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VEDANTA KESARIThe Kali Temple at Dakshineswar and Sri Ramakrishna  

 

 

 

                 

             The Kali Temple at Dakshineswar

          and Sri Ramakrishna

 

 


          Swami Prabhananda

 

 


     One day Sri Ramakrishnn was talking to some devotees when he said, The feeling of "I" and "mine" is ignorance. People say that Rani Rasmani built the Kali temple; but nobody says it was the work of God. ... After attaining Knowledge a man says: "O God, nothing belongs to me - neither this house of worship nor this Kali temple. ... These are all Thine. Wife, son, and family do not belong to me. They are nil Thine."

 

 


     Two Significant Events

 

 


     One event after another, like surging waves of a mountain stream, sweeps through the valley of time. But very few leave any imprint deep enough to be noticed for even a short period, while those of most are quickly washed away. The imprints of a few, however, are what bear witness to the great movements that shape the course of history. During the nineteenth century two important streams, flowing around two extraordinary personalities, had their source in Bengal: one in the elite urban centre of Calcutta, the capital of British India, and the other in the quiet village of Kamarpukur, then untouched by British culture. Ultimately these streams merged, forming a mighty confluence, at a small village called Dakshineswar, just north of Calcutta. It was here that an exquisite temple to the Divine Mother Kali was built, and a profound spiritual milieu was created by one of the greatest men to walk this earth. And here a new history was created that drew people from all walks of life, including some who were destined to help in a movement that would bring new hope to the world.


     Of these two personalities, one was the incomparable spiritual genius, Sri Ramakrishna (1836-86), who is now worshipped as the embodiment of five thousand years of the spiritual life of India. The second was the powerful and influential mistress of a very wealthy and aristocratic family of Calcutta, Rani Rasmani (1793-1861). Rani Rasmani is still adored in Bengal as a paragon of intelligence, piety, compassion and character.

 

 


     Dakshineswar in the Early 1980s and Before

 

 


     In the early decades of the 1800s, there were only a few huts in Dakshineswar and the adjacent villages on the eastern bank of the Ganges. We can get an idea of the condition of this area about a decade before the temple was built in a description given by J С Marshman in the January 1845 issue of Calcutta Review. There he wrote: 'A little higher up we have the village of Dukhinsore, remarkable chiefly for the country seat, mapped down in the map of Hastie's Garden, but which has repeatedly changed hands during the last thirty years. To the north of it lies the Powder Magazine. During the last four years which have elapsed since Joshep's map was published, four elegant houses have sprung up to the south of the garden.' (2) The houses mentioned here include the garden houses of Jadulal Mullick and Shambhucharan Mullick.


     According to an old legend, the illustrious King Vana had his palace at Deulpota, which is now the heart of the urban area of Dakshineswar. The original name of the village was Sonitpur, though some say it was called Sambhalpur. As the family deity of King Vana was known as Dakshineswar Shiva, eventually the village came to be known by the name Dakshineswar. Some say that Dakshineswar Shiva can no longer be traced, while others say that the present Buro Shiva of Shivtala, near the bank of the Ganges, is indeed this same Dakshineswar Shiva.


     About three hundred years ago the entire area of what is now Dakshineswar, including Doulpota, was a dense forest. Only a handful of families of fishermen and boatmen were settled here and there in the area. Then Durgaprasad Roy Choudhury and Bhavaniprasad Roy Choudhury, of the well-known Savarna Choudhury family, came from Barisha and settled there. They brought with them a number of people, cleared the forest, and developed the village in their own way. An illustrious descendant of this family was Yogindranath, who became a monastic disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and was known as Swami Yogananda. (3) From such an obscure origin, Dakshineswar has risen to become an internationally renowned spiritual centre. Today the life of Dakshineswar centres around the Kali temple that was constructed by Rani Rasmani and sanctified by the life and spiritual practices of Sri Ramakrishna.

 

 


     Sri Ramakrishna's Arrival at Dakshineswar

 

 


     Sri Ramakrishna was the youngest son of the saintly Kshudiram Chattopadhyaya and his wife, the kind-hearted Chandramani Devi. His childhood and adolescence were spent in the environment of rural Bengal, which in those days was almost untouched by British culture. His extraordinary memory, sharp intellect and pure character, along with his sweet and guileless behaviour and his wonderful talents in art, music and acting made him the darling of the whole village. The death of his father when he was only seven years old as well as a divine vision of the Goddess Vishalakshi determined the future course of his life. He turned his back on what he considered mere bread-winning education and instead became drawn towards the knowledge that would help him realize God. In 1853, when he was seventeen years old, he came to Calcutta with his elder brother Ramkumar to assist him in his duties as priest for some families living in Jhamapukur. By then the construction work on the Kali temple in Dakshineswar was almost complete, but its consecration and formal opening had been postponed for various reasons. Perhaps this was divinely ordained so that the young spiritual seeker Sri Ramakrishna could be brought there. Why? Because it was meant for him to awaken the all-powerful Divine Mother in the stone image of the temple and release the energy of the universal kundalini for the welfare of humanity.

 

 


     Rani Rasmani and Her Philanthropic Activities

 

 

 

     Rani Rasmani was the daughter of a poor couple who lived in the village of Kona, in 24-Parganas. Her father, Harekrishna Das, built huts as a profession and was also a farmer. Her mother, Rampriya, died when Rasmani was just seven years old. In the year 1804, when Rani Rasmani was eleven, she was married to Rajchandra Das (5), the zamindar of Janbari. He had married twice before but both wives had died young, so Rani Rasmani was his third wife. Soon after the marriage the income of her husband's family increased, so her arrival in the family was considered propitious. Rajchandra himself was given the title 'Rai Bahadur' and was appointed an honorary magistrate. He had to his credit many philanthropic activities such as the construction of Babu Ghat, Hatkhola Ghat and Babu Road (now called Rani Rasmani Road), the donation of the land for the excavation of the Beliaghata canal, the construction of a shelter for the dying and their relatives at the Nimtola crematorium, the digging of the Talpukur pond at Barrackpore, the building of Metcalfe Hall for a library, and also donations to the Famine Relief Fund. The couple had four daughters, named Padmamani, Kumari, Karunamayi and Jagadamba. In 1836, at the age of fifty-one, Rajchandra died from an attack of thrombosis.

 

     Mathurmohan Biswas was the husband of Rani Rasmani's third daughter, Karunamayi. He was cultured, well-mannered, quite intelligent and had an English education. When his wife died, he married her younger sister Jagadamba. With the assistance of Mathurmohan, Rani Rasmani was able to administer her estate very well. She increased her property holdings considerably, and also earned a substantial amount through trade and business. This success, together with her numerous charitable activities, spread her name throughout Bengal. Among her many philanthropic activities, especially remarkable were the excavation of the Sonai and Beliaghata canals, the setting up of the bazaar at Bhowanipur, the construction of a bathing ghat as well as a shelter for the dying and their relatives at Kalighat, the construction of a ghat on the bank of the Ganges at Halisahar, and also the construction of a substantial part of the road from the Suvarnarekha River to Puri in Orissa. Moreover, she earned the profound gratitude of her tenants for her protection of them from oppression by the indigo planters. Again, she also paid for the excavation of the connecting canal between the Madhumati and Navaganga Rivers, which alone cost her lakhs of rupees. Her generosity and concern for the welfare of others became proverbial in the homes of Bengal.

 

 

 

     Her Memorable Achievement

 

 


     However, her most memorable achievement was the establishment of a temple to Mother Kali at Dakshineswar, and along with it, providing Sri Ramakrishna with all the necessary facilities to carry on his long and intense spiritual quest. While it was Rani Rasmani's devotion, hard work and perseverance that made the construction of the temple possible, it was the thirty years of Sri Ramakrishna's God-intoxicated life that elevated the temple complex into one of the greatest pilgrimage places of the world.


     The account of how the pious yet resolute Rani Rasmani came to build the temple at Dakshineswar is truly a combination of the extraordinary and the popular. It is said that in the year 1847 (1254 BS) (6) Rani Rasmani was making arrangements to visit the holy city of Kashi. For many years she had cherished a desire to make this pilgrimage and worship to her heart's content Lord Vishvanath and the Divine Mother Annapurna. She had also set aside a large sum of money to meet the expenses for the trip. Earlier she had bought some land at Kashi in order to build a temple there. (7) Perhaps she intended to go there and make the final arrangements herself for establishing the temple. It was decided that the Rani would be accompanied by her three daughters and their husbands, plus other relatives, and a host of servants, maidservants, watchmen and armed guards. Twentv-five large barges had been commissioned. The elaborate arrangements were almost complete.


     At that time a famine had cast its dark shadow over the entire country, and people were in a state of panic. The agonizing cries of thousands of starving people and the news of hundreds of deaths from starvation made the Rani restless. While going for her daily bath in the Ganges she also personally observed the unspeakable miseries of the starving people. The night before the Rani was to leave on her I journey she had a dream of the Goddess. According to another version, however, the Rani had already set out on the pilgrimage and had reached the village of Dakshineswar. There on the boat she received a divine command in a dream. The Goddess told her that there was no need to go to Kashi. Instead, a beautiful temple should be built on the bank of the Ganges where the Goddess would be installed and regular worship and services offered. The Goddess assured her, 'I will manifest myself in the stone image and will regularly accept your daily worship and offering of food.' The next morning the Rani recounted her dream to Mathurmohan and told him to call off the pilgrimage. The food and other supplies stored on the barges were then distributed to the famine-stricken people. In addition, the Rani donated some more money for their relief.


     From Sri Ramakrishna's account we learn that after the Rani received this divine command she gave up the idea of going to Kashi and resolved to build a temple for the Goddess on the bank of the Ganges. However, the statement she gave in legal document for the endowment executed by her in the year I860 (1267 BS) mentions a different reason for building the temple. There she said: 'During his lifetime my husband had a desire to build a temple and offer service to the Lord. But as he suddenly died and could not fulfil this desire, I have purchased by bill of sale, for carrying out his wishes, revenue-generating land measuring 54 1/2 (fifty-four and a half) bighas, bearing an annual revenue of... .' In another part of the same document, the Rani's reason for establishing the temple was more clearly stated. It was 'for the fulfilment of the desire of my deceased husband and for his spiritual welfare'. Of course, there is no difficulty in admitting that both the aforesaid divine command and the unfulfilled desire of her husband were behind the establishment of the temple.


     There is a saying, 'The western bank of the Ganges is as holy as Varanasi.' The Rani had great faith in this and searched extensively for land at Bally, Uttarpara and other places along the western bank of the Ganges, but she failed to find a plot anywhere. The well-known Das Ani and Chay Ani group of zamindars declared that it would be beneath their dignity to step in the Ganges from a ghat built by someone else on their land. According to another account, the Rani had tried to build the temple within the precincts of the Siddheshwari Kali temple at Balidaghat in Halisahar on the bank of the river. But even with the promise of huge sums of money the Rani could not secure any foothold there due to the stubborn opposition of the influential brahmin and kayastha communities. (9) Thus she was compelled to search for land on the eastern bank of the Ganges, and she finally selected the land where the present temple complex stands.

 

 


     The Temple Land

 

 


     The major portion of this land had been owned by an Englishman named John Hastie (10) and was popularly known as Saheban Bagicha ('Saheb's garden'). Another portion was a Muslim cemetery and was the burial place of a Gazi (a Muslim saint). This land was shaped like the back of a tortoise, and according to the Tantras, such a graveyard is ideal for establishing a temple to Shakti, the Divine Mother, and for practising sadhana of this path. Sri Ramakrishna observed, 'Therefore, as if guided by Providence, the Rani chose this piece of land.'


     Swami Saradananda wrote in the Lilaprasanga: 'It is recorded in the Endowment document that the land of the Kali temple complex is 60 bighas.' In the document itself, however, we find that the land measured 54 1/2 bighas, and it was described as being bounded by the Ganges on the west, by the land of Kashinath Roy Choudhury and others on the east, by the government's powder magazine on the north (11), and by the buildings previously owned by John Hastie on the south, where Jadulal Mullick's garden house was built. Rani Rasmani purchased the land at a cost of Rs 42,500 from John Hastie's executor, James Hastie, the attorney of the Supreme Court. The day was Monday, 6 September 1847 (22 Bhadra 1254 BS). In order to expand the area, the Rani acquired additional land from some boatmen on the north, and part of the Muslim cemetery on the east (12). Thus the total area of the land came to 60 bighas, and altogether it cost the Rani Rs 55,000.' (13) Later a portion of the land on the south had to be given up for a railway line and for the construction of Vivekananda Bridge. Thus the present amount of land held by the temple authorities is approximately 58 bighas.(14)

 

 


     The Northern Part of the Temple

 

 


     To the north of what is now the temple courtyard there is a building called the Kuthi Bari, which was the house of the previous owner, John Hastie. Possibly it had originally been built by some indigo planters, as the Bengali Kathamrita indicates that indigo planters used to live there. The ancient banyan tree and the platform around it, which was used by Sri Ramakrishna, had also been there earlier (15). And the holy shrine of Gazi Saheb in the Muslim cemetery was quite ancient.


     In Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master, Swami Saradananda gives us a vivid picture of the northern part of the compound:


     In those days the land surrounding the Panchavati was not as even as it is now. It was full of pits, ditches, lowlands, jungles, etc. There grew an Amalaki tree among the wild trees and plants. It was a burial ground besides being a jungle. Therefore people hardly went there 'even in the day time. ... We have heard from Hriday that the [amalaki] tree grew on a low piece of land. So, anyone sitting under that tree could not be seen from the high land outside the jungle.' (16)


     Swami Saradananda also informs us that when the small pond called the goose pond (Hanspukur) was re-excavated, the ground around the old Panchavati was filled with mud from the pond, and in the process, the amalaki tree was destroyed. Sri Ramakrishna then set up a new Panchavati. He planted a holy fig tree to the west of the small hut, and Hriday planted saplings of a banyan tree, an ashoka tree, a vilva tree, and an amalaki tree. Around this Sri Ramakrishna added saplings of the holy basil and the aparajita creeper and then had the whole place fenced in with the help of a temple gardener named Bhartrihari. The basil plants and aparajita creepers grew quickly, so in a short time the place was quiet and secluded and suitable for meditation.


     Shortly after the whole plot was acquired, boundary walls were put up with two gates - the main gate for people coming from Calcutta, and a second gate meant to facilitate access to the Ganges for bathers from the Vachaspatipara, Mukherjipara, Bhattacharyapara and Choudhurypara areas. A brick embankment, retaining wall and a cement bathing ghat on the Ganges were also constructed then. But the strong current from the flood-tides in the river which come from the southwest - from the bend in the river at Ghusuri —struck the property with such force that the embankment and retaining wall were soon washed away. Rani Rasmani then assigned the project of constructing a new embankment, retaining wall and ghat to M/s MacIntosh & Burn Co. The work was completed at a cost of 1,60,000 rupees. After the embankment and retaining wall were built, the construction of the temple complex as well as the digging of the pond, planting of trees and saplings, and laying out of flower gardens could begin.

 

 


     The Temple Architecture

 

 


     The name of the architect of the temple and other such details are not known for certain, but it is not difficult to identify the principal traditions that influenced its design. Regarding temple architecture of Bengal, generally four traditions have been followed: Rekha or Shikhar Deul, Bhadra or Pida Deul, Stupashirsha Bhadra or Pida Deul, and Shikharashirsha Bhadra or Pida Deul. Well into the Muslim period, however, temple architecture in Bengal developed a truly indigenous character, as the temples were built in a style modelled on the thatched huts of the villages. These temples can be broadly classified into three categories - Bangla Mandir, Chala Mandir and Ratna or Chura Mandir, which are differentiated by the design of the roofs. (17) The design of the Ratna Mandir, with its graceful turrets on the roofs, was truly an indication of the genius of Bengali architects. And one of the finest examples of the Ratna Mandir design is the Navaratna temple (a temple with nine turrets) of Kali at Dakshineswar. The roof has two tiers. On the first tier there are four turrets - one at each of the four corners. Then four more turrets grace the corners of the smaller second tier, and a large ninth turret crowns the centre. The Navaratna style is truly majestic and was a special innovation in temple architecture. The total height of the temple at Dakshineswar is 100 feet, and the area at the base is 46 1/2 square feet. (18) Besides the Navaratna temple to the Divine Mother, there are also within the complex a row of twelve Atchala temples (that is each temple has a two-tiered roof, each tier having four sides) to Shiva, plus a temple to Radha-Govinda. The whole complex is arranged in a beautiful and harmonious manner.

 

 


          (to be continued)

 

 

 


       Notes and References

 


     1. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 456.


     2. Counterpoint, ed. Alok Roy (Calcutta: Riddhi-India, 1977), 1.201.

 

     3. Subodh Kumar Roy, Itivritla - Ariadaha о Dakshineswar (1971), 80-90; and Sashi Bhusan Samanta, Dakshineswar Mahatirthe Sri Sri Ramakrishnadever Lilatattva (1345 BS), 1-2.


     4. Her mother called her Rani, but her given name was Rasmani.


     5. Rajchandra's father, Pritiram, in association with a moneylender from East Bengal, opened a depot for selling bamboo at Beleghata. A large quantity of bamboo could be tied up and despatched from thereby floating it down the river to another point. A large bundle of bamboo was called banser madh, and from this, Pritiram got the title 'Madh'. In 1813, Pritiram started building 'Satmahala' (a house with seven sections) in Janbazar, but he died before it was finished. Eventually, in 1821, his son Rajchandra completed it. The total cost was Rs 5,00,000.


     6. From the deed and other documents it is known that the land lor the temple at Dakshineswar was bought on 6 September 1847 (22 Bhadra 1254 BS),so the arrangements for the Rani's pilgrimage must have been made either earlier that same year or in the preceding year.


     7. Some years later, Mathurmohan's son Trailokya built temples on that land in Kashi dedicated to Trailokyeshwar Shiva and to Lakshmi-Narayana.


     8. According to the Lilaprasanga, about one hundred boats, big and small and laden with various supplies, were berthed on the river.


     9. Kumarhatta Halisahar High School Centenary Volume (1854-1954), 49.


     10. John Hastie lived on this property in the Kuthi. An industrious man, he became involved in setting up a jute mill there. After finalizing part of the plans, he left for London to purchase the machinery, but died during the journey, and the jute mill was not built.


     11. A powder magazine had been established there in the 1840s. Wimco Match Factory is located there now. (Itivritta, 101.)


     12. Dakshineswar Mahatirthe Sr iSr iRamnkrishnadever Lilatattva, 7.


     13. Swami Jagadisvarananda, Dakshinesware Sri Ramakrishna (Umambazar, Hooghly: Sri Ramakrishna Dharmachakra, 1359 BS), 26.


     14. Information courtesy of Sri Kushal Choudhury, Secretary, Dakshineswar Kali Mandir and Endowment Estate.


     15. Swnmi Nityatmananda, Sri Ma Darshan, (Calcutta: General Printers and Publishers, 2nd edn), 3.216.


     16. Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1991), 1.157.


     17. Asim Mukhopadhyaya, Chabbis Parganar Mandir (Calcutta: Ananda Bazar Prakashan, 1377 BS), 2-5.


     18. David J McCutchion, Late Mediaeval Temples of Bengal: Origins and Classification (Calcutta: The Asiatic Society, 1972), 52.

 

 

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Yogin with six chakras. Painting. Kangra school. Late 18th century A.D.
Yogin with six chakras. Painting. Kangra school. Late 18th century A.D.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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