While strolling on the streets of College street today, we stopped at the “Maha Bodhi Society of India” Buddhist temple and wished to photograph it. Any one who knows me, knows it very well – I love visiting religious places and catching hold of any relifious guru there and converse, be it Parasnath temple or Jama Masjid. At times when I am agitated, I found solace in the Cathedral church or at times on the top floor of the Nakhoda mosque. But this was a new experience. Came across a Buddhist monk. We talked. My agitation made way to a subtle smile and I returned home peaceful. He wished to meet us again before he left Kolkata for Delhi and invited us to Sri Lanka, his home place. Achira Dasgupta has more for you.
He said, “I love India. I want to die here.”
We were standing outside a heavy mahogany door. The nameplate beside it had caught my eye. The name of the society brought back faint memories of me entering a Buddhist monastery in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh holding my brother’s hand. But then, this was College Street in Kolkata on an almost-busy Saturday morning and that had been 13 years ago. The reality check brought a smile on my face. I took a step forward.
I pushed the door open and entered. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the banana-yellow building in the heart of Kolkata to be housing this! The long, wood-panelled hall was illuminated on one side by dipped lights reflecting off life-size golden statue of Lord Buddha and his disciples. At the other end, streamed in the diffused early morning light through a glass panel overlooking College Street. The two sources of light, merged with seamless ease, the warmth and mellowness reflecting on our faces, providing a near-perfect setting for what awaited us.
Moths flew around Lord Buddha’s head in the murals telling us his story, the disturbed early life, his renunciation of it all and of course, the Nirvana. The oxblood-red velvet carpet underneath our feet felt comfortable. I stood there right in the middle of the room, enthralled, until my friends started complaining. I sank back into the carpet looking forward to moments of self-thought.
But, what as was intriguing me the most? I wondered. Buddhist monastery is not new to me. I realised, it was not the grandeur of a Buddhist monastery…I had toured enough to expect this. It was the silence that pervaded the room like a living entity, the silence that engulfed us with every step we took – the silence that spoke. I could not catch neither our muffled footsteps, the familiar whispers of friends nor the slow stirrings of life on a winter morning in Kolkata – the silence was proving too strong for me.
At first sight, the hall seemed empty. But on a second look, I could discern a hint of saffron amidst the red and the gold. On inching closer found the monk of the temple reading his prayer book to himself.
Anirban approached him and asked him to tell us a bit about the monastery in Kolkata. He smiled. We realised, he did not understand the Bengali we spoke while approaching him. While Anirban struck the conversation, we went near him and sat down at his feet. His eyes seemed exceptionally bright for a mortal but the warm smile that greeted us started the conversation! The prayer book on his hand had a cover that could explain nothing to us. On asking him, he said that the prayer book is in Sinhala (Sri Lanka’s national language), his mother tongue. With each passing moment, we were only getting familiar. The language neither hindered the communication nor his enthusiasm to interact.
He was 52, had his base at a little Buddhist ashram in Sri Lanka. He has travelled extensively in India, almost 16 states. This temple came to existence in 1920, one of the later ones by the society and he is here for the last 15 days, another stop in his grand tour across India.
He was interested to know about us, his shy friendliness making us interact more inquisitively. Few questions had no answers from him except for a smile. He narrated the story of his Guru and how his mother language is similar to that of Sanskrit. He spoke about Lumbini and how exquisite its monasteries are. He spoke extensively about the different monasteries in Nepal and Himachal Pradesh. He said he loves India and would like to breath his last here.
“Did the youth of India state in India approach you for talks?” – Yes they did. A Delhi youth, Jain by birth, with ‘lots of riches’ had approached him with his problem. We did not ask him about the solution he had offered him but got to know that the boy was on the verge of being converted to Buddhism!
On being asked whether he interacts with the locals in the states he visits he laughed with us! He actually tours Hindu temples in each state and speaks with the people he comes across. I found myself smiling as I imagined him speaking to the people in the Indian streets, recording their experiences, embodying in him their brush with the divine. What mattered most was his reticence on speaking about his preferred religion or the need to get us enrolled in the world consensus of Buddhist population. He listened to understand. For us it was therapy in the mildest of possible ways and I could have sworn that the air-conditioned clinics in the city grills could not have offered us more or better.
As we rose to leave, he sprang to his feet and said “Let me bless you all, my children.” The energy in the little man was infectious; we could not help following him blindly. As we sat down at his feet again, this time facing the golden statues we felt the silence ensconcing us once more…and then he began to chant. The slow rhythmical strings of words swirled around us like vapour, making us dizzy, we were bowing our heads in unison to divine power, terrible and beautiful, the power which we know not…the power which radiated from his offering to his Lord. By the time he had finished chanting what he called “the good luck sutra” we were almost numb, wallowing in our own senses. When we had entered this quaint little room we had imagined ourselves to be mortals blessed with souls whole and unimpaired. But the last lap made us realise that as he had given, this god man has taken more. He has taken away the blemishes, replenished the souls that had come to him expecting nothing but were taking away a lesson for their lives.
Post written by : Achira Dasgupta
She is a second year English honours graduate student in Basanti Devi College, Kolkata.
I was overwhelmed by her knowledge and her expressions, the first time I interacted with her.
An extremely light hearted girl, anyone would love to work with, I wish her grand professional success in the near future. Look out for more of her posts in this blog !