Bangladesh: The Holy Land of
Hindu and Buddhist Tirthas (Places of Pilgrimage)
Sachi G. Dastidar
Over the millenniums several places have become famous tirthas or places of pilgrimages in Bengal. Large concentrations of those places are in today's Bangladesh. Many notable monks, rishis, bhikkhus, and famous personalities were born here. Many Muslim tombs of holy pirs and darbeshes exist here, notable among them is the mazar of Shah Jalal in Sylhet. There exist several famous Christian churches.
It is said that in the Golden Age of Bengal, Bengali Buddhist monks spread their faith in Tibet and Sri Lanka, and Hindus brought Hinduism to Shyam [Thailand], Cambodge [Cambodia], and in Jabadwip [Indonesia].
To document the religious heritage of Bangladesh, the Bangla Academy in Dhaka has published several books: on Hindu temples [Ratanlal Chaakraborty, Bangladesher Mandir, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, B.S. 1394,] Buddhist stupas and temples, and Muslim mosques and mazars.
In Bangladesh [Bengal] Hindu traditions of local, vedic, non-vedic, tribal, Mongolian along with Buddhist and Islamic, have all merged to give her a distinctive identity. Here the traditions of the saivaites, saktas and vaishnavs have merged producing many festivities from worshipping of tulshi plants and baniyan trees to snake goddess Manasa to Gods Kali, Shiv and Sri Krishna.
For the convenience of travel and for hotel accommodation, Bangladesh could be divided into six tirtha regions. For example, the Dhaka-Narayanganj-Mymansingh region of Madhya Bangla [central Bangla], the Khulna-Jessore-Kushtia Paschim Bangla [western Bangla], Barisal-Faridpur’s Jal Bangla [marshy Bengal], the Chittagong-Comilla’s Dakhin-Purba Bangla [southeast Bengal], Sylhet, and Uttar Bangla [North Bengal.]
It is worth mentioning here that it is estimated that there are over 20,323 temples in Bangladesh (Ref: Sibsankar Chakraborty, Uddipan, Sri Ramakrishna Mission & Mott, Dhaka, 1986.} Thus it is impossible to write about all these. Many of these are in disrepair, and many have been attacked by Muslim fundamentalists. Bengal temple architecture is a special feature of Indian architecture. Most of the famous styles are as follows: shikhar (steeple), rekha (line) or peerra (flat seat) deul, akchala (single slope), dochala (double sloped), charchala (four slopeed) or aatchala (eight sloped), pancha-rotno (five-jeweled or five-steeple) made out of various materials - the famous one being Bengal terracotta temples. After Lord Sri Chaitanya’s birth in the 15th Century, a new liberal Hindu religious movement started in Bengal, and Sri Chaitanya’s followers have built numerous temples throughout Bengal, notable among them in his native Sylhet, in the village of Sri Chaitanya, and in the birth places of his early disciples.
According Hindu customs, there are only 51 piths, spread from Baluchistan to Bengal, and Kashmir to Kerala. These are the places where the parts of the body of Ma Sati (Ma Kali) fell after her death. However, eight of those sites are located in Bangladesh. There is no such concentration of holy places anywhere else. In these sites one normally finds temples of Lord Shiv and Mother Kali [Bhabani.] Bangladeshi piths are: 1. “Shugandha,” Uttar (north) Shikarpur village, Gour Nadi Thana (police station), Barisal district; 2. “Karatoya Tot,” Bhabanipur village, Sherpur Thana, Bogura; 3. “Srihatta,” Jainpur village, Thana & district Sylhet; 4. “Jayanti,” Baurbhag village, Jaintia, Sylhet; 5. “Tripura,” Radhakishorpur, Comilla; 6. “Jesssoreswari,” Iswaripur, Khulna; 7. “Kirit Devi Kamala,” Botnagar, Elahiganj, Sylhet, and 8. “Chattagram,” Sitakunda, Chittagong. Some individuals believe that the Elahiganj temple is not a pitha but it is the temple at Devikot village, Bangarh, Dinajpur. Of all these, the location of Chattagram at the mountain top at Sitakunda is spectacular, and is in decent shape as a tourist attraction and as a pilgrimage place.
In central Madhya Bangla one must mention the thousand-year old Ramna Kali temple. This was partially destroyed by the fundamentalists and by the Pakistani Army in 1971, and later “cleared” by the independent government. Many Hindus still visit this site as a holy place. Then there is 15th Century Dhakeswari Mandir temple in Dhaka. Langolbandh near Dhaka attracts thousands of pilgrims in the month of Falgun [mid-February to mid-March] for a fair and for a holy dip in the Brahmaputra river. In the west of Dhaka, near Savar Memorial, is Dhamrai. Its Rath [chariot] Festival was the second most popular after Puri’s [Orissa] Ratha-jatra of Lord Jagannath, Balaram and Shuvadra. During the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War the eight storey rath was destroyed by the Islamic Army of Pakistan and its Bengali Islamist allies. Now with a smaller rath [chariot], Ratha-jatra and Rather-mela [fair] attracts thousands of people. Incidentally, Dhamrai has a beautiful collection of 18th-20th century buildings dalan and zamindar [land owner] jamidar barris of typical Hindu families.
In the west there are several 3 to 4 centuries-old temples dedicated to Lords Shiv, Kali and Sri Krishna. Jessoreswari of Khulna is the most famous among them. In addition there are Raghunath mandir and Gopinath mandir of Abhoynagar, Ganesh mandir of Jhenaidaha, Krishna and Durga mandirs of Mohammadpur, Shiv mandir of Magura, Kodala Mott of Khulna, LakhsmiNarayan and Jorhbangla Mandir templesof Jessore, Pancha-Rotno mandir of Noldanga, etc. In Kushtia, Shilaidaha of Rabindranath, Bengal’s singing minstrel Lalon’s tomb and Mosharaf Hossain’s homestead is a must-see for all.
There are several mandirs, motts and ashrams in southern marshy Jal Bangla. Indian freedom fighter Charonkobi [wondering minstrel] Mukunda Das has created a place of pilgrimage through his Kali temple in Barisal town. Then there is Sugandha pitha a couple of miles north of Barisal. A few miles north is the 400-year old Maha-Bishnu temple at the LakhsmanKathi village east of Batajore. Adjacent to that is the 16th century Mahilara Leaning Mott or Sarkari Mott. In Madaripur one will find the Pronob Mott, the former head quarters of the Bharat Sevasram Sangha, at Bajitpur village founded by the Indian nationalist and Hindu reformer Swami Pranavananda Maharaj. A large fair is held annually during Guru Purnima [February full moon.]
In the southeast Dakhin-Purba Bangla there are at least 50 famous Hindu-Buddhist temples and viharas in Chittagong city alone. Some of the well known are: Raj-rajeswari Kalibari, Chatteswari Kalibari, Panchanan Dham, Nandan-kanan Buddhist Mandir temple, Brahmo Mandir, Koibalya-dham, Jagatpur Ashram, Sitakunda, Pancha-batika of Swami Vivekananda fame, etc. In and around Comilla there are Abhoy Ashram, Iswar Pathshala, Gandhi Ashram of Noakhali, half-a-millennium old Chandimura temple, 10th century Moynamati Vihara, and more.
Sylhet has hundreds of famous temples dedicated to Lords Kali, Shiv and Sri Krishna. Bagala Matar Mandir temple of Habiganj and Kalibari of Jaintiapur is known throughout the Subcontinent. Sylhet is also a destination of many pilgrims for the Islamic saint of Shah Jalal.
In North Bengal kings and zamindar’s have helped create many temples, mosques, palaces and ashrams. One of the most famous temples is the Kantajir [terracotta] Mandir of Dinajpur. Two 9th and 10th century Buddhist stupas (mounds) are very important attractions there. They are located at Paharpur and at Mahasthangarh. Additionally, Bogura’s Karatoa Tott tirtha, Bardhan-Kuthi Mandir temple of Rangpur, Shiv and Gobindo Mandir temples of Putia is worth mentioning in addition of the well planned of the same name.