WHAT’S THE STORY?

ONE of the holiest places of one of the world’s great religions is at risk from dangerous levels of air pollution.

Air quality is so poor at the historic site of Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal that monks are forced to wear masks to meditate.

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Lumbini is of such religious significance it attracts pilgrims from around the world and was made a Unesco world heritage site in 1997 because of its archaeological importance.

However, while it is in a government protected zone, increasing industrialisation beside the site is threatening the historic artefacts of Lumbini as well as pilgrims’ health.

Scientists have warned the threat is “serious” after analysing data from air quality monitoring stations.

In recent months fine particulate matter (PM2.5) was found to be 173.035 micrograms per cubic metre, almost seven times more than the WHO’s safe limit of 25 micrograms per cubic metre.

It means Lumbini is scoring even higher than the Nepal capital Kathmandu which is notorious for its poor air quality. The reading for Kathmandu was 109.82, well above the Nepalese government’s national standard of 40.

WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS?

PILGRIMS are reportedly cutting their visits short to the sacred site because of breathing difficulties. Many like to meditate on the exact spot where, according to Buddhist tradition, Queen Maya Devi gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama more than 2600 years ago. Gautama, tradition says, founded Buddhism when he achieved enlightenment at around the age of 35.

Monk Vivekananda, who runs a meditation centre at the site, said he often found it difficult to breathe.

He said: “We had at our meditation centre certain people who have had asthma conditions and during their stay here in Lumbini, it has badly affected them.

“In at least three cases, they had to cut their retreat short and go back because they could not tolerate the conditions here any more.”

Retired health worker Shankar Gautam said monks meditating with face masks on were now a common sight.

“When the wind brings more pollution, we see many monks meditating here with their masks on,” said Shankar Gautam. “Studies have shown that in the past 10 years the number of people with lung related diseases has gone up. The dust coming in here has also led to a huge increase in skin-related diseases,” he added.

IS THE FUTURE BLEAK?

THERE are fears that pollution will severely hamper government plans to develop the site to attract more tourists from around the world.

Last year alone there were one million visitors bringing much-needed revenue to a country still struggling from the aftermath of the devastating 2015 earthquake.

Buddha’s birthplace survived the tremor but archaeologists believe it is now in danger of deterioration from pollution.

Lumbini is supposed to be safeguarded by a government protection zone but the evidence is that the area is not nearly big enough. On its boundary is an industrial corridor where steel, cement, noodle and paper factories are sited.

Environmentalists complain that some factories are even within the Lumbini Protected Zone which is a designated 15km aerial distance from the west, east and north boundary of the sacred site.

Compounds of the cement production cycle were even found on the Ashoka pillar erected in 249BC by an Indian emperor who was a pilgrim to Lumbini.

“On the samples of the Ashoka pillar gypsum, calcite, dolomite and magnesite are present in the form of fine powder that deposits on the surface,” said a study by Constantino Meucci of the University of Rome. “All compounds are made by the cement production cycle,” it added.

SO INDUSTRY IS THE PROBLEM?

FACTORY owners dispute they are to blame, pointing to the fact that pollution is a problem in many parts of Nepal.

Ajay Ajad, manager of the largest cement factory near the zone agreed it was “very near to the birthplace of Lord Gautam Buddha”.

However, he added: “Obviously cement factories emit some dust but we are at a reasonably safe distance and therefore the deposition of our dust particles on the sacred site is minimised.”

Ajad said that in any case the dust was “all over Nepal even at places where there are no cement factories”.

A study by Unesco clearly pins the blame on violation of the protection zone.

“The expansion of the carbon emission industries within the Lumbini Protected Zone has caused several problems such as threats to biodiversity, health hazards to local residents, archaeological properties, social and cultural values,” it stated.

The government has said it is going to try to detect the sources of the pollution using a drone.

“Based on recent data, we know that Lumbini is more polluted than Kathmandu,” said Shankar Prasad Poudel, of the environment department. “We plan to detect the sources of the pollution using a drone in the near future and hopefully this will help minimise the problem,” he added.

WHY IS THE PLACE SO PRECIOUS?

ACCORDING to Unesco, Lumbini’s remains contain important evidence about the nature of Buddhist pilgrimage centres from as early as the 3rd century BC.

The complex of structures within the archaeological conservation area includes the Shakya Tank – remains within the Maya Devi Temple consisting of brick structures in a cross-wall system dating from the 3rd century BC to the present century, as well as the sandstone Ashoka pillar with its Pali inscription in Brahmi script. Additionally there are the excavated remains of Buddhist viharas (monasteries) of the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD and the remains of Buddhist stupas (memorial shrines) from the 3rd century BC to the 15th century AD. “As the birthplace of the Lord Buddha, testified by the inscription on the Ashoka pillar, the sacred area in Lumbini is one of the most holy and significant places for one of the world’s great religions,” said Unesco.

“The long-term challenges for the protection and management of the property are to control the impact of visitors, and natural impacts including humidity and industrial development in the region.”