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
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.
APILGRIM PRAYS IN BODH GAYA
BUDDHIST MONKS IN VADNAGAR