In June 24 this year, India’s Cabinet declared the airport at Kushinagar in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh in the proximity of prominent Buddhist sites in India and neighbouring Nepal as an International Airport to provide direct access to Buddhist tourists from South and South-East Asian nations for visiting their cherished destinations connected with Lord Gautama Buddha. Kushinagar itself is one of the most important Buddhist sites where Buddha attained Mahaparinirvana in 483 BC. The 3,200 metre long runway is ready for take-off and landing of small and wide body aircraft. Other renovations and up-gradation of facilities are nearing completion. The airport is expected to be open for international commercial operations as soon as these are resumed in India and other countries relaxing restrictions imposed due to spread of Covid 19 pandemic. Kushinagar, is expected to become a major tourist hub for visitors from countries having large Buddhist population, besides inclusive development of the area.
In addition to the up-gradation of Kushinagar airport, a Rupees ten thousand crore infrastructure project is under implementation to construct and upgrade road networks connecting Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh for ease of travel of pilgrims. It is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
The Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation, IRCTC had launched Buddhist Circuit Train in October last year. It carries tourists to destinations including Lumbini in Nepal, the birth place of Gautama Buddha, to which tourists are transported by road in deluxe AC buses from Gorakhpur as part of the package. Rest of the journey is by fully air conditioned train to places like Bodhgaya in Bihar, where Buddha achieved enlightenment, Varanasi for sight-seeing at Sarnath, where the Buddha delivered his first sermon, Nalanda and Rajgir where he lived and preached; and to Kushinagar, where Gautama Buddha attained Mahaparinirvana.
Several initiatives have been taken up for the development of infrastructure at all these sites and places of Buddhist tourist attraction in other states such as the historic Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh, one of the oldest Buddhist monuments, believed to house the ashes of the Buddha. It was built in the 3rd Century BC by Emperor Ashoka. Buddhist pilgrims visit these sites and Lumbini in Nepal with a tourist large inflow from Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and other South East Asian nations. For the ease of international tourists, signages have been put up in different world languages at prominent Buddhist sites.
As India receives large number of Chinese Buddhist pilgrims from mainland China and South East Asia, signages in Mandarin, Thai and Japanese language have been installed at five Buddhist sites,including Sarnath, Kushinagar and Sravasti. Similarly, Signages in Sinhala language have been put up at the pilgrimage site at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh in view of the large footfall of Sri Lankan tourists.
Buddhism travelled to Sri Lanka and later to many other Asian countries from India helping build cultural, religious, social and business relations between those nations and India. President Ram Nath Kovind rightly said at the last International Buddhist Conclave held in New Delhi that the spread of Buddhism from India to the world has been the basis of an early form of globalisation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also referred to the crucial role Buddhism plays in building spiritual and other connectivity in his Independence Day address on 15th August 2020 when he said ASEAN countries, which are our maritime neighbours hold special importance. He said India has thousands of years old religious and cultural ties with these countries and the traditions of Buddhism connect us with them.
Even though India is the home to Buddhism, it is a paradox that it receives only a fraction of the world’s Buddhist tourists. Apart from having the world class Buddhist Circuit, India is ready to implement major plans to attract more pilgrims/ tourists from foreign countries.
Script: Rattan Saldi, Senior Journalist