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The Buddhist Circuit in South Asia

Buddhism is the world’s fourth largest religion with over 520 million followers, or over 7% of the global population.  Buddhism encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs,  and spiritual practices largely based on original teachings attributed to the Buddha and the resulting interpreted philosophies. The man who came to be known as Buddha – the “Awakened One” or “Enlightened One”, was born Siddhartha Gautama between the 6th and 5th century B.C.E. in Lumbini, Nepal.  Although born a prince, the Buddha was dissatisfied with wealth and the trappings of material life.  He spent time in peregrination and contemplation in search of the Truth and made it his mission to find the way out of universal suffering.  At the age of 35 years, the Buddha gained Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya in the present state of Bihar (India) and gave his first sermon entitled “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta”, meaning “Turning the Wheel of the Truth”, to five ascetics at Sarnath near Varanasi (India).  The “Four Noble Truths”: Dukkha, Samudaya, Nirodha and Magga, were at the core of this philosophy.  Based on his teachings, Buddhism originated, flourished and spread throughout the Asian subcontinent over two centuries creating vast Buddhist religious heritage for the region.

Buddha’s Footsteps The Buddhist Circuit is a route that follows in the footsteps of the historical Buddha from Lumbini in Nepal where he was born, through Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India where he attained enlightenment, to Sarnath and Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh, India, where he gave his first sermon and attained Mahaparinirvana..“There are four places, the sight of which will arouse strong emotions in those with faith. Here the Tathagata was born. Here the Tathagata attained enlightenment. Here the Tathagata set in motion the wheel of the Dharma. Here the Tathagata attained final Nirvana. And the monk, the nun, the layman or the laywoman who has faith should visit these places.” Four additional sites in the region are linked to some of Buddha’s most significant life events: Rajgir and Vaishali in Bihar and Sravasti and Sankasia in Uttar Pradesh. These eight sites constitute an “inner circle” of the Buddhist Circuit, from which Buddhism would spread.

Ashoka’s Empire The spread of Buddhism across Asia began with the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (268 to 232 BCE), who shaped his empire based on Buddhist precepts and left behind a legacy larger than that of any Indian ruler. He is said to have erected over 84,000 stupas, pillars and rock edicts across his empire, some of which were inscribed with royal encouragements to his subjects to live in harmony with one another. These monuments and edicts are scattered over India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, with only around 20 pillars still standing. Ashoka’s legacy contributed substantially to the spread of Buddhism across Asia through the Silk and Spice Routes, some of the oldest trading routes in the world, connecting Persia with India and China.

Faxian & Xuanzang Journeys Of the eminent figures who traveled the Silk Route, two are seen as the most important for the history of Buddhism. Faxian (337 AD – 422 AD), a Chinese Buddhist monk, and Xuanzang (602 AD – 664 AD), a Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar, walked from China to India and visited a number of the most sacred Buddhist sites in today’s India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. During their journeys, they collected Buddhist texts and teachings and took them back to China for translation and dissemination, further spreading Buddhism beyond South Asia.

Understanding the Challenge

Despite the significance of South Asian Buddhist heritage and the fact that around 500 million Buddhists worldwide strive to visit some of these most sacred sites in their lifetime, the Buddhist Circuit as one integrated whole has not been successfully developed. As a result, only 0.005% of Buddhists actually visit the sacred Buddhist sites of South Asia. Previous investments along the Buddhist Circuit have been largely limited to the site level in their scope, without locating the sites in their broader historical contexts and landscapes through, for instance, the provision of physical and interpretative connections with other significant Buddhist sites. In addition, previous investments have not established socioeconomic linkages between Buddhist assets and local communities, focusing instead on small-scale beautification and ad-hoc site improvements. As a result of the lack of a common identity, integrity and local linkages, the South Asian Buddhist Circuit remains highly uncompetitive in comparison to similarly significant pilgrimage routes around the world. Visitation is limited and opportunities for improved services, job creation and revenue generation for local communities are generally missed. Acknowledging these challenges and untapped opportunities, South Asian countries have shown a commitment to establishing and applying an inclusive approach to the development of the Buddhist Circuit as a holistic and inclusive pilgrimage route and tourism product across the region.

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