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.


The courtyard of the Bhot Bagan temple
Puran Giri Gosain (or Goswami), referred to in contemporary documents as Purangir, was a member of the Dashanami Sampradaya (or “Tradition of Ten Names”), a Hindu monastic tradition founded by the Adi Shankara Acharya. A Shaivite, i.e. a worshipper of the Hindu deity, Lord Shiva, Purangir had been ordained at Joshimath (Jyotirmath). The Gosains were a unique class of trading monks, who were so rich and powerful that they often had private armies to guard trading routes. The Panchen Lama valued them for the information and intelligence they were able to provide on the neighbouring countries. Hastings himself was deeply impressed with Purangir, and sent with him his energetic Scottish private secretary George Bogle to establish diplomatic contacts with the Panchen Lama. What Hastings had in mind was to use the Panchen Lama’s access to the Qianlong Emperor to secure trading rights in China which was then closed to all foreigners. The Panchen Lama in return wanted a small favour. India, for Tibetans had long been the “Holy Land”. “I wish to have a place on the banks of the Ganges, to which I might send my people to pray”, he told George Bogle, and the East India Company was only too happy to oblige. This is how Bhot Bagan Math came to be built.

Interiors of Bhot Bagan Math
In December of 1775, the East India Company leased 30 bighas of land in the Ghusuri area of Howarh district to Purangir. Here an imposing ghat was built on the bank of the Hooghly River. The steps of the ghat led to a riverside doorway, inside which were a central courtyard and a main building with thick pillars. The whole thing was built according to the instructions of the Panchen Lama, and the main building was set amidst a very pretty garden, which gave the complex its name, Bhot Bagan, or Tibet Garden. The temple was consecrated in June, 1776. The 30 bighas of leased land would eventually turn into 150 bighas of freehold land. Purangir was given the responsibility of housing and assisting any monks from Tibet who visited Bengal. Bhot Bagan would also house traders who came from Tibet and to accommodate them a large number of huts were constructed around the perimeter of the property. Purangir also continued to function as a go-between for the Panchen Lama and the East India Company while serving as the Mahant or Abbot of Bhot Bagan. The monastery was thus a sort of guest house for Tibetan monks, as well as the unofficial embassy for the Panchen Lama in Bengal.

Caged Goddess: the Tara idol of Bhot Bagan

From its inception, Bhot Bagan Math had been a mixed religion shrine. On April 4th, 1775, shortly before Bogle was to return to India, the Panchen Lama showed him a number of Tibetan religious icons that he was sending back to India to be installed in the new temple. Along with that came 100 pieces of gold, carpets and cloth banners. Most of the idols sent down from Tibet were from various esoteric Buddhist schools, and the temple never had an image of the Buddha. The principal deity was Mahakal (also spelt Mahakala), formally called “Sri Sri Iswar Mahakal Thakur”. 19th century authors describe the idol as being built of precious metals and having nine heads, eighteen legs and thirty six arms, each clasping a weapon and one holding on to a female consort. There were also idols of Tara, identified by Nepalese Buddhists as “Prajna Paramita”, Cakrasamvara with consort, Guhyasamaja with consort, Vakra Bhrkuti and Padmapani. But alongside that were Hindu deities and the Shiva Lingam, for Purangir and his disciples. But it was the idol of “Mahakal” that attracted a lot of unwelcome attention. When Bhot Bagan Math was built, Ghusuri was a sparsely populated village, and law enforcement was not what it is today. In 1795 armed dacoits attacked Bhot Bagan, with the intention of relieving the temple of its famed treasures. Purangir gallantly resisted the dacoits until he was pierced by a spear and killed. Eventually the criminals were rounded up and four of them were hanged within the premises of the monastery itself. The idol however was lost to thieves and its place was taken by the idol of Tara, which today is mistakenly identified by the priest as Mahakal. The Tara idol too was stolen in the mid 2000’s, but this time the Police managed to recover it and return it to its rightful place.

The tombs of the Mahants, built in the "Aatchala" style


More of the Mahant's tombs
After Purangir’s death in 1795, he was succeeded by his disciple Daljit Giri Gosain, also referred to as Daljitgir. After Daljitgir’s death, the link with Tibet was severed. The Bhot Gosain, or Bhot Mahant as they were known, did not travel to Tibet anymore, as their predecessors had. The Qing Dynasty’s severe travel restrictions on its subjects ensured the Tibetan monks too no longer came to Bhot Bagan. As is common for Hindu sadhus or Holy Men, the Gosains were not cremated after death, but buried within the compound of the Bhot Bagan. On top of their graves, tombs were constructed in the Bengal “aat chala” style. There were 9 such tombs, of which I managed to spot on 7. Within the tombs, Shiva Lingams have been placed, and one of them continues to be worshipped regularly. The remaining tombs are in various states of disrepair; some are almost collapsing, while some have been patched up with modern cement. As for the Bhot Bagan itself, it continues to slowly decay and wither away. What was once a Tibetan Garden, with trees and huts, is now a bare field where local boys play cricket. Next to the gate of the temple is a marble plaque which states that the Bhot Bagan Math has been “refurbished” by Mukul Kumar and Dipak Kumar Chatterjee in memory of their parents, in 2005. A dining hall has been constructed inside the premises in 2010, and a plaque on its wall lists a number of people associated with the Math. There even seems to be a Math Committee. Someone had attempted a garden inside the monastery complex, but without the attention of a gardener, it is now overgrown with weeds. A board put up by the Heritage Commission threatens prosecution for anyone who causes damage to the shrine. How much further damage could one cause, I wonder?

Surviving stucco work on one of the tombs
The original lineage of Bhot Mahants came to an end with the death of Umrao Giri in 1905, since he had no personal disciples. The monastery passed into the hands of a court receiver, and the Dashanami Sampradaya appointed Trilokh Chandra Giri as the Mahant. It appears he was forced to resign in 1935 after being implicated in financial impropriety and…hold your breath…adultery! Since then, the Bhot Bagan Math has been under the control of a court appointed receiver, and is currently under Indrajit Chatterjee, District and Sessions Judge, Howrah. The locals often refer to the temple as “Shiv Mandir” or “Shankar Mandir” and the name “Sri Shankar Math” can be seen on the building’s fa├žade. The Math’s substantial estate that was once leased out to factories has today shrunk to 6 ½ Bighas. The original idol of Tara remains, and along with the other idols, is inside a padlocked metal cage. The Tiwari family are the appointed caretakers, while the priest is a certain Ajoy Chakraborty, who appears to be Hindu. Hindu worship is conducted daily, at noon by the priest and anyone wishing to access the temple must visit at this time. Jyoti Tiwari, who greeted me warmly and opened showed me around the site, suggested that I climb to the top of the monastery and pointed out the staircase. But given the condition of the building, and my weight, and the fact that earthquakes had recently shaken up the entire area, I thought it wise to decline.

The decaying interiors of the monastery


For those wishing to visit the temple, here’s what it looks like on Google Maps. I would strongly advise you to stick to Girish Ghosh Road as far as possible and take the last turn East and then North to enter Joy Bibi Road. For the best light I would advise you to reach in the morning. On paper, the temple is known as “The Temple of Mahakal”. Mahakal Bhairav is a fierce manifestation of Lord Shiva associated with annihilation. It is ironic that the temple dedicated to him is itself facing annihilation. Would some kind friend notify the Dalai Lama, who is now in India, that his country’s heritage is rotting away in the slums of Howrah?

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

MORE PHOTOGRAPHS FROM BHOT BAGAN MATH IN MY FLICKR ALBUM HERE...


  • I am grateful to Tathagata Neogi’s post in http://asianheritagealertiaah.blogspot.in/, which first drew my attention to Bhot Bagan Math.
  • My thanks also to my good friend Shabnam Chowdhury who accompanied me on this trip and arranged for transport. If it wasn’t for her incredible chauffeur Bubun, I would never have found this place.
  • Thanks also to Jyoti and Deepak Tiwari, for opening the monastery for us, and to Ajoy Chakraborty, the priest, for permitting me to shoot inside the shrine.


SOURCES

Britain and Tibet 1765-1947                    – Marshall, Julie G.
Notes on a Buddhist Monastery               – Bysack, Gaur Das
The Holy Land Reborn                              – Huber, Tony
The High Road to China                           – Teltscher, Kate
Temples & Legends of Bengal           - Roy Choudhury, P.C.
Bengal District Gazetteers: Howrah        – O’Malley, L.S.S.
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