Lumbini, in southern Nepal, is a UNESCO world heritage site of universal value as the birthplace of Buddha. Poor air quality in Lumbini and surrounding regions is a great concern for public health as well as for preservation, protection and promotion of Buddhist heritage and culture. We present here results from measurements of ambient concentrations of key air pollutants (PM, BC, CO, O3) in Lumbini, first of its kind for Lumbini, conducted during an intensive measurement period of three months (April–June 2013) in the pre-monsoon season. The measurements were carried out as a part of the international air pollution measurement campaign; SusKat-ABC (Sustainable Atmosphere for the Kathmandu Valley – Atmospheric Brown Clouds). The ranges of hourly average concentrations were: PM10: 10.5–604.0 µg m−3, PM2.5: 6.1–272.2 µg m−3; BC: 0.3–30.0 µg m−3; CO: 125.0–1430.0 ppbv; and O3: 1.0–118.1 ppbv. These levels are comparable to other very heavily polluted sites throughout South Asia. The 24-h average PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations exceeded the WHO guideline very frequently (94 % and 85 % of the sampled period, respectively), which implies significant health risks for the residents and visitors in the region. These air pollutants exhibited clear diurnal cycles with high values in the morning and evening. During the study period, the worst air pollution episodes were mainly due to agro-residue burning and regional forest fires combined with meteorological conditions conducive of pollution transport to Lumbini. Fossil fuel combustion also contributed significantly, accounting for more than half of the ambient BC concentration according to aerosol spectral light absorption coefficients obtained in Lumbini. WRF-STEM, a regional chemical transport model, was used to simulate the meteorology and the concentrations of pollutants. The model was able to reproduce the variation in the pollutant concentrations well; however, estimated values were 1.5 to 5 times lower than the observed concentrations for CO and PM10 respectively. Regionally tagged CO tracers showed the majority of CO came from the upwind region of Ganges valley. The model was also used to examine the chemical composition of the aerosol mixture, indicating that organic carbon was the main constituent of fine mode PM2.5, followed by mineral dust. Given the high pollution level, there is a clear and urgent need for setting up a network of long-term air quality monitoring stations in the greater Lumbini region.