Nepal – the country of the Buddha and the Mt. Everest

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LUMBINI: Mikel Dunham’s interview with UNESCO’s Axel Plathe

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on March 11, 2012

Axel Plathe is the Head of Office and UNESCO Representative to Nepal. Mikel Dunham spoke to him in his office in Kathmandu, March 6, 2012.

-Archeological investigation-Jan-2011


DUNHAM: Perhaps the best way to begin is for you to describe UNESCO’s interest and involvement with Lumbini.

PLATHE: As you know, the site was inscribed in 1997 in the World Heritage list. Since then UNESCO has been engaged in Lumbini more or less strongly. We have particularly been helping, throughout the years, since the inscription, in managing the site. We have helped the government in establishing an approach on how to manage this World Heritage site.

We have also helped the government in the very cumbersome and heavy reporting exercise that the World Heritage Convention requests from state parties to the Convention.

Every second year, the state party, (in this case the government of Nepal), has to submit a report on the status of preservation of Lumbini.

DUNHAM: What sort of information is in this report?

PLATHE: It’s a structured report on the state of preservation of the site that has been submitted to the World Heritage committee, which looks at the report. If there are any issues, then the World Heritage committee would take a decision requesting the state party to take measures in order to preserve the “universal outstanding value of the site.”

For example, in 2011, the World Heritage committee requested the government of Nepal to report on any major development in the vicinity of the World Heritage property and to make sure that there are impact assessments being undertaken on those major projects, which the government may wish to implement in the vicinity of the World Heritage site.

You know that the site is actually a very small tiny space around the Asoka pillar, the marker stone and the nativity sculpture. This is the property for which the World Heritage committee can say something. But it can also request the government to report on any development that has an impact on that small place.

DUNHAM: What kinds of impacts are you interested in?

PLATHE: Any kind of impact. There could be an impact of a visual nature. There could be an impact of environmental nature.; pollution or noise, for instance. There could be an impact that could make the management of the site difficult – problems with managing the visitor/pilgrim floor. There could be issues related to the non-respect of the Kenzo Tange master plan. Before I came to Nepal, there was an issue with the toilet building that was outside the actual property – between the levee and the property, which has since then been destroyed – because it impacted visually on the entire site.

DUNHAM: Solid waste: Is that an on-going problem?

PLATHE: I am not aware of a solid waste problem.  But that could become a problem, yes, if it’s not correctly managed. That could have an impact on the site.

Anyway, in order to comply with its responsibilities as a state party, we are helping the government, (as we do, by the way, for the Kathmandu Valley, which is the second cultural property in Nepal – similarly with the two natural sites Sagarmatha National Park and Chitwan National Park.)

So, we are working with the government in order to comply with its role as the state party to the Convention.

But, recently, since 2010, we are implementing a concrete project in Lumbini, which has four components.

The first component is archeological survey.

We, the government and the concerned stakeholders want to know more about the archeological history of Lumbini. We are working with Durham University in the United Kingdom, which sends teams every year, who are doing archeological excavations. They are opening trenches. They are doing auger coring [a reliable method for below-ground standing biomass estimations], which has less of an impact – light interventions – in order to get an idea of what the Lumbini property is built on; what is underneath the earth.

DUNHAM: Are you referring to Cunningham of Durham University?

PLATHE: That’s right. Robin Cunningham and his team. Particularly, Robin has been working in Lumbini for a long time. He has a very good knowledge about the entire area. He’s not only a Lumbini expert but he’s also presently working (with his university) in Tilaurakot, located in Kapilvastu. They have started archeological work there. He has been involved in looking at Ramgram a few years ago – the archeological evidence around the Ramgram stupa. So he has a very good knowledge about the entire Greater Lumbini area.

And there are interesting findings that they are making. During the last campaign, which was in January [2012], they had opened a trench in the village mound, which is presently the site of the police station, which we would like to have removed in order to comply with the Kenzo Tange master plan. The team found interesting elements, particularly two pots that are almost intact. They were in pieces but all the pieces were there and they were able to save these two pieces. The conservators, who came for the second part of the UNESCO project, have restored those pots.

Conservation of pots by Domizia Colonnello-feb-2012

DUNHAM: How far back do the pots date?

PLATHE: They are dating back very far – farther than the experts thought. But we do not yet have the dates. We need much more work before the dates can be determined. There are now archeological-centric conservation experts who are presently doing analysis of the pieces that they have found.

Also, next to the nativity sculpture, they found bricks that look like they might date back further than what we have now dated in the monastic zone. Those bricks have been safeguarded. They are being analyzed. We are really interested to see what the dates are.

DUNHAM: When will that report be available?

PLATHE: This year. We hope that it will be available before the next meeting of the International Scientific Steering Committee for the project that will be held in July in Lumbini.

So, the first part of the project is understanding better the history, through archeological surveys, which were requested to us by the government.

Marker stone-new protective box
The second part is the conservation of the main monuments: the marker stone, the nativity sculpture and the Asoka pillar. That is being done by an Italian stone-conservation team, led by Costantino Meucci. He was here with a team in February – his third time here with a team. They have looked at the Asoka pillar and observed some interesting developments in the structure of the pillar itself – the fissures that are appearing. He has observed that there is some reflection of the air pollution around Lumbini: gypsum was found on the pillar, for instance.

Meucci also wanted to open a trench next to the pillar, in order to understand better the basement of the pillar, because that was only opened once.

Kosh Acharya was, at that time, the only person who went down into the trench to look at the foundation of the pillar.

Costantino Meucci

Meucci wanted to reopen it but it was decided to postpone this opening until, maybe, July, when a conservation and archeological team will also be there. The government, particularly the Minister, wanted to have the archeologists and the conservationists to be there when this trench is opened. There may be certain risks of destabilizing the pillar, which is quite minimal, but still, it’s prudent, I believe, to have all the experts around when this is being opened. So it is important to understand better the pillar and its basement in order to take measure for its preservation.

One of the main issues of the pillar certainly is the offerings of the pilgrims. They are throwing milk and they are putting other items or material against the pillar, which affects the surface of the pillar.

They cleaned the nativity sculpture and re-cleaned it, which has been heavily touched by the visitors – putting gold leaf on the nativity sculpture.

But most importantly, they cleaned the marker stone in the Maya Devi Temple, which was affected by high humidity due to the architectural structure of the Maya Devi Temple and to the ground water, which is very strong in that area. The marker stone was green because of these environmental issues so they cleaned it and put up a new protective box in January, funded by the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT) – not by the Japanese Funds and Trust project, which funds the other activities. The protective box was imported from Italy, using two centimeters of bulletproof glass plate that now protects the marker stone much better.

So those are the issues related to the second part, the manifold conservation issues – the main issue being the microclimate that has developed in the Maya Devi shelter. This building is called the Maya Devi “Temple”. I would like to call it the Maya Devi “shelter” because it is a building that is probably not the best building to value the site.

DUNHAM: My understanding is that the building was never intended to be a permanent structure.

PLATHE: No, it was not. I believe it was initially regarded as a temporary structure. And our suggestion – since one-and-a half years – was to encourage the government to organize an international architectural competition to replace this shelter by something that is much more appropriate, which would pay tribute to the importance of the site. It would also be much more appropriate in terms of conservation of the brick masonry, which is suffering from the climate. It would certainly be an exciting task for architects to look at that. And it could bring a lot of visibility to Lumbini, if we would have internationally recognize architects, who would work on that and present their projects.

In any case, any development regarding the shelter must be, in a way, compliant with the Kenzo Tange master plan. This is the third element of our project.

Kenzo Tange, as you know, had developed a five-by-five mile development plan around Lumbini. And then he focused on the one-by-three mile core, within the five-by-five mile zone, which includes the World Heritage properties and the international monastic zone to the north, and then further north, there is the hotel area.

Within the framework of the project, we are looking at Kenzo Tange’s ideas and visions for the Sacred Garden itself. We want to better understand how Kenzo Tange planned this area and what needs to be done in order to comply with his plans. We also need to interpret his plans in a modern way.

Yuki Nishimura

This is being conducted by Prof. Yukio Nishimura from Tokyo University, who is the successor, I believe, of Kenzo Tange in the Chair of Urban Conservation at Tokyo University. He has access to the archives of Kenzo Tange. He comes here frequently with his team to speak to all those who are involved in the management of Lumbini. He was extremely useful and helpful last year, when LDT planned the renovation of the walkways around the shelter. We asked him to help LDT with these walkways. And I think the results are good.


And we hope that, in the future, there will be more such cooperation, if any major developments are taking place in the core zone or the buffer zone.

We believe that the Kenzo Tange master plan is still the authoritative plan for the development of the core and the buffer zone and, indeed, either the one-by-three or the five-by-five zones.

We have seen in the past quite good developments in the area where the channel now flows.

DUNHAM: Did they solve the problem of keeping the water in the channel?

PLATHE: I don’t know. I see that the water is still there. I don’t know exactly the mechanism of how the water is being cleaned and replaced.

One of the issues that we have observed, which is also linked to the implementation of the Kenzo Tange master plan, is the entrance gate, which has been moved from the east side to the north side, where it should be according to Kenzo Tange. The visitors and pilgrims have a very long way to go from the northern gate parking area to the core zone. There are some discussions going on as to how to best organize it. I think that Kenzo Tange had foreseen boats on the channel. There are some discussions now on using electric vehicles that would not use the central allee but would go around the central allee through the monastic zones. Yuki Nishimura’s team will be forthcoming with some suggestions as to how best organize that.

That’s the third part of the project:  the review of Kenzo Tange’s master plan for the Sacred Garden.

By the way, we are extending the third part with a publication on the Sacred Garden, which will come out in a few months. It’s a compilation of different texts of people who are knowledgeable of the historical and religious importance of Lumbini. It will also cover the World Heritage character of Lumbini, the management of visitor and pilgrimage flow, the expectations of the visitors and pilgrims; the publication comes together in seven layers – a new analysis of what the Sacred Garden is. This is being funded by an NGO, the Oriental Cultural Heritage Sites Protection Alliance.

DUNHAM: Will this publication be available to the public?

PLATHE: Yes. It will be an online publication, which will be found at

This is a kind of academic, historic (but also practical) study that will be helpful in order to better manage the sacred garden. It’s, as of yet, untitled.

In the process of preparing this study, we have discussed with LDT and the Department of Archeology, who both are responsible for managing the site, very concrete guidelines on the management of Lumbini, which are byproducts of this publication.

The fourth part of  the Japanese-funded project is the preparation of an integrated management framework.

This will give LDT and the Department of Archeology a very concrete guideline on how to deal with the various issues related to the World Heritage property: from day-to-day management, to longer-term planning of developments in and around the property. Hopefully, it will be approved by the Cabinet in the coming months. It is a document required by the World Heritage Convention in its operation guidelines: The state parties must develop for each property an integrated management framework.

Conservation of Asoka pillar-Feb.2012

You see, it was a long process. In 1997, the property was inscribed and only now we are getting to this integrated management framework. But the government probably needed that time in order to prepare this framework.

It will be also public, once approved by the Cabinet. It can be looked at by all those who are interested. It will be a very technical document.

So that’s the fourth element.

In all the elements, particularly in the archeology and the conservation part, we have involved students and experts from Nepal, in order to build their capacity in doing archeological and conservation work. This was one of the elements of the project. This is utterly needed since, currently, there is little capacity in the country in the area of archeology and particularly in stone conservation.

We trained a considerable number of people on the spot. There was a group of around twenty students. For instance, this last January, these students were with the archeological team. They really worked in the trenches.

DUNHAM: Are you referring to the village mound site?

PLATHE: Yes, it was the village mound, but also the trench in the Maya Devi shelter was opened and, also, there was an area a little outside of the shelter where the temple structure is visible. And there was a fourth trench north of the shelter.

The students really worked with the team from Durham University and experienced, I think, a lot. They have been learning archeology on a very theoretical basis at Tribhuwan University. But so far very few of them have really been involved in fieldwork. Fieldwork is the most important part of archeology.

So this three-year project runs until the summer of 2013. We hope that the Japanese government will continue funding beyond the summer of 2013 in order to continue with archeological surveys. We believe that it’s extremely important to better understand the entire area – not only the Sacred Garden where the World Heritage property is – in terms of history, but also to try to understand the linkages between this site and the other sites in the Greater Lumbini area. In an ideal setting we would do an overall archeological survey of the Greater Lumbini area. And then focusing on different spots, to do a survey that would be using the newest technology – satellite technology, in order to look from space into the site—into that area and also identify those areas where it is likely to find historical remains of the time at Buddha’s birth, or later.

DUNHAM: That would be very interesting, particularly in Tilaurakot. Kosh Acharya was telling me that there is mounting evidence that Tilaurakot was where the historical Buddha spent his first 29 years. That would really enhance Greater Lumbini as a whole.

PLATHE: Yes, that would prove Hermann Hesse right.

DUNHAM: Indeed, Hesse would be thrilled. What are the challenges remaining for site?

PLATHE: The lack of an overall plan for the development of Greater Lumbini area. And this puts many of the achievements at risk. What we would like to see is a clear plan – including a land use plan – of the entire Greater Lumbini area, which would be built on the archeological and historical assets of that area. That should be the main parameter of any develop plan in the Greater Lumbini area, including, of course, the World Heritage property.

There was some thinking in the past that the Great Lumbini area could become a World Heritage property in its own, as a cultural landscape. But this, of course, necessitates the government’s wish to review the present inscription.

So, there are big challenges to properly plan the entire property. For example, industrial developments, as we see them between the Bhairahawa Airport and Lumbini are not happening in the way that they should be because they are putting at risk the outstanding universal value of the site. Not only in terms of concrete pollution, but also in terms of the spirit of that entire area. When you go from Bhairahawa to Lumbini, you see the cement factories on the left and the right –

DUNHAM: And brick factories –


PLATHE: Yes, brick, but mostly cement factories. It is not what we really should see in a spiritual place like Lumbini.

Of course we understand the economic importance of having industry there, which is a really strategic spot in Nepal, but we should find solutions so that the industries are not developing in that area.

DUNHAM: Would it be possible to relocate those factories?

PLATHE: I believe that is would be possible if there is a good plan and sufficient incentives by the government. In 2009, the Industrial Development Board of Nepal took a decision that would limit the settlement of carbon-emitting industries in the Greater Lumbini area. It’s a good document and I believe that it should be followed and implemented. But many of the stakeholders, including the government — and in particular, the Department of Archeology — are recognizing very clearly the risks that industrial development in Lumbini pose for the cultural assets of the site.

Another challenge is probably the little capacity that exists in Nepal in terms of archeological and conservation work and the capacity of efficient management of the site, in terms of organizing visitors and pilgrims. A lot needs to be done to improve the capacities of these areas.

Another quite exciting challenge is the involvement of the people living in the Lumbini area and ways in which they can benefit from the development of Lumbini. Lumbini would be an ideal place to put into practice this new paradigm of “culture for development”. This is the idea that heritage-cultural industries, including arts and crafts, can contribute considerably to the country’s economic development. It’s an approach that is more and more recognized in the international arena as a new approach to development.

DUNHAM: It has worked in other locations.

PLATHE: It has worked in other parts of the world. The linkage between the sites and heritage assets and the people living with them, must be much stronger in Lumbini. People must benefit from what is going on in Lumbini – not only a few who have been able to, for instance, use land around Lumbini to build hotels, but it should really be the people living in the villages, who should be much more involved and who should benefit from the heritage site.

DUNHAM: Would this include educating the local people?

PLATHE: There’s a wide range of possibilities, including training of local guides, fostering the handicrafts in that area that could be sold to tourists, development of home-stays in the villages around Lumbini, capitalizing on the local cultural heritage – the dances and performances that the people in the region have – bringing them to the visitors, but at the same time safeguarding them for themselves: harnessing the power of culture for the development of the region.

 Lumbini archeological investigation-Jan-2012


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