For brother and sister duo, Shaon and Mukul Basu, it was their first-ever trip to India and they were truly excited to finally see the Dakshineswar temple â€” home of the Goddess who their mother is so devoted to.
Though the London born-and-bred pair were in their 20s, they never really got around to visiting the place their parents called â€˜homeâ€™. After their parents separated, their mum, Sutapa brought them up single-handedly amidst tight financial situations. Add to it, the mounting pressures to perform academically, which is why the two never got a chance to enjoy a holiday abroad.
This was after two decades that their mother was visiting her home in Kolkata and this time, her children accompanied her. They were both bright students who got through top colleges with scholarships and life looked promising for the family â€” a feat that Sutapa believes wouldnâ€™t have been possible without the blessings of Maa Kali.
No wonder, besides meeting her parents, what Sutapa really wanted to do after coming to her beloved city after so many years was to pay a visit to the Dakshineswar temple and offer her prayers to the Goddess.
Sutapa is not alone. The temple at Dakshineswar draws thousands of devotees daily from all corners of the country and even the world. Viewed as one of the most revered temples dedicated to the Goddess, theÂ majestic Dakshineswar Temple has a rich history that transcends the religious and social boundaries.
The History and Legend of the Dakshineswar Temple
The worship of goddess Kali has a deep root in Bengal that goes back to the 17th century, and the temple is an important part of that history.
While the Goddess Kali is the primary deity of this temple, there areÂ 12 miniature Jyotirlingas (Shiva temples), andÂ a Radha Krishna temple, nestled in a massive courtyard that surrounds the main shrine. There are two bathing ghats for devotees and pilgrims to take a dip in the holy river, Ganga, kissing the outer premises of the temple.Â The captivating navaratna (nine-spired)Â shrineÂ is an intrinsic part of Kolkataâ€™s architecture and folklore.
According to legend, in the year 1847, Rani Rasmoni, the widow of a wealthy Bengali Zamindar, was all set to visit the spiritual capital of India, Varanasi. On the night before her departure to Varanasi, it believed Rani had a dream where Goddess Kali in the form of Bhabatarini â€” ‘She who liberates Her devotees from the ocean of existenceâ€™ â€” appeared in Raniâ€™s dream, who told her not to go to Varanasi. Instead, the Goddess instructed Rani to construct a temple and dedicate it to her.
The Construction of the Temple
Deeply touched by the dream, Rani Rasmoni decided she should build the Kali Temple, and directed her people to look for an appropriate plot. She selectedÂ a 20-acre-land along theÂ bankÂ of the riverÂ Ganga, in the hamlet of Dakshineswar, for the erection of the Kali Temple. A part of the 20-acre plot was a Muslim burial ground, and the other part belonged to a European Christian.
Started in 1847, Rani Rasmoni’s menÂ completedÂ theÂ construction of theÂ Dakshineswar Kali templeÂ in 1855, at an estimated cost of Rs. 9 Lakhs. The three-story shrine captures the traditional Bengal architecture of nine spires or â€˜Navaratnaâ€™ style. Besides a huge â€˜Natmandirâ€™ (Dancing Hall), and â€˜Nahabatsâ€™ (music towers), there is an orchard to the north of the temple, which houses the famousÂ â€˜Panchavatiâ€™. Comprising the iconic Banyan tree and the Bel tree,Â the â€˜Panchavatiâ€™ is of great importance, as it integrally connects to the spiritual practices of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa.
The Social Aspects
Apart from spiritual and religious reasons, the Dakshineswar temple also served as the backdrop for social reforms against evil practices, religious dogmas, orthodoxy, and superstitionsÂ that threatened to engulfÂ the social fabric of Bengal in the mid-1800s.
Although Rani Rashmoni is renowned as the founder of the Dakshineswar Temple, it is not her only identity. She was one of the preeminent philanthropists of modern Bengal who devoted her life for the welfare and upliftment of the oppressed masses, while she also harboured a strong love for her motherland. She frequently stood up against the British, and on many occasions, compelled them to withdraw impositions that were not pro-people.
One such incident that found its place in history was Rani Rashmoni blocking the British shipping trade on the river Ganga, as a protest against levies for fishing. She stopped the river traffic by iron chains until the administration rolled back the taxes.
Even with the Dakshineswar Temple, Rani faced challenges from the upper caste Brahmins. They refused to serve at the temple due to her views and her non-dominant caste.
Thatâ€™s how she came in touch with Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa. She hadÂ appointedÂ his elder brother, Ramkumar Chattopadhyay, asÂ the chief priest of the Dakshineswar Temple, after whose death, Sri Ramakrishna became the head priest of the temple.Â Sri Ramakrishna not only performed the role of the chief priest, but he also immersed himself in deep spiritual practices at the Dakshineswar Temple for the next thirty years of his life.
One can view his meditation room situated within the temple premises, which is open to the visitors during specified hours.
Significance of the Dakshineswar Temple in Bengal
The Dakshineswar Temple has a special place in every Bengaliâ€™s heart becauseÂ theÂ sacred shrine played a vital role in the transformation of Gadadhar Chattopadhyay intoÂ SriÂ Ramakrishna Paramhansa.
It is in this holy temple, Sri Ramakrishna performed his spiritual austerities or â€˜Sadhanasâ€™ toÂ unite with the absolute. Considered by Hindus as an incarnation of God, Sri Ramakrishna is the only saint in India to attain the highest level of spiritual enlightenment â€” â€˜Mokshaâ€™ or Nirvana.
The Dakshineswar Kali Temple is also the divine site from where Narendranath Datta emerged as Swami Vivekananda â€” a global spiritual leaderÂ who empowered the entire world in 1893, with his epoch and historic speech on universal harmony at the World Parliament of Religions, in Chicago.
Today, as war, destruction, and terrorism take the centre stage, the core principles of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekanandaâ€™s teachings, such as the coexistence of religions, divinity in every living being, and homogeneity of existence are being increasingly felt with each passing day.
Dakshineswar Temple Today
Even after so many decades, there hasnâ€™t been a dent in the popularity of the temple. Instead, the glory of the temple as a seat of major social and religious events in the history of Bengal has intensified. Today, it witnesses 1.4 crore devotees annually who come to offer their prayers to the Goddess.
While the temple has mostly remained the same, some changes have been made to make the experience of devotees safer and more comfortable. One such change is the increased security systems in and around the temple premises and another, a more recent development â€” the Rani Rashmoni Skywalk.
The 10.5-metre wide and 340-metre long arch-shaped, glass and steel skywalk was built by the state government at a cost of Rs 60-crore and inaugurated last year on the eve of Kali Puja. The elevated pathway, with eight staircases, four lifts, and fourteen escalators takes visitors from the Dakshineswar railway station to the templeâ€™s main gate and enables them to get up and down at multiple points.Â With transparent glass walls, the skywalk also adds to the charm of the globally famed temple.
Despite the few modern touches, the Dakshineswar Kali temple is steeped in antiquity and still preserves its old and historic feel where devotees not only gather to worship Bhabatarini, but also to get closer to the life and teachings of the greatest saint of Bengal. Given that the fame and belief around the temple have stood the test of time, we may hope that the eminence of Dakshineswar Kali temple will remain strong centuries after our existence.