When Indian Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi visited Nepal this year, the two countries apart from laying stress on promoting connectivity had also discussed ways and means to enhance bilateral trade and economic cooperation. New Delhi and Kathmandu underscored the need for strengthening religious and cultural ties. Earlier this month, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Aditya Nath attended the festivities at Janakpur in Nepal, the mythological birth place of Sita, wife of Lord Rama of the epic Ramayana during the recent ‘Vivah Panchami festival’. This festival is thronged by thousands of devotees from both Nepal and India. Mr. Modi had visited the historic temple of Janakpur in May this year, the first by any Indian Prime Minister. He wrote in the visitors’ book that it was a memorable experience for him. This pilgrimage site holds a special place in the hearts of people from Nepal and India.
The social and cultural bonds between India and Nepal have innumerable dimensions. Apart from cross border marriages, peoples of the two countries have commonality in languages such as Nepali, Hindi, Maithili, Bhojpuri, Avadhi and many local dialects, traditions, social and cultural rituals and rites. The geographical and cultural closeness gives a unique distinction and deep roots to their bilateral relations.
Prime Minister Modi had also visited the historic Muktinath temple in the mountainous Mustang district of Nepal and paid his obeisance at the world famous Pashupati Nath temple in Kathmandu. In fact, hundreds of thousands of tourists from India who visit Nepal every year make it a point not to miss the Pashupati Nath temple. Similarly, large number of tourists from Nepal visit Badrinath and Kedarnath Shrines in Uttarakhand and other religious places in India such as Varanasi, Haridwar, Bodhgaya and Rishikesh. Some of them even go as far as Dwarka in Gujarat and visit Lord Jagannath temple at Puri in Odisha. Besides, large number of pilgrimage spots connected with Hinduism in both the countries, Nepal and India also feature prominently in the Buddhist Tourist circuit having been the birth place and places connected with life and enlightenment of Lord Buddha. People from both sides have therefore been giving a huge boost to tourism, connected with pilgrimage.
Lord Buddha was born at Lumbini in Nepal had travelled to India to achieve enlightenment and spread his message not only in India and Nepal but also in South Asia and beyond. Once implemented, the Buddhist circuit will go a long way in promoting religious and cultural tourism in the entire South Asian region. It would attract tourists to Nepal and India from countries like Thailand, Japan, Korea and many more.
However, it is time that the cultural affinities between the peoples take a higher trajectory. In this regard, the Indian Prime Minister and his Nepalese counterpart K.P. Sharma Oli had jointly inaugurated the ‘Ramayana Circuit’ by flagging off the Janakpur-Ayodhya bus service during his Nepal visit. The Ramayana circuit connects Janakpur in Nepal with Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh and beyond to about 15 other places in various states of India including Bihar, West Bengal, Chhatisgarh, Telangana, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. All these places are connected with different episodes of the epic Ramayana.
While inaugurating the Janakpur-Ayodhya bus service, the Indian Prime Minister had announced that two other circuits would be developed to promote Buddhist and Jain tourism in both Nepal and India. This would lead to huge demand for pilgrim-centric facilities, which in turn would generate employment opportunities and business to people in both the countries. It is estimated that this sector alone could contribute to around US$ 1 billion in earnings to the two countries. Already, India has adopted a robust tourism policy. If this policy is replicated by Nepal also, then the tourists coming for religious tourism would be greatly benefitted.
India is on the path to developing necessary infrastructure for religious tourism. Connecting the major Indian pilgrimage centres with the pilgrim centres in Nepal through seamless air, rail and bus connectivity could be a game-changer. India, therefore is working towards bolstering its rail and road network to Nepal. Air connectivity between major Indian cities and Nepal exists already.
Script: Rattan Saldi, Political Commentator