During the past few years, India has witnessed the commencement of operations of several new airports, and this trend seems bound to an upward trajectory in the foreseeable future. The Prime Minister has resolved to lay a network of over 200 airports across the nation. But, the international airport started at Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh is of special significance. Its commissioning will aid the followers of Buddhists living in diverse countries of the world who believe in Buddhism to effortlessly visit their Parinirvana Sthal (where Lord Buddha breathed his last breath) and attained nirvana after his death.
When the Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, was inaugurating the new airport, there were diplomats from countries like South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, including the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa's son, and his cabinet minister Namal and their presence is a testimony to the paramount momentaneous of the Kushinagar Airport to the countries which practice Buddhism.
Unless one has visited countries like Thailand or Sri Lanka and seen the truth for themselves, it is extremely hard to imagine the massive magnitude of thousands of Buddhist tourists that visit Buddhist temples around the clock every day. As tourists, their general reactions to seeing the idols of Lord Buddha are of that awe and amazement. This is the state of affairs when these nations have no direct relation with Buddhism. Sri Lanka went so far as to accept that Buddhism was a blessed gift to it from India.
As of now, Buddhist circuits are being developed around Kushinagar, Shravasti, and Kapilvastu. Besides these, similar projects have been commissioned in several parts of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, and Andhra Pradesh. It is no big surprise that tourism was one of the first and worst affected sectors by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as the situation improves and we slowly return to our expected versions of normal, it can be rightly assumed that the inflow of foreign tourists to places associated with the Buddhist circuit of India will increase rapidly.
Undoubtedly, India is home to a rich ancient Buddhist heritage with many important holy sites related to the life of Lord Buddha. It is important to bring up the question of why, despite being a land of Buddhists, we have been so weak in attracting Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world. The Indian Buddhist heritage is a subject of extraordinary interest to the followers of Buddhism.
Kushinagar is one of the major pilgrimage sites for the followers of Buddhism. Lord Buddha attained the ultimate state of Nirvana (Mahaparinirvana) at Kushinagar, which is one of the most crucial archaeological sites in India. Major tourist attractions in Kushinagar include the ancient Mahaparinirvana Temple, one of the most sacred Buddhist temples, the Rambhar Stupa Kushinagar Museum, Sun Temple Nirvana Stupa, Matha Kuar Shrine, Wat Thai Temple, Chinese Temple, Japanese Temple, etc.
Yet, our country sees a minuscule annual flock of Buddhist tourists as compared to some other nations. This is because our previous governments glorified the Mughal tourist attractions, which was a reminder of our slavery and didn't preserve the Buddhist tourist places that were symbols of our spiritual prosperity.
Buddhist tourists spend about two to three weeks in India. During their visit to our country, they travel from Gaya to Vaishali and Sarnath to Kushinagar. Some even visit the Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur, where Dr. Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar marked a monumental step in history as he embraced Buddhism with his 6,00,000 followers.
The Modi government has now initiated working towards the idea that tourists from countries who actively preach and practice Buddhism have to be brought to India. This is a very large group of potential tourists. So far, we have failed miserably to bring millions of followers of Buddhism spread across the world to India's major Buddhist pilgrimage sites. This is a fact.
Thailand alone receives an inflow of four and a half to five million religious tourists every year. So why don't tourists come to India, which has always been the epicentre of Buddhism? Now, this is a debatable question. It is a fact that needs to be made aware that all tourists visiting Bodh Gaya and its adjacent Buddhist circuit cities–Rajgir and Nalanda, Vaishali, Varanasi, Sarnath, and Kushinagar – spend a lot of money throughout the year, which boosts and strengthens the local economy fiscally.
Today, as new Buddhist pilgrimage sites are being developed, in the same manner, we have to restore, expand and revamp the existing Buddhist circuit. Efforts towards the same have already been initiated, but there is a need to do far more. For example, the Mahabodhi Temple, wherein a beautiful idol of Lord Buddha is installed, is on the Mandir Marg of the capital city of Delhi. This is the first Buddhist temple in Delhi which Mahatma Gandhi inaugurated in the year 1939.
We have also developed the Ladakh Buddhist Vihara, a renowned attraction for international tourists. It may come as a surprise to come across the name of the Ladakh Buddhist Vihara. For this Buddhist monastery, the central government had allotted a place in 1963 to the people of the Buddhist society of Ladakh residing in Delhi. One can reach here from the metro station of Kashmere Gate. There is a magnificent statue of Lord Buddha installed here.
There are several small prayer wheels within the temple, and a big wheel is located at the main entrance. The place is an abode of Spiritual peace. The peaceful Yamuna river flows right next to it. Amidst the hectic life of Delhi, a few moments of tranquillity should be spent here.
As of now, the religious tourism sector in Kushinagar is expected to increase rapidly after the opening of the Kushinagar international airport. The Buddhist pilgrimage circuit of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar will see many tourists, especially from Sri Lanka, Japan, South Korea, China, and other Southeast Asian countries.
India's primary target should be that in the next 5 years, at least 10 million tourists from Buddhist countries should visit India every year. For this, we have to develop the roads and world-class hotels around the pilgrimage sites associated with Buddhism. If we divert our attention and invest sincerely in this direction, we will be rewarded with a lot of profit. The biggest benefit that shall accrue because of all of this would be that employment opportunities for local youth will rise multifold.
(The writer is a senior editor, columnist, and former MP.)