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. 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.
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. 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
With the trade routes, scholars, pilgrims and missionaries had access to faraway lands, erecting monasteries and statues, inscribing rock faces and sharing the teachings of the Buddha. As a result, the routes became a vehicle for cultural exchange and adoption of Buddhism beyond South Asia. 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.
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.
Tourism, if well structured, managed and regulated, has major inclusive potential, given that it is labor intensive for both skilled and unskilled segments, creates backward linkages with other economic sectors, strengthens identity and social capital, promotes small-scale entrepreneurship—especially of poor women and youth—and funds basic infrastructure and services in areas often overlooked by traditional development schemes.
There is recognition within South Asia that unleashing the potential of the region’s Buddhist heritage for inclusive development requires a regional-level approach, given that Buddhist assets straddle borders and share common attributes and bottlenecks. As a response, governments in the region requested support from the World Bank in the preparation and implementation of a regional-level program for the development of the Buddhist Circuit in an inclusive manner.
The program was launched in 2016 and its implementation began in India, where most places associated with Buddha’s life are located. The lessons learned through this initial implementation will be shared with other South Asian countries with rich Buddhist heritage, such as Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond, in a phased manner.
As a program manager on behalf of the World Bank, TSCPL provides Ministry of Tourism, Government of India with technical assistance, analytical work and advisory support to the implementation of actions agreed upon by regional governments, Buddhists and other key stakeholders. At its core, the program focuses on six pillars of action aimed at creating a more immersive and richer experience for Buddhist Circuit visitors and communities alike. These are:
- Shared brand identity and coherent design guidelines for the revitalization of Buddhist sites and destinations, including a common marketing and branding strategy at the site, destination and Circuit levels;
- Guidelines for inclusive public investments;
- Strategy to engage, incentivize and scale up private investments;
- Policy and regulatory support to increase private investment;
- Strategy to generate economic and job opportunities for local communities, especially poor women; and
- Plan for improved regional connectivity and travel facilitation.
The Buddhist sites in India have been marked on TSCPL’s map below: