb up to observe the archaeological excavations of the area where the Buddha was born more than 2,500 years ago. The Ashoka pillar that is said to mark the nativity spot is to the left in the picture.