When Prime Minister Narendra Modi declares open the Kushinagar International Airport in Uttar Pradesh on October 20, a sizeable Sri Lankan contingent, led by a member of the first family, will be present.
Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa, nephew of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and son of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, will travel to Uttar Pradesh, along with ministerial colleagues and a group of 100 Buddhist monks to attend the event, according to officials in Colombo.
The airport is expected to provide seamless connectivity to tourists from Sri Lanka , Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, etc. Kushinagar is the centre of the Buddhist circuit, which consists of pilgrimage sites at Lumbini, Sarnath and Gaya. Buddhist pilgrims consider Kushinagar a sacred site where, they believe, Gautama Buddha delivered his last sermon and attained ‘Mahaparinirvana’ or salvation.
The inaugural flight on Wednesday will land at the airport from Colombo, Sri Lanka, carrying the 125-member delegation of dignitaries and Buddhist monks. Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris termed the inaugural Buddhist pilgrims’ flight to Kushinagar “a landmark” in the India-Sri Lanka relations.
To mark the occasion, Sri Lanka will present to India photographs of two murals painted by renowned Sri Lankan artist Solias Mendis at the Kelaniya Rajamaha Vihara, a popular Buddhist temple near Colombo, officials at the Sri Lankan High Commission in New Delhi told The Hindu .
One of the murals depicts ‘Arahat Bhikkhu’ Mahinda, son of Emperor Ashoka delivering the message of the Buddha to King Devanampiyatissa of Sri Lanka. The other shows the arrival of ‘Theri Bhikkhuni’ Sanghamitta, the daughter of the Emperor, in Sri Lanka, bearing a sapling of the ‘sacred Bodhi tree’ under which Siddhārtha Gautama is believed to have obtained enlightenment.
Tapping Buddhist links
The gesture comes at a time when Sri Lanka and India have agreed to strengthen ties through their shared Buddhist heritage. Enhancing connectivity between the neighbours and tourist exchanges were among the key talking points during Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s visit to Sri Lanka earlier this month.
In a virtual bilateral summit with PM Mahinda Rajapaksa in September 2020, Mr. Modi announced a $ 15 million grant to Sri Lanka for promoting bilateral Buddhist ties. The airport inauguration and the enhanced connectivity to a site revered by Buddhist pilgrims is one of many initiatives in India’s apparent outreach to the Sinhala-Buddhist majority of the island nation.
Despite India’s known support to the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration in defeating the LTTE in 2009, sections among Sri Lanka’s southern population remain India-sceptics, wary of the big neighbour who “interfered” in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, “sided with Tamils”. They resist India commenting on power devolution or conduct of elections to provincial councils in Sri Lanka, and oppose any Indian role in developing “national assets”.
In the decade after the civil war, which coincides with China’s growing influence in the island nation , New Delhi seems keen on recasting its image as a friend and collaborator, using religious and cultural diplomacy.
During his recent visit, Foreign Secretary Shringla, who travelled across the island, made the first stop in the central Kandy district, to offer prayers at the famed Buddhist temple Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. India regularly invokes the Buddha and Buddhist history in its messaging in Sri Lanka, especially on social media.
When India sent the first consignment of 5 lakh doses of Covishield vaccines to Sri Lanka in January this year, the Indian High Commission in Colombo in a tweet linked its arrival to a “blessed Poya Day”, or full moon day considered holy by Buddhists. The mission also wishes Sri Lankans on Twitter on almost every full moon day, and has images of the Buddha adorning its compound wall.
Sri Lanka, too, considers promoting shared Buddhist ties a matter of “paramount importance”, as was outlined in the Integrated Country Strategy prepared by Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India Milinda Moragoda .
On the growing emphasis on shared Buddhist ties, senior political scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda said: “A cynic might say this marks the beginning of a soft saffronisation [of bilateral ties], but when seen at a serious level, it signals that India is going to have a more assertive foreign policy stance towards Sri Lanka than in the recent past.”
The terminal building at the airport is spread across 3,600 sqm and was constructed at an estimated cost of ₹260 crore. It can handle 300 passengers during peak traffic. The Airports Authority of India signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Uttar Pradesh government in 2019 for taking over the operation and development of the unused airport.
(with inputs from Jagriti Chandra in New Delhi)