By Sugeeswara Senadhira
Colombo, October 15 (Daily News): Strategic political relationships between countries can have ups and downs as they pursue policies based on their national interests. But spiritual bonds between peoples can withstand any political storm and remain steadfast even in the midst of political animosities.
Buddhist, Hindu and Christian pilgrimages connect the people of India and Sri Lanka to a large extent. While travels by Sri Lankan Hindus and Christians to temples and churches in South India are quite high, the vast majority of Sri Lankan pilgrims to India are Buddhists visiting the places that the Buddha trod more than 2500 years ago.
Buddhist connectivity will get a boost next week when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi opens the Kushinagar International Airport on Vap Poya day (Oct 20). Kushinagara (Kusinara) is one of the four most sacred places of Buddhist worship in India. Two Sri Lankan Airlines flights carrying a delegation of more than 100 Buddhist monks, including the Mahanayakes of four chapters, Siyam, Malwathu, Ramanna and Amarapura, and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa will land there. Indian Premier Narendra Modi will arrive at the new airport from New Delhi.
Ambassadors of many countries based in New Delhi will also be in Kushinagar that day, especially from countries with Buddhist populations.
The invitation to send the first international flight to the Kushinara International Airport was extended in August 2020 when Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay called on Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to convey a message of congratulations from Prime Minister Modi for the SLPP’s victory in the August 8 general elections.
Baglay confirmed that the Government of India had recently declared the Kushinagar Airport in India, the place of Lord Buddha’s Mahaparinibbana, as an international airport, to allow Buddhist pilgrims from around the world to visit the revered site associated with the Buddha with ease.
Later, when the High commissioner called on Agga Maha Pandita Most Venerable Kotugoda Dhammawasa Thera, Mahanayake of Amarapura Nikaya, he mentioned that given the pre-eminence of India-Sri Lanka Buddhist ties, both countries agreed that the inaugural flight to this airport will be from Sri Lanka.
Archaeological excavations led by surveyor C.L. Carlleyle discovered the main stupa in Kushinagar and a 6.10-meter-long statue of the reclining Buddha in 1876. Subsequently, a stupa was renovated preserving its archaeological splendor and religious significance. Venerable Chandra Swami, a Burmese monk made Mahaparinirvana Temple into a living shrine in 1903. Today, there are several Buddhist temples constructed by Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand and Japan. The Sri Lanka Buddhist Temple is a joint venture between the AIK World Buddhist Culture Association, Japan and the Sri Lanka Buddhist Centre and its chief incumbent is Ven Gonulle Assaji Thero.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said in Kushinagar that Prime Minister Modi will address a public meeting after inaugurating the Kushinagar International Airport.
Indian Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia said a sum of INR 255 crore (2550 million) was spent to construct the Kushinagar International Airport. He said that the flights are expected to start from Kushinagar this month. The airport is spread across 600 acres of land. In June, 2020, the airport was given international status, and in February, 2021, the airport got all necessary clearances from the Directorate of General of Civil Aviation to be an international airport.
Promoting India as one of the world’s great reservoirs of history, cultures, philosophies and religions, a Buddhist Circuit was introduced to attract global interest to visit and experience the assets that put India amongst the most desired destinations for tourists and pilgrims.
The Buddhist Circuit is a route that follows in the footsteps of the Buddha from Lumbini in Nepal where he was born, through Buddha Gaya in Bihar in India where he attained enlightenment, then to Sarnath where the first sermon was given and Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh in India, where the Buddha passed away attaining mahaparinibbana. This iconic route only includes places where the Buddha actually spent time, and these sites – all of which are over 2500 years old – are among the most significant and revered for all Buddhists.
The Buddhist Circuit is an important pilgrimage destination for the 450 million practicing Buddhists as well as travelers interested in history, culture or religion.
On the same theme, the SAARC Cultural Centre organized a seminar on “Buddhist Cultural Trails: Journey through Time and Space, of Merchants, Monks and Pilgrims” at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) in August 2017. It was the first Seminar on “South Asian Cultural Trails” which aimed to strengthen cultural ties in the region through a walk into the shared past of our ancestors. In this endeavor, the various perspectives of the socio-cultural, tangible and intangible connectivity established through the popular dissemination of Buddhism across several centuries were explored. Officially nominated participants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka presented papers at the research seminar.
High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in India Milinda Moragoda’s recently announced ‘Road Map’ also stressed the need to enhance Buddhist pilgrimages as well as Sri Lankan Catholic pilgrimages to the “Velankanni trail” in Tamil Nadu. In particular, it speaks of handing over a sacred stone from the Sita Amman temple in Sri Lanka for the Ram Temple planned in Ayodhya.
He also proposed to enhance connectivity through resumption of passenger ferry services, more air connectivity and new destinations for Sri Lankan flights. The “air travel bubble” that only began in April was suspended after a few weeks due to the increase in COVID cases.
The ferry service between Thalaimannar and Rameshwaram was disrupted in 1980s due to the conflict with Tamil militants. Now the time is ripe for a ferry service and the two countries are considering proposals for a ferry service either from Cochin to Colombo or a service from Tamil Nadu coast to the Jaffna peninsula.
Prof Lathasiri Gunaruwan of Colombo University said Sri Lanka’s geographic positioning has been recognized as an opportunity that requires strategic exploitation in pursuance of the development objectives of the country.
“Improving connectivity between India and Sri Lanka is perceived as a main avenue for exploiting this advantage. The re-establishment of the Indo-Lanka ferry operations, which discontinued 25 years ago owing to security concerns, is an early step needed in this direction,” he said.
He spelt out the viability of the ferry operation venture from a Sri Lankan viewpoint. His research has revealed the possible demand scenarios based on the preference to shift modes expressed by aviation passengers. Viability is assessed according to selected service supply capacity options, fare levels and associated risks. Policies and strategies to improve the operational viability of the venture for a Sri Lankan investor are also discussed in his research paper.
It is evident that Sri Lanka’s prospects for benefitting from greater connectivity with South and Southeast Asia remain firmly embedded in pursuing closer economic integration with India and other neighbors.