Lumbini, which lies very close to the Indian border, has also turned into a virtual battleground for influence between India and China. The latter has invested heavily both in the development of cultural sites, including Buddhist centers and the monastery as well as big infrastructure projects like the airport
Underlining the shared heritage, culture, and civilizational ties between the two countries, both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba delivered a common message on Monday - elevating the centuries-old ties of “roti-beti” (cultural and familial) ties to deeper economic and development cooperation in areas like connectivity and infrastructure development.
“Ties that have their roots in shared values, culture, and civilization need to be enhanced through science, technology, infrastructure development, and connectivity,” Modi said on Monday in Nepal’s Lumbini, where he was on a one-day visit to participate in an event marking the birth anniversary of Lord Buddha.
Modi, who was on his fifth visit to Nepal as prime minister, also offered prayers at the sacred Maya Devi temple to Lumbini, an important Buddhist pilgrimage centre and the birthplace of Lord Buddha, on the occasion of Buddha Purnima. He and Deuba jointly laid the foundation stone for the India International Centre for Buddhist Culture and Heritage in the Lumbini Monastic Zone.
The visit by Modi, which came weeks after Deuba visited India in April, came at a time when the two countries have redoubled their efforts to boost bilateral cooperation in the field of connectivity, infrastructure development, and promoting tourism, putting behind the differences of the recent past over border quibbles.
“I am confident that this visit also further strengthens the social, religious, cultural, and civilizational connections that our two countries and people share since historic times,” Deuba said in his speech while acknowledging that Modi’s past visits to historical places like Pashupatinath Temple, Janakpuri among others have not only “boosted cultural relations” but also helped “increase the flow of Indian tourists at those places.
In 2014, when Modi first visited Nepal, he became the first Indian prime minister to visit the country in the last 17 years. Today, it was his fifth visit to this largely Hindu country where China has expanded its influence greatly, especially in the last decade.
For the Nepalese, Buddha and Mountain Everest both are integral to their national identity. However, both are shared ones - the former with India and the latter with China. This also sometimes invokes a sense of insecurity among the Nepalese.
An innocent reference to Buddha as “one of the greatest Indians” by Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar at an event in 2020 triggered strong protests in Nepal and led the Nepali government to issue an objection to his remark. Hours later, New Delhi issued a clarification, acknowledging Nepal’s Lumbini as Buddha’s birthplace and Buddhism as a “shared heritage.”
The participation of the Indian prime minister in today’s event at the invitation of the Nepali prime minister underscored the message of shared civilization.
“Gautam Buddha has closely connected the bonds between Nepal and India through his thoughts and illuminating works. He is an equally respected and venerable figure for both countries,” Deuba said in his speech.
“The past visits by Shri Modi Ji to sacred pilgrimage sites, including Janakpur, Muktinath, and Pashupati Nath have boosted cultural relations between the people of two countries It has also helped increase flow of Indian tourists in those areas.”
On the other hand, Modi reiterated his earlier remark, “Without Nepal, our Ram is incomplete,” a reference to Hindu deity Ram whose wife Sita was believed to be from Nepal’s Janakpuri.
While the speeches of the two prime ministers were full of cultural references underlining shared civilizational connections, the two leaders also pitched for the need to realize the economic and developmental aspirations through “mutual understanding" cooperation, and "mutual respect.”
“Ties between India and Nepal are immortal like the Himalayas and as old as the Himalayas, the Himalayas,” Modi said with his usual rhetorical flourish.
In his speech, Deuba said, “We also look forward to developing the Buddhist Circuit which will further strengthen our cooperation in culture and tourism as well as link the sacred lands that were significant in the life of Lord Buddha.”
“Such circuit linking Lumbini in Nepal with Bodhgaya, Sarnath, and Kushinagar in India has immense potential for promoting tourism between the two countries,” he added.
Importantly, Deuba, in his speech, also mentioned the newly built Gautam Buddha International Airport in Bhairahawa— constructed by China, a reason many believe the Indian leader avoided using it during his trip— to “welcome visitors from India and all over the world.”
Lumbini, which lies very close to the Indian border, has also turned into a virtual battleground for influence between India and China. The latter has invested heavily both in the development of cultural sites, including Buddhist centers and the monastery as well as big infrastructure projects like the airport.
However, Indian presence and contribution in this regard have so far been very limited—something New Delhi is now trying to change. Growing Chinese influence–both soft and hard—in a town so close to the Indian border also concerns New Delhi.
“Our aim is to develop Lumbini as a heritage for the entire humanity and as a center for inspiration to the world, Deuba said in his speech, adding “it is our commitment to developing Lumbini as the center of Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy”
However, Deuba was careful to add, “Towards this noble aim, we value the cooperation and solidarity of all,” China remaining the elephant in the room.