The Monastery that Tells a Tale

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    Navigating the slums of Ghusuri, near Kolkata is not easy. The lanes are unsuitable for anything but the smallest of cars. As your vehicle gingerly inches forward, locals pull in clotheslines sporting colourful sarees, petticoats and lungis, to make way. Suddenly, the lane opens up onto a large, walled compound, inside which stands a derelict building that locals call ‘Shankar Mandir’. Not many know that this is actually a Tibetan Buddhist monastery – the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the plains of India – Bhot Bagan Math.

    The story of Bhot Bagan begins in August 1780. China’s Qianlong Emperor, the sixth emperor of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty, was celebrating his 70th birthday in the imperial palace in Chengde. Among his visitors was the Lobsang Palden Yeshe, the 3rd Panchen Lama, effectively the most powerful Buddhist monk in the world at the time, since the new Dalai Lama was still a child.

    During the three weeks of festivities, the Panchen Lama mentioned a country called ‘Hindostan’ to the Emperor. The land was located to the south of Tibet. The Panchen Lama said the governor of Hindostan was a friend, and he wanted to meet the Emperor. Author Kate Teltscher writes about this meeting in her book, The High Road To China, and says that this is how the Qianlong Emperor first heard Warren Hastings’ name. The outcome of this meeting was the setting up of the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the plains of India, one that survives in the industrial suburb of Ghusuri in Howrah district, West Bengal.

    The first contact between the Hastings-led East India Company and the Panchen Lama had been through a conflict in the princely state of Cooch Behar, now in northern West Bengal. Bhutan had been interfering in the succession of the Cooch Behar royal line for a long time. Their interference during a succession dispute in the early 1770s led to an all-out war and the King of Cooch Behar, Maharaja Dharendra Narayan, appealed to the British for help against the Bhutanese.

    In typical style, Hastings agreed to help on condition that Dharendra Narayan signed over Cooch Behar’s sovereignty, half its annual revenues and foot the bill for the campaign. With the Maharaja agreeing, Captain John Jones led the Company’s forces against those of the Druk Desi, the ruler of Bhutan, and began beating them back. At this point, the Panchen Lama intervened and offered to broker peace. To do this, he sent a Hindu monk, Purangir, to Calcutta (now Kolkata) as his envoy.

    In exchange for a daily food allowance, the Gosains provided the Panchen Lama intelligence about neighbouring countries

    Purangir, or Puran Giri Gosain (or Goswami), was part of the Dashanami Sampradaya, a Hindu monastic tradition founded by the Adi Shankara Acharya. A Shaivite who had been ordained at Joshimath (Jyotirmath), he was part of a unique class of naga sanyasis who were also trading monks. During the medieval age, Gosain monasteries, known as Muths, headed by monks called Mahants, held sway over much of North India. They provided banking services, ran diplomatic errands and even controlled large private armies.

    Purangir, then only 25 years old, was part of a group of 150 Gosains who lived in the Panchen Lama’s palace in Tibet. In exchange for a daily food allowance, they provided the Panchen Lama intelligence about neighbouring countries. His Hindu faith was not a deterrent to the Panchen Lama, who seemed to regard the Gosains as a branch of Tantric Buddhism.

    When Purangir arrived in Calcutta, Hastings was interested in the possibilities this contact offered. For several decades, the East India Company had attempted to open trade links with China. Then, as now, China was an enticingly large market but the Qing court had kept the country tightly shut. Europeans who attempted contact were either turned back at the port, or if they were caught further inland, thrown into prison. With Purangir’s help, Hastings hoped to approach the Emperor through his friend, the Panchen Lama, to open up trade links. For this first diplomatic mission, he selected his young and ambitious private secretary, George Bogle.

    Bogle’s job was to not just make contact with the Panchen Lama but also to provide firsthand intelligence about Tibet, about which Europeans back in the day knew very little. From the mysterious selection process of the Dalai Lama, to rumours that Tibetan women often had multiple husbands, Hastings had a lot of questions.

    Setting off in the summer of 1774 and passing through a Bengal countryside still reeling from the aftereffects of the great famine of 1770, the party reached Tashichodzong, the seat of the Druk Desi of Bhutan, on 28th June. With the help of the Druk Desi and the diplomatic skills of Purangir, the party managed to get permission to enter Tibet and arrived at Dechenrujbe, the residence of the Panchen Lama, on the 7th of November, 1774.

    From the moment he arrived, Bogle had an endless stream of visitors. He was the first European the Tibetans of Dechenrujbe had ever seen and his pale skin and fitting clothes made him an exotic curiosity. Bogle had read about the strict rituals that bound any meeting with the Panchen Lama, some texts even suggesting that he never showed his face or spoke a word but simply nodded or waved. His apprehensions proved unfounded, however, when Lobsang Palden Yeshe, the 6th Panchen Lama, received him and his companion, Alexander Hamilton with a smile. His surprise was greater still when the Panchen Lama began the conversation in Hindustani, a language he had probably learnt from his mother, who was from the Mustang district of Northern Nepal.

    Their first meeting went well. Like Hastings, the Panchen Lama too had a lot of questions about Bogle, his position in the Company, his country, and the discussion was a lively one. As the winter temperature dropped, the relationship between the men warmed. The Panchen Lama was prepared to help Bogle, but in return, he wanted something.

    For Tibetan Buddhists, India was the holy land, where the Buddha had attained enlightenment. So, the Panchen Lama said, “I wish to have a place on the banks of the Ganges, to which I might send my people to pray.” Hastings was only too happy to oblige, initially granting some 100 bighas of land and later adding another 50 bighas.

    It was on this land, in the village of Ghusuri, in Howrah district, across the river from Calcutta, that the first Tibetan Buddhist shrine was built in the plains of India. It came to be known as the ‘Bhot Bagan Math’. ‘Bhot’ is a term that was used by Bengalis for Tibetans, while ‘Bagan’ means ‘garden’ and ‘Math’ is ‘monastery’. The ‘Tibet Garden’ of the Panchen Lama was consecrated in June, 1776. Purangir, due to his closeness to both the British and the Panchen Lama, was put in charge of it.

    For his new temple, the Panchen Lama had sent idols, 100 pieces of gold, carpets and cloth banners. Most of the idols were from various esoteric Buddhist schools, and the temple never had an image of the Buddha. The principal deity was Mahakal (also spelt Mahakala), described by 19th century authors as being built of precious metals and having nine heads, 18 legs and 36 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, and Vakra Bhrkuti and Padmapani. But because the property was administered by a Hindu, it was a mixed religion shrine right from the beginning, with Purangir’s quarters containing Hindu idols such as a Shiva Linga.

    Nineteenth century chronicler Gaur Das Bysack noted the presence of “numerous cottages all around, for the accommodation of pilgrims and traders from Tibet”. Bhot Bagan Math served as a monastery, a guest house, a trading post and a diplomatic mission, with Purangir continuing to liaise between Tibet and Calcutta.

    In 1795, armed dacoits attacked the monastery

    The story of Bhot Bagan’s riches had spread far and wide, and in 1795, armed dacoits attacked the monastery. Purangir gallantly resisted but was pierced by a spear and killed. Eventually, the criminals were rounded up and four of them were hanged inside the monastery itself. The idol however was lost to thieves and its place was taken by an idol of Tara, which is mistakenly identified by the priest as Mahakal today.

    Purangir was succeeded by his disciple, Daljit Giri Gosain, or Daljitgir. After Daljitgir’s death, the link with Tibet was severed. The Bhot Mahant no longer travelled to Tibet and the Qing Dynasty’s severe travel restrictions on its subjects ensured that Tibetan monks too no longer came to Bhot Bagan. The Mahants continued to oversee Bhot Bagan through a guru-shishya tradition until the original lineage of Bhot Mahants came to an end with the death of Umrao Giri in 1905. Since Umrao Giri 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. Trilokh Chandra Giri was forced to resign in 1935 after being implicated in financial impropriety and in a case of adultery.

    Since then, the Bhot Bagan Math has been under the control of a court-appointed receiver. 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 façade. The Math’s substantial estate, which was once leased to factories, has today shrunk to 6.5 bighas. The original idol of Tara remains, and along with the other idols, is inside a padlocked metal cage.

    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. Shiva Lingams have been placed within the tombs, and one of them continues to be worshipped regularly. The remaining tombs are in various states of disrepair; some are almost collapsing, while others have been patched up with cement.

    As for the Bhot Bagan itself, it continues to slowly decay and wither away. Puja is conducted daily at noon by a Hindu priest, but there is little to remind people of the historical significance of this derelict structure. As Toni Huber wrote in his book ‘The Holy Land Reborn’, this is ‘Mahakal lost in the slums’.

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