Kushinagar, Buddhist pilgrimage town and site of big infra push

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Kushinagar international airport on Wednesday in the presence of ministerial colleagues, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, and representatives from 12 countries including a special Sri Lankan delegation led by minister Namal Rajapaksa, a son of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The airport in eastern UP, the third international airport in the election-bound state, will mainly service the Buddhist tourism circuit. The Sri Lankan Airlines flight carrying monks and dignitaries was the first to land at the airport.

Kushinagar and The Buddha

Among the most important of Buddhist pilgrimages, Kushinagar was where The Buddha attained Mahaparinirvana (ultimate salvation) in c. 483 BC.

Today’s Kushinagar is identified with Kushinara, capital of the ancient Malla republic, which was one of the 16 mahajanapadas of the 6th-4th centuries BC.

The area went on to be part of the kingdoms of the Mauryas, Shungas, Kushanas, Guptas, Harshavardhana, and the Palas. Kushinara is believed to have been inhabited until at least the 12th century.

The first excavations in Kushinagar were carried out by Alexander Cunningham and ACL Carlleyle, who unearthed the main stupa and the 6-metre-long statue of the Reclining Buddha in 1876. Kushinagar is among the very few places in India where The Buddha is depicted in reclining form.

Kushinagar, Kushinagar airport, PM Modi Kushinagar airport, Kushingar Buddha, Indian Express Kushinagar vitals

Buddhist tourism sites

In 2016, the Ministry of Tourism announced the Buddhist Circuit as the country’s first transnational tourism circuit, covering sites in Nepal and Sri Lanka alongside those in India.

“It is surprising that while Buddhism originated in India and seven of the eight main Buddhist pilgrimage sites are in India, our country gets not even 1 per cent of Buddhist pilgrims in the world,” then Tourism & Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma had told The Indian Express.

The ministry’s map of the Buddhist Circuit includes Bodh Gaya, Vaishali, and Rajgir in Bihar, Kushinagar, Sarnath, and Shravasti in UP, and Lumbini in Nepal.

The Buddha was born as the prince Siddhartha Gautama in c. 563 BC in Lumbini, and he lived until the age of 29 with his parents in the Shakya capital of Kapilavastu.

He attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, and gave his first sermon at Sarnath near Varanasi.

He taught in the area around Rajgir, where he was built a forest monastery by king Bimbisara of Magadha, and he lived the largest part of his life as The Buddha in Shravasti. He delivered his last sermon in Vaishali.

Kushinagar, Kushinagar airport, PM Modi Kushinagar airport, Kushingar Buddha, Indian Express The Kushinagar International Airport was inaugurated Wednesday, Oct 20, 2021, with the inaugural flight landing from Colombo, whose passengers include a group of respected monks. (PTI Photo)

Cultural diplomacy

There is an awareness in the government that the absence of tourist infrastructure is a major reason why India loses out to Southeast Asian nations such as Indonesia and Thailand. The hope is that world-class facilities will be able to attract Buddhist tourists to India, and boost revenues and employment generation.

A Buddhist Circuit tourist train covers all destinations in 14 days, and helicopter services and more airports are in the pipeline. The push is intended to assert and consolidate India’s position as the original centre of Buddhism, against the claims from China.

Since the announcement of the Buddhist Circuit in 2016, a total Rs 343 crore has been sanctioned for the project under various schemes, of which Rs 278 crore has been released, a Tourism Ministry official said.

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