Pharātarā Caitya in Cakraśālā: where the Buddha left his mark in Bangladesh

- through Francois Leclercq

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Pharātarā Caitya is a historic site where the Buddha visited over two and a half millennia ago. Pharātarā Caitya is located in an important village named Cakraśālā, four kilometers south of Patiya sub-district in Chattogram Division, present-day Bangladesh. This area was then part of the historic region known as Boṅgabhūmi, long before the founding of modern India and Bangladesh.

According to local Chattogram Buddhists, the Buddha and his disciples rested at Cakraśālā for a few days on their way to Arakan (now Myanmar). Here the Buddha regularly practiced walking meditation (Skt: caṅkrama) and delivered his teachings for a week.

The name Cakraśālā is probably derived from the Sanskrit term "caṅkramawhich means "walking meditation", and reminds us of what the Buddha and his disciples did in this ancient region. Besides practicing meditation while walking in Cakraśālā, the Blessed One also turned the Wheel of Dharma (Skt: dharmachakra) or taught Dharma. The Bengali account suggests that the name Cakraśālā is derived from the Sanskrit term dharmachakra. To honor the Buddha and his footprints at Cakraśālā, a local ruler built a monument, Pharātarā Caitya, which is revered by devotees and followers to this day. (Shimul 2012, 155)

Buddhist devotees and monks observe Chaitra Songkrāntī on Bengali New Year's Eve at Pharātarā Caitya. Image courtesy of Sumit Barua

According to Bengali legend, 1200 years after the historical Buddha's parinirvana there lived a Buddhist scholar called Dīpaṃkara Sthabira, who was probably born in the southern part of today's Chattogram division. Dīpaṃkara Sthabira was the disciple of a prominent Buddhist scholar and former abbot of Nālandā University, Ācārya Śīlabhadra (529–645 CE). Ācārya Śīlabhadra was born in the village of Chandinar Kailaiyen in the Comilla district of modern Bangladesh.

Inspired by Ācārya Śīlabhadra and observing the fond remembrance of the historic Buddha's visit, Dīpaṃkara Sthabira brought a rare stone displaying the 32 physical marks of the historic Buddha to Cakraśālā. This stone with the 32 marks of the Buddha was called the "Bud'dhacakra" because of its doctrinal and spiritual significance. Historians also believe that the name Cakraśālā may have been derived from the term "Bud'dhacakra (Buddha + chakra).”

An undated photo of Pharātarā Caitya at Cakraśālā. Image courtesy of Dharmatilōka Mahāsthabira from his book Sadharma Ratnakara (1936)
Cover page of Sadharma Ratnakara (1936) and an image of the author, Ven. Dharmatiloka Mahasthabira. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

A brief account of Cakraśālā is illustrated in the work of Dharmatilōka Mahāsthabira Sadharma Ratnakara, published in 1936 by Yangoon Mission Press. Mahāsthabira writes that a wise Buddhist monk named Candrajyōti Bhikkhu visited Cakraśālā in the 15th century. Candrajyōti Bhikkhu was invited by a rich local merchant, Hā'idamajā, born in Cakraśālā. At that time, the range of the southern part of Chattogram was under the territory of Arakan and divided into four major cities: Ramu, Chakaria, Cakraśālā and Deyang. Cakraśālā was one of the four capitals of the southern Arakan territory of Chattogram. However, while Candrajyōti Bhikkhu was visiting Cakraśālā, he offered Buddhist teachings for three consecutive days.

Candrajyōti Bhikkhu had a "cakrasana painting of the Wheel of Dharma, which he brought from Myanmar. After listening to Candrajyōti Bhikkhu's teachings, Hā'idamajā became so inspired that he asked to acquire this Dharma wheel art. Candrajyōti Bhikkhu did not disappoint the merchant and offered the cakrasan to him. In honor of Candrajyōti Bhikkhu's generosity, Hā'idamajā erected a monument (cetiya) in Cakraśālā, later known as "Farātāra Caitya of Cakraśālā". However, since the merchant Hā'idamajā was born in Cakraśālā, the place is also known as "Hā'idgaon". (Dharmatiloka Mahasthabira 1936, 309–14)

Accompanied by his Bangladeshi followers, Ven. Phra Khru Baitika Dr. Barton Yanathiro (1936–2011) visited Pharātarā Caitya in Cakraśālā in 2011. Image courtesy of the author
Pharātarā Caitya in Cakraśālā. Image courtesy of Ven. Dr Sanghapriya Mahathero

From ancient times to the present day, Pharātarā Caitya at Cakraśālā is respected and honored by Buddhists across Bengal. Bangladeshi Buddhists have continued to commemorate the holy presence of the Buddha with a special auspicious festival called the Chaitra Songkrāntī on the last day of the Bengali calendar. Bengali Buddhists believe that Chaitra Songkrāntī is a sacred occasion where people can say goodbye to the outgoing year and welcome the Bengali New Year's Eve. Apart from prayers and rituals, people can gather in a sacred Buddhist place with family members and friends while inviting Buddhist monks. Pharātarā Caitya is one such sacred site where Buddhist communities gather during Chaitra Songkrāntī.

Although Buddhism in Bangladesh has not experienced a golden age since independence and it is extremely difficult to protect the remaining historical sites, local Buddhists still maintain some of their ancient traditions and take care of their holy places, such as Pharātarā Caitya, with pride, honor and respect for their glorious past.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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