Kathmandu, Jan 5 (IANS) When Nepal's first openly gay MP, Sunil Babu Pant, launched the country's first travel agency for homosexuals, lesbians and transgenders, the travel package to hit the headlines was a sensational one offering a spectacular wedding, complete with bridal finery and dancing troupes in the lap of Mt. Everest.
However, the first group bookings of Pink Mountain Travels and Tours that have come in are not from bridal pairs or honeymooning couples but surprisingly from gay Buddhists who want to follow in the Buddha's footsteps and meditate in his birthplace.
'We already have three groups from Britain, France and the Netherlands, and there are queries from the US,' said Pant, the founder of the gay rights movement in what was a rigid Nepali society in the last decade.
'They are from the Gay Buddhist Sangh (GBS), an organisation with members all over Europe. They travel in groups for joint meditation and pilgrimage to the places associated with the Buddha - Nepal, India, Thailand and Myanmar,' Pant said.
'We seek to introduce the teachings of the Buddha to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) folk in such a way that we honour and respect all beings and where they are in their lives, and help them to preserve a healthy and positive self-image, particularly about their sexuality,' says the GBS charter.
'We strive to provide a refuge and safe place where LGBT people can feel supported and valued as they cultivate the practice of these teachings and learn how to apply them in practical ways to their everyday lives. We do so for the benefit of ourselves, our community and all sentient beings,' it says.
The visit by the GBS is bound to change the average biased perception of sexual minorities as garish freaks looking for sexual gratification.
Avoiding the capital with its shopping malls, dance bars and casinos, the GBS groups will be heading for Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, a little township in southern Nepal populated with monasteries and where meat and alcohol are banned.
Some of them have also expressed the desire to visit an old and revered, though little known, monastery in Gorkha in western Nepal.
'Buddhism is very open-hearted towards gays,' said Pant, whose NGO, the Blue Diamond Society, lobbied the Supreme Court successfully to get approval for same-sex marriages in 2008.
'While monks and nuns are prohibited from having sex, laymen are allowed to do so within the framework of marriage provided it does not harm anyone and is not done with evil or dishonest intentions.'
Pant has just one regret.
'The GBS wanted to cover both Nepal and India,' he said. 'However, since we don't know of any similar tour operator in India, that leg of the tour had to be put off.
'Maybe we can do it next year, if we can team up with someone in India.'
Nepal is celebrating 2011 as its tourism year with the aim of bringing in one million visitors.
Pant is hoping there would be around 200,000 from the sexual minorities.
Besides pilgrimages, the other area in which the communist is interested is trekking and adventure tourism.
The one gay wedding that has been booked so far will be done in a posh hotel in Kathmandu instead of the Everest base camp since one of the bridal pair's family retinue coming to Nepal for the event includes her elderly grandmother.
(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)