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LA STAMPA

"Buddhaland" - Is Nothing Sacred Anymore?

The struggle for power in Lumbini, Nepal as a Chinese group pushes a "mega project" to draw Buddhist tourists from around the world.

Lumbini, the Mecca of every Buddhist
Lumbini, the Mecca of every Buddhist
Ilaria Maria Sala

LUMBINI- From the characters alone, it's clear that this is not your typical story. There is the leader of a bloody Maoist insurgency, the Chinese director of an obscure foundation who may be a friend of the President of China, the Secretary General of the United Nations and his mother, devout Buddhists in a predominantly Hindu country and the intelligentsia of Kathmandu.

The plot features a game that resembles modern tales of espionage on the slopes of the Himalayas. The setting for all of this is Lumbini, in the plains of Terai, just north of the Indian border, a fertile yet unforgiving land where the summer sun pushes temperatures above 50°C.

It's here that Siddharta Gautama Buddha was born between the 5th and 6th centuries before Christ; as proof there are some stones and a column erected by King Ashoka (304-232 B.C.). A tree was there instead of a manger: Queen Maya was in Lumbini when she went into labor and gave birth while holding onto a sal branch near the stream.

Over the years, the traces were lost, and only in the 19th century was it rediscovered by colonial explorers: Soon after came the droves of pilgrims. Now, a new urgency is gripping the fate of Lumbini, with a Buddha-related project backed by a Chinese group and the Nepalese Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka Prachanda, the Invincible), but fiercely opposed by the local Buddhists and anti-Maoists.

"For Nepal, it could be a goldmine!" insists Kanak Dixit, writer and political analyst.

But who is this head of the Asia Pacific Exchange Cooperation Foundation (APECF), which wants to invest $5 million into Lumbini? The answer isn't easy: Xiao Wunan, former economist and banker, who has become a Buddhist and a "promoter of peace in the world."

A Texan architecht and UN chief

His proposal is for "Buddhaland," along with Vertical Theme Park and Texan-born architect Eric Kuhne, famous for designing the biggest shopping mall in Europe. In some circles, Xiao boasts that he's old friends with newly anointed Chinese leader Xi Jinping; elsewhere he shows up humbly in a white Buddhist scarf. It is also unclear whether the Chinese government is supporting the project; but what is obvious to anyone in Nepal is how much China wants to influence this politically fragile nation, which has given refuge to thousands of Tibetan refugees opposed by Beijing.

Vice President of the investment company is the Maoist and atheist, Prachanda, who as the former Prime Minister of Nepal, had green-lighted Xiao's theme park. Rajan Bhattarai, President of the Nepalese Institute for Political Studies, is skeptical of the deal. "All of this should be under UNESCO, not within the private sector. Lumbini is a World Heritage Site," he said. "And Prachanda is unreliable."

Bhattarai notes that Prachanda also signed a rival deal with Kwaak Young Hoon to develop Lumbini. As for Kwaak, a South Korean professor, he too has friends in high places: Ban Ki Moon, Secretary General of the UN and devout Buddhist. According to Bhatterai, he'd promised to his mother "to promote Buddhism in every way and create a city of peace in Lumbini."

Dixit is helping to lead the efforts to block the project. "Pushpa Kamal Dahal, with his hands bloodied from hundreds of deaths from the insurrection, wants to wash his hands with Lumbini, giving himself the respectability of those who can bring investment to Nepal!" thunders Dixit. "Because of this, we blocked the visit of Ban Ki Moon to Lumbini, which would have given it legitimacy."

In the meantime, in the sunny plains of Terai, the archeological site is visited by pilgrims in prayer and Indian students on trips. Subash Sharma, manager of the Hotel Hokke, shows on a plan the works that are in construction in the internal garden of peace surrounding the holy stones and says that "there's a new temple being built by the Chinese diaspora, Korea is establishing its own and China is expanding theirs."

Along the stream in the garden, Gu, a devout Chinese man holding prayer beads, coordinates the construction of a stage for an "enormous spectacle" with 2,000 singers and dancers who will come from China to do a Buddhist performance.

In the Chinese temple, a monk explains that Beijing has invested in a hotel, a second temple, a place for retreat, Chinese restaurants and different shops- all already under construction. Xiao's project? He doesn't know, but confirms that China is financing many projects, among them "the expansion of the airport, to become more international."

Meanwhile, India remains quiet, always suspicious of Chinese intentions, especially about something so close to its border. Still, some Indians have also announced an enormous spectacle of their own, with thousands of actors, singers and dancers, with a Buddhist theme of course.

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👋 Konta!*

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[*Papiamento, Dutch Caribbean]

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