As the clock strikes 6 p.m., Shudhhanondo Mohathero hurries to the kitchen to alert his army of 15 monks that they have less than 40 minutes until iftar.
Soon, people will begin queuing outside the Dharmarajika Bouddha Bihar, a Buddhist monastery in Dhaka, where Mohathero hands out free food packs to fasting Muslims who are too poor to buy a meal to end their fast.
It is a tradition that 89-year-old Mohathero started 10 years ago when he assumed responsibility for the temple’s upkeep.
“Since the early days of the monastery, we have received tremendous support in celebrating different Buddhist festivals from our Muslim friends. So I thought it’s time to do something in return,” Mohathero told Arab News.
Built in 1951, the monastery, which is located in Basabo in the eastern part of Dhaka, has been involved in various social welfare activities.
Since the start of Ramadan this year, almost 200 food packs have been doled out every day, with plans to double the number by the end of the month. The 15 monks who live in the monastery prepare the food boxes for iftar.
At a cost of around 80 cents, which is funded by the temple, each box contains traditional Bangladeshi iftar items such as puffed rice, boiled and seasoned chickpeas, jilapi (a deep-fried sweet pastry), beguni (deep-fried eggplant) and dal bora (a fried item with smashed lentils and dates).
“In previous years, our junior monks used to prepare iftar at the monastery. This year, however, we are starting to outsource the items due to the sheer volume,” Mohathero said.
In Malaysia, the monks have also been doing the same for the last 15 years. The Paguyuban Metta Buddhists community of the Sanggar Suci temple in Malang, East Java, was handing out nasi soto(aromatic soup with rice), es campur (ice dessert), warm tea and snacks at a yard near Jl. Dr. Wahidin on Monday afternoon as reported by The Jakarta Post.
“We have maintained that tradition until now. Initially, about 60-80 people would come every day during Ramadan, but the figure later increased to 100 a day,” he said.
He added that the Buddhist community came up with the money for the meals as they aimed to express their love for their Muslim neighbors.
“We make sure all the food and cooking equipment is halal by involving our Muslim neighbors when preparing the meals or ordering them from a third party. On the last day of Ramadan, we usually provide nasi kuning [yellow rice] and congratulate the Muslims who celebrate Idul Fitri.”
Back in Bangladesh, the Dhaka monastery’s generosity has not gone unnoticed by the fasting Muslims.
“I have been receiving iftar from the monastery for three years. Since my husband works as a daily-wage laborer, this iftar has made our lives very comfortable,” Asma Khatun, a local resident, said.
Another devotee, Sharif Hossain, said that iftar from the monastery “is like a divine blessing.”
“After losing all my properties in a river erosion, I moved to Dhaka just a few months ago and started living in a slum. I can finally feed my family with the iftar provided by the monks,” he said.
Talking about his experience being part of a project that builds communal harmony, Prantar Borua, an apprentice monk at the temple, said: “We feel proud and happy to be doing such an extraordinary thing. It’s a small contribution to the community, but it’s the best we can do at this moment.”
The monastery’s generosity has won praise from the Bangladesh authorities, too.
“It’s a nice initiative from the Buddhist community, especially at a time when the world is experiencing many hate crimes and interreligious conflicts. It upholds the spirit of religious harmony,” Abdul Hamid Jomaddar, joint secretary of the Religious Affairs Ministry, said.
“Our government believes in the coexistence of different religions, which is the beauty of this secular land,” he added.