By Sugeeswara Senadhira
An inaugural flight between Colombo and India’s newest international airport Kushinagar landed on October 20 to mark the official opening of the airport by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The flight carried 150 dignitaries including the highest-ranking Buddhist monks of the four nikayas (sects) and the son of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Cabinet minister Namal Rajapaksa, cementing the eternal Indo-Lanka Buddhist bonds.
Upon the landing of the Sri Lankan Airlines flight, Mr. Modi declared open the newly built airport at the site of the Buddha’s ‘Mahaparinirvana’ (death) hailing it as a symbol of his government’s endeavour to develop a Buddhist pilgrim and tourism circuit across the world, especially in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath joined Prime Minister Modi in the inauguration ceremony. In his opening speech, Mr. Modi said that he has fulfilled a commitment with the opening of the international airport. “We lay special emphasis on linking Buddhist destinations, improving hospitality facilities, and ensuring the comfort of tourists. This airport will not only serve tourists from India but also Buddhists from across the world, including Sri Lanka, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Cambodia, and other countries,” he said.
Every year tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Buddhists visit India on a pilgrimage visiting the places that the Buddha trod 2500 years ago. This Buddhist connectivity will get a boost with the opening of the Kushinagar airport because the Buddha’s birthplace Lumbini is just across the border in Nepal, and it is also close to other Buddhist pilgrim sites such as Bodhgaya, Nalanda, Sarnath, and Sravasti.
On this full moon day of Vap, a religious holiday in Sri Lanka, the national carrier Sri Lankan Airlines became the first international flight to land at the new airport of Kushinagar. The flight from Colombo carried a large delegation of more than 100 Buddhist monks, including the Mahanayakes of four Buddhist chapters of Siam, Malwathu, Ramanna, and Amarapura nikayas.
India invited Sri Lanka to send the inaugural flight to Kushinagar, and Mr. Rajapaksa gifted two Buddhist paintings for display at the Kushinagar International Airport. These paintings feature two murals painted by the eminent Sri Lankan painter Solias Mendis (1897-1975) on the walls of the historic Kelaniya Rajamaha Vihara (temple), which has been built at the site that is believed to be the venue of the third visit of the Buddha to Sri Lanka. India’s greatest emperor, Ashoka, sent both his son and daughter to Sri Lanka as emissaries to introduce and spread the teachings of the Buddha.
The first mural depicts Arahat Bhikkhu Mahinda, son of Emperor Ashoka delivering the message of the Buddha to King Devanampiyatissa of Sri Lanka upon arriving on the island. The second mural depicts the arrival to Sri Lanka of Theri Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta, the daughter of the emperor, bearing the right-hand branch sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi tree under which Gautama Siddhartha attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya.
The sapling, which was planted in the ancient capital of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka in 249 BCE, has survived for over two millennia. The tree bears the distinction of being the oldest historically recorded living tree in the world and is revered by Buddhists worldwide. These two historical events that occurred in the 3rd century BCE marked the commencement of the Buddhist civilization in Sri Lanka and epitomize the strong and unbreakable civilizational bonds that exist between Sri Lanka and India.
The invitation to send the first international flight to the Kushinagar International Airport was extended in August 2020 when Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay called on Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to convey a message of congratulations from Prime Minister Modi for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) victory at the general elections.
Later when the High commissioner called on Agga Maha Pandita Most Venerable Kotugoda Dhammawasa Thera, Mahanayake of Amarapura Nikaya, he mentioned that given the pre-eminence of India-Sri Lanka Buddhist ties, both countries have agreed that the inaugural international flight to Kushinagar airport will be from Sri Lanka.
The new international airport will facilitate Buddhist pilgrims and tourists to arrive in Kushinagar, the place where Archaeological excavations led by surveyor C.L. Carlleyle discovered the main stupa and a 6.1-meter-long statue of reclining Buddha in 1876. Subsequently, the stupa was renovated preserving its archaeological splendor and religious significance. Venerable Chandra Swami, a Burmese monk made Mahaparinirvana Temple into a living shrine in 1903. Today, there are several Buddhist temples constructed in Kushinagar by Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, and Japan.
According to the Indian Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia India has spent a sum of Rs 2.55 billion (USD34 million) to construct the Kushinagar International Airport. He said that international flights are expected to start from Kushinagar this month.
Promoting India as one of the world’s great reservoirs of history, cultures, philosophies, and religions, the Buddhist Circuit was introduced to attract global interest to visit and experience the assets that put India amongst the most desired destinations for tourists and pilgrims. The Buddhist Circuit is a route that follows in the footsteps of the Buddha from Lumbini in Nepal where he was born, through Bihar in India where he attained enlightenment at Bodhgaya, then to Sarnath where the first sermon was given and Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh where the Buddha passed away attaining ‘mahaparinibbana’. This iconic route only includes places where the Buddha actually spent time, and these sites – all of which are over 2500 years old – are among the most significant and revered for all Buddhists. The Buddhist Circuit is an important pilgrimage destination for the 450 million practicing Buddhists around the world and as well as travelers interested in the history and the culture of the religion.
Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India Milinda Moragoda recently announced a ‘Road Map’ also stressing the need to enhance Buddhist pilgrimages. He proposed to enhance connectivity including resuming passenger ferry services and more air connectivity and new destinations for Sri Lankan Airlines flights. The “air travel bubble” that only began in April was suspended after a few weeks due to the increase in COVID cases.
The ferry service between Thalaimannar in Sri Lanka and Rameshwaram in South India was disrupted in the 1980s due to the conflict with Tamil militants. Now the two countries are considering proposals for a ferry service either from Cochin in South India to Colombo or service from Tamil Nadu coast to Jaffa peninsula.
Prof Lathasiri Gunaruwan of Colombo University argues that Sri Lanka’s geographic positioning has been long recognized as an opportunity that requires strategic exploitation in pursuance of the development objectives of the country. “Improving connectivity between India and Sri Lanka is perceived as the main avenue for exploiting this advantage,” he says.
Pursuing the development of Buddhist circuit tourism with India could enhance Sri Lanka’s prospects for developing greater connectivity with South and Southeast Asia, which are expected to be economic growth areas of the future.