To celebrate the 20th anniversary of BIMSTEC this year (2017), the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India has organized the “Bodhi Parva: BIMSTEC Festival of Buddhist Heritage” during 8-11 December, 2017 at the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts (IGNCA), New Delhi, and has invited all BIMSTEC member states, including Thailand, to participate in the Festival.
BIMSTEC, or the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, was established in 1997 (at the time using the name “BISTEC”) with Thailand as one of the Co-founders. Presently, BIMSTEC has 7 member states, namely Thailand, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
In India’s view, the Bodhi Parva Festival would be an opportunity to re-emphasize and celebrate the strong Buddhist cultural heritage shared by all BIMSTEC members. The Festival had diverse components including an exhibition of international and Indian Buddhist art and architecture; Dharma discourses and guided meditation sessions by eminent scholars and practitioners of Buddhism; choral singing, sutra recitation and chanting by Buddhist monks and choir; screening of a Buddhist movie; dances, music and cultural performances from member states; demonstration of Buddhist calligraphy; quiz show for students based on Buddhism and BIMSTEC; and tourist booths by Thailand and Sri Lanka with special focus on promotion of Buddhist tourism.
On the night of 8 December 2017 Dr. Mahesh Sharma, Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Culture of India, presided over the Festival’s inaugurating ceremony, joined by notable participants such as Mrs. Preeti Saran, Secretary (East) of the Ministry of External Affairs of India, as well as high-ranking officers of the Indian Ministries of External Affairs and Culture, Nepal’s Minister for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation of Nepal (as Nepal is the current BIMSTEC chair), Bangladesh’s Secretary of the Ministry of Culture, and Heads of Diplomatic Missions and diplomats of BIMSTEC member states in New Delhi. From the Royal Thai Embassy, Ambassador Chutintorn Gongsakdi, his wife M.L Piyawan Gongsakdi and Minister/Deputy Chief of Mission Apirat Sugondhabhirom attended the inauguration.
The Royal Thai Embassy extended its cooperation to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs in the organization of this event by means of various contributions. As requested by the organizers, a Thai film “The Wandering” directing by Mr. Boonsong Nakphoo, was screened on 9 December 2017, the only Buddhist film at this Festival. The film attracted much attention from Indian viewers, with its deep philosophic content concerning the Theravada school of Buddhism in Thailand – in particular, introduction to the Thai “forest monks” and their ways and practice. The film also offered glimpses of the “forest monasteries” amidst the pristine nature of Southern Thailand’s wilderness.
In addition, the Embassy had invited Venerable Phrakru Pariyutbhodivithes (Phramaha Dr. Komsorn Kuttadhammo), Chief Abbot of Wat Thai Chetawan Mahavihara Temple in Uttar Pradesh and member/spokesperson of the official Thai Dharmaduta Buddhist Missionary Delegation to India and Nepal, to give a Dharma talk and lead a meditation session. There was also a Thai tourist booth promoting Buddhist destinations, and the Embassy, together with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) New Delhi office, also contributed prizes to the students’ quiz show.
The cultural performance from the Embassy was the recitation of two poems by Rabindranath Tagore, India’s greatest poet and first Asian Nobel Laureate in Literature, whose poem – Jana Gana Mana – is later adopted as the national anthem of the Republic of India. Minister and DCM Apirat recited the two poems, namely, “To Siam” and “Farewell to Siam” which were based on the Nobel Laureate’ impressions of his own visit to Thailand (Siam) in October 1927 – exactly 90 years ago this year. Tagore was particularly touched to find that Siam has embraced Buddhism for centuries and that ancient civilization of India, especially Buddhism, was still cherished and kept vibrant far from home in this distant land, while (at least in his view) Lord Buddha’s teaching was almost completely forgotten in the land of its origin – the India of 1920s. In his two poems, Tagore mentioned “the great prayer of the Three Refuges” and “devotion to one Dharma, one Sangha and one immortal Teacher”, as well as historical ties between Siam and India – “a primaeval friendship” and “the touch of an immemorial kinship” that he himself experienced while in Siam. Rabindranath Tagore composed the two poems in both English and Bengali (his native tongue), and the first poem “To Siam” was read in the royal presence of H.M. King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, the Great-Uncle of the present King of Thailand, who granted audience to the Indian poet at Dusit Palace, Bangkok, on 13 October 1927.
DCM Apirat, cladded in white tunic and the Thai traditional “chongkraben”, informed the audience that such was the uniform of the officials of the Royal Siamese Court a century ago, and very likely the same as Tagore himself would have encountered in the Siamese palace during his visit to Siam. Moreover, the Thai way of wrapping the lower garment around one’s body reflects another Indian influence on the Thai culture – as it is very similar to Indian Dhoti.
The DCM also remarked that, although Tagore had lamented in his poem that Buddhism was almost totally forgotten in India of his lifetime, the post-independence India has come to pay much more attention to Lord Buddha — as one of the most illustrious sons of India — and to the revival of Buddhism. Tagore would probably be pleased if he knew that in 1956 the independent Republic of India, under Prime Minister Nehru, hosted a grand celebration of Buddha Jayanti to mark the 2,500 years of Buddhism, and on this occasion India invited various foreign governments and international Buddhist community to build their temples at Bodh Gaya, following the enactment in 1949 of a special law for the administration of that sacred Buddhist site with stipulates that the Thai Ambassador to India, together with other ambassadors of friendly Buddhist countries, be a member of an advisory board to the Bodh Gaya management committee. The Thai Government was the first government to respond to such invitation, and a Thai Temple still stands in Bodh Gaya unto this day. Tagore would probably be pleased too to note that, ninety years after his visit to Siam, Shri Ram Nath Kovind, the current President of India himself, made a reference to Lord Buddha in his speech when he was sworn in as President in July 2017, and also in his first Independent Day speech in August. No longer would “the Master’s words lie dumb, in desultory ruins, in the desolate dust…” in modern day India.
The DCM also reaffirmed Thailand’s commitment – as a co-founder to BIMSTEC, to continue to support BIMSTEC cooperation in every dimension, particularly the people-to-people ties among BIMSTEC countries, and religious and cultural relations.
The Thai Embassy’s performance is a mixture of Thai and Indian cultures. Before the poem recitation, Miss Sukriti Sen, renowned Indian vocalist of Indian traditional songs, chanted a Sanskrit sloka on Buddhism, followed by the explanation of historical background of the two poems and the recitation of “To Siam” by the Thai DCM, then Mr. Sanat Chakrabarty, senior Bengali artist and journalist, recited the same poem in Bengali. Then Miss Sukriti Sen gave a rendition of Indian traditional music style, developed by Rabindranath Tagore, called the “Rabindrasangeet”. Lastly, the second poem “Farewell to Siam” was read out in both English and Bengali. This was a message of farewell that Tagore gave to Thailand upon his departure on 16 October 1927 and on that note, the performance ended.
After the performance, DCM Apirat and the other performers also gave an interview to the reporter from the Time of India on the significance of the poems.
During the course of the year 2017 many activities have been held to celebrate BIMSTEC’s 20th anniversary, in India and elsewhere. For instance, on 26 May 2017 the Thai Government held a Reception at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok, hosted by H.E. the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of Thailand, attended by delegations (both from the government and academic circles) of all BIMSTEC member states, including the then Secretary-General of BIMSTEC.
Furthermore, the Thai Foreign Ministry, in collaboration with Chulalongkorn University, organized the International Conference on “Strengthening Cultural Linkages in the Bay of Bengal” at Chulalongkorn University during 27-28 May 2017 as part of the celebration.