Monday, 18 May 2015

Nipponzan Myohoji Japanese Buddhist Temple, Lake Road

Few people living on Calcutta’s (Kolkata) Lake Road are aware that there is a Japanese Buddhist Temple in the vicinity, and even fewer are aware that it is officially called The Nipponzan Myohoji Temple. I don't blame them. One generally only discovers such things if one walks, and this being a relatively affluent neighbourhood, most people travel in cars. The omnipresence of smartphones with large screens has also somewhat destroyed people’s natural tendency to look around. But the real question is, how did we end up with a Japanese Buddhist Temple in Calcutta (Kolkata)?

The altar of the Nipponzan Myohoji Japanese Buddhist Temple

India’s ties with Japan have been long and cordial. Nobel prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore had visited Japan in 1916 to deliver a series of lectures. The Japanese collaboration with Indian revolutionary Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army or INA is also well known. The Japanese had been practicing Buddhism since at least 552 C.E. Nichidatsu Fujii (1885 – 1985) was a Japanese monk who was deeply influenced by the writings of Nichiren, a Japanese Monk revered as a saint. Nichiren held the opinion that the Lotus Sutra, a collection of teachings of the Buddha near the end of his life, was the sole means of attaining enlightenment, and that one day the Lotus Sutra would be preached in India. It was with this aim in mind that Nichidatsu Fujii arrived in Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1931 and walked the streets of the city beating his drum and chanting “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō”, which translates to “I take refuge in (devote or submit myself to) the wonderful law of the Lotus Flower Sutra”. This chant or mantra may still be seen above the door of the Nipponzan Myohoji Japanese Buddhist Temple of Calcutta (Kolkata).

Nipponzan Myohoji Japanese Buddhist Temple

Two years after his arrival, in 1933, Nichidatsu Fujii would meet Mahatma Gandhi in Wardah. Gandhi is said to have been deeply impressed by Fujii and his message of love and non-violence. Here in Calcutta, Fujii’s missionary zeal caught the attention of Industrialist Jugal Kishore Birla, son of Baldeodas Birla, and he offered the Japanese monk land to build a temple. This piece of land on 60/20(1) Lake Road, Calcutta 700019 is where the Nipponzan Myohoji Japanese Buddhist Temple was built in 1935. But only four years later, WW II broke out, and people of Japanese origin that happened to be living in countries controlled by Allied powers, found themselves unwelcome. The British colonial government in India ordered all Japanese people out of the country, and had plans to take over the Japanese temple on Lake Road. But stiff resistance was offered by a Hindu monk by the name of Swami Dhirananda Shastri and the British ultimately had to back off. Fujii returned to India after the war and built the Peace Pagodas of Rajgir and Kalinga and the Buddhist Stupa in Ratnagiri, Orissa (Odisha). He was honoured with the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1978.

The architectural features of Calcutta’s Nipponzan Myohoji Japanese Buddhist Temple are quite unique. The top resembles the design of the Sanchi Stupa and surrounding it, on the top tier are four low, Stupa-like structures. Similar smaller structures are seen on the four corners on the lower tier as well. The columns that support the roof do not conform to any classical school of architecture, as in commonly seen in many of Calcutta’s older buildings. Inside, a seated idol of the Buddha may be seen in white marble. The dais is exquisitely decorated with beautiful fabric, highly polished brass pieces, lamps and a photograph of Nichidatsu Fujii. Food offerings to the Buddha may also be seen here. Japanese scrolls may be seen, framed and hung on the walls. Behind the temple are the living quarters of the monks, most of whom are from India’s North East. In front of the temple a beautiful garden has been laid out, that looks well-tended. In the garden, a vertical pillar-like structure has Japanese inscription on it, which would probably be prayers. In front of it are two golden lions.

The Nipponzan Myohoji Japanese Buddhist Temple has regular prayers even today. The morning service is from 5am to 6:30am, and the evening service is from 5pm to 6:30pm. There are practicing Buddhists in Calcutta who attend the service. I have seen many children sitting down with the monks, perhaps for religious instruction. Visitors to the temple are welcome, and people of all faiths are free to attend the service. Many people, who go for walks around the Dhakuria Lake, often come to the temple’s garden for a little rest. The temple was featured in director Dibakar Banerjee’s Hindi feature film “Detective Byomkesh Bakshy” which released in April 2015. If you are looking for directions to the Nipponzan Myohoji Japanese Buddhist Temple, imagine yourself standing at Gol Park, facing the Dhakuria Bridge. You take the road which runs under the bridge, and to its left and proceed straight till its end and then turn right. Proceed straight for a bit, and you will find the temple on your left. While in the neighbourhood, see if you can spot the residence of the current President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, which is right next door. Here’s what the temple looks like in Google Maps. Do keep in mind that it is a religious shrine, and so avoid smoking, eating or consuming alcohol in the premises. It is also a place of quiet contemplation and the monks often meditate for long hours, so please try to be as quiet as possible. Before entering the temple, remove your shoes, and once inside, stay off the carpets.


- by Deepanjan Ghosh

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS


  • Many thanks to my friend Sushma Menon for accompanying me on this trip.
  • Thanks also to my friends Rupsha Dasgupta and Vishaal Sethia for their inputs.

SOURCES

Temples in Calcutta – Roy, Pijush Kanti
Calcutta: Built Heritage Today - Lal, Nilina Deb

Monday, 11 May 2015

Bhot Bagan Math, Ghusuri, Howrah

There aren’t many in Calcutta (Kolkata) who have heard of the Tibetan Buddhist Temple or Monastery known as Bhot Bagan Math in the Ghusuri area of Howrah District. Fewer still will be able to locate the dilapidated complex on 5, Gossain Ghat Street. The extremely narrow approach roads through dense slums populated by mostly Bihari migrant workers make it inaccessible for most cars. And yet, Bhot Bagan Math was the first Tibetan Buddhist Temple in the plains of India; in fact, it was the only pre-Twentieth Century Tibetan religious institution in all of South Asia. The word “Bhot”, used in ancient India to refer to Tibetans probably comes from the Tibetan word “Bod”, meaning Tibet. “Bagan” in Bengali means garden, and “Math” is Bengali for monastery. Bhot Bagan therefore, would mean Tibetan Garden, and that is what this was originally meant to be.

Bhot Bagan Math (in the distance)
The origins of Bhot Bagan Math maybe found in the conflict between Bhutan and princely state of Cooch Behar of 1771. The Bhutanese had long claimed the right to appoint the ruler of Cooch Behar, and when a succession dispute erupted, the King of Bhutan, known as the Druk Desi, Zhidar, invaded Cooch Behar, ousted the Raja, and installed his own candidate. The deposed king, Maharaja Dharendranarayan appealed to the East India Company for help. Warren Hastings readily agreed for the small consideration of Cooch Behar’s sovereignty, half her annual revenues and the cost of the military campaign. Zhidar’s army lost three border forts to the East India Company’s force led by Captain John Jones, and it is at this point that Lobsang Palden Yeshe, the 3rd Panchen Lama, chose to intervene. Jamphel Gyatso, the 8th Dalai Lama was then only a boy, and the Panchen Lama was the de facto ruler of Tibet. In a letter to Warren Hastings, the Panchen Lama made the grossly inflated claim that the Bhutanese were Tibetan subjects, and offered to broker a peace settlement. As his envoy to Calcutta (Kolkata), the Panchen Lama sent a Hindu monk by the name of Puran Giri Gosain.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Sink or Swim: The Bimal Kumar Chandra Story

“Ever heard of Bimal Kumar Chandra?” asked my friend Krishanu. I confessed I hadn’t. “Who was the first Indian to cross the English Channel”? Every Bengali child knows the answer to this question, for it was a Bengali, Mihir Sen. “Well, Bimal Kumar Chandra was the second. I can take you to his house if you like”. And just like that, we set off on a Sunday morning, to meet his younger brother, Amal Kumar Chandra.

Amal Kumar Chandra

Monday, 27 April 2015

Chetla Baro Ras Bari, 78, Tollygunge Road

One of the four temple complexes in the Chetla area of South Calcutta (Kolkata), the Baro Ras Bari (also spelt Bado Rash Bari, Bado Rashbari or Bado Rashbadi) on Tollygunge Road is probably the most neglected, in spite of being declared a Grade A Heritage Building. The story of Baro Ras Bari begins in the village of Bawali, 30 kilometers to the South West of the city of Calcutta, where the Mondals had reigned since the Mughal era. Raja Ram Mondal had been granted full control of 15 villages by the Mughal Emperor. His descendants, Ramnath and Manick Mondal settled in Chetla on the invitation of Robert Clive. Their name is associated with three of the four temples in the Chetla area.

The ruined temples of Chetla Baro Ras Bari

Monday, 20 April 2015

Damzen Lane: A Street and its Story

Damzen Lane would be what in Calcutta is referred to as a “Muslim area”. What it means is that the people living in the area are primarily Muslim. The result is that such areas have an atmosphere of their own, very different from the other parts of the city. The people, understandably, look different. Women are seen clad in burqas or abayas, covered head to toe in black. The men are often seen in shalwar-kameez, with the lower garment, the shalwar, ending just a little bit above the ankle and often with a very thick hem. Beautiful handcrafted skull caps and fine flowing beards, often without the moustache also provide clues to the faith of the men sporting them. But this does not, by any means, describe all the people of the area. A large number of people of a single faith living in close proximity also give an area a certain look and feel. There is a certain rustic charm to Damzen Lane, but hiding within are stories and relics from a bygone era.

A goat pops out to say hi!

Monday, 13 April 2015

Portuguese Church, Brabourne Road

Calcutta’s (Kolkata) Portuguese Church, formally known as The Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary, has existed in various forms since 1690, but has always experienced some friction with the British. Many Portuguese migrants to India took native wives, and their offspring came to be known as Kintal. Many of these Kintals moved to Calcutta in search of fortune, and the East India Company allowed them to settle in specific areas near the river. Since the Kintals were the only people in India then breeding and selling fowl, the area they settled in is known as “Moorgeeghata” or “the fowl market” even today. Job Charnock had originally granted 10 bighas of land to the Roman Catholics of the Augustinian order to set up a mass hall in the area. But when in 1693 Sir John Goldsborough of the East India Company found the company’s Protestant factors were converting to Roman Catholicism in the mass hall and taking native wives, he ordered them out. The friars would return on his death only 6 months later, and this time they erected a brick Church, a little further away from the original mass hall, and this is where the Portuguese Church or The Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary stands today.

The Portuguese Church

Monday, 6 April 2015

Saroj Bhavan, Guruprasad Chowdhury Lane

The article in the Times of India’s Times City, on the 24th of March, entitled “House that! Old but still shining” by Saikat Ray and Subhro Niyogi caught the eye of many members of my mother’s side of the family. That was because the article carried a photograph of a house that they once called home. What the article calls “Sen Bari”, owned by the Sens of Senco Jewellers fame, was once known as “Paul Bari”, home to the Pauls of Burdwan, and that is not the only factual error in this story either. But let’s start from the beginning.

Saroj Bhavan today

The Pauls were landlords in the village of Gotan, Thana Rayna, in the district of Burdwan in West Bengal. Harendranath Paul (1877 – 1961), the 2nd of three sons, shifted to Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1899. Of his two brothers, one remained in Gotan and his family still stays there. The younger brother, Gour Chandra Paul, became an advocate. Among his classmates was India’s first President, Dr. Rajendra Prasad. He moved to Patna, Bihar and the family has lost touch with him since. In Calcutta (Kolkata), Harendranath initially joined the staff of Raja Subodh Mullick, doing mostly clerical work. A palmist is said to have recommended that he quit his job, and predicted that he would prosper if he started something connected with river trade. Harendranath had observed the comings and goings of vessels on the Hooghly and the Europeans engaged in the jute trade. He started by buying an old ship and selling it for scrap, making a large profit. This gave him enough capital to leave his famous employer and start his own business as a stevedore, partnering with a certain Biharilal Chakraborty under the name Paul & Chakraborty Private Limited in 1901. Within two decades he would make enough money to move his family from rented accomodations on Madan Mitra Lane (no connection to the current minister) to his own house, at the crossing of Guruprasad Chowdhury Lane and Shankar Ghosh Lane.