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India’s Attempt To Promote Buddhist Tourism May Need A Community Building Process

BudTourism

Lotus News Feature By Kalinga Seneviratne

New Delhi: India’s Ministry of Tourism (MOT) in association with the Delhi-based International Buddhist Confederation (IBC) organized the 6th International Buddhist Conclave from 23rd to 26th August under the theme of ‘Buddha Path – The Living Heritage’.

The 3 day conclave was inaugurated by President of India Shri Ram Nath Kovind, who told delegates from some 29 countries that Buddhism was the basis for an early form of globalization, when the voyages of Buddhist monks and nuns from India across Asia created both spiritual and trade links across Asia.

“They carried a rich cargo of knowledge and learning. They carried arts and crafts. They carried meditation techniques and even martial arts” noted President Kovind. “Eventually, the many roads that the monks and nuns - those men and women of faith - carved out became among the earliest trade routes”.

The President said that tourism is a multi-stakeholder enterprise where both the private sector and civil society need to play a substantial role. Since across the world tourism has created job opportunities for local communities, he said “in its essence, tourism, like Buddhism, is about people and empowering them to realise their potential”.

Since coming to power 4 years ago, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been trying to promote Buddhist pilgrimage and tourism, but its appeal may be diminished because of the lack of Buddhist communities at and around the sites that are being promoted. Sadly the Muslim Moghul invasions and subsequent Hindu revivalist movements have virtually wiped out Buddhism from India, with the 2011 census showing that only 0.8 percent of India’s 1 billion  population are Buddhists today. That makes only about 8 million Buddhists across India.

With over 500 million Buddhists around the world with most of them concentrated in Southeast and East Asia, while interest in Buddhism has also been growing rapidly in the West, India sees a growing market for Buddhist tourism - India likes to promote itself as the birthplace of Buddhism. But, during a roundtable discussion chaired by India’s Minister of Tourism K.J Alphons, a Buddhist delegate from Malaysia pointed out that it is not enough just reviving the ancient monuments and building grand new stupas at the sites, there is a need to develop real Indian Buddhist communities around these sites. “If you go to Buddhist pilgrim sites in Thailand, Sri Lanka or Myanmar it is a living heritage you witness with their festivals, ceremonies and daily lifestyles,” he pointed out.

Ministerial level delegation from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka participated in the conclave. Singapore was well represented with a delegation of  about 10, that included representatives of Buddhist organisations, media and travel industry. The MOT along with Indian missions abroad and the IBC have identified senior leaders of various Buddhists sects from around the world, scholars, public leaders, media and tour operators and invited them to conclave where over 200 foreign delegate attending the event were taken on two Indian Airlines charter flights to Bodhgaya, Nalanda, Ajantha Caves and Sarnath near Varanasi. The Conclave had a religious / spiritual dimension, an academic theme and a diplomatic and business component.

“(It) was unique, as this year the Ministry of Tourism, had added the world heritage site of Ajanta caves filled with rich cave paintings depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha. The Conclave amalgamated tourism and spirituality seamlessly over four days with the presence of higher order Buddhist monks from around the globe along with Buddhist scholars on the journey of rediscovering the Buddha’s trail in India” noted Parul Trivedi-Shah, writer and media professional from Singapore.

“Each place – Ajanta, Rajgir, Nalanda, Bodhgaya and Sarnath – was chosen with care enabling the delegates to experience warm hearted Indian hospitality, culture, and yet remain spiritually inclined with the Buddhist way of life and learnings. A rejuvenated delegate, I returned to Singapore cherishing the experience and encouraging all in the community to travel to the places associated with the Buddha. One never knows how the Buddha’s teachings can motivate you towards a different fulfillment in life” she adds. 

At each of the locations the local state government hosted the delegates to a gala dinner of local cuisine and a cultural show that had elements of the ancient Buddhist arts of India.  The Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation that hosted the delegates at the UNESCO heritage site in Ajantha, announced in September that they are offering land around the site to Buddhist countries to help develop Buddhist theme park and monasteries there.

Puay Kim Teo from Bodhi Travel who was part of the Singapore contingent noted that there was a good mix of participants from various countries and Buddhist organizations. “There were significant energy and it was very interesting to see the Buddhist activities being conducted and developed by everyone (there) were lots of sharing and learning opportunities” he said. But, he would like to see the many ideas that were proposed, implement in the coming years.

Henry Baey past President of the Buddhist Fellowship says that IBC along with the Indian government need to identify Buddhist communities which are religious minorities in need of support.  “IBC could harness resources from among its members to provide focus assistance to these fringe communities” he argues, adding,  “assistance to strengthen the teaching of the Dhamma and possibly other forms of support can be easily provided by IBC members."

What he argues could easily be seen when one visits the iconic Mahabodhi shrine in Bodhgaya, where you see scores of poor Indian monks virtually begging for money from foreign visitors, while the shrine is surrounded by grand Buddhist  temples, built by various governments and foundations from Buddhist countries. If India’s vision to build a strong bond of friendship with Asian Buddhist countries and communities, is to be realized, this issue of building thriving Indian Buddhist communities around these sites have to be realized. Buddhists across Asia would need to give a helping hand.

* The writer was part of the Singapore contingent to the conclave.

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