GAYA, India, 26 November 2018: The rich spiritual heritage and cultural traditions of India make it appealing to visitors from Southeast Asia, though many of the new tourists from SEA are not your typical sightseeing holidaymakers.
A growing trend is the increase in visitors who are spiritual or religious pilgrims, as well as cultural tourists who are seeking enlightening authentic experiences rather than photo-ops at mainstream tourist attractions.
This new tourism trend is seen in Gaya, the holiest site of Buddhism, with a growth in pilgrim visits from all over Asia, and in new cultural festivals which attract locals, expats, and participants from across the region, such as the recent Mahindra Kabira Festival held in the sacred Ganges river town of Varanasi.
During the pilgrimage season, from November to April, outside the rainy monsoon season, as many as 11 airlines operate scheduled and charter flights into Gaya, including Air India from Yangon, Bhutan Airlines and Drukair from Paro and Bangkok, Jetstar Pacific from Hanoi, Myanmar Airways from Yangon, Sri Lankan Airlines from Colombo, and Vietnam Airlines from Ho Chi Minh city. Recently Thai Vietjet Air commenced flights from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport along with Thai Smile, and from early December Thai AirAsia will fly from Bangkok’s Don Mueang to Gaya. This week Bhutan Airlines announced itwill fly to Gaya twice a week from Bangkok until the end of February.
Bodhgaya has the first ever Thai temple in India. When AirAsia announced its new direct flight four times a week from Bangkok, it was promoted as a gift to Buddhist pilgrims, with it being ‘sure to bring great merit to their longstanding faith’.
The growth of Gaya’s airport is mainly due to SEA Buddhist pilgrims, a Gaya-based taxi driver tells me. The irony is that Gaya has more flights during the season from other parts of Asia than it does from within India.While half the ASEAN countries have direct flights to India, most of the flights each week come from the main aviation hubs of Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Cambodia and Laos signed agreements three years to open direct flights to India, but these have yet to materialise.
Gaya airport has only one domestic flight a day to the capital Delhi, with several services a week to Varanasi and Kolkata. The next nearest airport is the Bihar state capital of Patna.
The journey from Bodhgaya to Patna is only 115km, but the poor state of the main road, traffic congestion in the towns along the route, and over-crowded buses and trains means the journey is one of the worst in the plains of northern India.
On my recent visit, it took an auto-rickshaw to Gaya town, then a private car to Patna, but approaching the city, traffic was gridlocked, and the driver advised abandoning the car and walking along the train tracks almost a km to find an auto-rickshaw for the last leg to the airport. It took more than 7 hours, and I needed to queue-jump through the slow-moving airport security to make my evening flight to Kolkata.
There is a call by the state government for more domestic flights, to tap into the Amritsar-Calcutta freight corridor, cargo operations and industrial development in the area. There are already a number of train services through Gaya to Kolkata and Delhi, and even a new bus service started last month for the 660km journey to Kathmandu (US$18).
From the small Gaya airport, it is less than 10km by road to the small settlement of Bodhgaya, where the iconic tapering Mahabodhi Temple, beside the site where the Buddha gained enlightenment under a sacred bodhi tree more than 2500 years ago. The Mahabodhi complex is open from 0500 to 2100 each day, with no entry fee, though camera fees apply and mobile phones must be deposited before entry.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2002, and rebuilt and restored, the brick Buddhist temple is busy at dawn and dusk, when monks and nuns do their devotions, and pilgrim groups file clockwise around the complex. Tibetan monks work out doing prostrations on wooden boards, while devout Buddhists sit cross-legged in silent meditation, some inside one-person insect net tents.
The original bodhi tree was cut down by the jealous wife of king Ashoka around 2250 years ago, though it is claimed a sapling from the original tree was taken to Sri Lanka, and the present tree is descended from that, possibly the fifth succession. In the last decade, it is thought that a branch of the Gaya tree was cut down and sold to a Thai temple for a large sum of money. The sprawling tree, secured behind protective bars, appears to have been badly pruned. It is forbidden to take leaves from the sacred tree, but outside the complex vendors sell laminated bodhi leaves for as much as $10 each.
The site is run by a joint Hindu-Buddhist board, and while the temple complex is well set up for the influx of pilgrims, there have been questions about financial management as well as where all the wealth contributed by overseas donors has gone. Over time, the Buddha became regarded as a Hindu god, as one of the many manifestations of the god Vishnu so among those flocking to the town are Hindu religion adherents. The state also gets many Jain pilgrims.
Gaya gets busy over December and January, when the Dalai Lama is in residence, having retreated from the high mountain base of Dharamsala in the Himalayas, with talks on peace, compassion and non-violence given to big audiences amid high security. Each SEA country has established monasteries, temples and pilgrim centres offering accommodation for those who adhere to strict guidelines. There is no alcohol available in the town, and most restaurants serve only vegetarian food. Some cafes, such as Tibetan Om cafe, inside a Tibetan compound, are run by Tibetan exiles, who serve Tibetan food, having to substitute highland barley with wheat, and use ghee instead of yak butter.
Buddhist pilgrims can visit other sites nearby in the arid plains including caves and a hill where the Buddha preached his most well known sermon. Some continue several hundred kilometres east to Varanasi, where the Sarnath park is the second of four sacred sites, the others being the birthplace of the Buddha across the nearby border in Nepal at Lumbini, and the place of Gautama Buddha’s death and attaining nirvana-after-death in Kushinager. Buddhist tourism, and the edict that every Buddhist should visit at least once during their life, is also behind development of Kushinagar in the same state as Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, and the proposal to build a 200 km long expressway between Sarnath and Kushinagar – dubbed the Buddha Expressway – to reduce the travel time from eight to less than two hours. Sarnath near Varanasi has a deer park, where the Buddha first taught and the Buddhist community originated.
On the Ganges river, Varanasi is also the venue for a cultural music festival which is now a regular fixture on the calendar, celebrating the legacy of one of India’s mystic poets. Each November for the last three years, the Mahindra Kabira festival has brought visitors from across India and Asia to the spiritual capital of India.
While Varanasi, regarded as one of the oldest cities in the world, draws in Hindu pilgrims to bathe in the sacred river and perform funeral rites, the festival highlights the life and contribution to prominent local poet Kabir who was born in Varanasi and lived in the 15th century. With riverside music performances, exploratory curated walks on winding alleys to hidden temples, literature readings and conversations, and local cuisine, this unique event over two full days aims to blend music and history to achieve what Kabir called ‘oneness amongst diversity’.
Brought up in a Muslim weaving family, Kabir is known to all Indian students for his contribution in the field of literature, religion and culture, and to many around the world, he is known for his teachings on harmony, humanity, and humility. He rejected religious bigotry and dogma, his message seen as important today just as it was 500 years ago.
“Mahindra Kabira Festival creates an opportunity to discover the wonders of Varanasi and its syncretic tradition through music, heritage, food and discussion,” said event organiser, Sanjoy Roy, of Teamwork Arts. “The Festival is as much about the superb music on offer against an unmatched backdrop as about an entire experience which takes in the sights, smells and the character of a historic city, a regal way of life, a chronicling of history and a repast of ideas”.
More pilgrims and cultural seekers are likely to venture into India from Southeast Asia as infrastructure improvements and connectivity improve, making the world a little smaller, kindred spirits a little closer.