09 March 2012

Dakshineswar Temple, Calcutta


"The innumerable gods and goddesses of the Hindu religion are the human aspects of the indescribable and incomprehensible Spirit, as conceived by the finite human mind...As long as a man is bound by his human limitations, he cannot but worship God through human forms. He must use human symbols...But the name ultimately leads to the nameless, the form to the formless, the word to the silence, the emotion to the serene realization of peace in existence."
– Swami Nikhilananda of Sri Ramakrishna Math, commenting upon the sculptures and ritualistic objects within Dakshineshwar Temple complex


Sacred symmetry - Dakshineshwar temple and the associated Shiva temples


An interesting legend associated with the commissioning and construction of Dakshineshwar temple, one of the most renowned and spectacularly splendid shrines in the city, credits its construction to Rani Rashmoni of Janbazar, an assiduous philanthropist and a steadfast devotee of Kali (the primordial Hindu Goddess of universal feminine force, sex, death and destruction), who is said to have dreamt of the Goddess just a day prior to embarking upon a pilgrimage to the ancient holy city of Benaras where she meant to worship her and seek divine blessings – the divine mother instructed the queen to build a majestic temple dedicated to her on the banks of the sacred river Ganga in her own territories and install a sculpture of her therein, promising to manifest herself in the image and accepting the queen's unwavering devotion. Beginning AD 1847, it took 8 years and Rs 9,00,000 to complete the construction of the beautiful temple complex against the opposition from several leading upper-caste Hindu Brahmin families (who frowned upon Rani Rashmoni's lower caste and considered it beneath their dignity to visit a temple or bath at a ghat commissioned by her) and eventually the Goddess' idol was installed on May 31st, 1855 amidst grand festivities and celebrations with Ramkumar Chattopadhyay as the head priest.

The handsome shrine, spread over 25 acres (including within it land that was originally a graveyard – considered auspicious for the tantric worship of Kali) on the eastern bank of the river Hooghly, reveres the Goddess in her "Bhavtarini" form which is said to liberate devotees from the ocean of existence and cycle of reincarnations – the massive temple complex is also celebrated for its association with Ramakrishna Paramhansa (lived 1836-86), the renowned 19th-century Bengali mystic and master of Vedanta who formulated and propagated the theory of universal harmony of all religions. Ramakrishna, as Gadadhar Chattopadhyay, took over as the chief priest of the complex following the demise of his elder brother Ramkumar the very next year after the temple's inauguration and soon thereafter began contemplating upon the Goddess' sculpture thereby becoming immersed in religious metaphysical thoughts and ecstatic supernatural divine visions. The renunciate saint continued to live and preach from the temple complex till his own demise thirty years later.


Dominating


We reached the temple complex after taking a ferry across the river from Belur Math (refer Pixelated Memories - Belur Math), which is located diagonally across a few kilometers away, and were immediately awestruck by the sheer immensity of the central temple and its associated shrines and the breathtaking symmetrical visual composition they invoke. Indeed the river front presents the most evocatively impressive view of the complex. The small stretch of land intervening between the imposing bathing ghats and the hallowed complex is overtaken in its entirety by numerous makeshift shops and vendors squatting on the ground offering for purchase garlands of brilliant red hibiscus flowers and offering baskets consisting of sweetmeats, small sachets of vibrant vermillion ("sindoor"), fragrant incense sticks, colorful flowers and red "chunari" (netted veil for draping Goddess' idols). Following the ascent up the steps of the bathing ghat, one reaches the temple complex after going through very nominal security procedures and here one witnesses the colossal size of the courtyard, enclosed by lines of small chambers that function as officiating quarters for the temple staff, in the center of which sits the magnificent triple-storied central temple, surmounted by ridged roofs and nine pyramidal, stepped spires ("Navaratna"), ornamented with miniature decorative alcoves, floral medallions and arched bands of plasterwork and hued sunlight yellow with touches of brilliant red puncturing the overall monotony.


Intricately patterned - The congregation chamber/"Natmandir"


Along two of the sides of the central temple are smaller rectangular buildings, similarly hued and adorned with floral medallions and flourishes and supported upon rows of pillars while the extensive third side is dedicated to a row of twelve smaller temples exclusively dedicated to the worship of Lord Shiva (the Hindu God of death and destruction and the consort of Goddess Kali) and possessing curved Bengali-style roofs. In a corner prior to entering the hallowed compound exists a smaller shrine, set within its own landscaped garden, possessing an exceedingly elongated, tapering dome and painted white fringed with soothing sky blue, commemorating the life and achievements of Rani Rashmoni (her life story's bewitchingly fascinating – one incident recalls her blocking the river traffic with bulky iron chains tied shore to shore to bring around arrogant British ferry owners whose fast-cutting boats were damaging the fishing nets and therefore the livelihoods of fishermen entirely dependent on the river Hooghly for sustenance and financial well being!). In another corner, flanked by palm trees and located on an enormous heap of boulders, stands a brilliant gold-glistening life-size statue of Swami Vivekananda, one of the foremost disciples of Ramakrishna Paramhansa and amongst the most exemplar and learned saints India ever produced, dressed as a monk complete with shaved head and ochre robes representing renunciation and seeking of religious knowledge.


Commemorating Rani Rashmoni


Seated on a high plinth of its own, the central temple rises over 100-feet high and is the most dominating architectural and visual feature of the landscape and yet is very beautifully framed by the two identical rectangular buildings, one of which is a temple dedicated to Krishna, a legendary king-statesman-playboy-strategist-philosopher-warrior said to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu (the Hindu God of life and nourishment) and the other is a music hall ("Natmandir"). One has to stand in an extremely long slithering queue that slowly snakes its way to the sanctum where the devotees make their pious offerings – indeed, the humongous crowds make it nearly impossible to even gaze for more than a moment at the gold-encapsulated sculpture of Goddess Bhavtarini, leave alone photograph it! (Photography is prohibited within the shrine but nobody follows the dictate) Afterwards, one can settle down for a brief rest from the scorching sun and exhausting queues in the Natmandir where most devotees can be spotted either silently contemplating upon life and its purposes while adoringly gazing at the central shrine, while others sit down in groups and chant hymns invoking the Goddess' divine blessings and mercy.


Ground plan (Photo courtesy - Dhyanacentre.org)


Wandering around, we climbed one of the staircases in a corner near the Shiva temples and reached Sri Ramakrishna's modest room where most of his personal belongings are still displayed reverentially, including his and his disciples' photographs, on and around the original bed that he used. Entry to visitors within the beautifully-kept, light yellow painted room is restricted and one has to contend oneself with looking at the chamber through grilled doors.

Returning back, yet again one comes face to face with the commodification of religion in the form of merchandise and memorabilia for sale outside famed religious complexes – on offer, especially on the side of the temple complex that adjoins the road leading to it but also not nonexistent on the ghat side, are rosary beads, souvenirs featuring printed photographs of the temple and Sri Ramakrishna, small mass-produced sculptures of Hindu deities and similar collectibles. The temple, being a prominent shrine in the city, is definitely advisable for a visit, if just for the sake of its unparalleled grandeur and magnificence, especially from the riverfront from where one can actually claim to experience pure transcendental bliss while contemplating upon the ridges of the spires and the brilliance of the colors.


Framed - Ramakrishna Paramhansa's meager worldly possessions


How to reach: Local buses, autos and taxis are readily available from different parts of the city. One can also avail the services of a boat/ferry from the various ghats dotting the riverside.
Timings: October to March: 6 am to 12.30 pm and 3 pm to 8:30 pm; April to September: 6 am to 12.30 pm and 3:30 pm to 9 pm
Entrance fees: Nil.
Photography/Video: Strictly prohibited.
Time required for sightseeing: About 1 hr
Relevant Links - 
  1.  Pixelated Memories - Belur Math
  2. Pixelated Memories - Kalighat Temple
Suggested reading - 
  1. Dakshineswarkalitemple.org - Rani Rashmoni  (Official website of the temple complex)
  2. Eng.vedanta.ru - The Kali Temple at Dakshineswar and Sri Ramakrishna
  3. Hinduism.fsnet.co.uk - "Introduction - Kali Temple at Dakshineshwar" by Swami Nikhilananda 

5 comments:

  1. the architecture of the temple is simply mesmerizing..pure beauty

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  2. amazing description of the temple and great photography!

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  3. what is the reason that the temple faces south?

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  4. In Hinduism, the belief is that a devotee should face either east or north while worshiping – the temple faces south to facilitate the same. However, please note that it also possesses entrances on its west and north sides and is not closed on these sides.

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