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COX’S BAZAR: Believed to be a site visited by Gautama Buddha, Rangkut Banasram in the forest of Cox’s Bazar is the oldest monastery in Bangladesh, and a reminder of the country’s rich Buddhist past.

Only around 1 million people profess Buddhism in Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country of 170 million. Most of them live in the country’s coastal southeast where, as legend has it, Buddha had himself chosen to become a teaching center.

It was circa 600 B.C. as Buddha was on the way from India to Arakan, now in Myanmar, when he and his main disciple, Ananda Bhikkhu, visited the place where centuries later the monastery was built.

“Gautama Buddha rested here on the Rangkut hill for one night. During that visit, Buddha said that a pagoda would be built here with a bone coming from his chest,” the monastery’s caretaker, Jyoti Sen Mahathero, told Arab News.

The visit did not immediately yield a foothold for the new religion, but Buddha’s prophecy was fulfilled under the reign of Ashoka the Great, the third Mauryan Emperor of Magadha, whose empire covered a large part of the Indian subcontinent.

A statue of the emperor Ashoka the Great in the Rangkut Monastery complex in Ramu, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on Dec. 29, 2023. (AN photo)

“In 268 B.C., Emperor Ashoka started building 84,000 pagodas in different parts of this region, marking 84,000 speeches of Buddha. The Rangkut Banasram is one of them,” Mahathero said.

“At the top of the pagoda, a piece of Buddha’s chest bone was installed at that time.”

Located approximately 12 km from Cox’s Bazar, the monastery stands on a hillock, flanked by another 17 hills.

The name, according to Mahathero, derived from Sanskrit and Arakanese, which were dominant languages in the region at that time.

“The bone of the chest is being called as rang, the word kut means hilltop. Since the monastery preserves the chest bone of Buddha, this monastery is named as the Rangkut Monastery, which means a hilltop with the chest bone of Buddha,” he added.

The monastery was also on the trail of Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese Buddhist monk and traveler also known as Xuanzang, who visited the site in the seventh century.

A huge banyan tree near the entrance to the complex is believed to be his.

“It is 1,400 years old. There are sayings that Tsang had planted this banyan tree,” Mahathero said.

“In this connection, the Chinese Embassy helped us a couple of years back to raise a statue of Tsang.”

A woman performs Buddhist rituals at the Rangkut Monastery complex in Cox’s Bazar, Bangaldesh, on Dec. 29, 2023. (AN photo)

Around 50 monks currently live in the monastery, but during its times of glory, hundreds of them flocked to Rangkut, which was a major educational center.

“It’s the oldest monastery in this region, and the business and cultural activities of this area were developed in this region centering this monastery,” Mahathero added.

“This is the oldest monastery in Bangladesh, too.”

The Rangkut Monastery is not the only one in the broader coastal region of Chittagong, where Buddhism used to be the main religion until the last century, and a series of attempts at demographic engineering during British colonial rule and after the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947.

“Around 150 Buddhist structures are situated in different parts of Cox’s Bazar district,” Mahathero said.

“There are around 50,000 Buddhists in this district area, while the district’s population is around 600,000. Buddhists were the majority of the population here 100 years ago.”

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