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