Dalai Lama's month of peace prayers drawing scores to Buddhist holy town

Bodh Gaya has 52 Buddhist temples, only two of which are set up by Indian Buddhists. All the rest proudly announce their national identity on the signboards- Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, Japanese et al.

Published: 01st December 2022 11:18 PM  |   Last Updated: 02nd December 2022 12:00 AM   |  A+A-

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama arrives at the airport in Leh, Ladakh, India, Friday, July 15, 2022. (Photo | AP)

BODH GAYA: As the West awaits an uncertain Christmas owing to the adverse fallout of the Ukraine war, Buddhists from across the world are looking forward to joining the Dalai Lama during his December 25 visit to the holy city of Bodh Gaya to pray for world peace.

The Tibetan spiritual leader, easily the world's most venerated Buddhist personality alive, will be in Bodh Gaya for one whole month.

This coincides with PM Narendra Modi's pitch to end the war in Ukraine matched by foreign minister S Jaishankar's efforts to mediate an end to the conflict that has sent the global economy in a spin over rising food and fuel prices. 

Bodh Gaya is where Gautam Buddha attained Enlightenment more than 2500 years ago under the famous Bodhi Tree.

The Mahabodhi Temple in the town boasts of a 289-kilogram Golden Dome gifted by Thai devotees and several Buddha statues including one 80 feet high (installed by a Japanese temple) and another commissioned by women monks.

Among the four places held most sacred by Buddhists, the Mahabodhi temple complex in Bodh Gaya, located 111 km south of Patna, is the most visited. The other three, Lumbini in Nepal,  where he was born; Kusinagar, where he attained Mahaparinirvana; and Sarnath, where he gave his first sermon, are equally important, but Bodh Gaya is special. It is here Siddharth the restless and inquisitive prince turned Buddha, the enlightened.

The Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa or Peepal tree) under which the Buddha is believed to have meditated and attained enlightenment is located within this temple complex and is carefully preserved. 

The Indian government has ambitious plans to develop this Buddhist tourist circuit with World Bank funding.  When completed, it is likely to generate business worth billions of dollars every year.

On Dec 25 this year, His Holiness Dalai Lama will land in Bodh Gaya to offer his annual prayers to Lord Buddha and hold spiritual discourse on global peace.

"In a world full of conflicts like the Ukraine War, the Dalai Lama will lead tens of thousands of Buddhists to pray for peace. We hope our prayers will be answered and peace will return to not only the Ukraine-Russia front but also in other conflict zones of the world," said Chalinda Bhikkhu, chief monk of the Mahabodhi Temple.

Chalinda Bhikkhu, 57,  expects thousands of resident and visiting monks in Bodh Gaya's 52 Buddhist temples and a still greater number of pilgrims from the Buddhist world to attend the Dalai Lama's public sessions. 

Bodh Gaya has 52 Buddhist temples, only two of which are set up by Indian Buddhists. All the rest proudly announce their national identity on the signboards- Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, Japanese et al.

"This gives Bodh Gaya a unique international flavor, " says Kiron Lama, secretary of the Japanese Daijokyo Buddhist Temple which installed the 80 feet high Buddha statue, now a major attraction.

But the Dalai Lama visit is not just likely to drive a quest for peace." It is likely to boost Bodh Gaya's tourism economy hugely, " says Ratneswar Chakma, secretary of the Buddhist Thai-Bharat Society and a functionary of the International Buddhist Council (IBC).

More than half a million tourists from India and countries, where Buddhism is the dominant faith, visited Bodh Gaya in 2019. But the Covid pandemic brought down the tourist traffic to zero in 2020-21, upsetting the lives of local people who largely depend on tourism for livelihood.

"We lost all business. There were no customers and we closed down our restaurant, " said Dev Kumar, a manager at the SiamThai restaurant at the heart of Bodh Gaya town.

"Now we hope to recover much of our business with the scheduled visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama," says Dev Kumar as he serves a group of 12 Thai pilgrim tourists who have already landed in Bodh Gaya a month before the Dalai Lama's visit. 

His ten-year-old restaurant makes customized Thai food that's a great draw for the Thais and other tourists from Southeast Asia. 

Kinley Tshering running a Bhutanese restaurant is quite as hopeful.

"Dalai Lama will not only bring us spirituality and peace but also good business. We nearly gave up our restaurant lease because there was no business for two years due to the pandemic.  But now foreign tourists from all over are coming in droves," said Tshering.

Officials at the Bodh Gaya international airport say five to six international flights, mostly chartered ones, are landing at the Bodh Gaya international airport every day loaded with pilgrims. This could increase closer to the Dalai Lama's visit. Domestic airlines may resume flights to Bodh Gaya as well from airports drawing pilgrim tourists from East and Southeast Asia.  Many are landing in Calcutta and taking trains or buses to Bodh Gaya.

Only pilgrims from China and Sri Lanka can hardly be seen anymore. There's also a perceptible drop in pilgrims from Myanmar.

"Chinese pilgrims use to come in. large numbers until the border standoff between the Indian and Chinese militaries impacted adversely on bilateral relations. Perhaps travel bans due to Covid in China is also keeping them away. Sri Lankans are perhaps not coming because of the economic collapse back home. Myanmar has both political disturbances and economic woes back home," says Mrinal Chakma,  who runs Buddhabhumi Porikroma, a company handling Buddhist tourists.

But from the rest of the Buddhist world, from Bhutan to Vietnam, from Japan and South Korea to Thailand, pilgrims are flocking to Bodh Gaya to hear the Dalai Lama speak on Buddha's teachings and its relevance for a world torn by wars and conflicts.

While many agree that this gives India a wonderful opportunity to leverage its diplomatic outreach to the Buddhist world and optimize the potential for tourism development in the Buddhist circuit, some say much has to change for that to happen.

"Indian leaders do highlight that Buddha attained his Enlightenment in India. But their pitch as the land of Buddha has to be followed by concrete steps to leverage that for both diplomatic influences and to promote a tourism boom," said Kailash Prasad, a professor of Buddhist studies based in Bodh Gaya.

Prasad says the current Indian government is surely improving physical infrastructure like new roads, rail and air services to connect Bodh Gaya to the rest of India and outside the country and especially to link the holy town with other Buddhist sites like the ancient ruins of the Buddhist university of Nalanda and the town of Vaishali, the world's first republic.

"But for Bodh Gaya to be elevated to something like an international holy town like Mecca or the Vatican, the Indian government and the Bihar government have to bring about a complete change in administrative attitudes. Buddhist religious figures and experts on Buddhism must have greater say in the running of sites like Bodh Gaya rather than small-time bureaucrats with limited understanding of Buddhism," Prasad told this writer in an interview.

He said the Temple Advisory Committees don't convene meetings for years, leaving Buddhist monks, particularly the foreign monks running the well-endowed temples with little scope to raise key issues.

For example, Dr Phramaha Phan Thaekrathoke, locally known as Mahapran Bhikkhu, who runs the Wat Thai Temple at Nalanda wants the Indian government to withdraw the high visa fees for Buddhist monks visiting India from Thailand.

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"The Indian embassy has started charging 4300 Thai baht or about 9000 Indian rupees as visa fees from registered Thai Buddhist monks. We don't mind pilgrims being charged visa fees because they earn, but monks live on alms of devotees and don't earn. Each monk brings with him 100 to 200 devotees, so it is important for India not to discourage monks from coming to Bodh Gaya," Dr Phramaha told this writer.

The Thais have 37 Buddhist temples in India, most in Bodh Gaya, Nalanda, Vaishali and other locations on the Buddhist circuits.   

Thousands of pilgrims from Thailand visit these temples and stay there during the pilgrimage. All these temples serve as a huge boost for the local economy.

"If Bodh Gaya has to be a Buddhist Vatican or Mecca, India has to start thinking of it as one. India's Look east policy should begin from this holy town and the Buddhist circuit around it," says Mrinal Chakma , a former fellow at Calcutta's Maulana Azad Institute of Asian Studies now into Buddhist tourism.

(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent and author on Northeast India.)



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