When Siddharth Gauri conceived a project in 2010 to build a national park dedicated to Ashoka and Buddhism, he expected it to be a smooth sail. After all, no Indian ruler, in his zeal to propagate Buddhism, was more instrumental and successful in spreading Indian influence abroad than Ashoka. But after having spent more than six years and convincing an entire village to forsake land for an Ashokan edicts park, it seems a distant dream owing to political indecision, ideological hassles and bureaucratic stalling.
“My family and friends often ask why am I wasting my life pursuing a non-starter,” says Gauri, who runs the NGO Buddhist Forum.
But Gauri isn’t the kinds to give up. “I was born in Yamunanagar, and when I came to know of its rich Buddhist heritage, I got excited. The idea of a park came subsequently,” says Gauri, who convinced the sarpanch and the villagers of Topra Kalan Panchayat in Haryana’s Yamunanagar district, about 200km from Delhi, to earmark 10 acres of land for the park in March 2011.
In the same year, the Gram Panchayat of the nondescript village passed a resolution demanding the Ashoka Pillar that had stood in this village for 1,500 years before being uprooted and installed at Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi at the behest of Delhi Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq in the 14th century, be returned.
It is for this proud legacy that the villagers willingly gave up land for the proposed park. “We want development to come to the village. A national park will create new employment avenues,” says Suresh Panjeta, former Sarpanch of the village.
The link to Ashoka isn’t restricted to one village; 20km from Topra Kalan, in Chaneti village, lies an Ashokan era stupa, which was renovated by the Archaeological Survey of India in 2010. And Buddha himself visited here. His greatest discourses, such as the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, which explains Vipassana meditation, were delivered in Haryana, and there are multiple references to his wanderings in ‘Kuru Pradesh’.
“This would make Haryana an important stop in the Centre’s proposed Buddhist circuit,” says Gauri, who isn’t a Buddhist but wields the Right to Information Act to document government efforts to conserve ancient Buddhist monuments.
“My mother, a Christian who married into a Hindu family, named me Siddhartha and this triggered my interest in the Buddha. I did not feel the need to convert to Buddhism because even the Buddha asked others to practice his teachings,” offers the 32-year-old.
Despite showing interest in the proposed national park, successive state governments have failed to take the plan forward, says Gauri. On the previous BS Hooda government’s prodding, he had prepared a project report for an Ashokan Edicts Park (see box). His hopes shot up when the Panchayat upped its land allotment offer to 28 acres and Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar announced a Rs50 crore grant for the park in April 2015.
“But since then, we have had several meetings, files have been opened, but nothing has moved,” says Gauri. “In one meeting, an official wondered why we should celebrate Ashoka who changed India’s character and made a virtue out of non-violence. I had to convince him that no one, after or before, Ashoka succeeded in disseminating Indian culture to the rest of Asia, making him unique.”
Local Member of Parliament Rattan Lal Kataria raised the issue in Parliament, following which, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma responded in April 2015 that the Centre was waiting for the Haryana Tourism Ministry to approve the project.
Captain Bhupinder, officer on special duty to Khattar, and one of the officials keen to jumpstart the project, says the state government recognises the proposed park’s tourism potential. “The chief minister wants this project to be implemented. But there are technical issues, such as the appointment of architects, and considerable financial expenditure,” says Captain Bhupinder.
In his quest to get things done, Gauri has opened another front. He has been approaching embassies of nations with a Buddhist tradition like Japan and South Korea to fund the project.
“There is realisation that a public-private partnership may be needed to bankroll this project. These countries have evinced interest but they want the government to steer the project rather than an NGO,” says Gauri, who soldiers on in the hope that Buddhism and Ashoka will find fresh acceptance in the land of their nativity.
28 acres of land has been proposed in Topra Kalan, Yamunanagar in Haryana
It will have replicas of Ashokan pillars and rock edicts, a statue of Ashoka and a sapling of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree from Sri Lanka
A museum and a monastery would also be built within the park premises
Initial project estimate pegged at Rs 29 crore