I recently spent a memorable four days in Bodh Gaya, Rajgir and Nalanda popularly known as the Buddhist Circuit. Bodh Gaya is where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment and is home to the Bodh Gaya Temple. Rajgir is where The First Buddhist Council met. Nalanda rose into prominence as a great Monastic – cum Educational Institution of Oriental Art and Learning attracting students from distant countries and celebrated Chinese travelers like Hiuen Tsiang and I-Tsing. The University had 10,000 students.
During the trip I saw thousands of devotees from South East Asia amongst others. The largest number was from Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Japan not necessarily in that order. There were some from China and Indonesia as well. Every country has a Monastery of its own. Some of these have facilities for their citizens to stay. There is a Bangladesh Buddhist Monastery too!
Large number of Japanese visit Rajgir since their government has sponsored the Shanti Stupa and a garden where the first Buddhist Council meeting was held. Similarly the Hiuen Tsiang Memorial in Nalanda attracts Chinese in large numbers.
Based on my observations and conversations with monks, locals I would like to share some observations and thoughts. This could be the starting point for a blueprint on what India can do to improve infrastructure in the Buddhist Circuit thereby strengthening relations with Buddhist countries and Buddhists worldwide.
Devotees always identify themselves by the country or region they are from. The Tibetans say they are from Tibet, Thais say Thailand so on. The Sikkimese monk said Sikkim and in the same tone told me it must not be construed to mean they are not Indian or have any anti-India feelings. They are happy to be part of India.
The Thai and Lankan groups had organized special prayers in the temple. There was a huge Bhutanese group where young monks were taught sacred Buddhist texts.
Every devotee I interacted with had only love and affection for India and Indians esp. the Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, Bhutanese and Tibetans. I had similar experiences during my visits to Thailand and Mount Kailash in Tibet. The Sri Lankan groups were largely confined to themselves.
I saw a large group of East Europeans meditating in the Bodh Gaya temple. A number of them were chanting mantras (mantra japa with help of a maala). When I introduced myself the group head told me that Buddhism was getting increasingly popular in Eastern Europe. Elsewhere saw a German Buddhist group as well.
A number of devotees had covered their faces with masks to avoid the ill-effects of excessive pollution and open drains.
The devotees were very happy to be there. It was like a dream come true. Every devotee wanted his, her picture taken in front of Lord Buddha’s image i.e. inside the temple.
The temple complex is very well maintained and has an aesthetically landscaped meditation park. It is spotlessly clean, well lit with good sanitation facilities. The town has a large number of quality hotels catering to various budgets.
Now the challenges!
The drive from Patna to Bodh Gaya is on a two way road, through small towns and multiple railway crossings. It took nearly four hours for a 135 km distance. The State Government is currently converting a part of that distance i.e. the Patna bye pass road into four lanes but we need big ideas. The ten odd km stretch from Gaya international airport to Bodh Gaya is a pleasure though. The drive from Bodh Gaya to Rajgir and within Rajgir is a pleasure.
There are many open drains for e.g. just outside the Japanese Monastery is a huge open drain. Its ill effects do not need any elucidation. In both Nalanda and Hampi I saw an excellent drainage system so wonder what prevents us from imbibing such good practices. Rajgir is much cleaner than Bodh Gaya even though it covers a larger area.
The area close to the main temple is clean and traffic quite orderly. Elsewhere there is scope for improvement. It is only the monastery buildings that are well designed and aesthetic. Others are just concrete structures.
India can convert this love and affection for Her amongst ordinary devotees into goodwill on an international scale. A few ideas on what India must do?
Have a four lane Expressway from Patna to Bodh Gaya. This would reduce travel time and consequently increase the number of devotee arrivals (foreign and domestic) with positive effects on Bihar’s economy. Those who have travelled on the Mumbai Pune Expressway and the earlier national highway will vouch for its benefits.
Declare and make Bodh Gaya a model pilgrimage town.
Underground drains, good roads, regulated traffic and so on. Reduce pollution levels by introducing battery operated vehicles within designated areas. All homes could have traditional designs that showcase Buddha and his teachings. These could be sponsored by Central and State governments. A clear vision accompanied by political will shall encourage foreign governments to chip in as well.
In short make Bodh Gaya the heaven that it represents.
Whilst there is no detailed estimate prepared this should not cost much. Excluding the expressway cost, which is a permanent long term investment, cost might be under Rs 4,000 crs. A surge in devotee numbers shall increase economic activity and employment opportunities in the State. These costs are not large for a government that spends Rs 40,000 crs on a national level employment scheme. Atleast this expenditure shall create real employment and assets with long term benefits.
While the Look East policy of the government to engage East and South East Asia has taken off with beginnings in economic and strategic spheres, the soft power cultural and civilisational aspects of our glorious Buddhist dharmic heritage represent a ready-made wellspring of goodwill that India would do well to recharge, enhance and leverage. Apart from East and South East Asia today, Buddhist dharma appeals to millions in Europe and America too. The proper development of Bodh Gaya region as a world-class pilgrimage and educational centre can only burnish India’s reputation with the global Buddhist sangha.
Eventually this enhanced goodwill shall help India forge closer ties with the Buddhist world globally.
The author is a foreign affairs analyst, travel photo journalist and founder www.esamskriti.com.
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