Monday, 25 May 2015

Myanmar (Burma) Buddhist Temple, Eden Hospital Road

Like many others, I too had passed by the Myanmar (Burma) Buddhist Temple on Eden Hospital Road (now Dr. Lalit Banerjee Sarani) in Calcutta (Kolkata) many times without being aware of it, until the evening the white sign with red and green letters caught my eye. A Burmese Buddhist Temple in Calcutta is not all that unusual. Burma, or Myanmar as she is now known, was once part of the British Indian Empire. Many Indians, especially Bengalis were settled in Burma and had to leave their homes and return to India during the turbulent years of the Independence struggle. There was a small but significant Burmese presence in Calcutta (Kolkata) as well of which few vestiges still remain.

The Myanmar (Burma) Buddhist Temple is devoid of any external architectural significance; just another decaying building in a mostly decaying neighbourhood with masses of unruly electrical wiring hanging from every conceivable place. That’s because this was not really a purpose built temple, unlike the Chinese Temples of Tiretta Bazar, nearby. The building was purchased from an Indian in 1928 by a Burmese national, U San Min, for the sum of Rs. 47,000. U San Min named it the “Burma Buddhist Dharmasala, Calcutta”. The first presiding monk was Rev. U Nandawuntha. In 1932, U San Min handed over the temple to the monks and ever since the Burmese have been electing monks who are sent over to Calcutta to take charge of the temple. The ground floor of the building on 10 A, Eden Hospital Road is leased out to shops. The first floor functions as a guest house for visitors from Myanmar. The temple is located on the second floor. The gate on the ground floor is almost always locked. I had arranged for permission to visit and photograph the temple through the help of my friend Shabnam and her family. As I walked up the stairs, I felt like I had passed through some kind of portal, and entered a different world. The signs on the walls were all in Burmese! The only sign I could read said “Please remove your shoe”.

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).

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