India is sending some Buddha relics to Mongolia for exhibition

New Delhi: India is making an exception to its own rules and is ready to send some relics of Gautam Buddha to Mongolia next week, which officials say will bolster the country’s position as a standard-bearer of Buddhism and counter China’s growing influence Power.

This comes after the Mongolian government approached India. A delegation led by Union Cabinet Minister Kiren Rijiju is expected to travel to Mongolia around June 16 to present the relics for display during the Purnima celebrations of the Mongolian Buddha.

Over 53% of the population of Mongolia follow Buddhism. The display of Buddha’s relics in each other’s countries is an important part of Buddhist relations. The last time Buddha’s relics were shipped out of the country was to Sri Lanka in 2013, ET has learned. The relics included bone fragments unearthed at Kapilavastu. The request was made by former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

In April, a formal request from the Mongolian government to the Ministry of Culture was forwarded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of East Asia, requesting that Lord Buddha’s relics be taken for display at Gandantegchinlen, the most important Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, on the occasion of the Buddha festival Purnima, which falls on June 14th.

The ministry in May approved in principle the display of four sacred Buddha relics for display in the monastery, relaxing the condition of the “AA” category of Buddha relics as a special case.

The ministry had decided to send an advance team to the monastery to check security. The team consisted of representatives from the Ministry, the International Buddhist Confederation, established in 2013 to provide a platform for the global Buddhist community, and the National Museum.

According to the Department of Education’s 2014 Guidelines for Organizing International Exhibitions, antiques and art treasures classified as “AA” may not be shipped abroad. In 2017, the National Museum was commissioned to categorize Buddha’s relics. A committee of experts including representatives from the ASI, government and domain experts from reputable institutions had given the Buddha’s relics the “AA” category, which is why they have not been sent anywhere until now, although there have been inquiries from countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand and South Korea.

Geographically constrained and wedged between China and Russia, Mongolia has often looked to India as its spiritual neighbor and has often walked a tightrope with China on one side and the spiritual master Dalai Lama on the other.

No Indian prime minister had visited Mongolia until 2015 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the country. Last year marked the 66th anniversary of diplomatic relations between India and Mongolia, during which both sides resumed high-level physical contacts, followed by a visit by Rajkumar Ranjan Singh, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs to Mongolia last November year.

Experts said the geopolitical rivalry between China and India over Buddhist heritage is not new, but amid growing Chinese aggression, East Asia matters to India. Both India and China have taken steps to increase their influence in the region.

On Buddha Poornima, Prime Minister Modi visited Lumbini, becoming the first Indian Prime Minister to do so. A few months ago he inaugurated the Kushinagar International Airport in eastern Uttar Pradesh to facilitate Buddhist pilgrims to Mahaparinirvana Temple where Lord Buddha attained Nirvana.

Indra Narain Singh, a professor specializing in Buddhist studies at Delhi University, said the Indian government is pursuing a dual strategy of demonstrating its power as the “nerve center” of Buddhism to counter China’s influence and also striving to to attract more Buddhist tourists to its spots.

“Buddha relics have unprecedented importance in Buddhism because they are the most sacred to the temple. In this way, India not only builds relationships with East Asian countries, but also sends a message to the world about its cultural power and its ability to honor commitments to allies while respecting and supporting their beliefs.”

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