Hinduism, one of the oldest religions in the world, is the largest religion in India, with almost 80% of the populace being Hindus. This is why you will find the Hindu seats of pilgrimage in the country to be striking manifestations of Indian art, architecture, culture and history. Shaktism is a major Hindu sect that worships Shakti, the Supreme Divine Mother, in many forms. Goddess Kali is believed to be the most powerful incarnation of Shakti and is worshipped with the kind of pomp, grandeur and respect that warrants a visit to one of the many Kali temples in the eastern part of India. The Dakshineswar Kali Temple near Kolkata, the City of Joy, is one of the largest Kali temples in the country and a treasured instance of indigenous architecture. The Dakshineshwar Kali is so revered across the world that the temple witnesses a wave of 13 million visitors annually. Whenever you visit Kolkata, make sure you include the Dakshineswar Kali Temple in your itinerary!
The Dakshineswar Kali Temple, located on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River, is only 20 kilometres away from central Kolkata. The temple was founded by famous Bengali philanthropist and social reformer, Rani Rashmoni following a divine epiphany. Rani Rashmoni, who was an aristocratic zamindar, was all set to embark on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Varanasi in the year 1847. It is said that the night before, Goddess Kali herself appeared in her dream and instructed the latter to build a temple on the bank of the Hooghly River and dedicate it to the goddess. After a vigorous land hunt, a 20-acre plot was chosen for the temple in the village of Dakshineswar. Back then, the plot resembled a tortoise’s shell and was shrouded by dense jungles. A European Christian owned one part of the plot, and the other part was a Muslim burial ground further back in time. Rani Rashmoni saw this as an opportunity to bring together different faiths by constructing a Hindu temple on the same land. The construction of the temple began in 1847, and it opened its doors for the devotees in 1855.
The Dakshineswar Temple cost around 9 lakh rupees to be built over 8 years. One look at it and you will know why all that was worth it. The temple looks almost unreal; you will feel like staring at a vibrant painting exuding peace and calm! The temple was built in the traditional Bengali Navaratna style with 9 spires rising up to 100 ft and several turrets and multi-tiered arches. A flight of stairs leads to the garva-griha (sanctum) that houses Bhavatarini, the moniker by which the Dakshineswar Kali is famous around the world. The Bhavatarini idol, adorned with gold jewellery, rests in a pure-silver lotus having a thousand petals. The main Kali temple, which is a huge three-storeyed structure, stands in the middle of a huge courtyard that is surrounded by a Radha-Krishna temple and 12 identical temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. The 12 Shiva temples were designed in the typical Bengali Aat-Chala (meaning 8 eaves) style. The courtyard also has a Nat Mandir (dancing hall) where various religious discourses are conducted, and religious songs are performed.
Ramkumar Chattopadhyay was the head priest of the Dakshineswar Kali Temple when it was founded in 1855. When he died after a year, his younger brother, Ramakrishna Chattopadhyay, took over. This same Ramakrishna went on to become the great saint, mystic and spiritual leader, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa. It is at Dakshineswar that he attained spiritual ecstasy. Sri Ramakrishna spent the last fourteen years of his life in a room at the western end of the Dakshineswar Temple Complex. You should definitely take a look at his room where the personal belongings of the great man are exhibited. Also pay a visit to Panchavati to the north of the temple complex, where Sri Ramkrishna remained engaged in Tantra Sadhana for 12 years. For those who may not know, it's an aspect of Shaktism, the purpose of which is to view all facets of the natural world as representations of Shakti.
The Dakshineswar Kali Temple aarti (aarti is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘prayer offering’) is an experience you should not miss out on. While several aartis are performed through the course of a day, I suggest you try to be present for either the Bhog aarti (Bhog-the food offered to the Goddess, later distributed among the devotees) or the Sandhya aarti (Sandhya-evening). The Dakshineswar Bhog aarti is performed every day at noon, and the Sandhya aarti is performed at 7 PM during the summer months and at 6:30 PM in the winter season.
Many festivals are celebrated with splendour at Dakshineswar. The most important of all is the Kali Puja which is celebrated during Diwali (October-November). The temple, decked up with flowers, strings of lights and diyas (oil lamps) and illuminated by skylights, is a sight to behold on the day of the Kali Puja. Thousands of devotees visit the temple on this auspicious occasion to seek blessings from Maa Bhavatarini. The 9-day long festival of Navratri (September-October) is celebrated through the sacred Kumari Puja where prepubescent girls are worshipped as the manifestations of Shakti. A very significant festival celebrated at the Dakshineswar Temple is the Kalpataru Utsav. This is an annual festival celebrated on 1 January every year to mark Sri Ramakrishna’s revelation as an Avatar (avatar is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘the God incarnate’) on 1 January 1886.
Dakshineswar is located in Kolkata’s adjacent district, Howrah, and is easily accessible. If you want to travel by train, board either the Dancuni Local or the Darjeeling Mail from the Sealdah Station in the heart of Kolkata and get off at the Dakshineswar Railway Station. The station is connected to the 350-metre, stunning Dakshineswar Skywalk that will lead you directly to the gate of the temple. The skywalk, named after none other than Rani Rashmoni, was built by the Government of West Bengal for the convenience of visitors and also to alleviate the traffic issues in the congested area. If you want to reach the temple by road, you can either book a car or hop on to one of Kolkata’s trademark yellow ambassador taxis from the Howrah Station. The temple stays open for visitors all days of the week from 6 AM to 12:30 PM and then reopens at 3 PM to close its doors at 9 PM. If you happen to reach the place anytime between 12:30 PM and 3 PM, use this opportunity to gorge on the delicious kachori (deep-fried wheat bread with vegetable stuffing), and dal (spicy, soupy pulses) served at the food stalls outside the temple. Pro tip: plan a day trip to visit the nearby Adyapeeth Temple and the Belur Math Monastery along with the Dakshineswar Temple.
The Dakshineswar Kali Temple is a revered Hindu temple that does not discriminate based on religion, caste or creed. Everyone is welcome here. When in India, you must visit a temple to get a glimpse of the traditions and beliefs that are rooted in Hinduism. And there is no better place than the seat of Maa Bhavatarini near Kolkata to experience all that and more while soaking in the beauty of the architecture and the peace that it exudes.
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