Lumbini in Nepal is perhaps the holiest place you have never heard of

Sitting under a tree, prayer flags hanging from the branches and a nearby pool reflecting the colours, it's hard not to feel some spiritual energy. This transcendent atmosphere comes not just from the physical setting, but from the knowledge (or, at least, belief) of what occurred here more than 2600 years ago.

Two monks walk in the Sacred Garden at the heart of Lumbini. Pictures: Michael Turtle

Two monks walk in the Sacred Garden at the heart of Lumbini. Pictures: Michael Turtle

This is Lumbini in Nepal, perhaps the holiest place on Earth that you have never heard of. It was here that a local queen gave birth to a boy who would change the world. He was called Prince Siddhartha, although his name later changed to something perhaps more familiar to you - Buddha.

The story of Buddha is interesting because there is a lot more historical evidence of his life than similar figures in other major religions. We know, for a fact, that he was born around 623 BC as a prince and, when he was 35 years old, left his material wealth behind him to search for enlightenment. You can visit the archaeological remains of the royal palace complex called Tilaurakot where he was raised, about 30 kilometres away from his birthplace, to see physical evidence of his story, along with other nearby historical sites.

The Mayadevi Temple that covers the Marker Stone showing the exact spot of Buddha's birth.

The Mayadevi Temple that covers the Marker Stone showing the exact spot of Buddha's birth.

Faith, though, is generally more about belief than history, and that's certainly the focus at the main Lumbini site. Legend says that a pregnant Queen Mayadevi was walking to her hometown when she suddenly needed to give birth, so she stopped under a sal tree in the forest here at Lumbini. With a full moon in the sky, the baby Buddha was born, walking seven steps to the north, looking around, and announcing that this would be his final rebirth.

Those seven steps were just the first of many important ones to come. As he walked across the subcontinent, sharing his teachings, he was creating the foundations of an ideology of peace that would become a global religion. This is why, so many years later, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims come here each year.

The archaeological site of Tilaurakot where Buddha lived as a prince until he was 35.

The archaeological site of Tilaurakot where Buddha lived as a prince until he was 35.

Oddly, there are just a handful of other tourists who visit Lumbini each day. Which is a shame, I think, because there's actually a lot on offer here - physical and spiritual.

The current layout of Lumbini is a five-kilometre-long urban design from 1978 that came about after UN Secretary General U Thant, a Buddhist from Myanmar, visited and was shocked at how little care was being taken of Buddha's birthplace. The modern design is divided into three sections and is intended to take you on your own journey of enlightenment. You start in the material world, where there are shops, restaurants, and hotels. You move through an area full of monasteries surrounded by forest, and then finally you arrive in the Sacred Garden where Buddha was born.

The Chinese Monastery is one of the largest monastic centres at Lumbini.

The Chinese Monastery is one of the largest monastic centres at Lumbini.

The Sacred Garden is the most important part of Lumbini and is where I find the prayer flags hanging from trees, pilgrims sitting in quiet contemplation, and the brick foundations from ancient temples. At the centre is a simple white building that was constructed in 2003 as protection for the Marker Stone and fourth-century stone carving of the nativity scene on the supposed exact spot of the birth. Worshippers line up and wait for their turn to stand here and pay their respects.

Even for a non-Buddhist like me, it feels special to be on this spot. There's an energy - perhaps from the power of the site, perhaps from the people around it. I don't think you could come here and not feel it, though.

The Sri Lankan Monastery in the monastic zone of Lumbini.

The Sri Lankan Monastery in the monastic zone of Lumbini.

But if the Sacred Garden and the Mayadevi Temple (as the white protective building is called) have an energy, then it's the two monastery zones where you find the calm. There are about 20 monasteries in total and each is unique. Most of them have been built by particular countries and represent the architecture and traditions of those people. So the Chinese Monastery has a golden pagoda in the centre, while the Thai Monastery is made of white marble.

Even for a non-Buddhist like me, it feels special to be on this spot.

Visitors are welcome to visit almost all of these monasteries and it's while doing this that I come the closest to my own mini journey towards nirvana. I have borrowed a bike from my hotel and I cycle between each building through the forest, the golden light dappled through the trees. At some of the monasteries, I talk to monks and hear more about why they have come here. When I am alone, I think about what it all means. For the pilgrims. For myself. For all of us.

The Thai Monastery is built from white marble and is one of the most impressive at Lumbini.

The Thai Monastery is built from white marble and is one of the most impressive at Lumbini.

For Australian travellers, Nepal normally means trekking in the mountains, exploring the historical sites of Kathmandu, and seeing animals in Chitwan National Park. Lumbini is very rarely on the itinerary.

In some ways, I understand why. If all you did was walk around for a couple of hours, you may think it rather boring. But when you give yourself the time to view it through spiritual eyes, to see the journey that it offers every visitor, then you'll see why it's one of the holiest places in the world, even if it's not the most famous.

Michael Turtle is a journalist who has been travelling the world full-time for eight years. Read more about his travel adventures at timetravelturtle.com

This story The holiest site you've never heard of first appeared on The Canberra Times.