Buddhist connectivity: Eternally binding Indo-Lanka bond | Daily News

Buddhist connectivity: Eternally binding Indo-Lanka bond

SriLankan to operate inaugural flight to Kushinagar International Airport
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with Indian Premier Narendra Modi
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with Indian Premier Narendra Modi

The strategic political relationships between countries can have ups and downs as they pursue policies of national interests. However, spiritual bonds between peoples can withstand any political storm and remain steadfast even in the most hostile circumstances.

Buddhist, Hindu and Christian pilgrimages comprise a significant segment of people-to-people connectivity between India and Sri Lanka. While travel by Sri Lankan Hindus and Christians to kovils and churches in South India is fairly high, the vast majority of Sri Lankan pilgrims to India is Buddhist devotees visiting the places that the Buddha trod 2,500 years ago.

The Buddhist connectivity will get a boost next week when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi opens the Kushinagar International Airport on Vap Poya day (October 20). Kushinagar (Kusinara) is one of the four most sacred places of Buddhist worship in India. The Kushinagar International Airport will be opened on that day when the first two flights carrying a large delegation of more than 100 Buddhist monks, including the Mahanayakes of four chapters – Siyam, Malwathu, Ramanna and Amarapura, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from Sri Lanka and Premier Narendra Modi from New Delhi arrive at the new airport.

The SriLankan flight will also be the first international flight to land in Kushinagar, which is a major Buddhist pilgrimage site that sees a high number of foreign tourists including pilgrims from Sri Lanka and other Buddhist countries each year. Ambassadors of many foreign 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 Kushinagar 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 to the SLPP on its victory at the August 8 General Elections.

The Parinibbana Stupa in Kushinagar

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 with a 3.2 Km runway, 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 Panditha Most Venerable Kotugoda Dhammawasa Thera, Mahanayake of the Amarapura Nikaya, he mentioned that given the pre-eminence of India–Sri Lanka Buddhist ties, both countries agreed that the first inaugural flight to this airport will be from Sri Lanka.

The new international airport will facilitate Buddhist pilgrims and tourists to arrive in Kushinagar, the place in which Gautama Buddha had attained Mahaparinibbana. 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, the Stupa was renovated preserving its archaeological splendour and religious significance.

Venerable Chandra Swami, a Burmese (Myanmar) monk made the Mahaparinibbana Temple into a living shrine in 1903. Today, there are several Buddhist temples constructed by Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand and Japan in the area. 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 Thera.

Uttar Pradesh (UP) Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said in Kushinagar that Prime Minister Modi will address a public meeting after inaugurating the new Kushinagar International Airport.

Indian Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia said INR 255 Crores (LKR 2,550 million) was spent to construct the Kushinagar International Airport. He said that the flights are expected to start from Kushinagar International Airport this month. The airport is spread across 600 acres of land. In June, 2020, the Kushinagar Airport was given international status, and in February, 2021, the Airport got all necessary clearances from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation to be recognised as 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 Bihar in India where he attained enlightenment at Buddha Gaya, then to Sarnath where the first sermon (Dhammachakkapavaththana Sutta) 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 2,500 years old – are among the most significant and revered for all Buddhists worldwide. The Buddhist Circuit is an important pilgrimage destination for the 450 million practising Buddhists as well as travellers interested in history, culture or religion. Incidentally, neighbouring Nepal also plans to open the new Gautama Buddha International Airport in Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha.

On the same theme, the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Cultural Centre organized a seminar on “Buddhist Cultural Trails: Journey through Time and Space, of Merchants, Monks and Pilgrims” at the 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 endeavour, the various perspectives of the socio-cultural, tangible and intangible connectivity established through the popularity and the dissemination of Buddhism during history across several centuries were explored. Officially nominated participants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka presented papers at this seminar.

High Commissioner Milinda Moragoda’s recently announced ‘Road Map’ also stressed the need to enhance Buddhist pilgrimages as well as Sri Lankan Catholic pilgrims 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 including resuming passenger ferry services and more air connectivity and more new destinations for SriLankan flights. The ‘air travel bubble’ that began only in April was suspended after a few weeks due to the increase in COVID cases in both countries.

The ferry service between Talaimannar in Sri Lanka and Rameswaram in South India was disrupted in the 1980s due to the conflict with the Tamil militants. Now the time is ripe for a ferry/ship service and the two countries are considering the proposals for a ferry service either from Cochin to Colombo or a service from the Tamil Nadu (TN) coast to the Jaffa peninsula.

Prof. Lalithasiri Gunaruwan of the Colombo University said Sri Lanka’s geographic positioning has long been recognized as an opportunity that requires strategic exploitation in the 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 were 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 and its comparative economics involved in long-distance ferry transportation of passengers between India and Sri Lanka. 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 have also been discussed in his research paper.

It is evident that Sri Lanka’s prospects for benefitting from greater connectivity with South and Southeast Asia remains firmly embedded in pursuing closer economic integration with India and the other neighbours.

SriLankan will be the first foreign carrier to fly into Kushinagar
Kushinagar International Airport


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