This temple caters for a relatively small and dispersed Burmese Buddhist community, members of which travel from different parts of the country for festivals and ceremonies. The site houses a large Burmese style pagoda, completed in 1998, and also two houses – the vihara (the monks’ quarters) and the dhamma hall (where Buddhist teachings are given and there are rooms that can be hired by other groups). The total complex was founded by a well-known Burmese Buddhist teacher and spiritual leader, Bhante Rewata Dhamma. He arrived in England in 1975 and his ‘idea was to use Birmingham as a springboard to get Buddhism into the West’. In the early years he shared a house with a Tibetan centre and ‘so, a couple of days a week, it was a Mahayana Temple, and a couple of days a week it was a Theravādan temple.’ He approached Birmingham City Council for some land and the present site was available. However, because he had a strong Burmese following, and most of the Burmese in England are professionals, they donated quite generously and he was able to set up the pagoda and vihara on the current site. According to the website of the community:
The pagoda is an oriental style of sacred tower. In Buddhism, it is also called a stupa or caitya. The building of pagodas dates from the time of the Buddha’s passing into nibbāna, around the sixth century BCE. At that time, the Buddha’s body was cremated and only fragments of the bones remained. These sacred relics were divided among the rulers who were his devout followers. They placed them in golden chambers in their respective countries and built pagodas over them so that people could venerate and pay homage.
The pagoda symbolises peace, compassion and other exemplary qualities of the Buddha. As such, Buddhists venerate it everywhere. With the spread of Buddhism, pagodas were built in all those countries where it became established. The pagoda is the earthly manifestation of the mind of the Buddha and, as such, stands as a prime symbol of Buddhism. The Dhammatalaka Pagoda [‘reservoir of truth’ Pagoda ] will fulfil three purposes: it will be a shrine for Buddhists to perform their traditional ceremonies; a focus where non-Buddhists can learn about Buddhism; and a sanctuary where both may find peace and tranquillity (http://www.bbvt.org.uk/Introduction.asp)
The pagoda was the first building to be put up and is in a traditional style. It is made from pre-cast concrete that has been decorated afterwards with much of the remaining decoration (e.g. around the windows and around the top of the walls, as well as the pillars in the porch way) being made on site by two experts that came over from Burma. Our interviewee explained that ‘in 16 years I think that we’ve repainted it four times. But recently, it was…gold leaf, yes. That didn’t last very long. But we use a very expensive gold paint now. I think that it was two years ago that we painted it. And in a couple of years it will be needing it again.’