Located at 4A, Bankim Chatterjee Street, on the eastern side of College Square, the headquarters building of the Maha Bodhi Society houses the society’s famous shrine, Sri Dharmarajika Chaitya Vihara, one of the holiest Buddhist shrines in the city of Calcutta that contains a holy relic of Lord Buddha. The history of the temple and the society dates back to 1891, when Anagarika Dharmapala, a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka, had made a trip to India in 1891 as a pilgrim to the land of Buddha.
Anagarika Dharmapala, known as David Hewavitarane in his early life, was born on the 17th of September 1864 in one of the wealthy families of Matara in Sri Lanka, known for their uncompromising devotion and blind dedication to the cause of Buddhism. Like Swami Vivekananda, he also participated in the parliament of World Religion in Chicago in 1893. However, before that, during his tour to India in 1891, Dharmapala was shocked to see the deplorable condition of the Buddhist holy shrines in the country where the religion was born and included the Viharas, Chaityas, Stupas, and Pagodas. However, he did not lose his heart and in the next three decades of his life, he tried untiringly to revive Buddhism in India and restore the ancient Buddhist shrines at holy sites like Bodh Gaya and Sarnath. In addition to that, he also founded the Maha Bodhi Society on 31 May 1891, at Colombo, to propagate the ideas of peace, perfection and human values. However, the headquarter of the society was moved to Calcutta the following year, as in those days, the city used to be known as the intellectual and cultural capital of India.
In the beginning, the Maha Bodhi Society started its first office in Calcutta in 1892, at 20/1 Gangadhar Babu Lane, in Bowbazar area, which was later shifted to 2 Creek Row. However, Dharmapala had other things in his mind. Banking on a huge donation of Rupees 65,000 from Mary Robinson Foster, a Hawaiian philanthropist, along with others, he purchased a plot of land in 1914, located on the eastern side of Gol Dighi, later renamed College Square, intending to set up a temple and the office building in the heart of the city.
Immediately after that, the society was registered in 1915 with Sir Asutosh Mookerjee as its first Indian president and one of the most revered patrons of the society. During that time, Sir Asutosh, the former vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, was the chief justice of the Calcutta High Court. His son, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, was the longest-serving president of the society, from 1942 till his death in 1953.
Nevertheless, the foundation stone of the proposed building of the society, along with the Sri Dharmarajika Vihara, was laid on the 16th of December 1918, and the building was completed in 1920. On 26 November 1920, the then Bengal governor, Lord Ronaldshay, ceremoniously handed over a holy relic of Lord Buddha, discovered during an excavation at Bhattiprolu Stupa in Madras presidency, to the president of the society, Sir Asutosh Mookerjee, who in his turn handed over the relic to Dharmapala, in the presence of theosophist Annie Besant.
While the ground floor of the building is occupied by the prayer hall, the upper floor contains the Sri Dharmarajika Vihara. The holy shrine, adorned with a huge statue of Lord Buddha, contains a holy relic, a tooth of Lord Buddha, which is displayed on his birthday. Apart from that, the walls and the ceiling have ornamented frescoes in bright colours depicting the life of Lord Buddha.
The holy Buddhist shrine is open to all, and photography of the interior is allowed. Apart from the temple, the building also contains a guest house