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31 Oct, 2011

Journey of a Lifetime: In The Footsteps of the Buddha

Imtiaz Muqbil on the Buddhist Circuit

In a world of ceaseless turmoil, the pursuit of peace and security is becoming a global human objective, triggering a surge in religious tourism. India, home to four world religions and philosophies, is capitalising on this trend big time, especially the Buddhist circuit. With thousands of devotees flocking in from around the world, major improvements are being made in facilities and services to cater to them.

Although there are many ways of visiting these sites, one of the best is via the Mahaparinirvan Express, a comprehensive, eight-day journey operated by the state-owned Indian railways corporation. The tours are a quick, cost-effective way of visiting Bodhgaya, Sarnath, Rajgir, Varanasi, Nalanda, Lumbini, Kushinagar and Sravasti, all associated with places where the Buddha was born, preached, attained enlightenment and died.

Between Oct 22-29, I undertook this memorable journey as a travel industry journalist, a student of comparative religion and enthusiast of Asian history and heritage. As an Indian-born Muslim now resident in Buddhist-majority Thailand, I am well-versed with and have great interest in the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh ways of life.

The trip also helped me gain a unique distinction: I now claim to be the world’s only travel journalist to have visited the holy sites of Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism in India, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, The Vatican and Palestine. Having seen devotees weep controllably, pray fervently and donate generously at each of these sites, I can say that the human desire to rise to a higher level cuts across all faiths.

Mahaparinirvan Express Marketing Director Arun Srivastava will be at the World Travel Market next week. Email him for an appointment at arunsrivastava@irctc.com.

Different Paths, Same Goal

The paths may differ, but the goal is the same. The search for inner and external peace is universal and timeless. Times have changed, but the pressures of survival have not. If anything, they have become worse. I remain convinced that over time, these philosophies and religions will cease battling for market share and focus on achieving a common good.

The story of Buddhism is fascinating because it involves a prince named Siddharth who, roughly 2,500 years ago, relinquished his royal regalia after seeing the suffering of people outside his palace walls. He then went in search of the cause of this suffering as well its antidote. This search covered both internal and external pathways. Although most of his teachings spread in the form of personal sermons, especially after attaining enlightenment, the religion gained mass appeal after being adopted by the Indian emperor Ashoka.

Today, Buddhism is practised by an estimated 500 million people worldwide, mainly in Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and many parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. Buddhist stupas and monasteries stretch across from Central Asia and Pakistan to Tibet and beyond. It is also gaining followers in the industrialised countries. People caught up in the stress of daily life find that learning how to meditate, concentrate and clear out the mental clutter can be a relaxing and de-stressing experience.

For those who follow Buddhism’s guidance, visiting India and Nepal to retrace the footsteps of the Buddha becomes a logical extension. It becomes truly the journey of a lifetime. Four factors are converging: the rise in demand, improved products and services at the sites themselves, better travel arrangements, and stepped up marketing efforts by the countries and states involved.

Not Just Buddhist Pilgrims

The Buddhist circuit does not attract only Buddhist pilgrims. In addition to a Mexican who came to practice his meditation techniques, my group included two Indian father-and-son atheists, an Italian journalist, a Milan-based enthusiast of Asian studies, a lady from Mauritius, three middle-aged Chinese ladies from Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Calgary, a pharmaceutical businessman from Shillong, India, another middle-aged housewife from West Bengal, India, and a retired chemistry professor from Aurangabad, India, who had recently lost his wife. They all had different reasons for coming – some to worship, pray and get involved in promoting Buddhism either as long-standing practitioners or new converts, others out of personal or historic interest.

The holy sites are attracting several hundred people a day. Most of them appear to be Sri Lankans who also come in the low-season summer months to take advantage of the lower hotel deals and air-fares. In the winter, from October-March, the regular traffic starts, including visitors from the Buddhist-majority and industrialised countries. The largest and fastest-growing source market seems to be Thailand, which has a nearly 90% Buddhist population.

Two large all-Thai groups were with us on the Mahaparinirvan Express. Leading one of the groups was Ms Narierut Pantong, Managing Director of Nisco Travel, which specialises in Buddhist tours. She says that everything is getting better by the year – the roads, quality of hotels, food and the tour arrangements. “When I started these tours several years ago, the toilets on the train were always in a mess, and the hotel food was terrible. Now the Indian Railways people have evaluated the feedback and taken positive steps,” she says.

The number of Thais has reached the point where the young urchins in one village near a holy spot can even greet visitors and count in Thai. One hotel in Bodhgaya is appropriately named “Thai International.” The entire area is dotted with numerous Thai temples and monasteries which are well-maintained, thanks to the funds coming in via donations as well as purchases of souvenirs, amulets and Buddha images.

Huge Stupa Under Construction

At one stop just before crossing the Indian-Nepal border over to Lumbini, a temple-cum-monastery manned entirely by Thai monks also functions as a rest and refreshment stop. In Sravasti, Uttar Pradesh state, where the Buddha spent 25 monsoon seasons, a huge Buddha image and an 110-metre high stupa are under construction under the aegis of the World Peacefulness Foundation, whose chairman and patron is a Thai lady. The entire area of several thousand square metres began with the planting of 9,999 banyan trees, creating a natural forest and a fresh-water reservoir. A huge meditation centre houses six large halls of approximately 3,000 capacity each.

The entire circuit boasts several more such temples and monasteries of various Buddhist denominations from Sri Lanka, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Tibet. Some are supported by governments but many are self-funded via donations and private sector contributions.

Until 20 years ago, many of the sites were in a mess, even those that are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as Lumbini and Nalanda. Today, it is a different matter. Nalanda, site of what is claimed to be the world’s oldest university, has been cleaned up extensively, with security guards posted to stop graffiti scrawling, one of the biggest problems facing the sites. Landscaping and site-management have improved markedly.

But there is a long way still to go. The signage and waste disposal facilities are still poor. Civic sense remains a challenge. Garbage is strewn in many places, with plastic bottles floating in the ponds within some of the sites. Beggars and vendors are waiting outside the holy spots, ready to swarm over the visitors as they alight from the buses.

Carrying Capacity

Carrying capacity will soon become an issue. The temple area at Bodhgaya, the site of Buddha’s enlightenment, can barely cope with the numbers and will come under strong pressure when the hundreds of daily visitors become thousands. However, Bodhgaya is expected to get a major spruce-up following a change of government in Bihar state, one of the country’s most impoverished thanks to the corrupt former administration. In Nepal, too, the Prime Minister has called for the development of Lumbini as a “fountain of world peace through effective international support and cooperation.” The International Committee for Development of Lumbini needs to be reactivated at the earliest, he said in his speech to the UN General Assembly last month.

Just like on any tour, things can and do go wrong. Bad weather, traffic, poor road conditions can cause delays. Stomach upsets are commonplace. Navigating through these ups and downs requires being under the care of a good tour-management system so that the devotees can remain focussed on their primary purpose for being there.

That’s where the Mahaparinirvan Express plays a major role. The entire itinerary has been carefully researched and planned to allow maximum ground to be covered in maximum comfort. The train is not an elitist product, and the price range is designed for a middle-class market, in line with the Buddha’s focus on the middle-path. Being owned and operated by a government department also helps; at some stations, a security detail was necessary to escort the groups to their buses.

The cabins are clean, the food is adequate and the toilets manageable. The staff are polite and courteous. A power supply is also available. For those who want more comfort and a break from sleeping overnight in the cabins, at least three of the eight nights are spent in hotels. On other days, hotels are used for quick “wash-and-change” pit-stops.

Extensive feedback is sought and improvements are constantly being made to keep abreast of customer demand. Barring unforeseen events like disruptions in train schedules or flat tyres caused by India’s bump-and-grind rural road system, the tours are perfectly organised to give visitors enough time to pay homage, meditate or just study each of the sites. The Mahaparinirvan express itself is now undergoing ISO certification to further perfect the processes.

Improved Access

Access to the sites is also improving as roads, airports and railway services are upgraded. Dozens of hotels have emerged. Other states are also looking at starting up similar rail journeys. With us for part of the tour was the head of Punjab Tourism, which sees considerable potential for a rail trip through the Sikh holy spots, starting with Amritsar, home of the famous Golden Temple. Along with two representatives from the Golden Temple itself, extensive note-taking was under way to identify opportunities for creating a good Sikh rail-tour.

Truly, a lot is changing for the better. What does not appear to be changing, and perhaps even changing for the worse, is the status of humanity that the Buddha sought to improve. The suffering that he sought to alleviate 2,500 years ago still prevails all across India, especially in the poverty-stricken villages. Globalisation as an economic-growth model is designed to create more and more craving, which the Buddha identified as a root cause of suffering. The Buddha abhorred violence, but the world spends more on military equipment than on health and education combined.

Regardless of individual faith, a well-organised journey retracing the footsteps of the Buddha helps travellers hit the re-set button of life. It helps put things into perspective, reflect on the need for alternative pathways and prioritise individual goals and objectives. Most important, it frees up time to think.

As the numbers grow, however, the challenge India and Nepal will face is the same that Saudi Arabia is facing today – preserving the spiritual sanctity of the sites and preventing the entire experience from being hijacked and sidetracked by material considerations. If they can get that balance right, they will have fulfilled the Buddha’s expectations and honoured his guidance and advice.

Having an expert, well-informed guide for the Buddhist circuit is imperative. Shantum Seth, who claims to have coined the term “In the footsteps of the Buddha”, offers personal guidance which combines practice with history, culture, etc. Click here for his website and contact details.