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LUCKNOW/VARANASI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision to announce a direct flight between Colombo and Varanasi is intended to leverage an ancient cultural connection and tap India's soft power potential in boosting ties with Sri Lanka and checking China's influence in the island nation.
Modi's announcement during his ongoing visit to Sri Lanka was immediately welcomed by Buddhist monks in Varanasi and is expected to give a fillip to spiritual tourism along the Buddhist circuit.
Not only will the flight make the journey from PM Modi's constituency to the Sri Lankan capital cheaper by about 40%, it will also reduce travel time to just about five hours.
Apart from the tourism and cultural aspects, the air connection is in sync with Modi's consistent focus on using India's Buddhist legacy in diplomacy and outflanking China's big economic overtures to the sub-continent such as the Hambantota port in Sir Lanka.
While Colombo was seen to have slipped more under Beijing influence when Mahinda Rajapaksa was in office, the Modi government has worked to retrieve India's ties with Colombo.
China too, has worked to present itself as central to Buddhist traditions but its appeal suffers from a history of anti-religious policies and its economic aid is often seen as attached to conditionalities that can be restrictive.
On the other hand, sites closely linked to the life of Buddha in India such as Sarnath and Bodh Gaya give it a credible claim to Buddhist traditions.
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In Varanasi, joint secretary of Mahabodhi Society of India and incharge of Sarnath unit Medhankar Thero told TOI that initially Sri Lanka had operated flights for Varanasi.
"Now India is starting its flight for Colombo from Varanasi, which will facilitate Sri Lankan Buddhist pilgrims to reach Sarnath without wasting time and also increase the flow of Hindu pilgrims to Sri Lanka to visit places associated with Ramayana age," he said.
Industry stakeholders say a visit to Sarnath and Bodhgaya is very significant to Buddhists around the world.
"This is going to be a win-win situation for pilgrims who will have to pay at least 40% less than before," said Prateek Hira, state president, Association of Tour Operators in India.
Various tours and travel websites suggest that a pilgrim from Colombo to UP and Bihar has to spend at least Rs 25,000 on airfare per person if bookings are made four weeks in advance.
"Bodhgaya is just a five-and-a-half-hour drive from Varanasi. The move will eventually turn Varanasi-Bodhgaya into a twin-city tour for pilgrims," Hira said.
Those looking for a leisurely stay can pick an eight-night trip to Varanasi, Bodh Gaya, Rajgir, Vaishali, Kushinagar, Lumbini, Kapilvastu, Sravasti and Varanasi.
Tourism department statistics also hint towards higher footfall. Over 55% of foreign tourists who visit Varanasi go to Sarnath and Kushinagar.