09 March 2012

Belur Math, Calcutta


“If you want peace of mind, do not find fault with others. Rather see your own faults. Learn to make the whole world your own. No one is a stranger my child; this whole world is your own!" 
– Sarada Devi’s dying message to her disciples


Engrossed in making a list of monuments and heritage sites that I should visit when I next travelled to Calcutta, I didn’t notice my friend Aakash coming and sitting next to me quietly like a cat. Reading the list over my shoulder, he gave me a start by suggesting that he too will join this time around and passed me the newspaper he was reading, pointing to the large advertisements commemorating Swami Vivekananda, the foremost of Hindu mystics, who had lived most of his life in Bengal and was introduced to Hinduism and devotion here. It was his birth anniversary that day and we noticed that most of these advertisements and greetings carried a photo of a multi-domed temple next to his image – research into his life revealed that the temple in the photograph was Belur Math situated near Calcutta and thus was added in the list another place to be visited.


Ramakrishna shrine, a monument to faith (Photo courtesy - Belurmath.org)


This time around, our story goes back to the early 19th century when a man residing in a small township near Calcutta had a divine dream that the “Gadadhar” (mace-bearer) form of Lord Vishnu (the Hindu God of life and nourishment) will be incarnated as his son. The child, born in 1836 and christened after the God as Gadadhar Chattopadhyay, began to show spiritual tendencies from an early age and would be lost in meditation and thoughtful silence for hours at the expense of his education and daily chores. The parents, worried that the boy would be suffering from some sort of mental instability, had him married at an early age in the hope that domestic bliss might draw him out of his strange condition (the bride, Saradamani Mukhopadhyaya (later known as Sarada Devi) was only five at the time of marriage, her parents too had divine dreams and visions of her being a Goddess; she began living with her husband from the age of eighteen but the marriage was never consummated, more on that later); they had him go to live with and assist his elder brother Ramkumar in fulfilling his religious duties as the head priest of the Dakshineshwar temple that the wealthy patroness Rasmoni had commissioned (refer Pixelated Memories - Dakshineshwar Kali Temple) – it was here that people began to refer to him by the sobriquet “ Ramakrishna Paramhansa” (Rama and Krishna are incarnations of Vishnu; Paramhansa translates to “pure soul untouched by worldly desires and one with the divine”). Legend is that one day the boy was so frustrated by his inability to seek the Goddess Kali (Hindu Goddess of death, destruction and sex, extremely benevolent and matriarchal towards her devotees but spelling doom for her enemies) that he drew the ritualistic dagger to kill himself and at that very moment he was engulfed in a massive burst of brilliant white light and fell unconscious. A local holy woman Bhairavi Brahmani diagnosed his condition as a case of spiritual madness and determined that he was desperately seeking divine contact and his incurable focusing of thoughts towards meditation was manifesting itself in extreme bouts of silence and unconsciousness. She, along with several religious and tantric leaders, taught him meditation and tantra and enabled him to focus his mind and energy the right way.


The life-like statue of Ramakrishna Paramhansa within the temple shrine (Photo courtesy - Belurmath.org)

After a span of time Ramakrishna evolved his own philosophy about the existence of God and formulated sermons that he began preaching with utmost sincerity, drawing to himself multitudes of devotees from both the affluent classes (who respected his philosophical approach towards God as a non-dual formless entity) and the poor and the downtrodden (who needed the benevolent mother Goddess whom Ramakrishna preached to provide them with support and confidence) – he soon became one of the most popular religious figures of Bengal, often sermonizing according to the thoughts and beliefs of the individual devotee and discovering intuitive methods to bring people to the fold of religion and universal brotherhood, despite all his eccentricities (the chief among these being dressing as a woman, claiming that the God/Goddess (of whatsoever faith) to whom he prayed appears as a radiant vision and merges with him (a trait he shared with his wife who too claimed that out of nowhere the eight forms of the Goddess appear as girls and assist her in her tasks), and worshipping his wife, Sarada Devi, as “Holy Mother” and instituting a spiritual relationship with her over a physical one through a mutual vow of celibacy). Believing that all religions are different ways to reach the same God, Ramakrishna showed unequivocal faith in Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and included their tenets too in his philosophy, thereby increasing his devotee base and counting among his disciples leading Muslims and several Europeans settled in the country too besides Hindus.


Vivekananda memorial, erected on the spot where the patriot-saint was cremated


Among the finest of Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s disciples was Swami Vivekananda, a learned monk and renowned nationalist leader, mystic par excellence and a knowledgeable spiritualist-orator-writer-philosopher-teacher who preached a missionary work-oriented approach to religion and propagated the idea of service to mankind as service to God – the British colonial administration reigned supreme in the country then and the freedom movement was gaining steam through the activities of both pacifist and aggressive freedom fighters as well as political and religious leaders – Vivekananda asked from his chief disciple Dayananda the country’s freedom from foreign governance as his fee for teaching the latter about religion and spirituality. I felt embarrassed that I knew little about either Vivekananda or Dayananda despite studying in a DAV school (christened after Swami Dayananda and opened throughout the country by his disciples to impart well-appreciated up-to-date modern education endowed with spiritual and historic knowledge) where all this was taught to us as part of curriculum – this blogpost proved to be a genuine opportunity for me to learn more about these leaders of men and hence this epilogue to the main article about the temple (in all earnestness, they gave us the curriculum for rote learning in school with no attempt on the part of the teachers to explain the contribution of these notable men to the society and the freedom struggle; the way the teacher would read the chapter without any adherence to the rules of understanding or punctuation whatsoever, it felt as if the saints lived several centuries ago with no connection to the present!). Most Indians, especially Bengalis, feel proud of Swami Vivekananda and his achievements in spiritual as well the worldly matters, the most widely acknowledged of which is his electrifying keynote address at the opening of “Parliament of the World Religions” in Chicago (1893) and later the 36-hour long speech on the significance of zero – it is another matter that most of these proud fellows have never gone to the trouble of reading and understanding either of the captivating speeches. It was his presence on the world stage and the charismatic appeal of his personality, beliefs and lectures that attracted genuinely sincere disciples to him. Of these, perhaps one of the most important but very little known would be Helen Rubell of the United States who funded the construction of the monastery at Belur, a majestic shrine dedicated to Swami Ramakrishna conceived and planned by Swami Vivekananda and architecturally envisaged and designed by his civil engineer brother monk Swami Vijanananda.

Ramakishna Paramhansa passed away in 1886 after a brief tryst with throat cancer – while still on his deathbed, he had ordained Swami Vivekananda as his spiritual successor and required of his disciples to treat his consort Sarada Devi in his own image and consider her their spiritual mother. The young monk that he was, Vivekananda established “Ramakrishna Order of Monks” (1886) and then travelled throughout the country and abroad visiting several notable heritage sites and monuments – it was these vast journeys that broadened his mental horizons and ultimately culminated into a design for Ramakrishna’s shrine which was influenced by several architectural practices, religious conventions and artistic styles, much like his religious philosophy and understanding. Swami Vivekananda’s dream of this handsome shrine remained unfulfilled in his lifetime but was finally commissioned in 1935 to be executed on the land that had been bought in 1898 to serve as a monastery (“Math”) and the Order’s headquarters – the shrine has since been proclaimed by the Order as “a symphony in architecture”. Swami Vivekanada, who spent his last few years meditating here, had reverentially placed the urn containing Swami Ramakrishna’s relics here; years later, the temple was established at the sacred spot where the urn was kept.


The Order's logo, embossed above the entrance to the majestic temple (Photo courtesy - Belurmath.org)


Set in Belur, a quaint little suburb on the outskirts of Calcutta not untouched by the chaos and the sounds of the metropolitan, the temple complex is spread in a 40-acre compound on the banks of river Hooghly (a tributary of the mighty Ganga) and boasts of an art college, an industrial school, a charitable dispensary and a museum besides the central shrine. Among the activities that the Order is involved in are – conductance of educational and medical service through several schools, colleges, hospitals, dispensaries and mobile clinics; social work for women through the medium of education and training provided at its numerous polytechnics; rural upliftment and healthcare by means of rural and agricultural development institutes; education and skill-building among the labour and backward classes; philanthrophic and charitable services like blind boys’ schools, orphanages, hostel facilities; disaster relief efforts in addition to spiritual and cultural activities – most of these activities are coordinated from the Math.

Seated on a high plinth and built of buff sandstone, the magnificent temple is deemed to be a symbol of the coherence and cohabitation of different religions and embodies architectural and artistic concepts drawn from various cultural and architectural systems – topped by massive ribbed domes, the temple has a huge entrance gateway consisting of a horseshoe arch resting on thick fluted columns two on each side; an intricate sculpture of the Order’s emblem designed by Swami Vivekananda and consisting of a swan swimming in lotus-filled wavy waters with a brilliant sun in the background and the entire scheme embossed within a concentric serpent (overall significance being the emphasis on the achievement of union with the divine though work, knowledge, faith and yoga) fits snugly within the horseshoe arch. Dwarfing the splendid shrine, the lofty gateway is very heavily influenced by the temple towers of South India with the design coming from Buddhist cave temples of Maharashtra and the domes inspired by Muslim buildings throughout the country. The elegant interiors are a notable fusion of Hindu motifs and Christian building practices resembling a church pew and consisting of wide open spaces and a flow of space from the congregation space (“Nat mandir”) to the sanctum (“Garbha griha”) (unlike most Hindu temples where a narrow neck connects the two) – the white marble interiors possess a high roof surmounted on two rows of thick octagonal pillars with intricately carved high bases and very exquisite capitals consisting of defining Hindu motifs like foliage, vases with overflowing creepers and bell-and-chain embossments. At the end of the lengthy chamber, seated on a glistening hundred-petalled marble lotus and surrounded by floral bouquets and complementary curtains is a life-size marble sculpture of Swami Ramakrishna, separated from the devotees by means of a glass panel – there isn’t much to do in the shrine, once you are ushered in by the Math workers and shown the way around there are no flowers or sweets to be offered here, nor are there any lines of devotees or any special prayers – though we reached in time for the ritualistic morning prayers (that we, being energetic, restless students, found boring), there weren’t many faithful in the temple complex and all we did was wander about in silent isolation. Thankfully, unlike most of the temples in the country, there are no exploitative priests harassing confused visitors for donations nor are there any beggars or donation boxes kept in the complex.


The temple's symmetric interiors designed to guide the eyes to the sanctum sanctorum in the end (Photo courtesy - Sfvedanta.org)


The temple interiors, though very beautiful, did not appeal much to us, perhaps because they weren’t very dissimilar from many other temples throughout the country or perhaps because photography is prohibited in the entire complex which rendered the visit very mundane and boring for us. There are exits along the length of the central chamber but most of these are locked and one can only exit from the doorway leading outside from near the Ramakrishna statue – not that we were thinking of going out without taking in the ambiance of the temple interiors – observing each feature with delicate detail, we concluded that though each of them is exceedingly surpassing in design and detail, the sum total isn’t as grand as one would have expected; perhaps the high point of the temple is the idol itself that turns into an ethereal image and leaves an indelible mark on the mind, no doubt assisted in no small scale by the ambient cream-yellow lightning and the clusters of flowers surrounding it – perhaps posing the idol as the representative point of the shrine was the desired effect. Like most Hindu temples, Belur Math also displays the deities that represent the nine planets, eclipses and a few minor mythological figures, except here instead of stone idols, the representations are in the form of breathtaking sculpted latticework panels inlaid in the walls of the temple – these panels were painstakingly but with striking precision executed by the artist Nandlal Bose and can be accessed via the circumambulatory path around the temple at the plinth level. I was able to sneak a quick photograph when the Math workers and guards weren’t looking (dressed in plainclothes, they are apparently omnipresent and it is very difficult to escape from them, the moment you snuggle out your camera they will appear to admonish and threaten to banish one from the temple premises – successfully managing to thwart us from clicking and restricting the number of photographs that could be sneaked to a minuscule 3-4 in a 3 hour long stay!).


Striking sculptures of the planetary deities of the Hindu pantheon carved in the temple's walls  


Entering the temple complex from the beautiful carved gateway at the head of the road connecting the complex to Belur township, a visitor is first greeted by the sight of the serene, yellowish, domed building of Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandir monastic school that is set in well-maintained manicured lawns with potted flower plants and ornamental palms and radiates a somber, but inviting, silent splendor. Moving on one comes across a large board which details the layout of the entire temple complex and though the temple complex cannot be described as chaotic nor were the devotees unruly, yet for the numerous security guards stationed throughout the complex to monitor the visitors, life seemed to be composed of disturbances and arguments – other than directing the visitors the right way, they were kept on their toes by people (like us) who, despite the presence of numerous signboards in almost every conceivable corner of the complex that reminded visitors that photography here is prohibited, flashed out cameras at the slightest pretext, or those who wandered away through the large complex. Before reaching the area where the gorgeous temple building stood, the guards directed us to the shoe counter – it is advisable to visit the place in winters or in early morning/late evening during summers to avoid torture to your feet as a result of walking on the overheated stone slabs.

Travelling according to a strictly planned itinerary and observing that we still had time on our hands once we were done exploring the central shine, we moved towards the Ramakrishna Museum, which has been set up with the help of the National Council of Science Museum and is housed in one of the first buildings that one encounters on the way in – given the size of the museum and the items on display within, it is, in my opinion, advisable to visit it last. The double-storied structure hosts artifacts used by Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda and some of their disciples. The most impressive scene within is the realistic recreation of “Panchavati” – a clutch of five sacred trees on the fringes of Dakshineswar Kali Temple where Ramakrishna practiced vigorous meditation and often lost himself in the spiritual realm. The specimens are displayed carefully and conservatively with the employment of proper lightning facilities as well as clubbing similar items together and restricting the number of items in each display case. (Edit, dated July 19, 2013 – Much to the anguish of the faithful, newspaper reports mention that Sarada Devi’s mortal remains were stolen from the museum by thief/thieves after cutting the glass case with an ordinary shaving blade. Interestingly, given the Order’s affinity to the presence of security guards and workers patrolling the complex, there were neither guards nor CCTV cameras stationed within the museum.)


The mission's school, one of the first buildings encountered after stepping in the complex


On the periphery of the river are three small, single chamber, domed memorials – the first of these is dedicated to Swami Vivekananda and was erected on the spot where his mortal remains were cremated in 1902 (he had prophesied that he won’t live to be 40 and passed away at the young age of 39). Vivekananda held very dear a sacred tree that grew in the vicinity of the memorial’s location and wanted to be cremated close to it. Consecrated on 28th January 1924, the memorial possesses a marble statue of Swami Vivekananda on its ground floor and a stone "Om" symbol (the all pervading sound, sacred to Hindus as the origin of all Gods and the universe) spelled in the Bengali dialect and seated on a marble flower with several artificial flowers for adoration in the first floor chamber. The second structure, located at the site where Sarada Devi’s body was consigned to flames, is a shrine dedicated to her and houses a single portrait of her decorated with flowers. The last of these memorials is dedicated to Swami Brahmananda, a direct disciple of Ramakrishna Paramhansa and the first president of the mission and the Math. Well-maintained lawns and the presence of lush flowering trees adds to the simplistic beauty of the patch where the memorials stand – we noticed that most of the families that visited the complex ended up sitting in the shade of these trees after paying their respects at the main temple and the memorials. The most impressive view of the memorials can be had from a boat/ferry rowing on the river (and of course, one can take as many photos from there as one wishes) as we did after bidding adieu to the temple complex and proceeding towards the nearby Dakshineshwar temple complex on a small ten-seat boat.

The complex also houses a large publication center where one can purchase books pertaining to the lectures and teachings of Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramhansa and numerous other monks of the order besides audio cassettes containing renditions of the prayers and hymns that are sung in the temple or were dear to the monks. Also available are well-researched philosophical tomes on Vedanta (knowledge as enumerated in the four Vedas, the holiest of Hindu scriptures), Advaita (non-dualism of the divine and its intersection with the soul), travelogues relating to the Math and Dakshineswar Temple. I wished to buy a copy of the map which we saw while entering the temple complex, however it was only available as part of a detailed book, hence I bought the book though I found it rather dry like the rest of the deeply spiritual literature stocked here (but Aakash, who is reasonably God-loving despite possessing a fair degree of logical notions, enjoyed them).


(Left to right) Vivekananda memorial, Sarada Devi memorial, Brahmananda memorial. The main temple looms large behind the foliage in the background


The Government of Bengal recently also completed the construction and furnishing of a large guest house with private rooms and dormitories which can easily provide resting space for four and twenty people respectively. The guest house could soon be handed over to the Math administration and of the thousands of visitors who throng the temple complex every day, the faithful desiring to stay overnight near the sacred temple complex can do so on a first come, first served basis.

After everything had been said and done, we decided to check out the on-campus handicrafts shop of the complex that has been established to promote traditional cottage and small-scale industry and stocks a wide range of jute products (bags, purses, dolls, key chains and so on), incense sticks, traditional Bengali-style cotton sarees, locally produced food materials (jams, pickles, sauces and spices). The impressive shop with its colors, textures and aromas as well as the hundreds of things stacked right and left left our eyes widened – the thrill of shopping also drew several of the womenfolk who had come for the purpose of worship to the complex. The place has become a real favorite, especially since the multi-colored, skillfully painted jute shoulder bags that can be brought here for Rs 70-130 are available in Delhi at a whooping Rs 400! I bought a couple of them for my mom and sister and they tell me the bags are quite durable despite numerous washes and daily use in crowded trains and buses. The only oddity in the harmonious, well-coordinated scheme of things there being the old man manning the crafts counter who was especially cranky and irritated over something, perhaps because of his age or the never ceding waves of visitors thronging the shop – he would continuously shout at one visitor or another without any particular reason; despite our informing him (in proper Bengali) that we do not understand much of the language, he insisted on conversing with us in that language and would shout when we didn’t comprehend!


The shrine dedicated to Swami Brahmananda, the Order's first President, with the main temple's lofty gateway in the background


Having seen temples since childhood, it has become a norm, with very few exceptions, for us that a general boredom sets in every time we set foot in a temple premises – Belur was one of the exceptions, not the sanctum or the main temple, but the combination of a splendid structure with a generous fusion of several architectural styles belying syncretism and symbiotic coexistence between various influence, an excellent museum with specimens spaced together with care and understanding, the peaceful little memorials complementing the beautiful green lawns and paying homage to some of the greatest spiritual figures in Indian religious and reformation scene, and a serene silence contrasting and yet harmonizing with the perennial flow of the river alongside – no doubt the monks are able to meditate and set their hearts on the achievement of spiritual-emotional-mental well being and upliftment here. And it wasn’t just the monks who were at peace here – we, the ever restless and without fail mischievous students, were too, and speaking for the numerous visitors whom we observed, I can claim they were too.

Location: Belur, Howrah district
How to reach: One can take a bus/train from the Howrah railway station to Belur bus stop (immediately opposite the roadside entry to the temple complex) or Belur railway station (few minutes bus journey from the temple complex). Alternately, one can take a ferry/boat ride from the nearby Dakshineshwar temple that exists on the opposite shore of the river (refer Pixelated Memories - Dakshineswar Temple).
Open: All days. The museum remains closed on mondays.
Timings: April to September: 6am to 11:30am and 4pm to 7pm; Oct to March: 6:30am to 11:30am and 3:30pm to 6pm
Museum timings: April to September: 8:30am to 11:30am and 4pm to 6pm; Oct to March: 8:30am to 11:30am and 3:30pm to 5:30pm
Entrance Fees: Nil.
Photography/Video: Strictly prohibited
Time required for sightseeing: Approx. 3 hours, including the museum, publication center and handicrafts shop .
Relevant links -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Dakshineswar Temple
Suggested Reading - 
  1. Advaitaashrama.org - Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda
  2. Belurmath.org - Swami Vivekananda: Life and Teachings
  3. Belurmath.org - Symphony in architecture
  4. Columbia.edu - Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi
  5. Hindu.com - Article "Evolution of a spiritual movement on display" (dated Apr 01, 2005) by Indrani Dutta
  6. Om-guru.com - Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: India's most well-known devotee of the Goddess Kali
  7. Telegraphindia.com - Article "By boat, a pilgrim’s triangle" (dated March 13, 2003)
  8. Telegraphindia.com - Article "Guest house boon for Belur Math pilgrims" (dated Feb 4, 2014) by Sushovan Sircar
  9. Thehindu.com - Article "Relics of Sarada Devi stolen from Belur Math" (dated July 20, 2013)
  10. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "Priceless relics lost to 2 blade" (dated July 19, 2013) by Krishnendu Bandyopadhyay & Rupak Banerjee
  11. Vivekananda.net - Letters written by Swami Vivekananda from Belur Math
  12. Wikipedia.org - Ramakrishna
  13. Wikipedia.org - Sarada Devi
  14. Wikipedia.org - Swami Brahmananda
  15. Wikipedia.org - Vivekananda

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