Buddhist tourism

Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani
Friday, Oct 21, 2022

Chief Buddhist Monk of Sangha Supreme Council of Thailand Most Venerable Arayawangso has returned to his homeland after spending a three-month religious ritual in the Pakistani historic city of Taxila. The spiritual leader was staying along with followers at Taxila for the past three months performing a Buddhist religious ritual that begins in the rainy season every year.

A special ceremony was held to mark the 'Kathina' ritual at the end of the rainy season, in which diplomatic envoys of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar and several other Buddhist-majority countries of the Far East participated. On this occasion, the Buddhist participants termed Pakistan a peace-loving country and acknowledged that followers of different faiths enjoy the freedom to celebrate their religious festivals.

For the first time in the history of Pakistan, a highly influential Buddhist leader has selected this region to visit with his followers, which I consider to be a great step towards the promotion of religious tourism. Similarly, last year, Buddhist tourists from Sri Lanka came to Pakistan for pilgrimage to various historical and religiously important sites associated with the Buddhist dominated Gandhara civilization. A few years ago, the arrival of Korean Buddhist monks in Gilgit-Baltistan also attracted the attention of the media. It was considered to be the first time when a group of Buddhist monks visited the northern regions of Pakistan to perform religious rituals.

The 2,000-year ancient Gandhara civilization, belonging to the northern part of present-day Pakistan, reflects Buddhism's glorious past in our region. The world’s most ancient university was established in Taxila where great philosopher Chanakya used to teach students. It is therefore the desire of every Buddhist in the world to visit sacred sites located in Taxila, Takht-e-Bahi, Swat, Gilgit-Baltistan and other Pakistani areas.

Today, it is believed that over seven per cent of the world's population (approximately 520 million people) is composed of Buddhists. Several Asian countries including Japan, the Koreas, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Bhutan, Laos, India and Mongolia are having large Buddhist populations. In China, 18 per cent of the population, consisting of around 244 million people, is Buddhist whereas a good number of followers of Buddhism reside in Russia, the United States and other Western countries.

According to the Pakistan Hindu Council, the Buddhist population in Pakistan is rapidly decreasing day by day. Currently, the number of Pakistani Buddhist citizens is only 1741. The majority of Buddha's followers are living in extreme poverty in Sindh province. In my view, if attention is paid to the education and training of Pakistani Buddhists, they can play the role of bridge with Buddhist-majority countries.

Recently, some news reports also surfaced in the media that Korea is interested in supporting and establishing the Gandhara International University in Taxila. I proposed the same five years ago: to establish a world-class international university in Taxila in honour of Chanakya. The hostels of the proposed university can be vacated during the summer vacations and handed over to the Buddhist tourists for spending the season in Taxila.

There is also a huge demand for Buddha statues made in Pakistan all over the world. In Taxila, there are many talented sculptors who learned the art of making statues from their ancestors. According to international media reports, their hard work is just paid Rs2,000, while Pakistani sculptures are being sold in the international black market for above $10,000.

Undoubtedly, Pakistan has potential to become an attractive country for Buddhist tourists from all over the world, however, it is necessary to take at least three steps on priority basis. First, establishment of a regulatory authority for the promotion of religious tourism in Pakistan. Second, to legalize the export of Buddha statues, and third to establish an international university in Taxila.

I believe that if our government concentrates only on the promotion of faith tourism, we can improve our image globally, earn a large amount of foreign exchange in a short period of time, and also get rid of foreign debts.

The writer is a member of the

National Assembly and patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council.

He tweets @RVankwani