The Telegraph
Thursday , April 3 , 2014
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Buddhist monasteries beckon tourists

Several Buddhist associations in north Bengal and northeastern India have joined hands with the tourism industry in their states to promote Buddhist monasteries as tourist destinations.

“It is an appropriate time to fuse Buddhism with tourism. Monks can no longer confine themselves to monasteries. They need to come out and guide people as well as describe details of the heritage of their establishments. The art and architecture need to be elaborated and simultaneously, facilities like meditation can be introduced,” Bhikkhu Bodhipala, who is associated with the Mahabodhi Society in Calcutta, said.

• Location: North Sikkim

Dhamma Piya, the secretary of Northeast Buddhist Association, echoed him.

“We should not sit idle but approach people with a warm welcome. Facilities like accommodation and guided tours need to be created in monasteries for conservation and promotion of Buddhist culture,” he said.

• Location: Gangtok

The drive is to popularise the idea of Buddhism, not to generate funds, the monks said.

Most of the monasteries in the northeast are centuries old and continue to be the heritage seats of Buddhism. They are home to its different sects.

Among the most prominent monasteries are the Rumtek Monastery near Gangtok and the Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh. The Tawang is the largest monastery in India.

In Sikkim alone, there are around 200 monasteries.

The Tawang Monastery is known to be the seat of the Gelupa sect of Buddhism and was founded by Mera Lama Lodre Gyasto in the 16th century. Rumtek, on the other hand, is the seat of the Kagyu sect of Buddhism and was established in 1966.

• Location: Arunachal Pradesh

“Millions of tourists visit northeastern India every year. Many of them travel along the Buddhist circuit spread across Thailand, China, Nepal, Bhutan, and north Bengal and northeast India. However, the monasteries of our country are yet to emerge as top destinations for these tourists,” Raj Basu, the vice-president of Help Tourism, a Siliguri-based tourism house that is working on the project, said.

Basu aims at bringing representatives of different Buddhist associations to popularise monasteries among tourists. He had held a “Bauddha Mahotsav” at Pelling, West Sikkim, in December last year in association with Nava Nalanada Mahavihara university of Nalanda in Bihar to promote Buddhist tourism.

•Location: Gyalshing, West Sikkim

“Representatives of these associations insisted that it was time for monasteries to look beyond their four walls and welcome visitors. There is an absence of guides. In these days, most tourists simply pay a visit to these monasteries as a part of their sightseeing and remain oblivious to the importance of these structures. This has to be changed,” Basu said.

“How many tourists know that the Rumtek Monastery, on the outskirts of Gangtok, is the home of the Kagyu sect and is the seat of the 17th Karmapa (incarnation of the Buddha)? Tourists hardly know that Pemayangtse Monastery near Pelling was built in 1705 and is one of the oldest monasteries in India that is the seat of the Nyingma sect of Buddhists,” said Ajoy Roy, a documentary filmmaker based in Calcutta who had worked on several tourist destinations in north Bengal.

• Location: Near Gangtok in Sikkim

Buddhist associations also wanted to arrange for tourists to stay in the monasteries, practise meditation and attend other religious sessions.

“We get several non-Buddhist tourists who want to stay in monasteries and want to experience the daily life of Buddhist monks. Furthermore, a good number of urban tourists, particularly from the West, want to destress themselves by participating in a meditation session. There are many who often tell us that unlike at historical sites across India, there is nobody who can organise a guided tour of the monasteries,” said Biswajit Saha of the Association for Conservation of Tourism from Dooars.

• Location: Ghoom, Darjeeling

Some Buddhist monks have accepted the idea.

“We have drafted a proposal and have sent it to the Union ministry of culture for promotion of these destinations. Simultaneously, heads of all monasteries located in the Northeast and in north Bengal would be approached with the appeal to introduce these facilities,” Basu of Help Tourism said.

• Location: West Sikkim