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”.
On the 2nd floor of the Myanmar (Burma) Buddhist Temple I entered a large hall. On the Eastern side was a shrine, and inside I found an idol of Buddha unlike any I had seen anywhere in Calcutta (Kolkata). The seated idol was made of marble, and clothed in what looks like gold. It could as well be highly polished brass, but the sunlight streaming through the skylight directly above the idol creates such a dazzling effect that any such rational thoughts are banished from the mind. The crown on the idol is very typical of Burma, and surrounding the idol are smaller statues of figures prostrating themselves before the Buddha. Unfortunately a glass pane directly in front of the idol prevents a straight shot. Shots must be taken through narrow openings on either side. The openings are wide enough to admit a person, and the High Priest suggested that I step inside. But since I am not a Buddhist, I politely declined. Flower and fruit offerings to the Buddha can be seen around the idol, and it is covered by two beautiful umbrellas with gold leaves hanging from the sides. Near the base is a photograph, probably of the first High Priest of the Myanmar (Burma) Buddhist Temple, Rev. U Nandawuntha.
The present High Priest, Ashin Thireinda treated me to a cup of hot tea and some cake while telling me about the present state of the Myanmar (Burma) Buddhist Temple. Tourists from Myanmar visit during the winter months, and the temple still accommodates trainee monks. His main worry seems to be the surrounding buildings which are in bad shape. If a fire ever broke out in any of them, the temple would be at risk. The interiors of the temple, by contrast, are in fair condition right now, well maintained and scrupulously clean. Many of the things that are in use, such as the refrigerator, have been donated by devotees and their names are written on them. The Myanmar (Burma) Buddhist Temple also finds mention in Amitav Ghosh's novel "The Glass Palace", where it is said to be a favourite haunt of the principal character, Rajkumar.
Directions to the Myanmar (Burma) Buddhist Temple are simple. Get off at the Central Metro station, and look around for a black statue of Maharana Pratap on horseback. If you are facing the statue, Eden Hospital Road is to its left, and the temple is just a couple of buildings down the road. Here’s is what it looks like in Google Maps. To avoid disappointment and misunderstanding, take prior permission before taking photographs. For that, write to the High Priest Ashin Thireinda at email@example.com.
- by Deepanjan Ghosh
SUGGESTED FURTHER READING
I am grateful to my friend Shabnam, and her family for getting all necessary permissions for me to visit and shoot inside the temple. Shabnam's excellent chauffeur Bubun drove me around on this trip.
Temples in Calcutta – Roy, Pijush Kanti
Notes on Myanmar Buddhist Temple – Aung Than