Sri Lanka president to visit Buddhist shrines in Nepal

IANS, February 20, 2009

Kathmandu, Nepal -- Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is scheduled to visit his Nepal in March and pray at holy Buddhist shrines in the land where the Buddha was born.

Rajapaksa has accepted the invitation by Nepal’s Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda to pay a three-day visit, the Himalayan Times daily reported Friday.

Details of the visit in the first week of March have not been disclosed due to security reasons.

However, sources at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Kathmandu told the daily that the president would visit Lumbini in southern Nepal, where the Buddha was born over 2,500 years ago, and Swayambhunath, a world heritage site in Kathmandu revered by Buddhists, Jains and Hindus alike.

Rajapaksa is the first foreign dignitary to visit Nepal under the Maoist government besides UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last year, who too visited Lumbini.

Currently, Sri Lanka chairs the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) bloc of which Nepal is a member.

With growing numbers of tourists from the Buddhist-majority island nation visiting Nepal, the governments of the two countries last month revised the existing air services agreement with plans to start direct flights between Kathmandu and Colombo.

In 1996, when Nepal’s Maoist party began an armed insurrection against the state, its guerrillas had vowed to carve out a “red corridor” that would stretch from Sri Lanka to India and Bangladesh.

There were also desultory contacts between the Sri Lankan separatist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Maoists.

Rajapakse last month announced the capture of the LTTE’s bastion Kilinochhi in the northeast by state troops and issued a “final warning” to the militants, who have been waging a bitter three-decade war, to lay down arms and surrender.

The Sri Lankan president’s visit to the Buddha’s birthplace is also expected to send the message to the outside world that the founder of Buddhism was born in Nepal and not neighbouring India, as a controversial Bollywood film recently claimed.

Hindi comedy film “Chandni Chowk to China” has been banned in Nepal for the erroneous statement.