EARLIER envisaged by the government as mainly comprising seven major Buddhist pilgrimage sites, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the ‘Buddhist Circuit’ will now be expanded to 21 other states.
The Ministry of Tourism has identified stupas and viharas in these states, around which small intra-state Buddhist zones will be developed. These include the election-bound states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, as also Kerala, West Bengal, Goa, Gujarat and Jammu & Kashmir.
A total of Rs 362 crore has been sanctioned so far, of which Rs 75 crore has been cleared for Madhya Pradesh under the Ministry’s Swadesh Darshan scheme, for the development of Sanchi, Satna, Rewa, Mandsaur and Dhar. The plan is to create a Buddhist theme park, light and sound show, interpretation centre, wayside amenities and sanitation facilities, an official in the ministry said. Besides, Rs 36 crore and Rs 52 crore have been sanctioned for Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh respectively.
Sources said the PMO was behind the push for Buddhist tourism. “The PMO’s view is that while Buddhism originated in India and the main Buddhist pilgrimage sites are here, why should our country get less than 1 per cent of Buddhist pilgrims in the world?” the source said, adding that the hope is to catch “new-age” Buddhist tourists from the West, besides those from traditional markets in South East Asia.
Hence, the Buddhist circuit is being imagined as India’s first trans-national tourist circuit, with efforts to promote tourism starting from Lumbini in Nepal, where Buddha was born, to the sites in India he traversed, including Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Kushinagar, Rajgir, Vaishali, Sravasti and Sankasia (in UP and Bihar). The ministry is also in talks with the World Bank and Japanese government for funding of infrastructure projects connected with these sites.
Tourism Minister K J Alphons told The Indian Express, “We need huge infrastructure around Buddhist sites. We need to focus on roads, airports, hotels, cleanliness and water. The roadmap for Sarnath is ready and we are in talks with Japanese agencies for some of these projects.” Under the plan, Sarnath would be made the hub of Buddhist tourism in India and connected to other sites through air, rail and road transport.
The ministry also plans to involve the private sector in building tourism infrastructure pertaining to the circuit, with Alphons pointing out that “huge money” is required. To showcase Buddhist heritage and pilgrim sites in India, the government organises the International Buddhist Conclave every alternate year. In 2016, the conclave was held in Sarnath, where delegates from 39 countries participated. This year, the conclave is scheduled for October, and the location is still being finalised.