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India’s sacred relics revered across Thailand

28 Mar 2024 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      

Sacred relics of Lord Buddha, along with those of his two disciples Sariputra and Maudgalyayana, were on display for 26 days at various locations across Thailand, attracting millions of visitors, and were returned to India on March 19.

The sacred relics, known as the Kapilavastu relics, are housed in India’s national museum. They are believed to be the remains of Lord Buddha and two of his disciples, Sariputra and Maudgalayana. These significant relics date back to around the 4th-5th century BC. They were unearthed in Piprahwa near Siddharthnagar in Uttar Pradesh, a site thought to be the ancient city of Kapilvastu – by the Archaeological Survey of India in the 1970s. These sacred relics have even travelled abroad for exhibitions, having been displayed in Mongolia and Sri Lanka in the past.

However, it was the first time the relics of Lord Buddha and his disciples were showcased together. They were flown to Thailand on February 22, with the respect of a visiting dignitary on a special Indian Air Force plane. These relics are considered exceptionally rare and valuable, classified under the "AA" category for antiquities and art treasures. Normally, they wouldn't be loaned out for exhibitions, anywhere in the world. However, the Ministry of Culture made an exception for a special request from the Thai government, allowing these relics to be displayed in Thailand for a limited time.

This special exhibition also marked the 72nd birth year of the king, Rama X, highlighting the civilizational relationship between India and Thailand. After a month-long exhibition in Thailand, the relics returned to India and were received with full state honors. Minister Meenakshi Lekhi, who received them back in a special ceremony at the Air Force Station, carried the casket containing the relics and spoke about the deep cultural connection between India and Thailand, strengthened by the Buddha's timeless message.

The Buddha's relics are kept at the National Museum, while the relics of his two disciples were sent from Madhya Pradesh to Delhi before being transported to Thailand. These relics were put on display for public veneration in Bangkok for the first time ever, starting on February 23rd. The exhibition then travelled across Thailand, with stops in several cities before concluding on March 18. The event drew a large crowd of devotees, with many lining up in early mornings to pay their respects.

The initiative illustrates the strategic importance of culture and heritage within contemporary Indian diplomatic thinking. The diplomatic policy establishment in India places a strong emphasis on its rich culture and heritage. A recent example is "relic diplomacy," where India shared relics of Lord Buddha with Thailand and Queen St. Ketevan with Georgia. These acts not only showcase India's cultural heritage but also serve as powerful gestures of communication and connection between different cultures. In India, objects like historical artifacts and other tangible remains, which together form what's called material culture, have crossed borders and come to represent the idea of "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" (the world is one family). This philosophy emphasizes the interconnectedness of all people.

India actively builds on this shared cultural heritage with countries in Southeast Asia, like those in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Thailand is a recent example of this collaboration, signifying India's ongoing efforts to promote cultural understanding and unity. India's sharing of Buddhist relics with Southeast Asian nations like Vietnam reflects a cultural diplomacy built on shared religious values. These values, embodied by the Buddha and his disciples, are being highlighted through the exhibition of bone fragments in Bangkok's National Museum. The exhibition is part of a long tradition of such exchanges, with India previously sending relics to Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand.

This recent agreement between India and Thailand underscores the importance of Buddhism in strengthening their relationship, a point emphasized by former President Kovind's visit to a Hindu and Buddhist temple complex in Vietnam. India's cultural diplomacy efforts are reaching new heights. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is not only restoring historical sites in Cambodia but also uncovering treasures like Buddha statues. This strengthens the already strong foundation between India and Thailand, aligning with their respective foreign policies of "Act East" and "Look West." Another successful example of cultural diplomacy involves Georgia. In 2021, the Minister of External Affairs returned relics of the revered Queen St. Ketevan.

A symbol of faith and resilience, the Queen's story connects the two nations. Her remains, discovered in Goa, highlight the historical ties that bind India and Georgia today. In 2017, India shared the holy relics of Saint Queen Ketevan with Georgia for six months. The relics hold significant historical and religious importance for Georgia. In July 2021, India's External Affairs Minister personally delivered the relics to Georgia. India uses its long history as a centre of spirituality and knowledge (its "Dharmic civilization") as a unique form of soft power. This differs from the West's focus on pop culture and consumerism. India promotes the exchange of ideas, cultural connections, and traditional wisdom to address modern problems.

This includes areas like sustainable development and humanitarian aid. For example, Buddhism originated in India and flourished in nearby countries, creating deep cultural ties that go back centuries. This shared spirituality is especially strong between India and Bhutan, where Buddhism is the foundation of their relationship. Bhutan sees India not just as a powerful neighbour but also as the source of its religion and its message of peace and compassion. Prime Minister Modi recently laid the foundation stone for the India International Centre for Buddhist Culture and Heritage to be built in Lumbini, Nepal, the birthplace of Buddha. It aims to be a centre for Buddhist learning and attract international visitors. Designed with prayer halls, meditation areas, a library, and an exhibition hall, the Centre will showcase Buddhist teachings and history. This project goes beyond just a building. Lumbini is part of a larger Buddhist circuit, with other important sites marking Buddha's life journey.

The Centre strengthens this circuit and promotes a transnational Buddhist tourism route between India and Nepal. The Centre's promise of the centre goes even further. It has the potential to become a hub for cultural exchange and spiritual exploration, not just for Buddhists but for anyone seeking peace and wisdom. This initiative holds significance for many Asian countries where Buddhism is a core part of their identity. The Centre serves as a symbol of unity and a reminder of Buddhism's power to connect people across cultures. The India International Centre for Buddhist Culture and Heritage is more than a building - it's a bridge between past, present, and future. It honours Buddha's legacy, fosters cultural exchange, and offers a brighter future for Buddhist studies, tourism, and spiritual exploration. This project exemplifies India's creativity in promoting its civilizational values as a potential resource to addressing contemporary global challenges.

Nonetheless, Countries use cultural diplomacy to achieve specific goals, and for India, its cultural ties are linked to its political and economic interests. This raises the possibility that relic diplomacy, or showcasing religious artefacts, can be used more strategically. India will do well to explore how relics can bring benefits in areas like trade, infrastructure, and security.

Looking ahead, it might be helpful for the private sector to collaborate with the government on cultural diplomacy initiatives involving relics. This teamwork could lead to mutual benefits. As more countries engage in Buddhist diplomacy, India will face new challenges, such as competition from Pakistan. However, India's cultural diplomacy efforts should be confident and focus on its unique strengths.

Ultimately, relic diplomacy allows India to connect with other countries through shared spirituality. It's not about creating a uniform culture, but rather celebrating diversity and the contributions of figures like the Buddha and Queen St. Ketevan. Their teachings hold even greater importance in today's world.

Dr. Maheep is a leading analyst of India’s Foreign Policy. He has been teaching and conducting research on International Relations and Global Politics for over a decade.