Spiritual Tourism: Is India Missing an Opportunity!

India is a land of spirituality. An amazing number of people visit pilgrimage destinations like Tirupati, Vaishnodevi, Varanasi, Haridwar-Rishikesh, Badrinath, Kedarnath and others. It is estimated that over 80 million pilgrims flock different spiritual destinations in the country of which some 30 million visit Ayyappan Saranam in Kerala, followed by the Golden temple in Amritsar (13 million) and so on.

However, I have found that spiritual pilgrimages are growing all over the world. During recent travels to countries like Srilanka, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand, I observed that Buddhist tourism is one of the fastest growing phenomena. I find it interesting that the image of Buddha seems to change features in different regions! With due respect to regional influence and considering the fact that Buddha traveled to different countries in Asia to teach Buddhism, such variations make me ponder over Buddha’s roots. Isn’t India the land of the Buddha? I feel in comparison to other Asian countries, India is yet to capitalize on the spiritual tourism aspect of Buddhism.

China is one of the reasons for the growth of Buddhist tourism. The Chinese Government seems to be comfortable with Buddhism. There are reports that there are over 300 million Buddhists in China. The world’s tallest statue in China happens to be the Spring Temple Buddha which is located in Henan. China also claims the world’s tallest pagoda and stupa. China now attracts a large number of tourists from Korea and Japan due to its growing popularity as a Buddhist destination.

From a tourist’s point of view, Anuradhapura in Srilanka; as also the 19th and 20th century Buddhist temples in Thailand are visited by tourists from all over the world. Similarly in Cambodia, there is a Hindu-Buddhist iconography on the gates and terraces of Jayavarman’s temple-mountain which is a big tourist attraction. In Japan, Nara and Kyoto are one of the great centers of East Asian Buddhist history and favorites of tourists and in Nepal, the remarkable Svayambhunath and Bodhnath stupas in Kathmandu are quite popular.

India, however, has not caught the eye of Buddhists the world over. I believe just like other countries in East Asia, Bodhgaya (in Bihar) with a status of ‘World Heritage Site’ (by UNESCO) has the potential to become the center of Buddhism. The Buddhist circuit in India includes Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Nalanda, Rajgir, Kushinagar, Sravasti, Sanchi, Ajanta & Ellora, Nagarjunakonda, Leh, Dharamshala, Rumtek, Tawang, Vaishali and Kesaria.

In Bihar, on the infrastructure front, the government plans to convert the 115-km Patna-Bodh Gaya Road into a four-lane highway. There is also a five star hotel property which is expected to be operational in 2014.

I feel that India could do more to promote its various Buddhist sites and build linkages with countries that have a Buddhist tradition and history. Perhaps an international celebrity campaign will drive Buddhist pilgrims to India and also place the country on the world map as the center of Buddhism.

Your views are welcome. Thanks.

Sanjay Puri

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