Dec 3, 2011

Everyone wants a hand in redoing Buddha’s birthplace

By Yubaraj Ghimire

India and China are both keen to help develop it. Japan has already been involved in part of a project there. And Nepal’s Maoist-led government is looking at it as a possible means to grow out of a history of conflict.

Lumbini, birthplace of Buddha, is becoming the centre of competition between India and China, with Nepal striving to make the best of it.

On November 8, Dr Karan Singh, convener of the foreign affairs cell of the Indian National Congress, told the media in Kathmandu that India would be interested in developing Lumbini in a manner befitting its status on the world map.

The announcement followed signs of China’s interest, no less keen, in taking the lead in such a project. The Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF), a Chinese NGO, had gone public that it would spend nearly $3 billion for Lumbini’s development.

That plan has been declared scrapped but might well be revived considering that one of the NGO’s international members is Maoist leader Prachanda as vice-chairman, and he also heads a six-member steering committee that is expected to develop a master plan for a mega project to develop Lumbini among various areas.

Karan Singh made it clear that there should be no doubt that Buddha had indeed been born in Lumbini. Scholars in Nepal have been known to take offence whenever an Indian researcher or film has claimed that Buddha’s actual birthplace was somewhere in India. Besides, the tourism sector in Nepal keeps pointing out that package tours organised from India take pilgrims to Sarnath, Bodh Gaya and Kushinagar, all in India, but halt only briefly in Lumbini.

Japan’s involvement dates back years. King Birendra had got his younger brother Gyanendra Shah to head the Lumbini Development Project in 1978. The development of an 8-sq-km area around the Mayadevi Temple, the spot where Buddha is believed to have been born, is part of the project. Kenzo Tange, a Japanese architect, was involved in that aspect, an initiative then solely funded by the Japan government.

The proposed mega plan being taken up by the steering committee headed by Prachanda, chief of the ruling Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists, does not yet specify whether it will in any way affect the ongoing Lumbini Development Project. The mega project will cover three districts: Kapilavastu where Lumbini falls, Nawalparasi and Rupandehi, along the Indian border.

The APECF had announced its $3bn ambitions much before the steering committee was formed, but never given details about what the project would involve, and who would be funding it. The previous government declared the project called off after Nepalese authorities complained that they had been bypassed and had no knowledge about anything being claimed by Prachanda or the APECF.

Now, the Prime Minister has given a sense of legitimacy to the initiative by appointing Prachanda the steering committee chief. Soon after that, Minister for Culture Gopal Kirati issued a public appeal to the APECF to get itself registered so it could play an effective role.

Chinese premier Wen Jiabo will be in Nepal on a three-day visit scheduled from December 20. Deputy Prime Minister Narayankaji Shrestha “Prakash”, who returned from Beijing this week, said China is willing even to connect to Lumbini by railway if Nepal should want that.

“We have not yet discussed specific projects and it will take a while for us to have a clear idea. I don’t think the Lumbini mega plan should be a matter of politics or suspicion from any quarter,” said Minendra Rizal, a steering committee member.

But it has already triggered opposition from some quarters. On November 23, the first international conference on Himalayan Buddhism, which brought Buddhists from half a dozen countries to Lumbini, demanded that “the stakeholders” — not the non-believers — should have the lead role in Lumbini’s development.

Three days later, China expressed its disapproval of India’s refusal to stop the Dalai Lama from addressing a congregation of Buddhists in Delhi which, like the Lumbini conference, sought to revive the Nalanda traditions in Buddhism, something Lumbini is associated with.

When the APECF had made its plan public, it had stated, “With the revival of the Oriental cultures, a new spiritual home in the history of mankind will soon be born. That is Lumbini. She will not only become the aspired holy land of Buddhists worldwide, but also carrying the culture of dialogue between the east and the west enlightening everyone’s heart with the wisdom of Lumbini.”

The guarantee it had sought from the Nepal government earlier included “a formal approval of the recovery plan” and “full commitment to provide all necessary legal protection” for investment in the project. It mentioned, with no project details, that the budget would be about $3 billion.

A government source told The Indian Express that all these documents were handed over to the government headed by Jhalanath Khanal “unofficially”, but with Nepali authorities lodging an unofficial protest, it did not move forward. However, Prachanda APECF connection remains intact, and there is talk that the original plan unofficially submitted to the government will form the major thrust of the ambitious move.

Prachanda, who was in New York just a few days before Dr Karan Singh’s Nepal visit, sought help from UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon, and claims he has succeeded.

Source: Indian Express

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