* The Buddhist circuit’s rail route stretches from Lumbini, the Buddha’s birthplace, to Kushinagar, where he attained nirvana

* Air connectivity is the key to the neighbourhood outreach plan

* The Ramayana circuit covers Ayodhya, the birthplace of Lord Rama, weaving its way through 15 sites of importance across nine states, and ending in Rameshwaram, from where the Ramsetu Bridge extends to Sri Lanka

India will be taking a leaf out of the pages of history as it charts its path towards enhancing cultural ties with Southeast and East Asia over the coming years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Act East Policy (AEP), built on PV Narasimha Rao’s Look East Policy, stands on the proverbial shoulders of thousands of emissaries who, over millennia, forged robust bonds with India’s eastern neighbours.

Sustainability of regional multilateralism — a well-recognised necessity in a post-Covid-19 and post-Galwan world — hinges on not just building alliances of political convenience, but also sharing a common world view. This view is a function of a multiplicity of factors — socioeconomic, geopolitical and geostrategic — underlying which is a cultural foundation dating back over 1,000 years. The subtle recognition of the Dharmic moorings of large parts of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) bloc and beyond has kept people-to-people contact warm since Independence.

Yet, in a post-Nehruvian consensus era, India would be well placed to take it a step further by reimagining itself as the cultural homeland for the region’s nearly half a billion Buddhists, whose philosophies and practices remain deeply intertwined with what is known as “Hinduism”. It is in this context that the Ramayana and Buddhist circuits — a part of the Indian government’s thematic tourist circuits — will play valuable roles, acting as pillars of the Act East Policy, while simultaneously giving a fillip to the domestic economy.

From time immemorial, pluralism has held primacy in Indic thought. The knowledge that universalist philosophies can be debated on and experienced across ethnic and linguistic groups, yet be assimilated into the wider Indic fold, is ostensible not just within the boundaries of modern India, but also as far as Japan and the regions between. What enabled this is the fact that the abstract commitment of an individual to truth-based principles found humanisation within each community’s cultural crucible. A thread of unity weaves across Jambudvipa and Dvipantara — terms used for India and a group of Southeast Asian nations respectively — from the time of their earliest reference in the millennia-old Matsya Purana to the 13th century, when they prominently appeared in Javanese royal proclamations, and on until the present. This continuum has been characterised not by colonisation but by the empowerment of local communities on a foundation of Indic tenets in the spheres of spirituality, administration, architecture, literature and the arts, originally using Sanskrit as the lingua franca.


Thy kingdom come: Hampi, associated with Kishkinda of Ramayana fame, is receiving $140 million from a private trust to build a temple complex and statue dedicated to Lord Hanuman


From Angkor Wat, Cambodia, to Taipei, Taiwan, and from Ayutthaya, Thailand, to Quang Nam, Vietnam, the apparent boundaries between Buddhism and Hinduism are evidently blurred. For many, both Lord Buddha and Lord Rama are expressed as manifestations of Lord Vishnu. In a similar vein, a vast pantheon of Hindu deities is venerated and epics are retold not only across the predominantly Buddhist region of mainland Southeast Asia, but also in Shinto-majority Japan and Muslim-majority Indonesia.

The Archaeological Survey of India has been active in Vietnam where, in May this year, it excavated a pristine monolithic Shiva Linga on the premises of the Mỹ Sơn temple complex. India’s relationship with Vietnam dates back over 2,000 years and the 60,000-strong Balamon Cham Hindu community in the Southeast Asian country continues the traditions of their ancestors. Meanwhile, defining the skyline of the Yogyakarta-Central Java border in Indonesia is the 9th-century Prambanan Compound, a 240-temple complex dedicated to Lord Shiva, hosting an array of motifs depicting the Ramayana. For communities from near and afar who explore India’s Ramayana and Buddhist circuits, the values India stands for get highlighted in perhaps a deeper way than through traditional diplomatic interactions.

Into the Hindi heartland

Tracing Lord Buddha’s footsteps on the civilisational map under the tourism ministry’s Swadesh Darshan Scheme, promoting tourist circuits, the Buddhist circuit’s rail route stretches from Lumbini, his birthplace, to Kushinagar, where he attained nirvana. Meanwhile, the Ramayana circuit covers Ayodhya, the birthplace of Lord Rama, weaving its way through 15 sites of importance across nine states, and ending in Rameshwaram, from where the Ramsetu Bridge extends to Sri Lanka.

Air connectivity is the key to the neighbourhood outreach plan. For this, international airports are being developed at Kushinagar and Ayodhya, the respective nodal centres of the Buddhist and Ramayana circuits. From the former, the sites of Kapilvastu and Sravasti, where Lord Buddha spent much of his monastic life, are easy to reach. The Ayodhya airport will provide access to the to-be-constructed Ram Mandir on the banks of the Sarayu while also connecting to nearby Nandigram, where, according to the Ramayana, Prince Bharat spent years as a caretaker-in-exile while Lord Rama was away. The Prayagraj airport will serve the pilgrimage destinations of Shringverpur and Chitrakoot, connecting to Madhya Pradesh’s Ram Van Gaman Path, which traces Lord Rama’s footsteps during his exile to the forest. Chhattisgarh has proposed a similar path, which is set to cover nine key locations, starting from Raipur.

Road improvements have already cut travel time by over 20 per cent on several routes through Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The Buddhist circuit-specific $1.5 billion investment to improve infrastructure, land acquisition and road connectivity, along with a pooled 200-acre land bank, has given titans of the hospitality industry, such as The Oberoi Group and the IHG Group, adequate confidence to greenlight projects along the orbit. Additionally, many of the $1.1 billion city-wide infrastructure developments in Varanasi will make it easier for visitors to explore nearby Sarnath, the place where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon.

The World Bank, too, has stepped in, allocating $15 million for upgrading Sarnath’s pedestrian ways and roads linking over two dozen monasteries and heritage sites to the railway station. Japan is involved in the construction of Varanasi’s “Rudraksh” convention centre at a cost of $20 million. Built under the Kashi-Kyoto Partner City Agreement through the Japan International Cooperation Agency, it seeks to create a platform for cultural and knowledge exchange.

Bihar is not far behind in its plans, although it faces copious challenges to make the state conducive for increased tourist footfall. Bodhgaya, where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment, should undergo a facelift with chief minister Nitish Kumar’s push to turn it into a major hub of the circuit following the Union government’s construction of a 2,000-seat cultural convention centre. However, much needs to be done if Rajgir and Nalanda — ancient international seats of learning — figure prominently on Bihar’s tourist trail. Better waste management is also required to raise the sanitation standards of the nearest city, Gaya, which currently ranks the lowest out of 382 cities in the Central government’s Swachh Survekshan 2020 survey (ranking cities and towns on cleanliness) in the 1 lakh-10 lakh population category. In contrast, although on a different metric, Varanasi ranks the highest out of 46 cities along the Ganga, pointing to the growing disparity in development between the two regions. Gaya airport is yet to accommodate wide-bodied aircraft, and what should take an hour and a half on the 100-km NH-38 stretch to Patna currently takes nearly four hours. That said, the Ramayana circuit’s Sitamarhi, Buxar and Darbhanga, important sites associated with Goddess Sita, Maharishi Valmiki and King Janaka, are easily accessible from Patna and the hope is that these cities will gain from the hospitality infrastructure that is being laid out.

Regional hubs

With the systematic erasure of Buddhist heritage in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the world’s westernmost bastion of Buddhism is now Ladakh. Home to a plethora of monasteries, it offers visitors a window into Tibetan culture due to its historic linkages with Lhasa. These linkages extend through Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh and leveraging the Centre’s scheme for regional airports and low-cost flights to smaller towns to bring these areas within the broader Buddhist circuit can strengthen the AEP. The recently announced plan for setting up a Central University in Ladakh with a Centre for Buddhist Studies will be noteworthy in this context, especially if it were to provide scholarships to students and thought leaders from the Asean region. The Tibetan cause, long held captive by bureaucrats and governments, can be furthered organically. Empowering the community, highlighting the importance of monasteries including Tawang’s Gaden Namgyal Lhatse and Ladakh’s Thiksey, and bringing the Tibetan message to the world, are undoubtedly a part of India’s civilisational responsibility.

Transforming India’s frontier states into gateways for collaboration with its neighbours will also hasten the progress of the AEP’s trilateral highway project connecting Manipur — a Vaishnav stronghold with cultural similarities across the border — to Thailand via Myanmar. Besides facilitating tourist access to the Buddhist and Ramayana circuits, it stands to improve bilateral trade and act as a strategic counterbalance to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

It is notable that much of the Hindu culture, literature and architecture seen to the country’s east has been influenced by South Indian empires that engaged extensively in both cultural exchange and trade. Broadly speaking, to support increased tourist footfall, Nasik, Nagpur, Bhadrachalam, Hampi and Rameshwaram have better infrastructure than their northern counterparts. Despite that, Bhadrachalam received $8 million from the Union government for developing its heritage sites, while the temple town of Hampi, associated with Kishkinda, is receiving $140 million from a private trust for building a temple complex and statue dedicated to Lord Hanuman. Interestingly, it is from here, according to the Ramayana, that Sugriva left for Jawadvipa (modern-day Java, Indonesia) in search of Sita. Going further south, pilgrims will reach Rameshwaram, from where the limestone bridge to Sri Lanka is visible.

The road ahead

While constitutional purists may argue that selective, government-driven religious revivalism could impinge upon the idea of secularism, there is a strong case for rebuilding cultural bridges with Southeast and East Asia from a commercial and foreign policy standpoint. Ably supported by quality infrastructure, hospitality and education, the economic benefits of religious tourism are estimated to be over $50 billion. As partnerships develop in the face of rising regional authoritarianism, reinvigorating age-old bonds between Jambudvipa and Dvipantara involves an astute awareness and comprehensive understanding of Indic liberalism. The benefit of cementing ties is not merely derived from an extension of India’s “arc of influence” and “soft power”, but from the value inherent in reviving 2,000 years of international interaction and confluence of liberal ideas, centred in India. History is replete with examples of how this has acted as a bulwark against anti-liberal, expansionist empires of yore.

Building on the cultural intersectionality with the nations in the neighbourhood, the Ramayana and Buddhist circuits will highlight the overarching themes of righteousness and Dharma, which are central to the lives of both Lord Rama and Lord Buddha. With India aspiring to take a leadership role in regional affairs, these circuits will act as pillars of strength and symbols of unity for the nation and its neighbours as the AEP evolves in the years ahead.

Surya Kanegaonkar, a finance professional passionate about Indic culture and global geopolitics, is based in Zug, Switzerland