Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who once said that he is a Buddhist at heart, joined Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in laying the foundation stone for India International Centre for Buddhist Culture and Heritage in Lumbini
India’s next-door neighbour Nepal has always benefitted from competitive diplomacy between India and China. The half-day visit on May 16 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Lumbini, Lord Buddha’s birthplace, on the auspicious occasion of Buddha Purnima, is being viewe through this prism.
The Centre will be constructed by the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC), New Delhi, on a plot allotted by the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT). This is significant as India was not represented in the Lumbini monastic zone for over three decades despite being one of the main centres of Buddhism in the world. Approved in 1978 under the Lumbini Master Plan of the Nepal Government, the monastic zone was established for housing Buddhist monasteries and projects from different denominations and countries.
This initiative from India comes decades after many countries built their centres in Lumbini to promote Buddhist philosophy. India will now be represented alongside Austria, Canada, Cambodia, China, France, Germany, Japan, Myanmar, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, United States and Vietnam.
Dr Pratyush Nandan, a postgraduate and Master of Philosophy in Buddhist Studies from Delhi University, says that PM Modi’s visit to Lumbini as Prime Minister has put an end to the controversy over the birthplace of Lord Buddha.
Kathmandu based veteran journalist Yubaraj Ghimire wrote in a recent news report, “The PM’s visit to Lumbini comes amidst China’s evident interest in Lumbini. Almost a decade ago, China had offered to build Lumbini as a world peace centre at a cost of three billion dollars, besides holding talks on bringing China’s railway right up to Lumbini. Modi’s visit and his laying of the foundation stone for the Buddhist Culture Centre — estimated to cost INR one billion and take three years to complete — will mark India’s first attempt to develop strong linkages with Nepal’s Buddhist heritage sites.’’
PM Modi and Deuba visited the Mayadevi temple, within which lies the birthplace of Lord Buddha. They attended prayers conducted according to Buddhist rituals and made offerings. The Prime Ministers lit lamps and visited the historical Ashoka Pillar, which carries the first epigraphic evidence of Lumbini being the birthplace of Lord Buddha. They also sprinkled water on the holy Bodhi tree brought as a gift by Prime Minister Modi during his 2014 visit to Nepal.
Both Prime Ministers also unveiled a model of the Buddhist centre, which is envisaged as a Net-Zero compliant world-class facility that would house prayer halls, meditation centre, library, exhibition hall, cafeteria and other amenities and would be open to Buddhist pilgrims and tourists from around the world. They also participated in a special event to mark the 2566th Buddha Jayanti celebrations organized by Lumbini Development Trust. PM Modi addressed a large gathering of monks, officials, dignitaries and those associated with the Buddhist world.
The two sides agreed in principle to establish sister-city relations between Lumbini and Kushinagar, which are among the holiest centres of Buddhism and reflect the Buddhist heritage the two countries share.
PM Modi’s first visit to Lumbini and fifth visit to Nepal from the time he took over as Prime Minister in 2014 is also being seen as earnest execution of his ‘Neighbourhood First Policy.
The two sides agreed in principle to establish sister-city relations between Lumbini and Kushinagar, which are among the holiest centres of Buddhism and reflect the Buddhist heritage the two countries share
Last year, he chose to visit Bangladesh while resuming overseas travel following COVID necessitated restrictions worldwide. India’s new Foreign Secretary, Vinay Kwatra, who was until recently India’s Ambassador to Nepal, described the Prime Minister’s visit to Lumbini as ‘’ a short but a very substantive visit” which was essentially driven and focussed on the spiritual and civilisational heritage. “He had a packed schedule in Lumbini. ‘’ It would however be naive to say that symbolism and soft diplomacy focused on religious tourism were the only reason for Modi’s official return visit within six weeks of the India visit of the Nepalese Prime Minister.
The timing of the hurried visit cannot be overlooked as it coincided with the inauguration of China’s built USD 76 million Gautam Buddha International Airport (GBIA), only 19 kilometres from the UNESCO World Heritage site of Lumbini. The airport is funded by the Manila-based Asian Development Bank and OPEC Fund for International Development but built by China’s Northwest Civil Aviation Airport Construction Group.
The airport construction is being seen as part of China’s ambitious designs in mega infrastructure projects in the Himalayan nation. Located in Siddharthnagar municipality, the airport is one of the five projects of national pride being implemented by Nepal’s tourism ministry.
Pradeep Adhikari, Director General of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, described the airport as a gateway to Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha and a means of connecting the world with this region.
When India’s Foreign Secretary was asked during a special briefing why Prime Minister Modi was visiting Lumbini now after eight years, he replied, ‘’ See, when you look at the fundamental construct of our two societies – India and Nepal, the most remarkable thing about it is the shared civilisational heritage and people to people linkages. And this is something which the Prime Minister has repeatedly emphasised, right since his first visit to Nepal in 2014. His subsequent visits have only reinforced that. This time, he’s travelling to Lumbini during the auspicious day of Buddha Jayanti. I would really not see too much into it as to why now, as if there is a particular motive or a driving force behind it, I think Buddhism is a shared civilisational heritage of our two societies, of our two civilizations. I don’t think you need to read anything more into that, and if you want to; put a layer of India’s neighbourhood first policy, combine the two, you have an answer.’’
In his pre-departure statement from New Delhi, PM Modi said India’s relations with Nepal are incomparable. “The purpose of my visit is to celebrate and deepen the deep and documented relationship that has existed for centuries,” he said. Prime Minister Modi and his entourage flew by a particular Indian Air Force helicopter from Kushinagar (where Buddha is said to have attained Nirvana) in Uttar Pradesh. They landed on a helipad constructed near the International Buddhist Prayer Centre and Auditorium in Lumbini.
Although a section of the media reported that PM Modi had avoided the China-built airport, the Foreign Secretary said, “So far as the questions relating to the logistical arrangements of Prime Minister’s travel are concerned, I don’t think it’s correct for me or anybody else to comment on those issues, because those involve many parameters, including security.’’
Whatever may have been the reasons for Modi opting to travel by the IAF chopper, the importance of the airport cannot be denied. Nepal’s Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba described the airport’s opening as a historic day in Nepal’s aviation and tourism sectors and said that it would contribute to the country’s overall development and prosperity in the long run.
A Press release issued by the ADB Nepal office said that the airport’s opening was marked by a successful landing of an international commercial flight. The new airport facility, which can accommodate wide-body aeroplanes, features a 15,169-square-meter terminal building and a new runway of 3,000 meters.
ADB supported the Government of Nepal in upgrading and building the GBIA through the South Asia Tourism Infrastructure Development Project. The total cost of the airport construction is $76.1 million. ADB’s contribution is about $37 million in loans and grants, while the OPEC Fund for International Development contributed about $11 million in loans. The Government of Nepal funds the rest. Six MoUs were signed during the visit. An agreement was signed between SJVN Ltd and Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) to develop and implement the Arun 4 Project.
The two Prime Ministers expressed satisfaction over the progress made in bilateral power sector cooperation in recent months, which covers the development of generation projects, power transmission infrastructure and power trade. Prime Minister Deuba invited Indian companies to undertake the development of the West Seti hydropower project in Nepal. PM Modi assured India’s support in the development of Nepal`s hydropower sector and in encouraging interested Indian developers to expeditiously explore new projects.
A Memorandum of Understanding was also signed between Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) and Lumbini Buddhist University on the establishment of Dr Ambedkar Chair for Buddhist Studies.
A Chinese scholar in New Delhi said that it is narrow-minded on India’s part not to use a China built international airport. He wondered why India perceives China as a threat and not an opportunity.