15 May 2012

Birla Temple, Calcutta


I was made aware about the existence of Calcutta’s Birla Mandir (also known as Lakshmi Narayana Mandir; "Mandir" is the Hindi/Bengali equivalent of “temple”) by my friend Kshitish while I was planning for my second visit to the city. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, Kshitish is a self-proclaimed authority on all matters related to Calcutta – though hailing from Darbhanga, Bihar, he claims to be in love with the ancient city of Calcutta and returns to it whenever he gets the time or the opportunity. Accompanying me on this journey was another friend Aakash, who despite having visited the city several times remains blissfully ignorant of its charms and has no pretensions of being an authority on any aspect of any city. It eventually always works out to his benefit since all responsibilities of planning and logistics are left to the other people accompanying him, in this case me. But then, planning and managing trips is what I do best, so no qualms.

My initial research about the temple did not throw up much – it’s just another temple, only fairly popular since the industrial Birla Group which financed its construction is one of the largest and well-renowned corporate families in the country and have commissioned numerous temples, philanthropic initiatives and educational and religious institutions throughout the length and breadth of the country. We had already planned to visit the legendary Dakshineshwar and Belur Math temples that day (refer Pixelated Memories - Dakshineswar Temple and Pixelated Memories - Belur Math) and given my general aversion to visiting famously crowded temples where photography options are severely restricted or prohibited, we ended up delaying the visit till we had finished exploring all the other monuments, temples and heritage sites that we had desired to see that same day and by the time we did finally reach the temple complex, dusk had already set in and the evening prayers (7:30 pm) reverberated through the lighted up, glittering frame of the modern structure.


Birla Mandir - Sculpted magnificence


As I feared, photography was strictly forbidden inside the temple complex and the only photos I could click were snapped while standing at the threshold of the temple with waves of devotees submerging us in the forceful flow to enter or exit the premises. And yet, despite the obvious pressures, the photos came out beautiful, which is definitely a testimonial to the ethereal grace of the temple vibrantly illuminated against the night sky and the skilled efforts that the artists and sculptors put in raising the massive marble megalith that seems to attract amazed visitors and overawed onlookers with its three massive cream-colored corn cob-shaped towers rising loftily to a height of 160 meters into the skyline.

Although the entire surface of the temple has been beautifully carved (at an enormous cost of Rs 18 crores (1.8 million)), what I personally liked the most were the repeating elephant and bell motifs along the outer wall – continuing with the Hindu architectural traditions which most commonly employ figurines of elephants and lotuses to adorn shrines as well as palaces and regal buildings, here too a row of miniature elephants embedded in the wall runs just below another impressive line of alternating bells and leonine faces.


Exquisitely traditional, and this is just the exterior periphery!


Since one is not allowed to take bags, cameras or mobile phones inside the premises, I and Aakash were forced to take turns going inside as we had our bags to look after and we couldn’t leave them unguarded outside. A separate area is earmarked towards the right just inside the main gate to leave one’s shoes and footwear. The interiors are intricately carved to depict scenes from several Hindu scriptures like Bhagvad Gita, Vedas and Upanishads. Electric lamps and large chandeliers add further exuberant charm to the place. The presiding deities here are Krishna (a master statesman- strategist-warrior-musician-emperor and supposedly an incarnation of Vishnu, the Hindu God of life and nourishment) and his beloved Radha, but idols of Durga (female embodiment of universe’s forces according to Hindu scriptures), Shiva (the kind-hearted lord of death and destruction) and Hanuman (monkey-faced God possessing unparalleled strength and the ability to fly and swim) are also worshipped here. We just stayed within the unbelievably crowded central hall long enough to see glimpses of the aarti (evening prayers) for around 20 minutes or so and then exited to explore the exterior features of the temple. Despite it being night time, the lightning arrangements within the temple compound are good enough to make out the elaborate sculpted features and the exquisitely layered spires of the three tapering towers.


From across the road (Photo courtesy - Panoramio.com)


Designed by architect Nomi Bose and painstakingly crafted from marble, the temple, constructed to resemble the celebrated Lingaraja temple of Orissa, took 26 years for completion beginning from the year 1970. One should undoubtedly visit the place in the evening when the entire structure is brilliantly lit up and blazes like an enormous beacon of serenity and spirituality.

Later in the year, when I returned to Delhi in vacations afterwards, one of my cousins who had stayed in Calcutta for a few months in association with a job assignment, told me that except for prayer times when the gorgeous temple gets pretty crowded, it is otherwise an extremely calm and soothing place and we (Aakash and me) should have spent a longer time there than the 20-25 minutes we did. Like Kshitish, my cousin too used to visit the temple very frequently. I can’t go back now, but hope the readers who visit the grand shrine find the stillness and spiritual peace they are looking for! Happy exploring!


Elephants!


Location: Ballygunge
How to reach: Taxis and buses can be availed from different parts in the city.
Timings: 5:30 am–11 am and 4:30 pm–9 pm
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Strictly prohibited
Time required for sightseeing: 30 minutes
Relevant Links - 

2 comments:

  1. i would like it if u gave more of a description of the place and waht you felt about it rather than the the history or the rules of it.

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    1. we stayed there for very little time & the only thing we were actually noticing were the wall carvings..except for the money spent on its construction (approx 18 crores) & the fame associated with being a "Birla Temple" its just like a normal Hindu temple. There is not much to say :(

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