In­dia Hard­sells Bud­dhist Tourism

Its rich Bud­dhist her­itage makes Bi­har a per­ma­nent fix­ture on the pil­grim cir­cuit as Gu­jarat jumps on the band­wagon with a dis­cov­ery in Vad­na­gar

India Today - - INSIDE - By Amitabh Sri­vas­tava and Uday Mahurkar

Its rich Bud­dhist her­itage makes Bi­har a per­ma­nent fix­ture on the pil­grim cir­cuit as Gu­jarat jumps on the band­wagon with a dis­cov­ery in Vad­na­gar.

Last year, Jes­sica, then 27, had a fledg­ling ca­reer as a nurse in Bos­ton af­ter a bach­e­lor’s from the Univer­sity of Michi­gan. That’s when her ‘ Bud­dha mo­ment’ hap­pened. She dropped it all, in­clud­ing her sur­name—“to achieve one­ness with all, as the Bud­dha had preached”— and landed in Bodh Gaya, Bi­har. Jes­sica is now a health pro­gramme vol­un­teer with Root In­sti­tute, a med­i­ta­tion cen­tre. “I have been able to un­der­stand the true mean­ing of life only af­ter com­ing to Bodh Gaya,” she says.

Not ev­ery­one stays on. But an in­creas­ing num­ber of Bud­dhists are headed for In­dia and now the land where Bud­dhism was born is pulling out all stops to har­ness the tourism po­ten­tial of its 500 mil­lion ad­her­ents. The Bodh Gaya- Ra­j­gir- Na­landa cir­cuit fig­ures among the 45 mega tourist desti­na­tions in the coun­try and has en­abled Bi­har to leap ahead of Goa and Hi­machal Pradesh to eighth spot among states when it comes to for­eign tourist ar­rivals. Now, a se­ries of ar- chae­o­log­i­cal ex­ca­va­tions in Vad­na­gar prom­ises to make Gu­jarat a per­ma­nent fix­ture on the Bud­dhist cir­cuit. The Gu­jarat gov­ern­ment is plan­ning on adding nearly a dozen other Bud­dhist sites to Vad­na­gar to woo tourists from South­east Asia, Sri Lanka and the Far East, es­pe­cially Ja­pan.

Bodh Gaya, the place where a prince named Sid­dhartha at­tained en­light­en­ment and be­came Bud­dha more than 2,500 years ago, gets the lion’s share of the over 6.5 lakh for­eign tourists vis­it­ing Bi­har ev­ery year. Many pil­grims who visit Bodh Gaya also head next for Sar­nath, where the Bud­dha preached his first ser­mon post en­light­en­ment; and Ra­j­gir, where he trav­elled next. With pil­grims pour­ing in all- year round and a peak tourist sea­son from Oc­to­ber to March, there is huge money in­volved. Any­thing be­tween Rs 11 crore and 15 crore is ex­changed ev­ery sea­son at the for­eign cur­rency ex­change fa­cil­ity at the State Bank of In­dia Bodh Gaya branch. Pri­vate money chang­ers es­ti­mate the trans­ac­tions are not less than Rs 100 crore ev­ery sea­son. “We have a ball­park fig­ure of Rs 5,000 crore an­nual ex­pen­di­ture in­curred by all tourists vis­it­ing Bodh Gaya and the ad­join­ing Bud­dha cir­cuit towns of Ra­j­gir and Na­landa. This gives us enough hope to set up the first five- star ho­tel in Bodh Gaya and Bi­har,” says businessman Gopal Akhory, 52, who is in the process of set­ting up a Rs 200- crore five- star ho­tel pro­jected to start op­er­a­tions by 2014. Akhory com­mis­sioned three vi­a­bil­ity

sur­veys by New Delhi- based mar­ket re­search firms.

The tourist in­flux has also given the town the state’s best air­port. Since Oc­to­ber 2011, Thai Air­ways, Mi­hin Lanka, Druk Air of Bhutan, Myan­mar Air­ways In­ter­na­tional and Myan­mar Air­ways have been op­er­at­ing flights to Bodh Gaya. “Dur­ing the tourist sea­son, 3,500 tourists fly into Bodh Gaya ev­ery week,” says Sa­mar Kumar Bis­bas, the air­port’s di­rec­tor. The air­port is spread over an area of 954 acres; in com­par­i­son, the air­port at state cap­i­tal Patna is built on 254 acres. Road con­nec­tiv­ity is also set to im­prove, with the Bi­har gov­ern­ment plan­ning to con­vert the 115- km Patna- Bodh Gaya Road into a four- lane high­way.

While Bi­har lever­ages its rich Bud­dha her­itage to ramp up in­fra­struc­ture, in­dus­trial pow­er­house Gu­jarat is jump­ing on the Bud­dhist band­wagon with con­tin­u­ing ex­ca­va­tions in the an­cient town of Vad­na­gar, de­scribed as Anand­pur by Chi­nese trav­eller Hi­uen Tsang in the sixth cen­tury A. D.. In 2009, re­mains of a Bud­dhist monastery were dis­cov­ered there. The state ar­chae­ol­ogy depart­ment has un­earthed nu­mer­ous ar­ti­facts, in­clud­ing more than 24 seals, from the site in the past two years, arous­ing the in­ter­est of in­ter­na­tion­ally re­puted ar­chae­ol­o­gists such as Robin Cun­ning­ham of Durham Univer­sity, Mark Kanyor of Wis­con­sin Univer­sity and T. R. Mani, ad­di­tional di­rec­tor- gen­eral, Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey of In­dia, as well as Bud­dhist schol­ars and pil­grims. Stu­pas at the site re­veal three dif­fer­ent stages of evolv­ing Bud­dhist ar­chi­tec­ture, from cylin­dri­cal and cir­cu­lar shapes to square to moulded plinths. Ex­ca­va­tions have re­vealed two more monas­ter­ies ad­ja­cent to and pos­si­bly larger than the one dis­cov­ered in 2009. Says Y. S. Rawat, head of the Gu­jarat ar­chae­ol­ogy depart­ment and an ex­pert on the In­dus Val­ley Civil­i­sa­tion, who is lead­ing the Vad­na­gar ex­cava-

The new rev­e­la­tions at Vad­na­gar prove that Gu­jarat was an im­por­tant Bud­dhist cen­tre.

Y. S. RAWAT, Head, Gu­jarat Ar­chae­ol­ogy Depart­ment

tions: “The new rev­e­la­tions at Vad­na­gar prove that Gu­jarat was an im­por­tant Bud­dhist cen­tre. Both the stu­pas and the monas­ter­ies cor­re­spond to three pe­ri­ods of Bud­dhist de­vel­op­ment, spread from the first to the sev­enth cen­tury AD.”

Bud­dhist sites men­tioned by Hi­uen in his trav­el­ogue such as Tax­ila in Pak­istan, Sankisa in Ut­tar Pradesh and Kapil­vastu in Nepal be­came fa­mous be­cause of elab­o­rate sur­veys done by renowned colo­nial- era ar­chae­ol­o­gist Alexan­der Cun­ning­ham. Places the Chi­nese trav­eller vis­ited, which the Bri­tish ex­ca­va­tor left out, in­clude Gu­jarat towns Bharuch, Val­lab­hipur ( near Bhav­na­gar), Kutch and Anand­pur, now Vad­na­gar. That Vad­na­gar could be sit­ting on the re­mains of a Bud­dhist vi­hara ( monastery) first be­came known in late 1980s when a Bod­hisattva ( Bud­dha sit­ting in medita- tion pos­ture) idol dat­ing to the sec­ond or third cen­tury A. D. was dis­cov­ered from a farm near the town. With dis­cov­er­ies since 2009, Vad­na­gar, which is also Chief Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s home town, has be­come an­other im­por­tant Bud­dhist des­ti­na­tion in Gu­jarat be­sides Ju­na­gadh, which has Ashoka’s fa­mous Ma­jor Rock Edict.

“We are draw­ing up a Bud­dha cir­cuit in Gu­jarat adding nearly a dozen other Bud­dhist sites to Vad­na­gar,” says Gu­jarat Tourism Sec­re­tary Vipul Mi­tra. An up­beat gov­ern­ment is also try­ing to build a pro­tec­tive weather shade over the Vad­na­gar site in an aes­thetic man­ner so as to not only aid preser­va­tion but also at­tract tourists. Fur­ther ex­ca­va­tion at Vad­na­gar has been con­strained by the site be­ing lo­cated nearly in the mid­dle of the town and sur­rounded by homes of peo­ple. But a big­ger gold­mine awaits ar­chae­ol­o­gists just 20 km away at Taranga, a set of low hills, where Bud­dhist relics lie strewn over a large area.

Jes­sica might have at­tained her ‘ Bud­dha mo­ment’ in 2011, but for the land of his birth, it has just be­gun.

K M KIS­HAN/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com


Graphic by SAU­RABH SINGH/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

SHAILESH RAVAL/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com


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