A Buddhist monastery in Bangladesh hill: The monk behind it faces unsavoury questions

  • Reazul Bashar, Back from Rangunia, bdnews24.com
    Published: 2020-10-29 23:41:17 BdST

A Buddhist monastery is typically synonymous with peace and tranquillity, a spiritual retreat from the din of urban life and a sanctuary for those seeking enlightenment by embracing the teachings of Lord Buddha. The Gyansharan Maharanya nestled in a hill in Chattogram’s Rangunia is a striking exception.

Coated in a gorgeous combination of red and golden amid the greenery of its surroundings, the one-storey structure with tiled floors, huge columns and a large throne for the founder Bhadanta Sharanangkar Thero in one corner is a sight to behold.

But the hilltop monastery, some 65 kilometres away from the port city, in the Falaharia village in Padua is shrouded in mystery and controversy. A horde of allegations has been levelled at its founder, ranging from dubious funds, to stoking religious tension by threatening locals and using the statues of Lord Buddha to occupy public land.

Anyone can visit the village and see the statues scattered across the hill after travelling by road for around two and a half hours from the city, but the monastery is off-limits to the public, with trained German Shepherd dogs guarding its premises.  

Established less than eight years ago, the monastery currently sprawls on 50 acres, with an air-conditioned chamber underground for “meditation and safety”.

Is this hilltop underground room for meditation only?

Is this hilltop underground room for meditation only?

After walking two kilometres along a herringbone road, a new under-construction archway can be seen at the entrance of the monastery. But Hajera Begum, a resident of the village, contends that the piece of land on which the archway is being built actually belongs to her.

Some statues of the Buddha are also being erected across the hill.

Born in Hathazari as Rony Barua, the monastery’s founder Sharanangkar grew up in Rangunia. Said to be 36 years old, he belonged to a low-income family and spent his childhood in extreme poverty, according to local media reports. He had worked as a driver before becoming a monk in 2004.

But Sharanangkar refused to share details of his life prior to monkhood. "I was active in politics and chanted slogans in processions," he said.

Trained German Shepherd dogs are kept in a kennel next to the underground room.

Trained German Shepherd dogs are kept in a kennel next to the underground room.

He stands accused in at least a dozen cases filed by the Forest Department for occupying forest and government lands, and by the Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities for occupying and destroying the forest, grabbing private lands, providing shelter to citizens of Myanmar and inciting religious tension.

Fearing repercussion, Sharanangkar has moved to Dhaka from Gyansharan Maharanya, which has residential rooms and other structures on a hill, which is restricted to the general public.

The monastery has installed water tanks and supply lines at different places, but in such a way that a newcomer would easily miss it.

A structure made of tin and tarpaulin appears to be a garage capable of housing multiple vehicles. The bdnews24.com correspondent saw one car inside.

The establishment also has a kennel and tube-wells. Two dogs were in the kennel when the correspondent visited the area while its air-conditioners were covered with dirty clothes.

The monastery had 20 power connections but most of them have been cut off.

LAND GRABBING CHARGES

Sharanangkar moved to Falaharia in 2004 and began the construction of the monastery in 2012, starting with a room made of corrugated tin sheets.

Pieces of clothe are used to hide air-conditioners.

Pieces of clothe are used to hide air-conditioners.

“He began to set up statues and buildings in different corners of the hills from 2012 in a bid to encroach land. He could have constructed a building in one place if his intention was only to preach religion,” said Ashraful Islam, a beat officer of the Forest Department in Rangunia.

The department had filed a case against Sharanangkar but to no avail. It also failed to remove the illegal structures he had built. Rather, the monks uprooted trees and saplings planted by the department, said Ashraful.

The Forest Department prevented Sharanangkar from constructing a structure in the Gyansharan Maharanya monastery and hung up a signboard in the area he grabbed in October last year. This was the first formal intervention to thwart his work, stoking tensions between different communities in the process.

“When we tried to obstruct him from constructing the structures during the inspection, he hurled abusive language at us and assaulted us,” Ashraful alleged.   

In a case that followed, the Forest Department accused the monastery of destroying around 78,000 saplings.

The shed for cars is built in such a way that it is difficult for anyone to locate it without getting near it.

The shed for cars is built in such a way that it is difficult for anyone to locate it without getting near it.

Sharanangkar refuted the allegation, saying that it was the Forest Department officials who assaulted the monks and destroyed the monastery’s trees.

The monk admitted to grabbing public land for the construction of the monastery.   “But I didn’t take it away. Many mosques, madrasas and Hindu temples are also constructed on government lands. I’ll return everything if the government wants me to. I have the ability to establish a similar monastery in five years,” he said.

Asked why he was confident about establishing another monastery in such a short space of time, he had a quick answer -- money from Bangladesh and abroad.

Sharanangkar claimed he owns 160 decimals of land there and the monastery has dug some ponds on his land.

At one stage of the conversation, he vowed to continue the legal battle over the land on which the monastery has been built.

CONTROVERSIES

Sharanangkar said he walked 7,500 km from 2012 to 2020 after becoming a monk. He claims to have walked to Bodh Gaya, a Buddhist pilgrimage site, in India’s Bihar, from Cox's Bazar.

The entrance of Gyansharan Maharanya. The hills have been grabbed by Sharanangkar Thero.

The entrance of Gyansharan Maharanya. The hills have been grabbed by Sharanangkar Thero.

Now he rides expensive cars, according to some locals.

The monk sees nothing wrong in riding the cars “provided by his followers”.

Asked how he secured the funds to construct the monastery, he said, “We have a large network of followers at home and abroad for funding. Also, we get funds from Buddhist-majority countries."

The monastery's overseers have different bank accounts and also accept cash from donors, he said.

A signboard next to a statue of Buddha lying on the hill states that the place is a conserved forest.

A signboard next to a statue of Buddha lying on the hill states that the place is a conserved forest.

Mohammed Shahjahan, acting chairman of Padua Union Parishad, said the locals had initially helped the monk a lot but later found his activities to be quite suspicious.

“They have made an underground room on top of the hill. We believe they hold some mischievous meetings there. They don’t allow anyone to go to the hill. All monks are aged between 30 and 35 years. All of these are indicative of ill intentions,” he said.

Shahjahan alleged that some Myanmar nationals visited the monastery recently, while a large number of firearms were removed from there after Sharanangkar left. “Some of the arms have remained there,” he said.

Statues of Buddha are scattered across the hills.

Statues of Buddha are scattered across the hills.

The public representative accused the monk of speaking with animosity and promoting violence.

The monk’s main intention is to grab land, according to Md Badiuzzaman, a member of the Union Parishad. Sharanangkar patronises musclemen and tortures people if they climb the hill to graze their cattle, Badiuzzaman claimed.

The Union Parishad member alleged that the monk assisted criminals from the Chittagong Hill Tracts to come to Rangunia.

Sharanangkar also brought monks from Myanmar to construct the structures, Badiuzzaman alleged. He demanded that the authorities bring Sharanangkar to justice soon.

Some statues are yet to be completed.

Some statues are yet to be completed.

However, Sharanangkar denied all the allegations. He challenged the claim that arms were brought to the monastery. “Even if I had removed the arms, they can do a forensic investigation to confirm it.”

“I have shunned a regular life. I practise asceticism. Why would I indulge in arms?”

Among the 45 monks in the monastery, around 35 are children. “Many a time, Buddhist monks are attacked. We made the [underground] room to keep the children safe in case they are attacked,” Sharanangkar said.

Rahul Ankur, who is in charge of the monastery now, said they had come to the monastery to meditate in the jungle, but now do the task in the underground room.

Hindus allege that Sharanangkar Thero’s people burnt down their crematorium.

Hindus allege that Sharanangkar Thero’s people burnt down their crematorium.

Sharanangkar denied the allegation of bringing in Myanmar nationals to carry out the construction work of the monastery. “This is totally false. Our workforce was entirely made up of people from the Rakhine community,” he said.

Monk Rahul said they brought the workers from Raujan.

Speaking about the dogs, Sharanangkar said they were his pets as he loves animals.

COMMUNAL TENSION

The monk spoke about his affection for crematoriums and graveyards. He said he had meditated at 18 places of burial and cremation in total.

Sharanangkar Thero’s disciples claim that the building is used as a school.

Sharanangkar Thero’s disciples claim that the building is used as a school.

The locals accused him of obstructing cremation at a site used by the Hindus of the area for a long time. He has dug a pond next to the site and placed a statue of the Buddha on a lotus.

“We have been cremating bodies on that ground since 2000. But last year they stopped us and held up the cremation of the dead body for four hours,” said Priyotosh Kanti Dey, a resident of the area.

The monk even made the members of the Hindu community sign a written statement promising not to cremate bodies there anymore while burning down a tin-roofed structure on the grounds, Priyotosh said.

Sharanangkar initially refuted the allegation, saying that the cremation ground is situated on a 70-feet high hill where they have set up a statue of a reclining Buddha beside a school.

The Forest Department has put up a signboard stating that building structures in a conserved forest is illegal.

The Forest Department has put up a signboard stating that building structures in a conserved forest is illegal.

Later, he acknowledged that he called the police during last year’s incident and took a written statement from the Hindus.

On Oct 12, gunshots were fired on a convoy of the Hindu community on their way back to Rangunia after protests in Dhaka against the eviction of the crematorium. No-one was injured in the incident, but a case was filed, Priyotosh said.

Amid the chaos, Sharanangkar and his followers began complaining of torture on Buddhists in some Facebook posts and tried to put a political slant on it.

Sharanangkar Thero is currently staying in Dhaka.

Sharanangkar Thero is currently staying in Dhaka.

The communal tension in Falaharia further intensified in the middle of 2020.

People from different religious communities have been living here peacefully for a long time but that peace is now being threatened by Sharanangkar’s “misdeeds”, said Hakim Uddin, a resident.

“The monastery people use loudspeakers with a high volume whenever it is time for Namaz [prayers]. They post videos to Facebook demeaning Muslims,” he alleged.

The kennel at Gyansharan Maharanya.

The kennel at Gyansharan Maharanya.

In July, derogatory posts against the Muslims and the religion of Islam were posted to Facebook, purportedly by two disciples of the monk, a development that caused a friction in the area.

The administration and local political leaders stepped in and prevented any violence, although people began to stage protests against the monk and his disciples. They also filed cases.

The Buddhist leader, on the other hand, began to spread video messages on Facebook, claiming the Buddhists were being tortured. This further aggravated the situation.

Hindus allege that Sharanangkar Thero’s people burnt down their crematorium.

Hindus allege that Sharanangkar Thero’s people burnt down their crematorium.

Under the circumstances, Sharanangkar moved to Raujan in the second week of July and then to Dhaka in August.

Sharanangkar, called Bhante by his followers, once again denied any wrongdoing. He said the monks have not set up loudspeakers outside the monastery premises, while the mosques are quite far away. He insisted that the derogatory messages on Facebook were posted from fake accounts made in the names of his disciples.

Hindus allege that Sharanangkar Thero’s people burnt down their crematorium.

Hindus allege that Sharanangkar Thero’s people burnt down their crematorium.

Police are looking into the complaints against the Buddhist monk and will take necessary action based on their findings, said Chattogram's Superintendent of Police SM Rashidul Haque.

“People are staging protests [against Sharanangkar] in Rangunia every week. But the situation is completely normal otherwise,” he said.

BUDDHIST LEADERS DISTANCE THEMSELVES

Leaders of top Buddhist organisations issued a statement on Oct 18, condemning Sharanangkar's activities.

Sharanangkar Thero receiving a crest from Rocky Barua, who was arrested in Chattogram in may for “trying to create anarchy” in a bid to free Jamaat-e-Islami leader and war crimes convict Delwar Hossain Sayedee. Sharanangkar admitted that he had met Rocky at a programme, but had no link with him.

Sharanangkar Thero receiving a crest from Rocky Barua, who was arrested in Chattogram in may for “trying to create anarchy” in a bid to free Jamaat-e-Islami leader and war crimes convict Delwar Hossain Sayedee. Sharanangkar admitted that he had met Rocky at a programme, but had no link with him.

They include Supta Bhushan Barua, vice-president of the Buddhist Welfare Trust, and Buddhapriyo Mahathero, principal of Kamalapur Buddhist Monastery.

“‘Kindness is the best religion' – this is the essence of the Great Buddha's teachings.  Therefore, the Buddhist community never supports illegal grabbing of the forest, prayer halls, crematorium or hurting religious sentiments of other communities. These activities demean Buddha's teachings of peace, love and affection," the statement said.

Hindus protest against the activities of Sharanangkar Thero.

Hindus protest against the activities of Sharanangkar Thero.

The Forest Department and the police stopped the “illegal construction” in an operation on Jul 9, according to the statement.

"Some people tried to change the course of the situation and give it a political tinge. The top Buddhist leaders visited the scene and urged everyone to maintain peace," it said.

At least 2,585 Buddhist monasteries across the country are registered with the Buddhist Welfare Trust, according to Supta Barua.

Muslims protest against the activities of Sharanangkar Thero.

Muslims protest against the activities of Sharanangkar Thero.

There are currently more than 1,000 other unregistered monasteries in Bangladesh.

Gyansharan Maharanya is not registered with the Trust and never applied for financial support, Supta Barua said.

 

[The story is written by Sabrina Karim Murshed and Osham-ul-Sufian Talukder. Edited by Turaj Ahmad.]