A train ride to experience the life of the Buddha
A pilgrim walks under Lord Buddha's holy tree at the Mahabodhi temple compound in Bodh Gaya.
It's a luxury tourist special train, but riding it could be a host of pilgrims from around the world: the Mahaparinirvana Express is set to expand its run to touch Buddhist sites in Orissa - Bhubaneswar, Lalitagiri, Khandagiri and Udayagiri - from Jan 20.
"The train that begins its journey from Safdarjung railway station in the capital now goes to Bodh Gaya, Rajgir, Nalanda, Varanasi, Sarnath, Gorakhpur, Kushinagar, Lumbini and Sravasti in a seven-night-eight-day odyssey," Harshvardhan Singh Rawat, a senior official at the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), said.
Introduced in 2007 by IRCTC to provide a safe, reliable and convenient travel option for pilgrims, tariff for the tourism-pilgrimage ride ranges from Rs.7,500 to Rs.34,000.
Speaking to IANS on the margins of the Confederation of Indian Industry Roundtable on Indian Tourism in the capital Saturday, the IRCTC official said the government was reconsidering resuming the Chennai Buddhist shuttle that was pulled off the circuit in March this year.
"We will soon put the train from Chennai back on track to cater to the surge of Buddhist pilgrims from Sri Lanka. We are working out the cost of the 21-day-20-night trip that covers many more places than the Delhi train," the official said.
The Mahaprinirvana Express usually sees at least 60 per cent occupancy, with a bulk of riders from China, Thailand, Taiwan and eastern Asia.
The corporation has tied up with luxury hotels either at Bodh Gaya and Kushinagar or Gorakhpur and Lumbini - in sets of two, depending on the availability of accommodation - to host the tourists overnight.
The spotlight is on Orissa - a state where Buddhist sites have been overshadowed by the Puri-Konark Hindu pilgrimage tourism.
The Orissa loop comprising Ratnagiri-Dhaulagiri-Udayagiri-Khandagiri and Langudi has sites that date back to about the 6th century BC, dotted with stupas (dome-like structures where relics of the Buddha are preserved), chaityas (prayer halls that house stupas) and Ashokan edicts in 33 inscriptions on pillars.
Amiya Pattnaik, vice-chancellor of the Utkal University of Culture, who was in the capital to promote the Buddhist circuit, said the state was home to 100 Buddhist sites of which 20 were "very important".
"Ratnagiri can be compared with Nalanda and can even compete with Bodh Gaya," Pattnaik said.
Ancient Buddhist documents indicate that "Buddha Kesha (hair relics) were brought to the state by two rich traders - Tapassu and Ballika". Later, tooth relics were also believed to have been brought to the state.
Speaking at the CII roundtable, many private tourist operators too expressed confidence that the Buddhist sites could be developed as major centres for tourism.
Citing figures, Sreenivas Rao, managing director of Rao Travels said of the nearly 400 million Buddhist people around the world, around 200,000 (2007 figure) to 500,000 people come to India, the only place where they can experience the genesis and progress of their faith. "We should look to at least two million," he said.
In an attempt to boost infrastructure, the union finance ministry has sanctioned Rs.70.93 crore for an international airport at Kushinagar, a tourism ministry official said.
"For organisations like CII, which facilitates dialogue, tourism is recognised as an essentially economic activity that generates livelihood and revenue, and helps even unskilled and semi-skilled people," Amita Sarkar, senior director of CII, said.