NEW DELHI: With China collaborating with Pakistan and Sri Lanka to create a Buddhist trail and claim the legacy keeping in view its geo-strategic interests, India has moved to form a transnational circuit for Buddhist pilgrims and tourists in cooperation with South East Asian countries. To promote itself as the cradle of Buddhism, Pakistan has also started promoting its Gandhara Buddhist Trail.
India’s master stroke to create the Buddhist trail sprawling across Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam is aimed at treasuring the heritage inherited by the country and regaining its place in history as the fountainhead of Buddhism. The initiative, which is commensurating with both India’s soft diplomacy and ‘Act East’ Policy, will be taken under the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation. The Buddhist trail, spread across the South East Asian countries, will be important for India’s identity and tourism.
“The member countries have agreed to enhance tourism cooperation and explore an early harvest ‘Buddhist trail’ as the starting point,” a Ministry of External Affairs’ official said. Myanmar has offered to coordinate the initiative. The decision was taken at the recent meeting of the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation at Vientiane. Observers say that India has been a “late mover” in claiming its rich Buddhist inheritance but is steadily “consolidating” its position.
The move is significant as China also has geo-strategic interests in the South-East Asian countries. It has proposed a Buddhist circuit under its One Belt, One Road project and has been cooperating with Pakistan and Sri Lanka on it. India’s initiative is the second such one after the Modi-led government’s announcement to conduct domestic Buddhist circuits to facilitate Buddhist pilgrims and tourists. In 2014, the government announced to make the Sarnath-Gaya-Varanasi, one among the five circuits in India, a world class one under a `500 crore project.
India’s efforts have been gathering steam after China replaced it as the co-organiser of ‘Vesak’ (Buddha Jayanti) at Gautam Buddha’s birth place in Lumbini, Nepal, earlier this year. Termed as ‘Chinese Lumbini Coup’, China’s move to appropriate Buddhist legacy was preceded by Beijing pulling out of Bihar’s Nalanda University Project. Instead, China developed a rival at Lumbini University under a $3 billion project.
The legacy of Gautam Buddha has become a bone of contention between the two neighbours for over a decade now and the “One Road, One Belt” is also going to further Chinese appropriation of the Buddhist heritage. China has also developed a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through PoK as part of the One Road, One Belt project that is also intended to fuel movement of Buddhist pilgrims. India has objected to the plan.
In April 2016, Pakistan had invited 40 Sri Lankan Buddhist monks to showcase its heritage and promote the Gandhara School of Art and Takshila Museum. Pakistan has been working towards creating an image of “a Muslim country” that has preserved world’s richest Buddhist sites and artifacts.
Buddhism was the official religion in India during the Mauryan Empire (321–185 BC), Pala Empire (750–1174 CE), as well as Kushan Empire from the first to the third centuries CE. In imperial China, it was adopted by the Sui (589–618 CE), Tang (618–907 CE) and Yuan (1271– 1368 CE) dynasties. With the arrival of Islam, Buddhism was pushed to Central Asia.