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Tuesday, 30 September, 2014, 12 : 00 PM [IST]

Marketing Compassion

The International Buddhist Conclave 2014
hugh_and_colleen_gantzer.jpgOn September 26, 118 delegates from 34 countries landed in an Air India charter in sleepy Bodh Gaya airport. They were guests of the Ministry of Tourism and that of the State of Bihar.  Bodh Gaya is a pilgrim town, its electric supply is erratic; many of its hotels are so basic that one has to ask for a knife and fork and one restaurant featured such exotic dishes as “egg water pouch” and an exotic cold beverage called “Soad”.  It took us a while to decipher these as “poached eggs” and “soda”. And yet, Union Tourism Minister Shripad Yesso Naik, Tourism Secretary Parvez Dewan, Addl. Secretary Girish Shankar, and Bihar’s Commissioner Tourism Deepak Prasad and his able Tourism Manager Sonal Dwivedi had the courage to take on such a formidable event.  If there had been a single major glitch, their folly would have echoed around the world.  But there wasn’t one.    

Thanks to the chutzpah of these unusual bureaucrats, the delegates were saturated in Buddhist heritage for the next two days. This has never been attempted on this scale by any country, anywhere in the world.   

buddhist_conclave_2014_1.jpgAnd we, as accidental front seat spectators, were able to assess the  incredible amount of planning,

To start with, there was no hall in Bodh Gaya large enough to accommodate such a gigantic event.  It had to be created. The Kagyupa International Monlam Trust had a metal shed covering almost an acre of ground.  But it was just a bare shed.  Rajesh Kapoor, Business Head (Retail), Meroform, said, “We brought in everything by road that included gensets, air-conditioning equipment, tables, chairs, even the huge stage to seat the choir of Buddhist acolyte and the speakers against a backdrop of a golden Buddha enthroned in front of Mount Kailash. Also exhibition booths, buffet tables, a dining area and a B2B set-up.”  Cloth-clad pillars rose a false ceiling concealed the bare metal roof and another stage in an outdoor dining area under the stars was erected in Rajgir with a sacred mountain picked out by searchlight as an impressive backdrop. All  his was done in 14 days.  Swati Basu of Conference Cell brought in her highly trained hosts and hostesses.  The catering was given to Gargee Grand, Patna, and Chef Arvind Rai of The Ashok Hotel, Delhi was flown in with his specialist team to handle quality control. Rai has handled the India Night Banquet at the Cannes Film Festival.  Students from the Institute of Hotel Management, Hajipur were in attendance.  

Nothing had been left to chance.

buddhist_conclave_2014_2.jpgThe police bandobast was formidable and impregnable with even the state Rapid Action Force in their mottled blue uniforms on duty.  And in every hotel and at key points of entry, medical teams had set up their first aid tables.  “This has all been done by our Civil Surgeon, Patna”, said a medical attendant proudly. The inaugural session was both impressive and instructive. Dewan gave an excellent overview of the many sites in India associated with Buddhism. Significantly, he distinguished between the places visited by the Buddha and those where his disciples had established their own centres of Buddhist studies. The session moderated by Buddhist mentor Shantum Seth was interestingly different because he gave a brief, but effective introduction to meditation. His panel also offered pragmatic suggestions to make our Buddhist circuit more accessible.  One solution was the introduction of an A/C train meant exclusively for the circuit.  The Ministry of Tourism has agreed to finance such a train operating on a Gaya-Varanasi-Kushinagar-Gorakhpur-Gaya closed loop.  We were assured that travellers could avail themselves of this train as a hop-on-hop-off tour. Larger groups could also use the attached kitchen to cook food of their taste.

One of the most interesting speeches was made by Naik. Among his many pragmatic proposals was to ask the monasteries established by the many Buddhist countries to organise fortnight-long festivals in the low summer season. Naik communicated his view in clear, easy to understand language, and was listened to intently by delegates.

buddhist_conclave_2014_3.jpgThe B2B session generated a number of interesting queries. There were 25 hotels and travel agents from Bihar and 55 from the rest of India.  Judging from the responses we got from delegates, while Buddhism was the prime attraction in this Conclave, most of the delegates believed it to be only one of the marketing aims. Said Rainer Proffen of Germany, “I’m also looking at the bigger picture of India”. Clearly, in a world driven by sectarian violence and fratricidal wars, a nation unified in its diversity becomes a major attraction.
 
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